I'm coming late to the discussion of Universalism that was sparked by Rob Bell's new book. The reason is that I wasn't sure I wanted to write this, but my own hesitation convinced me that I needed to write it. Then having written it, there was the question of whether I should publish it. My fear in publishing was because I thought that some would read only a couple paragraphs and decide it was yet another Unitarian criticizing Christianity and the church he was raised in. But it is not- I never felt oppressed by Christianity, never had any church related trauma... but it never connected with me, either; it was no more real to me than the Greek and Roman mythologies. What follows is not a bitter criticism of Christianity, but the description of one person's religious journey- a journey that passed through Universalism.
But a failure to connect with Christianity did not make me an atheist- I very definitely felt a connection to God. Please understand how utterly bewildering this was to a young child in the 60s, raised by fundamental Christians. As far as I knew, had been taught, (and who questions their parents when all grownups you know agree) this was a contradiction in terms: there was the God of Abraham, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and there were false gods invented by Satan to confuse people and separate them from the Holy Trinity. Period. I knew all these things well; I had gone to Sunday School, I had been given explanations by my parents. I knew that everything boiled down to a simple binary: either John 3:16-18*, or the lies of Satan. I knew it, but I couldn't accept it. It was wrong. Understand that I was preteen at this point; I had no rational arguments to make, no list of grievances, no 95 thesis- I simply knew. I could no more have accepted the story than I could have prevented my knee from jerking under the doctor's hammer.
The natural reaction was to wonder what was wrong with me. I remember well laying awake at night- sometimes all night- wonder why I couldn't see, couldn't believe what was so obvious to everyone else. I knew I wasn't dumb; I was in all the accelerated classes in school. And I knew how important it was- John 3:18 states quite clearly that belief is the test- if you don't believe, you are condemned, no matter how you lived your life. My obstinacy was suicidal- I spent many hours searching for the flaw in my mind or my soul that was risking my eternity.
I was put on a new track by a book; not a religious text, but a science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein titled "Revolt In 2100". It was about a future America that had become a theocracy in the early 21st century, and the revolt that restored democracy. What excited me was that one of the protagonists had had the same problem as I. He decided that if he couldn't believe what he'd been told, he'd better find out for himself what he did believe. This was a stunning concept- it had never occurred to me that you could do that. Regular people didn't create belief systems; religions were handed down to you from above, by God or Satan. I couldn't do that- how would I know what was right? After all, if I didn't have faith in the Word of God, how could I have faith in anything else I found?
That's when I had my first breakthrough: I realized that when I was asked to have faith in the Bible, I was being asked to have faith in men, not God- and that was true even if the Bible really is the word of God! After all, how did I know the Bible was the word of God? Because I had been told that it was by men, some of whom I knew (though I didn't dare say) were not as smart as I was. When I carefully broached the subject to my elders, I was told to pray, meditate, and sleep on it, and I would see the truth. Well, I had been doing exactly that for a couple years at this point, and either God hadn't spoken to me, or he had- in which case Christianity, at least in the way it had been explained to me, was wrong. This gave me the courage to start my religious pilgrimage.
*16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.