Christian Universalism and the American Zeitgeist

I am not a theologian. The following is a reflection prompted by Rod Dreher’s post: ” Christian Universalism Is The New Orthodoxy.”

We live in a politically correct society that eschews principled positions and straight talk. Americans celebrate diversity and have made accommodation a fundamental aspect of civic/social life.

I’m not judging this; I’m merely saying that political correctness has dominated the post-modern worldview.[1]

It’s also affected how American Christians react/respond to hell. Traditionally, Christians said that hell was where sinners went. If one didn’t confess sin and accept Jesus Christ as personal savior, one was condemned to an afterlife of hell.[2]

But this view is no longer accepted by a majority of self-identified believers. Accommodationism and diversity, which shape our civic life, has altered the public’s faith. Specifically, most American Christians now proclaim they’re universalists, meaning they believe all paths to God are equally valid, everyone will receive salvation and all will go to heaven.

Rod Dreher highlights Sherry Weddell of the Catherine of Siena Institute, an organization designed to make lay parishioners into apostles for Christ. Weddell estimates that 95% of the Roman Catholics she encounters are “functional universalists” unconcerned about personal salvation. This, she says, makes her fellow Roman Catholics modern-day Pelagians.

Pelagianism was a 4th century heresy which proclaimed that man can be saved without God’s grace and without Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. They didn’t believe in original sin, or the fall of man. They also maintained that man had the ability to become righteous and gain salvation on his own merit.

But man can’t gain his own salvation. If he tries, he will end up in hell.[3] That was/is the orthodox view.

Now the question of who’s in hell is a tricky one. No one knows who’s exactly there. But orthodoxy teaches that there’s a hell and some of the dead will spend eternity there.

That’s a dogmatic position, for sure. Perhaps that’s why so many struggle to accept it wholeheartedly. We don’t want to contemplate our friends from non-Christian faiths spending the afterlife there. How can faithful observers from other traditions be punished because they don’t accept Jesus as Lord of all? These pious non-Christians followed their teachings and lived the good life, didn’t they?

Educators have contributed to believers’ doubt too. Public education has taught us to question dogma and absolutes. That makes publicly educated believers ask: Are non-Christians condemned to hell in perpetuity? Why can’t they just spend some time in purgatory and then ascend to heaven?

These thoughts have contributed to moral relativism and the diversity/accommodation ideal both in civic and religious life. All cultures/religions are unique. They each have something significant to contribute. Hierarchical values are inherently subjective.

That’s the message pounded into public school children from pre-K through graduate school.

No wonder adults now accept relativism as truth. These ideas have consequences.[4] Who’s to say which individual is/isn’t going to hell?

Such thinking has led to the acceptance of universalism. It’s become, in Dreher’s words, the emerging orthodoxy.


[1] Notice how political correctness alters one tone. I think the relativists are wrong, but don’t say so explicitly in the text.

[2] Forgive this very general assertion.

[3] My political incorrectness has emerged.

[4] As Richard Weaver warned; Weaver chronicled the West’s abandonment of absolutes and its elevation of nominalism (I prefer the term relativism) to William of Ockham in the 13th century. C.S. Lewis had a similar critique of relativism in The Abolition of Man.

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2 comments

  1. I don’t normally read blogs on religion but I decided to read yours. I also almost never respond as this topic is a VERY sensitive one and I’ll most likely end up angering someone for my opinion. But I’ll post something anyway.

    I am not part of any faith but I see a change in peoples attitudes mostly due to the fact that they are able to. Thirty years or earlier a person either was part of a faith or not. There was simply very little information about other ways of thinking and to be accepted in a certain faith you followed or had to jump from one place of worship to the next.

    Today people can explore and follow God first and human interpretation second. Fear based tactics to convince people to tow the line don’t work these days. Anyone can read and interpret their religious texts as their leisure without being told why and how they need to be fixed.

    In my experience those that talk about going to hell and telling people how to avoid it are usually the least willing to try and make Earth less of a hell to live in. Why is that?

    In times of change new ideas come about and new opportunities arise. Why put energy in avoiding hell when you could try and make the world you live in less of one? That’s my take on things anyway.

    1. You raise an excellent point about the amount of information we have available at our fingertips. But I would caution that just because one has more information. i.e. just because one is “smarter,” doesn’t necessarily make one any wiser.

      Your point about the fear based tactics is on point as well. I think the days of hell, fire and brimstones preaching have come and gone. And that’s a good thing. Christians should emphasize God’s love and mercy and each individual’s ability to choose whether they want to follow Him or not.

      Choosing not to accept Him as Lord and Savior has eternal consequences, however. That cannot be ignored, and that’s what my post was trying to convey.

      This is a very delicate matter, of course. And there’s not One way to do this. But I think the Church is unwise if it accepts universalism. In this way, I am a catholic and believe a universal Church must stand for something; traditionally, that’s been expressed in the Nicene creed and is known as orthodoxy. Otherwise, the Church is doing good works, but neglecting its chief duty-to share the gospel and let the Holy Spirit work within our fellow man, making non-believers into apostles of Christ.

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