What Universalism is NOT
Unfortunately many evangelicals have painted an inaccurate picture of what a true Christ-follower who believes in the ultimate restoration of all things looks like. Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears in their book Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe caricatured universalism in the following way:
“Will you believe the universalists, who say that in the end everyone goes to heaven no matter what they have done in this life? Does it seem fair to you that rapists, pedophiles, murderers, thieves, and the worst human beings could live their entire life harming others without ever changing and be rewarded eternally?
Because we are God’s image bearers and have a conscience with a longing for justice, the universalists’ cheery claim that sociopaths who rape women and molest children, along with Hitler and a lengthy line of other sadistic dictators from Ghengis Khan to Stalin who devoted their lives to evil and cruelty, get to live forever with their victims sounds like anything but a win-win scenario.”
The above depiction includes probably the most common misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Christian Universalism. Let me put forth a few observations regarding Driscoll/Breshears’s statements followed by a clarification of what a more accurate view of Christian Universalism would look like.
1. The authors begin by speaking about “fairness” and “deserving” in light of people’s deeds in this life saying it would not be fair to let real sinners into heaven. By saying this they appeal to a completely different paradigm than the one they claim to profess has saved them: that salvation is grace, unearned and undeserving. There are apparently people that do not deserve to be saved as much as Mark and Gerry. And when did they begin believing that we are “rewarded eternally” for our works?
2. If you look at the life of Saul/Paul or the thief on the cross or the prostitute that anointed Jesus’ feet or really most of the depraved and odious characters in the Bible you see that none deserve grace. Isn’t that the point of the Story of God, how “there are none righteous” and salvation is wholly by God’s grace? (Rom 3, Eph 2)
3. The “Sauls” of the world will not be found in the Kingdom, only those transformed into “Pauls.” Many Christians work in prisons where former criminals who have repented are embraced as believers despite their most sordid past. These are the Prodigal sons who have “come to their senses” and have become “new creations.” Even the deathbed-converted are expected to be seen in heaven because of the mercy of God that “never comes to an end” (Lam 3). Think of the thief on the cross or the eleventh hour vineyard workers. How is this “fair”? Why did Driscoll/Breshears appeal to fairness and deserving when the foundation of the gospel is never about deserving or fairness? Can we hear Christ’s words to the vineyard workers: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?” (Matt 20:15)
4. So while there are plenty of examples of God saving rapists (John Newton), murderers (Saul), adulterers (David), thieves (the thief on the cross), and sadistic dictators (ie., Manasseh) in the Bible and throughout history the above authors used these extreme examples to tug at our emotions to follow their reasoning. Why did they not mention the billions of people who have never done any of these overt and heinous sins but simply were born into a Muslim community or into the sex trade or into extreme poverty never hearing the Gospel?
So what do Christian Universalists believe in contrast to Driscoll/Breshears’s misrepresentations?
1. We believe that all will reconciled to God “no matter what they have done in this life” which is the same criteria by which Driscoll and Breshears themselves are saved. “It is by grace you have been saved through faith, not of works so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8).
2. Contrary to their accusation that we believe sinners will be let into heaven “without ever changing” we believe “all the earth will look to God and be saved” (Isa 45: ), that God has “reconciled all things unto Himself ” (Col 1:10), that “every knee will bow to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10), and that He is “making all things new.” (Rev 21:5)
3. “Because we are image bearers and have a conscience with a longing for justice” we intuitively know that justice entails more than retributive punishment. There is even a term for it–it is called “restorative justice.” We know that true Biblical justice is defined as DOING justice rather than GETTING justice. The Church has been growing in this understanding of justice as restorative which ideally includes reconciliation between victim and offender whenever possible. A prison sentence is not true justice but rather simply bringing consequences to bear while protecting society. True Biblical justice will result in righteousness which is the returning of something to its “right-useness” or as Keller reveals, the Hebrew meaning carries with it the sense of “right relationship.” Punitive justice is human, earthly, and temporal while restorative justice is God’s righteous and ultimate goal for all His creation (or what Keller calls primary justice).
4. “Getting to live forever with their victims” is seen as a nightmare to Driscoll/Breshears. But if you add the redemptive, redeeming, transforming power of the cross and resurrection of Christ, all of a sudden you have a story of breath-taking magnitude. You see Saul/Paul sharing community with the very ones he persecuted. Or the story of Corrie Ten Boom who forgave and shook hands with the same guard who terrorized and dehumanized her along with countless other victims. Could God work this astounding transformation for everyone? Is there anyone too lost for God to save in this life? Most Christians would say ‘no.’ Then why not in the ages to come as the Bible says:
“For God had allowed us to know the secret of his plan, and it is this: he purposes in his sovereign will that all human history shall be consummated in Christ, that everything that exists in Heaven or earth shall find its perfection and fulfillment in him.” Eph 1:10 (Phillips)
“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Col 1:19
So in complete contrast to Driscoll/Breshears’s myths about Christian Universalism:
1.) We believe that no one enters into the kingdom unchanged, unrepentant, or unrighteous.
2.) We believe all people are saved through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ by grace and not by fairness or deserving.
3.) We believe the Bible teaches that no one is beyond the grace or ability of God to redeem and transform.
4.) We believe true Biblical justice involves restoration, healing and reconciliation of both the victim and the offender.
5.) We believe these things because we take seriously our Father and Creator when He said, “His mercies never come to an end,” “It is finished,” “Love never fails,” and “All things new.”
You will undoubtedly have other questions which we have not yet answered here. We will continue to unpack this subject in other posts but in the meantime we invite you to ask any questions you might have. Comments are closed temporarily but feel free to email us.