Friday, January 21, 2011


“What are your thoughts on universalism?”

Universalism: a doctrine whereby all people "go to Heaven when they die”.  It is a doctrine that presupposes a definition of both salvation and an afterlife.  In my personal theology, to “be saved”, to “enter the Kingdom of Heaven/God”, or any of those Christian buzz-phrases is closer in meaning “enlightenment” than anything to do with an afterlife.

I believe in the eternal soul but not necessarily in the individual ego that is attached to the soul during a physical lifetime.  Rationally, I’m more inclined to subscribe to a reincarnation of soul through multiple lifetimes with different individual egos than the usual Christian story of individual egos/souls in unchanging eternal torment or adulation of the deity.  So, “to go to Heaven when I die” has a whole different meaning for me now than it did when I was an Evangelical.  

Regardless of what happens to my individual ego after my physical death, I believe that salvation is something that happens in this lifetime.  I use salvation in its more literary connotation of a transformation from one state of perpetual darkness, closed-mindedness, psychological suffering, or selfishness, to a state of compassion, broad vision, service, and enlightenment. Will everyone be saved? That is, will everyone move from a state of selfishness and suffering to a state of compassion and service?  Clearly, one needs only to look around at how many people live and die in a state of selfishness to see that to be untrue. 

Can everyone be saved? Is there anyone for whom enlightenment and transformation is not possible? In this sense, I believe in a doctrine of universalism.  I believe everyone has an equal opportunity to be enlightened, to experience grace, to raise his consciousness.  No one who is willing to commit to the process of transformation will be denied.  Will everyone notice the many opportunities to experience grace in their day?  Of course not.  But everyone, everywhere, everyday has a thousand moments of grace, opportunities to choose compassion over selfishness, and to see manifestations of love and life in the midst of evil and destruction.

At this point, a doctrine of reincarnation becomes desirable and logical.  If one’s theology begins with a loving God creating humanity for companionship, then it is only reasonable to believe that such a God would provide endless opportunities for his eternal companions to reach a place where they can have both a knowledge of Good and Evil and the capacity not to be limited by that duality—in other words, to be able to think/feel/be like God.  A friend recently supported her Christian belief in reincarnation this way:  "if souls are forever, existing in eternity past and eternity future, why would anyone want to limit them to a single lifetime in which to understand spiritual mysteries?  That’s like having a child and then if they haven’t got life figured out by age five, you kick them to the street."

Most theories of reincarnation presuppose a continued connection between the soul and the individual ego (to a greater or lesser degree) and hinge on this very concept of many chances to “get it right” as well as the presupposition of a loving (and only loving) God.  While I have experienced in my visions the immense and total love of God, my reason still convinces me that God is more nuanced than to be only on the Love end of any polarity.  I am absolutely convinced that every conceivable duality is only a mental construct. Each pole of every duality contains and produces its opposite and that the whole meme is a sum greater than its parts.  Therefore, logically, rationally, I have to accept a God that somehow transcends moral definition of loving or fearful, even transcends a morality and somehow includes loving and fearful.  The mystery of God, in my personal theology, includes both Love and Fear yet transcends them so completely as to make such distinction all but irrelevant.  How that can be, of course, is what makes it a mystery.

But any good theologian won’t just leave it all there as mystery. It’s a cop-out. Mystery is all well and good and thoroughly Truth, but damn hard to live well.  How does one live the question of universalism?  How to live in our single known finite physical lifetime with an awareness of all humanity living in a state of potential? For that is what grace is—the moment when potential become transformative action.  How do we treat our fellow man, all our brothers and sisters in humanity, as equally owning this opportunity for enlightenment, transformation, salvation? Doctrine without praxis is useless. Faith without works is dead.

