American Unitarian Conference

Promoting the American Unitarian Tradition

Back to the American Unitarian page

Functions, Justice, and Everlasting Life

David R. Burton


Traditionally, Universalists believed in universal salvation. [1] This was sometimes expressed as the final harmony of all souls with God.  A loving God, it was argued, would not condemn people forever for finite sins. Unitarians believed in one God and rejected the divinity of Jesus. Just as many Universalists were, and are, Unitarians, many Unitarians were, and are, Universalists.[2]

Universal Salvation Criticized

Many Unitarians, however, do not accept universal salvation.  Moreover, most Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians reject the Universalist position.  Instead, they hold that certain sins (mortal sins in the Catholic tradition, for example) or a lack of a certain kind of faith (in Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior, for example) or poor character result in damnation or the extinguishment of the soul upon death (at least in certain circumstances).  The Universalist position is usually criticized as extreme, heretical, unjust and as encouraging, or not sufficiently discouraging, immoral behavior. 

The argument usually goes something like this.  Query.  Is it just that Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa both make it to heaven?  Can God really be so daft that no distinction is made between the worst monsters humanity has produced and the saints.  QED.

The Traditional Thinking Examined

It is the contention of this essay that, given certain widely held assumptions, the Universalist position (at least the position held by Universalists in the late 19th century) is more reasonable, less extreme, more just and, if believed by a person, more likely to lead to moral behavior than the traditional views of heaven and hell, salvation and damnation. [3]

Specifically, if one assumes that:

(1)  God is just (meaning, in effect, that God’s conception of justice is similar to our own);

(2)  There is an afterlife (where some aspect of our personality survives); and

(3)  God provides justice (to wit, there are consequences in the afterlife to our actions or beliefs or character in this world),

then the Universalist position is:

(1)  more reasonable;

(2)  more just; and

(3)  more likely to promote moral behavior to the extent believed.

Let us examine the traditional view.  If some defined set of beliefs or attitudes are held, actions are undertaken, or attributes possessed by a person, then that person upon their terrestrial death will be admitted to everlasting life in heaven (or achieve union or harmony with God).  Otherwise, they will spend eternity in hell being tormented or their soul will be extinguished (which is how some theologians define hell). 

For purposes of analysis, let us examine the view that sin is the relevant factor for determining whether or not a person achieves salvation (defined as everlasting life in heaven or union or harmony with God after death).  If a person sins a great deal, they go to hell.  If a person sins to a very small degree, they go to heaven. But what about the person that sins a lot but not a great deal or the person that sinned more than a little bit but less than a lot.  Where do we, or, actually, where does God, draw the line at the 50th percentile of sin, the 95th percentile, the 99th?  Or is it at so many sins per year or so many sins per lifetime?  We do not know.  We cannot know, at least in this lifetime.  What we can do is analyze the implications of such a putatively divine moral system.  Let us assume, for the moment, that God draws the line at the 50th percentile. The guy who sinned more than 50 percent of his fellow humans goes to hell forever.  But the guy who sinned more than 49.99999999999999 percent of his fellow humans goes to heaven forever. 

This is what the mathematicians would call a discontinuous function.  Imagine, if you will, a graphing of this function.  On the x axis is the degree of sin.  On the y axis is the reward or punishment.  Where sin is below the threshold, the reward is an infinitely long stay in heaven.  Above the threshold, the punishment is an infinitely long stay in hell.  There is a precipitous drop from positive infinity to negative infinity at the threshold point on the x axis.  There is no middle ground.

The same analysis would apply with respect to other criteria for allocating souls between heaven and hell.  Take faith.  We all have occasional doubts about God or Jesus.  Some people have huge “doubts.”  They are confirmed atheists.  Some people rarely have doubts, but in some moment of crisis may doubt God (or Jesus).  How much doubt is enough to get a person a ticket to hell?  And then there is the issue of doubt with respect to what precisely?  How much faith is enough to achieve everlasting life in heaven?  Again, a line must be drawn and the recompense is eternal life or eternal damnation.  There is no middle position.  There will people who have almost identical degrees of faith who, upon death, will end up in very different places.

Justice, at least as we humans conceive it, would not allow such results.  Such minor differences in the relevant criteria should not lead to such widely disparate results.  In the one case, an infinite reward, or at least infinitely long reward; in the other, infinitely long punishment for behavior that was substantially the same, varying to only the most minute degree.

Purgatory as a Middle Ground

The Roman Catholics, to their credit, saw the injustice in such an arrangement and eventually established the speculative concept of purgatory. [4] Those that have committed venial (forgivable) but not mortal sins but are in a state of grace will gain entry to purgatory, be punished and ultimately see heaven.  Those that have committed mortal sins may also see purgatory and then heaven if their sins have been absolved by the sacrament of penance. [5] The doctrine of purgatory represents an attempt to remedy the manifest injustice and the irrational results of the traditional Christian rule (still adhered to, in principle, by most Protestants).  In fact, the concept of purgatory, were it sufficiently expanded and properly construed, is not that different from the Universalist position.

