Perhaps the biggest objection you hear about universalism is how it handles (or refuses to handle) the biblical passages about hell. As is often noted when these discussions come up, Jesus talked about hell/Gehenna more than anyone in the bible. So how does a universalist deal with those texts and the words of Jesus?
Of course I can't speak for all Christian universalists, so I'll just tell you how I approach this issue.
My main premise is this: To handle well the language of heaven and hell you need to master the language of the Old Testament prophets.
The language of heaven and hell in the New Testament is an example of biblical apocalyptic language. And one of the features of this language is its cosmic, binary, conflict-driven and eschatological frame. That is, apocalyptic language sees in world events a cosmic clash between the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness, a clash that will lead, ultimately, to the defeat of Darkness. The New Testament is full of this sort of language, with heaven and hell featuring prominently.
The importance of the prophets is that New Testament apocalyptic grew out of the prophetic tradition. While the Old Testament has no heaven or hell the Old Testament prophets increasingly began to frame the world situation as a battle between Good and Evil. However, particularly during Israel's periods of exile, it often looked like Evil was winning. So, particularly in Isaiah, you see the prophets looking down the road, in anticipation of the New Testament's eschatological vision, and seeing the New Jerusalem, the ultimate victory of Good and a final punishment of evil. This view intensifies in the New Testament, eventually coalescing into the visions of heaven and hell.
The point I'm making isn't that the doctrines of heaven and hell are ad hoc (although something smells fishy here). I'm simply noting a genealogical relationship. And this is important for our purposes at it suggests that a mastery of the language of heaven and hell requires a mastery of the prophetic imagination.
As this makes sense. The most horrific descriptions of God's wrath and judgment aren't actually found in the New Testament. Those accounts are pretty sketchy. So if you want over-the-top depictions of God's wrath and judgment you go to the prophets. Again, what we see in this is how the imagination of the prophets regulates our understandings of hell.
Now, if you do read the language of judgment in the prophets it will make your hair stand on end. It will make you wince and squirm. Consider the judgment of God on the Whore Israel in Hosea:
“Rebuke your mother, rebuke her,This is strong stuff. And a lot of sensitive people trip up on this language. They don't like the crazy, insanely wrathful Old Testament God. Just like they don't like the God of the New Testament hell.
for she is not my wife,
and I am not her husband.
Let her remove the adulterous look from her face
and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts.
Otherwise I will strip her naked
and make her as bare as on the day she was born;
I will make her like a desert,
turn her into a parched land,
and slay her with thirst.
I will not show my love to her children,
because they are the children of adultery...
Therefore I will take away my grain when it ripens,
and my new wine when it is ready.
I will take back my wool and my linen,
intended to cover her naked body.
So now I will expose her lewdness
before the eyes of her lovers;
no one will take her out of my hands.
I will stop all her celebrations:
her yearly festivals, her New Moons,
her Sabbath days—all her appointed festivals.
I will ruin her vines and her fig trees,
which she said were her pay from her lovers;
I will make them a thicket,
and wild animals will devour them.
I will punish her for the days
she burned incense to the Baals;
she decked herself with rings and jewelry,
and went after her lovers,
but me she forgot,”
declares the LORD.
But these reactions are unnecessary. They are failures to understand the language of the prophets. To help with this, here's a simple rule:
The more you love, the angrier you get.The more you love the more upsetting this world will be. The more outraged you'll be with injustice, senseless violence, exploitation, meanness, and cruelty. The more love, the more wrath.
I hope this is confirmed in your own experience. For my own part, I find myself, pretty routinely, saying about life "God damn it!" Not flippantly. I mean it. I mean it eschatologically. So I think if you love a great deal you'll find yourself saying God-damn-it, God-damn-it, God-damn-it, over and over again.
Now that sentiment might puzzle some readers. How could a universalist go around saying "God damn it!" all the time? Sounds paradoxical.
It's only paradoxical if you've not learned the lessons of the prophets. Think about it. Why is God's wrath so crazily insane? Well, because God loves the most. As his love is infinite so is his wrath. And, given that universalists center their theology on the infinite love of God, we happily embrace the wrath God. To say "God damn it!" is to say "God is love."
Hold on a second, you might be saying. How can I make such a claim?
Well, let's go back to the prophets. When you master the prophetic imagination you know that the final word between God and Israel is love. God's final word to Israel isn't "God damn it." The final word is love. Consider, again, those terrible words from Hosea. After some of the most horrific and violent imagery in all of Scripture the tone, inexplicably (what the New Testament calls grace), changes into, in my opinion, the most beautiful love song in the whole of Scripture:
“Therefore I am now going to allure her;From domestic violence and rape-like imagery we move, without any transitional material (read: unmerited), into this amazing love song between two lovers, whispering each other's names, in the act of lovemaking. The emotional whiplash here is almost impossible to wrap your head around (that's why we call it grace). It's too extreme. But it's like I said, the love is proportional to the wrath.
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will respond as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.
“In that day,” declares the LORD,
“you will call me ‘my husband’;
you will no longer call me ‘my master.’
I will remove the names of the Baals from her lips;
no longer will their names be invoked.
In that day I will make a covenant for them
with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky
and the creatures that move along the ground.
Bow and sword and battle
I will abolish from the land,
so that all may lie down in safety.
I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the LORD.
“In that day I will respond,”
declares the LORD—
“I will respond to the skies,
and they will respond to the earth;
and the earth will respond to the grain,
the new wine and the olive oil,
and they will respond to Jezreel.
I will plant her for myself in the land;
I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’
I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’;
and they will say, ‘You are my God.’”
But the vital issue here is the sequence. What is the final word? And if you know the prophets you know the answer. We see it here in Hosea. The final word is not "God damn it." The final word is lovesong. The ending is the key.
And we see this in Jesus as well. Of course Jesus talked about hell more than anyone else. He's his Father's son after all. Chip off the ol' block. So of course, Jesus, by loving the most, talked about hell the most. This is fully expected.
So the real issue is what is his final word? Does Jesus follow the movement of the prophets?
I think he does. Jesus' final words to humanity on the cross were not "God damn you!" No, his final worlds were "Father forgive them." After ripping into the Jewish authorities for the entire Passover week Jesus' final words to them were "Father forgive them." Does that request, in any way, recall, say, the Woes to the Pharisees from earlier in the Passion week? Of course not. But you only get that if you get the prophetic imagination.
In short, Christian universalists aren't skirting or avoiding the hell, wrath, and judgment passages in the bible. We don't cringe when you mention that Jesus mentioned hell more than anyone else. No, we revel, rejoice and luxuriate in these texts. Why?
It's simple really. Second verse same as the first.
God is love.