Christian universalism is the belief that all people will eventually be reconciled to God and be saved, and that there is therefore no eternal hell.
It is not the belief that salvation is available to all people if they choose to accept it, nor is it the belief that all religions lead to God. Rather, it is the belief that all people are eventually saved by Christ and go to heaven—or to whatever blessed state it is believed God has in store for humanity.
Recently a Christian blogger whose screen name is The Iron Knuckle posted an article titled, “Tough Apologetic Questions for the Non-Universalist.” I took up his challenge, and posted a long comment in response, whose original version you can read here.
The rest of this post is:
- My comment, edited to add the main questions from the original article as headings, and to remove a closing biblical question for The Iron Knuckle.
- Some commentary on The Iron Knuckle’s reply, and on the general aftermath of my response.
- Some additional thoughts on why many people believe what they do about God’s omnipotence.
Hi The Iron Knuckle,
I don’t expect you to change your mind (I think we’ve had conversations before). But I’ll answer your questions from the point of view of a Swedenborgian Christian non-universalist.
1. Does God love the people in Hell?
Yes, God loves the people in hell.
Hell is not “eternal conscious torment.” This horrible and insane idea comes from reading literally statements in the Bible that should be read metaphorically. There is no literal hellfire. Rather, hellfire is the spiritual fire (in a negative sense) of anger and hatred that people in hell feel and express toward one another and toward God. Hell is not a place where people are punished by God for sins committed on earth. Rather, it is a place where people who have chosen to enjoy evil rather than enjoying good are allowed to engage in their particular foul enjoyments as much as is possible, but suffer the inevitable consequences of their actions, inflicted, not by God, but by each other and by themselves. I invite you to read my article:
Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?
God does not love the people in hell differently. God’s love is always, everywhere, with everyone and everything, the same. However, people in hell accept God’s love differently than people in heaven. Specifically, people in hell reject God’s love, and what they do inadvertently accept they twist into its opposite.
This means that God did not make hell, as your opening meme suggests. Nor does God send anyone to hell. Though the power to make hell comes from God (there is no other source of power), the people who live in hell make hell for themselves by twisting the power of God’s love into its opposite: greed, selfishness, lust for power over others, lust for promiscuous and adulterous sex, anger, hatred, jealousy, and so on. The people who go to hell send themselves there because they prefer hell over heaven.
2. Can God’s will be defeated?
God’s will cannot be defeated.
However, God’s will is not fully described by the single biblical statement that God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3).
God also wills that people be saved in freedom, by their own free will choice, so that the relationship with God is real and human rather than automatic and pre-programmed—which would cause us to be puppets or robots, not human beings. This is why our Lord says:
Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. (Revelation 3:20)
And it is why the Lord says:
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. . . . I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days. (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19–20a)
God’s will is not fully described by any single statement or verse in the Bible, but by the entire Bible.
God’s will is more complex than simply wanting to save everyone. God’s will is to have a freely chosen, mutual relationship with beings whom God has created. This means that God’s will is that we be free to accept or reject a relationship with God.
Giving us that freedom requires that God accept and respect our choice if we choose not to have a loving relationship with God. This also is a part of God’s will. Yes, when we choose evil instead of good it invokes God’s “permissive” rather than “ordaining” will, to use your terms. (Swedenborg discusses these concepts under the terms “divine permission” and “divine providence.”) Yet both are part of God’s will and God’s purpose for creation.
In short, God both loves us and respects us enough to give us a choice about whether or not to return God’s love. Giving us that choice and respecting the choice we make is part of God’s will.
Yes, we are children of God. But God wants us to grow up from spiritual infancy to spiritual adulthood. We do not remain infants as your parent/child analysis assumes.
After raising their children from infancy to emancipation, parents must let go of control of their adult children. They must allow their adult children to live their own lives, even if it is not the life that the parent wanted for his or her child. Not doing so causes major problems in the lives of their adult children, often extending to a complete rupture of the relationship.
I have three adult children. And I don’t intervene in their lives to prevent them from doing things I don’t think they should do and that could actually harm them. They are responsible for their own lives now. I give them my love, and I give them my perspective and my counsel if they ask for it. But I let them live their own lives and make heir own choices.
