A Universalist View of the Gospel
By Eric Stetson — July 21, 2017
(Note: This is the text of a sermon preached at the Unitarian Universalist Community of Independence, Virginia.)
Billions of people around the world call themselves Christians. But how many of them are really following the teachings of the man known as Jesus Christ?
According to the Bible, Jesus warned that many people would call him “Lord” and outwardly pose as his followers — perhaps truly believing that they were authentically practicing the faith of Christ — but that in the final analysis, he would say to them, “I never knew you.” [Mat. 7:21-23]
Unitarian Universalism is a spiritual and philosophical tradition that sprang primarily out of progressive, humanistic interpretations of Christianity. Today, most UUs do not identify as Christians — and many have an aversion to the Christian religion as it is typically understood. Let’s unpack that and explore, first, what it is that UUs are reacting against, and second and more importantly, the stream of Christian thought that led to the rise of Unitarian Universalism and how this alternative view of the message of Jesus is still relevant to us today.
The core message of the types of Christianity that most self-professing Christians identify with is a simple and horrifying view of reality. This worldview is so ingrained in Christian culture, and so disturbing when presented in a sterile intellectual manner, that it may come across as a joke to people who are not already part of that culture or are unfamiliar with it. Boiled down to the essentials, here it is:
You are a terrible sinner, and so are all human beings. You were born into sin which you inherited from Adam and Eve, and you yourself are a compulsive wrongdoer who is inherently incapable of being good. Because of this, God is very angry at you, and after death, he will sentence you to a punishment of eternal torture in a place called “hell” — a lake of fire (presumably molten lava) where you will burn forever, never really dying but instead consciously experiencing the pain of your flesh burning for an infinite duration of time.
But don’t worry! Jesus, the son of God in human form, died a gruesome death of torture on a cross as a substitutionary blood sacrifice for your sins, to appease God’s terrible anger in a way that is much more effective than sacrificing a sheep or other animal. Jesus took on the punishment you deserve, “washing away your sins in the blood of the Lamb,” as the saying goes — if only you believe he is the Lord and was resurrected from the dead. If you believe these things, God will permit you to enter heaven instead of hell when you die. If you don’t hold these religious beliefs, you will go to hell and never get out — like crossing the event horizon of a black hole — and there you will experience an eternity of agonizing pain.
All non-Christians go to hell, including saintly people from other religions such as Gandhi. The good works you do in your life are utterly meaningless for your eternal destiny, if you fail to believe in the Christian religion. Similarly, the bad things you do also don’t matter, if you have the correct beliefs. You could rape and murder thousands of people, abuse children, etc., etc., but if on your deathbed you ask Jesus to forgive your sins through his death on the cross, you are instantly saved and will go straight to heaven.
The Catholic version of Christianity is somewhat different from what I’ve just presented, though it still includes the basic idea that humans are inherently sinful, judged by God as worthy of condemnation to hell, and that Jesus enabled us to escape this terrible fate through his bloody death on the cross. However, in Catholicism, it is not so much one’s intellectual belief in these doctrines that enable a person to be saved, but more importantly it’s one’s participation in Catholic religious rituals — especially communion, which is eating an unleavened bread wafer and drinking wine, which Catholics believe their priests literally transform into the body and blood of Christ, the ingestion of which has the power to save our souls; and going to confession, where you tell a priest your sins and he absolves you (i.e., wipes the slate clean in God’s eyes) if you perform a penance such as saying some prayers that the priest requires you to do.
Catholicism today, under the leadership of the progressive Pope Francis, tends to be less inclined to teach that non-Christians are automatically going to hell. But several decades ago, when my father was growing up in a devout Catholic family, that was still the prevailing belief in Catholicism — and in fact it was even worse than that. My dad remembers worrying that his Protestant relatives might be going to hell, simply because they did not practice the Catholic version of the Christian faith. He was taught in catechism class that only Catholic Christians are saved, and Protestants are damned along with the members of non-Christian religions.
There are similar issues in Evangelical Christianity, where some believe that others who don’t have exactly the same beliefs or practices are not saved, even though they profess faith in Jesus. For example, I’ll never forget the time when I met a missionary on a Greyhound bus trip to Texas. He and his wife and three small children were headed down to Central America, to preach the Gospel, he told me. He also zealously told me that the only way to be saved is to speak in tongues, and that the only true version of the Bible is the King James. Yet he was going to minister to people who don’t even speak English, but Spanish. It seemed to me that was the tongue and the Bible translation he really needed.
The common thread here is that most Christians have historically believed — and many, perhaps most still believe — that one’s religious beliefs are the main determining factor between whether you will experience reward or punishment in the afterlife. According to standard Christianity as it has been handed down to us through centuries of tradition, trying hard in your life to be a good person — although an admirable thing to do — is not what matters for the destiny of one’s eternal soul. Instead, what matters is one’s intellectual beliefs about God and Jesus or one’s participation in ceremonial rituals.
