So, What is Universalism, Anyway?

In all the discussion of the eternality of hell ignited by a certain book,  the term universalism has been thrown around a lot, as has another question:

What exactly is universalism, anyway?

I’m reading (and listening to) John Piper’s Jesus: The Only Way to God: Must You Hear the Gospel to be Saved; there, Piper provides a very thoughtful description of universalism from his personal experience reading the works of George MacDonald and Madeleine L’Engle:

Since my college days, I had read three novels by George MacDonald: Phantastes, Lilith, and Sir Gibbie. I enjoyed them. I had also read a lot of C. S. Lewis and benefited immeasurably from the way he experienced the world and put that experience into writing.

I knew that Lewis loved MacDonald and commended him highly… Largely because of this remarkable advocacy by Lewis, I think, George MacDonald continues to have a significant following among American evangelicals. I certainly was among the number who was drawn to him. Then I picked up Rolland Hein’s edition of Creation in Christ, a collection of MacDonald’s sermons. To my great sorrow, I read these words: “From all the copies of Jonathan Edwards’ portrait of God, however faded by time, however softened by the use of less glaring pigments, I turn with loathing.”

Those are strong words spoken about the God I had come to see in the Bible and to love. I read further and saw a profound rejection of the substitutionary atonement of Christ: “There must be an atonement, a making up, a bringing together—an atonement which, I say, cannot be made except by the man who has sinned.” And since only the man who has sinned can atone for his own sin (without a substitute), that is what hell is for.

MacDonald is a universalist not in denying the existence of hell, but in believing that the purpose of hell is to bring people to repentance and purity no matter how long it takes. “I believe that no hell will be lacking which would help the just mercy of God to redeem His children.” And all humans are his children. If hell went on forever, he says, God would be defeated. “God is triumphantly defeated, I say, throughout the hell of His vengeance. Although against evil, it is but the vain and wasted cruelty of a tyrant.”

I mention George MacDonald as an example of a universalist not only because of my personal encounter with him but also because he represents the popular, thoughtful, artistic side of Christianity which continues to shape the way so many people think.

A hundred years after MacDonald, another very popular Christian writer of fiction and award-winning children’s books, Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007), showed the influence of MacDonald. She wrote,

I know a number of highly sensitive and intelligent people in my own communion who consider as a heresy my faith that God’s loving concern for his creation will outlast all our willfulness and pride. No matter how many eons it takes, he will not rest until all of creation, including Satan, is reconciled to him, until there is no creature who cannot return his look of love with a joyful response of love.

Both MacDonald and L’Engle reject the good news that Christ became a curse for us and bore the wrath of his Father in our place. Instead, they turn hell into an extended means of self-atonement and sanctification. In hell the justice of God will eventually destroy all sin in his creatures. “Punishment is for the sake of amendment and atonement. God is bound by His love to punish sin in order to deliver His creature: He is bound by His justice to destroy sin in His creation.” In this way, God will bring everyone to glory. Everyone will be saved. Hell is not eternal. All will be saved.

(Piper, Jesus: The Only Way to God, Kindle Edition, location 212)

If you’ve been following the conversation surrounding Bell’s book or read it at this point, it’s interesting to see the similarities. In light of the recent controversy, and Desiring God have kindly made Jesus: The Only Way to God available as a free download until March 31, 2011. If you get a chance, do download a copy of this audiobook. Your time won’t be wasted.

7 thoughts on “So, What is Universalism, Anyway?”

  1. Hi Aaron,

    I am glad you have asked this question. I am a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ and by His grace given I have come to the knowledge of the truth that as in Adam all died so too in Christ ALL shall be made alive, each man in his own order. (1 Cor.15:22-23).

    I believe the words of Jesus… “If I be lifted up I will draw ( greek-will DRAG) ALL MEN unto me”.

    Jesus tells us that He is the way…He tells us to follow His way… to pick up our OWN CROSS so that we can experience His age abiding life now. Yes, Jesus paid the penalty for our sin but He is not my substitute to carry my cross… He tells me that I have to carry it myself…I have to walk as He walked…I have to be conformed INTO His image. The glorious thing is that He gives me the grace to carry it, the grace to die to self, it is all His work and I am His workmanship.
    As followers of Christ Jesus we are to desire truth in our innermost being. By His grace He has given me a thirst and hunger for the truth, not to follow the traditions of man, not to blindly trust that certain translations of scripture are correct… but to seek out what the Spirit of Truth says.
    May the Spirit of Truth lead you and guide you as you sincerely seek Him and may He bless you.

  2. i actually found this post just after i did my own post on giving away Piper’s book, what a great response, can’t wait to listen to is, i may actually buy the text too

    1. Just read your post, Scott; you did a terrific job summing up the hubbub (and giving me a good laugh this morning). Hope you like the audiobook, it’s very well done; I’d highly encourage picking up a hard copy as well.

    1. interesting links. The first one is a bit too Gnostic for me (people with “secret-knowledge” are not to be trusted). The second one I’ve never heard of and purports to have a letter written by Jesus, so I’m gonna go with “instant FAIL” for that one.

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