Universalism leads to moral apathy? Degreasing the slippery slope

The common argument proposed by anti Universalist spokesman is the fear tactic of the slippery slope into unholiness. The argument goes like this. If there is no eternal punishment, every Christian would have the license to just go wild and live anyway they want to. The premise then is that the basis of the Christians holy life is the fear of eternal hell. 

As long as hell is eternal there is a psychic failsafe to enforce self control.

This is a notion based on medieval doctrinal constructions which have long since been abandoned by Evangelical theology. Yet in desperation to fend off the enlightened reason of Universalism, opponents are often willing to retreat to positions which are not only obsolete, but contradictory to what they would otherwise tell believers if Universalism were not at the center of the discussion. 

Namely, our motivation for holiness is not fueled by heaven and hell but in fact by the working of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer. Consider the following passages. 

“[Phl 2:12-13 NASB] 12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for [His] good pleasure.”

[1Jo 4:17-19 NASB] 17 By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. 19 We love, because He first loved us.

[Heb 2:11 NIV] 11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.
[Heb 10:10, 14 NIV] 10 “And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. ... 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.”
[Mat 22:37-40 NIV] 37 “Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

In light of these passages it is quite problematic to suggest that hell plays any role in keeping the believer in pursuit of holiness. And the true acid test is a simple question? How well is it working? Are all who believe in eternal conscious torment free of sin and compromise and corruption and backsliding? 

No, there is plenty of that among those who would never accept Universalism. Why then isn’t the fear of eternal hell the perfect guardian against backsliding? How does it not better protect all Christians who pay homage to it? Because the fear of hell is not what transforms a person, it is the love of God that transforms them. It is the inner working of the Spirit of Holiness that keeps the new nature hungry to do God’s will.

I would assert that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is a poison that is making Christians sick and corrupted and may in fact be an actual source of much backsliding. 

When I got saved I knew nothing about hell. I literally did not have a thought about hell on my mind before during or after my conversion. All I knew was that all my attempts to make myself happy and find my own way had lead to pain and dead ends. I was experiencing a fear of death but not because anyone told me about hell, but because death seemed like the end of my existence and that scared me. Then God led me to a church where the gospel was being preached by an Evangelist named Rich Wilkerson. I answered the alter call because I wanted to be free from my life controlling urges and I wanted to know God. That night I was gloriously saved and set free. I went home and flushed all my drugs down the toilet and dumped all my worldly paraphernalia in the trash. I began to devour the word and pray like it was the air I breathed. And yet for all this, I knew nothing about eternal conscious torment. I witnessed to people and prayed for the sick and saw miracles in my life and personal ministry. 

But then I started taking classes in theology. Then I started listening to the old time preachers who had fed on wrath all their life. Suddenly I had to start worrying whether or not I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing. Suddenly I had to be concerned that if I slipped up I might lose my salvation. Then I found out from the people who I trusted (because they were there at my spiritual birth and I imprinted on them like a  baby duck) that hell was the place God sent sinners and backsliders for eternity. I found out that if I wasn’t living right when Jesus returned I would get left behind.

Condemnation set in like a conquering tyrant. My joy and peace began to turn to fear and trembling. The stress of worrying of whether I was still loved by God was too much of a strain and I started feeling tempted to medicate my feelings again. Sensual pleasure began to creep back in. For a long time I lived under my own dark age of fear and works because eternal flames were the ever present threat in Arminian based Christianity. 

What I am showing you is that in my life God’s grace alone had done a great job making me a holy and pure child of God. Then mans doctrines came along and cut my dosage down by half and prescribed me a drug that had terrible side effects. That drug was infernalism. 

God doesn’t need hell to threaten us into holiness. The fire and conviction of the Holy Spirit does the work in our soul. The spirit of adoption makes us cry out to Abba for more holiness because we love Him for having first loved us. Religion has interfered with the relationship between a father and a child the same way the serpent in the garden did. As a result darkness and separation result in minds clouded with religious lies. 

[2Co 11:3-4, 20-21 NIV] 3 But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. 4 For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. ... 20 In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face. 21 To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!”

  So Paul is concerned that the original transformative message is being polluted by preachers who are heaping abuse and fear upon the converts. Paul says facetiously that he would be too weak to treat people that way. What he really means is that what religious men often describe as strong, bold, uncompromising preaching is in fact spiritual abuse! And like all abusers they will brain wash their victims with the idea that the abuse is for their own good so that the converts relish being abused and then themselves go on to abuse others.

