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Thoughts on Forgiveness & Christian Universalism - By Rev. Rebecca

Universalism is the belief that all beings will eventually be "saved" and none will suffer eternal punishment.

This essay makes a case for Universalism from a Theistic and Biblical perspective.

I am a Universalist, but I do believe in hell. I merely believe that hell is a temporary state and not eternal. There are many good reasons to believe in some form of "spiritual imprisonment" for those who, upon death, have thus far chosen separation and rebellion from God, love, and truth. The doors are always open in this realm and I believe God continues to seek and persuade people, through persistent love, to accept God's love, truth, and goodness. There are likely trials and suffering (like earth but of a different type, ie of the soul, not physical) here as people "sort out" their destinies. Also, this temporary holding place, much like purgatory, likely functions as a context for divine (or what many would term “karmic”) retribution to right the injustices committed in one's lifetime.

I believe that eventually all beings are wooed by God's intense and persistent love for them however. Everyone is reunited to the Source of their Being. God doesn't give up until all are convinced. And since we have an eternity, there are no "time limits."

Why?

1.) Belief in Universalism for Scriptural reasons:

I believe this form of Universalism receives stronger scriptural support in the Scriptures than the doctrine of "eternal punishment." The evidence is weighed in favor of Universalism as the position of Scripture.

Biblical texts which teach Universalism:

Romans 5:18 "Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all people, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous."

Romans 11:32: For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

1 Corinthians 15:22 "As in Adam all die, in Christ ALL will be made alive."

Colossians 1:20. "For in him [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself ALL things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross."

and then, using these verses in conjunction with one another:

Romans 10:9. If you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. With Philippians 2:11 every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. I don't understand how people can re-arrange such texts and re-insert the word "some" in place of "all" or "every." These texts are exceedingly clear and entirely straightforward....even in their contexts they are persuasive theological culminations of the argument being presented. These are not 'side comments’ of the authors.

There are also verses that imply that there are "chances for choice after death" including:

1 Peter 4:6: "For this reason the Gospel was preached even to those who are dead."

1 Peter 3:19-20: "It was in the spirit also that he (Jesus) when to preach to the spirits in prison."

There's some kind of temporal locale for spirits/souls after death where God continues to interact and show love according to the Bible. This gives us hope and bolsters the Universalist position...we have much Scriptural evidence for our position. I find it much more difficult to argue from the "eternal punishment" angle.

Next, let's deal with the "Anti-Universalist" texts.

One main place people point to is the book of Revelation for anti-Universalist texts. However, I am very wary of reading this highly symbolic, metaphorical, and downright cryptic text literally. I think Revelation teaches that ultimately evil and sin will be done away with, but I do not see it reporting everything that will "literally happen." Additionally, it is clear that this text was written and points to many current cultural concerns of the time. A discussion on the "problems" with interpreting Revelation could fill entire books...and do. Suffice to say, Revelation is not a literal teaching of what will happen in eternity.

There are other New Testament texts which people traditionally refer to and say these demonstrate "eternal punishment." A primary example is II Thessalonians 1:9. However, our English Bibles translate the Greek word "aion" or "aionios" as "eternal" or "everlasting" punishment in this text, but this Greek adjective also means: "age-enduring" or "pertaining to an age" or "long ages" and does not necessarily imply "endlessness" in all cases. (For an example of where this word is not translated as "eternal," see Romans 16:25 where it is usually translated as "long ages.") It seems in this case our presuppositions have driven our translations. Additionally, there are other, arguably better Greek words which imply "of endless duration" which are not being used here.

I will say again that Scripture does support the existence of hell and/or punishment after death, but it is certainly not clear that it supports an eternal hell.

2.) Belief in Universalism for philosophical reasons:
Universalism seems most consistent with a God of love, of mercy, and of grace. The notion of permanent condemnation is simply inconsistent with the reality of God's infinite Love.

