I’ve always had an interest in theology and religion. In fact, before I emerged as a 15-year-old into my obsession with politics, I was into discussing religion first. I remember having religious discussions with people on Facebook and through online forums. I say that to say, I have an interest in those things, but I am by no means an expert. Which is why even basic concepts to someone steeped in such matters will seem revelatory to me. Case in point, today I learned, there are Christians who reject the idea of universalism, or of universal restoration and reconciliation. I’m not even sure if Christian universalism is a widely held belief in Christianity (it seems to not be).
The question seems to revolve particularly on eternal damnation, i.e., would a loving and good God condemn people to eternal torment via hell? The universalist thinks not. Instead, they think sinning, even against a belief in God or His doctrines, is not the final word, and that all will be saved by His light. In that conceptualization, hell would not be a final, eternal place, but perhaps a temporary holding place.
From what I’ve gathered in my Googlings, Rob Bell, whose book I’ve previous reviewed, has helped to propagate and popularize Christian universalism in the modern context, and has therefore, been thoroughly criticized, even though he reportedly rejects the label, believing instead in the free will to choose salvation itself. Nonetheless, the criticism of universalism seems to be that only those who call upon Jesus will be saved, and in favor of the concept of eternal damnation.
Growing up in a largely Judeo-Christian culture like the United States, my cultural osmosis (and later reading) understanding of Christianity and particularly, Jesus’s role in it, was that Jesus’s arrival not only fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, but that he was quite literally a new beginning and meant a new covenant between God and humanity. Moreover, that by dying on the cross, he died for all of humanity’s salvation, whether that person believed in him or God at all. What I see as an obvious indication of this is that he gives mercy to the very people who condemned him to the cross (“forgive them, for they know not what they do”)! And finally, I’ve also always thought of hell less as a physical manifestation and place of eternal damnation and more as a sort of “reality” where one is absent the light of God. But does such an absent have to be eternal? I don’t think so.
What am I missing about the problem, supposedly, with universalism as applied to Christianity? I saw someone, who is opposed to universalism, say they hope all people find salvation (“of course,” they added), but that they deny universalism as a “false doctrine separating people from Jesus Christ, the source of that equality.” I’m deeply confused by the argument! How does universalism as a doctrine separate one from Jesus? Does it not bring one closer to him and what his purpose for coming and dying was?!
As for a question of justice or fairness if “everyone” is saved — easily reduced down to, “What about Hitler, then?” — the answer is in the doctrine of universalism! Do you doubt God’s ability to reconcile a question of justice with love and mercy when it comes to someone like Adolph Hitler? And if he can do it with Hitler, as surely a God would be capable of doing, then he can also do it with a “smaller” sinner by comparison.
Again, I’m approaching this as a layman rather than a theologian or even a well-read Bible-reader, but I would love to hear someone spell out the argument against universalism to me! I don’t see an obvious hole in the doctrine.