A Discussion on Unconditional and Universalism

Exchanges Between Friends

Bob Brinsmead (April 4, 2012) 

It should be obvious that the concept of the Unconditional and Universalism go together.  They endorse the saying, “Come home Judas, all is forgiven.”

A friend sent the following article which I probably shared with the group sometime ago, but it is worth repeating here:

Problems that arise from anti-Universalist ideology:

1. It creates an “us” and “them” mentality, an “insider” vs. “outsider” mentality.  We find ourselves always dividing ourselves from those who are inside and outside the “walls”….we see ourselves in competition, and this competition, if Revelation is at all accurate, is very “real” and will culminate in a huge war. It is divisive to the most ultimate extreme.

In Gnosticism the “insiders” and “outsiders” were determined by who had particular “knowledge.” In modern day Christianity it is determined by those who “accept” our beliefs and those who don’t. Even if we don’t know who ultimately will or won’t accept, people are not “on our side” until they do.

2. It creates a sense of pride and elitism. The “redeemed” are in a special category…they alone are “saved.” And unfortunately, some kind of judgment and decision must be made to explain why they are saved and others aren’t.

We are either: on our way to a blissful heaven and reunion with God, or on our way to eternal punishment and separation from God.  This is a huge difference in destination without any middle ground.  This makes no sense.  How do we explain this?

Why are we saved and other’s lost? What is your answer?

Is it because:

a.  God chose us and not them?

b.  We are more “moral” or “good’?

c.  We are more obedient or submissive?

d.  God loves us more and tried harder with us?

e. Our ‘free wills’ are somehow more “pure,” malleable, or aligned with God’s?

f. We’re more receptive to grace, love, etc.?

And notice that no matter how we answer…we are somehow, in some way, superior, better, etc., even if we say it’s a “mystery.” Even if we try consciously to resist such an idea, subconsciously this concept creeps in.  How can it not.? This is ego-feeding and leads to pride.

3. It leads to de-humanization. In the book of Revelation Christians are competing on the side of “righteousness” and others on the side of “evil.”

Christians see themselves on the “winning and good team” over and against others.  But how do we deal with the fact that millions of people are going to be killed and “burn forever”?  If we take each life seriously and see it as precious and sacred, it is overwhelming!  As a solution to deal with such concepts, we de-humanize people in this life time.

This is what occurs historically with members of the first world looking at members of the third world. People cannot effectively endure and accept the travesties, devastation of famine, and natural disasters that occur in the third world…they find it too overwhelming. Historically the remedy is that we de-humanize them…it is a subconscious reaction. This helps us “cope”

but in the end, everyone loses because once people are de-humanized, they are exploited. The same thing happens with those of other races in racism and it occurs in sexism, etc. The ultimate example of de-humanization is the holocaust. But how can we avoid de-humanizing the “lost” when in the end, we see the “lost” ultimately as “fodder for the eternal fire”? I assert that anti-Universalist ideas encourage de-humanization to radical degrees.

4. The idea of being “eternally damned” or “lost” causes Christians to be totally pre-occupied with fear throughout their lives and to keep major distance in their relationships with unbelievers. What happens in religious families when a child rejects their parent’s faith? The parents either spend their lives trying to convince the child to convert and live in fear, or they have to emotionally distance themselves from their child to help “ease” their pain. I see many Christian parents “disown” their children after a certain point out of desperation.

The same thing happens in friendships. One of the main reasons Christians stay inside their Christian ghettos is because they don’t want to get too close to someone who will only end up “dead” or “lost” for eternity. Why risk deep love with the unsaved? What if all of your efforts to convert them are not fruitful? Can you really keep loving them? It’s very painful, that’s why most Christians won’t do it. Just as people naturally avoid getting involved intimately with the terminally ill, Christians don’t get too ‘close’ to the ‘lost.’ You want proof? Just look at your churches. Talk to the majority of Christians…who are they are close to? Christians surround and insulate themselves with fellow Christians, rarely going outside those walls except to “evangelize.”

How many Christians have had friends who were “unsaved” and felt tortured and continually fearful over their eternal destination? I recall crying every night for weeks for some of my friends as a child. What is the solution? I’ve seen it occur hundreds of times. Initially the Christian tries their darndest to convert their “lost” friend.  When attempts fail, they eventually “give up” and distance themselves…either that or the friend leaves first feeling hurt.  It’s very hard to be friends with most Christians because there are always strings attached.

