Sunday, 25 July, 2021: Punishment and Universal Salvation

Kelso Jail 1940s - 1985

(Image: the old two-cell strap-iron jail in Kelso, California)

If I don’t believe God would punish people after death and send them to hell, because God is so loving and because punishment is not salvific, then why would I think punishment would be salvific on earth? That makes no sense. It’s just theologically inappropriate.

— Jason Lydon

Welcome before prelude

Good morning and welcome to West Fork Unitarian Universalists. I’m Robert Helfer and I feel blessed to serve this congregation as a lay leader. I’m glad to see all of you here today.

Thank you for joining us.

Let us use the prelude for centering. We are about to enter sacred time. We are about to make this time and this place sacred by our presence and intention.

Please silence your phones… and as you do so, I invite us also to turn down the volume on our fears; to remove our masks; and to loosen the armor around our hearts.


Let go of the expectations placed on you by others—and those they taught you to place on yourself.

Drop the guilt and the shame, not to shirk accountability, but in honest expectation of the possibility of forgiveness.

Let go of the thing you said the other day. Let go of the thing you dread next week. Be here, in this moment. Breathe, here.

Prelude: Prison Song, Graham Nash

Welcome: The Beauty of the Whole — Meg Barnhouse (

We gather to worship, our hearts alive with hope that here we will be truly seen, that here we will be welcomed into the garden of this community, where the simple and the elegant, the fluted and frilled, the shy and the dramatic complement one another and are treasured. May we know that here, each contributes in their way to the beauty of the whole. Come, let us worship together, all genders, sexualities, politics, clappers and non-clappers, progressive or conservative, may we root ourselves in the values of this faith: compassion and courage, transcendence, justice and transformation.

Welcoming Song

Please rise in body or spirit and join in singing “Come, Come, Whoever You Are”
(Singing the Living Tradition, 188)

Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving
Ours is no caravan of despair
Come, yet again come

Chalice lighting: First Principle Chalice Lighting — Florence Caplow (

We light this chalice today in honor of the Unitarian Universalist First Principle: To affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

We recognize that these are not just words to be spoken; instead, they call us out of our comfort into an ever-deepening commitment:
a commitment we make to the rights of all whose inherent worth and dignity are denied, diminished, or destroyed by systems of oppression. And they call us into the practice of looking into our own hearts, with courage and honesty.

Principles of Unitarian Universalism

Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Invitation to Offering

Say to thyself, ‘If there is any good thing that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now; let me not defer it nor neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.’
– Anonymous

Remember that our being here, together, all of us, in this space, is part of our offering, our sharing and building of this community. Let us use the time during the offertory to contemplate how we can use our time and talents during the next week for this community and for our larger society.

Épitaphe de Seikilos, Petros Tabouris Ensemble

Response (Unison)

For the gifts which we have received — and the gifts which we, ourselves, are — may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.


Jason Lydon, interviewed by Lyra Walsh Fuchs in “Formerly incarcerated, this Unitarian Universalist minister is dedicated to abolishing prisons” (Times West Virginian, 16 April 2021,

If I don’t believe God would punish people after death and send them to hell, because God is so loving and because punishment is not salvific, then why would I think punishment would be salvific on earth? That makes no sense. It’s just theologically inappropriate.

Michael McClymond, interviewed by Paul Copan in “How Universalism, ‘the Opiate of the Theologians,’ Went Mainstream” (Christianity Today, March 11, 2019;

In theological usage, universalism is the doctrine that all human beings — and perhaps all intelligent or volitional beings — will come to final salvation and spend an eternity with heaven in God. This is a theory about a final outcome, and it leaves open the way that this outcome might be attained. One reason my book is so lengthy is that there have been many different kinds of arguments for universal salvation over the last 1,800 years. At certain points, these arguments conflict with one another, so that if someone claims to be a universalist, you might ask: “What sort of universalist are you?”