I think it requires our own “conversion experience”, a moment (or lifetime of moments) in which we become aware of grace in our own souls.  Without a sense of our own psychological or spiritual suffering and a transcendence of that suffering into compassion, we cannot see the Divine in all people. Some people refer to this shift in awareness as being able to “see with God’s eyes”.  Until we have met God within ourselves, we can never truly see God within others nor treat them accordingly with the justice and kindness they deserve.

Must this conversion experience or salvation occur within the Christian paradigm? I.e., must everyone “call upon the name of Jesus to be saved”?  Certainly there are those who preach that dogma, denying even the possibility of universalism. I think that is an unnecessarily limited reading of Christian Scripture and seems to limit ridiculously the companionship for God.  Rationally, it seems absurd:  similarly to the argument for reincarnation but on a one-lifetime-only scale, why would God create humanity for companionship but limit its possibility to a tiny fraction of the world’s population?

Again, theologians claim “the mystery of God”.  (On a side note: my experience with fundamentalist thinkers is that they will claim “mystery” whenever they come up against an irreconcilable tangent of their own doctrine rather than struggle through it.) I’m content with mystery as long as it is mystery that leads one into greater communion with the Divine and greater service of humanity.  For me, a doctrine of universalism, either through reincarnation or otherwise, makes me much more aware of grace, gives me a deeper appreciation of my God, and a wider capacity to love my fellow man.  As I see it, a doctrine of “born-again Christianity” as the only means of “salvation” lead to a sense of elitism, prejudice, and hypocrisy, and a condescension and patronization of those I considered “unsaved”. 

In my final analysis, the measure of Truth for any person is how well it encourages that person to Love God and Love Neighbor.  Regardless of how the Truth is articulated, whether in language of universalism or exclusion, if it draws the follower into a place of more Love, then it is Truth.  If, no matter how it is articulated, a doctrine causes hate and discontent among followers, then it is evil.


I wrote this post entirely from my own meditations and contemplation of the relevant ideas.  It wasn't until I went searching for images to attach to the post that I found this article:
I totally disagree with the conclusion but it raises many of the necessary questions one must consider when one contemplates universalism.  This topic is very difficult to address because it is hardly the simple question that it seems: one constantly trips over one's presuppositions and assumptions based on our increasingly limited interpretations of the Bible.  I think this article notes many of these presuppositions without even being aware of how they limit the possible conclusions.


  1. Well, that was well worth waiting for! Have you read my blog post on reincarnation? Have you come across many Christians with a belief in reincarnation? I have met some people who claim to believe in reincarnation but never those who are followers of Jesus as well.

    I'm somewhat new to all this jargon. I started going to church (again) about two years ago and came to understand as recently as a few weeks ago that there is a (some would say dirty) word for people like me: universalist. I don't really know enough about universalism to say that I fully embrace it, but it certainly rings true to me thus far on my journey. I've also become very interested in George MacDonald's teachings:

    As for God transcending duality I think that's a topic worth exploring further. Maybe Christians are tapping into a little of that when they say that He makes all things (even illness and hardship and suffering) work toward His good/pure intentions for us. Maybe I can make more sense of the Old Testament violence if I delve deeper into those questions.

    Also, I want to share this link with you:

    The first videos are an interview with Michael Newton who does past-life regressions and the second series of videos are a documentary on reincarnation from the early 80s. I found both to be absolutely fascinating. The rest of the videos on that page are alright, but the first two are the best in my opinion.

  2. I have always been afraid to voice my leanings towards this belief out loud, because I cannot reconcile it in argument with Biblical teachings. But everything I have seen in my life so far leads me to feel the same way you express in most of this article. it's often quoted that the Scriptures tell us it is "appointed unto man once to die, and then the judgement." I still believe that; I just don't believe the word "die" there means what we generally assume.

    I put very little faith in those past-life regression things, because you have to not only believe that the person's memories are real but that the hypnotist is not being suggestive; and I'm a very skeptical person when it comes to any sort of mind control, however "innocent." I believe that most of the really important answers in life are undiscoverable on this earth, because their discovery would defeat the purpose of life itself. I think that's the reason behind the Flood, personally. Humanity learned too much, and warped it to their own selfish ends, becoming spiritually mutated.

