Doubt and Universalism: Being Hopeful and Dogmatic

Awhile back I wrote this reflection for the forum I host at the Evangelical Universalism Forum:

People often make a distinction between being a hopeful versus a dogmatic universalist.

You're a hopeful universalist if you desire, wish or hope that universal reconciliation in Christ be true but just can't bring yourself to believe it to be true, likely because of how you read the bible. You're a dogmatic universalist if you are convinced that universal reconciliation in Christ is true, likely because you have come to believe that the bible does, in fact, support universal reconciliation in Christ.

People often ask me if I'm a hopeful or a dogmatic universalist. And my answer is that I'm both. I'm both hopeful and dogmatic.

Which might seem paradoxical, so let me explain that.

Truth be told, I'm really not a dogmatic universalist. Why? Because I'm not dogmatic about anything. I struggle with too many doubts. There are days when I wonder if God exists. So how can I, if I'm wavering on that big question, feel dogmatic about a very particular vision of the afterlife? You have to get the cart before the horse.

So why do I argue so vociferously for universal reconciliation in Christ? Because I think universal reconciliation in Christ is the only view of the afterlife that gives the Christian faith moral, biblical, intellectual and theological coherence. I'm dogmatic about that, about how universal reconciliation in Christ is the only view that makes sense when you really investigate the other options. In light of that, I'd say I'm more of a polemical universalist than a dogmatic universalist. I'm polemical in that I argue--strongly--that universal reconciliation in Christ is the only view that makes Christianity morally, biblically and theologically coherent and that all the other options--e.g., eternal conscious torment, conditionalism, and annihilationism--make Christianity morally, biblically and theologically incoherent (if not monstrous). I'll argue that deep into the night and into the next day. That's the polemical part. But being polemical--arguing the merits of your view against the weaknesses of alternative views--isn't the same as being dogmatic. Because at the end of the day, do I know if any of this is really true? I don't.

And that is what makes me a hopeful Christian universalist. Because of my doubts, I'm not dogmatic that any of this is true.

But I sure hope it is.

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47 thoughts on “Doubt and Universalism: Being Hopeful and Dogmatic”

  1. Yep, yep, yep. Love this distinction. It's all about the humility, baby.
    "If you wanna touch the sky, you've gotta learn how to kneel."
    And cetera.

  2. :) I'm in much the same camp, although the first place I go instead of "doubt" is something like "mystery" or "anti-systematic." Meaning, the whole question is poorly formed, because God doesn't have to conform to our systems, so we should doubt the ultimate applicability of any system to God. A bit of a Barthian thing.

    The second place I'd go is to point out that "doubt" is not the opposite of "hope" at all, in the senses in which I use the words, and in which I think the Bible uses them. Doubt is actually a logically necessary precondition of hope. If you know something, you can't hope for it, because hope entails a degree of uncertainty. You can't have faith in it either, for exactly the same reason. I can't trust you if I am certain you will do something; trust doesn't come up in that case. So the whole notion that "hopeful" and "dogmatic" (meaning certain) are opposed seems to be wrong to me.

    At the end of the day, I'm nearly with you. If it made sense to talk about being an annihilationist, eternal tormentist, or universalist, I'd be a Christian universalist. But I'm none of them, because I think the anti-systematic moment is absolutely essential.

  3. Fun distinction: Dogmatic-->Polemic-->Skeptic

    I am that way about the value of "conscious loving", I get judged as being religious (though I am religion-free) because of my actions and words which stress that it is important to love others outside of our love-naturally circles.
    I may be wrong about it, I am certainly not consistent in it, but it is the only thing that makes sense to me.
    Sort of like your religion.
    And I am an atheist. [fortunately, in your world, an un-damn atheist, it seems]. :-)
    Your fun distinction is useful for lots of positions, eh? For much of what we hold, can never be proven.

  4. So let me get this right: dogmatic means you think your position is true, which is a bit too hard for you.

    But polemical means that you simply have to think that every other position lacks "moral, biblical, intellectual and theological coherence." That's easier.

    Have I got it right? And do you see why this might disturb me?

  5. Great post.

    I ultimately call myself hopeful, but not dogmatic, but I think the difference is mainly because - in my weird ways - I get hung up on the issues in a different way.