Here is where I become a Determinist. I believe we have free will to an extent....but I believe we were created to be with God forever. Eventually everyone "chooses" God. It may take a long time, but it is predestined. I believe this is a paradox.

Theologian Paul Tillich brings up another philosophical point regarding eternal or everlasting punishment:

It is necessary, however, to distinguish between eternal and everlasting. Eternity as a quality of divine life cannot be attributed to a being which is condemned and separated from divine life. Where the divine love ends, being ends; condemnation can only meant that the creature is left to the nonbeing it has chosen....If, however, one speaks of everlasting or endless condemnation, one affirms a temporal duration which is not temporal. Such a concept is contradictory by nature.

I think the quote speaks for itself. We cannot apply "eternity" to a state of being outside of God's presence and "everlasting" is contradictory because it can only be "temporal."

3.) Belief in Universalism for experiential reasons:

This, plainly put, is that my experience of God is most consistent with Universalism. I experience God as one who is persistent, does not give up, and will do anything (including the Incarnation, death, and resurrection) to save people. My experience of God is powerful.... able to soften even the hardest of hearts. My experience of God is one of limitless love who would not create creatures only to see them later suffer forever or be annihilated. I believe God will win the total victory, not a partial victory in which only "some" are reconciled to God...that is the God of my experience.

4.) Living Without Fear

Something that seems to underlie Christian concepts of salvation is fear. There is always the fear that they or someone they care about will be "lost forever." But perfect love casts out fear. Believing in God then becomes an insurance policy against condemnation. And I don't believe God "sells" insurance policies.

Additionally, I see the teaching of eternal condemnation to be one of the things people find repugnant or terrifying and the teaching itself prevents them from feeling they can accept such a God. To "re-explain" or 'soften' what we mean by "eternal punishment" doesn't really help either. This teaching is an obstacle to God for many who cannot reconcile a loving God with eternal punishment.

I also find that holding to Universalism has been beneficial in my own conception of God. It causes me to marvel at God's power and love, not God's 'limitedness to save' or wrath. I feel even more gratitude, trust, and wonder of God! How marvelous are God's works!

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These are some miscellaneous ramblings about problems I see constantly occurring in the Church (and all religions that hold such beliefs) arising out of the concept that we are "redeemed and headed for eternal bliss" whilst others are "lost and headed for eternal punishment." (I see the remedy as Universalism.)

Problems that arise from anti-Universalist ideology:

1. It creates an "us" and "them" mentality, an "insider" vs. "outsider" mentality. We find ourselves always dividing ourselves from those who are inside and outside the "walls"....we see ourselves in competition, and this competition, if Revelation is at all accurate, is very "real" and will culminate in a huge war. It is divisive to the most ultimate extreme.

In Gnosticism the "insiders" and "outsiders" were determined by who had particular "knowledge." In modern day Christianity it is determined by those who "accept" our beliefs and those who don't. Even if we don't know who ultimately will or won't accept, people are not "on our side" until they do.

2. It creates a sense of pride and elitism. The "redeemed" are in a special category...they alone are "saved." And unfortunately, some kind of judgment and decision must be made to explain why they are saved and others aren't.

We are either: On our way to a blissful heaven and reunion with God, or on our way to eternal punishment and separation from God. This is a huge difference in destination without any middle ground. This makes no sense. How do we explain this?

Why are we saved and other's lost? What is your answer?

Is it because:

1. God chose us and not them?

2. We are more "moral" or "good'?

3. We are more obedient or submissive?

4. God loves us more and tried harder with us?

5. Our 'free wills' are somehow more "pure," malleable, or aligned with God's?

6. We're more receptive to grace, love, etc.?

And notice that no matter how we answer...we are somehow, in some way, superior, better, etc., even if we say it's a "mystery." Even if we try consciously to resist such an idea, subconsciously this concept creeps in. How can it not.? This is ego-feeding and leads to pride.

