What follows is a story of two cousins, Tyler and Jared Duncan, who, after the death of their grandfather, begin what will be a series of dialogues on the subject of Universalism. This post is part of a series of blog posts on the topic. Being a blog series, it is not intended to be a comprehensive treatment of the topic, but an introduction to some of the main arguments for Christian Universalism from a variety of perspectives. A good portion of the material discussed in this particular post is found in and taken from Tom Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God. All references are in the text of the conversation in parenthesis. There is a multitude of resources available on this topic and so I will not always be able to reference specific sources as I have heard the information from numerous locations and the format will not allow for it. I will only reference certain authors who I have drawn on heavily in preparation of the dialogues. Enjoy the boys’ journey!
Tyler Duncan sat at the back of the viewing room at the funeral home fighting back the tears that sought to overtake him. Fifteen feet ahead of him, laying in casket was the body of his deceased grandfather. “Pop” as he knew him had a formative influence on his life after Tyler’s father had passed away when the boy was only three. Now, twenty years later, after many joys, laughs, serious talks, and special moments, the man that had been a father to Tyler lay dead.
He ventured another glance back up at the casket as if to check and see if Pop was really the one laying there. He looked so peaceful, almost like he was smiling as he lay lifeless. Yet peace was the last thing Tyler was feeling. It was bad enough that Pops had died suddenly, but it was another thing that Tyler was morose over the current location of his grandfather’s soul. Six months earlier Tyler had come to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord through the leading of a friend who had invited him to church. It was actually the first time Tyler had gone to church in his entire life except for weddings and funerals. This time would be the first of many more as that day the young man was introduced to a God of love who forgave him of his sins and freely welcomed him into the family of God.
Tyler had been so excited about his newfound faith that he fervently shared the love of Christ with most of his friends and family who were thrilled to see a formerly depressed college graduate come to life like never before, even if they were skeptical of religion themselves. Tyler had made it his life’s mission to be certain that all of his loved ones would end up in heaven when they died. Finally, the day came where in the course of conversation he had the opportunity to share his faith with Pop. He had been praying for weeks about getting the chance, especially knowing that Pop was not getting any younger. The conversation could not have gone any worse. It was one of the few times in his life that Tyler had seen his usually gentle-mannered grandfather become visibly angry as he dismissed all religion as the product of premodern, superstitious humans. Tyler never brought it up again as he was so grieved at Pop’s reaction. He had been praying that God would soften his grandfather’s heart, but then, suddenly, Pop died of heart attack.
Sitting there in that funeral home was agonizing. Tyler forced images of his grandfather in hell out of his mind. He choked back tears at the same moment he became aware of another feeling he had – anger. Anger at Pop for being so close-minded. Anger that he didn’t try again to reach him. Anger at God for sending the grandfather he loved so dearly to an eternity of suffering.
He abruptly got up and headed toward the exit, thinking that some fresh air might get his mind off his anxiety. As he passed through the door into the hallway he ran directly into a guy about his age who, when he realized who he had bumped into, grabbed Tyler and embraced him tightly. Jared Duncan, his cousin, was the giver of the warm greeting.
“How ya doing cuz?”
Tyler shrugged. “Alright, I guess. This is all so shocking.”
Jared managed a weak smile. “I know. No one expected this anytime soon.”
“Yeah, I was just over the house the other day. Grandma made meatloaf. It seemed like any other time.” He paused to reflect. “I didn’t think it would be the last time I’d ever see him.”
“At least in this life.” Jared interjected.
Tyler raised an eyebrow. He remembered that Jared, who was his age but still in college in another state, had been a Christian since early high school. “Jared, I don’t think I have to remind you that, well, you know.”
Jared nodded. “I know, I know. Pop wasn’t a Christian. He was stubbornly skeptical, even to the end. But that’s no reason to fret, cuz.”
Tyler’s eyes looked like daggers as he lowered his voice and gently pulled Jared farther off to the side. “’No reason to fret?’ Jared, how could you possibly be so insensitive? Don’t you realize where Pop is right now? Don’t you realize that his fate is sealed? Pop is in hell – forever!”