Do you honestly think that an all-good God desires that people live in such fear? How can we avoid it? Apathy? Emotional distancing? Is that what Jesus calls us to?

And this fear carries over into puritanical ideals.  If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard, “do not be yoked with unbelievers” or told that I would be somehow stained or sullied by non-believers, I’d be rich.  It’s no coincidence that non-believers have a hard time feeling accepted by most Christians.  Many Christians look at unbelievers as having the potential to “taint” them…like a disease….maybe even the power to lead them down the path of eternal destruction.  No wonder they keep their distance.

Here’s a question for Christians to consider: If you had a longtime friend who converted to be a conservative Muslim and then wanted you to convert to their religion because they lived in constant fear that you would go to hell if you didn’t, could you honestly still be their friend? Could you confide in them? Could you feel safe and trusting and open? What would that do to your friendship?

What does this mentality do?  And how we can we ever effectively love and minister to people when we carry all this baggage both consciously and unconsciously??

The founder of Shin Buddhism, Shinran Shonen gave up his disciplines as a Buddhist monk to embrace “salvation by faith” in the Amida Buddha. It was said of him:

“He never consigned anyone to damnation simply because they did not agree with him. The only person he believed worthy of hell was himself as a passion-ridden being, totally incapable of the necessary purification for enlightenment.”

What an example to Christians!  This is humility.  This is dealing with the “log” in one’s own eye, not the speck in one’s neighbor’s.

If God exists, I believe Universalism is true.  Universalism seems the most true and ethical form of belief within any spiritual framework.

It is hard to argue against the logic and moral force of the above.  A foremost argument against Universalism is that it will lead to moral laxity and an attitude that it makes no difference how we live.  Against this response I raise the following points:

1.  This reminds me of the devout Baptist who once said to me, “If I thought like you people [I was still an Adventist] that there was no such thing as an ever burning hell, I would go out and have a whooping good time.”  I told him that I was already having a whooping good time doing what I was doing.

2. A few years ago, John Hicks (a Harvard Scholar) wrote an impressive little book wherein he convincingly argued that there was no objective evidence that people in one religion are morally/ethically better than another religion; or for that matter, that theists were any better than atheists.

3. If our missionary efforts to bring “the light of salvation” to people does not determine their ultimate destiny(and what a pickle we get into if we claim their salvation depends on our missionizing them!) then why should we make any effort at all to bring them the comforts of the gospel – yes, even the unconditional gospel of the historical Jesus?  We should do it for the same reason we feed the hungry, clothe the naked and try to bring comfort to all who mourn or are in any way oppressed.  As humans we do that, not as a means of converting them to a certain religious viewpoint, but for no other reason than it will give them a more comfortable journey through life.  We do things like this because anything that improves the human condition will make this world a better place.  Our efforts are not going to win another soul for eternal salvation that otherwise might not have made it.

4. So if the light of the Unconditional can lighten a fellow traveller’s heavy burden and put a new fire of hope and courage in their hearts, then we share the light for the same reason we would bring physical comforts to them.  None of it has anything to do with their ultimate destiny.  Thank God, that is grounded in a more secure Source!

Henry Hasse (April 9, 2012)

Very thankful you found this worth repeating, Bob! I found your four points at the end extremely helpful to calm down my fears about linking unconditionality to universalism. Yet, as you know, there are many kinds of universalism, such as trinitarian, biblical, Unitarian, etc. And each has its own exclusive belief system in spite of some commonality regarding salvation for all. Unitarian universalism seems closest to unconditionality in that it would certainly lend an non-judgmental ear to our discoveries, but it still considers itself a religion which has ears for all religions. I find little comforting news in that.

Herb Sorenson (April 8, 2012)

The two “problems” you have identified are distinction and superiority.  There is a political philosophy which also has a problem with these.  Of course you may be positing these problems as being solved in “heaven,” but I find it odd.  Us pragmatists have lost interest in heaven, since we find ourselves, not there.  We still live in circumstances that require violence to maintain the peace.

I reject all the answers offered in the article, as well.

I will share something the wife and I discussed this week on our drive to and from the beach.

