Universalism is the belief that all creatures will be eventually be reconciled to God, sinners and saints alike. Although some Universalists claim there is no Hell at all, the only thing required is that whatever Hell there might be is not eternal. For the Universalist, redemption and reconciliation with Almighty God are inevitable, if not necessarily painless.
In some ways Universalism is the future-looking mirror-image of Unitarianism, which asserts that all things were created by a single God. As Unitarianism states that we ultimately all have One beginning, so Universalism states we shall all ultimately have One end.
The Kinship of Unitarianism and Universalism
Universalism has not suffered the same semantic smudging as Unitarianism, despite that its largest denomination in the United States — The Universalist Church of America — was also absorbed into the Unitarian-Universalist Association which has utterly distorted the original meaning of Unitarianism. The meaning of Universalism in Christianity today is pretty much the same as it was when the word was coined.
And in the Christian religion, Universalism also shares with (theological) Unitarianism the distinction of representing the original Christian faith before the rise of the Imperial Nicene apostasy which led Europe into the Dark Ages. According to the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Volume XII, page 96):
In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Cesarea, and Edessa or Nisibis) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality, and one (Carthage or Rome) taught the endless punishment of the lost.
The Encyclopedia also quotes Johann Christoph Döderlein, a renowned German theologian during the time of Jonathan Mayhew and the American Revolution, saying:
In proportion as any man was eminent in learning in Christian antiquity, the more did he cherish and defend the hope of the termination of future torments.
The original articulation of Universalism, known in Greek as apokatastasis or “restoration,” was not declared heretical until the 6th century, and then only by synod; when this condemnation was presented for a vote before the 5th Council of Constantinople, it failed to pass muster even despite pressure from Imperial circles. This core Christian idea has been suppressed and attacked from time to time, but has survived.
Just as Unitarianism is the original theology of Christianity, Universalism is its original soteriology. But, is modern Reform Unitarianism itself Universalist?
Why Universalism? For Inclusion.
There are two distinct considerations that lead theologians toward Universalism, the compassionate and the conceptual.
The compassionate consideration asks the following questions: Should people who are traditionally condemned as immoral really go to Hell? Do good people deserve eternal punishment simply because they have not recited a Christian creed? Do even the wickedest and most evil truly deserve to burn alive for eternity? How can never-ending torment be squared with a compassionate God for whom the highest virtue is agape, or love?
This compassionate consideration bumps against conservative religion, which offers only the salvation of loyalism. For the loyalist, there is no question: you either recite the appropriate oath, disregard its inconsistencies and absurdities, obey the church authorities, or you burn forever in Hell. Does this sound unjust and irrational to you? So be it.
Bishop Carlton Pearson discovered the hostility to this compassionate consideration when, driven by what he believes was Divine inspiration, he began preaching his Gospel of Inclusion. Bishop Pearson’s soteriology denies the eternal punishment of the damned that was, in ancient times, confined to the elite minority sect of Imperial Rome, thus making him far more representative of the original Church. Nevertheless, he was ostracized by his fellow evangelicals and had to start from scratch with a new congregation.
Inclusion by Omission
Many liberal churches, although they do not explicitly deny eternal punishment as Bishop Pearson has, still promote an implicit Universalism by omission, by watering down religion’s normative function until it becomes little more than a charity and social club or, worse, a thinly-veiled political activity.
The implicit Universalism of diluted Christianity rejects loyalist salvation in favor of no real salvation at all. In the “I’m Ok, You’re Ok” soteriology of some liberal churches, there is nothing to be saved from because moral theodicy has been amputated in the name of open-mindedness.
While there is certainly some value in reexamining entrenched dogma to determine whether old standards of morality are valid or merely cultural prejudice, a sweeping erasure of all stigma is like throwing out the spiritual baby with the cultural bathwater.
Rejecting all condemnation, liberal religion often ends up with little more than happy feelings and open arms, a sort of Universalism Lite made up of activism dressed up in Christian clothing.
Why Universalism? For Unitarianism.
Which leaves the conceptual consideration: Can there really be two outcomes for a world with a single Origin? If God is the source of all things in existence, including space and time, how can there be two afterlives? “Where” exactly could Hell be if it is both not in this world and also eternally not with God?
Obviously, this is the path that theological Unitarians might take to Universalism, and where they diverge from liberal religion. Rather than taking religion less seriously to keep from offending or discriminating against traditionally-stigmatized groups, AUR arrives at an ultimately inclusive soteriology by following Unitarian theology to its rational conclusion: in other words by taking God more seriously.
Saint and sinner alike, we all have only one “place” to go after this world: the presence of the One God.
But, taking God and religion seriously also means that there is an Ultimate Truth with which we can be out of tune. Regardless of what constitutes “out of tune” here, out of tune means error, error means sin, sin means consequence and therefore salvation from that consequence. Religion still has something to do — and something to counsel us to do — for our own good.
Why Be Moral? Paving the Way.
For the Reform Unitarian, reconciliation may be inevitable given the Oneness that awaits beyond this world, but that does not mean reconciliation is painless.
If perfecting one’s spirit while alive is a painful process, why would it not be painful after life? If accepting the full measure of Creation, and one’s contingent place within it, is a humbling — or even humiliating — and mournful process when measured out over years of spiritual growth, how must that feel if one is suddenly thrust into the Eternal and Infinite?
If realizing how relatively peripheral we are in the Universe burns when that realization comes in a series of small and manageable epiphanies, how hot does it burn when all that heat is stored up for one, final apocalyptic unveiling?
Religion is more than just interpersonal ethics, inspiring stories, and a place to socialize once every seven days. It is preparation for our ultimate destination. When the Prophet of the Muslims said, “Die before you die,” he was not simply being morbid. A life path that is not fully conscious of one’s eventual death and the dissolution of the individual self is a lifeway in denial of reality. You may try to forget about the abyss, but the abyss will never forget about you.
We cannot avoid that inevitable reconciliation, but we can choose the tone of it: will we meet our mortality as an old acquaintance with whom we have had many conversations, or as a horror we have spent our life fleeing? Will we stand before the Face of God prepared to abandon our creaturely ego, or will the experience be an involuntary purgation of our delusions of self-importance?
The idiomatic and theological function of religion is to describe the way to God. The normative and moral function of religion is to pave that way, and paving a road takes more than just not kicking the other guy’s cart. Morality extends beyond the interpersonal, inter-identity ethics of liberalism. It is not merely about being good to each other for social justice’s sake. It is a struggle of the psyche to reconcile with the Divinity that binds us all, before that reconciliation is forced upon us.
That willful reconciliation takes effort, guidance, and discipline. The Universalism of Reform Unitarianism is a common destination to which we each choose a path: paved with spiritual discipline or left undeveloped and strewn with inevitable suffering.