How Universalism Empowers Evangelism

Written by
Zachary Reimer
Apr 1, 2020
Author:
Zachary Reimer
T

he Christian life centrally involves sharing that life with others (Matthew 28:19). We can share our life with God in several ways. Here are two. Evangelism (1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Colossians 1:15-20) is spreading the Good News of God’s gracious work and perfect character. Another way is apologetics (1 Peter 3:15), presenting a reasoned defense of Christianity. Some wonder whether Christian Universalism – the idea that God’s saving work in Christ extends successfully to all humanity – has an impact on evangelism and apologetics. I think universalism has a profoundly positive impact, and I’d like to walk you through five ways it does. 

1. Better News: God’s Grace Extends to Everyone

Is the Good News good, and if so, why? Consider what God has done. We can point to the glory of the resurrection, the suffering of the cross, and beauty of Jesus’ life and teachings. As the poet Thomas Traherne writes, “The Cross is the abyss of wonders, the centre of desires, the school of virtues, the house of wisdom, the throne of love, the theatre of joys, and the place of sorrows; It is the root of happiness, and the gate of Heaven” (Centuries of Meditation I.58). Universalism means the Gospel truly goes global; not only is everyone invited, but everyone will receive this great and gracious gift. Think of what this means. God provides the transformative life you are experiencing – where God shapes you so you “add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love” (2 Peter 1:5-7) in a continual participation in the life of God (2 Peter 1:4). It may be a simple insight but the Gospel as Universal Salvation means the Good News is good – for everyone. Here we have a world pervaded by the saving work of God, the deepest of relationships, the profoundest of joys, and the greatest extent of salvation from sin. Salvation going global does not undercut the value of God’s grace; it reveals it in full splendor. On Universalism, this world is indeed “very good” (Genesis 1:31).

2. Successful Efforts: Evangelism Will Not Fail

Recall the stirring words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:58. “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (NIV, emphasis mine) Here, we have a call to “stand firm” and a reason for it. God will not fail, and you are working with God in a sure victory. How does Universalism help us here?

Your task is simple, and your mission clear: lovingly share the truth in the ways available to you. Does Universalism change things? Indeed! God won’t let your efforts go to waste. No matter who you tell of God’s work in Christ, they will eventually be saved and have you as an important aspect of their journey. You and I face several scenarios where success is motivating. I, for one, am in a long-term project of study at university. If you said that I will get a job regardless of the challenges, it will make a profound, empowering difference to how I study – it means I have an impact! It is the same in evangelism. You are a means through which God works to save people. It is a great gift to share, but God is the one who saves regardless of your view of how God saves. Universalism gives us a picture of successful evangelism, and that should be a profound motivator.

3. Pure Motives: Sharing a God of Loving Justice

Let's turn inward to ask about our motives – and the motives we wish to cultivate in others – when sharing the Gospel. We reveal that we know God and show who God is through love – through acts as expressions of loving, good motives (1 John 2, 4). Thinking about this, Universalism changes everything. 

Universalism calls us to share the Gospel motivated neither by fear of an endless hell or the worry that God will eventually destroy the lost. We do not have a God with two faces – one loving once you’ve sated him, and the other rage when you haven’t. “There is no fear in love”, for we have a different motivation: God loves us, and God calls us to love others. In fact, “God is love” (1 John 4: 8). Universalism removes the opportunity to put anger and fear as the foreground for our motivation for relating to God or sharing God with others. Motives matter, and the salvation of all puts the heart of God in center stage.

4. Reduced barriers: Problems of Evil are Lessened

We’ve just covered some positive aspects of apologetics and evangelism. Another challenge for apologetics is responding to objections. One way to do this is to reduce the weight of objections to Christianity – they weren’t as strong as initially thought. Let's see how Universalism reduces the strength of the primary objections to belief in God. 

Two of the central objections to theism – the hiddenness argument and argument from evil – are varieties of the problem of evil. There are bad things that are either unexpected, or (supposedly) precluded, by God’s existence, and yet here they are. Innocent children die of starvation. People are victims of rape. Many search for God and yet fail to find their deepest good: a belief relationship with their creator. Further, God may seem distant to believers who long for God's presence. Some may fear that there is neither an explanation nor a compensation for the continuous stream of human suffering and divine silence. 

Universalism has a leg up on its competitors regarding whether God might be able to limit the evils or compensate for some of them. Let’s take both problems together, now with a focus on Universalism. We have a limit, for all, to these evils that end in a life worth living for each person – a life that, from the vantage of eternity, is defined by the saving work of God and God's achievement of humanity's deepest good. Evil is limited, not eternal in hell or annihilated – but replaced by restoration. Those for whom God was silent will soon find God, and the rest of their experience will be an eternity of flourishing within the relationship for which every yearning for God is answered and embraced. There will be no casualties in the divine calculus. Universalism doesn’t answer all our questions, but it can limit the force of some and fully remove others. 

5. Dissolved Objections: There is No Problem of Hell

Imagine you are sharing the Gospel with your friend, Ish. He acknowledges the strength of your case for the resurrection of Jesus, is impressed by the changes God has achieved in your life, and he finds few of the problems of evil persuasive. Yet one objection which remains: the problem of hell. How is the existence of God compatible with eternal conscious torment or the ultimate, irrevocable destruction of creatures made in God’s image? Ish is not alone. Several philosophers of religion and ethics from Linda Zagzebski to Marylin McCord Adams have found the notion of an eternal hell a problem which strikes at the heart of morality and threatens the coherence of Christianity. 

How does Universalism help us in responding to the problem of hell? We approach the problem by not having one. All are saved, and so hell may be an experience we pass through, but is not a stopping point. Hell, for the Universalist, is both punishment and path to restoration. Consider, then, proposed benefits and challenges of the doctrine of an eternal hell. Hell presents various forms of proposed benefit – retributive justice, a sense of storing the worst we can imagine, and a sense of God’s wrath – but like a really good electric car, Universalists ditch the combustion without losing what really matters. The problem hell is its duration (eternal) and its form of justice (non-restorative). Universalists can accept the idea that God punishes the wicked and prevents them from hurting victims, but they don't have a hell without end and without restoration. Eventually, God heals all. 

Hell also presents many problems – defending the coherence of retributive justice, showing that it makes sense eternally, avoiding objections that it is (un)lucky who ends up where, making sense of a form of human freedom or divine love that would allow people into hell, etc. - and Universalists don’t have to make sense of the issues with hell that just aren’t their problem. This clears up space in your presentation of the Good News, for you easily avoid one of the largest critiques of God’s perfect character.

Conclusion

Universalism empowers us to share the Gospel with conviction and clarity. The Good News truly is good, successful, motivated by love, and rationally persuasive against strong critiques when seen through the salvation of all in Christ. Whether as a profound hope or a confident belief, Universalism is an idea as practical as it is reasonable, as inspiring as it is convincing.




Zachary Reimer

Zachary Joel Reimer is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. He previously earned a Master’s degree in Philosophy at Ryerson University in Canada. When not pondering questions of moral responsibility, religious faith, and virtue, he writes and feeds his twin loves of Scottish poetry and Russian novels.