I was destined to leave Adventism nearly 50 years ago, when I took a course in Daniel & Revelation at Union College.  What troubled me was not this or that point, but thatanyone could create an explanation of EVERY word.  Actually, all of the more fundamentalist religions have this characteristic – what physicists call TOE, the Theory Of Everything.  There is such a burning desire in the human race to provide explanations, that TOE is always a compelling idea.

And this is the strength of the fundamentalists – they provide people with an account with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed.  But mostly they are modest enough to admit that they don’t know everything.  So, of course, Uriah Smith’s Thoughts on D&R was not elevated to the level of canon, as was EGW.  But the point I am making here, is that from a practical point of view, fundamentalists generally, as a group, do not claim ultimate and final knowledge, that “truth” will unfold further.

But here’s the organizational problem: this frank admission of theoretical agnosticism amongst fundamentalists, always has a set bill of fare that everyone MUST subscribe to.  So there is a clear line between knowing and agnosticism.  What is “known” is what the group says is known.  It’s the nature of groups.

I’ve said I’m a Christian agnostic pragmatist.  Given all the varieties of “Christianity,” I don’t feel fraudulent, even if mine doesn’t agree with anyone else’s.  As an agnostic, I pack my belief bag quite light, and always wonder about what’s in it, too.  As a pragmatist, if doesn’t work, it isn’t worth spit to me.

Distinction and superiority is what makes the world I live in work.  So . . . unconditional may be an absolutely heavenly idea – but I don’t live in that realm. 

Wendell Krossa (April 8, 2012)

It’s difficult, Herb, to square this view of fundamentalism (“modest enough to admit they don’t know everything”) with most of our experience with fundamentalism as certainty about many things. And I include philosophical materialist fundamentalism, scientific fundamentalism, and other varieties along with the usual religious fundamentalism.  Agnosticism to a fundamentalist is anathema.  Heresy. Damnable doubt.

What’s missing in this reference to TOE is the recognition that us humans live by meaning. We must create meaning, and meaning in a  narrative to live our lives by. And our meaning is often idealistic. It is born out of a powerful impulse for something better, something better than the imperfection that is the present. All the economic and political discussion here is about this impulse for something much better. And to affirm where you are coming from, yes, your impulse to create a better existence here and now. We get that.

And our recent discussion of unconditional is just more of this impulse for meaning (what does it mean to be truly human) and the longing for something better than what is now. How can we here and now create something better in the way we relate to one another.

Herb Sorensen (April 9, 2012)

 You’re right about agnosticism being a heresy to a fundamentalist.  But that is only theoretical heresy, since as I pointed out, at least amongst Adventists, there is almost a fanatical interest in “new truth.”  In fact, that was behind Bob’s publication PRESENT Truth.  But organizations have no way of dealing with this, realistically, other than to be quite tolerant – as Catholics – and to have someone(s) with designated Ex Cathedra authority.  Most fundamentalists do have something of this structure.  And as far as scientific fundamentalism, note the demon Gore referencing “settled” truth.  It’s always there in the fundamentalist mind – that is, the HUMAN mind.  What we know, and what we don’t know.  So go ahead and focus on the arrogance of fundamentalism – I acknowledge it.  But your understanding has to be skimpy if you are not equally conversant with the modesty of fundamentalism, and how it attempts to practice it.

The meaning that you seek is the same meaning of all your coreligionists.  For myself, I am as confident of God as I am of anything.  I am quite aware of my egoistic me, me, me, as expounded by Edward Abbott Abbott in his “Flatland” book.  But “somebody” from outside my dimensions has touched me on more than one occasion, in brilliantly productive ways.  I presume no relationship (or understanding) here, than gratitude.  You are a coreligionist with no more appreciation for the positive power of “religion” than of the “humility” of fundamentalism.

Rather than discovering the future, where the human race is evolving to – it’s beyond your ken, anyway – you should be focussing on how the human race is actual moving forward.  To hell with philosophical ideas.  We’ve seen plenty of them in Marx and others.  Rather, on with the REAL ideas of FORD and JOBS, et al.  Freedom is something done, not talked about.  I thought that I heard Bob exhorting in this direction 30 years ago.  But I dip in here and it seems more like the dog returned . . .  😉

Nothing like a little frank discussion among old friends, eh?

