Does Universal Reconciliation Involve Coercion and Force?

I was recently involved in an email conversation with someone who was wondering about the issue of free will and coercion in how we might think about universal reconciliation in Christ. Specifically, the most common argument you hear objecting to universal reconciliation in Christ is the assumption that this vision must involve some act of coercion on God's part. The objection is that if everyone is eventually reconciled to God then at some point God would have to force certain people in some form or fashion.

I've written about this issue at great length on this blog. Specifically, in 2011 I wrote a post describing how volitional integrity is a key and central aspect of how I envision reconciliation in Christ. I even go on to describe how God might go about achieving this volitional integrity, using the movie Groundhog Day as a thought experiment.

Let's start with a vocabulary note:
Vocabulary Note:
When I talk about "will" and "choice" I use the word psychologists use a great deal: volitional.

1. The act or an instance of making a conscious choice or decision.
2. A conscious choice or decision.
3. The power or faculty of choosing; the will.
Again, whenever I talk about universalism I invariability get this question: Doesn't universalism imply that God has to force people into accepting and loving God? That is, if everyone is eventually reconciled with God how does God overcome our willful, and even hateful, rebellion?

This is a good question because we want the movement into salvation to protect the volitional integrity of the individual. We don't want God to force, coerce, or override the will of the person. We want the individual to make this choice of her own free will.

And by "free will" I don't mean "causally unconstrained." I mean free will as the philosopher Harry Frankfurt describes it, as a state of volitional unanimity:
When we are doing exactly what we want to do, we are acting freely. A free act is one that a person performs simply because he wants to perform it. Enjoying freedom of action consists in maintaining this harmonious accord between what we do and what we want to do.

...Just as we act freely when what we do is what we want to do, so we will act freely when what we want is what we want to want--that is, when the will behind what we do is exactly the will by which we want our action to be moved. A person's will is free, on this account, when there is in him a certain volitional unanimity.
So, what we want in the "free choice" of salvation is volitional unanimity and integrity. When a person chooses God we want them to want to choose God. And if God interferes with this, if the person feels she is choosing something she doesn't want, we lose volitional unanimity and integrity. The person feels violated and coerced, volitionally speaking. The choice isn't felt to be "free."

Thus, one of the virtues of the views espoused by people like C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce and Rob Bell in Love Wins--a view often called "separationism" as the person eternally makes the choice to stay separated from a Loving God--is that they work hard to protect volitional unanimity and integrity. God doesn't force or coerce a choice. The door of salvation, as Lewis says, is locked from the inside. And if you want to open it, well, you have to want to open it. The choice, as they say, is yours.

In light of this, universalism seems problematic as many think the view implies that God, seeking universal reconciliation, would have to use force to overcome willful human rebellion and sin. That God would have to kick the door down and drag you out kicking and screaming. Against your will as it were.

So how should a universalist answer?

First, let me address any Calvinist readers. Specifically, if you are a Calvinist you aren't allowed to raise this particular objection about universalism. And here's why.

If you are a Calvinist you believe that salvation comes via God's election. That is, in one moment you are a depraved, evil and rebellious human being. The next moment, after God's amazing grace "elects" you, you are a new creature, a friend and child of God. The point is, if you're a Calvinist you really shouldn't be quibbling about volitional integrity with universalists. Glass houses you know. You have your own problems on this score.

Look at it this way. Universalists could simply adopt the Calvinistic mechanism of salvation (God's election) wholesale. The only difference, in that case, between the Calvinist and the universalist, would be the arithmetic. The number of people who get to experience God's grace. But the mechanism of salvation would be identical in both cases.

So if a Calvinist ever asks a universalist the question "How can God save everyone without forcing them into salvation?" the universalist can respond "The same way God 'forces' the elect--by an act of Divine grace. We don't disagree about how salvation happens. We just disagree on the math."

So, dear Calvinists, let me step past you to address my Arminian brothers and sisters, who, by privileging human choice over Divine election, have actual concerns about volitional integrity. How can a universalist allay the concerns of Arminians?

There are a host of answers, so I'll just give you the ones that work for me. Basically, we just need to think of salvation as less an ultimatum than a process of education.

For a lot of Christians salvation is basically the process of posing an ultimatum to the human will: Choose Christ and live or deny Christ and go to hell. Basically, evangelism is a threat with a choice. An ultimatum.

