Three Flavors of Christian Universalism

Lance Haverkamp

There are three main branches of Christian Universalism, each with their own set of identifying features. We all share the idea that “Through Christ, God is reconciling all to Himself.” Within that primary definition, there are three main branches:

  • Patristic (or “Evangelical” in some circles)
  • Liberal
  • Charismatic

All three of those branches of Christian Universalism are welcome within the CUA. The key is that they are all Christian in their understanding of universalism—meaning all are saved by Christ. Followers of other religions, such as Islam, Dharma, Zoroaster, etc. will all eventually be saved despite their faith, not because of it; they are all saved because God sent Jesus to reconcile all to Himself. Here are more detailed descriptions of all three CU branches:

Patristic Universalism:

The oldest and, throughout the centuries, has had the most adherents. It teaches that anyone who rejects God or Christ in this lifetime will receive temporary correction in the next life, and will eventually choose to be reconciled to God. Everyone, either now or later, will be reconciled to God. This was the primary understanding of Christianity for its first 500 years. It is still accepted as a reasonable interpretation in Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Christianity, as well as remaining a major part of Christian Universalist thought.

Contemporary theologian and author David Burnfield outlines these seven traits of Patristic Universalism:

  1. Sin will be punished
  2. Salvation comes only through faith in Christ
  3. God continues to reach-out to people even after they die
  4. Everyone will be judged when they die
  5. The purpose of punishment is remedial not retributive
  6. The duration of punishment is not eternal
  7. Everyone will eventually be saved

Former Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who have come to a Christian Universalist understanding frequently adopt the labels Evangelical Universalist (from the book of the same name), Trinitarian Universalist, or Biblical Universalist. Regardless of their chosen label, their interpretations are basically the same as the original Patristic interpretation. This branch of CU has the most conservative doctrinal interpretation, though they are not necessarily the most conservative in their social or political beliefs. Congregations who share this interpretation are known for their educational ministry style, they often have programs of study for many age groups, and emphasize academic study for their ministers and other leaders.

Liberal Christian Universalism:

The least structured interpretation; a range of understandings exist within this group. Due to the liberal nature of their doctrine, these believers are not interested in a detailed description of their interpretation. That is the meaning of any “liberal” theology; that they have no desire to get pinned-down. Many from this branch believe there is no correction or punishment, of any kind, after this life; meaning everyone gets an immediate free pass. You may find these, most liberal of, CU believers discussing things like near-death-experiences, A Course In Miracles, Urantia, or other unusual interpretations of Christianity; though not everyone considered “liberal” will go that far afield. There are a few liberal denominations whose clergy usually have these beliefs, even though their denominations wouldn’t self-identify as being Universalist:

  • Most clergy in the United Church of Christ (USA), or the United Church of Canada
  • Most clergy in the Disciples of Christ (from the Stone-Campbell tradition)
  • Nearly all of the few remaining Christian clergy who affiliate with the Unitarian Universalist Association—that group identifies themselves as the “UU Christian Fellowship”

Liberal CU congregations are frequently known for their hospitality, sense of inclusion, and their concerted efforts to reach and care for those in their community. Their social and political views tend to be as “Progressive” (varying types of socialist) as their theology.

Charismatic Universalism:

The domain of those Christian Universalists who come from a Charismatic or Pentecostal background. Charismatic Universalists sometimes go unnoticed as being universalist, because it’s common for Charismatic congregations to use different terminology from the other CU branches; even though their actual beliefs are not much different from the Patristic/Evangelical branch. Many don’t call their beliefs “Universalist” at all, the term “Ultimate Reconciliation” is quite common. Some use the Greek term for Godly Restoration which is “Apocatastasis,” or “Manifest Sonship” a charismatic phrase that aligns well with the Eastern Christian doctrine of Theosis. The term “Feast of Tabernacles” is used by some Charismatic Universalists because the imagery of this Jewish festival echos their entrance into a fuller knowledge of, and relationship with God; as well as a better understanding of His plan for humanity.

In addition to those Charismatic Universalists who use different terminology, these congregations are most readily identified by their similarities to other, non-universalist, Pentecostal and Charismatic congregations; their emphasis on power-based Spiritual Gifts, and their particular view of how the end-times will come to pass (a dispensational, futurist understanding of eschatology). It may be a broad generalization, but on the whole, Charismatic Universalists tend to have the most fundamentalist understanding of Scripture, society, and politics of all CU believers.

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