Jared put a hand on his cousin’s shoulder. “Up until about three months ago I would have thought the same thing. But a friend of mine has convinced me that there is still hope for Pop. Certain hope that he will eventually be reconciled to God.”
Tyler was stunned. He had never heard a Christian talk like this. Didn’t Jared realize that, after a person died, there were no further chances to accept Christ? Jared went on to explain that his friend believed In Christian Universalism, the belief that all people would eventually be reconciled to God’s love. Tyler was shocked that anyone in the church believed any such thing.
“Are you saying that Pop has another chance to be saved?”
“Even better than that,” Jared smiled. “I’m saying that Pop is going to be saved in the end.” Jared’s parents motioned to him that they were entering the viewing line. “Look, I’ll catch up with you later at Grandma’s house. We can talk more about it there. Don’t worry, man, it’s all going to be okay.”
Tyler watched Jared walk away. He stepped outside, his head spinning. Dare he hope? Could it be possible that Jared was right? Was it true that God was going to save all people, including Pop? Was it all really going to be okay? Streams of scriptures he had memorized over the months came to mind, seemingly contradicting what Jared was claiming. He sighed. It just seemed too good to be true.
The leaves from early autumn covered the grass at Grandma Duncan’s house like a multicolored water painting as guests from the wake arrived steadily at the remodeled 18th century home. Tyler made his way up the driveway with his mother and two older sisters and together they joined the solemn crowd congregating in the hallways and dining room for an assortment of food that had been prepared by a local caterer. Tyler peered at some of the pictures of Pop on the walls in the foyer near the stairs that led to the second floor and could feel something like a rock in his stomach from the grief. He sipped his fruit punch when he noticed Jared out of the corner of his eye making his way toward him. Presently standing next to him, the older boy put his arm around Tyler and also took in the photos on display.
“Pop always had a smile that was contagious,” he noted looking at a picture of Pop in his own father’s wedding day picture.
“Yeah,” Tyler choked back tears.
“Tyler, I know this is a highly emotional time for all of us, but what I was telling you before at the funeral home has brought me a lot of peace.”
Tyler gazed at Jared. “I’ve never heard a Christian say the things you said earlier tonight. I won’t lie: it sounds like a wonderful ending to the story, everyone living happily ever after with God, but it seems so contradictory to the bible and the things I’ve been taught about God.”
Jared nodded and then let out a muffled laugh. “You sound exactly like me three months ago. At the Christian group I go to on campus, there’s this guy Rob who started attending the meetings and he seemed like a really solid guy. You know, really had a passion for God. Well, one day we were talking after group and I mentioned how bad I felt when I realized that most of the people we interacted with on campus every day were going to spend eternity separated from God. He looked at me and just said, ‘I don’t.’ I looked at him and wondered how he could be so cold and I think he realized what I was thinking because then he said, ‘I don’t feel bad, because I don’t think any of them are going to spend eternity separated from God.’”
“Did he give you any reason from the bible?” Tyler wanted to know.
“Oh yeah, did he ever. I realized that I had been taught to read the bible through a predetermined lens that caused me to miss a lot of the clear universalist teachings that are there. What’s more is that over the weeks he showed me evidence from church history that a lot of Christians have believed this, especially in the early church, and he helped me to reason the whole thing out using my mind as well. I realized that I had a view of God that was sort of a divine contradiction.”
Tyler pursed his lips. “I guess I can relate to that. At one point I was convinced that God had predestined only certain people to be saved because my pastor preached so much on it, but then one of my friends at church showed me all the other verses that I had either skipped over or…”
“…had taken out of context.” Jared finished while nodding. The boys laughed.
“Yeah, exactly. It’s so easy to do.”
“Well, have you ever read a passage of scripture that you’ve read many times before and suddenly saw something new and thought, ‘Gee, I never saw that in there before?’”
Jared laughed. “It was there the whole time! You just failed to see it.”