    When I ask myself about any issue, I first try to think on a communal level. Thus, the question I ask is not "what do I personally believe?" If that were the question, I would probably call myself a dogmatic universalist. Instead, I ask myself "what do I believe it is appropriate for my faith community to teach?" On the second issue, I am forced to contend with (a) some of the biblical texts that suggest a locked hell with ECT and (b) tradition, which treats universalism as heterodox. This puts me on a path which eventually leads me to conclude that more communal dialog is necessary before I would advocate that my faith community advance universalism. I do, however, believe it is appropriate for my faith community to encourage prayer for universal salvation.

    Again, universalism is more consistent with my personal theology. It is also more consistent with the way I read scripture. I am happy to openly claim those things, and love to engage in dialog about them (I'll almost always defend the universalist viewpoint in a conversation on the issue). However, I describe myself as a "hopeful universalist" as a way of showing respect to tradition and deference to/solidarity with what (for now, at least) seems to be the consensus viewpoint that universalism is heterodox.

    Again, I can be kind-of weird.

  6. I'm more or less in the same place as you are. I used to refer to myself as a hopeful dogmatic universalist. By that I meant that my systematic theology was very universalist (not just wishing for universalism) but that I was not 100% sure that my systematic theology was correct. That's what I take you to be saying and that is where I am still at.

    More recently I have got a little cautious about the word "dogmatic."
    For most people it means "inflexible" and the like. I am certainly not wanting to be that kind of dogmatic universalist.
    For others it refers to Christian theological beliefs. I AM that kind of dogmatic universalist.
    But for many "dogma" is more than mere Christian beliefs—it refers to CORE Christian beliefs; the kind of belief that one denies a central Christian claim if one denies it. Well, I don't want to say that! I don't want to say that Christians that deny universalism (i.e., most Christians in history) are denying something at the core of the faith.
    (That said, and just to jumble things some more, I do think that the denial of universalism does entail the denial of core Christian convictions. So if Christians followed the logic of their hell views to the end they'd have to deny God's love, say. Fortunately, Christians do not do that. They live with the impossible tension, saved by their refusal to pursue their beliefs to their logical conclusions—thanks God.)

    In brief I have added absolutely nothing to what you wrote and now have no idea why I started writing. Oh well.

  7. Well, there needs to be a club for weird Christians. I like your communal perspective. I'm very similar to you in how I behave and teach at Highland.

  8. Well, I thought it was helpful. There is a lot of ambiguity in how people us the words "dogma" or "dogmatics."

    BTW, loved your video response to Rachel Held Evans' blog. For those who missed it:

  9. I like the reported quote of Moltmann who, when asked after addressing an international conference if he was a universalist, replied: "Am I a universalist, hmm, no...there's plenty of people I don't want to see in heaven. But God, now - is He a universalist? That's a different question..."

  10. I really love this distinction, but I could use some guidance in addressing the broader, practical question on the next step.

    I was born and raised in a conservative CoC that taught penal substitution, eternal conscious torment, that women can't teach classes or serve many church roles other than secretary, that homosexuality is a sin, etc. (As an aside, I think it is possible to connect the dots through all of these, but if you can remove one the whole facade begins to unravel.) Over the last few years I've been on a transformative journey--it is hard to express how profound the shift is to embracing universalism and the non-violence of God. The question I struggle with now is how do I address this within my congregation?

    I have been sorely tempted to leave my church for a more progressive denomination, but I want universalism to have a seat at the table in Churches of Christ. I want to help usher my tribe into the 21st century by helping these ideas along (to put it another away, I perceive the denomination as beginning to die out given the ratios of old to young people, I'm worried there won't be any CoC's left in 50 years if nothing changes).

    Like you, I believe that universalism is the only coherent way to approach God. How can I positively encourage my church to consider this as a viable option, or do I just give up and leave my congregation behind?

  11. Dr. Beck, I've had a number of conversations with people on this topic, and I think most can agree that we'd like to think universalism is true. But shouldn't we let scripture guide us on this, and don't we hit a hard stop with passages like Matthew 25? Specifically in verse 46 we see:

    “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

    The Greek for eternal is the same for both punishment and eternal life. So it seems that scripture teaches that some will go to punishment of the same quality and duration as eternal life (which I admit may indicate annihilationism rather than eternal conscious torment). And I find that very hard to reconcile with the idea of universalism.

    In fact, I wonder your thoughts on how CS Lewis described Hell as being locked on the inside? It's not that they can't get out. It's that people in hell are so dedicated to the idea of serving their own needs apart from God that they will never freely choose a relationship with Him regardless (Lewis' depiction of Hell in The Great Divorce resonates with me).

