What is Universalism? Or, the Universalist in Hell

A drunken man gets on the bus late one night, staggers up the aisle, and sits next to an elderly woman. She looks the man up and down and says, I’ve got news for you. You’re going straight to hell! The man jumps up out of his seat and shouts, “Man, I’m on the wrong bus!”

Universalist in hell

Scene at a local NYC Starbucks

Universalism is a kind of comfort held by more people than you might imagine. A recent conversation which took place at the long table at our neighborhood Starbucks illustrates this. The subject of hell came up. It was treated as a big joke. One man said, The heat (in hell) will help me keep up my tan!

We’re not so sure how it will be there, his friend said. It may be cold.

Well we’ll deal with it, whatever it is! the first man answered.

Their levity made me a little queasy. I sincerely hope you don’t go there, I said.

I know I’m not going there, he replied. That is, no one is. I believe we’re all going to heaven.

What is Universalism

Universalism is the idea that Christ’s death on the cross provided atonement and full justification for all mankind. No faith is required. You don’t have to believe anything. Everyone gets in. Universalists believe Jesus paid it all, only not in the Biblical way the songwriter Elvina Hall understood that essential truth to mean.1

Universalism is at the core of the terrible fall of the Lutheran and other mainline denominations in the US. The belief in universalism takes away each person’s responsibility to believe and gives a false security. Urgency is removed. People put off until later what they know they need to put their trust in today.

For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee: behold, now [is] the accepted time; behold, now [is] the day of salvation. 2 Corinthians 6.2

An encounter at Bryant Park

Earlier this Spring New York City had one of those fine rare days - not too hot, air tasting clean, sun without glare. One of the few nice things Bloomberg did for New Yorkers was the rehabilitation of Bryant Park. It’s a glorious haven of green in the middle of midtown. On this early afternoon the seats and tables on the north side of the park were busy, but not overcrowded. I was surprised to see a large church chorus gathered on the sidewalk at 42nd and 6th, singing. They sounded good, but something jangled. It took several songs before I got it. Every hymn they sang glorified a long ago America which - if it was ever in NYC - hasn’t been for a very long time and likely won’t be again.

Singing Glory, Glory Hallelluia!, Yankee Doodle, and She’s a Grand Old Flag doesn’t show respect for those who gave their lives for a freedom that few recognize or appreciate. It diminishes appropriate patriotism to a nostalgia piece. Civil War reenactors study, learn and remember the past. In contrast, these singers mocked those who wrung out these words in privation, suffering and war.

The vacuous grins on these professedly Christian faces would have been just as much at home on 1970’s Hare Krishna flower peddlers or brain-dead unblinking followers of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, if you’re old enough to remember them. It was a disgrace.

I sat at a chair some distance removed and hoped to be able to read in peace. Alas, no luck. First one, then another of the false gospel peddlers came to speak to me of their anti-Christian church.

Isn’t it wonderful, said a 50-something woman as she handed me a brochure.

You all do have beautiful voices, I said, Out of curiosity, which church are you from?

We’re from the Universalist Church! she said

Well, that doesn’t surprise me. I wish you well, but I’m not interested.

Why not? Won’t you come to our church? We love it.

I’m sure you do. But it doesn’t match my beliefs, nor what the Bible says. You wouldn’t be very happy with me there.

What beliefs doesn’t it match? she asked.

Well how about what Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No man cometh to the Father except by me?’ (John 14:6)

Oh I believe that, she said. Jesus died for everyone, and we’re all going to heaven.

I was incredulous. But the Bible says, ‘wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat. (Matthew 7:13) How can you say everyone will go to heaven when Jesus himself said that wasn’t the case?

Oh that’s easy. Jesus said that before he died. And besides, if your _interpretation_ is correct, then all the good people in the world would be in hell, she said. Do you really believe Gandhi’s in hell?

That’s one of the hard truths about life. The Scriptures say of human beings, ‘They’ve all gone out of the way. They have become unprofitable. There is none that does good, no not one’ (Romans 3:12) Gandhi died as a Hindu without having faith in the atonement of Christ, so there’s no basis for saying that Christ saved him from the consequences of the wrong things he did.

She abandoned the discussion and moved on to what she and her particular church really believed. The Bible has mistakes in it. It’s just the work of men trying to understand about things we can’t know, she said.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; 19 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed [it] unto them. 20 **For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, [even] his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:** -Romans 1.18-20

Jesus paid it all, All to Him I owe; Sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow. Elvina Hall was writing about her joy at having been made right with God and fully justified through faith in the redemptive power of his death and resurrection for her and for everyone who believes.

Source of joke: jokesabout dot net Image credit freeimages dot com/photo/1000804).

  1. Elvina Hall wrote the hymn Jesus paid it all in 1865. The refrain reads: ↩︎


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