When you say you're a universalist the biggest stereotype you have to deal with is that people think you don't read the bible. Or that you are twisting the bible to fit some notion you have. That you are jamming the square peg of the bible through some round hole of your own imagining, making the bible say something you want it to say.
So let me address that issue.
Let me start by making two claims:
1. I read the bible just like traditionalists (as in "traditional views of hell") read the bible. There is no twisting. The bible speaks of eternal judgment and hell. And I believe that. Straight up.
2. I believe the universalist reading of the bible is, in fact, the most biblical perspective you can adopt. I think it's the traditionalist who is being unbiblical in their picking, choosing and twisting of the bible to fit their preconceived notions.
To illustrate this let's look at the most famous judgment passage in all of the bible:
Matthew 25.31-46Okay, so how do I, as a universalist, read a passage like this? Well, I read it just like a traditionalist reads it. If you don't feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, or visit the prisoner you'll go to hell. You will depart for "eternal punishment."
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
So what's the difference between me and a traditionalist? Well, the issue really boils down to if there is anything after "eternal punishment." After punishment is over, what's next? Or is punishment never over? These are the points of contrast between the universalist and the traditionalist. Both read Matthew 25 exactly the same. That's the important point. The universalist isn't twisting anything. The reading here is exactly the same. The only difference is about something that happens outside of the story. What happens next? If anything? That is, is this story the end of the story? Or is it just a story about judgment? The traditionalist sees this as a story that is the end of the story. The universalist reads it as a story about God's judgment. So who is right? The story actually doesn't say. So you'll have to go elsewhere in the bible to find an answer to that question.
Well hold on a second! Matthew 25 says that the wicked go off to "eternal" punishment. That seems to indicate that this punishment is the end of the story. The punishment is eternal, as in never-ending.
It's at this point where you wish everyone knew a little Greek. But if you don't know Greek let me recommend Edward Fudge's word study in his book The Fire that Consumes. If you don't have access to the book let me point you to Keith DeRose's summary on his webpage. But the crux of the matter is this. We've tended to think that the word "eternal" was a quantitative term when, in fact, it is a qualitative term. Less a difference of degree than a difference of kind.
"Eternal" is an eschatological term. Eternal punishment isn't about a punishment that goes on and on and on. Rather, eternal punishment is a commentary about where the punishment is coming from. Jesus is saying in Matthew 25 that the punishment of the wicked isn't going to come from this world. All too often The Powers actually reward wickedness on this earth. So the punishment is not coming from earth, it's coming from heaven. The word eternal here is more about the location of judgment than about the duration of judgment.
And this fits our understanding about how prophetic speech works. Again, as I argued in an earlier post, we need to master the language of the prophets to handle well the language of heaven and hell. In Matthew 25 Jesus is engaged in prophetic speech, similar to what we see with minor prophets like Amos. The message is that God's judgment will be poured out upon those who do not care for the poor, naked, sick, imprisoned and hungry.
And what we see in this is how the eternal judgment (judgment not of this world or age) is cracking into our time and place. Jesus' teaching in Matthew 25, as was the teaching of Amos, was not about a coming Judgment Day. It was, rather, a commentary about today, about goings on right now and right here. The language of heaven and hell, as used by Jesus and the prophets, was profoundly this-worldly. So in that sense, yes, Matthew 25 is about Judgment Day. It's just that Judgment Day happens to be today.
So what is happening in Matthew 25 is that Jesus is allowing us to see today through the lens of eternity. Through Jesus' parable we are allowed to see how God sees the world. And, as Abraham Heschel writes, "God is raging in the prophet's words."
In short, the language of the prophets, the language of Matthew 25, and the language of heaven and hell is communicating the pathos of God--the Divine involvement and investment--at this time and at this place. Prophecy helps us to see, experience, and respond to God's passion for justice in this moment. As Heschel notes: "the main task of prophetic thinking is to bring the world into divine focus."
This is why the leading edge of gospel proclamation is always going to be a prophetic utterance, a communication of God's pathos for the here and now, about the Kingdom coming and its collision with the world. Consequently, a universalist can and should scream hellfire and brimstone with the best of them. By doing so you allow the view of eternity to break into this moment.
(And while this may be a bit off topic I'd like to note how a lot of "turn and burn" preaching has drifted away from the Divine pathos as Jesus preaches it in Matthew 25. Few conservative hellfire and brimstone sermons actually sound like Jesus: "If you don't start feeding the poor you are going to hell!")
In light of all this, this is why I don't think universalism is the leading edge of the gospel proclamation in this world. To move past judgment to The End, to the story after the story, misses the Divine pathos. Proclaiming universalism as the Word of God suggests that God is indifferent to injustice. That what we do just doesn't matter. But sin matters to God. Very much so.
And so this is why 99% of the New Testament reads the way it does. The language of God's pathos, the language of judgment, heaven and hell, dominates. As it should. What we need, right now, is the Divine perspective, the view of heaven. And that is what the New Testament is preoccupied with communicating.
