G.K. Chesterton's Universalism

I have difficulty seeing what relevance Chestertonʼs views on salvation are. Chesterton was no theologian and his views on salvation donʼt cut much ice, with me at least.

G.K. Chesterton's Universalism

I enjoy Chesterton still, for his lightness and wit. His statement that “Satan fell by force of gravity, by taking himself too gravely,” still resonates with me, along with his statement about how “the test of a good religion is whether or not it can laugh at itself.” Chestertonʼs lightness and bright wit is not normally seen in Christian apologetics, and Orthodoxy is I think his lightest most witty religious work, written soon after his debate with Blatchford over religion in the press. G.K.ʼs relationships with “heretics” (as in his book of the same title), were also very congenial, even brotherly. Besides Blatchford, G.K.s first sparring partner (whom G.K. graciously praised), he also sparred over metaphysical subjects with George Bernard Shaw many times in public, and thereʼs a book about their long friendship titled GBS And GKC: The Metaphysical Jesters. Shaw was a friend of both Chesterton and his wife, and loaned G.K. money and even urged G.K. to try playwriting, which wound up earning G.K. more money than many of his literary works. Likewise, G.K.ʼs friendship with H.G. Wells was also quite close. At one time H.G, G.K. and Shaw and some others even made a short farcical film together. Did G.K. buy into the notion of salvation for all? He wrote in Orthodoxy: “To hope for all souls is imperative, and it is quite tenable that their salvation is inevitable.” Though he adds that such a view “is not specially favorable to activity or progress…In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man ‘damned’: but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call him damnable.”

Of course, people call each other “damnable” all the time, even universalists. *smile*

I have recently read Chestertonʼs “Orthodoxy” right through on the plane to America and made notes of anything important he wrote in it. I am sure that if Chesterton wrote in “Orthodoxy” what you quoted above I would have remembered it.

Is it my turn now to act “surprised?” That sentence in Orthodoxy always stuck with me from the moment I first read it. In a recent Ignatius Press reprint, dated 1995, the sentence can be found on pg. 143.

So I am not particularly interested in discussing at any length your personal salvation, but I must say I am curious as to whether you *really* think you can be an “anti-Christian”, and devote your life to debunking Christ and Christianity, yet still be saved by Christ?

Pardon, first you labeled me an “anti-Christian” (based on your interpretation of exactly who Christ was/is and what he taught and metaphysically accomplished). But I look at hardline conservative evangelicals as “anti-Christians,” misunderstanding the nature of the Gospels, of the Bible, even doing things totally against some of the things Jesus himself taught, even against things Paul taught, like when Paul admonished churches to judge themselves first and foremost.

And now you say that I am “devoting my life to debunking Christ and Christianity” (based on your view of my life — of which you only know one particular aspect — and based on your view of what constitutes “Christ” — and based on your view of what constitutes “Christianity”). I find it ironic that the history of self-proclaimed “Christians” is — practically speaking — a history of groups “debunking” other groups since the days of the apostles.

I will tell you some of the things I like most about the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels, his personal faith, go into your closet and pray, not loudly out in the street like the hypocrites [Iʼm still waiting for the “prayer in closet” movement to catch on and outpace the “prayer in school” movement], donʼt be afraid to get personally in touch with God regardless of what religious authorities tell you, fear not him who can kill the body [perhaps a lesson for abortion clinic bombers to learn?], woe to the rich! [a lesson for white collar crooks to learn], woe to religious hypocrites! Judge not lest ye be judged. Love your enemy, and, love your neighbor [which I think Chesterton pointed out, are usually the same person, which is why Jesus mentioned both of them]. And of course, the teaching in the Lordʼs prayer that if you forgive people on earth then your heavenly Father will likewise forgive you your sins in heaven.

Chesterton wrote, “To hope for all souls is imperative; and it is quite tenable that their salvation is inevitable.” I note that you are now making moves to cover your bases

Iʼm covering nothing, though perhaps you are trying to cover over Chestertonʼs broad heart like when he wrote, “it is quite tenable that their salvation is inevitable.”

Concerning George Bernard Shaw, Chesterton stated, “In a sweeter and more solid civilization he would have been a great saint.”

And when H.G. Wells was seriously ill, he wrote Chesterton and said, “If after all my Atheology turns out wrong and your Theology right I feel I shall always be able to pass into Heaven (if I want to) as a friend of G.K.C.ʼs. Bless you.”