    In fact, when I think of the idea that Christianity is monstrous if it allows for hell, I think that's got it exactly backward. I think it would be monstrous for God to be such a tyrant that He demands our presence in heaven even if we freely reject Him. I think, instead, God will allow us to make free-will choices even if that choice is to reject Him forever. I believe He respects us that much.

    Having said that, I'm a hopeful universalist and I am familiar with arguments that say "given eternity, God's love will eventually persuade every person, including Satan and his angels so that all will eventually be brought back into relationship with God". I just am not sure this is supported by scripture.

    I'll be interested in your thoughts.

  12. Oh, I have lots of thoughts. I'd start by pointing you to all my posts on this subject on the sidebar.

  13. While it's true that the Greek for eternal is the same in both cases, it is interesting to discover that our usage of the English word "eternal" is not terribly close to the actual meaning of the Greek word (aionion). But I won't go into it all here. Google will give you more than you ever wanted on the subject and the good Dr Beck has collected all his posts on the subject of universalism here on this blog. Go to the home page, scroll (a long ways) down and find Universal Reconciliation in the listings on the right.

  14. Dan, what relevance is there to the fact that we don't use eternal in the same way it was used in scripture? It seems to me if we're to understand what scripture says, we'd need to understand it as it was originally written in the language and understanding of the authors. Whether we use the word in the same way today seems irrelevant in that regard.

  15. To be honest, I don't know if universalism will ever be the majority view in Christianity, let alone the Churches of Christ. I think the best you can hope for is for it to be tolerated as a minority voice.

    Given that, I'd recommend a variety of coping strategies to learn to live as a theological minority. A couple of thoughts along these lines:

    1. Don't choose a church that pushes your buttons, one that talks about hellfire and brimstone all the time. Find a grace-oriented church where the hell stuff is minimal.

    2. Don't push your views on others and be welcoming and tolerant of the majority view as the majority view. Share your views in small, trusted, personal gatherings when a community of welcome is around you. If you can't find that, read books and participate in online community.

    3. Learn to translate the dominant conversation. When someone speaks of "hell" process with you own understandings.

  16. It's of paramount importance. If we aren't using the word the same way the biblical authors use the word then we have no right to claim we are being "biblical."

  17. And it might help, if you are new to the conversation generally, to do some research and reading. Not just here, but with all the books that are available and all the Internet resources available to you.

  18. I am generally not a fan of online discussions so will attempt to avoid one here. Besides, there is simply a TON of good stuff available for research. Most of which is put together by people much smarter than I am.

    But I will offer these two links by way of addressing your question. They probably aren't the best resources, but they bubbled near the top of a quick google search and I am at least somewhat familiar with both tentmaker and carm.

    A look at the word from a universalist perspective:

    A look at the word from a traditionalist perspective:

  19. And I'd add to Dan's comment that the post above has a link to the Evangelical Universalist Forum where lots of information and online discussion can be found.

  20. Richard

    You've spent a bit of time in the comments here, discussing what it means to be a universalist within a larger majority Christian community. From one Christian University prof to another, do you engage with the ACU community often on the subject of universalism? Is there any pushback?

  21. At the risk of getting too far out there for some, the teaching of Creation Spirituality by Matthew Fox, specifically in his books Original Blessing and The Coming of The Cosmic Christ, lends a clear light into universalism in its emphasis on "God in all things and all things in God". His quotes from Meister Eckhart, and others such as John of the Cross and Mechtild of Magdeburg are well worth the reads.

    When Panentheism is examined for what it truly is, an acknowledgement that God cannot be less than "All in All", when the universe is understood as filled and embraced by Christ, the child of God, when Paul's words, "from God, through God and to God are all things" are more than just a clever way of saying God is creator, when God, mother, father and child is in the human being giving birth to the divine in every act of love and reconciliation, then the universal message becomes a present hope when we are able to sing to each person we meet the words of Hildegard of Bingen, "God hugs you, You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God".

  22. Hi Steven,
    I don't think I've ever talked about it in a faculty venue or in a classroom. Theology isn't what I teach so it just doesn't come up, it's nothing I'm consulted on. Our bible faculty are the theological voices on our campus. To be sure, lots of people on the campus read my blog so my views are known on various subjects, but any given faculty member would have to approach me personally to have a chat about something I wrote. And that doesn't happen all that often.

