Why I’m a Universalist

A sermon by the Rev. J. Mark Worth


1. From Richard Trudeau, Universalism 101: God Is Love, self-published, 2009:

God is love. This quotation from the New Testament (1 John 4:16b) has been dear to many sects, but perhaps to none more than the Universalists. More than 200 years ago, … Universalists adopted it as their principle motto.

… Today many of us are unable to share our ancestors’ faith; God is less real for us than God seems to have been for them, and for many of us, the word God is no more than a question mark, a name for life’s mystery. At such a time, we can’t help but wonder: can this vestige of an earlier age still be of use? I say it can. To me, “God is love” is advice for the journey. … It says: If the religious path you are following fosters loving relationships, then your path is a right one. …

Notice that this ancient Christian saying doesn’t seem to make sense. We were brought up to think of God as a person, and yet love is an abstract quality. How can a person be an abstract quality? Bingo! Part of the message is that God isn’t a person.


This is actually the second part of a two-part sermon. The first part is “Why I’m a Unitarian.” That sermon starts with a well-intentioned Methodist Sunday school teacher who said that while the Greek super-man, Hercules, was mythical, the equally fantastic story of the Biblical super-man Samson had to be true “because it’s in the Bible.” After that, “It’s in the Bible” just wasn’t a good enough answer for me. I wanted a religion that made sense, that used reason, and didn’t ask me to accept things I knew couldn’t possibly happen. And that’s when I became a Unitarian, even before I knew that Unitarians existed.

That’s a sermon for another day. Today we’re talking about the second part of our two part name. So today’s sermon is, “Why I’m a Universalist.” And again, the Methodists have an important role to play. Because when I was entering my teens, our Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF) visited a Jewish Synagogue, so that we might learn something about other people’s religious traditions.

I was fascinated by the visit to the synagogue. When I got home, I talked about it with my father, who was then studying to become a Methodist minister. I said to my dad, “We were taught in Sunday school that you have to accept Jesus as your personal savior in order to go to heaven. If you don’t believe that, you go to hell forever. The rabbi seemed like a nice man, but he doesn’t believe Jesus is God, or that Jesus is his savior. Will he go to hell?”

My father paused ever so briefly, and then said, “I think there is a place in heaven for good Jewish people.” I was glad my dad thought Jews could go to heaven!

Then, as I thought about his answer, I came to two conclusions. First, my father didn’t believe what I had been taught in Sunday school. He was about to become a Methodist minister, and he disagreed with the most important doctrine I had been taught about salvation!

And second, if good Jewish people could go to heaven, why not good Hindus, good Muslims, good Buddhists, good agnostics, and good atheists?

Eventually I asked myself, what kind of God would send good people to hell just because they had the wrong opinions? And what kind of God would send bad people to heaven, just because they had the correct opinions?

I decided that a just, loving, and forgiving God wouldn’t create a hell to torture people in! Yes, if God is merely just, then maybe a few people deserve hell. But – if God is also loving and forgiving, then no one will spend eternity in hell. There has to be forgiveness. A just, loving, and forgiving God would come up with a better plan for humanity than sending people to hell.

And that’s when I became a Universalist, even though I had never heard of the Universalists,

and didn’t yet have a word for what I had come to believe.

Who were the Universalists?

Although the Unitarians have European roots that go back to 1568, here in the United States the Universalists are older than the Unitarians by 30 to 40 years. John Murray established a Universalist church in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1774, and then served as a chaplain in George Washington’s army. What became known as the Universalist Church in America was organized in 1793, while the American Unitarian Association wasn’t formally organized until 1825.

By the 1850s, the Universalists were a major denomination in the United States, with around half a million members. They took their name from the doctrine of universal salvation, the idea that a loving and just God would not create a torture chamber called hell, and then create us so flawed that we had to be sent there. If we assume that there is an afterlife, then the Universalists believed that everyone would go to heaven. People called them “the no hell church.”

Actually, probably a majority of Universalists thought there might be temporary punishment for some very bad people, although no one should be punished in hell forever. For instance, if I live 100 years, I can do only 100 years worth of sinning, no matter how bad I am. We say the punishment should fit the crime – so should I be punished for eternity for a mere 100 years worth of sinning? Consider how long eternity is. After billions of trillions of years, there is still all of eternity in front of you! That’s cruelty. A loving God would not do that.

If you are a loving parent, you wouldn’t punish your child for the rest of his life, no matter what he had done. “Go to your room – forever! No supper for you tonight, or ever again!” No, a loving parent knows how to forgive. The Universalists said that God would be even more merciful than a human parent, and so there must be forgiveness at some point.

And an important minority of Universalists said there is no hell at all, except for the “hells” that we create for one another right here on this earth. These Universalists argued that, for the most part, what goes around comes around, right here on earth. If you’re dishonest in business, people will eventually figure it out, and they won’t do business with you. If you’re an abusive parent, your children will avoid you when they grow up, and you’ll die alone. People generally live in the kind of world they create, and you can’t create hells for other people without creating your own little hell for yourself.

The great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou said that you cannot do wrong without suffering wrong. And virtue is its own reward, because “a truly benevolent act is repaid by the consciousness of having done it.” Later, in 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian, had the same idea, and called it “Compensation.” He wrote: “Every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and in certainty.” Emerson said that even if a criminal is not caught, and doesn’t suffer outward retribution, his inner nature becomes so corrupted that he still suffers from his crime. “Always pay,” he wrote, “for first or last you must pay your entire debt.”

