It is a common objection to the doctrine of universal salvation. And Walter expresses it well:
the Christian message loses its urgency–less pews would be filled, less tithes collected, and less need for dangerous missionary trips if everyone makes it to heaven. To put it bluntly: fear of a terrible hell fuels the growth of certain religions.
Time and again I’ve heard this kind of consequentialism presented as an argument against universalism, indeed as the argument against universalism. That’s frustrating. There are many very good objections to universalism, but this isn’t one of them.
To begin with, let’s be clear on what we’re meaning by universalism. We’re meaning here the following:
Christian universalism: There will be a general resurrection of all people, some to heaven and others to hell. However, the purpose of hell is to bring people to a point of repentance and restoration to God and their fellow creatures. In order to facilitate this process of repentance they will undergo an indefinitely long period of intense physical and mental suffering perhaps analogous to the withdrawal pains — physical and mental — from a highly addictive drug. The culmination of this proces will be complete restoration.
So on this, the most biblically defensible and theologically orthodox version of universalism, people suffer incredibly for a finite period and then are restored.
Now imagine preaching this to Christians who then respond: “They’re ultimately restored, eh?” Shrug. “I guess we don’t have to evangelize then.” How should we think about such a response?
Imagine receiving the following letter from the school where your kids attend:
Warning! Drug pushers have been discovered on campus. They are selling a new drug called Ultimate Ecstasy. It is not fatal, and any child who becomes addicted will eventually recover. But the withdrawl pains are unimaginable agony. Warn your children. Do not try Ultimate Ecstasy!
As you read that you become fixated on three words: “will eventually recover”. Based on those words you observe, “What’s the big deal? Even if my children become addicted they’ll get over it … eventually.”
Eventually?! Not exactly parent of the year.
In Romans 6 Paul countenanced a similar kind of twisted reasoning to the argument for justification. If God’s grace meets human sin then wouldn’t that mean we should sin to increase grace? He responded decisively: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2)
In other words, Paul recognized that anybody who would respond to grace by adopting a passive approach to sanctification had opted for a complete perversion of the gospel. You might say similarly that anybody who would respond to universalism by adopting a passive approach to evangelism had adopted a complete perversion of the gospel. And doctrines are not responsible for the perverse ways people respond to them.
Has universalism undermined Christian evangelistic impulses? I suspect the real answer is this: insofar as they have, universalism is merely the surface rationalization for a perverse apathy toward the future suffering of others and the explicit command of Jesus to go into all the world and make disciples.