Most Christian Universalists reflect on traditional Christian beliefs, as an important reason as to why they embrace universalism. I’m talking about things like this:
- God made us in His image (I know that’s biblical but this is a thing in the Bible that the Church has made an important thing and the focus of attention).
- God loves everyone.
- God sent Christ to die for everyone.
- God is sovereign and will bring about his purposes.
These kinds of basic Christian beliefs that aren’t about universalism but when some folk started to think about these things and reflect on them, they found that these kinds of ideas were drawing them towards universalism. I would count that as tradition and this is partly why I think universalism is what I call the “perennial heresy.”
It’s not really a heresy so I use it in scare quotes. It’s the “perennial heresy” because it keeps reinventing itself. It’s really interesting how it just keeps popping up almost spontaneously through church history, with folk who aren’t getting it from other folk, they’re getting it from ordinary Christian beliefs that they were taught at church. It’s like, “Ding! Doesn’t this mean… if that’s true, wouldn’t that mean…” and suddenly they find themselves becoming Universalists. This is why you’re not going to be able to squash universalism—because I think it’s implicit in the very core of ordinary Christian faith.
Another aspect of tradition that is important for some folk, is discovering past Universalists who are orthodox Christians. For example, Gregory of Nyssa. This is important particularly for folk who are Orthodox Christians—with a big “O”—or Catholic Christians or Anglican Christians. But also for a lot of folk who were… I mean, I was really drawn by this when I was non-denominational charismatic-y, what not, thingamabob Christian. Realizing that some of these great spiritual giants of the past—people I respected and admired—were universalists. For example, I think Athanasius was a universalist. And that’s like, “Oh, wow, so maybe it’s not so heretical after all…”
By the way, if you are interested in this subject, two new volumes might intrigue you:
For some people, a particular experience is really a key reason why they embraced Universal salvation. For example, George de Benneville. He’s an interesting guy, he was a Huguenot refugee. He was born in London but his parents were Calvinists from France who—under persecution—escaped. He was living in the household of Queen Anne. Anyway, when he’s a teenager he felt just so crushed by his own sense of sin and guilt—then he has his revelation of God’s divine grace for him and love and mercy—and this is transforming. But from this experience—all on his own—he infers that this kind of applies to everyone. From the moment of that experience, he was a Universalist—so his church kicked him out.
He went over to France and he started preaching. He nearly was executed—he was at the gallows and the King stopped his execution. Later on, people thought he was dead—he was in a coma for a few days. He woke up in the coffin but he has this sort of out-of-body experience where he’s taken around hell, then he’s shown heaven, and then he’s shown the final restoration when the people in hell come out. He becomes a preacher and goes to North America and preaches on all that. But the point is, for him scripture was really important but the thing that flipped him was this experience, this charismatic or pneumatic experience.
Another person to mention in this regard might be Hannah Whittle Smith who was a Quaker (also as she was part of the Brethren for some time because she had an evangelical conversion). She was an American, a revivalist holiness preacher—really, really influential, one of the most influential women preachers of 19th century. She was a Universalist, although this was often suppressed—in fact, it was removed from the second edition of her autobiography.
She has this experience where she’s on a tram and she’s just struggling with the suffering of humanity and then she looks at this guy and she sees in his face the suffering he’s having and she just protests to God about his justice and desires his salvation. She has this sense that God says to her, from the verse from Isaiah, “He, Christ, will see the travail of his soul and be satisfied.” She thinks, “He’ll be satisfied, he will be satisfied… How can he be satisfied unless he redeems this guy? How can he be satisfied unless that for which he suffered comes to pass?” So she has this profound experience that completely reorientates her and she goes back to the Bible then and she says, this is a little quote from her, “I turned greedily from page to page of my Bible, fairly laughing aloud for joy at the blaze of light that illuminated at all. It became a new book.” And that’s quite common. So she’s reading Scripture again but in a new way, in the light of this experience.
Above is my transcript—edited for readability—of an excerpt from the video below. For more transcripts see: Robin’s Hope & Hell videos