My Facebook feed has been lighting up the past 24 hours with links to this Huffington Post article capturing excerpts from Pope Francis’ Wednesday homily. The key quote, as translated by Vatican Radio:
The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! … We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.
It’s unclear what exactly Francis means here, although one explanation certainly is that Francis is advocating universalism “Do good because in the end we will all meet one another there.” Another is inclusivism, a la the end to C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, in which Francis essentially adopts Aslan’s statement that all good deeds are rendered in the name of Christ, regardless of whether the doer is a Christian. A final possibility, borne out by Reuters’ translation of the comments – “Just do good, and we’ll find a meeting point.” – is more traditional, that Francis is discussing the universal availability of the atonement, which not everyone ultimately will accept.
Granting the assumption that Francis is indeed alluding to more universalistic beliefs, he is not straying all that far from a strain of thought long held in Christian orthodoxy. Universal reconciliation has never been a dominant, or perhaps even majority, belief in Christianity, but it’s been expressed by some of the most significant church fathers – most prominently by Origen of Alexandria (c. 200) and Gregory of Nyssa (c.350). Universalism is much older as a doctrine than such widely accepted notions as penal substitutionary atonement and rapture eschatology, which are quite young (the rapture isn’t even out of diapers yet, only being 150 years old or so, yet enjoys broad support among evangelical communities of faith).
Proponents of universal reconciliation tie the idea closely to God’s love, but Gregory’s advocacy relied on the idea that God cannot be only love, nor can he only be justice, nor can he only be wise. All three of those must be true in everything God does, Gregory wrote, and universalism – with an appropriate period of fiery purification for the unbaptized – best met those three criteria.
We’ve come a long way in the 1,700 years since Origen and Gregory expressed his idea that God will reconcile all souls to himself. The self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy now circle the wagons around the notion of eternal torment whenever someone like Rob Bell dares question that assumption – dares even suggest that the idea of an everlasting hell is incompatible with a truly limitless view of God’s love.
Nevertheless, I sense from my Facebook feed and various conversations I’ve had with friends – who don’t know anything about the formal doctrine or history of universal reconciliation – that the “traditional” ideas of hell and damnation are failing. They simply no longer hold explanatory power for a generation whose world that seems less black-and-white with every passing day.
If Francis is truly tapping into the centuries-old doctrine of universalism, he is also tapping into the hopes and expectations of the youngest members of the Christian faith, who are tired of the hard lines, checkboxes and superficiality fostered by a system of hell-avoidance.