3. It leads to de-humanization. In the book of Revelation Christians are competing on the side of "righteousness" and others on the side of "evil." Christians see themselves on the "winning and good team" over and against others. But how do we deal with the fact that millions of people are going to be killed and "burn forever"? If we take each life seriously and see it as precious and sacred, it is overwhelming! As a solution to deal with such concepts, we de-humanize people in this life time.

This is what occurs historically with members of the first world looking at members of the third world. People cannot effectively endure and accept the travesties, devastation of famine, and natural disasters that occur in the third world...they find it too overwhelming. Historically the remedy is that we de-humanize them...it is a subconscious reaction. This helps us "cope" but in the end, everyone loses because once people are de-humanized, they are exploited. The same thing happens with those of other races in racism and it occurs in sexism, etc. The ultimate example of de-humanization is the holocaust. But how can we avoid de-humanizing the "lost" when in the end, we see the "lost" ultimately as "fodder for the eternal fire"? I assert that anti-Universalist ideas encourage de-humanization to radical degrees.

4. The idea of being "eternally damned" or "lost" causes Christians to be totally pre-occupied with fear throughout their lives and to keep major distance in their relationships with unbelievers. What happens in religious families when a child rejects their parent's faith? The parents either spend their lives trying to convince the child to convert and live in fear, or they have to emotionally distance themselves from their child to help "ease" their pain. I see many Christian parents "disown" their children after a certain point out of desperation.

The same thing happens in friendships. One of the main reasons Christians stay inside their Christian ghettos is because they don't want to get too close to someone who will only end up "dead" or "lost" for eternity. Why risk deep love with the unsaved? What if all of your efforts to convert them are not fruitful? Can you really keep loving them? It's very painful, that's why most Christians won't do it. Just as people naturally avoid getting involved intimately with the terminally ill, Christians don't get too 'close' to the 'lost.' You want proof? Just look at your churches. Talk to the majority of Christians...who are they are close to? Christians surround and insulate themselves with fellow Christians, rarely going outside those walls except to "evangelize."

How many Christians have had friends who were "unsaved" and felt tortured and continually fearful over their eternal destination? I recall crying every night for weeks for some of my friends as a child. What is the solution? I've seen it occur hundreds of times. Initially the Christian tries their darndest to convert their "lost" friend. When attempts fail, they eventually "give up" and distance themselves...either that or the friend leaves first feeling hurt. It's very hard to be friends with most Christians because there are always strings attached.

Do you honestly think that an all-good God desires that people live in such fear? How can we avoid it? Apathy? Emotional distancing? Is that what Jesus calls us to?

And this fear carries over into puritanical ideals. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard, "do not be yoked with unbelievers" or told that I would be somehow stained or sullied by non-believers, I'd be rich. It's no coincidence that non-believers have a hard time feeling accepted by most Christians. Many Christians look at unbelievers as having the potential to "taint" them...like a disease....maybe even the power to lead them down the path of eternal destruction. No wonder they keep their distance.

Here's a question for Christians to consider: If you had a longtime friend who converted to be a conservative Muslim and then wanted you to convert to their religion because they lived in constant fear that you would go to hell if you didn't, could you honestly still be their friend? Could you confide in them? Could you feel safe and trusting and open? What would that do to your friendship?

What does this mentality do? And how we can we ever effectively love and minister to people when we carry all this baggage both consciously and unconsciously??

The founder of Shin Buddhism, Shinran Shonen gave up his disciplines as a Buddhist monk to embrace "salvation by faith" in the Amida Buddha. It was said of him:

"He never consigned anyone to damnation simply because they did not agree with him. The only person he believed worthy of hell was himself as a passion-ridden being, totally incapable of the necessary purification for enlightenment."

What an example to Christians! This is humility. This is dealing with the “log” in one’s own eye, not the speck in one’s neighbor’s.

If God exists, I believe Universalism is true. Universalism seems the most true and ethical form of belief within any spiritual framework.

By Rev. Rebecca

                                                  
                                                                   

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