grace and universalism

I have a question.

It might be Rob Bell’s question too but I don’t know because his book isn’t out until the end of March.

Actually I have lots of questions but I’ll try to keep to this one:

How does grace work with heaven and hell?

Let me explain my problem.

God loves us.  It doesn’t matter what we have done, God loves us.  Or have I missed something?  And does that make me a universalist?  And is that a bad thing?

Does God only love us if we say sorry or we acknowledge His existence?  Or does God love everyone?

You see I read the story of the prodigal son and I see that the father loved his son, even before he had a chance to say sorry.  He loved him every day he was gone and what the boy had done didn’t make that love any less.

But then I read that God loved the world so much he sent his son and that I need to believe in him to have eternal life.

And those things seem to be at odds with each other.

Or are they?

Is there a limit to God’s grace or not?  I hope not for mostly selfish reasons.

I have questions about the nature of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ too but I’ll keep those for another day…

23 thoughts on “grace and universalism”

  1. Depends on your understanding of universalism.
    Classic Calvinism says that the cross was not for everyone, but only for those whom God fore-ordained to be saved. And so, no not everyone will be saved and, in a sense, God’s grace (or at least the atonement) is ‘limited’. There are plenty of arguments as to why that isn’t the case, but it seems that way to me. (I’m not a Calvinist.)
    Arminianism takes a somewhat different route and says that although it is entirely by a work of God’s grace we are saved, we are able to accept/reject that ‘offer’. It is a more universalist approach in that the cross was for all people and all people ‘could’ accept, but not all do. God’s grace is unlimited, but can be rejected. (I’m also not an Arminian.)
    I use those two as examples of the main ‘polarising’ camps in vocal Christianity today.
    But there are also any number of more nuanced views, even extending grace to beyond the grave. What was Jesus doing in the day between his death and resurrection? Paul’s take on that is that Jesus descended to Sheol to free those in captivity there. Sheol isn’t hell, of course, so its application beyond that may be questionable. But then, that raises issues of hell which you don’t want to go into just yet.
    Scripture also speaks of God’s judgement as being a ‘refining’ process, so it might be that case that all are ‘saved’, but not all of the all are saved and the ‘unacceptable’ parts are removed (or made right). Certainly a more universalist approach and (almost) unlimited grace.
    If your understanding of universalism extends to all faiths leading to God, then that might be a bit more debatable.

  2. To me ‘hell’ is a state where you are not open to God’s grace. I am a universalist – I do believe Christ died for all. But that only works if all are open to that love. Does that help?

  3. It’s all a problem of language…
    We talk of a God of love, therefore he cannot condemen anyone…but, God is a God of Justice and sides with the poor as well as demandin sacrifices of atonement. God is a God of righteousness and many other things besides. Is the fankle we get ourselves in because we are trying to focus on one aspect of Godhood and finding it difficult to hold these things in tension ?
    If all are saved, then why the cross ?

  4. You’re not alone in your questioning and wrestling.

    Does believing in Jesus mean a scripted prayer? Does it mean you believe in the message that Jesus preached and practiced while on earth? Does it mean you’ve never heard the message of Jesus but you believe that Love Wins?

    I thought this was a very interesting/telling quote from Rob Bell’s new book that shows the tension we’re left to struggle with:

    “… In speaking of the expansive, extraordinary, infinite love of God there is always the danger of neglecting the very real consequences of God’s love. Namely God’s desire and intention to see things become everything they were intended to be. For this to unfold, God must say about a number of acts and to those who would continue to do them ‘Not here you won’t.’ Love demands freedom. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.”


  5. There is so much wrapped up in this question of hell…but for me I think the most important aspect is the nature of God. What is God really like?

    The book God: A Biography” by Jack Miles tackles this question. The biography doesn’t paint God in a very good light…he is someone who punishes those he claims to love with unimaginable wrath and while he is a creator God he is also a God who destroys. Young people I’ve worked with always seem to pick up on it right away when the say ‘God seems totally different in the New Testament compared with the Old.’

    How we untangle the difficult sections in the Old Testament is important. The resulting narrative will undoubtedly shed light on our understanding/view/interpretation of hell. A worthwhile starting place might be Rob Bell’s film ‘The God’s Aren’t Angry’.

  6. The problem with Universalism is that ignores God’s character of justice and holiness. An upright judge cannot let crimes go unpunished in this world and how much holier is the God of the Universe than a human judge.

    Follow the verses after John 3:16…

    John 3:18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

    John 3:36 He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.

    John 6:29 Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.

    John 6:53 Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.

    John 8:24 I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins.

    God killed a man because he accidently touched the Ark. In Acts, two church members were struck down because they told a single lie.

