Your universalism is too small

Unitarian-universalism

Universalism seems to have gripped the attention of the Christian blogosphere this week. But you know what? I think we miss the larger action if we restrict our attention to what the Christian celebrity authors and the Christian celebrity watchers are debating en masse amongst themselves.

I think we miss the larger action unless we open our eyes to the world beyond the evangelical ghetto and ask, what did the apostle John mean when he suggested we should be in the world but not of the world. How so of the world but so not in the world is the current universalism conversation?

40 Comments

  1. Matt, I agree with you. I’ve pointedly avoided getting directly involved in the Rob Bell saga. It’s an intriguing question though, to wonder what ‘in the world’ rather than an ‘of the world’ discussion about universalism might look like.

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  2. Here’s my guess: discussion would have to touch on the perennial philosophy, at least at some point, and at least implicitly if not explicitly. But so far I haven’t even heard a whiff of it in discussions between the Rob Bell and John Piper tribes, or even from the more neutral onlookers.

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  3. I’m so glad (NOT) that there are eminent individuals who make the definitions for salvation. It makes it a lot easier to choose the correct alternative when things are monochrome… but wait, monochrome includes shades of grey… whoops! At least I can decide who deserves my time of day which may in the best scenarios evolve into love… but wait, love doesn’t evolve, does it? And what kind of love do I mean anyway?
    While people wrestle with the concepts of who is included and who is excluded in the Kingdom of God/Heaven, the “harvest is ripe” now, apparently, according to Jesus. it’s just the workers who are few.
    By the way, universalists supposedly don’t believe anybody will end up in Hell… do they mean Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, or Dante-esque Hell?
    Just last night my husband and I were involved in conversation with some people we haven’t seen for a few years, who are starting up a new mission-orientated ministry not far from where I live. The issue of maintaining unity of the Spirit (presumably in the bond of peace – Eph 4) arose in our conversation since a situation had occurred in a past ministry context where doctrinal difference had caused division in the leadership of their previous church-plant. I have found that people can not only choose to believe what they want to believe about Scriptural interpretation but they can also choose to put such differences aside in the interests of co-operating for Christ’s and the Kingdom of God/Heaven’s sake!
    If we get on with discipling people to Christ and not to a belief system, and stop arguing about who is out and who is in, (or who is siding with who is in, or is posturing like the obviously out), we may well avoid Hell whatever form, place or philosophical definition it may take. We may even be given some keys so that Hades/Hell’s gates won’t prevail against our Kingdom-sake efforts!
    incidentally, Matt, what do you mean by perennial philosophy?

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  4. Be interesting to link to some examples on the web Matt.
    Need to see the context of what you’re describing before I can really comment (e.g. Who the celebrity authors are? What they are saying? And to who?)

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  5. Andrew, I’m referring to the ruckus that erupted over Rob Bell’s not even released yet book, which drew in John Piper and fans of each and even hit the Twitter Top 10 for a bit. You’ll find references to it on many of the popular Christian blogs, including Scott McKnight and Tall Skinny Kiwi. Bell’s being coy, Piper’s labeling him a heretic, some who are otherwise open to Bell are questioning his marketing strategy, others are re-interpreting him. It’s all very in house stuff by leaders who market themselves as missionally focussed.

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  6. Jarred, surprised you’ve never heard the term before, but you’re familiar with the elephant analogy aren’t you? Of the natives in the dark and one grabs the leg, and one grabs the trunk, and one grabs the tail, and they all think they’ve grabbed something different … but they haven’t? In any case, try this definition:
    “The term ‘perennial philosophy’ was first coined in the writing of Aldous Huxley, to describe the golden thread of truth which runs through all religions, philosophies and spiritualities. The idea he was trying to express is that all of the worlds many religions, no matter how different they may appear on the outside, are all drawn from the same well of eternal truth. At different times and in different cultures amongst people with diverse sensibilities and needs, it may manifest in radically different ways; but yet at its core it remains always the same.”
    http://www.morningstarportal.com/perennialphilosophy.html
    But to put it another way, I don’t see how Bell, Piper and friends can have a debate about universal salvation without digging down deeper into the very popular notion of a universal spirituality.