    It's strange, I never would have come to these questions if it weren't for marrying a very disturbed man from a terribly abusive past who gave his heart to Jesus at about 5 years old. The dichotomy of his life, of the light that comes from him contrasted with the darkness that surrounds him, of the undeniable proof that horrible life experiences are NOT always a punishment as I was raised to believe, has forced me to evaluate reality in a way I never would have bothered to before. I have taken a lot of criticism from others for staying with a drug addict (now a former addict, but it never really goes away) and alcoholic who struggles with severe PTSD and refuses counseling. The social stigma that seems to attend drug addiction these days overrides all other considerations in the minds of outsiders. But I want the truth. I refuse to believe that he was "born to damnation," or that his life was irreparably destroyed before he was old enough to even start living it. I also refuse to believe that he is obligated before God to go on living with the awful mental and physical burdens he labors under, which is forcing me to evaluate my beliefs regarding suicide. I still think counseling would drastically improve his situation, and that he reasonably ought to give it a try before deciding that the world is better off without him. But still, I wonder. All my life I've been told how selfish suicide is. I don't believe that any more. I rather feel that ordinary people out there can't comprehend the level of mental agony that must be reached before a person can find it in themselves to end their own life.

    I won't lie to you, I have come so close to leaving so many times. It's HARD to share that burden, even a tiny piece of it. I'll never fully understand what he goes through. I understand enough that it weighs me down on an hourly basis. But the real reason I stay isn't that I love him unconditionally, although I do. It's because he is a catalyst, and being with him helps me find truths and ask questions that I would never have encountered otherwise. We grow each other. I doubt many marriages, however happy, can say that.

    Anyway, thanks for this article. I'm glad there are other Godly-minded people out there who have the same feelings.

  3. I can't find fault with anything you posted concerning my universalism. I have questions and doubts concerning reincarnation, but don't find it a make or break issue. And yes, I believe everyone will find God's grace, but, that it is not necessarily something found while we are still alive. I believe that for God to be perfect, everyone, whether in this life or the next, will discover his grace. Might there be punishiment given for crimes so heinous we cannot even think of them? Or, whatever natural consequences that we all need to be close to God? Yes, but I believe at some point in all eternity, all will find God. I don't limit it to this life.

    I did read the article and found my favorite author quoted. Philip Gulley, and James McHolland are two quaker pastors to find universalism.


  4. Michelle--I did read your post on reincarnation. You've obviously put more organized and researched thought into the topic than I have done. I come to reincarnation not as its own issue but as a sidebar issue to so much else of what I've looked into.

    Pippi--I stumbled over the "is it supported by Scripture" think myself a time or two but since I no longer take the Bible as "Gospel Truth" or "God's Word" on anything, I finally let it slide. I figured if some of the most respected early Church Fathers believed in a doctrine of reincarnation, the Bible must be able to be interpreted in such a way as to support it. I just wasn't interested enough to work it out for myself.

    Regarding any kind of afterlife, I quit mangling my brain over any of it when I realized that the only thing we can ever really know is that we are alive now and we will die. What makes that certainty meaningful is what has the most relevance to me.

    When I've got this life figured out, when I can always be loving God and loving my neighbor, consistently and to the full extent of my being, and if I still have time left to ponder unanswerable questions, then I'll delve into reincarnation for a more definitive position.

    Pippi--why won't your husband consider counseling? Is he doing anything to mediate his suicidal tendency? I'm the last one to tell someone they ought not live in the Abyss, since I value my Abysmal experiences and never want to get too far from the precipice, actually, because it gives a vibrance and piquancy to my life that is missing otherwise. What made me want to climb out of the depths, though, was not because I was afraid of suiciding but because I knew being so deeply in the Abyss WAS selfish: I was so consumed by my depression, my pain, and ultimately my lack of all feeling, that I was no longer able to fulfill my human purpose--Loving God and serving my fellow man.