    We take our sins so lightly as no big deal when in fact they are high crimes against God Himself.

    That’s why the Gospel is Good News. God is just but He is also merciful and kind and will save those who repent of their sins and knowingly put their trust in Jesus Christ. Amazing grace for the taking!

    Rob Bell thinks the Bible has errors so, of course, he comes up with another false Gospel. Several times he has questions peoples motives for wanting Hell to exist. A clear logical fallacy of ad hominem. It exists whatever my or anyone elses motives are.

    Jesus’ words recorded in the Gospels spend around 1 tenth of the time taking about Hell. We need to take it very seriously.

  7. Come on!!!

    God is a God of justice. Right. But if you are going to say that God won’t let something unjust go unpunished then listen to what you are saying. Punishment is always remedial. A parent doesn’t punish a child for eternity. You punish someone in order that they learn to behave better. So if you use the word ‘punishment’ with God then God cannot, and I’ll repeat that, cannot punish someone for all eternity in some sort of hell. Eternal punishment is an oxymoron.

    I’d also say that there is no such thing as hell or a devil. these are just ways Religious Authorities have used to control people and persuade them to believe in God. We still do: turn to Jesus because you’ll go to hell otherwise. Blimey! What kind of gospel of love is that? Do we not have anything positive to say about the Good News, or attempt to love people into God?

    And the repenting of sin thing. That’s like doing some transaction with God, I’ll do this if you do that, like there is some balance to be negotiated before you can get into ‘heaven’ and God is so weak that God cannot look upon sin. God looks upon it all the time and still loves us through it. So come whatever judgement day there will be (such a bad word to use) can we not picture it in a more just way and suggest that when we get to the gates of heaven God will say, “Do you want to come in?” and you can say yes or no. And if you say no then God will wait (this is the eternal bit) for ever until the very last person recognises love and desires to live in it and feel free to live within it. We make the choice, not God. But if one person remains outside the love of God then whatever makes that person choose to remain outside, is more powerful than love. Love then is not the strongest thing in the universe.

    And if you want to know how I got to that thought then its how I think about Jesus: who said there was no line he would not cross to tell us how much we were loved. We could punish him and he would say: still love you. We could crucify him and he’d still say: I love you. We could kill him and God stills saying: even if you kill my own son there is absolutely nothing you can do that will stop me loving you. Nothing. And that love was so strong it pulled him back from death because it was stronger than that too. Do you not think such a love is stronger than any sin we can do? If it is then universalism is the ultimate outworking of God’s grace.

  8. On reply to Roddy … Is punishment ALWAYS remedial? Is it not occasionally vengeful? Or ‘quid pro quo’?

    I think of people society punishes my sentencing them to a prison term. Some are being punished for crimes they will never commit again, irrespective of opportunity, yet still we punish them.

    I suspect that I am a universalist in my heart, but not in my head. If God is going to treat me in the same way as the most self-centred, selfish hedonist who gets to do all sorts of things that I deny myself then what is the point of me being a good boy? It’s a question I always asked myself as a kid: can’t I just do whatever I want and then confess and repent if my, by then, plethora of sins on my deathbed? So, the Grace of God is available for those who make a positive choice to accept it (head) and yet everyone is loved by God the same irrespective of their actions (heart)

    I suppose I’ll just have to reason that everyone is created equal; but I am more equal than some 🙂

  9. Eternal Punishment is an oxymoron…. If all we have to do is turn up and say I wnat to come in, why the need for the cross ? I’m not one for going through Scripture proof texting (unlike some) but I find that I want to live in that uncomfortable tension between a loving forgiving God and a God of justice.
    I leave the final judging to God, but surely there must be some sort of final accounting for horrors perpetrated in this life ?
    Following Roddy’s logic, Hitler can come in too ? Really ?

  10. Okay a few things here even though I know it is about two weeks ago this conversation died.

    ‘What’s the point of me being a good boy if the greatest sinner is going to be treated the same way as I am by God’. And why shouldn’t they? Listen to yourself! Why would you not want to be good, kind and loving to other people? Why would you not want to deny yourself things that hurt you and others? It’s called morality and do you live a moral life simply because you don’t think you can get away with it otherwise, but you would if you could? Those who want to let their hair down and live life without a care for how that affects others are really some of the most selfish people on the planet. You’re not in this just for you, are you?

    And then the idea of punishment always being remedial. Yes, ‘punishment’ always is remedial. When we lock people up in prison and leave them there without any help and support in regaining worth or humanity or a sense of value in themselves with no lesson ever being learned, then we aren’t punishing them. We’re locking them up and forgetting about them. Prison ought to be a place where we redeem people (as we keep going on about how Jesus does to us though there is not a lot of evidence that we live as redeemed characters) and it is a very expensive process to believe in redemption. God knows the cost and our society isn’t willing to count it.