Tyler nodded with a smile. It never dawned on him that perhaps this teaching was there in the bible, but that he had never seen it before because he was so used to reading it a certain way. It was going to take a lot to convince him though. He conveyed this to Jared who understood.
“I know. It took weeks before Rob even got me to consider the fact that I could be wrong. I argued with him till I was blue in the face.”
“It just seems like there are so many passages that clearly teach hell and that those who don’t accept Christ are going there. It’s like, how could anyone deny it?”
Jared suggested that they go out back and sit on the wooden swing that Pop had bought for his wife for their anniversary one year. The boys made their way through the crowd, grabbed a couple of half sandwiches, and went out to sit on the bench as the sun was beginning to descend below the top of the tree line.
“I understand what you’re saying about it seemingly being clear,” Jared said. “Yet, you already admitted that at one point it seemed that selective predestination was clear too.”
“True.” Tyler conceded.
“As a matter of fact, on the surface, it seems like you could make a case for three basic beliefs. This is called Talbott’s Trilemma (Talbott, 1999). The bible seems to say, (1) that it is God’s redemptive desire, or will, to save all people, (2) God has the power to accomplish all of His redemptive purposes, or save all people, and (3) Some people are not going to be redeemed, or, to put it another way, God does not save all people. Would you disagree with any of those three statements?”
Tyler thought about them one by one and then shook his head. “I’d say they are all biblical.”
“That’s what most people say, but the problem is that it’s logically impossible to hold all three.”
Tyler raised an eyebrow. “How so?”
Jared swallowed a bite of sandwich and continued. “Think about them again. God desires to save all people and He has the power to save all people, yet not everyone is saved.”
“I think I see what you’re saying. If he has the power and the will to do it, but doesn’t, then the question is why?”
“Yes, but even more than that. If He has the power to do it and the desire to do it, it logically follows that He would do. I mean, what’s stopping him? If you saw someone drowning in a lake and you had the power to save them and the desire to save them, why would you not save them?”
“Maybe I didn’t know how to swim,” Tyler rebutted.
“But that would mean that you really didn’t have the power to save them.”
“Maybe I thought they were stupid for not wearing a vest and thought they deserved it.” Tyler laughed at the absurdity of his own line of thought and then finished with, “Which would mean I didn’t have the desire to save them.”
“Right,” Jared smiled. “There’s no reason in that situation that the person would end up being rescued by you. Now, someone could argue that there are times we have the power and desire to help someone, but that it wouldn’t be in the person’s best interest for us to intervene, but in the case of being saved from eternal suffering and misery – I think that would be a situation in which any of us would intervene.”
“So, we’re left with the problem of why the person would be left to drown, or, related to what we’re talking about, why God doesn’t save some people and let’s them go to hell.”
“Right again. You see, it’s not logical to hold to all three.”
Tyler was trying to figure out how other Christians try to get around it, but, unable to think of anything, he asked Jared what his thoughts were.
“The truth is that there are three ways to resolve this conflict. There’s the Calvinist way, the Arminian way, and the Universalist way. You can hold to any combination of two of those beliefs, but not all three. The Calvinist does away with the first one and concludes that God doesn’t want to save all people, but only the elect. So they believe God has the power to save all people, but doesn’t, so then it is logical to believe that some are not saved. The Arminian does the reverse and says that God does want to save all people, but He is unable to because a person’s free will thwarts Him, and so they conclude that some are not saved. The universalist says that God does want to save all people and has the power to save all people and so we do away with the last one and conclude that all people will then be saved.”
Tyler wasn’t as sure. “But it seems like you are brushing aside some clear teachings of scripture to make the bible fit into your belief in universalism.”
Jared laughed. “That’s what the Calvinists and Arminians always accuse us of, too. But, in reality, they’re doing the same thing, right?”
Tyler was confused, so Jared continued.
“They both have a preconceived belief as well – namely, that some people will be lost forever. So, in order to make that belief fit, they get rid of the teaching of scripture that God wants to save all people or they get rid of the teaching that God has the power to save all people. Either way you cut it, they are brushing aside what seems, on the surface, to be a clear teaching of the Bible to make their theology work, because they realize you can’t hold to all three of those propositions.”