    It was knowing that I have thus far refused to live a meaningless life and I refused to die in a state of meaninglessness that motivated me to ask my husband to help me always stay stocked on my remedies. What I take doesn't mask pain, depression, or knowledge of the Abyss but it helps me to turn my focus from inward to outward once again so that I can be useful in creative service to my family and my world again.

    My hope is that everyone could find that place that allows him or her to express themselves most creatively for the benefit of humanity--whether that is simple and homey parenting, making great art, or anything in between.

    I think I have preached a whole sermon! My apologies for letting myself get carried away. I hope I wasn't too intrusive or offensive! :/

  5. Oh, Michelle, no I have only ever met one Christian--who isn't really equally a half-hearted buddhist or half-hearted Wicca or half-hearted generic New Age mish-mash of beliefs--who admitted a belief in reincarnation. The woman I quoted in the post who told me her position only last week. Undoubtedly there are many more such people who, like me for years, simply kept our mouths shut about how "heretical" we are.

  6. Thanks for the reply Sandra! I suspect you might be right; those who hold the belief probably don't share it aloud very often. I know that most of my church family wouldn't have a clue about my reincarnation beliefs. Well, except for my pastor -he's not afraid of questions or debate. I'm trying to convert him ;)

  7. Thankyou for your response, Sandra. As for why he hasn't sought counseling yet, he simply hasn't reached that point in his path yet. The first counselors he saw were nothing but pastors and youth leaders his parents hoped would keep him from turning gay or molesting his younger brothers after being abused. Then when he went to rehab the first time, he walked out because the REAL counselor there told him his mother was abusive. He refused to accept it. And it wasn't until he finally got off opiates 18 months ago that the layers of hurt and pain and guilt and rage began to be exposed. And now we are in the long, slow process of working through them. Yes, he's stubborn. It's frustrating. But I think he will reach a place of being able to accept the help of others soon. It's the only reason I've let him tell me some of the gut-wrenching things he has. I feared if I didn't, he would never start talking at all. Staying away from his mother always improves his mental state, and being in contact with her always deteriorates it rapidly. We recently moved away from her house, and I hope now things can have a chance to really get moving.

    It's not like he is always suicidal. But he has been, off and on, for the past 15 years. And probably will have a few more bouts before it's over. I just try not to take it too personally anymore. I can only do so much, and ultimately it's between him and God.

  8. Pippi,

    Yes, coming off opiates is only the beginning of some really bad times! Necessary, but true misery. But the only way out is through and for that work it really is a good thing he is stubborn. Stubborn is another word for strength of will and he needs a lot of strength for the path he is traveling. Please know that I will be praying for him and sending all the healing energy I can muster. Drop me a note every once in a while to let me know how things are, if you would, it helps me to focus my prayers. Much love to you both.

  9. My problem with reincarnation as a way to “get it right” is that we don’t have the experience of the former life (lives) to build on, unless we are blessed in returning with a special sense of vision that allows us to know the past lives. I surely don’t; does that mean that this is the first trip for me?

    Terry Gray

  10. Terry,

    The standard reincarnation dogma is that you have a karmic memory or sorts, that you don't consciously remember (usually) your past lives because you would be hamstrung to act then in this life--if, say, you knew that you had been one of Genghis Khan's barbarian hordes red-eyed with bloodlust and rapine, or that you had betrayed your neighbor to the Nazis or abused your child. You have been given this life to work through your issues with as much integrity and dignity as you can muster. But if you screw it up, well, you get another go-round. Do it well, and you might have a shorter spin on the Wheel; do it extraordinarily well, and you might get to skip to the fast track to Nirvana (unity with All That Is/I Am).

    Of course, the whole idea behind past life regressions is to discover that hidden knowledge of previous experiences. Everyone's always looking for the cheat codes, whether it's for skipping levels in the video game or quick ticket to Heaven/Enlightenment, skipping the hard work of spirituality.

