Can Universalism Motivate?

A long time ago, I read a “testimony” on the Christian universalist site, http://www.tentmaker.org/. It was by a minister by the name of Charles Slagle (see here). Although Slagle was a minister, he had a lot of problems. He feared God’s abandonment. He was addicted to alcohol and anti-depressants. He hated himself. And, to top it all off, he attempted suicide.

But all of that changed when he accepted Christian universalism. Slagle writes:

“I had attempted suicide. What had happened? I had lost all hope. That’s what had happened. About a year before I went under, I was given a book that contained selections from George MacDonald’s writings. (Anyone remember the Scotsman C.S. Lewis often referred to as his spiritual master/teacher?) As I read and re-read that book over the next several months, I often blubbered and cried like a baby. Was it possible? Could it be that God could be that good?”

George MacDonald was a Scottish Christian writer who had universalist tendencies, and he wrote a lot about “the heart of the father.”

But Slagle’s problem was trying to reconcile God’s “unconditional love” with Christian doctrines that seemed to assert the opposite. Calvinism says that we can only be assured of salvation if we live a good life. No, it doesn’t think that a good life earns anyone salvation, but does view it as a sign that salvation has taken place. But does that really assure people? How good do I have to be before I can finally feel safe and secure? The Puritans went into fits of depression on account of this doctrine! And what about all those Calvinists who are untroubled by it? Do they feel that their lives are good enough for them to place themselves in the “saved” category? Isn’t that self-righteousness?

The Arminians place a lot of emphasis on human free will, but free will can change like the wind. Sure, I can choose what I do, but my desires are not always firmly planted in the soil of righteousness. What I want is not set in stone on a day-to-day basis. And how can God legislate that I believe in something? Can I truly help what I believe? “James, believe this…”

Then there’s the whole issue of those who are lost–both the people who have heard the Gospel, and also the ones who have not. Is God unconditionally committed to them? Or does he write them off because they didn’t say the sinner’s prayer before their deaths?

When I hear about God’s unconditional love, I think of a beautiful episode of Highway to Heaven entitled “We Have Forever.” Michael Landon played an angel named Jonathan Smith. Jonathan was a human before he died and became an angel, and God gave him assignments so he could earn his wings. Well, Jonathan’s wife Jane passed away, and he was looking forward to retiring from his forty years of assignments so he could join his wife in heaven. To his disappointment, however, God told him he still had work to do.

Jonathan becomes angry with God and walks away from him, prompting God to take away his angelic powers. As he begins to adjust to his newfound human limitations (which is quite humorous to watch), he rescues a woman from drowning. Her name is Jennifer. Jonathan and Jennifer fall in love. They save a cute puppy from getting run over, and they name him “Ewe,” because he’s like a cuddly little lamb. Jennifer comforts Jonathan as he looks for a job, and she also helps him to heal from his anger against God. In a touching scene, Jonathan reconciles with God one night at the beach, as Jennifer looks on from a distance.

In the course of the episode, we begin to see signs that Jennifer isn’t exactly an ordinary person, and it turns out that she’s actually Jonathan’s wife, Jane. God allowed Jonathan to heal and enjoy time with his wife, before he resumed his job of helping people. At the end of the show, Jonathan reads a letter from Jane saying that they’ll see each other again one day, and that from that point on they’ll have forever. Jonathan then looks at his sidekick, Mark, and says, “We have an assignment.”

Charles Slagle says that George MacDonald made him blubber like a baby. That’s what this episode has done to me on a number of occasions. Jonathan was angry with God, and he wasn’t exactly being your perfect little angel. Yet, God did not give up on him, but he gave Jonathan a chance to love and to heal. And after Jonathan experienced the tender love of his father, that motivated him to resume the job that God had in store for him.

Isn’t that something to witness about–that God doesn’t give up on us, even when we’re bad? Universalism firmly believes in this, for it denies that God gives up on anyone. As far as it’s concerned, all will be saved. But I have a problem reconciling this doctrine with many biblical passages, for the God of wrath is a key figure of Scripture. Is there a way to believe in a God of unconditional love, while doing justice to the passages that seem to present a different picture?

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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2 Responses to Can Universalism Motivate?

  1. Rachel says:

    Hi James,

    I think you might be interested in this blog: http://evangelicaluniversalist.blogspot.com/

    The author wrote a book called “The Evangelical Universalist” and he addresses a lot of the questions that you raise.

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  2. James Pate says:

    Thanks for the recommentation, Rachel. I’ve visited “Gregory MacDonald’s” site before–since it’s on Philip Sumpter’s blogroll–but I haven’t gotten around to adding it on my site.

    I saw from your site that you heard Sarah Coakley. I never took a class with her, but I heard good things about her.

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