10th Anniversary Message to the Christian Universalist Association
By Eric Stetson — October 21, 2017
(Note: This is the text of a sermon preached at the Christian Universalist Association “Amazing Grace, For All and For Ever” conference in Fort Worth, Texas.)
Good afternoon everyone, and thank you all for taking the time out of your busy schedule to travel to this conference from all across America. I feel honored to be speaking with you today, at this 10th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Christian Universalist Association — an organization that I was called to form in 2007 and to lead for several years thereafter.
At the end of this year, I am required to step down from the board of directors of the CUA, according to our bylaws, to make way for new servant-leaders in the organization. Even if I were not required to step down, I would anyway, because after 10 years, I feel that it is time for others to take the reins — and to be honest, I feel the mission of my own life and ministry called in other directions than organized religion.
Although my own ministry is now focused primarily on advocating and working for economic justice, my work today is in large part inspired by my belief in the teachings of Jesus and my universalist faith. And this is but one example of why I believe that what we have created in the CUA is very important, very relevant to the lives of many people and our world. It is important that this organization go on, that it continue to teach, to grow, evolve, and to flourish. For we are the teachers of a relevant faith. Christian Universalism is, I believe, one of the most significant and meaningful religious traditions in the world today. And that’s what I want to talk to you about today — why Christian Universalism matters, and how we can ensure that our faith remains relevant, touching many people’s lives and serving as a positive influence in society, for many years to come.
One of the most common criticisms that universalists face comes in the form of a quite logical question: “If there is no possibility of being condemned to hell, then why should people bother to do good?” Or to put it another way, “If there are no eternal consequences for our behavior, then why should we sacrifice any personal benefit for the wellbeing of others?” People wonder whether belief in universal salvation could lead to spiritual apathy and moral decay. If we take the fear of eternal damnation out of Christianity, are we rendering our faith irrelevant, unable to effect genuine redemption in people’s lives, and even worse, leading to a society where people do not fear to treat each other according to the selfish principle of survival of the fittest, without any higher standards for our behavior?
Universalists usually answer this objection in two ways: First, that there are great benefits to be had in this life from treating other people with dignity, respect, and compassion — that doing unto others as you would have them do unto you will actually improve your own happiness and wellbeing, and therefore there’s a pragmatic reason to follow the golden rule.
Secondly, even in cases where there seems to be no obvious benefit in this life from doing so, or where great personal sacrifice is required to do the right thing, most universalists believe that there will be negative consequences in the life hereafter for those who fail to live according to basic moral principles. We will reap what we sow, either in this life or the next, and although the negative effects of negative behavior are temporary, they are very real. To put it bluntly, karma’s a bitch, even though there isn’t an eternal hell.
I think these are good arguments in defense of universalism as being fully compatible with the urgency of living a morally virtuous life. But I think that we universalists should go beyond simply defending our faith from the accusation of potential moral weakness, and should boldly proclaim that a universalist view of the Gospel is in fact more likely to produce virtuous people and more just and compassionate world.
I would like to offer my own testimony as example of the power of Christian Universalism to transform people’s lives for the better, and to inspire positive action both in self-improvement and social reform. I am a person who can honestly say that until I became a universalist, I was not really a Christian — I was not capable of knowing or loving God for who he really is, and acting out of that knowledge and love to reflect the spirit of Christ in my own heart and mind and everyday life. And I can also say that by coming to believe in the Biblical vision of an all-loving God whose plan is to redeem and restore all souls to blessed perfection, I have become filled with a confidence in the inherent redeemability of the world around me and the people in it. My Christian Universalist faith has enabled me to overcome tendencies toward pessimism and cynicism, and empowered me to live my life in a way that is based on an irrepressible confidence in the possibilities for making things better.
Ironically, I had to go through hell before I could experience this transformed state of consciousness. As Paul says, we are saved, though passing through the flames — and much of ourselves and our former works are burned up in the process [1 Cor. 3:13-15]. This is what happened to me.
As a young man who had experimented with other religions and philosophies, I decided that Jesus was the one great teacher I needed to follow. I admired his amazing combination of spiritual power and humility, and I wanted to try to model myself on his example. I knew it would be difficult, and that I had a long way to go — but I was ready to begin the journey of examining my character and attempting to conform myself to the image of Christ.
At first, I thought the most important thing was that I had decided to commit myself to the Christian religion. I thought this is what it meant to be “saved.” Although that sounds ridiculously naïve to me now, looking back on my former self, I realize that I simply had not yet questioned the assumption that being a Christian is primarily about our religious beliefs.
Soon after deciding I believed in Christ, I began going through some very difficult things in my life: I developed severe chronic health problems, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, I also lost my job. At the time, I was in a charismatic church that had leanings toward the “prosperity gospel.” As a result, I wondered if my salvation was in doubt, because if I was “truly saved” then why would I have become chronically ill and unemployed, instead of receiving outward blessings to confirm that I was one of God’s elect?
For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that Jesus had to endure a horrific death of torture, and in the midst of his travails, even asked God “why have you forsaken me?” [Mat. 27:46] — yet Jesus was the most elect of all. When I became a Christian, I thought I was signing up for a fast track to heaven, but I didn’t realize I had actually signed up for a cross.
Jesus’s salvation was never in doubt — nor was mine — but somehow it seemed different when the bad things were happening to me, just an ordinary guy, instead of a great hero of the history books. As I doubted whether my life really mattered in God’s plan, I went through a dark night of the soul, thinking that I had to prove to God that I was good enough to be saved, but never feeling that I was succeeding enough in doing so. I felt that no matter how hard I tried to be “religious,” it was never enough to please God and thus persuade him to heal me and bless me with a better life. This led to feelings of anger, hopelessness, and eventually a deep depression. The depression became so severe that I wanted to die.
It was then that I discovered Christian Universalism, and it came to me like a healing light shining into my soul, filling me with a newfound faith in the goodness of God and a confidence that no matter what might be happening to me in the present moment, in the end all will be well — for me and for everyone.
I became filled with a zeal and a passion to share the good news I had discovered. Still suffering from poor health, unable to work a normal job, and only partially recovered from the depression, I started my own ministry called Hope Through Christ, which formed the seed for my later founding of the Christian Universalist Association in 2007. Gradually, all aspects of my health and wellbeing improved — my mind, body, and spirit — and I attribute this in large part to the healing and restorative effects of affirming and sharing a positive belief system. I am an example of a “wounded healer” who was healed by helping to heal others.
As my story shows, Christian Universalism is relevant to our personal lives, because it can inspire us to reject dark and depressing attitudes that drag us down into a hell of inner torment. Our faith in the salvation of all extinguishes fear of unworthiness. It enables us to forgive ourselves for our mistakes and imperfections. It inspires an attitude of optimism, hope, and trust in a positive plan, the ultimate goodness of the universe and its Creator. Christian Universalism inspires us to believe in our own capacity for spiritual growth and a glorious destiny as children of God, growing up into the full likeness of the Divine.
My story is far from unique. The positive effects of faith in universal salvation are found in the testimonies and life experiences of many people — people from all walks of life who, like me, feel that their coming to believe in God’s unconditional love and the restoration of all was the pivotal factor that enabled them to be truly “born again.”
But beyond the ways that this belief system can effect positive change in our personal lives, Christian Universalism is also highly relevant to our relationships in society and the way we should order the affairs of our world. I think this aspect of the relevance of our faith sadly tends to be underemphasized in our spiritual tradition. Perhaps because we sometimes feel that our theology is under attack by other Christians, we tend to focus too much on making theological arguments for universal salvation and discussing the implications of universalism for the nature of the afterlife. We should remember that one of the greatest purposes of religion is how it inspires people to live in this life, in the here and now — both as individuals, and in the social institutions we create and uphold or reform. One’s ultimate destiny as an individual soul is important, but so is the kind of world we choose to live in, right here on earth.
I would like to touch briefly on four aspects on how our universalist faith is relevant to society and human relations — and how widespread adoption of this faith would help to create a better world for everyone. First, and perhaps most obviously, Christian Universalists believe that God does not condemn non-Christians because of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. Throughout history, Christians have had a tendency to judge people based on what they believe or don’t believe about matters of religion. This judgmental attitude has proceeded directly from the belief that if a person has incorrect religious beliefs — either believing in the wrong things or failing to believe in the truth about God and Christ — then they are headed for hell. God supposedly considers right belief to the most important criteria for salvation — and for those who fail the test, they are forever condemned.
So Christians have often taken it upon themselves to begin the process of putting people through hell if they don’t hold what they consider to be the right beliefs. Christians have shunned people, treated people as second-class citizens, tortured people, and even committed mass murder in the name of upholding their religious beliefs and preventing the beliefs of others from spreading or even gaining basic respect in society. Millions of people have been subjected to such inhumane treatment in the name of God.
Imagine a world in which people were not judged based on their religion. Imagine how many wars could have been prevented, how much needless suffering could have been avoided. In the Crusades, there was a famous saying, “Kill them all and let God sort them out.” Everyone but the Crusaders was considered to be an infidel, not even worthy of life. Imagine a world where we instead say, “Love them all and let God sort them out” — Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, pagans, atheists. Who knows whether God even cares what somebody believes about matters of religion? I tend to think that the only thing God cares about, and the only thing that influences our salvation, is whether our beliefs lead us to live a life of loving-kindness or a life of selfish disregard for our fellow man. It is not our religious beliefs themselves that matter, but the effect of our beliefs on our character.
Our Christian Universalist faith should inspire us to treat people equally regardless of their religion — because if all people are children of God, and if all of us are imperfect, then it is not up to us to judge others based on our own imperfect knowledge. Nobody really knows exactly what the correct religious beliefs are anyway! And even if we think we do, we can create a better world for everyone if we live and let live, rather than fighting with people or trying to deny them their human rights or dignity based on whether they fit our preconceived notions of the truth about religion.
Another way that our faith should inform our social relationships and the way we organize society is our attitude toward people whose basic personal characteristics are different than our own. For example, people of different races and ethnic groups, genders and gender identities, and sexual orientations. In the Bible, Paul teaches that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Gal. 3:28]. Yet throughout history, Christians have judged and mistreated others just because they were born into a different ethnicity or tribal grouping, or because they were born female, transgendered, or gay.
Universalism is the understanding that everyone is equally human and equally beloved in the eyes of God — we were all created as children of God, and we are all destined to return to God. And therefore there is no excuse for treating people differently based on temporary characteristics of this transient life over which they have no control, such as their race, gender, or sexual orientation. We do not have the right to enslave people, discriminate against people, or deny people the same rights and human dignity because of anything about them that might make us feel uncomfortable or superior. We must look to the eternal nature of every person — for in our souls, we are simply human, and we are all God’s beloved.
Imagine how much suffering throughout history could have been avoided if this simple truth of the Christian Universalist faith had been widely known and accepted. Imagine the better world we can create today, if our faith in universal human dignity becomes the universal standard on which we base our civilization. It is no coincidence that universalists have been an integral part of the movements for the abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote, civil rights for African Americans, and in recent years, equal rights for LGBT people. Fighting for equal rights and dignity for all people, regardless of their incidental characteristics, is an important way that we can put our universalist faith into practice.
And speaking of human dignity, this brings me to the third way that I would like us to consider how our faith in Christian Universalism is relevant to human relationships and society: the way we view and treat people of a different economic status. Jesus emphasized that we must have compassion towards the poor. In fact, he told a rich young man that even if he kept all the Commandments, it was not enough to see the Kingdom of Heaven — he must also give away his wealth to those less fortunate than himself. When the wealthy man went away in disappointment, unable to bring himself to give up his great riches to improve the lives of the needy, Jesus told his disciples that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich person to enter heaven.” [Mat. 19:16-23]
One of the most insidious ways that people cling to the notion of their superiority over other people, instead of universal equality in the eyes of God, is by viewing and treating people of a lower economic status as though their worth should be judged by the amount of money in their bank account. This form of discrimination is especially pervasive here in the United States — a culture that has always emphasized the importance of making money and the striving to get rich. But when we equate worldly riches with ultimate value, we are making a big mistake. For in God’s eyes, all people have inherent value just by virtue of being human. And beyond that, our value is more accurately measured by the quality of our character than by our material possessions.
Did you know that only 62 people own more than half the wealth in the entire world, while over 2.4 billion people are living on less than $2 a day? That’s a shocking statistic. It reveals that we are living in a world in which we accept the idea that there should be tremendous differences of power based on differing ownership and access to resources — and that we tolerate the idea that vast portions of the human race who happen to be born into intergenerational poverty should be condemned to a life of misery and shame.
Extreme poverty and inequality are solvable problems. Yes, there will always be more or less materially prosperous people, and that is to some degree based on differing degrees of work ethic, ingenuity, or luck, which are all part of the normal variability of the human experience. But the idea that billions of people should be barely able to make enough money to survive, while only a small handful of people should control access to most of the resources in the world — this is a moral offense, when there is abundance enough to ensure that everyone’s basic needs can be met.