  23. I see. The topic doesn't come at Baylor (at least for a theatre professor) very often, either. Just wondering how much traction universalism has in our university communities.

  24. A Datum - Essentially what I've come to understand is that the entire Hebrew concept of time was very different than ours. Western conceptions of time places us on a linear string of events that we travel along from one point in time to another, but many eastern cultures, including the ancient Hebrew culture that the OT and Christ emerged from, tended to see time more like a singular eternal moment of experience with what lies beyond the bounds of that being essentially unknowable. Instead of a car driving down a road that never ends, picture a row boat floating in the middle of the ocean. No matter how hard one rows he will never get any closer to the horizon line, it will always shroud what lies outside the present moment. Continuing this metaphor, Hell is the tireless chasing of the horizon, a slave to the notion that what will satisfy lies ever beyond the horizon and must be caught. It is eternal in the sense that the horizon, and what is imagined to lay beyond it, can never be caught—it is an endless chase,the vain "chasing after the wind" (in Ecclesiastes).

    Likewise, heaven is also eternal. It does not stand in contrast to Hell as some point beyond the opposite horizon, a frantic chase in the opposite direction, but is that which stands always with us, exactly where we are in the present moment, and extends as far as the eye can see in every direction. Heaven is the experience of being freed from the pursuit. Heaven is living in the Eternal "now." Heaven is to stop rowing to really see, maybe for the first time, where we are. It is not to have our anxieties healed and our desires fulfilled, but to be freed, by grace from the need to be without pain and to have our desires fulfilled.

    So, in the western view, you're on the road to hell and with a limited number of exits available; once you have passed the last exit, there's nothing to be done but keep going forever or hope the road ends in a cliff, but an eastern (Hebrew) way of think about time says that you are eternally in precisely the same place, the middle of the ocean, standing on the face of eternity, and that God is the cool breeze whispering, "be still." Salvation and damnation happen in the same eternal reality, the same place, the difference is whether you want to be there or somewhere else.

  25. You saw that?
    Wow. Thanks.
    It was all done in a rush but I hope that they are some help to some people.

  26. I thought they were very helpful. And I especially liked the one with sizzling in the background. Very atmospheric for any conversation about hell. :-)

  27. If I wasn't constantly vigilant I would be using Bono and Dylan quotes in every comment. : ) Between the two of them there's always something applicable. Dylan has a whole song on this topic:

    [interesting note: in Strongs concordance, the Hebrew word "olam,"commonly translated "eternity" is defined using the phrases "the vanishing point (i.e. "horizon") and "Time out of mind" the name of Dylan's 1997 Grammy winning album in which Dylan grapples with the idea of being unable to help but love Christ, but also unable to feel his presence, of desiring what lies beyond the horizon, but knowing that it always recedes. It is a man far along in years who has sought after truth his whole life finally coming to understand that the truth isn't something you get, but something you realize you already have.]

    Beyond the horizon, behind the sun
    At the end of the rainbow life has only begun
    In the long hours of twilight 'neath the stardust above
    Beyond the horizon it is easy to love

    My wretched heart's pounding
    I felt an angel's kiss
    My memories are drowning
    In mortal bliss

    Beyond the horizon, in the Springtime or Fall
    Love waits forever for one and for all

    Beyond the horizon across the divide
    'Round about midnight, we'll be on the same side
    Down in the valley the water runs cold
    Beyond the horizon someone prayed for your soul

    I'm touched with desire
    What don't I do?
    I'll throw the logs on the fire
    I'll build my world around you

    Beyond the horizon, at the end of the game
    Every step that you take, I'm walking the same

    Beyond the horizon the night winds blow
    The theme of a melody from many moons ago
    The bells of St. Mary, how sweetly they chime
    Beyond the horizon I found you just in time

    It's dark and it's dreary
    I ponder in vain
    I'm weakened, I'm weary
    My repentance is plain

    Beyond the horizon o'er the treacherous sea
    I still can't believe that you've set aside your love for me

    Beyond the horizon, 'neath crimson skies
    In the soft light of morning I'll follow you with my eyes
    Through countries and kingdoms and temples of stone
    Beyond the horizon right down to the bone

    It's late in the season
    Never knew, never cared
    Whatever the reason
    Someone's life has been spared

    Beyond the horizon the sky is so blue
    I've got more than a lifetime to live lovin' you

  28. For all the “nice-e-ness” here in this discussion, I have to admit that there’s still a part of me that is psychologically riveted and mesmerized by the Medieval/Renaissance depictions of “Hell and Torment” found in many of the Cathedrals of Europe. “Universalism” – Ha! These guys knew how to “Cut the Wheat from the Chaff”!