One division is between the belief that everyone goes immediately to heaven at the moment of death (called “ultra-universalism”) and the belief that many or most people first undergo postmortem suffering (a view I call “purgationism”). This issue was fiercely debated in America during the 19th century, and universalists have never been able to resolve it.

The more robust arguments for universalism hold that God’s purposes in creating the world will fail if even one intelligent creature should finally be separated from God. This line of reasoning implies that not only human sinners but also fallen angels will finally be saved. The title of my book, The Devil’s Redemption, is an allusion to that idea.

Song: The Prisoner’s Song, Vernon Dalhart

Lesson: Punishment and Universal Salvation

Robert Helfer, Lay Leader

A couple of months ago, Bill gave me a link to an article about a young UU minister named Jason Lydon, a one-time prisoner, who was working to eliminate prisons in the United States. He suggested that I might want to post something about his work on the WFUU blog.

I took Bill’s suggestion seriously and pondered what I needed to do. There are complex issues involved, and eventually I decided that I couldn’t really do them justice in a blog post without essentially plagiarizing the article, and even then whatever I said wouldn’t really do anything beyond suggesting that the issues exist. So I sat with my thoughts for a few months, not sure how to proceed. Eventually this opportunity opened to bring my thoughts to the open forum we call our Sunday service, and, I hope, to the comments and criticisms of this community.

The quotation from Jason Lydon that precedes this lesson is from the article Bill gave me, and contains the words that I found most striking about this particular movement. It’s a direct call to universalists (whether with a small u or a large U) to consider how their faith should reflect itself into the world. Specifically, why do we continue to condone temporal punishment while we reject the idea of eternal punishment. It seems to me that this strikes to the heart of universalism, no matter what religious community it inhabits.

I’d thought about justice and imprisonment in the past, but I’d never thought about it overtly from the perspective of Universalism. This was something new.

Now, I think I’ll be wandering into some flaky semi-theology, a little speculation on people and society, a little browsing into our own Universalist history, and possibly a comment or two from my own personal history; please bear with me while I try to find my feet in this. I’ll probably be thinking about this for some time to come.

Of course we all know that being in prison is a terrible thing — you can just ponder the words of all the prison songs and stories of prison life that you’ve heard all your life — and it seems legitimate to think that, as the article says, “in a moral and just society, prisons would not exist”.

Do we live in a “moral and just society”? Not totally, I think; maybe not at all. In any case, prisons exist, and they are bound up into the many structures and customs of the culture around us.

I’m going to try to sort out a few factors, just so we all know what we’re talking about, but first I need to stick in a little personal disclosure; perhaps I have some preconceptions that might affect what I say.

I don’t think Bill realized when he gave me that URL that the issue might be at all personal. Half a century ago I worked for the Illinois Department of Corrections — the people who run the state penal institutions in Illinois. The division I worked for didn’t have any contact with prisons. Instead it was designed to keep young people from involving themselves in activities that would lead to their being in prison. Nevertheless this work (plus my father’s encouragement) lead to my joining both the Illinois Academy of Criminology and the John Howard Association of Illinois, an organization which, according to their web site, “has served as Illinois‘ only independent citizen correctional oversight organization” for more than 118 years.

I stayed with the Department of Corrections only about 3 years, but my father was at that time Public Defender in my rural home county, so my interest endured a bit longer than that, stoked by the work he was doing and the issues he talked about, before I was overwhelmed by different interests and different work.

Please remember as I speak that while I was once involved, I have not been involved in a very long time. I claim absolutely no authority or expertise. Fifty years ago I knew some things; now I know so very little.

So, let’s begin by trying to put prisons into their social context.

What’s a prison for? My father used to call them people warehouses — places where people are stored away, possibly forever, for having transgressed, having violated a law. These are places of punishment, basically. We might talk about law at another time; for now, I’m just going to talk about prisons.

During the 19th and 20th centuries there were movements by energetic “do-gooders” to get rid of the strictest forms of punitive prisons, replacing them with institutions that rehabilitate and retrain convicts, making them into good citizens capable of living in society. Many of these reforms have been successful, and they are still being legislated and expanded, but there are limits.