Just as parents must let go of control of their adult children, so God lets go of control of God’s adult children. God wants to be our eternal friend, not our eternal dictator, just as Jesus says:
I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. (John 15:15)
God’s will includes a will not to control us, but to give us the freedom to live our lives as we wish to live them, and to be in loving relationship with God, or not, according to our own freely made choice.
True omnipotence is not rigidly controlling everything. Nor is it being able to do just any old thing, including self-contradictory things like creating a stone that God cannot lift. A desire to control everything is psychological and spiritual weakness, not strength. Doing contradictory and self-cancelling things is weakness, not strength. A house divided against itself cannot stand.
True omnipotence involves accomplishing things. True omnipotence is God having the ability to do everything God wants to do, pursuant to God’s purpose for creation. And true omnipotence includes the ability to step back enough to allow others to have and use power as they wish to use it, though still within the realities of eternal divine law.
On the nature of God’s omnipotence in relation to the created universe in general, and in relation to human beings in particular, please see my article:
God: Puppetmaster or Manager of the Universe?
3. How do the people in Heaven feel about the people in Hell? Do they feel sad?
The people in heaven do feel sad about the state of people in hell. However, like God their Father, they recognize that they must allow the people in hell to live the life of enjoyment of evil that they have chosen.
Jesus said that there is a great chasm between heaven and hell (Luke 16:26). Due to that chasm, most people in heaven do not live in daily awareness of the state of people in hell. Some people in heaven, however, do serve as what might today be called “peace officers” in hell, moderating the worst excesses of the evil spirits there, and carrying out God’s will of not allowing the evil spirits in hell to fall into even lower and worse levels of hell than they chose through their life and decisions here on earth.
In short, the people in heaven also love the people in hell, and have mercy on them, but will not violate their free will as human beings, and will therefore leave them in freedom to engage in the type of life and pleasures they have chosen to the extent that that is possible, even if the people in heaven find that life very sad and distressing. (But the evil spirits in hell find it intensely pleasurable, even if they have to suffer the painful consequences.)
The people in heaven are also realistic in recognizing that the people in hell have no interest in hearing the good news of Jesus Christ and salvation, and will violently reject it if they attempt to preach that good news to them. This is what Jesus was saying metaphorically when he taught:
Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you. (Matthew 7:6)
I have the same problem with Western universalism as I have with the Eastern belief in reincarnation. Both posit that eventually, all people end out in a version of heaven. Both therefore take away our humanity, and make us into mere puppets, and our life and suffering here on earth a mere play and charade, with no real purpose at all. See:
The Bible, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Reincarnation
If eventually all people will inevitably “choose” heaven, then it is really no choice at all, but a predetermined outcome. This would mean that we are not free, not human, and ultimately just an extension of God. And so it would defeat the whole purpose of creation, which is for God to have others to love and to be in mutual loving relationship with.
For a choice to have any ultimate reality, it must be permanent, not temporary. Temporary things are relatively unreal compared to eternal ones.
And if we all end out in heaven anyway, then there is no good reason for God to put us through all this earthly confusion and misery. A truly loving God would simply create us directly in heaven, and skip all the suffering. If universalism were true, then a truly loving God could not stand to subject us to even one second of suffering. It would be utterly incompatible with God’s love and mercy to do so.
If God’s whole will is that there be no evil, then there is absolutely no reason for evil to exist in the first place, and no possibility that evil could exist, since it is contrary to God’s will—and God’s will cannot be defeated.
That is my response to your questions as a non-universalist, non-traditional Christian.
You can read The Iron Knuckle’s antagonistic (his word, not mine) reply to my comment here.
While it did take up some of the points I made in my comment, my general sense was that it contained rather more heat than light. And when he got around to saying that the God I worship is “weak” and “pathetic,” it became pretty clear to me that if he were to accept what I had said in my response to his questions, it would be a mortal threat to his faith.
He confirmed this in the subsequent thread of comments—which he has now deleted (that’s his right; it’s his blog) because of my patronizing (my word, not his) stance toward him, and because I refused to debate him on the substantive issues of his article and my response.
Why did I refuse to debate him?