  11. I find it intriguing that everyone responded to the reincarnation aspect of this post--I thought it was really a sidebar to universalism and definitely a non-starter for me. I don't have a strong response to any particular afterlife mythos (except the standard Christian story of one-short chance to get it right or damnation and eternal torment). Whether there is a recycling of souls or we get one life and our soul is done when we die, it boils down to the same thing--all we've got is this life right now to make the most of and hopefully leave the world a little bit better than it was when we got here.

  12. Like you, I've come to redefine many of these terms.

    I grew up in an abusive home. My father was/is an atheist and he did not allow us any information about God or religion. He didn't want us "brainwashed" by what he called the "Sheep". He said so many times that believers were just sheep, followers who didn't have a brain.

    I came to fear all the terms associated with religion. God, Jesus, church, temple, faith, soul, saved... any of those would bring on a panic attack.

    Like you, I don't believe that heaven is an actual place where I - as I am now - will go. I believe we are all part of something, that I will go on in some way, forever, as an integral part of the whole. We can't know or imagine what that would be like because all we can see is our tiny piece of the puzzle.

    I know there is a guiding force, which I now choose to call God. I feel the presense of that spirit around me, in me and in others.

    It's good to know.

  13. Each day since I received this, I’ve read it and figured I should reply. However, it is one of those things that is more than I can get my arms around; therefore, I don’t know what to say to sound reasonably intelligent.

    Well, here is my comment, for whatever it is worth:

    I still say it makes no sense because you are, each time, starting at square one without any knowledge of having passed Go or collected $200. So, what potential is there that you’ll do any better the second time than the first, or the six thousand second than the six thousand first? None! Absolutely none! It is all a throw of the dice. I’d take my chances at the casino over reincarnation.

    Terry Gray

  14. See? This is why I think a determined focus on afterlife doctrine is self-defeating. No one can ever really KNOW what happens in the afterlife; it is all hypothesis that is supposed to make your life meaningful, but if it isn't even intelligible to a reasonably smart person, then how does that create meaning? Much better to focus on what you CAN KNOW, the here and now: you're born, you live, you die. Make the most of it; leave things better than when you came.

  15. Shen,

    It is so sad to know that spiritual abuse can happen even under the guise of "no religion at all". I'm glad that you have found peace with the Divine.

  16. I've believed a lot of different things over the course of my life (from childhood on). I've engaged in a lot of different spiritual and religious practices. And I've considered myself at least more or less an adherent to at least a couple of the main religions. I've deeply encountered and had friends and family who followed a fair number more.

    I agree that "universalism" without a lot more definition isn't really even a meaningful category. Most of the descriptions you do hear involve forcing a "salvation" on people that is different from what they have actively sought and desired.

    One of the recent in-depth studies of religious beliefs found that roughly a quarter of American Christians do believe in some form of reincarnation. (I forget which one. But it was one of the academic ones, not a Barna survey.) Personally I've still at this point spent more of my life believing in the transmigration of souls than I have as a Christian, so that statistic surprised me. One of the things that pulled me deeper into Christian faith was its description of us as fully embodied beings (I don't have an identity or being somehow separate or disengaged from my body) and its promise of resurrection. Resurrection and reincarnation say very different things about what it means to be a human being and they aren't really compatible.

    With that said, I do have the sort of "universalist" hope that, for instance, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Isaac the Syrian had. I'm incredulous at the idea that even the most twisted and cold human heart would not eventually be warmed by the unveiled and inescapable love of God.

  17. Hi, Scott. Thanks for stopping by. I read your blog even though I don't comment--did you see yourself on my blogroll?

    it is so true that Universalism as a so much more than most people realize when they first begin to think about it. the more you dig into the question, the more nuanced the discussion must become. My post is really only the veriest tip of the iceberg.