To this Chesterton replied, “If I turn out to be right, you will triumph, not by being a friend of mine, but by being a friend of Man, by having done a thousand things for men like me in every way from imagination to criticism. The thought of the vast variety of that work, and how it ranges from towering visions to tiny pricks of humor, overwhelmed me suddenly in retrospect; and I felt we have none of us ever said enough…Yours always, G. K. Chesterton.” [Dec. 10, 1933, letter from H.G. Wells to G.K. Chesterton. Undated reply from G.K. Chesterton to H.G. Wells. Letters quoted in full in Maise Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943), pp. 604-605.]

Note that Chesterton said an atheist would get into heaven (i.e., “triumph”) simply by “being a friend of Man.”

by adding additional quotes from the passage in an attempt to lessen the impact

I think Chesterton wanted to “lessen the impact” of his “tenability of universalism” in the face of church dogmas on damnation. So he combined the view that it was “quite tenable that their salvation is inevitable” with a practical view of damnation as a motivator.

What Chesterton didnʼt realize or fess up to was that the threat of damnation is primarily a motivator for a person to join a particular Christian denomination and accept a particular soteriology (salvation theology), rather than a universal motivator to do good.

I think people are motivated in a more universal fashion to do good by virtue of the fact that joys shared are doubled, while sorrows shared are halved. We are beings who have the same physical and psychological needs, fears, and pleasures. Few people enjoy having physical or psychological pains inflicted on them in word or deed; while the vast majority enjoy similar physical and psychological pleasures. Fear of damnation as I said seems to create more sects and divisions, each of which insist in the full acceptance of their soteriological beliefs as the only way to avoid damnation.

…which seemed to be that Chesterton was a universalist with regard to salvation. Heck, I think weʼd all like to be universalists and hope that every one will in the end be “saved”

“Hoping” is one thing, but finding universalism “quite tenable” is another. “To hope for all souls is imperative” Chesterton agreed, but he went even further and stated “and it is quite tenable that their salvation is inevitable.”

but alas you can lead a horse to water but you canʼt make him drink.

You mean drink of your particular soteriological theological beliefs.

It is not for us to damn any other human being, but the fact is that some may damn themselves.

By viture of not accepting your particular soteriological theological beliefs.

Chesterton hopes for the best

He did not say that he merely “hoped for the best,” he said he found universal salvation “quite tenable.” And he told Wells that Wells would get into heaven by virtue of being “a friend of Man.”

but he is nevertheless a realist about human nature and about how every man - metaphorically speaking - hangs by a thread or clings to a precipice.

Yes, G.K. wanted to see more people become Christians, probably witty exuberant Christians like himself, “Chestertonianity,” Iʼd call it. G.K. felt that Christianity (as he understood it,) made more sense and was more practical than other beliefs. However part of his belief was that he found universal salvation “quite tenable.” Just read The Ball And The Cross sometime, in which a Christian and an atheist (modeled on the likes of himself and George Bernard Shaw) find more in common in the midst of their duel to the death than either of them had in common with the blank stares of the world around them. Both the Christian and the Atheist also receive visions in that novel that reveal the worst aspects of each of their faiths to each of them. Their debate and love of their fellow man made their friendship all the more close. That is a truly Chestertonian point.

If you want to probe something else I found interesting then consider the fact that when C. S. Lewis began writing Christian apologetics as in The Problem Of Pain, he said that the orthodox Christian doctrine of hell had “the full support of Scripture.” But … a few years later when writing The Great Divorce, Lewis introduced as a character, George MacDonald (who was a real-life Christian universalist from a generation or two before Lewis), and Lewis had that character say, “St. Paul talked as if all men would be saved.” Neither did Lewis have the angel in that novel deny MacDonaldʼs interpretation of St. Paulʼs words, but only had the angel reply that it was not for man to ask such questions. So in Lewisʼs opinion, Godʼs ultimate plan remained hidden from prying human eyes. I believe in that same novel Lewis also quoted a Catholic mysticʼs saying that “All manner of things will be well.” My point is that even C. S. Lewis felt strongly enough about that hidden possibility to Raise the question in one of his novels for all his readers to ponder. I also read George MacDonaldʼs novel Lilith in which he employed sleep as a means of healing tortured souls, a cosmic sleep that preceded salvation of all. MacDonald was a universalist Christian minister who also wrote the tombstone poem Martin Elginbrode:

Here Lie I, Martin Elginbrod
God have mercy on my soul,
As I would do if I were God,
and ye were Martin Elginbrod