I think this view of salvation is so popular because it has a lot of rhetorical oomph. It fits the contours of contemporary Christian evangelism, revivalism, and altar calls. The evangelist makes a powerful emotional appeal and the audience has to Decide. Come forward and be saved. Or sit there and be lost. The same model works well in a smaller bible study context where you peer over your bible at the poor sap going to hell and make the sales pitch: Accept Jesus or not?

I think most people are fully aware of the problems with this view of salvation. So I don't want to get into all that here. Suffice it to say I see salvation as less an ultimatum posed to the human will than Incarnational practices aimed at the acquisition of virtue. Moral education if you will. Salvation is about becoming Christ-like.

When framed like this I hope we can see how worries over volitional integrity go away. For example, most parents are trying to shape the character of their children and few of them would consider what they are doing a manifestation of "force." The same goes for how God treats his children. Our moral biography with God, in this life and the next, is about moral education, training in virtue, and spiritual formation.

Okay, but what about if a person is willfully rebelling? How can God "educate" that person?

Well, the same way all good teachers work with difficult students. You focus on trust, allow natural consequences to unfold, and persuade. Think about this using therapy as an example: How does a therapist get, say, an addict to give up his addiction when the addict is in denial about it? Psychologists routinely assess where a person is in the stages of change tailoring interventions to suit the motivational situation. God could do the same thing.

But what would that look like? I hesitate to give specifics because such thought-experiments are wildly speculative. I'd hate to float an idea and have people think "That's what Richard thinks is going to happen when we die." I don't know any such thing.

Still, it might be helpful to float an idea or two to expand our our theological imaginations. So, two quick ideas. First, when working with hard cases God's moral education could be direct and aggressive. Think of The Christmas Carol and Scrooge's experiences with Jacob Marley and the Three Spirits of Christmas. Scrooge wasn't forced into repentance, volitionally speaking. He was simply allowed to see things that helped him connect the dots, morally speaking.

But if the aggressive approach in The Christmas Carol is too in your face, think of something more slow and subtle like what we see in the movie Groundhog Day. In the movie Bill Murray's character is able to reach the same conclusions as did Ebenezer Scrooge, only more slowly. Murray's character was given the time to follow every moral path toward its inevitable outcome. Finally, at the end of this process, simple natural consequences bring about repentance, change, and virtue. Again, no force is used. All that is needed is time.

Which brings us to what I think is the key issue in this discussion. Time.

If moral education has an enemy it is time. Death in particular. Death arbitrarily lengthens or shortens your moral history with God. But universalists believe death has been defeated. This simply means that God gets to keep working on you. Some of us are pretty hard cases. And we're going to need some time. Parents know exactly what I'm talking about. Some of your kids are responsive and obedient. Others are a handful, to say the least. It's hard to get through to them. And we fear perhaps we'll never get through to them. But we hope that years, even decades down the road, a turn will happen. That after the rope gets played out the bottom will be reached and a change will come.

Sometimes, like the Prodigal Son, we need to hit rock bottom in the far country to come to our senses. And that change of heart isn't forced on the Son by the Father.

It's just the natural outcome of the Father stepping back and letting the consequences play themselves out.

And waiting.

Because the Father has all the time in the world.

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28 thoughts on “Does Universal Reconciliation Involve Coercion and Force?”

  1. Your example of Groundhog Day certainly grabs my attention. We see ourselves trapped in this very short period of time, whereas God's work is eternal.

    I do have a question which I hope you do not think me trying to pry from you more than you wish to share at this time. Does this involve for you the idea of Reincarnation to any degree? To be honest, over the years I have given the subject much thought, though not coming to any hard and fast conclusions. However, what is HEAVEN anyway? Being with God, as we always are, is my best answer. And yet, how do we know what that entails? After all my contemplation, the idea of love, the greatest of all things, timelessly growing within us and moving us is HEAVEN to me.

  2. I don't really know a lot about reincarnation, theologically speaking. So it's hard for me to comment. The issue that I think is important in using the examples of both The Christmas Carol and Groundhog Day is that the identity and memories of the protagonists remain intact. They are still living their same life, in their same bodies and remain connected throughout to their same identities and memories. They themselves remain unified and coherent moral creatures moving a single biography forward in time. Relatedly, the vision depicted is embodied and Incarnational eschewing a strong metaphysical body/soul dualism.

