Universalism’s strength (and maybe its weakness as well) rests in its desire to make sense out of God’s justice. The desire to understand God as ultimately just and good causes the universalist to read hell/punishment texts narrowly and with great scrutiny.
Lets explore what is going on in the universalist’s way of thinking along these lines in a little more detail…
Because I have been a practitioner of civil law for fifteen years, I have forgotten much of what I learned in my first-year criminal law class. However, I do remember a lot of engaging discussions about the purpose of criminal law. Here was the basic question: do we punish people for (a) retribution or (b) rehabilitation or (c) both?
From a philosophical standpoint, this was a fascinating discussion. The nature and length of punishment that is imposed on a criminal has a lot to do with how you answer this question. Retribution has a “punishment fits the crime” air about it. In this way of thinking, we want someone to “pay for what they’ve done” and we won’t stop punishing them until they have paid the applicable price. But if the purpose of punishment is rehabilitation, we want to punish in ways that encourage offenders to change into a productive member of society. Punishment is a means toward an end of criminal reform. We aren’t concerned with “getting even.”
Similar questions can be asked about God’s “punishment.” Does he punish because he wants us to suffer for sinning against him? Or because he wants to bring us to repentance and subsequent spiritual transformation?
I’ve seen universalist arguments which assert that punishment that never ends is not consistent with a retribution model of justice (i.e., “punishment for ever and ever doesn’t fit the crime of a finite number of evil acts in a mortal life”). And I suppose that makes sense to me.
But I think the real question posed by universalists has to do with whether God ultimately punishes for retribution’s sake. To the contrary, we are repeatedly told that God loves the entire world and wants it to come to repentance. I don’t see an “I’m going to get even with you for what you’ve done” mentality at work (particularly in the New Testament), and – indeed – I think God’s refusal to deal with us in that way is at the heart of the gospel. I believe universalists could make a much stronger argument by exploring this distinction. If you can make out a scriptural case for a God who punishes for rehabilitative purposes, and who does not seek retribution (perhaps because that retribution was satisfied on the cross?), then an argument against an understanding of hell from which one can never leave, and in which one must remain – tormented forever, becomes very strong.
The universalist arguments based on God’s justice and goodness can be made in a lot of ways, and they are quite difficult to ignore, if you’re willing to give them some genuine reflection. However, I want to avoid an endless series of posts exploring each such argument (I suspect most of you will be thankful for that). So…here, in abbreviated form, are some of the ways I’ve heard the argument posed:
1. God tells us to love our enemies (using his own love for all men as an example) and to not repay evil for evil but to overcome evil with good. This way of living is ultimately exemplified in the cross. If that is the case, why would we expect God to act differently toward people after they have crossed over into the next life? To put it another way, why would God ask us to treat people a certain way in this life and then turn around and treat them completely different in the next?
2. And while we’re on the subject, why should people’s chance to repent end at death? It seems very arbitrary. (Richard – are you out there?)
3. Could you spend an eternity in peace and joy knowing that the vast majority of humanity is suffering in horrible, unimaginable ways? Wouldn’t you want to help them? Wouldn’t your plea to God be to do something about it? (A character in Brian McClaren’s book The Last Word and the Word After That says something like this: “everything I know about Jesus tells me that he would try to go down there and help those people.”)
4. Scripture tells us that God wants to save the poor and oppressed. Does it make any sense to send such people, for whom God has such notorious compassion, into an eternal condition that is worse? Aren’t these the people he is supposed to be saving? (This is actually my own argument – I’d love to explore it more, but won’t…)
5. Can anyone ever be faulted for putting faith in the power of the cross? For assuming that, in the end, love wins? That God’s’ grace is strong enough and his patience long enough that everyone can eventually come to repentance and into God’s kingdom? Isn’t the overwhelming power of God’s love/grace the central theme of the New Testament? And isn’t every “yes, but…” answer to that last question an affront to the power of God’s grace?
6. When it gets “personal,” everyone tends to start leaning in inclusive, universalist directions. What does the minister say to the mother of a tender fifteen year-old girl who just died of a drug overdose? What about someone’s recently departed mother or father, who had so many good, loving qualities about them, but who always refused to go to church – perhaps because of a bad experience with organized religion? What about the devoted husband and father who was killed in a drunk driving accident, intoxicated during a moment of weakness? When we begin to contemplate whether real, flawed, yet beautiful, individuals will be consigned to hell, particularly when we love them deeply, we tend to turn to God, desperate for grace and hope. Should people who are in that place of raw, emotional vulnerability receive a terse, “too bad for you” answer in response? What does that say to them about God’s love?
Sure, its tough, someone might say, but who are you to question God? After all, God is God and you are not.
True enough, but I think this question is beside the point. The universalist isn’t questioning what God is doing, complaining to God that he is being unfair. Instead, she is trusting that God’s nature is such that he will act compassionately and justly in the end, and her reading of scripture is informed by that trust. If you want to argue with the universalist, argue the interpretation of the texts with her, or tell her why her trust in God’s ultimate love and compassion is misplaced or misguided. I think those are more legitimate entry points for dialog. (The universalist could just as easily say the same to her critic: “God is God and you are not. I read scripture to show that God is the savior of all men, and that all people will be saved through Christ just as all people fell into sin through Adam. If he wants to save everyone, what reason should you have to complain?”)
Also, I would point out that much of scripture encourages precisely the sort-of inquiry of God for which universalists are criticized. Even a cursory reading of the Psalms, for example, is replete with poetry which asks God why he would allow seemingly good people to come to ruin. (But more on this in a couple of posts, when I finally wind this thing down…)
Up next: “If everyone is saved, why would we want to evangelize anyone?”