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  7. Thanks, Jarred. I should have thought to do that. After all, I did a bit of quick research on Rob Bell and the controversial issue Matt has raised to get an idea of what all the fuss is about.
    Thanks, Matt for the info. There may be a golden thread of truth, but it’s a thicker thread through some religions, philosophies and spiritualities than others.
    Maybe if Bell et al include that area, they’d have to touch on the warp as well as the weft… what I mean is they’d also have to acknowledge aspects that differentiate, to make a proper comparison… that could make all the difference in the outcome of their arguments, especially from a Christian perspective.
    Anyway, from what I’ve observed, the “in-house” huff over Bell’s upcoming publication comes across as a bit divisive and sensationalist, but will probably guarantee a few more sales.

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  8. Somehow internet explorer missed a few words when I saved them. I meant to say, the review is a reasonably well-researched and fair appraisel annd critique of Rob Bell’s universalist views expressed in his book.

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  9. Thanks Andrew, nice to see someone now quoting the text itself and not just the press release.
    And I have to agree, if Kevin DeYoung is only half right then it would seem the neoCalvinists are raising some legitimate concerns.
    And I see here there is a veiled reference to the perennial philosophy, with Kevin’s comment that “Bell has a Joseph Campbell ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ view of Christ.”
    And he touches on the insularity issue, noting that “The emerging church is not an evangelistic strategy. It is the last rung for evangelicals falling off the ladder into liberalism or unbelief.”
    But, sad to say, DeYoung’s own attention to non-Christians is fairly minimal. There is a brief mention that, “Just as damaging is the impact of Love Wins on the nonbeliever or the wayward former churchgoer,” but not much said beyond that.
    I would have liked to see DeYoung raise this: that the “anonymous Christian” concept is considered bankrupt, not only in many Christian circles, but also in many non-Christian circles, precisely because Christian salvation is not universally sought! Different religions have different ends. DeYoung would have done well critique of Bell’s missiology as fully as his orthodoxy.
    Moreover, I would like to hear how DeYoung would engage with non-Christians he sees at risk of being damaged by this. I hope he has more than counter-heresy apologetics up his sleeve, but if he has such a card he’s playing it close to his chest.

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  10. Matt, this is another one of those weird instances where I was familiar with a concept, but was completely unaware of it’s “official name.” 😉
    And yes, I’m extremely familiar with the blind men and the elephant. It’s used so much in interfaith discussions and as “proof why we’re all right” so many times that it’s started to feel cliche to me.
    Personally, I’d love to have a conversation about perennial philosophy with you and the other visitors to your blog sometime….I actually have mixed feelings about the concept, myself.
    Now off to read the link Andrew posted. I may have more to say after that.

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  11. From DeYoung’s review:
    “For example, Bell figures God won’t say
    “sorry, too late” to those in hell who are humble and broken for their sins. But where does the
    Bible teach the damned are truly humble or penitent?”
    If we assumed that “the damned” includes “all non-Christians,” then I take issue with this statement disguised as a question. I find it to be far in tune with the whole “non-Christians aren’t sincere seekers of truth who have come to different conclusion, but rebellious God-haters who know the truth but refuse to accept it” mentality that is far too common in certain evangelical and (especially) fundamentalist circles.
    Still reading, but I had to comment on that particular sentence.

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  12. Again, from the DeYoung review:
    “There’s no good news in announcing that God loves
    everyone in the same way just because he wants to.”
    Um, huh? So is DeYoung really suggesting that there has to be someone “outside of God’s love” for God’s love for him to mean something? Or am I reading that wrong?

