My ‘Conversion’ to Universalism
by Ravi Holy
(An excerpt from the dissertation "Damned Nonsense")
I have defined myself as a Christian for the last fifteen years (since 14th April 1990, to be precise). For most of that time, I held to the traditional view of hell as a place of ‘eternal conscious torment for all Christ-rejecters’ to quote the statement of belief of the denomination in which I was taught the faith (Elim Pentecostal). However, on 20th April 2001, I experienced what I can only call a paradigm shift in my thinking.
This was precipitated by visiting the website of Charles Slagle, a North American evangelist who describes himself as a ‘prophetic psalmist’ who I had seen minister at Kensington Temple (my Elim church) on a few occasions. I had been very impressed by Slagle, not just because of the ‘spectacular’, apparently supernatural aspect of his ministry but because he seemed to know the same God of unconditional love that I did – which was not something that I could say of every visiting minister or, indeed, every person in my church!
Imagine my surprise, then, when I heard that this great man of God, this prophet who clearly knew God, who heard from Him and, even spoke for Him, had ‘gone off the rails’. Apparently, Slagle was now teaching that all people would be saved - a ludicrous heresy that was clearly unscriptural. How could this be? It was to answer that question that I logged on to http://www.sigler.org/slagle/.
Within literally seconds of reading the material there, I was converted. Perhaps that is overstating the case slightly – but not much. From almost the first sentence, I was thinking both ‘I hope this is true’ and ‘I think this is true’. What did I read that caused me to change my mind – or, at least, be willing to – so quickly?
Slagle talks about a concept that he calls ‘CalvArminianism’, the attempt to combine Calvinism and Arminianism by taking only the nice bits from each. That is precisely what I – and possibly my denomination as a whole - had done. Indeed, just the day before reading about the ‘four views of salvation’ (Calvinism, Arminianism, CalvArminianism and universalism) for the first time, I had said to a friend during a theological discussion that I was a Calvinist for myself but an Arminian for everyone else.
In other words, my own experience was that God seemed to have chosen me, made Himself known to me in a way that was, to all intents and purposes, irresistible (a good Calvinist word!) I could not see what I had done to invite this, let alone deserve it. I had been saved entirely by grace and so I knew that God loved me literally unconditionally. However, precisely because I knew that God did not love me because of anything that I had done, it was also obvious to me that He must love everybody else as much as - and in the same way that - He loved me. (And, of course, the theology of my church was Arminian, evidenced by the word ‘Christ-rejecters’ in the statement quoted above).
Convinced that no-one deserved to go to hell more than I did – and that most deserved it a lot less – and that God did not want anyone to go there, I was a fervent evangelist. As well as leading ‘street outreach’ teams at the church, I shared my faith with people whenever and wherever the opportunity presented itself: at work, on the bus and on the tube. I didn’t mind making a fool of myself (and I’m sure I often did) because I was more than willing to suffer a little embarrassment – and even worse – if it could save even one person from an eternity of unbearable agony.
Yet most of those to whom I ‘witnessed’ did not respond in the way that I hoped they would and while, for all I know, some of them may have done so at a later date, according to my old beliefs, those who did not would spend eternity regretting it in hell. Slagle’s article confronted me with the inherent contradiction in my position: if any of those people had had the experience of God that I had had, they would have believed in Him - just as I did not believe before I had those experiences. How, then, could God send them to hell? Of course, the capricious god of Calvinism could do that but a God of unconditional love…?
Slagle forced me to articulate what I had always believed but repressed for the sake of maintaining ‘orthodoxy’: a love that requires conditions to be met before it can be experienced is conditional. If God’s love is truly unconditional, then it must be true that no conditions need to be met before a person can benefit from it – and this was precisely what Slagle proposed. He dared to suggest that God’s love for each person is so great that He will never give up on anyone and that He will continue to pursue every person until they are saved.
This was a tremendously exciting concept and, as I say, I certainly hoped that it was true even if I feared that it might not be. Because, of course, as a good evangelical, I was still concerned about ‘everything that the Bible says about hell’. However, on turning to my Bible, I discovered that the Bible doesn’t say anywhere near as much about hell as I had thought it did and that many of the things it did say were not as clear as I had supposed either. Furthermore, there were several passages of Scripture that could, conceivably, support this new understanding of the gospel and, perhaps most significantly, these were all passages that I had never been able to accommodate in my old system of thought. I have already discussed 1 Timothy 2:4 and Romans 8:38-39 and the difficulties these present to the non-universalist exegete. Another example is Philippians 2:10-11.
