Musings about Universalism, Part 9: The Urgency of Joy: On Evangelism and Mission

Over the years I've gotten a few emails from working missionaries who have read my thoughts about universalism wanting to know how I reconcile my belief in universal reconciliation with Christian missionary work and evangelism.

So let's talk about that.

But before getting into those issues, let me point you to Brad East's post Reflections on Universalism: Hermeneutics and Proclamation as his thoughts are relevant to any discussion of universalism and evangelism. Brad is specifically wrestling with the question about if universalism should be the overt proclamation of the church. I urge you to engage with his post and reflections.

For my own part, I believe Christian mission and evangelism is simply this: Proclaiming and participating in the Reign (basileia, "rule", "reign", "kingdom") of God that has broken into the world through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is "the good news": the victory over sin and death, the abundant life Jesus promised, and the gift of the Indwelling Spirit are We do not need to delay gratification, awaiting some far off heaven in the sweet by and by. God's life is available right now.

So any urgency in Christian mission is the urgency of joy. It is not the urgency of doom and gloom. The urgency of turn or burn. The urgency of fear.

It is, rather, the urgency that the eschatological wedding banquet is in full swing and you're missing out.

So it makes no sense to ask, "Well, if everyone is getting to heaven eventually why proclaim the Kingdom?" Seriously? Imagine a slave who has been liberated but who refuses to leave the slave master our of fear, or comfort or a "slave mentality." Imagine a prisoner sitting in his cell when the door has been unlocked. True, the slave and the prisoner will eventually come out of their bondage and fear, but that doesn't stop me from taking them by the hand today and leading them out into the freedom of God. Wake up! Join in the party! I bring good news of great joy.

Christian mission is about proclaiming what God has done. It's not a prediction or ultimatum about you and your future.

And this vision of things also helps address another common question asked of universalists: "If everyone is getting to heaven why not just live it up in this life?" Again, seriously? If you have to ask this question I have to wonder if you're even a Christian. Because you are basically claiming that the life of sin is "better" than the abundant life found in Jesus, that people would prefer sin, today, over the Kingdom of God. You are insinuating that the Christian proclamation isn't good news.

And I think that's really the heart of the issue. If you ever hear a person raise these questions about mission, evangelism or calling people out of a life of sin you are dealing with a person who doesn't really believe in the good news. Because hellfire appears to be the only motive for evangelism these people can imagine. They can't compute a proclamation of joy. Hellfire also appears to be the only motive for calling people out of a life of sin. No hell, no reason to give up sin. Sin, in this view, is the best! Sin is the party, not the Kingdom.

Maybe this is why people who believe in eternal torment are so grumpy, mean-spirited, and miserable. If hell is the only motive for coming to God, if sinners are the one's having the most fun, well, of course these "turn or burn" Christians are unhappy. They've been called out of a fun and joyous life into the Kingdom of God where all is proper, boring, structured, grey and lame. But hey, at least they aren't going to hell! So there they sit in their churches, jealous and grumpy that the world is throwing a party that they can't attend because they had to dress up and go to church on Sunday. No wonder these sorts of Christians want the world to go to hell. They are jealous.

For my part, I'm not jealous. I believe in the good news. I believe in the abundant life. Any missional or evangelistic fervor I have is the urgency of joy. I believe that, as the title of Tony Campolo's book says, the Kingdom of God is a party.

And I'd love to offer you an invitation.

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59 thoughts on “Musings about Universalism, Part 9: The Urgency of Joy: On Evangelism and Mission”

  1. Regarding some Evangelicals resistance to Universalism: "As Upton Sinclair pointed out long ago, it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."
    (I have stolen this quote from Paul Krugman's discussion of climate change denial in the New York Times. Though it seems just as apt here!)

  2. Yes,

    I actually heard someone recently say that if there is no such thing as hell (Dante's version) then there is no such thing as salvation...

    So, people don't experience salvation from addictions, selfishness, bitterness, anger, jealousy, wrath, etc? What would the world look like if we stopped thinking about salvation in terms of post-mortem destiny, and ONLY in terms of life in the here and now?