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  13. From the same review:
    “There’s no way to make sense of…apart from a God who hates sin, judges sin, and pour out his wrath—sometimes now, always later—on the accursed things and peoples of this world. God is God and there is no hope for non-gods who want to be gods, except through the God-man who became a curse for us.”
    First, I’m curious if Bell would agree with the claim, or if he could find an alternative way to understand all of those other things. After all, just because one preacher says there’s only one way to make sense of them does not necessarily make it true.
    But I find myself wondering how DeYoung reconciles his God — who seems to be very much still promoting the “eye for an eye” model of justice — with the Christ he also claims, who held up “turn the other cheek” as a much better way. This leaves me wondering if DeYoung promotes a God who believes that Proper Behavior for Us is radically different from Proper Behavior for Him, and if so, how one makes sense of being more godly works if God is a seriously incompatible model of godliness for humans to follow. (Or is this why Christians are supposed to be more Christ-like rather than godly? But even that has issues, once you get into the whole Jesus is God conundrum.)
    My biggest criticism of DeYoung’s review is that while criticizing Bell’s theology, he never once took a moment to address the questions Bell sought to struggle with — questions he began by acknowledging were perfectly okay to ask — and struggle with them himself and see how well or poorly his own theology deals with them. After all, a deconstruction of Bell’s theology is not the same as a defense of DeYoung’s.

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  14. Hi Matt,
    This is the first time I’ve commented on an eastern hemisphere blog where everyone is writing a day ahead of me here in the west. Kind of spooky….
    I like your comment. I’m not a huge fan of everything N.T. Wright has done, but in his excellent book, Surprised By Hope, he very helpfully emphasizes the this-worldly focus of the New Testament gospel.
    Any emphasis on “where we go when we die” seems to miss the point of the Bible’s teaching in both the Old and New Testaments.

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  15. The whole debate is purely in-house for evangelicalism, but it seems even missing the point, due to Mr Bells poetic vagueness and marketings strategies. He may be a hopeful inclusivist, he’s not an universalist but his theologie (as far as I can make out) is a fuzzy version of ideas similar Lewis’ the great divorce, some NT Wright ideas and probably annihilationism wich all packed in his own narrative and style (a style that I sometimes like, and that sometimes annoys me) but no real dogmatic universal reconciliation, or religious pluralism.
    I saw the interview in which Bell tried to emphasise the this-worldly focus of being a Christian, and seemed to be intentionally vague sometimes because he doesn’t have final answers about the afterlife.
    The weird thing is that this kind of discussions are more interesting to some than the real hell on earth that has come down to the middle east and Japan.

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  16. One more thought: another big problem here is the clash of atonement theories, and the Godview they bring. The reformed equate penal substitution (“Jesus took our punishment and cooled Gods wrath in our place”) with the gospel sometimes, and see it as a basis of their theology, while Rob Bell denies the idea that “Jesus came to save us from God”, and holds to some variation of ransom/Christus Victor atonement (Jesus came to save us from death/sin/evil, so he sacrificed Himself to be taken by it and destroyed it for all of us), which again brings him in the comapny of C.S. Lewis.
    But if we’re talking about Lewis and perennial philosophy, wasn’t it he and Tolkien who said that Jesus didn’t only fulfil the jewish religion, but also the Pagan ones. What the church fathers called the logos spermaticos?