    And the argument the Universalist hears time and time again: why the cross? Because the cross was the way in which God said: I love you so much that there is absolutely nothing you can do to me that will stop me loving you. There is no line I shall not cross, no time when I say to you: thus far and no further. You can kill my own son but even that will not stop me loving you. NOTHING will do that because my love for you is so strong. Through the cross we see a God who will let nothing stop God’s love for us and so strong is that love that even death cannot defeat it, no sin, no punishment, no time, no theology, no doctrine, nothing. The cross saves you because it shows you the depth and breadth of God’s love and not because someone Jesus did something on the cross that changed God’s mind from punishing us to redeeming us. And following that logic, yes, Hitler can come in too. I’d hate to be in a heaven where love is limited,

    Hitler can enter heaven when he accepts the love of God. That’s the key to heaven: love: receiving it and living in it. But God will wait all eternity till people like Hitler are redeemed by that love Jesus showed on the cross. If people like Hitler remain outside the power of love, then that hatred he had, that ‘evil’ that controlled him remains stronger than love and I don’t live in a faith that believes hatred is stronger than love. Do you?

  11. So we have a God who will wait for eternity for all to enter into heaven….
    So Jesus got it wrong then when he told the parable of the sheep and the goats ? (and I did say that I didn’t proof text..oops)
    The argument for unconditional love through the cross is correct, (I have to say that as a Christian), but to say there is no line that will not be crossed cannot be right. Death is the final line drawn in the sand. The logic of an eternally waiting God makes no sense because it takes away any responsibility we have for what we do. Roddy’s logic suggests that we can do what we please in this life and repent at leisure in the hereafter where we can do nothing about the consequences of what we have done. I just don’t buy that. Why does Jesus speak of the rich man and Lazarus in the terms that he does, where the rich man wants to warn his friends about the consequences of his actions, and can’t ?
    “The cross saves you because it shows you the depth and breadth of God’s love and not because someone Jesus did something on the cross that changed God’s mind from punishing us to redeeming us”… I couldn’t disagree more. The cross shows the love of God precisely because of what Christ did on the Cross. To say otherwise robs the Christ of any significance.
    I think this debate will become entrenched, if it hasn’t already….

  12. On Easter morning we will sing that ‘death has lost its sting’. What was the point of Jesus death and ressurection if not to redeem all the world? This is where I get lost. Either grace is for everyone or it’s not grace at all.

    I think there are many consequences of rejecting God in this life, of hoarding our money, of not living the way God calls us to. Poverty, hunger and violence would be at the top of the list.

    Isn’t separation from God and the posibility of eternity without love the very definition of Hell?

    Why wouldn’t God wait, just like the father in the story of the lost son? It didn’t matter what the son had thought, didn’t matter how much he offended his father, didn’t matter what he did with the money, and it didn’t even seem to matter that the boy never really said sorry. His father waited every day for him.

    If that is like the kingdom of heaven then why wouldn’t God wait for those who reject him to come to their senses and come home?

  13. Interesting explanations from the universalists here. Thanks for leaving posts.

    > Either grace is for everyone or it’s not grace at all.

    I don’t accept this. Grace is AVAILABLE for all but the kindess an offer to pay off the huge debt is not invalidated if the debtor turns it down of there own will. How can we be free if we are going to be ZAPPED into line by our creator sooner or later anyway?

    God is a god of love but He also kills, permits suffering and backed an invasion force to occupy a foriegn land. Justice and Holiness are part of His character too. God specified punishment in the OT was not always remedial – hard to be a redeemed witch when you are dead.

    Anyway that aside, I should mention that I too was a universalist at one time and personnally sympathise. Before I was a Christian, I was a Roman Catholic and believed in purgatory. I was interested in apologetics too and the RCC relies on tradition to ‘prove’ this teaching. There is nothing taught in the Bible that suggests a second chance after death where can sort things out. It teaches we appointed to die once then judgement. It teaches Earth’s existance is limited and Christ will return into history again to wind things up.

    And that, once again, is where the arguments arise. When we move off the sufficiency and inerrancy of Scripture then ‘other stuff’ creeps in. There’s some great arguments on this page but they are not revelation from God. If anyone has any references, please let me know.

    Our human revulsion at suffering makes eternal Hell a difficult doctrine. Makes me feel uneasy! However it does not make it false or cease to exist. There is great comfort to be had knowing all the disgusting things humans do on this earth 24 hours a day that this is being permitted due to a forthcoming day of Judgement where justice will be done.