Previously, I had understood this to mean that, on the day of judgement, everybody would bow before the risen Jesus and acknowledge Him as Lord. However, while there is nothing in the text to warrant this, I had assumed that the scene it described would involve two different groups of people: those – such as myself – who would willingly bow their knee to Him before being admitted to paradise, and those who would be forced to do so against their will, before being thrown into the lake of fire. The fact that the plain reading of Scripture favoured universalism here – and in other places - while my (Calv)Arminian theology had required me to rewrite it, as I had with 1 Timothy 2:4, was a significant piece of evidence that served to confirm me in my growing conviction that universalism was true.
So, of the four sources of authority, Reason was clearly on the universalist side and now it seemed that Scripture was, at the very least, not completely opposed to it. That there had been universalists in the early Church was, perhaps, less striking to me as a Protestant than the fact that there were people who were otherwise orthodox but also universalists now – not least Slagle himself who, as I have said, I both admired and trusted. Indeed, as a Charismatic, I was prepared to consider that God might be ‘speaking to me’ through the very experience of responding to Slagle in the way that I did.
While there may be some validity in the conservative evangelical critique of Charismaticism/Pentecostalism that experience is the supreme authority rather than Scripture, experience is still one of the sources of authority recognised by Christians – or by Anglican Christians at least. Furthermore, I believe that the principle ‘you will know them by their fruits’ applies to doctrines as well as to people; as Jesus said: ‘wisdom is vindicated by her deeds’. Perhaps the most compelling evidence for me that universalism is true is the difference that believing it has made in my life. Of several examples that I could give, I will mention only the most significant.
I was sexually abused as a child and, for many years, I struggled to forgive my abuser. It is clear to me now that my non-universalist understanding of Christianity prevented me from forgiving him rather than enabling me to do so even though it told me that this was required of me – and, possibly, as a condition of my own forgiveness. The fact is that, in the past, I believed that God only forgives those who truly repent. It is clear to me now that it is as meaningless to say that God has forgiven those He sentences to hell (whether that is eternal torment or annihilation) as to say that He loves them.
Thus, I did not feel obliged to forgive my abuser more than I believed that God would. The best that I could say was that I was willing to forgive him if he repented (which he still has not done to date).
Even if I had said that I had forgiven him ‘unconditionally', would this really have been true if I still believed that God was going to send him to hell on the day of judgement if he persisted – and died - in his non-repentance? Would I not have been harbouring some sort of revenge fantasy in my heart in spite of any pious words I might have spoken? Indeed, some people even exhorted me to forgive on the basis that the Bible says ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’!
When I became convinced of the truth of universalism, however, my feelings towards him changed dramatically. No doubt there were other factors involved as well but, when I realised that, if I was correct, God had already forgiven him and would not punish him or send him to hell regardless of whether or not he repented, I felt able to forgive him unconditionally too. This was nothing short of a miracle. It also made scriptural sense.
In Luke 6:35, Jesus tells us to love our enemies so that we may be like God who is ‘kind to the ungrateful and the wicked’. God’s mercy precedes our repentance, just as Christ died for us [all] when we were [all] sinners (Romans 5:8). Calvinism may ignore the (implied) alls but Arminianism does the same to the ‘when we were sinners’ and leads us to imagine that we deserve our salvation because we repented. It is significant to me that the next verse says that we have been justified by his blood - rather than by (our) faith. This seems to confirm that all of ‘the ungodly’ for whom He died are already justified by what He did, not by what they may or may not do in response to it in the future.
Knowing that God forgave my abuser unconditionally and felt nothing but compassion for him, I did and felt the same - and told the man so. While, as I said earlier, he has not fully repented even now, his response to this was to express genuine remorse for the first time ever and, in conclusion, I simply cannot believe that this remarkable transformation in me and my situation was a ‘lucky accident’, that something so wonderful has happened in spite of – or, indeed, as a result of - me embracing a heresy. Thus, this episode provided final confirmation to me that the doctrine of universal salvation reveals the true heart of God to us and enables us to demonstrate it to others.