“So they do the same thing they accuse universalists of doing.”
Jared smiled. “Yes. And they hypocritically get away with it, because it seems so obvious to everyone that the bible teaches hell because they’ve been taught that their whole lives. At some level, it’s easier to believe that God doesn’t really want to save all people, or even more believable that He can’t save them than to believe in no eternal punishment.”
Tyler played what Jared was saying over and over in his mind. No matter whether one believed in strict predestination, free will, or universalism, it seemed that all three positions were giving up clear biblical teaching to make their theology “fit.” All three statements Jared offered seemed biblical, but he knew that logically one must not be. Which one of the three statements seemed most likely to be wrong? He had to give up one of them. He sighed and looked at his cousin.
“If you say God doesn’t desire to save everyone, then He doesn’t love all people. If you say that He can’t save everyone, then He’s not all powerful. If you say that all people will be saved, then it makes following Christ pointless, so which one is it?”
Jared zipped up his sweater and smiled at his cousin. “That’s why it’s called the trilemma. You have to give up one of those beliefs to be logically consistent. Calvinists are content to worship a God who doesn’t love everyone and who saves only a chosen few, which, of course, always includes them. Arminians are content to worship a God who loves everyone but can’t save them. Universalists, on the other hand, worship a God who loves everyone, has the power to save them, and promises to do so!”
Tyler could see the problem clearly. He had already been convinced by a friend that God loved all people and not just ‘the elect’ which made him more of an Arminian, but he wasn’t comfortable saying that God couldn’t save someone like he would have to say if he were going to hold that position over universalism. Then, an idea struck him.
“Well, what if God has the power to save everyone, but leaves the decision to us? I mean, He’s not going to force us to be with Him is He?”
Jared nodded. “That’s the free will defense and it’s the strongest argument against universalism, but it’s got some serious problems. It is the one way that people try to get around the trilemma. They argue that God wants to save everyone and has the power to save everyone, but that some people refuse to be saved and thus the third statement is also true that some are not saved.”
“Makes sense to me,” Tyler said. “If people choose not to be with God, then God lets them have their way.”
Jared was thoughtful for a moment before he said, “First, technically, holding that position is a denial of proposition two. It is a denial that God has the power to save anyone He wants, which is everyone, because man’s free will is in the way. Man’s free will would be more powerful than God. Yet, it’s a good point that a lot of people make nonetheless. But, still, do you think a loving God would let someone make such a tragic choice like that?”
“If He wants love to be real, He would have to,” Tyler retorted. “I mean, if the love was forced it really wouldn’t be love.”
Jared nodded. “Right, and I don’t think that God forces anyone to love Him. You’re right, there’s no such thing. But what if God could preserve free will and in the process be certain to save everyone eventually?”
“Go ahead, I’m listening.”
“The truth is that no person in their right mind would ever continually choose what was against their own best interests and ultimate happiness. Do you agree?”
“Yes, granted, like you said, they’re in their right mind.”
“Okay, well, as time goes on and a person realizes that separating themselves from the Source of all Love and Peace brings nothing but misery and pain, they will eventually realize the error of their ways and begin to move back toward God.”
“Sure, I agree,” Tyler said, “And that works great as long as they do that in this life. But after death, it’s too late.”
Jared scrunched up his face. “So let me get this straight. God cannot save someone without their choosing to come along willingly and this free will is necessary for them to make it real love. This free will is God’s gift to us to choose a relationship with Him, right?”
“Right…” Tyler wasn’t sure where Jared was going.
“So God, the perfect respecter of free will, will deny a person what they freely choose – a relationship with Him – if they make that decision after they die? A person who realizes their error after they die and changes their mind can no longer come into relationship with God?”
“Well, yeah, it’s too late.”
“Then how do you reason that God is not violating their free will?”