  3. Question: How does this play into an idea of judgement as "punishment?" Like there are plenty of Bible verses where it talks about judgment which could be punitively neutral (ie, a judge declares someone needs to go to rehab, which isn't a punishment exactly.) However Matthew 25 talks about the unrighteous getting punishment, which to mean implies causing suffering simply because that's what someone deserves. Do you think that eternity has at least a degree of people suffering simply because their actions deserve suffering? Based on your blog I think you would argue that the purpose of hell and judgement is to eventually turn people back to God, but it's hard to square the gentleness of a groundhog day image of hell with some of the harsh Biblical language around punishment of judgement. (Of course, I recognize that your argument here isn't that hell will be as gentle as groundhog day -- you're just saying that over time God could bring someone to a place where they genuinely want to repent, and used groundhog day as an example of how that might happen.)

  4. Well, related to my post earlier this week, one point to be made is that Jesus's references to Gehenna and the place of "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (this includes Mathew 25) are referring to the Destruction of Jerusalem.
    And this view can also be fit into the scheme of "natural consequences" talked about in the post. Specifically, Jesus assumes that the cataclysm to fall upon Jerusalem is self-imposed, the logical outworking of violent revolution in the face of Rome. So, yes, there is punishment here, and, yes, much stronger than anything in Groundhog Day, but it's still a natural consequence.

  5. Another recent movie you might enjoy is called "About Time". It reminded me of "Groundhog Day" very much.

    I have discovered that these thought experiments are better framed using current scientific understanding of physics and quantum mechanics (Steven Hawking, Albert Einstein, rather than simply making the statement that "the Father has all the time in the world". That statement has no meaning or relevance to time-bound humans if when we die we enter some realm wherein time no longer exists. Thus the questions regarding reincarnation. For centuries we believed that the Universe is eternal. If we said that today it would be the equivalent of saying that the Earth is flat.

    Either human beings are "eternal" or we are not. Since I have never had any awareness of my pre-birth, nor have I ever met anyone else who (convincingly) has, I am assuming we are not. By definition there is no beginning to eternity, and by our understanding nothing could "happen" or "occur" outside the arrow of Time. Either we have always existed, or we are finite, we die, and that's the end to it. If, when we die, we are to enter some time-less existence, how could we be aware of it, since our entrance into it would mark "a beginning", thus rendering us forever time-bound, and not eternal? In this context, it would not matter what we wanted or willed, neither what God wants either, as without Time there is only the everlasting and incomprehensible Now.

  6. I've not spent a lot of time thinking through universalism, because -- although it helps one through several theological issues involving God's redeeming victory in Christ and the power of God's transforming love--- it seems to fly in the face of several texts. But in light of this post, what do you make of 1 John 3:1-3. I've tried to read it through the lens of universalism, but it seems that the phrase "we shall be like him" is instantaneous with his "appearing". And, to whom does the "we" refer to? What texts would you point to that substantiates an ongoing educational process of all humanity throughout eternity? I'm not disputing it; in fact it seems reasonable to affirm, but then again John says, "what we will be has not yet been made known" (3:2). Thanks for your insight.

  7. Just and idea around the idea of volition and the mystery around sovereignty and free will. I remember the first time I offered my son ice cream when he was a baby. He refused to try it until I forced him to have some and then he loved it and I'm guessing didn't mind, or had forgotten I forced him to try it. I knew he would like it even though he didn't. Now if I forced him to try brussel sprouts maybe the outcome would be different

  8. "For a lot of Christians salvation is basically the process of posing an ultimatum to the human will: Choose Christ and live or deny Christ and go to hell. Basically, evangelism is a threat with a choice. An ultimatum. I think this view of salvation is so popular because it has a lot of rhetorical oomph."
    Ironic and disturbing - so few Christians question this popular model of the gospel as being coercive.
    If the end-goal of "salvation" is to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength (the ultimate volitional attainment),
    faking that level of "love" towards that Guy for eternity (because one was just trying to avoid hell) - pretty tough. The UR scenario (still only 80% convinced myself) does much more to heal one's heart, leading one to genuinely love Him with all his/her heart, soul, mind. strength. The UR possibility showcases God's genius and creative ways to love, sell, and convince - win one over, whatever that takes, however long that might take. UR gives that hope, preserving/respecting the volitional integrity/dignity of all. But this all seems to begin and end with our perception and view of WHO God is in the first place. Jesus Christ seems to have spelled a lot of that out. Is God big/genius/loving enough to pull this off?

  9. "... universalism seems problematic as many think the view implies that God, seeking universal reconciliation, would have to use force to overcome willful human rebellion and sin."

    Growing up conservative Baptist, our problem with universalism was not this, but that God might at the end "let in" a lot of people who didn't live the life, do the work, etc. Hardest parable was the Matthew 20 workers in the he vineyard!

