“The certainty of retribution”

Jane R comments:

Wow, “the certainty of retribution.” Talk to us about how Universalists have understood this.

Gladly: I don’t do enough Universalist theology here. To catch everyone else up, that’s from 1904 Life Hymnal I wrote about yesterday.

This phrase was shorthand for what was in 1899 accepted as one of the five “essential principles of Universalism,” namely “the certainty of just retribution for sin.” Despite its inclusion, this was the most controversial of the five planks, but perhaps more from the grimness of the wording than any theological objection.

Universalist theology divided not-so-neatly into two camps. Fortune and fashion lifted one above the other for this or that generation, so both can be considered genuinely Universalist positions.

One position, often called the Restorationist position, viewed human beings culpable for sin in this life and the next. Those who died with unmitigated sin — a vague point itself — would experience a separation from God and a purgation from sin after death. Were God not good and just, this separation could (and perhaps should) be endless: the conventional doctrine of hell. But God’s sense of justice prevents an endless punishment for what — being finite beings — can at worst can still only be finite sin. This doctrine of proportionality was Hosea Ballou’s great contribution to Universalist theology. In short, with the Restorationists, “if you do the crime, you do the time.” But then you’re you’re united sinless and justifed with God eternally.

The other position, usually called the ultra-Universalist position was more radical, more interesting and — as Ann Lee Bressler points out in her Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880 (get it if you can) less subject to being co-opted by Victorian moralism. In 1899, it was a small minority position. The focus of universal salvation is usually described in terms of Christ’s salvivic identification with corporate humanity — as the New Adam — and not with individuals. James Relly, one of the earliest Universalist figures, vividly describes this relationship — perhaps only as a protege of George Whitfield can — as Christ taking on humanity as a garment, and with this action taking on our sin as his own. That is, owning the sin as the captain of humanity and not unfairly having it imputed to him. “The buck stops here,” so to speak, at the foot of Calvary.

I don’t mean to sound glib, only descriptive. Indeed, this moves me near to trembling; I brought Union, Relly’s masterwork, back into print out of thanksgiving.

In any case, ultra-Universalists usually identified sin with carnality — their great weakness — so punishment after death; that is, after the loss of sinful flesh, seemed unfair, even impossible. Punishment usually got couched (at best) as a lack of the heartfelt knowledge of the presence of God or (at worst) in the degradation and dissipation of riotous living; either way, its believers felt the punishment was inescapable. To follow the earlier penal metaphor, ultra-Universalists got painted with a “soft on crime” reputation, even by other Universalists. This, no doubt, led to their decline in influence and numbers. Indeed, Universalists as a group had the unfair reputation of being a harbor for the worst of sinners and I’m sure the obsession with retribution was in response to the charge.

That much is certain.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

1 comment

  1. In Spain, when things are finally settled, or people don’t want to start a fight, or we prefer to let things go, we say “now peace, and glory later” (ahora paz y después gloria). I find this an incredibly Universalist affirmation, right? No question about who really deserves the glory!

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