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  17. @Jarred. Yes, I’m not entirely surprised you have mixed feelings given your reconstructionist leanings. I gather the perennial philosophy sits a lot better with eclectics. Happy to have a more focussed conversation on the perennial philosophy in future.
    @Jarred and Andrew. I was thinking about my earlier comments and on reflection I think I can state things far more simply: I think Kevin DeYoung rightly challenges Rob Bell’s theology, but he fails to adequately address the pastoral concerns that occasioned it, namely, the struggle that many people have in finding any goodness in the doctrine of hell. He offers a negative apologetic against “biblical” universalism but no offers positive “culturally contextual” argument for hell. It’s wagon circling not bridge building.
    Moreover, Kevin DeYoung gets stuck on the truth questions and fails to see the goodness and beauty questions which are obviously very close to the surface for Rob Bell. This is understandable given his Calvinist leanings, but it’s not helpful.
    @Ted. Totally agree.
    @Brambonius. To lay my own cards on the table, I’m inclined towards an apocalyptic annihilationist interpretation. What I get from scripture is an image of hell as death row (Jude 6), as a state where the fallen are held pending final judgment, the second death, after which hell itself will be destroyed (Rev 20:14). And I think the final judgement, the heaven and earth collides judgement, is the more important one.
    As for atonement theories, I see the different theories arising out of the different roles of Jesus as priest (substitutionary atonement), prophet (moral influence) and king (Christus victor) and inclined to view all as having important points to make.

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  18. Now, having suggested Christians need to explain the goodness of hell, I suppose I should try that myself.
    Firstly, I have to say that the primary difference I see between Buddhist ‘hells’ and the Christian hell is the different understandings of time. Namely, for Buddhists time is circular (so ‘judgement’ is temporary), while for Christians time is climactic (so judgment is final). So before we get too carried away we need to acknowledge that many religions affirm that actions have consequences and Christianity is not alone in this.
    Indeed the very language that ancient Christians used for hell comes from other religions. Hades and Tartarus both come from Greek paganism. Hel comes from Germanic paganism.
    Now the question: is it good that actions have consequences?

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  19. “is it good that actions have consequences?”
    Interesting question. In a lot of ways, it strikes me as similar to asking “is it good that gravity exists?” Actions simply have consequences. That’s the way the universe works. I throw a rock in a crowded neighborhood, I’m likely to break a window or damage something else. It’s a consequence.
    I suppose I can say that’s a good thing, if the alternative is a universe in which there seems a total disconnect between what happens and what happens next. I can’t even imagine such a world, and would think that total chaos would be the result, followed by a complete sense of helplessness on the part of those who inhabit such a universe.

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  20. Also, since we’re talking of the fate of unbelievers, I think its worth asking: what do we mean by unbelievers?
    Jesus, who said more about hell than anyone, seemed to suggest that one of the things that separated the “sheep” from the “goats” was pride versus humility. Can we be sure then, that a prideful Christian is saved and a humble Pagan is not? Could the reverse be true. I don’t think it requires a decent into univeralism to ask such questions?

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  21. Oops, looks like we got comment crossover. Anyway, to get back to your last comment Jarred, I think a world without consequence would be chaotic. And when chaos arrives, that’s when I find people are most open to the concept of final judgement. For instance, few seem to question the goodness of divine judgement where child molesters are concerned. So, what then?

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  22. “For instance, few seem to question the goodness of divine judgement where child molesters are concerned. So, what then?”
    I suppose for me, it depends on what is meant by “divine judgment.” I wish to see child molesters — and all those that would harm other people, for that matter — stopped. I’d like to make sure they don’t hurt another child or living being. I’d also like to see those that have already been hurt healed.
    But I’m not sure that I desire (at least not when my better nature is showing) to make such people suffer. I see no point in punishment (except those cases punishment would make for effective corrective discipline). In that sense (and I apologize if I’m jumping ahead in your apologetic approach, Matt), I suppose I’m more comfortable with a annihilationist view of divine judgment rather than an eternal torment. The former strikes me as more in lines with stopping those who would continue to do bad things, whereas the latter strikes me as a horribly sadistic sort of comeuppance.