  14. Grace is for everyone or it’s not grace at all…
    I agree completely with that statement with one proviso.. I would add ‘the offer of’ at the beginning. God’s love is offered to all in Christ. Whether or not we accept that that offer is up to us. This is where free will and human responsibility comes in. I get really confused by this too, but there has to be some consequence of rejecting Christ. If it doesn’t matter, if God will wait forever, then that robs the cross of any meaning for me. I don’t quite go along with what Davy says in post 17 (the bit about Scriptural inerrancy for example.. and that probably makes me a heretic), but death is the final line in the sand. We don’t get the chance to change our minds afterwards. I refer again to the rich man and Lazarus. The great chasm between the two could not be crossed, and the rich man was unable to warn his friends who were still living.

  15. Guys, guys, guys, this is my last salvo then bowing out because this is going to go no where. Let me answer your latest points and then disappear in a puff of logic.

    David: sheep and goats. Is salvation for all not the exact point of the parable: the shepherd will do anything, go anywhere, spend all the time needed to save the one lost sheep in order that ALL 100 will be together at home.

    Death is the final line drawn in the sand. Yes, and what does God do: cross it. That’s the point, there is NO LINE GOD WON’T CROSS FOR US, even the killing of his own son. And the proof God crosses it: resurrection.

    The idea of having no responsibility because God will wait all eternity for each of us to choose love over everything? Why wouldn’t you wait all eternity for that? Surely it’s worth it. And just because God owns the word eternity doesn’t take away us having responsibility.

    Then: do what you like and repent at leisure. Do you feel you’ve had to live a tight bound restricted life for Jesus and you therefore deserve salvation. I’d rather have a humanist than a Christian as a friend if the Christian though he/she was more worthy of salvation because he had lived a better life. God’s economy doesn’t work with selfishness.

    Lazarus warning about consequences – wouldn’t you when you see the consequences of greed and selfishness and western lifestyles. Can you warn Multi-nationalists, governments etc. Rather live as an example whenever and wherever you can which is the message of the parable.

    The cross robs Christ of any significance. Crap! Believing what I do about the cross is not insignificant in a world that needs a loving God rather than a vengeful God.

    Grace is for everyone. No conditions. That’s the point of grace. It’s a basic premis of Grace: there are no conditions at all. If there are conditions it’s a membership privellege only.

    You don’t have to believe the Bible got it right about ancient Hebrew history. It’s written from the victors point of view.

    The Bible has no one line on anything. Hell is a concept not known in the OT, nor is the devil. Paul has about half a dozen understandings about salvation and the cross and resurrection. God can be generous, broad, forgiving, eternal, universal and will wait for everyone to be fit for heaven, why would you not be prepared to wait for your own children to make it home?

  16. Regrettably your logic, Roddy is not joined up. First, the parable of the lost sheep is NOT the one I referred to, rather the one in Matthew which has a completely different message to the one you conveniently ignore.
    You clearly want to write your own Bible, ignoring all the bits that don’t fit your particular theology. And I DON’T particularly take kindly to having views referred to as crap. There is no need for insulting language. And besides, you need to put my comment in its proper context.
    I never have suggested that I somehow ‘deserve’ salvation. To say what you have completely misrepresents my position ! The whole point of grace is that it is undeserved.
    I can warn multi-nationals etc because I am on this side of death. The point of the Lazarus parable was that the rich man was not and could not give a warning.
    You don’t give an answer about human responsibility.
    Your logic is self serving, I fear, and it is clear that we will not have a meeting of minds on this.

  17. Quoting Roddy:
    >You don’t have to believe the Bible got it right about ancient Hebrew history.

    >The Bible has no one line on anything.

    So the Bible contains of mistakes except the bits you like?

    Well, again, no surprises in that view there it is pretty logical need to diminish Scripture in order to insert another ‘narrative’ of a second chance after death as it is an alien concept to the Christian canon.

    So the universalist and others trying to slip in ‘new kinds of Christianity’ and ‘new perspectives’ is really saying is that God is not powerful enough to communicate to us! Can’t buy that line sorry 🙂 The universe maker new exactly how to communicate to Man in His creation.

    I need more hard evidence from God’s revelation not just a narrative that some lovely people I chatted on the internet to happened to like. Take care.

  18. Just the other day one of my friends was remarking how helpful this conversation was and how it had been conducted in a gracious spirit.

    It seems that hasn’t lasted and I’m saddened by that.

    I don’t think we need to get personal or to rubbish other people’s opinions, no matter how much we might disagree.

    Thanks to everyone who contributed. You have all helped me to understand a little more about a difficult subject and I’m grateful for your comments.

  19. Hi Stewart,
    It had been a challenging series of posts and if I have appeared less than gracious, I apologise. You can perhaps understand why I was tempted.

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