  10. I love your Groundhog Day reference. If I was designing things you would get the opportunity to live out every possible moral scenario you met in life, to take every path not taken and see how it plays out. And the great part is it would never end - every new choice would bring with it a whole new set of choices to be explored. Frankly it sounds far more interesting than any description of 'heaven' ever has.

    In my very Jarhead approach to speaking plain, I think the whole non coercion thing is a load of crap invented by people too invested in the idea of hell. Let's face it 'hell' plays into our humanity. Nothing better to be able to mentally send people we don't like to hell, especially those who don't buy our sales pitch. My way or the highway is not exactly a highly evolved view of things. It's pretty much how humanity has conducted itself since the first primate gained self awareness. We have simply projected that onto our concept of G*d. If there is a G*d, and if that G*d created us and cares about us, then it follows that G*d would know exactly what each and every one of us is looking for and needs and desires to give it to us. Once faced with that G*d, with all the crap that comes with our humanity and is impressed upon us by other humans is stripped away, we would desire to be with G*d. The reason why people are so invested in 'hell' is because they think they have captured G*d in their little theologies. Therefore to reject them is to reject G*d. And the wages for that is eternal death!

  11. A head's up for readers, Leah over at her blog Unequally Yoked uses her experience with pottery to come up with another profound metaphor for what I'm trying to describe in this post:

  12. Romans 2:4

    or the riches of His goodness, and forbearance, and long-suffering, dost thou despise? -- not knowing that the goodness of God doth lead thee to reformation!

  13. I think you are mistaken in saying that human eternity precludes a beginning. God can create us out of nothing and place us into any point in time and space he chooses just as he created the universe out of nothing. The very fact we were created I think proves that we had a beginning ( whether in this world or in heaven I don't know). I think the eternity goes one way for us but I also agree that our eternity will happen outside of time and we will experience it as an eternal now.

  14. I very much appreciate your comment. I think we can say that we (and the Universe) had a beginning. So logically we are not eternal, or you are giving the word some other meaning. As to the rest, I would have to label it as speculation without any method to verify. I am most comfortable thinking that we all have both a beginning and an end. If I am wrong on this, then rationally our minds possess not even a prehension of eternity, because we would already know. I don't see how the act of dying would change this. Our lives only "happen" because of space-time, with perception being the result.

  15. Perhaps everlasting describes my view better.

    "rationally our minds possess not even a prehension of eternity, because we would already know."

    Why would we 'know' anything about eternity and what "happens" there beyond speculation (and faith) if all we actually know is only this temporal realm? No amount of physics and quantum mechanics is going to inform us on that score. If dying takes us to a life beyond space-time then it changes everything.

  16. I think the glass or the veil is the limitation of space-time and we can only dimly 'see through it' now using our imagination or faith. When the limitation is removed after death, we will see and know all clearly in the eternal 'now'. I can barely wrap my mind around how there can be an eternal now let alone conceive of the experience. But it makes sense to me and explains many metaphysical mysteries nonetheless.

  17. There's an open question of whether Jesus's parable spree in the Matthew 20s has more to do with the eschaton or the judgment of Israel, but let's assume it's the eschaton. It is nonetheless the case that getting punished is bad. Purgatorial universalism -- the only kind Biblically supportable -- does not remove the punishment of judgment. An unrepentant heart still stores up God's wrath says Romans 2, and backsliding dumps us right back into it, says 2 Peter 2 and Hebrews 10.

    St. Gregory of Nyssa, 4th century, in his "On the Soul and the Resurrection":

    “… It will be useless to talk of [the contingency upon earthly failures] then, and to imagine that objections based upon such things can prove God’s power to be impeded in arriving at His end.

    His end is one, and one only; it is this: when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last—some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by the Fire… to offer to every one of us participation in the blessings which are in Him, which, the Scripture tells us, “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor thought ever reached.”

    … But the difference between the virtuous and the vicious life led at the present time will be illustrated in this way: In the quicker or more tardy participation of each in that promised blessedness. According to the amount of the ingrained wickedness of each will be computed the duration of his cure. This cure consists in the cleansing of his soul, and that cannot be achieved without an excruciating condition, as has been expounded in our previous discussion.”

  18. Libertarian free will catalyzes all sorts of bizarre thinking on this subject.

    Let's say that there are only two people in the world: Abby and Bruce. God declares, "One will be saved, the other will be punished." Abby then considers accepting Christ. But she's timid; by accepting Christ, will she doom Bruce?