  3. For me, universalism was freedom from fear. Growing up in a Southern Baptist church, I was absolutely terrified of God. God was a wrathful judge just waiting for you to slip up, so He could throw you in hell. Since I wasn't perfect, I thought God hated me and wanted nothing more than to send me to hell. Eventually, I began to hate myself.

    When I was older (in my teens), I began to question how a supposedly all-loving God could throw good people into hell. I knew I was bad, but I had several good, non-Christian friends. Hell for all non-believers didn't seem just. I desperately tried to become an agnostic. I could not believe in such a cruel God. But that terror was always with me in the back of my mind. It would sneak up when I least expected. I cannot remember how many nights that fear drove me to tears as I begged for forgiveness from God.

    I cannot even describe the happiness universalism has brought. To be free from the terror and guilt, to know that God is love and that God loves everyone, to know that God will not rest until every soul He has created comes home, words cannot convey the joy.

    I never understood the mindset that the only way to get people to believe in God and keep people from sinning is the threat of hell. That's a pretty poor reason to believe in God and be a good person.

    Universalism has actually made me a better person. Not because I believe that eventually everyone winds up in heaven. Honestly, that doesn't matter very much to me. It's hard to describe, but just the experience of God's love, and the knowledge that God entirely and unconditionally loves every single person, creates a deep desire to become a better person, to do everything that I can to ease some of the terrible suffering in the world.

    No one who understands that God's love is truly universal and unconditional would ask what the point of spreading the good news is. The peace and joy the knowledge of God's love brings is absolutely priceless.

  4. Thank you so much for this series. It has been a massive blessing. I'm still excited to see your post on Christology...

  5. This series has been really superb, and this piece stands out. There are many motivations I can think of for evangelism from a universalist perspective, but this sums up the simplest and best - because we want to share the good news. From my entirely unscientific observations of internet culture I would say the motivation to share things we enjoy is pretty intense and the motivation to share things we fear or dislike is almost non-existent. Watching my facebook feed I see a million posts that say "this is awesome!!" and almost none saying "beware!!"

    On a separate note, Dr. Beck I wonder if you'd be interested in a bit more interaction in the blogosphere on universalism. I've proposed to Dr. Daniel Kirk of Fuller the idea of a series by various contributors that discuss eschatology from a narrative perspective - ie: what do you think would make the "best" ending to our Christian story? I know you're wrapping up your most recent engagement with universalism here and might be tired of the subject, but I think it would be fun and fruitful. If interested you may either contact me at aricclark33 at gmail dot com or provide me an alternate means of contacting you for more details.

  6. To answer your question from last week, we will see the IATW group. In fact, we will be with them the entire time they are in Thailand. It should be a good time. Too bad we couldn’t get any Becks on board this time.
    I was actually going to make this comment before your most recent post, but it fits, at least tangentially, with the topic. So, I’ll write it here.
    I am interested in your thoughts, specifically as a psychologist, on a couple of questions. The first question deals with those who hold to a “traditional” view of hell (though annihilationists could possibly be included as well). As a missionary, I have had people say to me how thankful they are that I am out evangelizing people and that they wish they were doing the same. As one person said, “We should all be out there saving people from hell like you are.” (He doesn’t realize we would interrupt that idea differently.) They say this but then try to come up with an excuse for why they spend all their time working at a bank or selling Amway. This raises the question: If someone really believes that many people are going to be in eternal torment unless they believe a particular statement or idea about Jesus, isn’t that person morally suspect for choosing any practice or vocation that is not fundamentally about getting nonbelievers to believe? Shouldn’t refusing to sacrifice a few decades of pursuing one’s desires while on earth for the sake of keeping others from billions of years of eternal torture be deemed unethical? In other words, aren’t they guilty of breaking the Good Samaritan law on a cosmic level? So, how do people psychologically justify the disconnect between their belief in hell and their inadequate response to it? Does it produce negative psychological effects? And more importantly, could reshaping their notion of hell and salvation ease that psychological quandary and potentially allow them to view their present practices and vocation as fully participating in God’s salvific work?
    The second question is about universalists (though conditionalists could possibly be included as well). I agree with you that suffering is at the heart of any theological conversation. Thus, evangelism has to deal with suffering. My conviction is that the gospel deals directly with suffering, oppression and injustice, and I think the unique claim of our gospel is that resurrection only comes after death. Therefore, while political engagement and social programs might be beneficial, suffering will only be dealt with when people, following Jesus, give up their lives for those who are suffering. There is no shortcut. Evangelism is following Jesus to the cross for the sake of others. Therefore, if someone believes that all will be saved and the suffering of all will be reconciled in the end, is she less likely to give up her life for her neighbor? And is this even more likely if she leans heavily on it being predominantly God’s work anyways? She might fight for justice and liberation, but will she be as likely to do so when it costs her dearly?
    I am not asking about the “truth” of either position. I am just “musing” about the connection between people’s view of salvation and their evangelistic practices. Any thoughts?