  18. Hi! No I didn't see my blog. I'm notoriously bad about reading (and maintaining) blog rolls. I also am surprised when I discover people read mine. I think part of the problem with such discussions is that most people tend to assume that others understand reality much the same as they do. In truth, any religion or spiritual perspective worth its salt forms a lens on the deepest and most fundamental questions about the nature of reality and what it means to be a human being.

    "Universalism" in what seems to be its common, modern sense isn't possible because there is nothing "unifying" the different perspectives. Some, in fact, have no common ground at all. A Marxist materialist, for example, has a completely different perspective on the nature of reality than a Hindu. There's very little or no overlap. There's certainly no way to harmonize their perspectives.

    So it's certainly a complex question. I understand some of the various perspectives and I try to treat them with the respect they deserve. And that begins by allowing them to say what they actually say and not trying to fit them into some other mold.

  19. I have come to discover that most Christians misunderstand universalism more than any other Christian perspective. The idea of it shoots holes in a lot of pagan teachings in Christianity and brings up MANY questions. But questions are great and it challenges us to really read more of the Bible than just the popular verses the clergy wants us to focus on. They say you have to take ALL the Bible into consideration and I challenge them on that one..because they like to ignore 1 Cor 15:22-23, 1 Timothy 4:10, and HUNDREDS of other passages, and even whole chapters like Romans 5.

  20. Fascinating blog. Ultimately, for me, the questions around universalism, etc. are answered not with respect to what I think about God, but about what God "thinks" about himself. Whatever God is, he is clearly presented in the OT and NT as holy and "other" than us. That's why, while I might not like the idea that some people will not be saved, it does square with who he. Take the passage mentioned above (1 Cor. 15:22-23) -- verse 23 mentions "those who belong to Christ". Who are those people? While Jesus taught much about love, he was really very exclusive in his teaching. He talks about weeping, and gnashing, and makes pretty blunt statements to lots of people. So do his Apostles -- they certainly weren't universalists. Unless we believe that they misunderstood Jesus, but then that suggests that Jesus, who was God, didn't know how to pick his representatives. Anyway, interesting things to consider all the same.

  21. Helllo Readers,

    Universalism? "Going to Heaven after death?" First of all, we need to know when talking of 'Heaven'. What IS Heacen? Heaven, to me is not up there where people go after they die. Heaven is here in this physical world. 'Heaven' may be called 'New World', 'New Era', 'Golden Age'... 'New Way of Living', 'Paradise'... All of these names and many more can be given to the so-called 'Heaven', are referred to this Planet Earth.

    Whether we go to that physical place; i.e. here on earth of total peace or not depends on the action(s) of an individual when living/using their physical bodies. Whatever the soul does through the body is being carried with it when the soul/energy leaves the body and continues its journey/life in a different gender, country and race. The soul is the very same soul when it occupied another body in its past birth. Perhaps my body was black, born to a rich family, but in my next birth I, the soul chooses white and living in a poor family. Why is this so? Possibly because what I did in the past comes with me as the soul. Shall we say the "The Law of Karma"? "The Law of Cause & Effect"? the law that says "What you sow so shall you reap?

    Ross Galan, NLP Spiritual Life Coach

  22. Hmmm, Ross, I hope you speak with more clarity and less jargon when you advise the clients you are obviously trolling for. I found your comment an incoherent mashup of phrases designed to elicit an emotional response rather than a logical rational response. I spent enough years of my life reacting emotionally to loaded terms and buzz-word theology--both Christian and New Agey, and to secular ideology as well--now I want reasoned and rational argument to substantiate my actions, not conditioned emotional knee-jerks.

    Assuming that you were actually looking for some conversation and not merely more business when you posted your comment, can you spell out what your issues with my post are more clearly? Are you disagreeing with my glib definition of Universalism or trying to define reincarnation more tightly that I did? Why, does it make a difference in the outcome of your doctrines--how does the difference make you more able to serve Life?