But purgatory does not eliminate the justice problem outlined above; it merely mitigates it.  Drawing the line between those that enter purgatory and are infinitely punished in hell will lead to the same problems as those discussed above.  The discontinuous functions are not eliminated, they are just shifted on the graph.  Some will be punished forever while others will make it to purgatory and then heaven, forever, for only infinitesimally small differences in earthly behavior or faith or character.

Universalism Reconsidered

In 1899, the General Convention of Universalists adopted the following five principles of the Universalist Faith.

1.  The Universal Fatherhood of God

2.  The spiritual authority and leadership of His Son Jesus Christ

3.  The trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God

4.  The certainty of just retribution for sin

5.  The final harmony of all souls with God. [6]

Let us focus on the last two.

This is the “mature” or “fully formed” Universalist position.  All souls will achieve final harmony with God but only after just punishment for sins committed.  This approach allows highly differential treatment the administration of justice for people that had different degrees of sin.  Thus, the Hitlers and Stalins of the world will be severely punished for a very long time and the Saints only mildly, if at all.  The punishment, in this analysis, can be calibrated to fit the magnitude of the crime.  In other words, the punishment is proportionate to the offense to the degree of sin.  There are no bright lines.  There are no huge disparities in treatment for minute differences in sin or faith.  The approach is, therefore, more just, more reasonable and more rational than the traditional approach.

The Universalists of 1899 used the term retribution rather than punishment, perhaps because they did not think that punishment in the afterlife can properly be thought of as having other correctional purposes.  Rehabilitation seems unlikely but deterrence is another matter. 

The mature Universalist position, if believed by a person is likely to be a better deterrent to immoral behavior to sin than is the traditional fire and brimstone approach to the matter.  The reason, again, has to do with “cliff effects” or discontinuous functions.  Someone who accepts the traditional view, has sinned a great deal and thinks about his or her position in the afterlife is likely to believe that they are going to hell in any event.  There is no incentive for them to reform their ways.  The “fear of God” is unlikely to play any role in determining their behavior since they will figure that they are going to get the maximum sentence (forever) in any event.  Similarly, those who regard themselves as upright citizens are likely to be uninfluenced by traditional doctrines since they probably believe they have it made.  They have done enough to avoid the ultimate punishment.

Those that regard the fully formed Universalist position as true always have an incentive to abate sin and to act morally since, no matter what a person’s prior acts (or beliefs) any sin will result in additional “just retribution.”  The degree of punishment will be ramped up or down depending on the level of sin.  This proportionality provides a continuing incentive to avoid sin and is likely to have a more pronounced impact on believers behavior than the traditional doctrines.


Universalism, often regarded at first glance as a naïve or unjust approach to questions of ultimate justice, is actually more sophisticated, refined, rational and just than the traditional approach to salvation.  It is also more in keeping with the New Testament injunction that God is Love [7] and Jesus’ views on forgiveness. [8] Accordingly, Universalism deserves a higher intellectual standing than it is usually accorded by Christian theologians. 


1 This was universally true until the 20th Century when humanist/atheist ideas insinuated themselves into Universalism just as they were gaining ground in Unitarianism.

2 Some readers may be familiar with the classic quip that Universalists thought God was too good to damn them while Unitarians thought they were too good for God to damn them.

3 As will become evident, the Universalist position I am discussing pairs Universal salvation (or harmony or union with God) with just retribution.  Not all Universalists have held to the second point or, at least, been clear about their views on punishment.

4 This idea was discussed as early as the second century but was formally endorsed by the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches in Florence in 1439.  Noted Catholic priest and commentator Richard John Neuhaus,  in “A Pope of the First Millennium at the Threshold of the Third,” First Things, January 1995, wrote:Among some Protestants there is considerable anxiety that the Catholic Church teaches universalism, the doctrine that all will ultimately be saved, or even Pelagianism, the heresy that it is possible to be saved without the grace of God in Christ.  John Paul goes to some pains to clarify these questions. He notes that ancient councils of the Church rejected the theory of a final apocatastasis according to which all would finally be saved and hell abolished.  Yet one gathers he does not disagree with von Balthasar, who, in a famous essay by that title, asked, Dare one hope that all will be saved?  The answer would seem to be that one may so hopeperhaps even that one must so hopewhile not denying the abiding alternative to salvation, which is damnation.  As for Pelagianism, his interviewer asks whether one cannot live an honest, upright life even without the Gospel.  John Paul: I would respond that if a life is truly upright it is because the Gospel, not known and therefore not rejected on a conscious level, is in reality already at work in the depths of the person who searches for the truth with honest effort and who willingly accepts it as soon as it becomes known to him.  Such willingness is, in fact, a manifestation of grace at work in the soul.’”

5 The author claims no expertise whatsoever with respect to Roman Catholic doctrines relating to purgatory and this description should be read with that in mind.

6 This statement is still recited to this day each Sunday at the Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington, DC.

7 1 John 4:16; see also Jesus’ injunctions to love your enemies at Matt 5:44. The Universalist Winchester Confession of 1803 put it this way: “We believe that there is one God, whose nature is love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness. We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.”

8 Matt 6:14

© 2003 American Unitarian Conference