  7. Sharing the "turn or burn" Gospel (during church group street witnessing outings) was exactly when my coginitive dissonance about the eternal hell perspective became most intensified. I could never get myself to share this ultimatum while successfully maintaining a straight face AND claim it to be "good news". I have no idea how MANY Christians manage to share this, some knowing the statisitical rate (how many humans die per minute), and not become just a little disturbed, let alone emotionally / psychologically paralyzed. It was my attempted "witnessing" (or failure thereof) that sparked my long search, leading me to the possibility of universal reconciliation.

    I agree - the urgency of GOOD "good news" might do more in helping to deliver those undergoing addiction, depression, hopelessness, while energizing those who are currently suffering. Healthy orthopraxy is inspired (at least for myself). We might become truly free to love ALL others, because NOBODY will be perceived as eternally disposable
    to God.

    Gary Y.

  8. I think you are right on about the Good News being for the here and now as well as for eternity. Many evangelical missionaries do get this, which is why your rather broad generalization "Maybe this is why people who believe in eternal torment are so grumpy, mean-spirited, and miserable." caused me to pause. This isn't my experience with most conservative, evangelical missionaries (like my parents, and my wife's parents) taking the Good News to the nations. On the contrary, the driving, motivating factor for these people is deep love for the thousands that they have never met that have not yet been delivered from the sin that plagues their lives in the present. Of course, their eternal destiny is motivating factor for these people that believe in eternal torment. Above all, even that is an expression a desire to express Christ's love to those that desperately need it.

  9. My intention wasn't to throw all conservative or evangelical missionaries under the bus. As you note, they "get it." I'm mainly taking aim at someone who can't imagine any other motivation than hellfire.

  10. Amen to that, brothah! This reminds me of a short story/parable I wrote a while back, in which I argued that the Kingdom of Heaven was a BBQ drum circle ( , and the only people not partying were the ones who weren't about to hang out at a party where THOSE sorts of people were welcome.

  11. You know how sometimes you read something, and you discover something that you knew all along, but only now do you know that you know it?

    (o dear, I think I sound like Donald Rumsfeld)

    You've just given me a great crystallization of some long-held subconscious thoughts. Thank you.

    Oh, and I love the new photos.

  12. Thanks. People who see me day in and day out were starting to object to my old blog pic where I had short hair. I've been working a Jesus, long-hair, hippie look for about two years.

  13. you know rich what really bugs me about our contemporary ontology,
    is that now there are so many tools that can be used to move us into this joy,that are not readily used.

    let's look at random number theory...
    and use ROM.15:8b (on behalf of God’s truth to confirm the promises made to the fathers,)
    now i heard at one time in the past that just when 8 prophets spoke of the coming of the anointed one of the creator,that were totally out of the control of the Christ,like where he was born the surroundings of his birth just eight mind you... the randomness of that coming about becomes almost an impossible number in theory.... something like 10 to the 10th to the 60eth....
    seeing that their are over 300 of these that are more than 300 years prior to his birth.
    this does not include the others concerning Israel and the new in breaking kingdom.
    which would be so over the top. say like one Joel and the Bab of the spirit.

    1:10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who predicted the grace that would come to you searched and investigated carefully. 1:11 They probed into what person or time25 the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when he testified beforehand about the sufferings appointed for Christ and his subsequent glory. 1:12 They were shown that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things now announced to you through those who proclaimed the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven – things angels long to catch a glimpse of.

    i think if mathematicians that with a proclivity in theology,formulated a random possibility of this issue of forth telling and this coming about in actions the conclusion would be some thing is messing with our reality.


