Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A Christian Framework for Universalism

As I sat in church this morning, I had some time to gather some thoughts about why I am an universalist. (Yes, I was that bored).  I can't recall where I first heard this.  But, I've heard it in more than one place.  There are four things a Christian should consider when thinking about a spiritual matter or doctrine.  Those four are:

  • Experience
  • Reason (Logic)
  • Scripture
  • Tradition

As I've examined Universalism and other topics I've wrestled with, I've found this framework to be of great use to me.   My background is Christian.  That's undeniable.  And, I don't really want to deny it.  As I've mentioned more than once in my blog, while I am far from one who holds onto things simply because tradition dictates that I do or even because scripture might say so, I think it's just foolish to reject everything I've experienced and been taught and fashion my own "unbiased" view of the world (even if such a thing were possible).  Some say that's the price one must pay to be a postmodern. I say "poppycock".  But, I'll address that some other time.   So, very quickly, I want to drape my view of Universalism over this Christian framework for you.  If you are a Christian Universalist, this might help you feel more comfortable with why you are.  If you are not, it might give you a tool that you can use to examine the issue and come to your own conclusions.

This is the second draft of this article.  In the initial draft, I wrote off experience.  My reasoning was that since none of us has experienced the afterlife, experience gives us nothing to say concerning Eternal Conscious Torment.  Arguably, Near Death Experiences (which are almost universally positive) could be said to give us a glimpse.  But, for most of us, that's not personal experience.  However, as I rethought this, I realized I had come to this conclusion too quickly.  I do have some experience concerning the nature of God.  I do commune with Him (even though He doesn't speak to me audibly).  I am experiencing God more and more, on a daily basis.  Overall, I think this world is a good place.  And while we definitely could all imagine how it might be better, there is no sign of eternal, unrelenting suffering.  For some  life is disappointingly short.  For some, death is a welcome respite. But, there is a limit to our sufferings in this world.  We see no evidence to point us to the belief that the God is planning an eternal torture chamber if we don't make the right choice here.  My personal experience of God is as a caring, loving and just Creator.

Justice is another thing to consider when we're talking about experience.  God told Israel to establish a system of justice.  Even in the Noahide code (a simplified set of 7 laws for Gentiles), God makes it clear that He wants people to establish a system of justice.  The most common argument in favor of ECT is "justice".  God is "just". So, God must punish sin.  So, how would we view a society that labels all sin the same.  Spit on the sidewalk- the death penalty.  Kill 5,000 people, the death penalty.   Think an evil thought- the death penalty.  We'd find this completely absurd.  In the Middle Ages, this idea that the punishment for an offense should be in proportion to the person being offended.  This is where the justification for eternal punishment for finite sins came in.  The justification being that any sin against an infinitely good God deserved an infinite amount of punishment.  How petty does this make God?  Does this doctrine really make sense?  What systems of justice do we find most admirable?  Those that mete out punishment in proportion to the crime and that have some sense of mercy and an eye to rehabilitation or those that demand excruiciating payment for any offense, no mattter how small?  How about those who demand exorbitant payment based on who is offended?
My Experience Conclusion:  While there is suffering in this world, overall, it is "good".  Justice systems that are merciful, rebilitative and fair are more highly valued than those that are rigid, punitive and harsh.  There is no evidence for a God who is capable of torture worse than anything Adolph Hitler even dreamed of.


Next, I'd like to address tradition.  This is an interesting one.  I have to admit that current church tradition tell us that Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT) is the "official" Christian doctrine.   I think
it's undeniable that belief in the eternal suffering of the wicked is a common teaching by Christian churches today.  What I find fascinating is most individuals seem to back away from this when really pushed on it. Many churches have completely unbiblical (as in they can't back them up with scripture) loopholes to avoid really making the statement that God is going to eternally torment a whole
bunch of people. They know that it's just wrong to say that God will torture babies who die before making a decision, or people who have never heard the gospel or the mentally incompetent.  So, they usually make up something to give God an out.  But, as much as it causes me pain to say it, I have
to say that Eternal Conscious Torment has to be considered tradition. As tradition, I think we have to have good reason to change from it.  We can't simply toss tradition aside without any consideration, even if we are postmoderns.

I have two further things to say about tradition though.  Tradition is only one consideration in our framework. The church has been dead wrong about a number of subjects (and in my opinion still is).
Slavery and women's rights leap immediately to mind.  Things the church has been adamant about in the past, it has now realized it was wrong about and repented of.  And, these wrong positions were taken, even though those things were supposedly backed up by "inerrant" scripture.   The second thing I have to say concerning the traditional teaching of the chuch on the subject of Universalism may surprise many. That is the traditional view has not always been the concensus view of the church
(and still is not).  In fact Eternal Conscious Torment has not always even been the view of the majority.  See my post "The Early Church" for more detail on that.  So, I respect the traditional teaching.  And I caution that before we move away from the current traditional teaching, we should do so carefully, thoughtfully, prayerfully and cautiously.  But, I do not think that we should say that we believe anything simply because tradition dictates it.  There has to be more than that. 
My Tradition Conclusion: Current tradition tells me to reject Universalism in favor of Eternal Conscious Torment.  But, past tradition (closer to the foundation of Christianity) gives me reason to consider that Eternal Conscious Torment may not have been the view of the founders of Christianity.


What does logic tell us about how we would expect God to be?  I also think this is fair place to throw in emotion or just gut feel. But, let's stick to logic for now. It's not the intention of  this short article to completely make a case for Universalism.  The intention is to give you a framework.  But, I have heard many "rational" arguments for and against the concept of Eternal Conscious Torment. Thus far I haven't heard one argument for ECT that didn't sound contrived and didn't seem desperate to prove a point.  When listening to these arguments it has always seemed to me the people putting them forth started with the conclusion that ECT is true (I think based on tradition or a perverted sense of justice) and are trying to build a case to support their conclusion.  I don't have a major problem with the wish that evil is punished and good is rewarded. I think that's human nature.  But, we're not discussing proportional punishment here. We're not talking about corrective discipline.  We're discussing Eternal... Conscious... Torment.  Read that last part slowly.  Eternal.  Conscious.  Torment.  Let that sink in.  A finite, flawed creature is put on this earth and lives a few short years- nilliseconds in the grand scheme of things.  The traditional teaching tells us that, if that creature doesn't perform an act of faith, in those years, that creature is deserving of receiving an infinite amount of punishment.  If you really think about it, I think you'll agree that goes against any concept of human justice or reason or logic we can think of.  As I said earlier, the cases I've seen made for this view are based on the fact that the punishment warranted by an offense is in proportion to the status of the offended party and since God is infinite, any sin against Him warrants an infinite amount of punishment.  I won't take the time to pick this argument apart. I'm sure if you really think about it, you will be able to do so yourself. 

To me, it's perfectly reasonable to expect that an all powerful (which the Bible say He is), all loving (which the Bible says He is) God would be able and willing to save all of His creatures.  To say that such a being would do anything less goes against reason.   That doesn't mean it can't be true. But, I think reason falls on the side of Universalism. 
My Reason Conclusion: Reason contradicts tradition and tells me Universalism is true and to reject Eternal Conscious Torment. 


Here's where we really have to roll up our sleeves.  Calvinism, Arminianism and Universalism all draw different conclusions about the eternal fate of mankind.  As has been pointed out in earlier articles, we can narrow these three views down pretty simply.  For a quick discussion of that, see here.  We can find scriptures that seem to say that God is all powerful.  We can find scriptures that seem to say that God is all loving.  And we can find scriptures that seem to say that God will send some of us to Eternal Torment.  Individual scriptures can also be read to say that God will save each and every soul.  Reason tells us that all of these things cannot be true.  So, Calvinists, Arminianists or Universalists will either have to ignore some scriptures, assume some to be in error or find a way to interpret the scriptures that seem to contradict their conclusions in a way that harmonizes them with their conclusions. 

Let's assume, for the sake of this discussion, that scripture is inerrant.  We know the interpretation of it isn't inerrant or the church would never have been wrong, as we discussed above in the section on tradition.  And, if the interpretation of scripture were inerrant, we would not have the literally tens of thousand of Christian denominations we have today.  We'd have one, at least amongst those who agree the Bible and its interpretation is inerrant. 