I see this not only as an economic issue, but a spiritual one. As a Christian, I take seriously Jesus’s teachings that we have a moral responsibility to help the less fortunate. And as a Universalist I believe that everyone deserves a fair chance in life — no matter where they were born and whether their parents are rich or poor. A child born in a poor village in Africa, for example, should be given the opportunity not only to survive, but thrive. Because that child, whose bones we see sticking out of their skin on a TV commercial for a charity — or, more often, whom we do not see or think about at all — is just as much a human being, just as much a beloved child of God, as we are. So our Christian Universalist faith should inspire us to give of what we have to help those in need, and furthermore, to work for systemic solutions to extreme poverty and inequality, so that the world’s economy will to some degree be based on the principle of the universal worth and dignity of every person. My own ministry work today is focused on this calling.
Fourth and finally, I would ask that we consider how our faith is relevant to one more important issue of how we get along with each other in the human family: How we view and treat people who fail to live up to our moral standards, and at the most extreme degree, how we view and treat those people we consider to be our enemies. This is an area where I think that Christian Universalism has something to offer that is incredibly fundamental to creating a better world: the recognition that all of us, no matter where we are on the spectrum of goodness or badness, are currently imperfect, and that that is okay, because God has a plan to make us better.
Jesus said that we should first take the log out of our own eye before we look at the speck in our brother’s eye. And he said that we should go so far as to love our enemies. We should turn the other cheek when punched in the face, rather than returning evil with another blow. Why are we asked to live in such a challenging way — a way that goes against our natural human tendencies towards judgment and justice?
The answer is because we cannot create a better world by lashing out in response to our pain. Adding more anger and hostility into the world only creates more suffering. We have the challenging moral duty to attempt to transmute our suffering into a reaction of compassion, to transform evil into good. This is why Jesus said of the Roman soldiers who pounded nails into his own hands, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” [Luke 23:34]. Truly, most people act most of the time out of instinct and not knowledge, as automatons fulfilling their urges and the expectations of people around them, rather than through conscious choices to seek, learn, and do what is right. It is only when we become conscious of our power to choose and take responsibility for our actions as co-creators with God, that we can begin to make our lives and this world more like heaven than hell.
Christian Universalism teaches that as children of God, we are all worthy of being treated with respect. If somebody hurts us, we should not hurt them, but should do what we can to heal them — or at the very least, we should do no harm. Yes, this is a challenging philosophy of life. It is difficult to love those whose attitudes and actions add suffering to the world. But if we truly are Christians, and if we truly are Univeralists, then we shall try — no matter how hard it is — because if God loves those who fail to be as human as they can be, then that means God loves us. We have all done wrong. We are all imperfect. But God isn’t giving up on us, and he’s not giving up on anyone else either. God is a God of second chances, a patient God, a God whose plan stretches out for ages and ages, through which all things are working for the good. Let us live with that knowledge and act on it, and in doing so, we will be living a relevant faith.
In conclusion, let’s revisit the issue I mentioned at the beginning of my talk: The question of whether belief in universalism can dampen people’s ardor for living a virtuous life; whether the promise of universal salvation can become an excuse for bad living. Yes, I believe this is a legitimate danger. But it is dangerous only when we misunderstand the true meaning of universalism. If our universalism is nothing more than “cheap grace,” then our faith can fail to be as relevant as it is meant to be.
Ironically, even universalists can teach a limited view of salvation — but in a different way than fundamentalist Christians who that teach that some people are forever condemned to hell. You see, another type of limitation on salvation is the idea that we are only being saved from something, that the complete meaning of being saved is that God is not going to condemn you to eternal punishment in the afterlife. If Christian Universalists get hung up on this simplistic notion, I fear we are missing the bigger picture of the meaning of our faith, and reducing its relevance in the minds of most people today. The concept that God would torture some people forever and ever is becoming less and less viable in our modern, sophisticated society. More and more people are deciding that this is nothing more than a cruel myth that was designed by organized religion to keep people in line.
So if this is all that Christian Universalists talk about, we will certainly be part of the zeitgeist of the 21st century, but people won’t necessarily see what we offer the world that is especially unique and relevant to the next stage of humanity’s spiritual and social evolution. I would urge our community of faith to keep this in mind as we go forward and spread the good news that God loves and saves everyone. What does this foundational truth imply for how we should understand ourselves and our fellow human beings; how we should live our lives and relate with other people; and how we should organize our society and its institutions?
It is these questions that Christian Universalists should be focusing on, as we fulfill our destiny as a relevant faith that can change people’s lives and change the world.