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Functions, Justice, and Everlasting Life
David R. Burton
Universalists believed in universal salvation.  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,
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
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.
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. 
Specifically, if one assumes that:
is just (meaning, in effect, that God’s conception of justice is
similar to our own);
is an afterlife (where some aspect of our personality survives); and
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:
likely to promote moral behavior to the extent believed.
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
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).
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.
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
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
as a Middle Ground
Roman Catholics, to their credit, saw the injustice in such an
arrangement and eventually established the speculative concept of
purgatory.  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. 
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
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.
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. 
Let us focus on the last two.
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
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.
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.
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 
and Jesus’ views on forgiveness. 
Universalism deserves a higher intellectual standing than it is usually
accorded by Christian theologians.
This was universally true until the 20th
Century when humanist/atheist ideas insinuated themselves into
Universalism just as they were gaining ground in Unitarianism.
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.
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.
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
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 hope—perhaps
even that one must so hope—while
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 author claims no expertise whatsoever with respect to Roman
Catholic doctrines relating to purgatory and this description should be
read with that in mind.
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.”
© 2003 American Unitarian Conference™