One of the struggles in subscribing to universal reconciliation are the constant misunderstandings. Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding involves the distinctions between soteriology and theodicy.
If you are new here, let me define those terms. Soteriology has to do with salvation. Theodicy has to do with the problem of horrific suffering (sometimes called "the problem of evil" or "the problem of pain").
When I say I believe in universalism 99% of the time people think I'm attracted to the position because I have soft heart, soteriologically speaking. I want a happy ending where "everyone gets to go to heaven." For some reason, it is believed, probably because I'm a theological flower child, I just can't stomach the Judgment and Sovereignty of God.
So the debate that typically ensues is all about soteriological issues: sin, forgiveness, judgment, justice, heaven, and hell.
To be clear, those issues are of interest to me. But what most people fail to understand is that my universalism, and most of the universalism I encounter within Christianity, isn't motivated by soteriological issues. The doctrine isn't attractive because it solves the problem of hell. The doctrine is attractive because it solves (or at least addresses) the problem of pain.
(And this, incidentally, is why I don't think annihilationism is of any real help here. Annihilationism is still trying to fix the problem of hell rather than the real problem. Which, for me, is a sign of its theological cluelessness.)
In short, universalism, for me and many others, is about theodicy. Not soteriology. The issue isn't about salvation (traditionally understood). It's about suffering. Universalism, as best I can tell, is the only Christian doctrine that takes the problem of suffering seriously. As evidence for this, just note that when a theologian starts taking suffering seriously he or she starts moving toward universalism. Examples include Jürgen Moltmann, Marilyn McCord Adams, and John Hick. Take suffering seriously and the doctrine soon follows.
I gravitated to universalism in college because the problem of horrific suffering became (and remains) the defining theological predicament of my faith experience. It is the obsessio of my theological world. And while I find the doctrine of hell distasteful, this is due, again, to my theodicy concerns. Is God really loving if he tortures people for eternity? More, isn't "accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior" largely contingent upon where you were born in the world, a manifestation of what philosophers call moral luck? In every case it all goes back to theodicy.
Here's a test you can try on people. Whenever you find a person who doesn't "get" universalism (not that they have to believe it, they just have to "get" it) you'll have person who doesn't "get" the problem of horrific suffering. The two, in my experience, are of a piece.
Even on my own campus, where there are some very sharp theological minds, I am often frustrated by how often people just don't get it. Not the universalism. I'm talking about the problem of suffering. Because if they get the latter they get the former.
I was reminded of this association this week while reading Moltmann's Trinity and Kingdom. In it he writes:
It is in suffering that the whole human question about God arises; for incomprehensible suffering calls the God of men and women in question. The suffering of a single innocent child is an irrefutable rebuttal of the notion of the almighty and kindly God in heaven. For a God who lets the innocent suffer and who permits senseless death is not worthy to be called God at all...The theism of the almighty and kindly God comes to an end on the rock of suffering...Innocent suffering is the open wound of life and the real task of faith and theology is "to make it possible for us to survive, to go on living, with this open wound."
The question of theodicy is not a speculative question; it is a critical one. It is the all-embracing eschatological question. It is not purely theoretical, for it cannot be answered with any new theory about the existing world. It is a practical question which will only be answered through experience of the new world in which 'God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.' It is not really a question at all, in the sense of something we can ask or not ask, like other questions. It is the open wound of life in this world. It is the real task of faith and theology to make it possible for us to survive, to go on living, with this open wound. The person who believes will not rest content with any slickly explanatory answer to the theodicy question. And he will also resist any attempts to soften the question down. The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering in the world, and the more passionately he asks about God and the new creation.
Now here's the deal. You either get that, or you don't.
And if you don't, well, I'm sure you're a very nice and devout person.
But you'll never understand why I believe in universalism.