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  23. Many others have mentioned N T Wright in relation to this conversation so it seems it’s now my turn. As with Wright, my focus is more on this world than the otherworldly. Correspondingly, my hope is more focussed on how we get to a world without child molestation than what happens to child molesters. In effect, I see the apocalypse as a kind of cosmic exorcism, and what happens to the exorcised is something I’m okay with being a bit vague on. I’m in no way universalist, but I suspect DeYoung would take me to task as well anyway.
    I agree that eternal torment sounds horribly sadistic at face value, but here is where I think your question, “what is meant by divine judgment,” is an extremely is good one. Firstly, I think we need to put Dante and the sadistic art of bygone eras behind us, for they paint a very unscriptural image at times. Secondly, we need to constantly remind ourselves that references to hell in scripture occur come to us as poetry, so eternal torment may mean nothing more or less than an eternity without God, the source of light and life. Death would indeed be a tragedy if eternal life is on offer.

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  24. “sadistic sort of comeuppance” – a creative turn of phrase, Jarred – probably another case of making God in a deplorable aspect of humanity’s image.
    I think it is more important for people to be “loved into Heaven” that “scared away from hell”, whatever descriptions or definitions are applied to either “destination”. Fear isn’t a good foundation upon which to build a life of faith… and I mean the “emunah” kind of faith (i.e active trust whilst walking the talk) not just the musings of an uninformed imagination.
    The “Hebrew” sense of time is more akin to the “circular” than the “linear” (although more related to “cyclic”), than probably the majority of Christians would realise or admit… more “culmination” than “climactic”, perhaps? It’s a challenge for us as mortals to grasp the “ins and outs” of eternity, isn’t it? An exercise in investigative, deductive, and creative skills, as well as an opportunity for some intelligent conversation… maybe God enjoys the company?
    By the way, Matt, I like how you approach the subject matter, in terms of salient points, what your personal opinions are, and what informs them.

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  25. Here’s an interesting review of Rob Bell’s book by a Unitarian Universalist.
    http://internconnections.blogspot.com/2011/03/universalist-bell-tolls.html
    Personally I think his analysis is spot on.
    “Bell advocates a Restorationist Universalism. In other words, God may temporarily punish individuals after death for the sin of disbelief, but will not condemn anyone to eternal torment.”
    “Bell’s Universalism remains Christocentric. He won’t let go of Jesus, to the point of sounding a lot like Karl Rahner’s Anonymous Christianity.”
    And the problem with the latter, with Christocentric universalism, is that it’s an inherently unstable theology in my experience. Because the biblical cherry picking required to arrive at such a position leaves one separated from theocentric universalism only by biography and personal preference. In other words, from there it’s only a small step to whateverism, and that’s exactly where fans with less attachment to church than Bell can be expected to go.

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  26. The Good News goes beyond simply saying that child molesters go to hell (which we probably all agree is a good idea). It says that even child molesters can “go to heaven” (if that is how we define salvation). and to me this is the crucial issue. So, while on the one hand, we need to talk about hell (however we understand it), on the other hand we need to talk about salvation and its implications for those things that we hold fundamentally true (like the fact that it’s unfair for child molesters to be forgiven). Seems to me Jesus suffered in their place so all victims claims against them have been answered.

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  27. Just my 2pworth…
    If Jesus is God incarnate, and shows us how to live and die, then why does he pray “Father forgive” as he is dying?
    Surely if God is full of wrath and wanting to condemn people to an eternity of torment (as some people seem to suggest), he should have prayed they would get their just desserts (at the very least).
    So is Jesus not truly representative of God? Or is God inconsistent?
    And why should God have the cheek to tell us to forgive over and over again, when He won’t? Or is that fine, because He’s God and we’re not, so different rules apply?
    BTW I firmly believe in judgement, but to me that is appearing before God, no excuses, no hiding, being fully known and seeing myself truthfully for the first time.

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  28. @Functionalchurch
    Regarding the elephant, well, yes, that is one of the problems of the analogy and indeed universalism in general. While claiming to be neutral it is nothing of the sort.
    Regarding child molesters, reconciliation requires BOTH repentance AND forgiveness. I embrace the good news that no one is beyond forgiveness, even child molesters. Universalism, however, raises the problematic question: what of the unrepentant? Can reconciliation, can salvation, occur where there is no repentance?

