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 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.

“Universalism is The Garden of Eden with one tree. It’s an idea birthed from a punitive, control-based theology. Without Calvinism, we wouldn’t have Universalism, at least, not as we know 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 punitive nature and heaven and hell have something to do with how He measures us against it.

I believe 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 Christian 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 sovereign control.     

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-based theology where heaven and hell are seen as either a reward or punishment.

I believe Universalism is a flawed idea birthed out of an earlier flawed idea.

It’s like two flat-earthers discussing where the earth ends—ultimately a fruitless conversation 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.

Two Trees

The Tree of Life is the fulfillment of every perfect desire (Proverbs 13:12). It is intimacy, and 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, 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, punitive-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 believe that 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 perfect love. Hell entered the narrative that day. It looked like shame and condemnation, and loss of intimacy, not on God’s end—on ours.

…but Jesus!

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, of 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, will never fail us. It doesn’t matter which narrative we want to live in, 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 why I’m 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.

17 Comments

  1. Oliver Newkirk

    Nice write up!!! Really good overview of God being love and giving us a choice.

    Reply
    • Jason Clark

      Thanks, Oliver, hope you guys are well!

      Reply
  2. Jordan

    Have it spelled out like that helps so much. Thanks Jason. Great write up.

    Reply
    • Jason Clark

      Thanks, Jordan!!

      Reply
  3. Will

    Awesome, just awesome. Thank you

    Reply
    • Jason Clark

      Thanks, Will!

      Reply
  4. Mary Featherstone

    Hi Jason, I’ve always struggled with Calvinism, knew in the core of my heart that free will is essential to a love relationship. Thank you for this clarity. Jesus came to restore our hearts to wholeness, to make us whole and holy by His love. We choose.

    Reply
    • Jason Clark

      Hey Mary! It’s amazing how Calvinism or punitive based theology has so influenced Western Christianity. It’s leaven in the bread. Just a little undermines our access to His love.

      Thanks for sharing, praying grace and joy over you today!

      Reply
      • Mary

        Thank you, keep spreading the ‘real’ Good News!!

        Reply
  5. Brendon Albiston

    Good message man. So worth the effort!

    Reply
    • Jason Clark

      Thanks for the encouragement, Brendon!

      Reply
  6. Clark Howell

    Universalism and Love (Father’s love) are mutually exclusive. Perfect. Thanks, Jason.

    Reply
    • Jason Clark

      Thanks, Clark! Hope you guys are well, I won’t be out to Redding this year, so no meetings at In-N-Out, but I’m grateful for the last time we met and looking forward to next time! Blessings!

      Reply
  7. Debbie Randall

    I really appreciate this a lot. It has really blessed me, thank you.
    I wanted to ask you because the question is lingering in my mind… Do you believe in a literal hell, not just the effects, like condemnation and shame and so on but a literal fiery place of eternal torment? I’m certainly not promoting a message of turn or burn lol, but feel it’s a valid question to ask.

    Reply
    • Jason Clark

      Hey Debbie, I appreciate your question!

      Here are my thoughts on the subject of hell as of Oct 28, 2019.

      I don’t know if hell is a literal place. I don’t believe in punishment. I do believe hell exists after this life because I believe God is love and love requires that we are still free to choose.

      When it comes to hell, here’s the real issue for me, I don’t believe God is about punishment. Punishment says something about the nature of God I just don’t see in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. So how does hell work?

      One scripture that has helped me understand heaven and hell is Matt 6:22-23. Jesus said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”

      I think hell is the result of truth (love) being rejected. When this happens, light, love, wholeness, and life are perceived as darkness, hate, brokenness, and death. And how great is this hell…

      When our eyes, (our perception) is true, heaven is the result. If our perception is flawed, if we reject the truth of His love, we will experience hell.

      I don’t know why this wouldn’t hold true after this life.

      And, of course, this raises the big scary question.

      Do I believe our Father’s love and redemption is available to us after we die?

      Yes, God is love. Love is greater and grander and still measureless. Love is fully available to us in life and death. He is a relentless redeemer and nothing separates us from His nature. Death doesn’t end His great affection for us. Death doesn’t end His great affection for us. He is still there, His love is still available to us. And the only way love works is that we are free to choose. The idea that we can’t receive or reject His love after this life is in direct conflict with the nature of Love.

      Satan was free to choose long before we had words to describe the consequences of his rejection, his story suggests free will existed before time existed (at least in the way we understand time).

      So if God is love and His love chases us down even in death as Paul writes in Romans, then I don’t know how there won’t be opportunities to both receive and reject His love on the other side of this life.

      Do I understand how that works after we die?

      I have no idea. But to be honest, I don’t need to. I believe Jesus wanted heaven on earth. So, when it comes to hell, my focus is very much connected to the here and now. It’s not that what happens when we die isn’t important, it’s just that I believe my ability to understand it is greatly connected to how sure I am in His love in the here and now. I’m only 45, I have eternity to discover the measureless, miraculous, mind transforming goodness of His affection.

      One last thought, I would like to suggest that any thought about hell that isn’t interpreted through a measureless revelation of heaven should be held suspect; any conclusion about hell that isn’t birthed from sovereign love, Jesus on a cross, is flawed and therefore dangerous to our spiritual and emotional well-being.

      I have found that those who tend to preach most fervently on the horrors of hell and eternal damnation seem to have very little evidence of the Kingdom of heaven in their lives. You know, the righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit that Paul wrote about in Romans 14:17. Those last two evidences, peace and joy? They are often markedly absent.

      You don’t understand a lie by studying the lie, you understand a lie by becoming immersed in the truth. His love, revealed perfectly in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is the truth. And I’m convinced this is where life is discovered and also where understanding regarding heaven and hell is discovered.

      Anyway, those are my thoughts 🙂
      Blessings!

      Reply
  8. Dusty Counts

    You and I share a mutual friend, Elizabeth Lopez. I am far from a deep thinker but the work of Dr. Chris Green has greatly influenced my thinking in the same direction as presented in this article. His sermons are online at Sanctuary Church. In Tulsa. He’s a professor at Southeastern.

    It’s my favorite to put people together! I hope you’ll have an opportunity to check out his body of work. I’m looking forward to reading your article that follows this one, right now!

    Reply
    • Jason Clark

      Hey Dusty,

      We love the Lopez’s!! I’ll check our Dr. Green, thanks for the introduction.

      Blessing and grace over you!

      Reply

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