Hell-Believing Universalists

Bill Baar asks what “retribution” means in the 1899 Boston profession by the Universalists, which is today’s Universalist Quote of the Day.  To put it simply (since your T&P blogmaster is still on partial summertime research hiatus), there were two main camps that developed in the Universalist ranks, historiographically known as the Restorationists and the Ultra Universalists.

The Restorationists believed that after death, some people would go to hell (or some similarly-conceived posthumous place/state of punishment) and receive punishment according to the degree of their sinfulness during life.  However, this hell was more of a purgatory, a temporary state, because eventually all such souls would be released from punishment and reconciled with God, to enjoy eternal life and happiness along with everyone else.  To the Restorationists sin demanded some degree of just punishment as retribution, yet just as no sinful act is infinite in scope and duration, so too no divine punishment could rightly be ever-lasting.  Thus the amount of time (in hell) would equal the crime, and when one had paid one’s dues, the all-loving Father God would welcome his wayward children–properly chastened and now with eyes opened to the truth–back into the eternal fold.

The Ultra Universalist wing of the Universalist movement, on the other hand, denied the existence of posthumous punishment.  For them, one would either immediately go to heaven and be with God, or would lie in the state of unconscious death in the grave until the last days, when they would be called forth to spend eternity in heaven.  Sin was forgiven by God and did not result in hellish punishment, even for a season.  Punishment either occurred in this mortal life, or was felt in the soul when one realized with horror after death how one had disappointed God and harmed one’s brothers and sisters.

The statement about punishment in the 1899 profession is deliberately vague.  And we have to note that the several professions of faith that the Universalists produced over the years were non-binding, as well as often ignored in part or in whole by individual ministers and laity.  Ministers could (and did) choose to be ordained without pronouncing the words, and they were seen as descriptive of commonly held beliefs, not prescriptive of the beliefs one must hold to be in fellowship.


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Filed under Liberal Religious History, Universalism

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