    One of my favorite frescos is by “Giovanni da Modena” and is found in the “Basilica of San Petronio” in Bologna
    Italy. His central “Inferno” panel is a nightmarish collage of the bestial engorging of the wicked, coupled with the sadistic punishment of the rich and profane! Another found in Orvieto, by the Italian Renaissance Master “Luca
    Signorelli” in the “Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio”, is an incredible showcase of the knowledge of human anatomy and how even in the state of demonic torture, the beauty of what man is as a physically entity, somehow stays preserved in eternity.

    Rather than generating fear and anxiety in the heart of the celebrant, these murals depicted a secure form of social justice on a gran visual scale. In societies where they were dominated by excessively layered and abusive hierarchical structures, both from within the Church and from Nature itself, these macabre frescoes offered hope and solace for those not knowing where they stood eschatologically.

    In our time, being “Hopeful and Dogmatic about Universalism” is a symptom of the Proletariat, a middleclass of egalitarian scholastics who want to tinker and play with what we all really know in our hearts is coming!

  29. It sounds like our stances are similar. I don’t like
    “believe” here: neither the claim that I do nor the claim that I don’t believe
    the position are particularly helpful or accurate. I say I “accept”
    universalism – in the same way I generally accept positions in theology,
    philosophy, politics (where also “believe” often sounds the wrong note):

  30. Ha! Yes—that was funny. I didn't know Carol was going to start cooking.

  31. I'm a hopeful-universalist and a dogmatic-ECTist. I have been for the past four years. But unlike many of you I think, it eats me up inside. The not-knowing and the potential for " disappointment " sort of thing. I want it so badly yet find it " too good to be true ". Where people will respond with pinched noses " only God is good. " or something unhelpful

  32. I have gone so far as to desire never to have MORE children for fear of handing her into the hands of angry God.

  33. “Universalism” – Ha! These guys knew how to “Cut the Wheat from the Chaff”!

    But the best "universalisms" have always acknowledged that there is a judgement and separation after death (Hebrews: die once, then the judgement!).

    The difference is simply that the best universalisms also acknowledge that "eternal" punishment, "eternal" destruction is the punishment/destruction "of the age to come". After all, "eternal" (aionios) is the adjective of the noun "age" (aion).

    id est: it doesn't last for ever.

  34. Sorry for my non sequitur above. My last point should be that the terms eternal punishment/destruction tell us "what kind", not "how long".

  35. Very helpful analysis. Thank you.

    And for these moments when the whole "God thing" seems like it could be doubtful, just apply your own words about UR to God's existence:

    "how universal reconciliation in Christ is the only view that makes sense when you really investigate the other options."

    IOW God's existence is always more likely when compared to "the other options"!

  36. That is so sad. Hope you don't think and feel that way any more.

  37. At the end of the day we have to choose whether we are going to put all of our trust on the love and grace of God or not. I'm all in.

  38. Haha! I do indeed. What is more sad is the assumption that everything is AOK when it isn't. I have one wonderful daughter and I " hope " to help her get to heaven. One is enough of a burden

  39. This though came to me yesterday. I have a hard time believing in UR partly because there is nothing else like it we see in nature or history. We believe in an angry vengeful "righteous" God because not only are WE like that but because everyone else is too. We don't SEE kings and leaders who show unconditional love or mercy or forgiveness. I look at kings past and I see God. Ruthless. Powerful. Violent. Weeding out betrayal. Making laws. Making war. The most terrible leaders in history I think are reflections of God. From King David to Hitler himself

  40. I'm very late to the conversation but wanted you to know I'm asking God to give you peace. I've been there. Maybe I'm still there, but feeling it less acutely because other things have come to the center of my attention, because I found the arguments for universalism convincing enough for the time being, or because I'm part of a community that makes me feel loved and hopeful that God's love is even greater than that.

    It's powerful to read your post below (it's hard to believe in unconditional love and forgiveness because we don't see it in our world) and realize how vitally important it is to practice love and train ourselves to become more loving, not to "get to heaven" as individuals but to provide examples of loving presence in the world, to make it just a bit easier for others to believe that a God who loves unconditionally is possible.

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