Why I Am Not A Universalist
Recently I was asked if I’m a Universalist.
I had just finished speaking at a conference and was connecting with folks at the front of the auditorium. It was a sincere question from a friendly fella but we didn’t have time for conversation as I was being kindly but insistently herded into the next session. So, smiling, I answered by telling him the title of my last book. God Is (Not) In Control.
“It’s hard to be a Universalist as us Westerners understand it and also believe God is not in control,” I said, laughing.
As I walked toward the exit, he walked with me. “What do you mean?” He asked.
“To me, Universalism is The Garden of Eden with one tree. It’s an idea birthed from a retributive, control-based theology. Without Calvinism, we wouldn’t have Universalism, at least, not as we have been evangelically influenced to think about it.”
He nodded, but I could tell that last thought threw him. Before I left, he asked if I had written anything specifically about Universalism.
I shook my head apologetically.
No, I hadn’t…
Christian Universalism originated in the late 18th century, nearly 300 years after Calvin introduced the idea of sovereign control, better known as predestination; a lie suggesting God has a retributive nature and heaven and hell have something to do with how He measures us against it.
I think this idea played a large role in the popular understanding today that hell is an eternal punishment for any life not submitted to God. I also believe this punishment-based theology is the birthplace of how most of us Western Christians view Universalism.
Christian Universalism believes in the reality of “an afterlife without the possibility of eternal punishment in hell.” In my opinion, this type of universalism is built on the foundational premise of a sovereignly controlling God.
It’s funny, but you could say Universalism is actually just empathetic Calvinism, or, “Calvinism with a heart.” Instead of predetermining hell, it predetermines heaven. Its conclusions are founded on the same faulty, behavior-focused transactional theology. Universalism, when viewed through a retributive lens, perceives heaven and hell as reward and punishment.
I believe Universalism is a flawed idea birthed out of an earlier flawed idea. To me, a conversation about universalism in that context is pointless because the God Jesus revealed doesn’t do punishment. That conversation would be like two flat-earthers discussing where the earth ends—ultimately fruitless because the earth isn’t flat.
C.S Lewis once suggested that many of our God questions are like asking, “How many hours are in a mile, or if yellow is square or round. Probably half the questions we ask, half our great theological and metaphysical problems, are like that.”
I believe Universalism is such a question.
God is not a Universalist. God is Love. They are two opposing thoughts.
You see, there were two trees in the Garden of Eden.
The Tree of Life is the fulfillment of every perfect desire (Proverbs 13:12). It is intimacy, love, and friendship, with no hint of distance or separation. It is the reality of heaven on earth, His Kingdom here and now. It is our origin of birth and what Jesus restored us to through the cross.
The other Tree? The Knowledge of Good and Evil: It birthed a punitive, law-based system in which someone had to pay. So, Jesus paid. Better than that, He exposed the flawed lie that God’s sovereignty has anything to do with control; the lie Calvin and so many others keep resurrecting.
Jesus took the deception of punishment and reward to its conclusion and then said, “Enough! ‘It is finished.’”
But why was that second Tree in the Garden of Eden in the first place?
Because Love can’t exist without free will.
The Two Trees represented freedom: Adam and Eve were free to choose – either surrender to love, or reject love.
There are only two types of surrender: forced or voluntary. God has never forced us to love Him. That’s not how Love works. Love can’t be demanded. It can’t be taken forcibly. It must be given, and it must be given freely.
God wants relationship. He desires a loving, intimate friendship. This is not possible where there is no choice. If we aren’t able to receive or reject love, if we aren’t free to participate in a relationship, then we aren’t free and love is no more than lines of code in a computer program and we are nothing more than robots, automation.
Universalism is the Garden of Eden with one tree: it has never existed because God is love.
Now I get it…if the love of God is seen through reward or punishment, Calvin’s idea of heaven and hell; if a person is not able to leave a controlling, retributive-based theology, then universalism is the next best thing. The idea that “everyone gets in” is closer to the gospel Jesus revealed than the Evangelical “party line” presented today.
To be honest, if I hadn’t left the Calvinist idea of a controlling God manipulating our behavior and affections with heaven and hell; if I still believed God was measuring me based on what I believed and did, I’d be an ardent Universalist.
But the fact is, God already measured, and it had nothing to do with my beliefs or behavior and everything to do with His measureless, never-ending love. I don’t get a say in how He feels about me!
God is love and “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”(Rom 8:38-39)
There is nowhere we can go to escape the wonder of His always-good love.
So, what is Hell? A Universalist would tell you it doesn’t exist… but of course, it does. You don’t have to look hard to find the evidence. It feels like distance and separation and shame and hopelessness…it has touched all our lives, and it wreaks havoc on our world.
But I would like to suggest that Hell is not about punishment, it’s not God withholding Himself. He has already made it clear: nothing separates us and He doesn’t hold our sins against us. (2nd Cor 5:19)
I think Hell is not the absence of love; rather, it is the rejection of love.
Because God is love, we are free to choose: we can either receive love or reject it. Hell is what happens when we reject it.
Adam and Eve were the first to reject love. Hell entered the narrative that day. It looked like shame and condemnation, and loss of intimacy, not on God’s end—on ours.
Jesus, on a cross, feeling the utter devastation of hell, said, “’Father forgive them for they know not what they do,’ they are deceived by a punitive based theology, and it’s why I choose to hang here.”
Then, He died and rose. And when He did, all creation – all humanity – rose with Him. Jesus exposed the lie of sovereign control, distance, and separation. He will never leave or forsake us. His love is wider, longer, higher, and deeper. His love is always good, doesn’t deviate to the left or to the right, and will never fail us. It doesn’t matter which narrative we want to live in, or what theology we have embraced, His love is measureless, it will chase us down.
And because of His great love, we are free to choose—free to say yes to the love that He offers. Free to give and receive, to know intimacy and friendship and hope and full abundant life; heaven, here and now!
I choose love. Over and again, I choose love! And I believe you are free to choose love as well. And that’s way better than being a Universalist.
And why I am not a Universalist.
Jason Clark is a writer, speaker and lead communicator at A Family Story ministries. His mission is to encourage sons and daughters to grow sure in the love of an always-good heavenly Father. He and his wife, Karen, live in North Carolina with their three children.
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