C. S. Lewis praised the novel, Lilith and also called George MacDonald “my spiritual mentor.”

One of Lewisʼs lifelong friends was also Dom Bede Griffiths, both of them converting to Christianity in college. Griffiths became an ecumenical Catholic priest, and ran an ashram in India were he prayed and met with Buddhist monks and Hindu priests. Griffith defended the high points and aspirations of both Hindu and Buddhist spirituality in his books. And near the end of Lewisʼs life, Dom even got his longtime friend and fellow Christian, C.S. Lewis to admit in a letter: “Even more disturbing as you [Dom] say, is the ghastly record of Christian persecution. It had begun in Our Lordʼs time - ‘Ye know not what spirit ye are of’ (John of all people!) I think we must fully face the fact that when Christianity does not make a man very much better, it makes him very much worse…Conversion may make of one who was, if no better, no worse than an animal, something like a devil.” [C. S. Lewis in a letter to Bede Griffiths, dated Dec. 20, 1961, not long before Lewisʼ death, The Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed., W. H. Lewis, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966), p. 301.]

Itʼs also clear from Lewisʼs works that Lewis believed that even the most peculiar religions contained “at least some hint of the truth.” “There are people in other religions who…belong to Christ without knowing it.” “We do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” In fact, in Lewisʼ fairy tale, The Last Battle, prince Emeth “hated” the name of “Aslan [the Christ-figure],” and worshiped the false god, “Tash,” but prince Emeth was loved and accepted by Aslan after Emeth died.[119] And as I already pointed out, Lewis had a character in his novel, The Great Divorce, say, “St. Paul talked as if all men would be saved.” Lewis was possibly referring to verses such as:

“All Israel will be saved…[for] they [the Jews] are beloved [by God] for the sake of the fathers: for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable… or God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all.” [Romans 11:26,28,29,32]

“Oʼ the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out…For of him, and through him, and unto him, are all things.” [Romans 11:33,36]

“For just as all people die because of their union with Adam, in the same way all will be raised to life because of their union with Christ.” [1 Corinthians 15:22]

“God was pleased…through him [Jesus] to reconcile to himself all things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” [Colossians 1:19-20] What, in terms of Pauline texts elsewhere, i.e., “We fight not against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness in heavenly places,” could “things in heaven” needing to be “reconciled,” refer to, except the rebellious angels including Satan, “prince of the power of the air!”

Universalistic sentiments in the Bible can also be found in Lamentations 3:22,31-33 and Psalm 103:8-10,14 which agree that “the Lord will not reject forever,” “Nor will He keep his anger forever.” 1 Peter 3:19-20 even depicts Jesus “preaching” to “the spirits in prison who were disobedient [in Noahʼs day].”

For a discussion of the universalistic side of the Bible, I heartily endorse first and foremost a slim paperback, titled, Salvation And Damnation by William S. Dalton, S.J. (Butler, Wis.: Clergy Book Service, 1977).

And also Jan Bondaʼs, The One Purpose Of God: An Answer To The Doctrine Of Eternal Punishment, in which he scrutinizes church traditions and Scripture - especially Paulʼs letter to the Romans - and concludes that neither Paul nor the prophets to whom he appeals show any trace of supporting the doctrine of eternal damnation. On the contrary, they tell us that God wants to save all people, and that He will not rest until that goal has been achieved.

And, Professor Tom Talbottʼs The Inescapable Love Of God

Aside from hints of universalism in Paul, the church father Origin was the most prominent early Christian universalist, teaching that Jesus remained on the cross so long as a single sinner remained in hell. You can find out about todayʼs Christian Universalists via google. “Christian Universalism.”

A few last interesting facts about C. S. Lewis, this centuryʼs most noteworthy Christian man of letters:

  1. Lewis admitted the Bible “may no doubt contain errors,” and, he doubted, denied, or avoided discussing, many biblical miracles (though he stood by most if not all of the miracles of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels).[107]

  2. Lewis denied the “inspiration” of Biblical authors whenever they attributed to “God” blatantly immoral actions and commands (such as linking “God” to the “treacheries of Joshua” or to “striking dead” a married Christian couple for withholding some of their money from the church in Acts). Lewis wrote, “The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scripture is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two.”[108] “The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him [i.e., God]. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So thereʼs no God after all,’ but, ‘So, this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”[109]

  3. Lewis acknowledged that Jesus made an error when Jesus predicted that the Son of Man would come in final judgment within a “generation” of Jesusʼ day, or, “before those standing [around Jesus after his transfiguration] had all died.”[110]

  4. Lewis focused on Jesusʼ death as “exemplary,” the perfect example of “dying to self” that we all should follow. He did not focus on it as a necessary price to pay to appease Godʼs wrath toward all mankind. [111]