Because, as he said in one of the deleted comments, if I were to convince him that he was wrong in his understanding of God’s omnipotence and his belief in universal salvation, he would cease to be a Christian altogether.
That’s not a result I want. Winning an argument is not worth destroying someone’s faith.
Besides, I probably wouldn’t have “won the debate” and convinced him anyway. His current faith depends upon his universalist beliefs. He will vigorously defend that belief, even if it is ultimately in error, in order to preserve his faith—which is more critical than the actual truth of the particular doctrines comprising that faith.
False beliefs, when they are held to by someone with a good heart, can still function as truth for them. The goodness in their heart overcomes the falsity of their beliefs and leads them toward living a good life based on those beliefs. That’s why people of good will in all religions can be saved even if many of their beliefs are mistaken. As it says in 1 Samuel 16:7, “The Lord looks on the heart.”
Further, debates and arguments almost always have the opposite effect of what the people engaging in them intended. When people’s closely held beliefs are attacked, they will staunchly defend them, actively seeking out and clasping tightly to themselves everything they can find that supports their beliefs, and minimizing or brushing aside anything that doesn’t. As a result, at the end of the argument they believe even more strongly in their original position, even if it happens to be false.
That’s not a result I want, either.
I’ve been where The Iron Knuckle is (minus the drugs and related crises that he describes in his personal history and testimonials). When I was a twenty-something as he is now, I wouldn’t have listened to my present self either. And I probably would have laced my rebuttals with just as many personal attacks and insults as he does.
In fact, I know I would have, because that’s exactly what my younger self did.
I look back with embarrassment on several instances when my father, who was an eminent Swedenborgian theologian, scholar, and professor, attempted to explain to my teenage self one of the finer points of Swedenborgian doctrine . . . and I informed him in very absolute and not particularly polite terms that his explanation made no logical sense, was entirely unworthy of belief, and could not possibly be what the Bible or Swedenborg said and meant. My views, I thought, were logically airtight, comprehensive, and impregnable. And he was obviously wrong!
My father responded to my youthful onslaughts with the same bemused smile with which I responded to The Iron Knuckle’s onslaught on me.
Of course, my father was right.
My understanding of the Bible and church doctrine, of which I was inordinately proud, (I’d spent many, many hours . . . gosh, several years . . . intensively studying and developing it!) was limited, immature, and faulty. I was not ready to hear and understand some of the more advanced and nuanced things he was attempting to teach me. That took another twenty or thirty years of learning and personal experience in life.
So although my response to The Iron Knuckle’s fists-flying critique of my points may indeed be patronizing, here we are. As they say, “What goes around, comes around.”
Does this mean I think The Iron Knuckle will eventually come around to my point of view? Not necessarily. For one thing, I’m connected with Swedenborgian doctrine and tradition, whereas he’s connected with Catholic doctrine and tradition. Different inputs result in different outcomes.
Beyond that, I have no idea where his spiritual journey will take him in the future. But I do predict that in another thirty years, he’ll think differently even about his own church and religion than he does now. That’s part of growing in faith.
And given the hurricane of a journey that he’s been on so far in life, it seems likely that the hurricane will continue for a few more years at least, until his life settles down into a more regular pattern. Who knows where those winds of constant, rapid change will finally drop him off? My own twenty-something self did not correctly envision or predict where I would be today.
The Iron Knuckle’s comment contained several inaccurate statements about my beliefs. For now, I’ll correct only the one that I corrected in the deleted comment thread. It is a critical one to understand about my Swedenborgian Christian theology and about the articles here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life, which are based on that theology.
The Iron Knuckle said in his response to my comment:
you claim to be a “bible alone” christian
In fact, I have never claimed to be a “Bible-alone Christian.”
I am not a Protestant. I don’t subscribe to the Protestants’ “five solas,” including sola scriptura: the idea that scripture (the Bible) is the sole source of reliable doctrine, and is generally self-interpreting. (I should mention that the Iron Knuckle is Catholic.)
What I do believe is that for a particular doctrine to be considered fundamental or essential Christian doctrine, it must be stated in the Bible’s own plain words.