  14. Many thanks for this series, I'm finding it really helpful in getting my head round a subject that my heart has been pulling toward for a number of years now ... but one thing I can't get my head (or is it heart) round is where you say "the abundant life Jesus promised, and the gift of the Indwelling Spirit is" ... what do you mean by this - I struggle with the theology and practice of many "charismatics" whom I know or read, but equally struggle with the "Bible = The Holy Spirit" approach that that you discuss in ... any chance of a series on this?

  15. Sammy,

    Your response was so beautifully well put. I agree with you, "No one who understands that God's love is truly universal and unconditional would ask what the point of spreading the good news is. The peace and joy the knowledge of God's love brings is absolutely priceless."

  16. I'll probably hurt some feelings, and possibly regret taking a negative stance here. And, if I cause anyone harm, I sincerely apologize.

    Frankly, "the abundant life Jesus promised, and the gift of the Indwelling Spirit is" is something that not all people are able to feel or even understand...even church-going, Baptized, Christians.

    Further, the "abundant life" is difficult to see in most others who profess the faith. True, I have met 1 (one!) person who despite life's challenges is able to "choose joy". But mostly, I have met Christians who's only real hope is in perseverance, and ultimately, death. That all the pain and suffering will end, and we will have chosen the right side.

    Certainly, I cannot claim an abundant life. And, I doubt I would recognize an "Indwelling Spirit" if it kicked me in the tuccus. Yet, I long-ago committed myself to following Christ Jesus...and I have no intention of straying from that commitment.

    So, if a person has no point-of-reference for abundance (in a spiritual sense), or 'indwelling', what is the message?

  17. I think you make a good point and others are raising similar concerns/questions.

    I can only explain what I mean by "abundant life." I don't be happy-clappy, 100% joyous 24/7. I mean something rather simple: I like myself better when I'm following the way of Jesus.

    Day in and day out I don't feel energized about life, about who I am, what I'm like, or how I behave. And when I reflect on those areas of my life, the areas of desolation in the Ignatian examen, I find that I'm living in sinful patterns--too prideful, too petty, too selfish. I'm "curved in on" myself (Augustine's incurvatus in se).

    But when I reflect on the good parts of my life I generally find that I'm curved outward, in a Christ-like posture. In those instances I'm at my best--a better friend, father, friend, co-worker, or husband. And I'm happy. These are the moments of consolation in my examen.

    So I agree, I don't live moment by moment in the abundant life. I dip in and dip out. But I've sensed it. I know it's there. And the joy I've felt there, however fleeting, draws me out of sin.

  18. Richard, challenging article again. As someone who has spent about 26 of the last 31 years involved in traditional missions, I must say that I agree with you almost completely. I came to the same basic conclusions on a much different journey, but am very thankful for the directions of such a journey. I believe some of the 'problem' for evangelicals and other traditional protestant positions on evangelism is the fact that passages like Matt. 28.18-20 have been used to forge a universal mandate for all believers to 'create' something that goes well beyond what the Master was probably talking about. He always spoke of the parties and feasts for the kingdom, as you and Campolo well say, and he also presented his message as a marginal, vulnerable, minority movement. If in fact, that movement becomes a majority that is shaped after the cultural forms and paradigms of the latest power sources in the churches, then is it really what Jesus had in mind? I recently made the same point about Islam to a Muslim forum in the U.K. Both Christians and Muslims must deal with the fact that our faith systems were born in marginal minority movements. What would the founders say to us now? Once we are saved by hope- implying an incompleteness- why do we turn the hope into hubris? Prophet Muhammad was more about 'islam' than about 'Islam' according to the simplest readings of the Qur'an. Messiah Jesus was certainly about making 'learners' not magnates of faith systems. The journey of faith is exciting, especially when one is not in the majority. I think the moral majority is anything but moral in most cases. Liminality is very defining in faith matters. Its absence is very often tragic to the simplest intents and forms of trusting faith.

  19. One of the best motivations for sharing this good news, as you have done here, is the relief and freedom from a hellish fear-based religion that has hijacked Christianity, and for some of us, has hijacked much of our lives. It's just that, realizing these things late in mid-life, it's like having crossed a lifelong desert in a game of lone survivor, and finding out after the fact that the real road went through civilization with plenty of water available. Who knew.

