The Universalist Professor

When I was at DePauw, I had a professor who was a Christian universalist: he believed God would save everyone in the end. Or, more accurately, he thought God would give all people a chance to be saved in the afterlife. I’ll call him “Hal.”

How did people respond to him? Let’s take this atheist philosophy professor I once had. I’ll call her “Meg.” Meg and Hal got into debates on religion, since Hal believed in God, whereas Meg did not. But Hal assured Meg that she would one day recognize that he was right all along, for both of them would see God face to face after their deaths. Sure, she’d go to the good afterlife, provided she accepted God’s post-mortem offer of salvation. But what was important was that she’d finally see that Hal was right.

When I was in Meg’s class, I referred to one of Hal’s comments on religion. She replied: “Yeah, Hal envisions an afterlife scenario in which I see that God exists, and he triumphantly stands before me with his arms folded, gloating that he is right.” And that’s one way that atheists view Christian universalism: they think it’s condescending. They may see the fire-and-brimstone scenario as unfair, but at least it places weight on people’s decisions in this life. There are more important issues at stake than Hal turning out right.

One day, after I turned in my philosophy final, Meg and I got into a little discussion about religion. She asked me if I believed in universal salvation. I guess she was somewhat worried about going to hell. Unfortunately, I didn’t respond as I should. I wanted to make her feel better, so I told her she wouldn’t go to hell. I wish I had come up with a way to share the Gospel without being judgmental, but it was an on-the-spot situation. Maybe that’s why the Bible tells us to be prepared to give an answer for the hope that lies within us!

I told one of my religion professors–I’ll call her “Vicki”–about my experience with Meg. Vicki was a Christian, albeit a liberal one. She assured me that I was probably an effective witness in that situation, since I came across as open-minded. She said that many Christian students had probably already witnessed to Meg, but at least I came across as tolerant. That didn’t really make me feel better. Did Peter and Paul project an open-minded demeanor?

Do I lose sleep over this? No. If God’s plan for people depends entirely on me doing the right thing, then he’s taking a big risk. He’s not as big and sovereign as I thought.

But, back to Hal’s universalism being about him turning out to be right, and Meg seeing that as condescending. I think that a lot of atheists view Christian universalism in that way. I had an atheist friend at DePauw, and I shared with him the Armstrongite “second chance” doctrine: the idea that God will offer people in the afterlife an opportunity to be saved. “People will be re-taught,” I said. My atheist friend saw the whole idea as condescending. No, he didn’t care for Calvinist predestination or eternal hell, but universalism didn’t exactly move him either!

I had a bold evangelical friend, whom I’ll call “Chuck.” Chuck and Hal were rather close, since Hal was his mentor and advisor. But the two of them disagreed on universal salvation. To Chuck, universalism implied that the decisions we make in this life are not all that important. “Maybe that’s why no one knows you’re a Christian,” Chuck told Hal. “If everyone’s saved in the end, then it doesn’t really matter. You’re not even trying to witness!” “But, Chuck, we’re right, and one day everyone will see we are right,” Hal responded.

Did no one know that Hal was a Christian? I’m not sure if I’d go that far. Hal said in class that he taught Sunday school, and he shared why he had faith (he wanted to be like the heroes of the Bible). But there were plenty of people who did not know about his Christianity. I once told a Christian girl that Hal was a Christian, and her response was, “Hal is a Christian?”

Why was Hal a universalist? I remember a time in class when we were discussing the afterlife issue, and some students were speculating about the fate of people who never heard the Gospel. Hal replied, “But I’m not just talking about those who’ve never heard. What about the Buddhist monk in Tibet? He doesn’t want to have anything to do with Jesus. He has his own religion.” That’s a very good point.

So where am I going in all of this meandering? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of Christian universalism. One might expect atheists to like the idea, but many of them don’t: they see it as condescending. At least fire-and-brimstone appreciates things like human responsibility, right and wrong, and the glory of God. Our actions and beliefs have consequences, and they’re not just about Christians turning out to be right in the end. At the same time, there are so many people in the world who are not Christians. Is God quick to write them off? And is their fate entirely dependent on me being an effective witness?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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7 Responses to The Universalist Professor

  1. Anonymous says:

    I love these posts!, especially your turn-of-phrases like “hard core fundamentalist” when connected to “burning in hell.”

    This past year, one person in the ETS, i.e. the fundamentalist society of North America, tried to raise this issue through a book. It was published pseudonymously for obvious reasons. Oh what a shame it would be if Jesus died for the sins of all–that would be a tragedy of grand proportions!

    Just to give you an idea of fundamentalist posturing at an evangelical seminary, there’s this blog called “The Constructive Curmudgeon” that’ll give you a flavor of what you might be in for. I learned about the blog from my brother-in-law who studied underneath the guy. (Fortunately he repudiates him by now.) I don’t allow myself to read the blog; it raises my blood pressure.

    But I’d like you to take a gander and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
    In any case, the attitude that this blog exemplifies is the reason why I left evangelicalism.

    -Jake 🙂

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  2. James Pate says:

    Jake,

    Check out Felix’s blog, http://www.lifeafterwcg2.wordpress.com. You’re becoming a celebrity in the ex-Worldwider community!

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  3. Izgad says:

    I know I talk about C.S Lewis a lot, but here is another example of where he is really useful. He strikes a balance between universalism and traditional Christian skepticism about man’s better nature. In Great Divorce everyone has the chance to be saved by accepting God in the afterlife. That being said most people do not. They choose, of their own free will, to embrace Hell. So everyone is not saved in the end, though righteous non-Christians still have a chance. We see this also in the Last Battle with the Emeth, who never believed in Aslan but is still saved in the end.

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  4. James Pate says:

    Hi Izgad,

    In The Great Divorce, was there a part at the end where Lewis offered somewhat of a disclaimer, implying that people have a sufficient chance today to be saved and that God won’t give them one in the afterlife?

    It’s been years since I read it, but I vaguely remember something like that.

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  5. Izgad says:

    I think this is what you are referring to:

    If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered by mortal ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see – small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope – something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye mosts resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. But ye can see it only through the lens of Time, in a little clear picture, through the inverted telescope. It is a picture of moments following one another and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise. Neither the temporal succession nor the phantom of what ye might have chosen and didn’t is itself Freedom. …

    Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truely enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two. And wouldn’t Universalism do the same? Ye cannot know eternal reality by a definition. Time itself, and all acts and events that fill Time, are the definition, and it must be lived. (pg. 124-25)

    As I see it Lewis is trying to balance both Freedom and Predestination. Everyone has the chance to be saved, but not everyone is going to take it.

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  6. James Pate says:

    Yeah, that’s probably it. I remember it had something to do with time. He doesn’t seem to believe in universalism there, but his reason is that God won’t force people to be saved. But he may still think that God will offer a chance, I don’t know. He said that the door of hell is locked from the inside.

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  7. Izgad says:

    Yes. That is a line that Lewis uses more than once. It is not that God is damning anyone to Hell, people damn themselves to Hell. And it is not even a matter of them not “believing.” They make a fully rational and free choice to take Hell over Heaven. God is so good that he gives everyone exactely what they want for themselves even if what they want is Hell.

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