I believe that God is perfectly competent to tell us clearly in God’s own Word what we must believe and do in order to be saved, in language that requires only basic reading comprehension, not theological interpretation and exegesis by human theologians. See “Christian Beliefs that the Bible Does Teach.” In general, I view essential Christian doctrine as doctrine that is required for our salvation.
And I believe that the key tenets that both Protestantism and Catholicism have set up as essential Christian doctrine fail this basic biblical test. See “‘Christian Beliefs’ that the Bible Doesn’t Teach.”
Meanwhile, I also believe that there are many non-essential Christian doctrines that are not stated plainly in the Bible, and do require interpretation and outside sources, such as the writings of various theologians, philosophers, and scientists, to understand and accept. While I would not insist that all people must believe and live according to these doctrines in order to be considered genuine Christians, I nevertheless believe that they are true.
There are many articles on here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life expanding upon such beliefs that I do not consider essential Christian doctrine, and that I do not claim to be able to demonstrate solely by quotes from the Bible.
That’s why I feel perfectly comfortable using the writings of my favorite theologian, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), as a touchstone for spiritual and doctrinal understanding.
However, Swedenborg himself stated:
The Church’s body of teaching [traditionally, “doctrine”] is to be drawn from the literal meaning of the Word and is to be supported by it. (Sacred Scripture #50)
Swedenborg followed this principle in his doctrinal writings, quoting extensively from the Bible to support the key teachings that he promulgated as genuine Christian doctrine. The standard index of his scripture quotations fills a book of over 300 pages (over 400 pages in the most recent edition).
For my part, if I can’t point to a place where the Bible itself, in its plain, literal meaning, states a particular teaching, even if I may believe that teaching is true, I do not insist that all Christians must believe it and live by it in order to be genuine Christians.
My objection to the great mass of supposedly “essential” Christian doctrine according to the main body of traditional Christian denominations is that the Bible simply doesn’t say it. In fact, the Bible often flatly contradicts it. And I simply don’t go for the idea that human theologians are more competent at articulating key Christian teachings than the Lord himself is in the Bible. If the religion is Christianity, then its primary authority should be Jesus Christ, not Athanasius or Anselm or Aquinas or Luther or Calvin, or even Swedenborg (see: “Do the Teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg take Precedence over the Bible?”).
Nor do I go for the idea that the primary authority on Christian doctrine is the Catholic Magisterium—the reigning body of the Catholic Church, consisting of the Pope and the bishops. The doctrines this body has formulated and promulgated have so often been so completely wrong and false from a biblical, rational, and compassionate standpoint that the Catholic Church’s claim to have authority to define doctrine by apostolic succession all the way back to Peter rings very hollow. Historians have extensively documented how corrupt and riven with conflict this body has been at various times in Catholic Church history. This ever-changing group of men does not seem to have any special inspiration from God. It is just as error-prone as any other collection of human clerics and theologians.
However, the foundational Catholic error that Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven for all people on earth, and that Peter then passed them on to the Catholic hierarchy by apostolic succession, thus making the Catholic Pope and his bishops “the vicar of Christ,” wielding much of Christ’s power over the people of the earth, including the authority to determine their eternal salvation or damnation, will have to wait for a future article.
The Bible and God’s omnipotence
Finally, let’s look at why so many Christians have a rather simplistic understanding of God’s omnipotence.
The Bible states or strongly implies in many places that God is in complete control of everything in the spiritual realms, in the universe of nature, in human history, and in individual human souls, so that every single thing that happens, both good and bad, is an act of God even if someone else (such as Satan) is the one actually carrying out God’s will. Here is just one example:
I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting people may know there is none besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things. (Isaiah 45:5–7)
That is the New International Version. In the more traditional and generally more literal King James Version, the last verse reads:
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.
Yes, it says in the Bible that God creates both light and darkness (metaphorically, both truth and falsity), and creates and does both good and evil. God is presented a being who has absolute control over everything in the universe. God is presented as a being who brings blessings or curses, war or peace, good or evil upon whomever he chooses—and no puny human has any right or standing to question what God does.
Does God really do evil as well as good? Does God really punish and destroy God’s enemies? Is God both a God of love and creation and a God of wrath and destruction?
I don’t think so.
