Pushed on the matter I guess I would confess to being something of a universalist. If it was God’s purpose to reconcile the world through Christ, I’ve never felt comfortable saying God can’t have what he wants.
There has always been a strain of Christian thought favoring it. Augustine of Hippo, who dismissed it thoroughly, admitted there were many entirely loyal to the Scriptures who denied “endless torment” for the damned. Even while still dismissing universal salvation, Augustine nonetheless cautioned Christians against judging the spiritual state of those as yet outside Christianity. God, he said, hatches plans about which we know nothing. Inspired by Augustine, I have always enjoyed this bit of doggerel:
When I arrived at heaven’s gate I saw faces I never thought I’d see
And every face showed shocked surprise, not one expected me.
There is in fact a whole body of early Christian literature—quotes and sermons and scraps of sermons—from theologians and bishops from both the ante-Nicene and post-Nicene periods disputing an eternal hell. Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, Eusebius of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, Ambrose of Milan (though perhaps more ambiguously than some)—these and others I could name never gave up the notion that the universal work of Christ made hell superfluous come the apocatastasis, the restoration. I tend to lean in their direction.
Obviously, just saying I am “something” of a universalist doesn’t solve all my theological problems with universalism, and there are many. The most obvious question about universalism is the “Hitler problem.” An Episcopal colleague and friend brought it out on every subject when he got stuck for an answer, four words to stop every argument, especially universalism: Is Hitler in hell? There is something disturbing, isn’t there, about a Hitler not in hell? If he isn’t, you might wish to reconsider your heavenly reservation.
Yet the early Fathers weren’t so certain of anyone being so far from God that God could not heal their hearts. As St. Jerome put it:
In the end or consummation of things, all shall be restored to their original state, and be again united in one body. We cannot be ignorant that Christ's blood benefited the angels and those who are in hell; though we know not the manner in which it produced such effects. The apostate angels shall become such as they were created; and man, who has been cast out of paradise, shall be restored thither again. And this shall be accomplished in such a way, that all shall be united together by mutual charity, so that the members will delight in each other, and rejoice in each other’s promotion. The apostate angels, and the prince of this world, though now ungovernable, plunging themselves into the depths of sin, shall, in the end, embrace the happy dominion of Christ and his saints.
If the sainted Jerome saw hope that the blood of Christ availed for the apostate angels and their chief, and even for those in hell, I think maybe there might be hope for me. In short, I believe the universally sanctifying death of Christ insists upon an outcome that is in magnitude universal.
I once conducted a funeral for an atheist. He was an old high school friend, dying, who had asked me to do it. Thinking what to say—he didn’t exactly hang out with “church people”—lost sheep and shepherds came to mind. But St. Luke and St. Mark both tell the story with a stuffy kicker at the end: Heaven rejoices more over the one sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine who never stray.
I’m sure heaven does, however unnerving for the never-strayed, but the conclusion is grossly incongruent with the story of an AWOL sheep that gets itself hauled back to the fold, perhaps unwillingly and quite prepared to do it again next week. There is no evidence of repentance I can see. The shepherd did it, and will do it again, no thanks to the sheep.
But St. Matthew (18:10-14) tells the story off-key with deeply universalist implications. His scene opens with Jesus speaking of “little ones”—not children, I figure, but code for people like my friend. These “little ones” have “angels in heaven [who] always see the face of my Father.” How about that? These “little ones,” even lost and not yet found, have angels before God. The shepherd searches and finds and brings them home: “So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
“All men are Christ’s,” Clement of Alexandria reportedly said, “some by knowing him, the rest not yet. He is the Savior, not of some and the rest not. For how is he Savior and Lord, if not the Savior and Lord of all?”
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, assistant pastor of St. Matthew's Church in Riverside, Missouri, and an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary. His book Speaking of the Dead is nearing completion. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.