  5. Lewis had no theological difficulty accepting that Genesis may have been “derived from earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical,”[112] and he found more truth in the story of the “Garden of Eden” when he regarded it as a myth than when he regarded it as history.[113]

  6. Lewis accepted the theory of the biological evolution of the human form from earlier animal species.[114]

  7. Lewis speculated that at least some animals might be granted eternal life with human beings in heaven.[115]

  8. Lewis believed in the miraculously “real” presence of Christ in the communion wafer.[116]

  9. Lewis held a tolerant attitude toward things like beer, tobacco and the cinema, and disagreed with those who found such things “bad in themselves.”[117]

  10. Lewis believed in purgatory, prayers for the dead, and prayers to saints.[118]


  • [107] A. J. Mattill, Jr., “Some Reflections on C. S. Lewisʼ ‘Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,’” The Journal of Faith and Thought, Spring, 1985, pp. 22-33. See also, Michael J. Christensen, C. S. Lewis on Scripture: His Thoughts on the Nature of Biblical Inspiration, The Role of Revelation and the Question of Inerrancy (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1979), pp. 18-19, & Appendix A. And, W. H. Lewis, ed., The Letters of C. S. Lewis, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1966), pp. 286-287. And, John Beversluis, C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1985).

  • [108] C. S. Lewis letter dated July 3, 1963 to John Beversluis. Quoted in full in Beversluis, pp. 156f.

  • [109] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Seabury Press, 1963), pp. 9-10.

  • [110] C. S. Lewis, “The Worldʼs Last Night,” The Worldʼs Last Night And Other Essays (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, n.d.), pp. 98-99. See also, A. J. Mattill, Jr., “Some Reflections on C. S. Lewisʼ ‘Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,’” The Journal of Faith and Thought, Spring, 1985, pp. 22-33.

  • [111] Christensen, pp. 33-34.

  • [112] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: Collins, Fontana Books, 1958), p. 93.

  • [113] Christensen, pp. 34-35.

  • [114] Ibid., pp. 31-32.

  • [115] Ibid., pp. 32-33.

  • [116] Ibid., p. 30.

  • [117] Ibid., p. 25.

  • [118] Ibid., pp. 29-30. See also W. H. Lewis, p. 300.

Even on its own this does not have the meaning that you implied, i.e. that Chesterton was *saying* that the “salvation” of “all souls” “is inevitable”

I do not think I implied any such thing. No need to. I only repeated Chestertonʼs statement that he found the inevitability of everyone being saved “tenable,” and that is not a view held in the Apostleʼs Creed or any sort of orthodox third century Christian creed agreed upon at church councils. Salvation for all was not held to be tenable, such a view was considered in itself damnable. In fact, Augustine rumbled against anyone who dared to deny the churchʼs teaching that unbaptized infants remained “in the power of the devil” and hence damned without baptism. Infant damnation was a church doctrine for centuries among both Catholics and Protestants (like Jonathan Edwards), who agreed that the salvation of unbaptized infants was not “tenable” according to Scripture. Even the Catholics only let up a little, inventing Limbo centuries later, and then only mid-way through the 20th century they got rid of Limbo and left the destination of unbaptized infants “in the hands of Godʼs mercy,” implying Iʼd say that they now felt it tenable that unbaptized infants who died might go all the way to heaven.

Chesterton was a wordsmith and the word “tenable” only means: “capable of being held, maintained, or defended”: Who would disagree that “it is quite capable of being held, maintained, or defended” that “the salvation of” “all souls” “is inevitable”?

Please tell me what councils, creeds or dogmas from third century Christian “orthodoxy” onward teach that the inevitable salvation of all souls is “quite tenable?” Chesterton wrote that such a view was “quite tenable.”

It is in fact a position on salvation called Universalism, which is “held, maintained, or defended” by the non-Christian philosopher John Hick, under the heading of “Pluralism”, in Okholm D.L. & Phillips T.R., ed., “Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World,” [1995], Zondervan: Grand Rapids MI, 1996, reprint.

You list John Hick and his defense of Universalism in book by Zondervan (an ostensibly Christian publisher — just look at their bookstores — whose multiple VIEWS series features “Christians debating Christians,’ so I wonder why you called Hicks a “non-Christian,” probably because heʼs not your type of Christian). As for Hicks himself, I read in Odysseys To Dialogue, ed. Leonard Swidler that Hicks “became a Christian by conversion whilst a first year law student…I remained for 20 more years fully convinced of the truth of the basic doctrines of Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement more or less in the form in which I had first learned them. I remember being shocked by theologians who questioned these traditional formulations in just the way that some conservative Christians are shocked by my own questioning of them today…Encounters with remarkable individuals of several faith, people whom I cannot but deeply respect, and in some cases even regard as saints, have reinforced the realization that our very different religions traditions constitute alternative human contexts of response to the one ultimate transcendent divine Reality.”

