Is Universalism our Personal Default Setting?
I have an educated hunch that something inside us all wants to believe that better things are ahead for us. Is this mere wishful thinking, as a reaction to the pains and frustrations of human life? Or is it something deeper, more “real?”
In saying “better things are ahead” I mean in the “next life,” either as an eternal state or a step in the evolution of the soul. I believe it is more than hope and does come from a deep, perhaps always-abiding place within us. In this brief essay I won’t go into the evidences from various angles that lead me to believe this. (In other words, there is more to go on than mere intuition.) Rather, let me ask you about your hunches and beliefs and discuss the Christian concepts that either support or oppose the idea of everyone having an eternal destiny that is at least positive and appealing on some level — that is, not hell.
Incidentally, the Western concept of hell comes only partially from the Bible. The Hebrew Scriptures speak only of a vague underworld after death, and Judaism seemingly (to an outsider) has remained open or ambiguous about the afterlife in general. The Greek Scriptures (New Testament, written in Greek) contain more about the subject, including some statements attributed to Jesus, but they do leave room for debate. One can glimpse a small part of the debate over universalism, eternal punishment and related matters around the blogosphere lately, with the stir over Rob Bell‘s just-released book, Love Wins.
The source of the predominant theology of Christianity, the Apostle Paul, speaks much of individual salvation and often in terms of being chosen (“elect”) for life with God eternally, or not. (I phrase it that way to avoid it sounding like Paul said God makes predestination “double” — choosing some for glorification and some for perdition — a concept most Calvinists [a large, influential group I won’t here describe] are at pains to disavow, for understandable but questionable reasons, logically). Suffice it to say that the Bible leaves much room for differing interpretations regarding the afterlife and possible eternal punishment for unbelievers or evil doers.
The unclear and open points have been filled in variously over the centuries, but it is significant that official dogma (institutional or otherwise influential) of most of traditional or conservative Christianity still affirms eternal punishment. And those independent-minded Christians who deny it and may hold some form of universal salvation are generally not clear or consistent on how that can fit with other key Chrisitan doctrines, particularly the atoning death of Christ and the need to accept that by faith.
I won’t now go further into detail on the biblical statements and how they have generally led Christians to hold to views of eternal punishment other than this observation and question: Might it not be that concepts of rejection by God, often tied to “hell” or extreme (perhaps eternal) punishment are invoked by biblical writers in the midst of passionate feelings about the injustice of someone’s actions or the wrongness of their teachings (vs. the rightness of the writer’s)? Why do we tell someone to “go to hell?” Maybe there is a connection… maybe extreme frustration or anger and desire for revenge, sometimes simmering deeply as well as boiling over, or even the more seemingly noble motive of “retributive” justice for someone wronged, originally prompted the ideas of eternal punishment and people down through history have actually found it somehow comforting to think that truly horrendous criminals, or even people who have just deeply hurt them would indeed be bound for such a fate. Maybe it’s a disturbing but also somehow comforting dogma — one that people would rather leave in place than consistently, logically and compassionately challenge.
How about you? What are your views and how have you arrived at or changed them?