[Mat 23:15 NKJV] "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.”

One of the unfortunate mistakes Christianity makes is prescribing grace in half doses out of the fear of overdose. Like a medicine whose dosage is under-prescribed, we rob grace of its true transformative power to produce holiness by fearing too much grace will result in unholiness. This is why Romans 7 is never preached. It’s more grace than we are willing to give. When Paul says “If I do that which I do not want to do, then it is no longer I who do it but sin living in me”, preachers bristle and scurry for their commentaries. “It doesn’t mean what it sounds like! Who are you going to believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?! That’s just too much grace. People won’t take responsibility if they believe that.”

I’d like to propose another option. What if we just get out of the way and let God’s truth do what it does best and that’s setting captives free and inwardly transforming the sinner. God doesn’t need our double minded doctrines editing his Word or commenting in the margins.

People don’t get the medicine they need when we try to interfere with what the doctor prescribes. “You can’t give them that much grace…they might develop a dependency!”

Fancy that, people depending on God’s grace instead of what – men’s approval or fear based methods of reform? If thats a dependency then I’m addicted. I’m a grace junkie! I need a fix and the grace of God is the only thing that will do! 

The problem that the modern church faces is we have too many doctrines and not enough doctors.

Do you realize that for hundreds of years Christians had no bible to read the day after they got saved? They had no literature to take home or books to train them. All they had was a hearing of the gospel which bore by faith the presence of God into their inner man. They had a relationship with God without a bible of their own. There were no ministries passing out bibles to the early church and yet they turned the world upside down for Jesus. Yet they were being inwardly transformed by their communion with God through the Spirit. 

People who walked in the ministry gifts had scrolls they studied and the Holy Spirit gave them messages to speak that built up believers with spiritual words from God. But this compilation we now call the bible did not even exist for several hundred years. My point is not to devalue the bible. It is precious to me. I mean only to show that regarding the transformation unto holiness, we underestimate the simple power of having a living relationship with God by faith in the gospel. We tell people that unless they read the bible everyday they will wither and die. Then how did converts with no bible thrive? They did so because they were attached to the vine Jesus Christ by the Holy spirit. 

We had an ancient original Christianity that said all you need to be saved is to believe Jesus is the Son of God who died for sinners and rose from the dead.   Now we have a complicated modern Christianity that says you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven unless you adhere to all the vast doctrinal constructions exactly as we do. Like the Catholics who persecuted people into compliance to one controlling doctrine, religion uses threats of hell to command loyalty to their doctrines. Before Emperor Constantine seduced the church onto the back of the beast, there were rich and varied schools of theology that explored doctrinal possibilities and had differing views, all while calling each other brothers and living in unified love. But when Rome took over the church, all that changed. Hell broke loose when Emperor Constantine decided Catholic doctrine was law and those who broke doctrine would be punished as if they broke the criminal law. 

It was then that the doctrine of eternal conscious torment exploded upon the minds of the churches across the world. It was a powerful tool for maintaining conformity with Rome. 

But in fact, the Apostle John set a boundary on the authority of men regarding individual believers and their relationship with God. 

I John 2:27 “As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.”

Is John undermining the authority of the church? No, he is setting limits on the authority of men upon the conscience and conviction of the individual believer. He is granting the believer authority to reject any doctrine that grieves the anointing that abides within us. We Universalists have an anointing that teaches us that God is not and will never be an eternal torturer.

What did Jesus say to his soon to be Apostles?

[Mar 10:42-45 NIV]  42 Jesus called them together and said, "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

Jesus modeled spiritual leadership by way of inspiration not enforcement. He won hearts through his ransom payment which proved the depth of his love. Yet men have trouble living in that level of faith. Christian leaders will take hold of mens hearts by force if given the right weapons to do so. The doctrine of eternal conscious torment is such a weapon. 

In fact I wonder sometimes if God left the parts of the bible that sound like eternal torment in there just to see if men would assemble a gun out of it or if they would beat the sword into a plowshare.  In some ways the bible is a inkblot test that mirrors what is in our hearts. If our hearts are filled with anger and judgement those are the parts of the bible we will see most. But if our hearts are filled with love and grace we will place the weight of our faith on those. 

I do not believe eternal conscious torment is needful to produce faithful holy people. 

“[Phl 2:12-13 NASB] 12 So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for [His] good pleasure.”