I believe that God is a God of pure love and wisdom, and that anger, wrath, cursing, and destruction are not part of God’s character and actions.
But I also think there’s a very good reason the Bible presents God as also being a God of wrath, punishment, and destruction against all evildoers.
If the Bible didn’t present God in this way, many people, including many Christians, would consider the Bible’s God to be a “weak and pathetic” God. As a result, they would have no respect for God, they wouldn’t listen to God, and they wouldn’t obey God’s commandments.
For people just starting out on the religious and Christian journey, who are often coming fresh out of lives ensnared in various types of evil and destructive behavior, evil looks very powerful. These neophytes to religious life feel in their gut that any God who didn’t get angry at wicked people, cursing them, punishing them, and wreaking all sorts of havoc upon them, is a weak God, and not at all worthy of belief.
In short, many people must believe that God has absolute power both for good and for evil, and absolutely controls everything in the universe, or they will ignore God altogether. And without the fear of God to restrain them, they will feel free to keep right on living evil, selfish, greedy, and destructive lives, free from the fear of any consequences.
These early-stage Christians need to believe, for the sake of their salvation, that if they do evil things, God will burn with wrath against them and miserably punish them. And many Christians (and people of other religions as well) never make it beyond that stage fear of punishment and hope for reward as the primary basis and motivator for their religious life.
Here is how Swedenborg puts it while explaining the Lord’s words to the serpent in Genesis 3:14, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals!”:
Jehovah God—the Lord—never curses anyone, is never angry at anyone, never leads anyone into crisis. He does not even punish us, let alone curse us. It is the Devil’s crew that does such things. Nothing of the sort could ever come from the fountain of mercy, peace, and goodness.
This passage and many others in the Word describe Jehovah God as not only turning his face away, being angry, punishing, and testing, but even killing—and, yes, cursing. This was in order to foster the belief that the Lord controls and arranges every last detail in the universe, including evil itself, punishments, and times of trial. After accepting this very general idea, people would learn just how he controls and arranges things. They would see that he transforms the evil involved in punishment and in our ordeals into good.
All scriptural teaching and learning begins with the most general things; for this reason the literal meaning abounds in broad ideas. (Secrets of Heaven #245)
In other places, Swedenborg explains that these “general things” and “broad ideas” are necessary for new Christians and for simple-minded people generally so that they will respect God and listen to God, repenting from their sins and living a good life as commanded by God.
Christian universalists take this rather broad and simplistic understanding of God’s omnipotence in a different direction. They believe that if God is omnipotent, this means that God is able to and will save all people, and will ultimately put an end to hell and all evil, raising everyone up into heaven. Those who adopt this belief vehemently reject as unloving, unmerciful, weak, and ineffective any God who would not save everyone.
For more on God’s omnipotence versus human free will, and on how for the sake of our salvation the Bible as a whole is accommodated to human ways of thinking, and often veils divine realities in human appearances, please see these articles:
- God: Puppetmaster or Manager of the Universe?
- Why does God Harden our Hearts, and Why are We Held Responsible?
- How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads
All of this is why, when I encounter relatively new Christians such as The Iron Knuckle, and also non-intellectual Christians, who believe in simplicity that God’s omnipotence means being able to do anything at all, both good and evil, and that God has absolute control over everything that happens in the universe, including the ability to save every single human being and eliminate hell, I don’t argue with them about it. It is necessary for them to first adopt this “broad idea” of God as all-powerful so that they will respect God and listen to God instead of thinking of God as a “weak and pathetic” God.
All of this is yet another reason I declined to debate The Iron Knuckle on his beliefs about divine omnipotence and universal salvation. I do not want to be in the position of attacking his relatively newfound Christian faith before it has a chance to strengthen and mature to the point of being ready for a more in-depth and realistic understanding of the ways of God and spirit.
Besides, his soul is in God’s hands, not mine. As long as he has a heart to follow God, God will lead him where he needs to go, both in his beliefs and in his life.
For further reading:
- God: Puppetmaster or Manager of the Universe?
- Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?
- Pain, Punishment, Prison, and Hell
- The Bible, Emanuel Swedenborg, and Reincarnation
- How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads
- Why does God Harden our Hearts, and Why are We Held Responsible?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth