Okay … I’m coming out: I am a Universalist … well, sorta!
I hope the title of this blog got your attention. I know it will certainly turn some heads at the church I pastor! In my world there has been much talk floating around (you know how talk “floats” in our circles) and concern that I have become a Universalist. To properly discuss this issue, first of all, a good working definition is needed. Let’s use this simple definition to guide us:
Christian Universalism is the teaching that all human beings, regardless of their spiritual condition or the life that they had led while upon earth, will go to heaven when they die. Sometimes, this is also known as universal reconciliation.
In response to the assumption that I am a Universalist, according to this definition, I whole-heartedly reply: No… at least not yet!
The more I apply myself to study and prayer in this particular area the more I find myself becoming more of a “reverential agnostic” than anything else! I am more apt to say “I don’t know,” but to do so with reverence because I know that God exists, and He reigns over all. But the more I learn, the more I understand that much of what I thought I knew was really presumption, inference, and conjecture. There is a whole lot more that the Bible doesn’t address than I had first thought.
And I certainly don’t want to be found putting words in God’s mouth. I think we could all use a very large dose of authentic agnosticism in our churches. I wish they had a shot we could take for this. But before I share with you how I am NOT a Universalist, or before I play the “reverential agnosticism” card, let me share with you how I am a universalist. Yes, you read that correctly, I am a universalist!
First of all, I believe that God is Universally Accessible (Gen. 1:1, 31; Ps. 19:1-6; 24:1; 67:6-7; 100:1-3; Acts 14:16-17; 17:24-28; Rom. 1:19-20). The Bible says that He is the creator of all things and of all people, and that He communicates to all mankind. And His communiqués are so varied that they can’t be stereotyped. The wonder of wonders is every man is able to respond and communicate with Him too.
Secondly, I believe that God is Universally Affectionate (loving) (Jn 3:16; Rom. 5:8; Eph. 2:1 Jn. 2:2; 4:19). I believe that God loves every human being whom He has created or whom He will create. I whole-heartedly reject the idea of Predestination and Election as it is taught and understood in the Reformed (Augustinian) tradition. [If you want more on my views on this issue please keep an eye out for my new book Damn Shame]
Third, I believe that all are Universally Accountable to God (Matt. 25:14-15, Ecc. 12:13-14; Rom. 2:16; 1 Cor. 4:5; Rev. 20:11-15). He has commissioned us to be His representatives upon this earth in the establishment of His kingdom. We are to represent Him (see Genesis 1:26, 28; Psalm 8:6) in all that we do. All humanity will therefore be accountable to God based on the revelation that He has given to each (Luke 12:47-48) and the capacity that each possesses to receive and respond to the revelation of His will (Matt. 25:14-15).
Fourth, I believe in Universal Assortment (diversity) (Rom. 1:19-20; Gen. 18:1ff; 20:1-6; Matt. 1:18-25). God does not give to each person, tribe, etc. the same wealth, revelation, or spiritual stewardships/responsibilities. To one nation He gave the Law (Exodus 19:6) while other nations were dependent upon natural revelation, oral tradition, dreams/visions, and personal experiences to understand His guiding hand (see examples of some of the “holy pagans” in both the Old and New Testaments: Abram, Melchizedek, Abimelech, Jethro, Queen of Sheba, Ethiopian Eunuch, etc.).
Finally, I believe in Universal Adjudication (Gen. 18:25; Rom. 2:11-13, Ecc. 12:13-14). God will judge the world righteously and without partiality. The object of His righteous judgment will be the responses that each person has given to the revelation that he has had: to whom much is given much is required, to whom less is given, less will be required (e.g., Matt. 24:14-15; Lk. 12:41-48). A judgment upon our responses or “works” is coming.
So in this sense or according to these principles I AM A UNIVERSALIST!
Does that mean that I believe God will universally admit every person into heaven/His presence? No! Or, better yet…I don’t know! Once again, I do not think the Bible addresses that question in the same way that we typically discuss it. For many years I would have ardently fought against the idea of every person getting admitted into heaven because it infringed upon the edges of my theological boxes (in which I had nicely packed God away!). But once I began to honestly and objectively consider passages of Scriptures on the topics of eternal condemnation and “Hell,” I found that we really don’t know a hell of a lot on these particular subjects.
I am a firm believer that the story of the Bible is about what God is doing on earth and how He desires to have intimate relationship with His creatures in His creation. The Bible is not about how God wants to get anyone off the earth to an eternal resting place which we generally call heaven. [for more on this theme you can refer to my first book Majestic Destiny: Kingdom Hope is Rising]
The reason I chose the label of reverential agnostic and avoided the label Universalist is because of the following passage(s).
Revelation 2:11 “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”
Revelation 20:10 “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
Revelation 20:14-15 “And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone was not written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
Revelation 21:8 “But for the cowardly and the unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
I maintain that passages which refer to Hades or Gehenna are not places or pictures of eternal torment, but places or pictures of temporal chastisement. That leaves us with the passages in the Book of Revelation about the second death, the lake of fire. If the second death, the lake of fire, is describing what we generally refer to as “hell”: (which is assumed to be) the eternal place of torment, then there are only four passages that MAY deal with eternal torment. Four passages … from one book! That is not a lot … to say the least!
I don’t think most Christians are really ready to deal with the straightforward implications of these four verses (take the first one for example in Rev. 2:11).
What bothers me is that while it is obvious that human beings go to this place (the false prophet and the beast are human, as are those in Rev.20:15) the phrase “forever and ever,” referring to the length of time the torment of the beast, the false prophet, and the devil endures, does not necessarily mean “for eternity.” The Theological Workbook of the Old Testament establishes the point that there is no word in either Hebrew or Greek that denotes the same meaning as the English words “eternal” and “eternity.” Hence, it is an unverifiable assumption that the Greek term is synonymous to our English term although it COULD mean that IF the context demanded it. The phrase literally means: ages and ages. In other words the idea is simply “for a very long, very long time.” But it could very easily mean a period of time and not for all eternity. I’m just saying that this is the meaning of the term and it should be taken in that sense unless the context forbids any kind of limitation. And really, the only context, in my mind, that does this is those in which God is being described as “eternal.”
Now, when you jump over to verse 15 of the same chapter, so just five verses after the first mention of the lake of fire joined with the phrase “forever and ever,” we encounter the next reference to the lake of fire. This time we have no indication of how long the people who are not written in the book of life remain in the second death, because it is not expressly stated. Thus in contrast to the beast, the false prophet, and the devil, the people in this second grouping may not remain there for “ages and ages.”
You may choose to interpret these passages differently than I have done. It is certainly your right to do so. Even if you choose to interpret them differently, I hope you come to the point of admitting that another alternative does exist (one that is based upon sound exegesis and research). It would be wise to lighten your grip or loosen the noose you are so quick to put around another’s neck. There is very little here to be dogmatic about!
So you see…this is why I am not a Universalist in this sense that you think. I don’t know if everyone gets to go to heaven after he dies. I don’t know if everyone ultimately is reconciled to God. I do believe certain people will go to Hell! Let me repeat that for those who worry that I have “jumped ship”: I do believe certain people go to Hell!
But I am also no longer willing (or able) to be dogmatic on the timing/duration of a person’s stay there! Would it be wrong for God to punish people in Hell? No! Would it be wrong for God to make the duration of that punishment for all eternity? I don’t think so. But it would also not be wrong, nor a violation of any clear teaching in the Bible, for God to make it temporary and reformative. I’m just sayin’!
I believe the only way to participate in the fullness of the salvation (which is about what God is doing to establish His kingdom upon this earth…within time!) God intends for His creatures and His creation is for His creatures to access Him through His Son, Jesus the Christ, through faith and faith alone…and to do so continually as they walk intimately with Him.
The big question we wrestle with in our Protestant boxes is how exacting must your faith be with respect to Christ? Or to ask that in a little different way: How messed up can you be in your Christology and Soteriology and still escape hell? The love of God has been manifested and poured out in Jesus Christ; if certain people reject this love they will certainly experience the consequences of their own choosing. And God knows how and for how long to best administer that!
The viewpoint offered here is one that I believe is absolutely Scriptural and exegetical. I am not relying on wishful arguments like: God desires all men to go to heaven; or, on the other extreme, God gets what He wants. I am attempting to be as honest with the text as I can be even if that means forsaking certain beliefs/doctrines that I have held true for years.
This may push the edges of your boxes a bit … and might cause some anxiety and fear, but trust me when I say “Your box is too small!” And if your box is too small just think about what that is doing to your God!
In the case of eternal torment I am coming out of the closet. I am not a Universalist…yet. But I admit that I am a Reverential Agnostic. Ohhh … it feels good!
Watch Curtis’ video on his newest book on shame.