  20. Hi Dan,
    Thanks for weighing in. Given your life, experience and wisdom I'm very interested in your take on all this. And on that note, I find your last two sentences to be extraordinarily profound.

  21. Let me work on that. No promises. If I can't think of anything interesting to say I probably won't write. But I have been thinking about a series on religious experience which might get into these issues.

  22. Thanks Richard for this series.

    I'm completely with your trajectory in this post. Evangelism is the participation in and proclamation of (sometimes even with words) the reality of God's Kingdom which is inaugurated and revealed in Jesus' life death and resurrection.

    My suspicion is however (and it is only a suspicion that is slowly taking shape as I have opportunity to speak about it), that the whole 'life after death' conversation is superfluous. My sense is that we have allowed ourselves to be shaped wholeheartedly by a philosophical dualism that demands linear continuation of our selves after death.

    It strikes me that there is a lot of playfulness in Biblical language with terms like 'death', 'life', 'light', 'darkness', 'saved', 'healed', 'reconciled', and so on. Each of these (and others) are used with a fluid movement between the apparent meanings and the hidden or eternal meanings of the words. And yet, when we are pushed, we tend to settle back on the literal meanings when articulating our faith, in particular our expectation as to what will happen when we die.

    While I have some understanding of the attractiveness of consolation in death, I do not see at all the theological necessity, and as I journey more deeply into Scripture, nor do I see a strong Biblical necessity. What is apparent, is our hermeneutical tendency to assume 'life after death' as a given, and then interpret without consideration of other meanings.

    I have of course been questioned with great incredulity and sincerity, "If Christianity is not about what happens when we die then what is it about?" To which I reply (and I think Richard articulates to some degree above) Christianity is about Life - Life in God through Christ Jesus.

  23. Regarding your first question, I'd never really thought about it, but it's an interesting thing to think about. I think there are a few Christian groups that actually live within that logic and, thus, become hyper-evangelistic. The early crossroads/Boston movement in the CoC comes to mind.

    But for the rest my hunch is that people actually don't feel all that bad that others are going to hell. It's "their" fault, not "mine." That is, given a radical view of freedom there is nothing preventing a person from accepting Jesus other than that person's own willful rebellion.

    Regarding the second question, I think if a person--of whatever soteriological stripe--stood by why another suffered couldn't really describe themselves as Christian.

  24. BAM! Believing in Jesus' inaugurated eschatology pretty much completely changed the way I look at Christianity. I get a lot of people that ask me why I'm so danged happy. I tell them because I'm living in God's redemption and glory now with the hope that one day heaven will come to earth in full.

    I can throw a mean party. :)

  25. I've been grading papers, so I'm in a very correctionist mood right now.

    "Sin is the party, not the Kingdom." What this says is that Sin is a party but it is not the Kingdom. What you want to say is that Sin is the party and the Kingdom isn't. I would suggest you write, "Sin is the party; the Kingdom is not." (Understanding that all of this is a ventriloquism.)

    Also, you should avoid using "lame" to mean "boring" (second last full paragraph); it's demeaning to folks with disabilities.

  26. Great post, Richard. One question: I was at a conference on universalism a few months ago and somebody who had converted to Christianity from a Hindu background asked what universalism meant for his sharing the gospel with his family. I agree with what you say about life being better in the Kingdom of God, but what about people who experience an abundant life in the deep family bonds that are bound up with a non-Christian religious identity? For those people, converting to Christianity costs an awful lot. Their non-Christian family members might well say it isn't worth the pain and ostracism of converting if all will be fine in the end anyway. (Of course, this doesn't have any bearing on whether universalism is actually true or not).

  27. Richard,

    i don't think a person raising these questions is necessarily implying that the life of sin is better than the Christian life. Only that a life of sin affords certain kinds of payoffs not offered by the Christian life. If universalism is true, then both kinds of payoffs are available to the individual. So why not have both?


    A person COULD be claiming that the life of sin is better than the Christian life, but only in a particular way. They could concede to you that the Christian life offers payoffs that are incommensurately better than the payoffs offered by the life of sin. However, the payoffs offered by the life of sin are quick and easy, whereas getting at the incommensurately better payoffs of the Christian life takes a great long time full of diligence and misses. If universalism is true, then the individual will always have a chance to eventually try the latter, so why not have both?