Emerson called it compensation; Hindus call it karma. We might say Universalists believe in natural karma in this lifetime, rather than supernatural karma that magically follows you from one life to the next. You get back what you put in. What goes around comes around. Natural karma finds us right here in this mortal existence, making hell unnecessary.

Universalists and the Bible ~

Besides, said the 18th and 19th century Universalists, a hell in the next world is not in God’s plan, because the Bible tells us time and time again that God wants all people to be saved. If God wants everyone to be saved, and has the power to do it, then surely it will happen.

The Universalists would point to 1 Corinthians 15:22, written by Paul of Tarsus: “For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” Who are the “all” who die in Adam? Everyone. Who are the “all” who will be made alive in Christ? It has to be the same all, everyone! Everyone is saved, according to St. Paul.

Is this just a fluke, or did Paul really mean what he said? In Romans 5:18 he said the same thing

in different words: “Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification for all.” Who is condemned by Adam’s trespass? All, everyone. Who is justified by Jesus’ act of righteousness? The same people – everyone!

In 1 Timothy 2:3 we are told, “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; who will have all people to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Titus 2:11 says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” In John 12:32, Jesus tells us, “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” And in John 12:47, Jesus says, “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world but to save it.” And there are many more verses like this.

So, the Universalists argued, if God wants everyone to be saved (as the Bible says), and has the power to do it, then it will happen – everyone will be saved, not just some!

Yes, you can find Bible passages about hell. But the Universalists said that such passages are poorly translated. In the original Hebrew and Greek, the Bible speaks of “the grave,” and “the pit,” and “the trash heap,” but it doesn’t teach eternal punishment in the way conservative Christian churches teach it today. Our modern ideas of hell have their origins in literature such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), and Dante’s Inferno, (in The Divine Comedy, 13th century). It’s not the Bible, but Dante, who described the nine circles of hell.

Universalist contributions ~

In fact, the Universalists were so convincing that most main-line Protestant churches stopped emphasizing hell. They put hell on the back-burner, so to speak. The Universalists had largely won the argument, but lost their reason for existence. Having a no hell church became less important, and the Universalists, who were not very good at organization or fund-raising, slid into a long slow decline.

But before they faded away, and combined with the Unitarians, the Universalists left their mark. It was the Universalists, and not the Unitarians, who supported the separation of church and state.

The Universalists were the second church, after the Quakers, to come out against slavery, going on record against slavery in 1794. And they were the first denomination to give their full denominational approval to the ordination of women, beginning with Rev. Olympia Brown in 1863.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a Universalist, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Dr. Rush has also been called “the father of American psychiatry.” Another Universalist, Clara Barton, was the founder of the American Red Cross. And another Universalist, Theodore Sorensen, was John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter and adviser.

Universalists founded Tufts University, and circus operator P.T. Barnum – another Universalist – was one of the benefactors of Tufts. When Jumbo the elephant died, Barnum had Jumbo stuffed and donated to Tufts, where it was displayed for many years. Jumbo is still the school mascot.

Universalists tended to be of a lower social status than Unitarians. Often it was the Unitarians who owned the mills, and the Universalsits worked in them. Unitarians, then as now, often had a high opinion about themselves. One preacher who served in both denominations, Thomas Starr King, explained difference between the Universalists and Unitarians, saying, “Universalists think God is too good to damn them, while Unitarians think they are too good to be damned.”

Universalism moves forward ~

In the 20th century, Universalists began to redefine what it meant to be a Universalist. There was less emphasis on “universal salvation,” and more emphasis on the “universals” that are shared by the world’s great religions, such as the Golden Rule. They interpreted Universalism more broadly, seeing Universalism as an inclusive faith, rejecting the notion that humans can be divided into the sheep and the goats, the saved and the damned.

Universalists pointed out that their motto, “God is love,” suggests that God is not a person, but is a different kind of reality. “No one has ever seen God,” says the New Testament, but “if we love one another, God lives in us” (1 John 4:12). This is similar to the Buddhist teaching that says that

compassion and loving-kindness are essential to enlightenment. Or, as Abraham Lincoln said, “When I do good I feel good; when I do bad I feel bad. That is my religion.”

Come As You Are ~

In Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the end of Cape Cod, there is a beautiful old Universalist Meeting House. It was built in 1851 in the Greek Revival style, and is one of the prettiest churches on the Cape. There is a sign in front of that church that announces, “Come As You Are.” It’s an invitation for summer vacationers to attend church and not worry that they haven’t any good Sunday clothes. But the late G. Peter Fleck, who was ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister at the rather ripe age of 75, said he thought that phrase, “come as you are,” also had a larger meaning, a cosmic meaning.

“We do not live in a universe in which we may ultimately be weighed and found wanting,” he wrote, “but in an accepting universe, a universe that welcomes us as we are, that embraces us with open arms… This is good Universalist theology. In the end, no one is found wanting; God will not condemn any human being to eternal suffering in hell.”

But if we can “come as we are,” does that mean that we can do anything that we might want, pleasing ourselves without regard to others? The Universalists said that there are many reasons to be a good person, but fear of hell is not one of them. Our world works better, for ourselves and for others, if we are not selfish. You can be yourself, but do no harm. Don’t look only at your own desires, but look out for the interests of others. And remember, when others come as they are, we should be here to welcome them, too.

Ultimately, our commitment today to be a welcoming congregation, a congregation that welcomes all people regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, family configuration, social or class background, or financial situation, has its roots in our Universalist heritage, a heritage that says, “come as you are,” because of that old Universalist affirmation that God is Love.