Does universalism subvert free will?

July 22, 2013 in Theology · 6 comments


A common objection to universalism (the view that all people will eventually be reconciled to God) is that it violates our free will — that in order for God to save everyone, he would have to force some to love him. Those who argue from that point of view disavow universalism in part because they believe that some people will freely choose to reject — and will always choose to reject — God’s saving love and grace.

But are we truly as free as we think we are? And does our perceived freedom really allow us to reject God’s love? All things being equal, perhaps we could make a truly free choice between condition A and condition B. But things are never equal — there are always constraining factors that push us in one direction or the other. When it comes to universalism, it might be easy to say that some will be able to freely reject God’s love — but when faced directly with the most pure, perfect, absolute love imaginable the actual possibility of such a rejection might just be so small that it’s virtually non-existent.

Our free will is “violated” all the time. I don’t have a choice to believe that there’s a mug of hot coffee beside me or that the sun is shining outside. These things simply are — I perceive them immediately and directly and accept them as true without the need to ponder them and weigh the evidence for them and make a choice whether or not to accept them. I simply know that the coffee is hot and the sun is bright and my knowledge of those facts shapes my subsequent actions. Try as I might, I can’t freely will the coffee out of existence or the sun to darken. Isn’t it possible that our experience of God’s perfect love will be similarly self-evident?

But might some still choose to reject that love, just as one can choose not to drink a mug of coffee or not to step outside and enjoy the summer day?

Say you’ve been trekking across a parched and barren desert for days, that you’re sunburned, your lips are dry and cracked, your eyes hurt from the glare of sand, your feet are dirty and blistered, your muscles ache and you feel as if you can barely go on. And then you come around a bend in the path and there before you is a shady grove of trees surrounding a pool of cool, clear water. A waterfall splashes down the rocks. A table beside the pool is filled with a delectable selection of fruit. A hammock sways gently in the breeze. A sign hangs from a tree with the words “Rest for weary travelers: free food and water, help yourself!”

Do you stop and think about what you’ve encountered? Do you weigh the pros and cons and evaluate the long-term consequences of your decision? Do you decide that maybe it’s not such a good opportunity to quench your thirst and that you’d rather keep trekking across the desert? Or do you avail yourself of the refreshment before you? And if you do so, has your free will been trampled over?

Perhaps we can concoct circumstances where someone would pass by this oasis: they might think it’s a mirage, or that there’s a bigger, better rest spot further down the road, or that they don’t deserve such a wonderful rest, etc.

Perhaps. But it seems to me far more likely that virtually all people, when given the opportunity for respite from their journey and salvation from death in the dessert, would, without regards for sacrosanct notions of free will, happily step from the hot sand into the cool, refreshing shade.

6 comments… read them below or add one

Ford1968 July 23, 2013 at 7:18 am

OK Dan,

I know you must be sick of hearing from me…and I swear I don’t have to have an opinion about absolutely everything….but I’ve been pondering this one for a very long time, so I’ll add my two cents.

Free will, schmee will. Why are we so arrogant to suppose that there is anything we can do (i.e., reject God) that could separate us from the love of God in Christ? When did God’s perfect unconditional love become conditioned on a profession of faith (and one specific faith at that).

I saw Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum speak last December. She said (paraphrasing) “I don’t believe in a God who cares if I believe in Him. The God I believe in isn’t that petty.” I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that.


Dan July 23, 2013 at 9:52 am

Not sick of hearing from you at all — I always appreciate your thoughts!

You ask “When did God’s perfect unconditional love become conditioned on a profession of faith (and one specific faith at that).”
How ’bout Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Of course I don’t think that’s the whole story … but it’s not like people plucked that idea out of thin air.


Ford1968 July 23, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Thanks Dan!
Hmmm…grace through faith is “not plucked out of thin air” for sure. But it could be considered an arbitrary doctrine. Jesus suggested on several occasions that acts, not grace, are the basis of salvation (see: sheep and goats, rich young man, beatitudes, etc.). Why have we not elevated those passages in the discussion of salvation?

Faith as a requirement of salvation belies the idea of unconditional grace. Perhaps God’s grace does have strings, I can’t be certain; but that’s not how I’ve come to understand it.

My larger point is that ultimately, we don’t have any true say in our own salvation. God is judge. That’s why discussions of salvation are only useful to the degree they impact the life on earth we’ve been given to live and the way we treat one another.


Dan July 23, 2013 at 8:08 pm

I couldn’t agree more!


Anna August 4, 2013 at 10:12 pm

Using the above definition of universalists, I believe I am one. But this in no way lessens my responsibility and desire to behave in a way that demonstrates love, honor, and respect for my fellow man. Nor does it diminish my exertion of (perceived) free will.


Dan August 5, 2013 at 8:18 am

I don’t think we should ever allow our beliefs about the afterlife or about free will to abrogate our responsibility to advance the Kingdom of God here and now. God may very well know exactly what I’m going to do — but I still have to do it!


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