Saturday, September 29, 2018

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Resurrection of Christian Universalism

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Christian Universalism gives the moral teachings of Jesus precedence over exclusivist mystical beliefs that condemn unbelievers.  Thomas Jefferson emphasized that priority in his Jefferson Bible, which has been recognized by New Testament scholars as a seminal work that separates “the real teachings of Jesus from the encrustations of Christian doctrine.”

A resurrection of Christian Universalism is needed to liberate the teachings of Jesus from exclusivist church doctrines.  Those universalist teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors of other races and religions as we love ourselves.  (Luke 10:25-37) It is a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

The disarray of Christian morality testifies to the need for a Christian reformation to conform its mystical beliefs and moral imperatives to the teachings of Jesus.  And the moral teachings of Jefferson’s Jesus provide universalist standards of legitimacy that foster interfaith dialogue among Christians and Muslims as a common word of faith in pluralistic democracies.  

The teachings of Jesus are found in the four Gospel accounts.  The three Synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke are closest to a historical account of the life and teachings of Jesus.  The Gospel of John came much later and is a more symbolic account of Jesus Christ as the mysterious Logos, or word of God.

Mark’s gospel is the first, shortest, and the least embellished of the four gospels.  It opens with Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, where Jesus saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11).

Jesus was a radical Jewish rabbi who, in the prophetic tradition, taught God’s will; but he never promoted any religion, not even his own.  Jesus called his disciples to follow him, not to worship him; and he preached a gospel of love over law (Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-6; 7:14-23).  Jesus angered religious leaders who taught that Mosaic Law was God’s standard of righteousness.              
When the mother and brother of Jesus came looking for him early in his ministry, Jesus told those around him: Who are my mother and my brothers?  ...Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother. (Mark 3:3-35)  In this passage Jesus described spiritual kinship in a universal family of God that had no religious boundaries for all who followed his teachings.

Exclusivist Christian beliefs that condemn unbelievers are based on man-made church doctrines, not the teachings of Jesus.  Jesus taught that salvation--transcending our depraved human nature to experience our eternal spiritual nature--comes through the transforming power of God’s love; and that love is reciprocal--we must give it to others to receive it. (Luke 6:36-38)

Christian Universalism can resurrect the teachings of Jesus from exclusivist church doctrines and make them the foundation for religious and political reconciliation in a world where increased religious diversity has made such reconciliation essential to world peace.  Even so, universalism will be opposed by Christianity and Islam, since those religions promote their popularity and power with the exclusivist belief that all unbelievers are condemned to hell.


The scriptures cited above on the teachings of Jesus are compared with comparable teachings of Muhammad in The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, an interfaith study guide posted at, in Resources on the home page of  
The role of Jefferson’s Jesus in the study guide is described in the Introduction at pp. 10-15.
On the greatest commandment at Mark 12:28-33, see pp. 25-29.
On “who is my neighbor?” in the story of the good Samaritan at Luke 10:25-37, see pp. 223-225.
On give, and you will receive God’s love, see Luke 6:36-38 at pp. 212-214.
On love over law, see Mark 2:23-28; 3:1-6; and 7:14-23 at pp. 31-37.
On the universal family of God at Mark 3:31-35, see pp.  21-24.

The Universalist Church of America has a rich history beginning in the 18th century, up to its 1961 merger with Unitarians to form Unitarian Universalists.  Concepts of Christian Universalism remain in other Christian groups, including evangelicals, charismatics and more liberal progressive Christians. See Wikipedia on Christian universalism at

Christian universalism should be distinguished from the universal aspiration of traditional Christianity to convert the world to exclusivist Christian beliefs.  “Universalism is the theological doctrine that all souls will eventually find salvation in the grace of God” (Webster), while traditional Christians believe that salvation is limited to those who believe in exclusivist Christian doctrines.  Universalism and exclusivist religious beliefs are diametrically opposed, but the two views are often confused. See Joran Slane Oppelt’s answer of to the question Is a universal community under one religion possible? at Progressing Spirit at  Christian Universalism is not about religious conformity, but compatibility in a world of increasing religious diversity.   

On universalism generally, see Universalism: A theology for the 21st century, by Forrest Church, November 5, 2001, at

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