Many people leave Christianity because they decide that this belief system is absurd, even repugnant. My father, for example, became an atheist as a result of the fact that he found some of the teachings of Catholicism to be nonsense. And although my dad still respects the good aspects of Christian teachings and sees value in the faith, some ex-Christians are embittered because of their negative experiences with the religion and its followers, and do not want to engage with Christianity at all. This is unfortunately true of some UUs.
I can understand this sentiment, but I would like to encourage people to take another look at Jesus — to consider the purported founder of Christianity from a fresh perspective. Based on my own study, I have found that the message of Jesus as portrayed in the Bible bears little resemblance to the message about Jesus preached from the pulpits of fundamentalist, so-called “Christian” churches. It does bear resemblance to the teachings found in the minority of denominations and churches that espouse a more progressive view of the faith — churches which are more focused on doing good in the world through acts of kindness, compassion, and charity, and which do not condemn other people to hell because they happen to be Muslim, Hindu, atheist, or gay.
James, the brother of Jesus, became the leader of the Christian Church of Jerusalem after Jesus’s death. Only one short selection of James’s writings made it into the Bible, but some of what he says in that text, what’s known as the Epistle of James, totally contradicts the beliefs of most people who call themselves Christians. James wrote: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. … Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder.” [Jas. 2:14-19]
Some historical Christian leaders, such as Martin Luther, have disagreed with this point of view so much — instead believing that salvation comes from faith alone, as taught in some of the writings of Paul — that they wanted to remove the Book of James from the Bible! But I’m inclined to believe that James, the brother of Jesus — who grew up with him and who was chosen to lead the most important church, the one in Jerusalem, after his death, knew more about what Jesus really taught than Paul, who never met Jesus during his life, yet whose writings comprise the bulk of the New Testament.
Let’s look at what Jesus himself had to say. Here’s the story of the opening statement of his ministry, sort of like his “elevator pitch,” which he delivered in the synagogue in his hometown: “He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’” [Luke 4:16-21]
So this is what Jesus believed about himself — that God had chosen him to bring good news to the poor, suffering and oppressed people of society. He did not say anything about what people should believe, or that people with the wrong religious beliefs would end up in hell. Nothing like that at all. You’d think if that were really what Jesus wanted people to take as his message, he would have said something about it — but he never did, not when he preached in his hometown synagogue, nor any other time recorded in the Gospels.
What Jesus did say about what people should believe is that God is like a loving father — in fact, he used the word Abba, which means “daddy” in the Aramaic language he spoke. That was a radical teaching. In the Hebrew scriptures, God was portrayed as a harsh and distant judge and ruler of the universe. Jesus said we should think of him as more like a dad.
And Jesus said we should emulate this loving Divine Father who created us, by loving each other — all of us brothers and sisters, equally the children of God. When asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” [Mat. 22:37-40]
On the same theme, Jesus also said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” [John 13:34-35]. He said this after ceremonially washing his disciples’ feet, to show them the love with which they must serve their fellow man.
Jesus also taught forgiveness. Far from condemning people to hell for their mistakes, he gave them a second chance. For example, when a woman was caught in the act of adultery, and a crowd gathered to stone her according to the harsh Jewish law, he intervened and said “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” [John 8:7]. After that, nobody dared to throw a stone.
A big part of Jesus’s ministry was about criticizing religious leaders for their misguided teachings and dogmatic attitudes. In many passages of the Gospels, he is seen railing against the Pharisees, a sect of Judaism that in many ways can be compared to today’s fundamentalist Christians. When he’s not bashing fundamentalist preachers, Jesus is often found feeding the poor, healing the sick and ministering to the disabled and mentally ill.
What Jesus cannot be found doing in the Bible is condemning gay people, arguing against abortion, telling women to obey men or slaves to obey their masters, or any other support for traditional power hierarchies and cultural issues of interest to conservative Christians either in the past or today. Jesus also never said that intellectual affirmation of doctrines about himself, or religious ceremonies and rituals, are a necessary basis for salvation. And really, he never said anything about starting a new religion. There isn’t much evidence that Jesus saw himself as anything other than a great prophet and reformer of Judaism — and perhaps, in a spiritual sense, the Jewish Messiah. The religion we know as “Christianity” was mostly founded by Paul of Tarsus, and its belief system, focusing on Jesus as a perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, is more influenced by esoteric philosophy and mythology than by Jesus’s own teachings.
Now let’s talk about the issue of hell. Universalism — the idea that everyone is loved unconditionally by God and will ultimately be saved and reunited with God in heaven — has always been an interpretation of Christianity. It was a common one in the first few centuries after Jesus, and was taught by some great church fathers such as Origen and Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa. But universalism waned as the Christian church became dominated by Roman emperors and their desire for law and order rather than a freewheeling, all-embracing spirituality. Universalism was formally declared a heresy by the Emperor Justinian in the year 553.
In the Reformation Era, some Christians such as the Moravians, in what today is the Czech Republic, began to revive the teaching of universalism. A few other radical Protestant denominations followed suit, and universalism especially took off in the New World, where John Murray founded the Universalist Church of America in the late 1700s. The Universalist Church eventually merged with the American Universalist Association in 1961, forming the Unitarian Universalist Association.