    The answer to the thought experiment is, "No. The fact of the prophetic declaration and Abby's choice of repentance, together as givens, do indeed yield 'Bruce will be punished.' But her repentance does not doom Bruce; it does not create any additional oppressive or coercive force."

    It's the same here. The fact that everyone will eventually be reconciled, as per God's stated interests, does not create any novel oppressive force of any kind.

    But, at the same time, I'm not even convinced that we need to be afraid of the Father's "influence" here. He punishes for a reason: To purify and purge. Of course we'll be changed. Of course we'll be modified. Of course our wills shall be redirected toward that which is constructive and beautiful and worthy. This is one of the many reasons I can't stand the vague idea of libertarian free will; it's not something that deserves to be defended, and any such attempt at a defense leads inevitably to fruitless chatter (since it's a "logical wildcard").

  19. This is a bit harsh, isn't it? There are many reasons to believe in hell--or in universalism.

    I do think that most people believe in hell by virtue of revelation. They think that such a thing has been revealed, and then try to find reasons to see how it makes sense (morally). This is different from wanting it to happen.

    Of course, if we pre-judge all revelation as simply the projection of not-very-highly-evolved humans, then we come to the conclusion that this assumption demands.

  20. I think some of us (maybe not all) distinguish the "free choice" that comes from insufficient education, and the "free choice" that is knowing. For some of us (maybe not all), there are three kinds of students: those who submit and learn, those who rebel until they learn, and those who refuse to learn.

    I do think you make a great point--logically, free-will creatures may rebel without being irremedially rebellious. But logically, it's hard to see how a free-will creature wouldn't have the option of being irremedially rebellious--of rejecting the education, and/ or choosing the wrong even after being educated.

    Another theodical question is why/ how, exactly, God has allowed us to stray so far in the first place. If God's patient education can BRING us to the point of non-sin (without coercion), why couldn't God's patient education KEEP us in the point of non-sin (without coercion)? And skip all the intermediary suffering we undergo and cause others?

  21. Hindu theories of reincarnation incorporate a model of the person that includes different levels of bodies, usually three: the gross body, the subtle body, and the causal body. The causal body undergoes the least change and basically is the same throughout all of one's lifetimes. The gross body (the physical body) undergoes the most change, but even for the gross body, there is a thread of continuity from one lifetime to another. The subtle body's degree of change is somewhere between that of the causal and gross bodies. In this sense, many Hindus would agree that one's (causal) body remains unified and a basis for identity throughout time, moving forward in time towards communion with the Divine; while acknowledging that the other bodies are more amenable to change.

  22. Are the terms redemption and salvation synonymous? I don't think that they are. Redemption is what Jesus' blood did for all mankind at the cross. Salvation is what come to the heart, mind and emotions (the soul) once a person receives the revelation that Jesus really did take away the sins of the world. For all practical purposes traditional Christian teaching presents the cross as a catastrophic failure with Jesus only being able to save a small percentage mankind while majority of suffer in hell for eternity.

  23. We often assume that God cannot have any other ideas other than those presented in our scriptures. In Mark 12:18-27, Jesus presents an answer to the Sadducees that cannot be found in the OT. His rebuke to them was not only that they did they not fully understand what was written, but that they didn't understand the power of God. In other words, the church must cease attempting to trap God in the very small box of scripture. We speak much about man's 'will', yet forget about God's - 'not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance' (2 Pet 3:9). Is it possible that God knows how to accomplish His own will? I don't know how, but I am willing to imagine that He can.

  24. I think anyone sympathetic to Richard's position in this article should check out the New Wine System (, which explains where the time "term in the equation" would come from, the Millennium. It's not universalism, but in spirit it's closer to universalism than Calvinism or Arminianism. This article (a little out of date) explains the differences between it and universalism:

  25. Dr. Beck your blog is ADDICTIVE and I love it... thank you for your hard work and generosity!

  26. Completely anti-Biblical. Your thoughts, though garbed in lofty sounding thoughts have no Scriptural foundation. Use your thinkers. No Scripture is used to support these claims. When you can prove your ideas by Scripture I will give you my time. Otherwise this is nothing but clanging bells.

  27. I'd assume you're relatively new here, so you can certainly be forgiven for your unfamiliarity with Richard's work. If you'd like to know more about the biblical and theological foundations for Richard's belief in universal reconciliation you can check out the following link. It is a post that contains further links to in depth arguments (including biblical arguments) for universal reconciliation. Richard can be accused of many things, but I don't think that being anti-biblical is one of them.

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