Since scripture is inerrant, it cannot contradict itself (this is simple logic).  If it did contradict itself, one of the two statements would be false and scripture would not be inerrant.  Since we know that God cannot be willing to save all, capable of saving all and some perish, scripture cannot possibly teach all three of these things.  So, we must read scripture from an overall perspective, looking for the big-picture themes.  We must use reason to interpret scripture.  And, then we must harmonize the bits that don't seem to fit into the bigger picture. Passages that initially seem to contradict the bigger picture must be analyzed carefully.  Because if they truly don't fit, scripture is not inerrant.

I would argue that scripture is, generally speaking, Universalistic.  While the Old Testament (many say) gives a picture of a vengeful and even angry God, there is also a lot of talk about love, justice and reconciliation.  And the reconciliation is not just for Israel.  The Hebrew scriptures speak a great deal about how Israel will be used to bring the whole world, all of the nations, to live in harmony with each other and with God.  But, honestly, the Old Testament is silent on the subject of individual salvation.  While there is a lot of talk about how things will be made right on the earth, the Old Testament doesn't talk about individual judgement after death, one way or the other.  The Old Testament is about peace on earth- literally.  Not so great for the Universalist camp maybe.  But, there's not a whisper about Eternal Conscious Torment either.  For more on this, see my article here:  "Why Didn't God Tell the Israelites About Hell?".
The New Testament on the other hand practically screams Universalism.  Romans, 1 Corinthians, passages in Timothy and on and on talk so clearly about Universalism that Calvinist and Arminians have to tie themselves into knots to get even Satan into hell.  Even the book of Revelation, when read with the right understanding is about the ultimate salvation of all. What does Death and Hell being destroyed mean to you?  I know what it means to me.  Read Romans Chapter 5 and try to come to any conclusion other than through Adam all were condemned and through Jesus all will be saved. The parallellism between where Paul says the all or the many were condemned by Adam's act and that same all or many are saved by Jesus' obedience.  C'mon!

(note to self- "OK, OK.  Deep breaths, Brian.")  The point here is scripture must be read in light of reason.  We need to interpret it wisely.  We should not just choose our favorite passages and say "There.  That proves I'm right."  We need to try to understand the overall themes of scripture and to, where possible, harmonize it with reason.  When I do that, I come to the conclusion that scripture and reason are not in conflict with each other. 
My Scripture Conclusion:  Scripture can be reasonably interpreted to support the reasonable conclusion that an all-loving and all powerful God would not allow any of His creatures to suffer the fate of Eternal Conscious Torment.


Once again, I didn't set out to make an airtight case for Universalism.   This is a very quick outline of how to reasonably approach the subject.  There are several great books that take this much further. I've read a few.  And, in one way or another, they use a similar framework.  I'm reading one right now called "The Evangelical Universalist" that I will review here, once I finish it.  Don't take my word for any of this.  Do you own studies.  What does your experience tell you?  What do you think is reasonable?  Read scipture, as objectively as you can. That is after getting a good literal translation and doing some research on which words were chosen and why.  Research Universalism in the early church.  Research churches that have taken a scriptural Universalist stance.  Don't simply rely on the fact that current tradition tells you that you have to believe something.  If, after examining your tradition, you find it valid, good for you.  If not though, what will you do about it?
My Overall Conclusion: 

  • Experience gives me no reason to think God is capable or desirous of tormenting me eternally.  This idea comes strictly from what I have been taught (tradition).  ECT is an idea that would have never entered my head based on my own experience. 

  • Current tradition tells me to accept ECT.  But, I know that this tradition has not always been the prevailing tradition.  And, based on a new understanding of scripture and church history, I believe this was not the belief of the Bible writers or of the Early Church Fathers.

  • Reason tells me that a God who would Eternally Torment me for any reason is not a God of reason or of justice and certainly not a God of love.  Reason tells me that a God who loves me unconditionally and is all-powerful would not allow me to go to Eternal Torment.

  • Scripture tells me that God is desirous that all come to Him.  It tells me that God is desirous of reconciling His entire creation.  It tells me He will leave the 99 to save the 1, etc., etc.  Scripture also tells me that God gets what He wants, because He is all-powerful.  Scripture aligns with reason.


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