It has little (if any) Biblical support, but it *is* a position “held, maintained, or defended”.

Univeralist Christians from Origin to MacDonald to todayʼs, like Robert F. Capon (The Parables Of Judgment), would disagree with you, chapter and verse. In fact, they would point out that the misunderstanding of apocalyptic imagery by “damnationists” was the real problem. Damnationists are misunderstanding the context of Scripture by concretizing metaphorical images and words that were accommodations to the first century apocalyptic mentality. Much like the equally strong yet metaphorical imagery in the Gospels about “chopping off oneʼs hand” or “hating oneʼs father and mother.”

The full quote doesnʼt quite have the same meaning as you put on it!

Chestertonʼs full quote stressed the practicality (for the sake of progress) of believing that people Could be damned. He did not say most people Would be damned. In fact he said it is “quite tenable” that everyone would inevitably be saved.

Agreed. If the Bible said that the “salvation” of “all souls” “is inevitable” then I would *delighted.” But it doesnʼt.

People are going to be debating “what the Bible says” until either Jesus returns or hell freezes over [and letʼs not forget those evangelical Christians who still argue for “soul death,” like John Stott, author of the bestselling, Basic Christianity (IVP)]. I pointed out that Chesterton said the inevitable salvation of all was “quite tenable.” I also pointed out that C. S. Lewis had a character say, “St. Paul spoke as if all men would be saved,” and the angel does not deny that statement, but only replied cryptically, “that is not for men to know.”

Darwin at least got that right

Iʼm not going to debate with you or even with universalists who got what “right.” I just wanted to inform you of Chestertonʼs big hearted Christianity and his praise of atheist friends like Wells, implying that they would get into heaven by simply being a “friend of Man.”

More smokescreening! Or maybe ‘squidding’, i.e. “Escaping in a Cloud of Ink”, is a more appropriate metaphor:
“One of Gouldʼs longtime sparring partners, Edward O. Wilson, who also works at Harvardʼs magnificent Museum of Comparative Zoology, has warned me that pinning Gould down is difficult. ‘Steve uses the squid tactic,’ Wilson explains. ‘When attacked, he escapes in a cloud of ink.’” (Horgan J., “Escaping in a Cloud of Ink,” Profile: Stephen Jay Gould, Scientific American, August 1995, p.26)

Iʼm glad to see you are having fun cataloging otherʼs faults in a Linnaeus-like fashion, Stephen (though we both might watch out for beams in our own eyes). As I see it, one manʼs smokescreen is another manʼs plain old fashioned ignorance. (And I never attribute to malice that which can adequately explained by ignorance — either yours or mine.) You appear to have been ignorant of Chesterton and Lewisʼs most ironical Christian passages, you skipped right past them to damnation. You didnʼt know about John Hicksʼs personal changes, his Christian evolution. You donʼt even seem to recall the age old doctrine of “infant damnation” and how “tenable” that remained to Christians for centuries. I am surprised that anyone who claims they know “what the Bible says” is so uninformed about what so many other well informed people also believe (and have believed in the past) about what the Bible says.

As Lewis points out, “the doors of hell are locked on the *inside*”: “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the *inside*. … In the long run the answer to all those who object to he doctrine of hell, is itself a question: what are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.” (Lewis C.S., “The Problem of Pain,” [1940], Fount: London, 1977, reprint, pp.101-102. Emphasis in original)

The Problem of Pain was published in 1940, but The Great Divorce: A Dream [Geoffrey Bles] was published in 1945. So chronologically, Lewis seems to have gone from saying that the doctrine of hell had the “full support of Scripture” [Problem Of Pain, 1940] to having a character state in The Great Divorce [1945], “St. Paul spoke as if all men would be saved.” Sounds like he began to squiggle out of his previously held “full support of Scripture” view.

Further note: Even in his Problem Of Pain, C. S. Lewis already exhibits a mind that is unlike those who take the strong language in parables literally. In parables people do not “lock themselves in” but they get “locked out” of wedding parties, or plead “Lord Lord” and are given the cold shoulder, or they are “tossed into lakes of fire” against their will. A far cry from Lewisʼs kinder gentler view that they merely lock themselves in. But Lewisʼs view grew still kindlier and more compassionate in The Great Divorce, where a bus runs continually between heaven and hell, and where Lewis posed to his readers that “St. Paul spoke as if all men would be saved.”

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