Henry Hasse (April 9, 2012)

Well put, Herb! I think many of us still have the old fear of being polluted by “false” teaching. So we throw the baby out with the bath water. It is as if we we have nothing to learn from the good found in religions, their followers, and even their “holy” scriptures. Perhaps the Unitarian Universalist is aware of this mistake of not finding the good even among the “bad” which they seem to be able to overlook with grace. They choose instead to learn what they can, move on, and become the better for it. That is a huge step forward for those of us who were so involved in OUR right way! But now we have that freedom and need to be reminded of it ever so often. Thank you for doing that!

 Henry Hasse (April 9, 2012

Every email I receive from this group is very valuable to me and has helped me to grow more in a few months than you will ever know. Nothing is obvious to me any more. The more I admit my ignorance, the more is poured in. What follows is probably nothing new to most of you, but I had to put it together for myself and for anyone who may still be taken in by resurrection claims for this day. Its purpose is not to convince, but rather to present history and finally question the narrative accounts and the creeds of the church.

Easter was a pagan rite of spring that celebrated a goddess of fertility. Christians used the name but changed the meaning to celebrate the supposed resurrection of Jesus. I say supposed for several historical reasons which question its validity.

1. It was not a new idea at all. It can be found in the ancient Eastern Zoroastrian religion which included: One God and Satan, the soul,  heaven and hell, the virgin birth of a savior, the slaughter of innocents, resurrection, the final judgment, promotion of social justice, and individual choice between good and evil.

2. That same religion, by then the official religion of Persia, was brought home by Jewish priests led by Ezra who had already copied and obviously rewritten many ancient Jewish historical scrolls to emphasize the importance of a payback justice system like Persia’s. He did this during their Babylonian captivity. The influence of the resurrection concept also became a part of Judaism because of their neighbors, the Egyptians and the Greeks who also taught it.

3. A resurrection on the third day was an expected event foretold during the 1st century BCE Jewish wars, and concerned a Jewish Messiah who would be killed while leading a revolution to chase tyrannical foreigners out of their land. An ancient Hebrew stone tablet of Dead Sea Scrolls vintage describes this event.

4. The earliest followers of Jesus gathered in Jerusalem under the leadership of Jesus’ brother, James, and they had returned to the teachings of Judaism, but left no record of a resurrection being important to them. They were later scattered or killed by the Romans in 70 A.D.

5. Although another group of followers did record many of Jesus’ sayings around 50 A.D., (“Q,” from a German word meaning the Source.), they did not record any stories about his life or his death and resurrection. What he had said about the presence of the Father among them (kingdom), and how it related to their acceptance of others was most important to these followers. They used and followed the “Q” sayings and passed them on until the church banned them.

6. The supposed resurrection accounts in the NT narratives, all written after Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D., indicate several disagreements among the writers who had recorded their stories based on hearsay. These were recorded more than one and nearly three generations after the supposed event.

7. Paul, the Apostle to the Greco-Romans, and one-time Doctor of Jewish Law (religion), was more interested in establishing a new religion around the man, Jesus, by connecting him to the Torah. Although he wrote a beautiful chapter describing love, and several other insightful passages, he wrote little about the supposed resurrection event. It had very little significance to him except as the concept related to the teachings found in Judaism. He claimed he had seen visions which pointed him in the direction of establishing a new religion. That is what he was all about, making Christ its center.

8. About 300 years later, the Emperor Constantine chose the four narratives of Jesus’ life to create some order and unification in his divided kingdom. The two major church creeds were written soon after, and a third about 100 years later. Each one confessed Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection as the major articles of faith which finally established their Christian religion by turning a man into a god.

9. About 1500 years later, Reformation leaders drafted a catechism and another confession to reaffirm this resurrection faith as the one which saves from hell and damnation.

10. Now, compare all this history to the message of the prophets and the message of the Galilean sage, Jesus, who proclaimed the Father’s unconditional loving acceptance, forgiveness, and mercy, all called his justice. And recall how the prophets and Jesus questioned the validity of any so-called words of God which spoke of punishment, destruction, and sacrifice, including rituals which burdened the people they loved and filled them with fear. And then recall their message of the Father’s presence being among us without judgment as we love ourselves and each other. And do not forget that the Father will never leave us or forsake us, not even in our death which is nothing but a door ajar to his reality. It does not require a religious system to share this good news!!