By Eric Stetson
When I spoke in Kansas City in June 2007 at the annual Restoration Nation conference, a major event for Christian Universalists, I wanted to challenge the audience. So I talked about how we need to take the movement to the next level. I said that even though the auditorium was literally full of people, I saw it with my prophetic eye as nearly empty — because the millions of people who already believe in Christianity while rejecting the false doctrine of eternal hell were not among us.
Why was that the case? Why is it that surveys show that there are lots of Christians out there who don’t believe in hell and damnation, but by and large, they are not forming new churches, taking over old ones and forcing denominations to adopt the Universalist position, coming to conferences in the thousands, and making lots of noise to challenge the religious establishment?
In an article called “Where Have All the Universalists Gone,” Dr. Ken Vincent cites “a 1992 survey that found 94% of Americans believe in God and 86% believe in Heaven, but only 71% believe in Hell. This 15% discrepancy between belief in Heaven and Hell is a routine finding in sociological surveys; sometimes the discrepancy is as high as 20%. Using population figures from the 2000 U.S. Census, this means that there are 43 million ‘Latent’ Universalists in the United States!”
So where are they, and why aren’t they more influential? Where is their voice among the many significant religions, denominations, and spiritual movements today? The Unitarian Universalist Association is small, and certainly doesn’t account for most of these people. Many of them must certainly be Christians, since most Americans who believe in God are Christians. When a national conference for Christian Universalists is organized, why do only 150 people show up, if there are millions out there who would support or be sympathetic to our beliefs?
For one thing, many of these Christians who believe in universal salvation instead of eternal hell probably don’t go to church; they dropped out of “the religious system” when they rejected its most repulsive doctrine. And as good Universalists, they believe that one need not go to church, donate money to preachers and ministry organizations, attend religious conferences and revival meetings, or really do anything else in order to be right with God. God loves you anyway, no matter what you do or don’t do. Therefore, it is commonly reasoned and assumed, Universalism is the faith for people who don’t want to bother to fill a pew on Sunday or open their checkbook for a religious cause.
Wait a minute! Let’s back up and consider the implications of that type of attitude. Although it’s true that God’s love and salvation is not conditional on anything — certainly not church attendance, giving an offering, belonging to religious organizations, or whatever else — there are some other important things that very much are conditional on such decisions and actions. For instance, whether churches will be dominated by loving, accepting kinds of people or by exclusionary, hateful types who want to see their enemies burn in hell. What’s more, how “Christianity” as a whole will be perceived by the non-Christian world — as a religion of love that proclaims a God who has a victorious plan for the entire human race, or a religion of condemnation that sends billions to an everlasting lake of molten lava filled with the Hindus, the Muslims, the atheists, and whoever else might have “got it wrong” on the doctrinal scorecard.
|The attitude that Universalism is a do-nothing faith has a major negative impact on the ability of Universalists to change the world for the better. … All that it takes for evil to triumph is for the good to do nothing.|
Most importantly, the attitude that Universalism is a do-nothing faith has a major negative impact on the ability of Universalists to change the world for the better. Whether we like it or not, we live in a world where religion matters — a lot. Contrary to the smug atheists who proclaimed in the 19th and 20th centuries that “God is dead” and a glorious era of rationalism was upon us, the reality is that religious belief is as strong as ever, and the most fanatical and doctrinaire types of religion actually seem to have gained ground in recent decades as more moderate forms of religion have faded into the background. Who ever heard of suicide bombers, for example, before the 1990s? Who would have thought that religiously motivated people would bomb New York City and Washington, D.C. in 2001, though the “godless communists” of the Soviet Union never did? And who could have imagined that today, in the 21st century, we would still be living in a time when famous mega-preachers right here in America blamed the attacks of September 11 on “the gays” and other undesirable people who supposedly attracted to this country the ferocious wrath of God.
Friends, one of the main reasons that rabid, angry forms of Fundamentalism are on the march all around the world, sowing hatred and destruction, is because people who believe in a Universalist type of spirituality are not doing enough to stand up for their alternative, positive beliefs. All that it takes for evil to triumph is for the good to do nothing. But the power to change the world is in our hands. Will we feel a sense of urgency and take action, sacrificing as the early disciples of Christ did to share a message of hope and brotherly love with the world — creating churches, working together in networks, giving our hard-earned money to spread the faith, and showing that we care about our beliefs and that our beliefs matter? Or will we slouch down into the easy couch of apathy, thinking that “I don’t really need to do anything because I’m saved anyway, and so is everyone else”?