    (This is the one that was really on the tip of my tongue the whole time i was reading your post.) What if they flatly deny that the Christian life is better for this reason: Because it is so poorly represented here on earth. The church is still just too tainted with the life of sin that experiencing the incomparably better payoffs of the Christian life just doesn't seem to be available in the here and now. So why not just wait until the afterlife when the Christian life is available in a pure form?

    How are any of the above unreasonable?


  28. I think a part of the assumption of "having it both ways" is that one can simply switch over, with no lost time or suffering or damage. My assumption is that for every step away there will have to be a return journey. So, sure, you can have it one way and then "turn around." But the damage you've done to yourself and to others isn't so easily made up.

  29. Richard,

    Fair enough. But there is an infinite amount of time involved, yes? So however agonizingly long the journey back is, once the "good" destination is reached, it's not as though lack of time will lessen the payoff. (Unless--do you believe people in the perfected state can still choose to sin?)


  30. The other assumption is that God's punishment doesn't affect the "payoffs." That when I turn around I can just say "sorry." The journey back will be much harder than the journey away. God's justice (even his retributive justice) should be taken into consideration into any calculus of "payoffs."

  31. So there IS retributive justice on this view! (Now that's a very different kind of universalism than i've ever heard before)

    i think i see what you're saying if you mean that the punishment also constitutes a particular kind of (negative) payoff that has to be figured in. My only hold out is the eternity part--given that there's an infinite amount of time to enjoy the positive payoffs once they're acquired, won't the calculus eventually favor the positive no matter what? Or are you saying something like this: Those who've gone through punishment in order to get to the "good" state just, in the nature of the case, will never enjoy the "good" state in the same way or to the same degree as those who got there without having to be punished? (That seems like a plausible claim to me.)


  32. "So there IS retributive justice on this view!"

    Not necessarily. But it could. Like I mentioned in a prior comment on a prior post, if a person's theological sensibilities require retributive justice then that could be factored into a universalist soteriology. So when I mentioned retributive justice above I mentioned for your sake as it seems important to you. That is, if you disagree with me on some point then you are not rejecting universalism per se. Just my version of it. The "this view" in your sentence is just "Richard's view." And my view isn't normative, plus it can be tweaked and various ways to accommodate different theological values. My take, given your comments across these posts, is that we don't share common theological sensibilities. At least in every particular. So my responses (e.g., mentioning retributive justice) are my attempts to suggest how a univeralist soteriology might accommodate the things that seem important to you but less important to me.

  33. Even though I came out of an Penicostal background I can totally identify with what Sammy expressed. Everything was all turn or burn, cry or fry, neal or peel etc. Fear much more than love seemed to be the motivation for everything in the Christian life. Needless to say this did nothing to help me move along in my relationship with God. It only paralized me. I was too afraid to do anything for fear of God, but also afraid of not doing anything for fear of God...nightmare city. Anyway I'm not a part of the fear crowd anymore and am currently learning about love and grace. I've been trying to talk to my retributive/fear based friends about it, with a fair amount of difficulty. In fact my last conversation I had with one of them went almost exactly as your post described. She simply could not imagine anything beyond hell being a motivation for anything. She even said that if there is no hell then what did Jesus die for then. I said you mean having Christ live in us and being in union with Him is not significant enough. The answer...apparently not. I'm glad I see things differently now. Thanks for your point of view.

  34. Hello Patricia,
    I always enjoy your takes.
    "... has hijacked much of our lives ..."
    I don't think it's an exaggeration to define this as abuse - severe abuse in some cases. Several testimonies of those who have become champions of Christ-centered universal salvation suffered through severe clinical depression and paralyzing insanity prior to discovering the possibility of UR.

    Sometimes, I wonder what will actually play out judgement wise regarding the Aposle Paul's calling out of those who propagate a false gospel as described in Galatians 1. Is speading a Gospel that highlights/obsesses eternal torment in fiery hell is a false gospel? - as time goes on, I wonder. When I began a ministry (involving music) I wanted to be absolutely sure to share an "uncompromised"/"simple" Gospel. I was going to make it a point not to side-step the "reality" of eternal hell. But that's EXACTLY when my experience of cognitive dissonance, then a crisis of faith began.

