Beyond the “Hell” Issue: Universalism as a Comprehensive View of Spiritual Reality

Eric StetsonBy Eric Stetson

When most people hear the word “Universalism,” one of the first things that enters their mind is, Those are the people who don’t believe in hell. Now they would be correct in the sense that Universalists don’t believe that any soul will be lost forever — we reject the idea of an eternal place or state of punishment for sinners. God is too good to “damn” (permanently condemn) anyone because of their mortal mistakes. But Christian Universalists do generally believe in the reality of consequences for people’s actions, whether to be manifested in this life or the next. There is justice in the universe — even in a universe created and sustained by a God who is Love.

In fact, it is precisely this truth of divine justice and consequences for actions that Christian Universalists can feel more confident in embracing and proclaiming, because we are not presenting it in a horrifyingly repugnant way such as by suggesting that some people will burn in a lake of fire for billions of years without end, or anything like that. Instead, our view of God, the laws of the universe, and human nature and destiny is based on the concept of God as the perfect Parent and human beings as His/Her children. Naturally, there will be consequences when children misbehave. But those consequences are designed by a good father or mother as a means of correcting and training the disobedient child, so that learning will take place and the child will mature into a responsible adult. Christian Universalists embrace such a view of “hell.”

Frankly, this word “hell” — which does not even appear in the original languages of the Bible — is not the best word to use to explain God’s benevolent discipline for His children. One phrase that Jesus himself used is aionios kolasis, which in New Testament Greek means “age-lasting correction.” In Matthew 25:46, Jesus warns that people who do not show compassion to the poor and suffering in this life, will enter into an age (aionios) of corrective judgment (kolasis), while others are enjoying an age of divine life (aionios zoe). Unfortunately, this verse in the Bible is usually translated to say “eternal punishment” rather than the correct understanding of the Greek, which would be a punishment that is reformative, not vindictive, and only for a limited period of time. Mistranslations such as this one are common in most popular versions of the Bible, leading Christians to think that eternal hell is a true teaching of Christianity.

But let’s not get hung up on these technical issues. There is a bigger issue at stake in the argument between Damnationism and Universalism, and that is the question of what is the nature of God. Closely related is the question of human nature and how it relates to God’s nature. The Universalist view of God’s justice and judgment — corrective, not penal; limited, not endless — makes sense because Christianity teaches that God is our loving Father. Jesus said, “I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Mat. 5:44-45).

In other words, God is benevolent to all, and expects us to be the same way as His sons. We may demonstrate our divine sonship by loving everyone, even our enemies, and praying that people who hurt us with their wicked deeds may repent and be reformed. In the same way, it is implied that God Himself loves even those who sin against Him and oppose Him and His ways, and that He is always exerting Himself toward fulfilling the hope of turning them back to righteousness. If we are commanded to love and pray for our enemies so that we can truly be God’s sons, how could God do anything less and truly be the Father? He is, after all, the ideal of Fatherly perfection that we are striving to reflect in our own character and actions. A son cannot successfully model a father who does not have the same ways that he commands his son to learn to practice.

So we know that God loves even His enemies, and that He never will give up hope for their redemption. Jesus drives the point home with this rhetorical question: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Mat. 7:9-12). In this one simple yet profound passage of scripture, Jesus has affirmed that God is our Father; that He is better than human fathers and will do good things for people who ask Him; and that the basic rule of morality is that, like God, we should do good things to people, as everyone would wish to be done to oneself. From this it is clear that the God revealed by Jesus Christ is a God who treats people with love and compassion, not endless anger and wrath. We, as the children of God, are expected to behave compassionately toward others because this is how God deals with His children, our brothers and sisters in the human family.

When we go astray, we should expect God to correct us with a benevolent Fatherly discipline, training people to reach their greatest potential and ultimately to resemble in character and power the One who created them.

When we go astray, we should expect God to correct us with a benevolent Fatherly discipline, training people to reach their greatest potential and ultimately to resemble in character and power the One who created them. And it is this basic message that is the essence of Christian Universalism. Not a reactionary response to Fundamentalists’ belief in “eternal damnation,” but a positive message of our own that is a completely different way of understanding the relationship between Man and God and the plan that the Heavenly Father has set in motion for His human offspring.

We are the children of God! Let that truth really sink in. The Apostle Paul said to the philosophers of Athens, “‘For in Him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are His offspring.'” (Acts 17:28). The word that Paul used in Greek that is translated as “offspring” is genos, which literally means a kinship relationship, implying a “generating” such as occurs when a father and mother bring forth a baby from their loins, not a “making” such as an artist painting a picture or a sculptor carving stone. Yes, the Bible teaches that we are literally the offspring of God, created out of the same divine essence. We are not mere creatures of dust — though in dust we do dwell in this world. Our true identity is as Spirit-beings, little lights birthed by that Most Great Light that is the Source of All Being.

This is why Jesus affirmed the truth of that most shocking and controversial statement in the Psalms: “I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.'” (Ps. 82:6). When religious people accused him of blasphemy for claiming to be the Son of God, Jesus used this verse as his defense, saying, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If He called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came — and the Scripture cannot be broken — what about the one whom the Father set apart as His very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?” (John 10:34-36). Jesus’ argument was not that he is the only son of God and everyone else is a mere creature; on the contrary, he claimed to be the one special Son that God chose to be sent into this world to show the rest of God’s children how to live up to our true nature as sons and daughters of the divine, rather than wallowing in the dust of the flesh and living according to the ways of this fallen world.

If we hope to conform to the perfection of a divine nature — which we cannot yet honestly say that we have done — then we must look to the example of an Elder Brother who comes into our world of flesh as the direct, physical manifestation of God to reveal and demonstrate and teach to us who “our Father in heaven” really is. Who is this mysterious, unseen God we are always praying to? We need to know our own Father! That is why Christ told us that “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30). We can look to Christ and see the Father, and see an image of the glorious perfection we are to become, as Jesus already is. When Jesus ate with sinners, touched lepers, forgave prostitutes and thieves, and even asked God for forgiveness on behalf of the soldiers who pounded nails into his own hands and hung him on the cross, he showed his younger brothers and sisters — all other human beings — what kind of a Father we have. A Father of whom the Apostle John could truly write these amazing words: “God is love.” (1 John 4:8,16).

How wonderful it is to know this! What a praiseworthy Father and Mother we all have in the highest heavens! Behold a Mother who brought us forth from Her womb and suckled us at Her breast — O El Shaddai, the “Many Breasted One” as Her name literally means in the Hebrew of the Torah — or in more conventional translations “God Almighty.” Behold our Father God who holds our hand when we stumble, who trains us with His loving discipline so that we may grow up in righteousness and learn all His ways. In discovering who God is, we can come to know ourselves — for the Bible clearly states that human beings were created in God’s own “image and likeness,” both the male and the female reflecting the qualities of the infinite and multi-faceted Deity (Gen. 1:26-27).

In coming to know Christ and trying to walk in his footsteps, carrying our cross as he commanded us to do so that we may become his disciples (Luke 9:23), we grow into the station of God’s heirs that was intended for us as His/Her sons and daughters.

In coming to know Christ and trying to walk in his footsteps, carrying our cross as he commanded us to do so that we may become his disciples (Luke 9:23), we grow into the station of God’s heirs that was intended for us as His/Her sons and daughters. As Paul said, “The Spirit Itself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Rom. 8:16-18).

Indeed, it is glory that awaits us — all of us, since we are all the children of God and destined to become heirs with Christ, the eternal and firstborn Son of God, who will share with us His Kingdom on earth and in heaven. Children are supposed to grow up. Good parents teach their children how to become responsible adults. God is teaching us, molding us, scolding us, correcting us, walking beside us, watching over us, and forcing us to learn how to resemble our Elder Brother, Jesus, so that someday we will no longer be as immature children but as mature heirs and co-regents with Christ in the Divine Kingdom.

What is the Kingdom of God? Ultimately, it is to be the entire universe. Who knows how many worlds God has created, how many dimensions of existence there may be? Soaring heavens of the spirit, earthly planets where good is mixed with evil, and hellish realms where beings endure times of clarification and purification — an unimaginably vast empire of creation that shall all, at the end of the ages of time, be brought into harmony with the will of God. For the Kingdom of God means the reign of God’s sovereignty. It is not a place, but a condition. Those who tread the path of Christ in this age — not a religion of doctrines, but a trust in the Father of all people and a way of life based on divine love — shall be blessed with the opportunity to help restore the rest of creation to oneness with the Creator. As Christ died for the sins of a fallen humanity, his disciples shall live lives of sacrifice to share the Love that is God with those who are hurting, lost, and afraid — until finally, all shall be saved and transformed in the omnipotent power of Love.

The Good News of Christian Universalism — the original Gospel that is the basis of true Christianity — is the proclamation that God wins! That “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:10-11). That “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:22). That Christ shall “fill the whole universe” (Eph. 4:10). And in the end, God shall be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

God all in all — imagine that! It boggles the mind. The Bible actually teaches that the culmination of all creation is for all to return back to God, from which it came. Nothing, no one, will remain forever separated, forever condemned, lost or forgotten, tormented or annihilated. All will be in God, because God will be in all! The divine perfection will have conquered and healed all corruption, so that all that remains shall be of God. This prophecy was called the apokatastasis in the ancient Greek church — the “restoration of all things.”

And this is a promise we can trust. For it says in the Book of Isaiah, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is My word that goes out from My mouth: It will not return to Me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isa. 55:10-11). This scripture has a double meaning. On the one hand, it means that God’s promises and God’s desires are always fulfilled. On a deeper level, it also means that Christ, whom the Bible calls “the Word” of God (John 1:1), shall not return to God empty-handed, but shall accomplish what God desires and achieve the purpose for which God sent him. Christ shall return to God with all humanity in tow. He himself promised, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32). God, who “wants all people to be saved,” (1 Tim. 2:4), will get what He wants eventually!

The Universalist God is not a weakling or a coward, nor is He half-hearted and cold. The real God burns with unquenchable love for all His children — for every human being who has ever lived and ever will live. He is not satisfied to watch us fall away from Him and become lost forever in self-generated traps and delusions and miseries, nor is He powerless to help us when we move in that sad direction. The real God came down to earth in the form of a man and suffered and died on a cross to prove how much He loves us, and to what great lengths He is willing to go to save us. The real God descended into even deeper hells than this physical world, to reach the spirits languishing there, so that they can “live according to God in regard to the spirit.” (1 Pet. 4:6). He is not an ever-weeping God, who watches His children entering hell and bemoans His inability to correct their error and improve their state; nor is He an ever-raging God, whose anger endures forever against those who have, like willful and rebellious children, foolishly turned against Him and His ways and are in need of further guidance and productive discipline.

However long it takes, and however much one of God’s human children may suffer in the process, we are all destined to learn our lessons and be raised up to adulthood and right standing in our Heavenly Father’s household.

No, our God is the greatest Parents you could ever imagine. The God who said “Let Us make Man in Our image, in Our likeness” (Gen. 1:26), generating us from the divine stock and birthing us through Their very loins, is not an evil Father who would disown any of His struggling children. On the contrary, as Jesus illustrated in the parable of the Prodigal Son, even a son who leaves his Father’s house in the arrogance of adolescent rebellion and squanders his inheritance on sinful and loose living, falling to the utmost degradation of starvation and eating from the trough of pigs, will still be welcomed home as a beloved member of the family when he finally sees the error of his ways and returns to the Father. For it is not God’s anger that is endless, but His love and mercy that endures forever (Ps. 106:1). However long it takes, and however much one of God’s human children may suffer in the process, we are all destined to learn our lessons and be raised up to adulthood and right standing in our Heavenly Father’s household.

The idea of salvation as a transformation process of growing up into divinity was taught in the early church and went by the Greek term theosis, meaning divinization, “becoming more divine or God-like.” As Paul said, human beings are to “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants… we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Eph. 4:13-15). Theosis, together with the great prophecy of apokatastasis, the restoration of all things, formed the basis of the original Christian message. The Apostle Peter summed up apokatastasis in a sermon recorded in the Book of Acts, saying that “the time will come for God to restore everything, as He promised long ago through His holy prophets.” (Acts 3:21).

Neither Peter nor Paul nor any of the other Apostles whose writings appear in the Bible ever threatened people with eternal damnation if they didn’t convert to the Christian religion. The Gospel they preached was not a childish message of fear, the squeals of a naughty child trembling in anticipation of being locked in the closet by a cruel father; but a profound message of triumph both for the Father and His children who are graduating into spiritual manhood. It was a message suitable for people ready to grow beyond the impulse to grovel before the unreasonable threats of bloodthirsty deities of their imagination, the gods of a bygone age.

The Christian Gospel is not about the possibility of escaping hell, but about growing up into maturity as God’s children, becoming co-heirs with Christ and co-workers in God’s corporate body (“the Body of Christ”) for the transformation and restoration of the whole world. People who think the point of Christianity is to escape the wrath of a furious god by professing religious doctrines about Jesus have completely missed the point. Their entire frame of reference is wrong. They do not know who God is, they do not know who they are, and therefore they do not understand the divine plan.

Christian Universalism, which is just another name for authentic Christianity, asserts that the Parent-child relationship is intrinsic to the way God deals with humans, and that as demonstrated in Christ, this relationship is the very foundation of spiritual reality. Christ is the pattern of transformation for all — and this is the real meaning of salvation. Salvation is not about escaping hell, but about becoming more fully the brothers and sisters of Christ, the perfect Son of God and Elder Brother of us all.

This is clearly taught by the Bible. Other views may go by the name “Christianity,” but these hell-based, Damnationist philosophies that masquerade as the Gospel are in fact “a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:6-7), as Paul said about the so-called gospel that was prevalent in his time which taught that all Christians must be circumcised and follow Jewish religious laws in order to be saved. Paul argued that this idea was a total perversion of the Gospel of freedom in Christ — that it turned the “Good News” into bad. Similarly, the gospel of eternal damnation for millions of human beings and escape into heaven for a few who are fortunate enough to profess the “correct” religious doctrines, is nothing but a sham and cannot be called good news. It is not the Christian Gospel, no matter how many Christians believe it to be.