So, what did Jesus have to say about hell? According to Jesus, hell is a real and meaningful concept, but it has been interpreted in many different ways by different Christians, including the Universalists. Jesus mentions hell in several famous parables. So it’s not a question of whether hell is a Christian teaching — it is — but a question of who actually experiences hell, why, for how long, and for what purpose?
Every time Jesus mentions hell, his point is about the consequences of a lack of love and compassion. For example, he said that a rich man who left a beggar lying outside his door, with dogs licking sores all over his body because he failed to help him, will experience a hellish state of consciousness after he dies, while the poor man will be comforted by the great prophet Abraham. [Luke 16:19-25]
Similarly, Jesus tells a rich man that he must give away his money to the poor if he truly wants to follow God. The rich man goes away in disappointment, thinking that salvation would be easy, and then Jesus tells his disciples that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.” [Mat. 19:24]
Perhaps the best-known teaching of Jesus about heaven and hell is the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus describes the judgment of God in the afterlife, when the King of the Universe will separate people into “sheep” who go to heaven and “goats” who go to hell:
Then the King will say to those on his right [the sheep], ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ ‘The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left [the goats], ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. [Mat. 25:34-46]
Notice that who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, according to Jesus, has nothing to do with what religion they believed in. It has everything to do with the moral content of how people live their lives — how they relate to their fellow human beings.
For universalists, this passage is controversial, however, because in English it appears to say that hell lasts forever. But if you read it in Greek, you will find that it doesn’t say that at all. The word translated as “eternal” is aionios, which simply means “lasting for an age, a long period of time.” There is actually a different word in Greek which means forever, and the author of the Gospel did not use that word.
Similarly, the word translated as “punishment” has a somewhat more positive connotation in the original Greek, which helps to clarify what Jesus really intended to communicate. The Greek word is kolasis, which means correction, such as pruning a tree to make it bear more fruit, or a father disciplining his child to make him grow up into a proper adult. So the point of the story is, people who don’t practice compassion in their life — failing to help the poor, welcome the stranger, and so forth, will experience a long period of time during which they will be disciplined by God. Presumably the purpose of this discipline is to reform their character, so that someday — perhaps in another lifetime or another dimension of existence — they can become the shining lights of goodness, the mature children of the Divine, that we were all created to be.
Perhaps this is why Jesus said, as reported in the Gospel of Mark, that “Everyone will be salted with fire.” [Mark 9:49]. Hell is not just for the very wicked. Hell is something we all must experience, at least in small doses. Whenever we live in a way that violates the moral laws of the universe, we will experience negative consequences. Those consequences might take a long time to manifest, or may show up in unexpected ways. But karma is real. And by experiencing our karma, our salt regains its savor. The fire of divine discipline burns away the negative parts of us, transfiguring us into divine beings spreading love to all we touch, co-creating a better world.
There is shame and dishonor when we choose not to live up to our true potential. One of the words Jesus uses for hell is “Gehenna” — which was a garbage dump outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem. The dead bodies of criminals and traitors were cast into that dump, where fires were always kept burning, and jackals, ravens, and worms would eat the unburied corpses. Nobody wanted to dishonor their name or their family by being dumped in Gehenna instead of receiving a proper burial.
It was the imagery of Gehenna that led, in part, to the Christian myth of hell as an ever-burning fire where God disposes of his enemies. Jesus used this powerful and frightening imagery not to threaten people with never-ending pain if they don’t join his religion, but to make people aware of the very real and shameful consequences of living a life of selfishness and corruption instead of love and compassion. The consequences are that one’s memory will be mud — one’s chance to make a mark on earth will be a bad one, as remembered by those who were affected by one’s negative behavior. To use a quote from Paul, when a person’s life comes to an end, “their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day [of Judgment] will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved — even though only as one escaping through the flames.” [1 Cor. 3:13-15]
The bottom line? The original, Biblical Christian teaching about hell is that it’s an unpleasant but temporary state of consciousness that offers wrongdoers the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and improve their character. It is not an eternal punishment imposed upon some people, from which other people are spared because of their religious affiliation or ceremonial practices.
When we look at the teachings of Jesus, we find a universalist message — a message of hope for all people, no matter who they are. And also a message of universal responsibility: that every person must serve others, even “the least” among us, and that if we fail to do so, we fail at life. There are real consequences for that. To the degree that “hell” is real, it is the suffering we create for ourselves and in our world when we don’t heed Jesus’s message of universal love and compassion.
That’s the Jesus who’s worth listening to. We can put aside the phony Jesus who supports supply-side economics, is a card-carrying member of the NRA, and condemns people of other religions to an eternal lake of fire. That may be the Jesus of fundamentalist churches, but it’s not the ancient Jewish prophet who died on a cross as a martyr for a radical message of God’s all-inclusive love — a love that turns the other cheek, forgives the soldier who pounds the nail into his hands, and counsels us all to live life to the best of our ability as “children of the light,” as a comfort to the poor and suffering among us, so that one day, our world will more closely resemble the Kingdom of Heaven rather than the hell on earth that most human beings throughout history have known.
That Jesus — the real Jesus — needs to be rediscovered. That Jesus and his message can truly save the world.