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  29. @pastasmissus. Missed your comment as we were posting at the same time! My response would be similar though to what I just wrote though. Reconciliation (salvation) requires both forgiveness (grace) by the injured party and repentance (faith) by the injuring party. Jesus wants reconciliation, he prays for reconciliation, but without repentance there can be no reconciliation. Forgiveness is only half of the spiritual equation. No contradiction at all from my perspective.

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  30. Does universalism address the “destiny” of nations (i.e. ethnos/people groups)? I notice that the arguments generally concentrate on individual persons’ faith/fate. However, as we know, a significant portion of the Christian Scriptures speak of God’s relationship and expectations in regards to people groups/nations, of which Israel is a conspicuous example, although many others are mentioned throughout.
    When you previously mentioned separating sheep from goats, Matt, the passage in Matthew 25 mentions the nations gathering before the Son of Man come in glory with the nations gathered before him and the subsequent separation of them according to charitable deeds. Social Justice advocates often use this passage to draw attention to the importance of governments’ moral/spiritual obligations to legislate and contribute financially for the benefit of the marginalised and disenfranchised in the world.
    I haven’t seen this aspect come up much the Evangelical perspective.

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  31. Interesting question Lucy. I can’t say I’ve ever heard a universalist explore it. Yet I agree God has said far more on the fate of communities (Israel in the Old Testament, church in the New Testament) than on the fate of individuals. It’s why I my own theology and ethics is so eschatologically orientated. My hope for a world where justice reigns is apocalyptically inspired. It begs some questions. Is universalism inherantly individualistic? Is universalism beholden to a Christendom understanding where the gap between the church and state (and therefore the world) is minimized?

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  32. Universalists put a heck of lot of weight on texts such as Rom 8:21-22, and Eph 1:9-10.
    Rom 8:21-22 – freeing creation from bondage to decay; reconciliation of creation with God through Christ.
    Eph 1:9-10 – plan for fulness of time to unite all things in Christ in heaven and on earth.
    That especially goes for emphasising “all things” in Eph 1:10.
    But in light of other biblical references to hell and judgement does “all” in fact, in Paul’s Eph. 1:9-10 actually mean to include those who rejected Christ and lived unrepentant lives of sin for the whole lives?
    Does God’s nature of love preclude divine disgarding of those who rejected faith in Christ or Yahweh before him?
    Does divine judgment resulting in “hell” [whatever it is] occur in deferrence to or conflict with God’s loving nature?
    And what is the point of a Gospel of salvation if one doesn’t need to hear and believe in it in order to be saved?

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  33. Although I was theologically educated at what could be described as a “liberal evangelical college” and I can sympathise with reasons why they generally take a more universalist approach to things like salvation, I aint a universalist myself.
    Introductory chapters like those of Ezekiel and Jesus’s parable about the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 indicate to me that `blanket salvation of all’ irrespective of what they have done or have not done, conflict with the universalist view of salvation.
    Universalists I have known argue that if Christ has defeated the power of sin and death, surely that includes the possibility of defeating it even after people die. So sinners who did not repent and find faith in Christ when alive, having discovered their mistake once dead and facing judgement before Christ’s throne of grace, naturally choose to convert in their afterlife. It is a second chance – an offer they cannot refuse. God whose nature is loving, cannot allow them to miss out, even if they by some grave error of thinking or ignorance rejected Christ in mortal life.
    To me there are problems with dealing with the consequences of sin and the issue of human free will to choose with universalsim. With universalism, there are no exceptions – everyone and thing gets saved, whereas redemption for the repentant may mean God cutting someone off and out (e.g.Pharoah in Exodus to save and liberate the Hebrews under Moses).

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  34. Yeah, I don’t think the Universalist position takes scripture, sin or free will seriously enough. For conversion to be voluntary, one must be free to say “No!” indefinitely.

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