    Gary Y.

  35. Hi Gary,
    For me, it never even occurred to me to question/doubt the theology I was raised in until George MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons challenged PSA, and did it so thoroughly that I had to step back and seriously reconsider what I'd been taught as "gospel." But like you and others here have shared, the Southern Baptist theology I believed in so thoroughly made me depressed, insecure, angry, lonely, and disoriented as to what REALLY mattered in life. The double-talk, the certainty, and the haughty condescension left me wondering, how could Jesus have meant THIS?

    I do find that universalism answers so many of the disconnects while traditional theology does a cut-and-paste. Looking back, a lot of my life, theologically, seems like it was circling down a drain. There's not a 12-step program for theological recovery, so there's a lot to work through, especially coming from a family rife with Puritanical Princesses, from which I am now estranged.

  36. Hello Patricia,
    I'm curious - under such religious propaganda, suppression, and confinement, how did you learn of George MacDonald?

    "There's not a 12-step program for theological recovery" - perfectly said.

    Gary Y.

  37. Hi Gary,
    At the time, we were home schooling our oldest son, and using a literature-based curriculum. Part of our 3rd grade read-alouds included At the Back of the North Wind. I had remembered Lewis mentioning MacDonald in Surprised By Joy, and also as the teaching character in Great Divorce, and so I started digging a little deeper. If MacDonald was the "master" behind Lewis's genius, he was worth digging into deeper. And so I did. And so glad I did!

  38. "Maybe this is why people who believe in eternal torment are so grumpy, mean-spirited, and miserable." Richard, is this a bit of hyperbole? Frankly I loved Campolo's book when it first came out years ago and I believe in the grace of God (we're not saved by faith we are saved by grace). I have also enjoyed this post and don't think badly of you or your theology. I agree with much of it--especially the picture of the slave who is free but living not knowing it. Great analogy.

    However, I am not convinced universalism is what Jesus (or the New Testament writers) taught . I still believe in Hell (although I have no problem with Jesus using Gehenna as a metaphor of being outside of his kingdom rather than an eternal place of torment...I'm open to the idea).

    However, it is as I told my daughter in a discussion about my love for her: "There is nothing that can make me disown you or quit loving you. But if you disown me and refuse to have anything to do with me I cannot and will not force myself upon you. I respect your decisions."

    Now, am I "grumpy, mean-spirited, and miserable"? Well, it wouldn't be fair for me to answer that questions because I am admittedly biased! However, I have never been accused of being those things in all of my life by friends, acquaintances or even people who don't like me. And, I really don't think of myself that way.

    So can we avoid over-generalizing? Thanks!

  39. Hi Jason,

    Only if God's justice is defined as we define justice. It becomes much more interesting/problematic when we consider 'the Cross' is the particular and final revelation of God's justice. That is, God takes sin and death into God's self.

  40. A BBQ drum circle! Wow. It's like the great party at the end of the C.S. Lewis Narnia series--everyone gathered for the feasting and joy, and great food, but the grumpy dwarfs who refused to join in tasted only sawdust and dirt. Isn't this exactly the point--that the BBQ drum circle or whatever is open to all, but some people will never accept the acceptance.

  41. Having enjoyed and been challenged by this post (and many others like it) I realise that you sometimes over-emphasise an issue to make a point. Personally, I hope that this is the case in your caricaturing of those who hold a view opposite to your own...

    In other words, to describe those who believe in a literal hell of eternal torment as, "grumpy, mean-spirited and miserable" is (IMHO) a cheap jibe and I think you're better than that to be honest.

    In my delivery of the courses I teach at my school I really try to encourage the kids to show the very deepest respect for those they disagree with and, in fact, to go out of their way to befriend such folk - as these are the ones who'll challenge them and their thinking more than those who'll agree with everything they say just because they're friends with you.

    I also remind them that given a different sets of circumstances and experiences they too would be holding these currently-diametrical views - as indeed they may do in the future anyway - IF they keep an open mind.