There are complicating factors. We have, for example, several kinds of for-profit prisons, which make their money by keeping people in prison, or by renting them out as laborers. Certainly, in a “moral and just society”, such things wouldn’t even be imagined.

Our criminal justice systems are also flawed, at least partly because our society has flaws. Vulnerable populations may be disproportionately affected by how we administer the law. I won’t go into detail about this; we’ve all got our opinions, and we’ve all seen the effects of wealth or poverty, social standing, and prejudices in the system.

Nevertheless, crime exists (although perhaps there would be less crime if we created our laws more thoughtfully). And those who do commit crimes must be dealt with.

Underlying whatever we do is what we like to call “justice”. A person wronged wants “justice”, to be “made whole”, as the legal phrase has it, either in the form of revenge or retribution. If someone steals money from me, I want money restored. But if the wrong cannot be righted we still want justice, usually produced by punishing the person judged to be the cause of the wrong.

And here’s where prison comes in to give us part of that justice: punishment, rehabilitation, and public safety. Punish the guilty; rehabilitate the convict to bring them back into society; and, in the meantime, protect society in general from dangers that at least some convicts may threaten.

Modern prisons certainly provide punishment, at least for most convicts. And some of the punishment goes way beyond what seems appropriate, especially for many especially vulnerable populations.

Modern prisons are supposed to provide rehabilitation, a route for a convict to rejoin society. Well, I’ll just say that much and stop, because if I try to expand this even a little bit it will swell into a whole new lesson.

I’m sure you’ve all noticed that I’ve skipped over a huge number of issues. The whole business is complex. And I’m sure you’ve also noticed that I’ve talked about the worldly, apparently avoiding the spiritual questions.

So, now that I’ve rather clumsily and inadequately outlined what prisons are, I can come back around to Jason Lydon’s call for their elimination, and the Universalism underlying his idea.

In case you don’t remember, here’s what he said:

If I don’t believe God would punish people after death and send them to hell, because God is so loving and because punishment is not salvific, then why would I think punishment would be salvific on earth? That makes no sense. It’s just theologically inappropriate.

Now, I think this is a perfectly understandable attitude for a Universalist. But not all Universalists think the same way. Well, maybe I should say “Christian Universalist” here, since it depends on a belief in the Christian God. I think this is a version of “Ultra-Universalism”, the belief the there will be no punishment after death. Most 19th century Universalists believed that souls that had not attained a certain level of righteousness would be held for some period after death in what a Catholic would call Purgatory. And even many “Ultra-Universalists”, while rejecting the notion of punishment after death, believe that the sinful soul is punished/purged during its time on Earth.

Ah, but is that quibbling about Universalism really relevant? I’ve never been in prison, and he has.

Well, I think that if we eliminate all prisons we will still have a problem providing justice for the wronged, rehabilitation for the guilty, and protection for everybody, not that we’ve been doing a fantastic job of providing those things with prisons. Would anyone believe that there was justice for George Floyd if Derek Chauvin had not be sent to prison? If he had received probation? If he had simply been released with the admonition “go and sin no more”?

But beyond all that, where does the First Principle fit into the criminal justice system, whether we have prisons or not? But this discussion could go on forever (and I hope that it does both within this community and the wider community in general) so I think I’ll stop there for today.

Music: Drift Away, Dobie Gray

Joys and Sorrows

If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;

or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.


For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.


These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Silent Meditation

Let us join our hearts and minds in silent meditation

Song Go Now In Peace (3 times)

Please rise in body or spirit and join in singing Go Now In Peace

Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go

Closing: May We Never Rest — John Cummins (

May we never rest until every child of earth in every generation is free from all prisons of the mind and of the body and of the spirit;

until the earth and the hills and the seas shall dance, and the universe itself resound with the joyful cry: “Behold! I am!”

The chalice flame is extinguished
Until once again ignited by the strength of our communion.

Go now in peace.