Notice to what Paul attributes the internal motivation of the believer. God is at work internally by His Spirit granting us a drive and desire and motivation to please Him and fulfill His purpose for our lives. Of course the phrase “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” should never be construed to mean we could work up our salvation but to work out our salvation. The language indicates a salvation that is internally in place already and is then being manifested visibly for all to see through the good works it produces. Jesus declared his disciples the light of the world and then told them to let their light be seen. He did not tell them to create light within themselves. Jesus is the light that lights everyman who comes into the world. 

The fear and trembling spoken of is never to be taken as a indication that a threat hangs over the Christian. First, it would contradict the statement that follows that God’s love inside of us is the source of positive motivation to do what pleases Him. Second, it would argue with the message that we are not appointed unto wrath. Third, it would be more accurate to understand fear and trembling as an idiom that points away from pride and towards humility. In other words, good works can cause us to be proud and glory in ourselves. We can begin to think more highly of ourselves than we ought when we see God’s mighty working through us by His power and wisdom. So Paul sets a balancing weight on the scales and suggests that we always keep our head down as we are so mightily and beautifully used of God to manifest His goodness.  Pride is the original sin with which Satan would seduce the holiest of men if they were to forget the insufficiency of their own merit and power. Thus we work outwardly with careful humility the wonderful power that is already at work within us.

A Universalists goal is salvific and sanctified liberty, but not libertinism. We would see all men utterly freed from sin by the convicting and transforming work of the Holy Spirit. And while due to the Gehenna fire of the tongue having been quenched by our distinctive faith, we are less likely to judge harshly the backslider and the sinner, (especially by employing the threat of eternal damnation) we would no less seek to spur everyone on to love and good works. To see people become transformed is our great delight. We are not here making intellectual or philosophical excuses for why biblically defined sins are acceptable to God. We can say “God forbid” as well as anyone regarding sin and immorality. But what makes us different is that we say “God forbid” to the notion that the God who makes men holy is ultimately impotent to make all men holy in due time.   Note the phrases preceding our above noted passage:

[Phl 2:10-11 NASB] 10 so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Who will deny the stunning and hopeful implications of this statement? How can eschatological understanding not explode with a greater hope than we could have ever imagined. For is it not God who is able to do exceedingly and abundantly above all that we ask or dare to imagine? Dare we imagine that God would save all, even those who were judged in hell? I can imagine that and yet Paul says God can still do more than I can imagine! 

But if the human authorities of religion believe they can enforce limits on divine possibilities, I will not stand in their way. I will simply point to another way. That is the way of salvific possibility. For was it not Christ who answered the disciples question saying, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” And to what question was this answer given? “Who then can be saved?”  We know that Jesus harrowed hell in part for the sake of the righteous dead, but at the time Paul wrote this, that event had taken place decades before. Of what relevance is the joy and worship of those under the earth at this juncture? When Paul says every knee will bow under the earth, he is in fact looking forward, even beyond our time to the end in which God will truly “be all …in all.”

Now it would be amiss not to mention that for all the assertion that Universalism will grease the slope and send its followers sliding backwards morally, there is in fact no historical evidence for this in the centuries old tradition of this belief. In fact Universalists have always been some of the holiest and all the while gentlest Christians you might find. 

In fact I can say with absolute confidence that among the ancient traditions of Christianity, Universalism is the only one that has no murderers or suborners of murder in it’s historic legacy. Yet What do we see of others? Augustine, Calvin, and others both wrote doctrine and gave winks and nods for those who eradicated brothers and sisters and babies in Christ in the name of one enforced theology. These men never shed a single drop of blood for the cause of Christ, for they were too comfortably ensconced in the seats of power the early church once hid from. Yet look at the Universalists who were persecuted and tortured and slain having never cursed but only blessed those who abused them. 

Furthermore, where is the great hedonistic hoard of Universalists living in the lifestyle of eat drink and be merry? The whole notion is a straw man, a scare crow, a red herring. It’s what people say who have nothing to say other than what they fear they themselves would do. In fact the assertion that Universalism would remove moral deterrence is more of a confession as to their own motivations than that of Universalists. Perhaps by their argument they tattle on themselves as to how feeble their understanding is regarding how exactly God does make men holy. Or perhaps they simply have yet to be liberated to the joy of holiness without torment.

Therefore I reject the tired and impotent argument that Universalism breeds moral apathy. For it was never hell that made us holy in the first place. It was and is God’s truth, love and power in Christ through the Holy Spirit at work in our heart.

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