“What do you mean?” Tyler responded, a little perturbed that Jared was insinuating that he was claiming the opposite of what he believed.
“You said that God gives everyone free will to choose and that this free will is what makes love real and that it is a gift from God. But, then, in the next breath, you say that God takes it away after someone dies.”
“What I’m saying is that they can choose God after death, but it’s too late at that point,” Tyler defended himself.
“So, then God no longer desires to save them?” Jared asked.
Tyler was about to answer when the question hit him hard. “Well, I don’t want to say that God doesn’t want to save them, it’s just that….I don’t know….there was a time limit to make a decision…I guess.”
Jared smiled, easing the tension of the conversation. “I know, I know. Many Christians believe that after death a person’s fate is sealed.”
“But what about Hebrews 9:27 that says, “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgement…?’”
“So what?” Jared shrugged. “All is says if you look at it is that a person faces judgment after death. Universalists believe that too. The difference is that you believe the judgment made is irreversible. We don’t ,and the verse doesn’t say that either. As a matter of fact, that’s pretty much the only verse that Christians use to say that there are not other chances after death.”
Tyler scanned his mind trying to think of another passage. Of course! The rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16! He was shocked when Jared didn’t bat an eye.
“Of course he faced judgment after death, but nowhere in the passage does it say that his suffering was eternal. He realized his decisions had led him to that place of suffering and he wanted Lazarus to go back and warn his brothers to repent so that they wouldn’t end up there either.”
“True,” Tyler agreed. “But why would he be so eager for Lazarus to do that if the punishment wasn’t eternal?”
“Let me ask you this: if you had made a decision that resulted in your getting an illness that forced you to go through painful surgeries for many years to undo the damage to your body, yet you knew it was certain that you would fully recover, would you not want to warn others not to make the same mistakes you did so to avoid the pain and suffering of those surgeries?”
“Even, though you know they’re going to recover fully in the end?”
Tyler got it. “Because even if I know they’re going to recover, I would want them to avoid the pain I was going through at all costs.”
“Exactly,” Jared said. “So, getting back to what we were talking about with free will. What is it about death that would make God stop wanting to save people? You would be saying that He wants to save people for about seventy years – seventy seven in Pop’s case – but, simply because they had not come to Him in this life, He then for billions upon billions upon billions of years and endlessly into the future would no longer have any desire to save them? What parent would ever set a limit on their child responding to their love? Think about the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. The father didn’t care how long the son had been away in sin. All that mattered was that his boy was coming home. It was the legalistic older brother who was ticked off that the father was so merciful and I feel like it’s often legalistic and rigid Christians that get the most ticked off at the merciful picture of God as portrayed by universalism.”
Tyler nodded slowly, deep in thought. Then he said, “I know a few Christians who can’t wait to see their enemies in hell. It’s kind of sick if you think about it.”
“Sick and ungodly,” Jared added. “It’s from that attitude that you can see how this doctrine is manmade. We would send our enemies to eternal suffering because we don’t love as perfectly as God does. God tells us not to wish destruction on our enemies, but to love them and bless them. If He commands us to do it, wouldn’t it be hypocritical of Him not to do the same? Do as I say and not as I do? Forgive your brother seventy times seven, meaning unendingly, but He will cast them into a pit of fire forever after seventy years?”
Tyler had to admit that Jared was giving him a lot to think about.
“Besides, is it really a free choice to say to someone, ‘Love me or I’ll torture you forever’?”
Tyler shot a glance at Jared that begged for an explanation.
“Think about it. If God is saying that you have until you die to decide to love Him and come into relationship with Him, then it’s like holding a gun to some girl’s head and saying, ‘Marry me or I’ll pull the trigger.’ The very purpose of the free will is thus thwarted by the overwhelming threat of force. The truth is that God is forever offering His love and at no point will He reject anyone who wished to embrace that love and receive his salvation and begin a relationship with Him. If He did, then He would be forcing them into a relationship via threat, which would be no love relationship at all, like you said yourself earlier.”