If we take the apathetic route, we will leave to our children and grandchildren a world ruled by Fundamentalist religious zealots, because they will face little opposition in their quest to gain power over the culture, over politics, over people’s hearts and minds and all the institutions of society. But if we arise boldly and stand strong for Universalism, the earth may yet become a brightly shining orb of spiritual enlightenment. Posterity will thank us for the sacrifices we were willing to make to encourage the world to become a more humane and civilized place, filled with the knowledge that all people are God’s beloved children and that God has a plan for all to learn and grow and become perfect in His image.
It has been said that we become like the God we worship. If most human beings imagine a god of terror and wrath, a hellish god, then their souls will be filled with the fire of hell and the world will reflect that fact — it will be hell on earth. Humanity could be plunged into a new Dark Age where nuclear bombs are detonated in the name of religion and all that is good about modern civilization could cease to exist. Or, if Universalists do what it takes to spread the faith in a God of boundless love, there is no limit to what wonderful things humanity can accomplish.
Fundamentalist religions have a big advantage over lukewarm types of religion in the competition for influence in people’s lives and in the world as a whole, because they interpret reality through a lens of epic struggle between good and evil. Is it possible to develop a model of Universalism that captures this powerful feature of Fundamentalism and turns it on its head — being zealous for God’s love, peace, and reconciliation rather than for hatred and exclusivity? If so, it would require recognition of a harsh truth: that Fundamentalism is not just an unfortunate mistake, but is downright evil and must be opposed with passion.
In the past, I have tended to argue that Universalism must move beyond being merely an oppositional faith; beyond simply being against Fundamentalist doctrines such as eternal hell, and into a realm of positive spirituality and the development of an affirmative system of theological understanding. I still believe that strongly. But as time goes on, I have also come to realize that the two go hand in hand. We need to know what we are for; we need to know what we are against; and we need to know how to compare the two alternatives intelligently and to force the issue in people’s minds and hearts and in the institutions of society.
|Christian Universalists must learn how to make people choose. We need to be confrontational without being combative, passionate without being oppressive — we need to become more like Jesus.|
In short, Christian Universalists must learn how to make people choose. We need to be confrontational without being combative, passionate without being oppressive — we need to become more like Jesus. Let’s embrace the fact that our Lord was no wuss. He was not a limp, soft-spoken, politically correct compromiser; he was a fiery radical. And what was he radical for? For Universalism! For the idea of a God who is the loving Father of all people, who has a plan to forgive and correct all sinners and bring the whole world into salvation. Jesus spoke truth to power, in a voice of confidence and passion. He was not afraid to directly provoke and confront Fundamentalist religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees. He was not afraid to enter the Temple and overturn the tables of the money-changers who were corrupting spirituality with empty rituals and false traditions. He was not afraid to get arrested for disturbing the peace, and he was not afraid to go to the cross to show the world that God means business.
I am not saying that Christian Universalists today should seek confrontation excessively, but that we should not be afraid of it. We should only be as confrontational as we need to be to get our point across to the maximum number of souls, so that they will at least be exposed to a better spiritual vision — and we should always do it with wisdom, care, and love.
I think Jesus would agree. He would tell those who believe in the path of God’s universal love and reconciliation that he taught the world — the Gospel, the “Good News” — to take a stand for what is good, right, and true; to tell the Fundamentalists that they can have their perverted beliefs, but they cannot take the world down with them. They can ruin their own souls for a lifetime, but we cannot allow them to ruin other people’s lives and block the advance of human civilization.
I have a friend from the Middle East who has suffered much because of intolerant family members who dislike her liberal beliefs and attitudes. Her story is all too common. But she also tells me that many young people in the ultraconservative religious society where she comes from are increasingly interested in Universalism and rejecting extreme and exclusionary forms of religion. Hallelujah! Although we usually only hear about the scourge of Fundamentalism that currently plagues countries like Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, perhaps we are not getting the full story. Maybe the youth of today and tomorrow will see the damage that Fundamentalist ideology has caused and will embrace a new spiritual vision based on God’s all-inclusive love, peace, tolerance, and reconciliation.
The power is in our hands. God is on our side. Let’s get used to believing that, saying it, and not being embarrassed to say it. Fundamentalist religions and their never-ending cycle of pain, hate, division and war will someday fall if we work hard to bring the message of Universalism to a new generation. But if we do nothing, evil will continue to grow and spread, and our world will become a hell on earth. If our grandchildren live in a world scarred by nuclear jihads and crusades, don’t blame the devil; look in the mirror at the face of tragic apathy we allowed to become our own when God called us to proclaim His message of a greater hope for humanity.
This article was originally published in the September-October 2007 issue of The Christian Universalist Connection. 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.