    Just some thoughts which, of course, were written with the very greatest of respect... :)

  42. I think, but I could be wrong, that the context of my remarks, the two paragraphs surrounding the sentence in question, make it clear what kind of Christians I'm talking about. And it's my assessment that these "turn or burn" Christians are miserable, mean-spirited and and grumpy.

  43. A couple of you have pushed back on this sentence in the post: Maybe this is why people who believe in eternal torment are so grumpy, mean-spirited, and miserable. Pulled out of context I fully understand your concern. Out of content it looks like I'm saying that if you believe in an eternal hell you are "grumpy, mean-spirited, and miserable."

    But if you look at the context of my remark, I'm describing Christians who can only imagine hellfire to be the sole motive force for proclaiming the Christian message or accepting it. Christians who can't comprehend a proclamation of joy. And, in my experience with Christians of this sort, and there are plenty of them out there, the words "grumpy, mean-spirited, and miserable" come to mind.

  44. Amen. Amen. Amen. I sure wish the Christian life was presented to me for the first 30 years of my life as joyful and not the "safe" yet boring and bland alternative to hell. On the urgency of joy... you've filled in the missing words to what I've been wanting to give words to for quite a while. The longer I live and learn, the more I am convinced that heaven starts here and so does hell. As a psychologist you probably have seen this over and over. Broken relationships, neuroses, mental illness, personality disorders, poverty of the heart, and then the visible stuff like material poverty, abuse, murder, hatred, envy, misery...(and the list goes on) all are manifestations of and/or experiences of hell right here on planet earth. Joy must certainly be essential to true conversion and the obvious proof that evangelism has been effective. Wow... God give us hearts to believe truth and to vomit out all of the #$@! we've been fed by folks who probably never really got "it" in the first place.

  45. "If everyone is getting to heaven why not just live it up in this life?" Again, seriously? If you have to ask this question I have to wonder if you're even a Christian. Because you are basically claiming that the life of sin is "better" than the abundant life found in Jesus, that people would prefer sin, today, over the Kingdom of God. You are insinuating that the Christian proclamation isn't good news.

    As someone who's attracted to - but has been skeptical about - universalism, I've been quietly following these posts with extreme interest since you started them. I can't keep quiet anymore though. Thank you so much for this post and for putting into words some thoughts I've had for a few years now.

  46. Thank you for the clarification.

    Personally, I feel sad that this is your assessement as it contributes, in my opinion, to the general negative enthrenchment and polarisation of perspectives on this and other issues.

    I.e. "Not only do I disagree with those folk but they are XY and Z as well!" (add your own personal abuse and defamation here...)

    I am not even pretending that I know you Professor Beck, I am just admitting to feeling really disappointed that your excellent and thought-provoking blog nonetheless incorporates what, to me at least, are rather judgemental and negative stereotypes.

    I'll keep reading though, but just with the realisation that you aren't the man I thought you were... (that's no biggie for anyone is it? it happens almost everyday...)

    Thank you again for taking the time to raise and explore these compelling issues on this blog...

    It's my hope and belief that notwithstanding my comments here you will continue to generally contribute more light than heat where it is needed.

    Ps I should add, for the record, that I am by no means a 'turn or burn' Christian - I am just keen on dialogue and not childish name-calling - as a secondary school teacher I have enough of that to deal with on a day to day basis... :)

  47. Coincidently, I just found the following:

    The writer here puts it far better than I ever could - point number one is particularly pertinent to the present issue...


  48. Thank you for this post! I've heard that it is rude in the blogospere to post links to your own blog, but I have had very similar thoughts of late, and someone referred me to your blog. So a link is the simplest way of saying "hey! I've been thinking too!" You are much further along in your thoughts on this topic so I am greatly appreciating this series!

  49. The idea that the "Good News" always brings the hearer joy ON EARTH is a very ethnocentric view. Where I lived and worked, folks who became Christians were separated from their entire family, which meant they literally lost their homes and their livelihoods as well. They were treated like dogs for the rest of what was often a short, miserable life, with their children dying of hunger. The ONLY thing that makes such voluntary suffering worth it is that their relationship with God would be eternal. If they can have that eternal relationship anyway, is it not cruel of me to encourage them to go through this suffering on earth?

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