Tyler realized that the argument he had made from free will had come full circle back on him. If man has a free will and must be able to freely make the decision to accept God’s love and love Him back, there could be no threat of harm involved otherwise God would be undermining the very essence of what made free will free! “You said earlier that God could maintain the integrity of a person’s free will and yet save everyone. How does that work?”
Jared was happy he asked. “Like I said, God does not threaten people with eternal punishment if they refuse to come into relationship with Him, but he does warn them of the consequences of separating themselves from the source of love and peace – misery, loneliness, and destruction. It’s not that God does it to them, it’s the natural result of running away from love, just like natural result of holding your breath is suffocation. It’s spiritual suffocation. The way free will works is that over time, just like it does in this life, people will overcome their delusions about what they think will make them happy and satisfy them. The will learn that selfishness doesn’t bring the life they truly want and the destructive choices that people make that hurt other people will end up bring emptiness instead of the contentment they sought. God will let them freely make those decisions and the act of making those decisions will lead them to experience the consequences which, ironically, will eventually help them to realize that living in God’s love and care is what they really want after all. Given enough time, everyone will eventually realize this and repent.”
Tyler was thoughtful. “But isn’t it possible that some people will never learn and will continually choose to separate themselves from God?”
“No,” Jared replied bluntly. “No one in their right mind continually chooses to do what they clearly realize is to their own detriment and is the opposite of what they truly desire. Even if a person has a million false beliefs leading them to choose to reject God’s love, after God removes those million delusions, there would no longer be any motive or rational reason to continue to reject His love. God is all powerful and all wise. He knows exactly what a person needs to be allowed to experience that will shatter their illusions about sin and ultimately His love will conquer the strongest lies one could believe, because Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13 that love never fails, ultimately.”
“But what if a person just decides that they don’t want to be with God and continues to reject Him?” Tyler tried again.
“What would be the possible motive or reason?”
“They just don’t want to.”
“For no reason? With no motivation?”
Tyler had been a psychology major in college and he realized that no one does things without a motivating reason. But even still, it was hard to let it go.
“Maybe they’re just out of their mind and make the wrong decision.”
“Then that proves they no longer are using their free will,” Jared replied, “since the prerequisite for having free will is that a person be rational enough to evaluate the decisions they make clearly. And even if they continue to believe that it was what they wanted, if they were rational, they would eventually realize that it was not. Even the hardest heart would eventually break and would not perpetually choose against its own happiness and well-being.”
Tyler smiled weakly. “Well, cuz, I have to say that I don’t know how to respond to your arguments. It seems like a really strong argument for universalism and I’m not sure how to get around it. I’ve never heard this before in church, but I have heard a lot of preaching from the bible about hell. I mean, the logical arguments make sense, but what about all the scripture that talks about hell?”
At that moment, Jared’s parents called out to the boys to announce they were leaving for the night and to remind them that that they all had a long day ahead of them tomorrow. The boys got up and started walking toward the house.
“We got the funeral tomorrow and we’re probably not going to feel like having an in-depth theological discussion,” Jared noted. “But I’m home the rest of the week and for the weekend, so why don’t we meet at the Pizza Palace for lunch the day after tomorrow on Wednesday and talk about what the bible has to say about it. Bring your bible and we’ll have a good discussion.”
Tyler agreed and it was agreed that the boys would meet at noon. As Tyler rode home in the car that night with his family, he continued to struggle with this concept. Truth be told, it brought him a measure of peace that perhaps Pop and he would be reunited someday. He really thought that the universalism option was the best answer to the trilemma as it seemed that a person’s free will was not an obstacle to God, but a tool to bring them to Him. And, as he realized, the Arminian position was not exactly consistent on the free will argument anyway. As they made the last turn toward home, Tyler whispered a prayer to God that he would find the truth about the fate of Pop and the many other people he knew who had died without knowing the love of God in Christ. He was eager to get to the bottom of this theological and personal struggle and greatly looked forward to his discussion about the bible and universalism with Jared just a couple of days later.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Talbott, T. (1999). The inescapable love of god. Universal Publishers.