It was not easy for me to become a Christian universalist, which is someone who believes that ultimately God will save all people through Christ. It was not easy because so many people I respect as Christian leaders dismiss universalism as heresy. It was not easy because I have a high view of the Bible, and it seemed impossible for me to square universalism with Jesus’s words about “everlasting punishment.” It was not easy because I only knew a very small number of Christians who even were open to such an idea, let alone who fully embraced it. Yet, about a decade ago, I became a universalist. Here’s why.
From the time I began thinking theologically, I have been troubled by hell. I grew up in a rural United Methodist church, and I do not recall ever hearing hell talked about at church, but it is just in the air you breathe in this part of the Bible Belt. As an undergrad, I began seeking to reconcile the existence of an everlasting hell with a loving God, and I succeeded for a while. I came across C.S. Lewis’s writings, and embraced his defense of an everlasting hell as the necessary consequence of human freedom. People are not in hell by God’s choice, according to this view, but by their own. “The gates of hell are locked on the inside,” Lewis said. This free-will defense of everlasting damnation, which is very popular, has received a strong defense by several contemporary philosophers of religion, such as Jerry Walls and Jonathan Kvanvig, and these defenses convinced me for several years. Love requires freedom, so if God wants us to respond out of love for God, then God cannot make us choose for God. Case closed.
Over time, though, I started wondering about how we can speak of an ultimate divine victory over evil, which the Scriptures seem to clearly declare (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:28; Rev. 21:1-5), if there are some people who will forever resist God. How in any meaningful sense can we claim that Christ is truly victorious over evil if evil will always exist in the hearts of those who eternally reject him? Relocating the basis of hell from divine justice to human freedom solves one problem, but it opens up many more. How could God be happy knowing that some of the creatures made in his own image and likeness were forever damned? If we are to think of God as being better than any human parent, as Jesus taught us to (Luke 11:11-13), then how could God ever be content knowing that God’s children are forever lost?
Jesus seems to have raised this question in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). After the prodigal son has come home and the father has decided to throw a party, the older brother refuses to come in and so the father goes out to plead with him to come in. The story ends with the father outside the party pleading for the older son to come in. Are we to imagine that the father in this parable at some point will give up on the older brother, “respect his freedom,” and go back to the party? It seems that Jesus is telling us that God, precisely because his heart overflows with compassionate love, cannot rejoice and join the party until all his children are at home.
God is not a “gentleman,” as one pundit put it in the aftermath of the Connecticut tragedy, who leaves wherever he is not wanted. When a person rejects God, God doesn’t get offended and back off. According to Jesus, the good news is that God is a heartsick father who pursues, begs, pleads, refuses to give up, and does everything that God can bring that person to an awareness of their need for grace and to an awareness that there is more than enough grace to meet their need. Is it possible for some to forever hold out and refuse God’s offer of a loving embrace? Can some forever refuse to come home to the divine party?
While it may be possible, it seems to me to be a virtual impossibility, given the nature of God’s steadfast love. I do not believe that God will ever force anyone against their will to love and worship God, but from own experience, I know that God has the power to thoroughly change human hearts and set them free to seek joy where it may truly be found. If God can do that for people in this age, then I see no reason why God couldn’t do it in the age to come for those who resist here and now. While I still believe the gates of hell are locked from the inside, I also believe that Christ has descended into hell and has the keys to set the captives free (Rev. 1:18). That’s why I became a universalist.
This post was originally written for: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/2013/01/14/how-i-became-a-universalist-a-guest-post/#disqus_thread