It is time for the world’s understanding of the meaning of “Christianity” to be radically changed. The message of Christian Universalism, as presented in this essay, is an alternative theological framework for Christians to believe and teach to the world. It is Biblically sound, gladdens the heart, and gives greater glory to God than the doctrine of Damnationism. It encourages people not just to worship Christ as Lord, but to look up to him as an Elder Brother, Tutor, Coach — the one we need to help us reach our true divine potential as human beings, as he already demonstrated is possible. It asserts with boldness that the God of Jesus Christ is a winner, and that we might as well begin walking in His path now, for we will all be conformed to his image eventually.

Resistance is futile. Oh, sure, a soul might contend against God and naturally suffer the consequences for a long time — even ages and ages — but what would be the point? God is going to win in the end. So why not begin following the Way taught by Jesus the Master, so that you can be a co-worker with him to accomplish God’s great goal of saving the whole world, instead of one of the foolish and prideful ones who think they, on their own, can “pull in Leviathan with a fishhook” (Job 41:1), when God’s power is infinitely greater than any man’s carnal plan for attempting to create heaven on earth or attracting wealth and glory to oneself. Be a “minister of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18) as great Christian apostles such as Paul urged us to be, working to promote unity and maturity in the knowledge of divine truth.

Preaching the Gospel to a homeless man

Can you see it? Hidden inside the rough exterior of a homeless beggar, there is the divine potential of a glorious son of God! In the prophetic words of a popular song, “I’m just an old chunk of coal, but I’m gonna be a diamond someday…”

God is Almighty. God is Love. Love cannot fail. And furthermore, all people are God’s children. Would that this were the common creed of Christians! If the whole human race comes to know this and act like it, earth may yet become a paradise. For who would dare to hurt a son or daughter of God — of such a great and wonderful God at that? Might as well do the same thing to Jesus, the perfect manifestation of God Himself! And indeed, that is exactly what Jesus said: “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me…. I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Mat. 25:40,45).

Every day of our lives, let us see the face of beloved Jesus in the face of every person we meet. That includes the sinner and the unbeliever, the sick and the detestable among us. It includes the rejected, the forgotten, the lonely. It includes the bum lying in the gutter, the criminal and the insane. It includes the homosexual, the transvestite, the lepers of our time. It even includes those who hate and who curse others. Veiled from the love of God they are, but the light of His love shall pierce all veils woven by man’s imagination.

This is Universalism. This is the Good News of Christ! Receive it and praise God, and share it with others. You are blessed to have heard the Gospel now, which few have yet received. Shout it from the rooftops. Act it out. Be the Gospel to someone who can receive it no other way. And never give up. For our God is not a quitter. For that we can truly count ourselves among the thankful! Amen.

“Chunk of Coal” by Billy Joe Shaver

I’m just an old chunk of coal
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day
I’m gonna glow and grow
‘Til I’m so blue pure perfect
I’m gonna put a smile on everybody’s face
I’m gonna kneel and pray everyday
Lest I should become vain along the way
I’m just an old chunk of coal, now Lord
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day

I’m gonna learn the best way to walk
I’m gonna search and find a better way to talk
I’m gonna spit and polish my old rough-edged self
Til I get rid of every single flaw
I’m gonna be the World’s best friend
I’m gonna go around shaking everybody’s hand
Hey, I’m gonna be the cotton-pickin’ Rage of the Age
I’m gonna be a diamond some day

“God’s Love Never Ends” by Eric Stetson

There’s a love
that’s like a river
ever flowing….
There’s a love
that’s like a garden
ever growing….
There’s a love that’s like a hunger, ever yearning to be filled
There’s a love that’s like a fire ever burning

There’s a love that’s like a shelter for the homeless
There’s a love that is a comfort for your sadness and despair
There’s a love that’s like cool water for the thirsty
There’s a love that’s like a cleansing soap for the dirty

There’s a love…that’s so strong; it can extinguish a suicide bomb
Beat our swords into plowshares, and calm the raging storm
It’s a power that can move mountains, and empty all the seas
And God’s love will bring all creation to its knees!

God is love!… Sing hallelujah! Praise the Lord!
God is love! Now and forever, God is love!

It’s a love that truly conquers… death, hell and the grave
And it draws all souls into heaven, until everyone is saved
It’s a love that touched the lepers, and died upon a cross
It’s a love that rose again to prove that nobody is lost

Every knee shall bow, every tongue shall confess
That the God who hung upon that cross will never ever rest
Until all sins are forgiven, and all His children are friends
Sing hallelujah! God’s love never ends!

Hallelujah! God’s love never ever ever ends!
Sing hallelujah! God’s love never ends!

Eric Stetson is the author of a 2008 book, Christian Universalism: God’s Good News For All People. He served as the founding Executive Director of the Christian Universalist Association.