But in the remaining 1% of the New Testament we do get a glimpse of The End of the story. The story after the story in Matthew 25. And again, Matthew 25 is the story we need to hear right here and right now. We need to see the world as God sees the world. We need to know what pleases God. We need to know what will be punished by God. We need a road map and a compass. And prophetic speech gives us this.
But after all the punishment has been handed out, after everyone gets what they deserve, what then? Do people keep getting punished long after they have paid for their sins? Do people keep getting tormented long after they have gotten what they deserved? What happens next?
It's only at this point, way, way, way, way down the line, where the traditionalist and the universalist start to have different opinions. And the bible has little to say on this score. We get a whole lot in the bible about what God feels about today and very little about what happens way, way, way, way down the line. We don't get to see much beyond the Divine pathos. And again, that makes sense. Right now, in a world of moral chaos, we don't need to see The End. We need to see as God sees. We need to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger.
But there are places in the New Testament where The End is glimpsed, if only fleetingly. And when The End is glimpsed you see the universalist vision, that in The End "God will be all in all" (1 Cor. 15.28). That the fullness of Creation--all things seen and unseen--will be reconciled to God in Christ (Col. 1.19-20). That God "will have mercy on all," on everyone He bound over to a prior disobedience (Rom. 11.32). That through Adam all have died, but through Christ all shall live (1 Cor. 15.22). That in the end everyone will confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2.11).
Truth be told, this vision of The End doesn't have a lot of relevance for us today. This vision of The End doesn't tell us how to live. So it is no surprise that the gospel proclamation is relatively disinterested in this vision. But that's not to say the vision isn't there. From the earliest days of the church Christians understood what The End looked like. And while it's not the most important teaching of Scripture for daily living the vision is there in the bible for all to see.
But if it's not important why talk about it so much? Well, there are theological problems and issues that require us to look toward The End. No doubt the first and primary conversation is the conversation about the Divine pathos. We need to read Matthew 25 every day. We need to know what God is going to punish and what God is going to bless. We need a road map.
But once we've had that conversation and put in a hard day's work feeding the hungry and visiting the sick we might settle down and relax with a pint or a cup of coffee. And in that moment, at the end of the day, we might ask questions, largely speculative, about The End. Beyond the Divine pathos what does the bible have to say about The End of it All? What happens after punishment, if anything? Well, the hints you get suggest that God will be all in all. That everything in The End will be reconciled to God.
Now that realization doesn't change anything about God's judgment. The next day when we wake up we get right back to work feeding the hungry and telling everyone who isn't that they are going to hell. That's what Jesus would do. That's just the way we Christians roll.
But right now, with the sun setting, we grow reflective and philosophical rocking in the porch-swing. We start to ask questions that require us to glimpse The End as the bible shows it to us. That vision, while not the most important thing, is vital in answering a host of questions on the periphery. For example, when I'm wondering about those Jews killed in the Holocaust I'm out on the edge, theologically speaking. I'm not wondering about how to treat my neighbor. I'm wondering about The End. And while the question is abstract it's very important to me and my faith walk. It's not a big topic in Scripture, but the bible's vision of The End helps me see that all will be okay. And that reassurance is largely theological. Morally speaking, I live with the Divine pathos, knowing that God won't judge my theology but will judge how well I clothed the naked and cared for the poor. Matthew 25 regulates my behavior, my life. "God will be all in all" regulates my ruminations.
What I'm suggesting is that the bible is presenting two pictures. But their relative importance is different. The first picture is the vision of Matthew 25, the communication of the Divine pathos. This is the language of prophetic judgment, the language of heaven and hell. This is 99% of the New Testament message as it is the most important for daily life. The other picture is a picture past the judgment, a picture of The End. This is only a small part of the biblical witness, the other 1%. This picture of The End doesn't negate the vision of the Divine pathos. For we only approach The End through the judgment of God. So in a very real sense there no use talking about The End when our most pressing concern is the judgment of God in the work set before us in this moment.
So again, I don't think we should "preach" universalism. What we need to preach is Matthew 25. Universalism is more about theology than proclamation. It's the heavier food we eat after moving past the milk of infancy, when the basic questions (like how to live) have been settled and we're now wrestling with speculative questions on the periphery of faith. And this isn't to suggest that these loose ends aren't important to some people. As I've repeatedly said, some of these "loose ends" (mainly about theodicy issues) are life and death issues for me. But I realize I'm in the minority on this and that, after my theodicy questions are answered, I still have to live out the vision of Matthew 25. In short, I realize that my needs here are largely abstract and philosophical. Vital for me, yes, but not really the main plot of the biblical narrative. Still, given how important these questions are to me I'm grateful that the bible shows The End.
And this is why, perhaps surprisingly, I think universalism is the most biblical view you can have. As a universalist you read every text about God's judgment and hell just like everyone else does. And you also read different passages about The End. And you don't cram those passages into the preconceived notion about a never-ending hell. You read the passages about eternal punishment as passages about eternal punishment. No more and no less. And you read about "God being all in all" in The End as a passage about "God being all in all" in The End. No more and no less. And these passages don't contradict each other because they are talking about two different things. And by reading both passages as they are you read the whole bible. And not just a part of it.