“If I’m going to be saved anyway, what incentive do I have to be good?”
“If everyone is going to be saved anyway, what incentive do I have to evangelize?“
These are common criticisms of universalism. They are well intentioned, reflecting a sensitivity to the need to pursue God and his mission vigorously. But I think they miss the point. In short, here is why:
1. The Christian universalist of the sort that I have discussed here does not deny hell. Hell is real. It is a bad, painful place. It is not a place you would want to go (or where you would want other people to go), even though its duration is finite. So if you assume that the Christian universalist paints a “teddy bear God” picture with no judgment or wrath to fear, you are wrong. People do face consequences for their actions, and if those consequences are supposed to serve as motivation, then they still exist under universalism. But there is a bigger problem here which is…
2. …if you are being “good” only to avoid hell, then you don’t really love God or your fellow man. You are simply a frightened person who is trying to avoid a bad thing. Indeed, you are still living your life out of selfishness. You are not transformed into the image of Jesus, nor will you ever be as long as avoiding hell is your sole objective.
3. For the same reason, evangelism in the New Testament is never about the invitation to “join us so you can avoid hell.” That approach doesn’t encoruage self-sacrificial love. Instead, “evangelism” (I don’t like the word, but I’m stuck with it here) is always about announcing, and subsequently inviting, people to join in God’s mission to restore creation. The good news is that God’s kingdom is present and accessible for those who believe, not that one can avoid ugly consequences in the next life if they acknowledge the correct things about God. “Evangelism” based on a fear of hell isn’t faithful to the text of the New Testament.
4. Why does the universalist “evangelize”? For the same reason everyone else should: because he believes in God’s in-breaking kingdom, because he finds it to be a wonderful, beautiful thing, and because he wants it to spread as far and as wide and as quickly as it possibly can. Only by entrering into that kingdom can the world find peace, hope, and meaning. As was the case with Jesus, as is the case with all Christians, the universalist is concerned with the advancement of God’s kingdom as it arrives in the world.
And while we’re in the neighborhood of evangelism and hell, let me deal with one last question…
“Is there a place for the Chrisitan church to talk about hell?“
I think so. But if we are faithful to scripture, its appropriate place is in the context of what we might call the “prophecy of social responsibility.” In other words, lets “use” the message of hell the same way that Jesus did.
Our message should go like this: hell is the place where religious, social, and econimic oppressors, particularly of the poor, are destined to go. God will not let insensitivity to the marginalized stand forever, nor will he let the enemies of his people stand forever. Truth and justice – in a real, economic, immediate sense – will ultimately prevail in God’s creation. Hell is the place for those who refuse to do it.
Help for the world is on the way. Its name is “Ghenna.”
Up next: A generous orthodoxy of hell – some concluding thoughts