Universalism is a massive subject.
A theologian and an astronomer were talking together one day. The astronomer said that after reading widely in the field of religion, he had concluded that all religion could be summed up in a single phrase. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," he said, with a bit of smugness, knowing that his field is so much more complex. After a brief pause, the theologian replied that after reading widely in the area of astronomy he had concluded that all of it could be summed up in a single phrase also.
"Oh, and what is that?" the astronomer inquired. "Twinkle, twinkle, little star; how I wonder what you are!"
So, at the risk of oversimplifying Universalism it is the idea that all will be saved.
There are two main forms of universalism.
1. All religions lead to God - so it doesn't matter what you believe (or don't believe)
2. God through Jesus has accomplished salvation for all – all will (eventually) be saved.
There are a number of advantages to this position:
1. We don’t have to bother with evangelism. All will be saved, so what’s the point?
So, no more guilt from not sharing your faith.
If all religions lead to God then evangelism is arrogant, sectarian, intolerant and divisive. So, it would be sinful to evangelise!
2. We can do what we want! We can sin and sin and it doesn’t matter we are saved.
3. We can believe what we like - it doesn’t matter. Theology becomes irrelevant.
4. We can ignore the teachings of Jesus, they can be a bit radical at times!
5. We don’t have to take discipleship seriously.
Some statistics: Rodney Stark in his book What Americans Really Believe (cited here)
In 1964 52% said that one had to receive Christ to go to heaven.
(whatever going to heaven means!)
Now 29% think half or more of non-religious people will go to heaven.
Only 20% think that nonreligious people won’t get to heaven.
Listen to former US president George Bush:
Mahatma Ghandi: “My position is that all the great religions are fundamentally equal.”
Rama Krishna: “truth is one; sages call it by various names”.
One NT scholar, Scott McKnight, calls it the biggest challenge facing [American] evangelicals.
Before I look briefly at the two forms of universalism we need to look at three models of salvation: pluralism, inclusivism and exclusivism (first proposed in 1983 by Alan Race in his book Christian and Religious Pluralism London: SCM).
1. Pluralism: all/most religions lead to God.
The atheists might be a bit shocked!
Q: Did you hear about the Dial-a-Prayer service they have for atheists now?
A: You dial the number and it rings and rings but nobody answers.
Q: Did you hear about the dyslexic atheist?
A: He didn't believe in Dog.
Si looked at this idea a few weeks ago. But is worth looking at it again as it’s a question that keeps reoccurring.
All religions agree there is something is wrong and something needs to be done about it.
The problem is not all are agreed as to what is wrong, or more importantly what is the remedy.
They don't even agree on what is the divine!
Sometimes this looks like "it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere".
However, we can be sincerely wrong!
What about the serial killer who sincerely believes he is doing the will of God, or the rapist or paedophile? They may well be sincere, but they are wrong!
This religious diversity is not a modern phenomenon.
There have always been a diversity and range of different religions, each contending to be the dominant religion. The difference is that today, these religions are on our doorstep and not across an ocean. God said ‘Go”, we stayed so they came. The world religions have come to us.
2. Inclusivism – this view maintains that one religion is the main way to God, but some may make it in other ways. People may be saved by Jesus even if they don't believe in him.
3. Exclusivism or particularism - there is only one way to God. And that is through Jesus Christ.
This seems to be a very arrogant claim. And it would be if we were making that claim of ourselves and of Christianity. But it isn't us that makes it: listen to Jesus:
I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life.
Jesus made it very clear – He is the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me.
The way isn't a path to follow, the truth isn't a set of rules to obey - it is a person: Jesus.
He is claiming to be the way, the truth and the life.
Christianity is different from all other religions and beliefs. All others are humanity's atte,pt to get to God, it might be through knowledge, asceticism, good deeds, living a moral life and so on. But we can never be good enough - Christianity is different; in Christianity God comes to us!
But the charge of arrogance is double-edged. Isn't it arrogant to say that Christianity is wrong?
Pluralism seems to be the most tolerant of the three views. But truth is not measured by how tolerant it is! However, the pluralist appearances can be deceptive. Rather than seeing them as a spectrum of views they are more like a circle. Pluralism is Exclusivism dressed up in more acceptable clothes.
Exclusivism claims that if something is true then if I reject that truth it means that I am wrong.
The pluralists claims his view is true and thus the exclusivist is wrong. So, they are really exclusivists!
As Gavin Da Costa puts it: "the pluralist is in fact, no different from the exclusivist, except in the criteria employed for what counts as truth."
Pluralists claim to have the monopoly on religious truths - that makes them exclusivists!
There is no absolute truth except the truth that there is no absolute truth.
Some key passages
Universalists tend to base their alleged biblical support on three groups of texts:
1. Those which seem to teach that the cross ensured universal salvation,
2 Cor 5:19; Col 1:20ff; Tit 2:11; Heb 2:9; 1 Jn 2:2.
2. Those which seem to teach that God intends universal salvation,
1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9.
3. Those which seem to teach universal salvation explicitly,
Acts 3:21; Jn 12:32; Rom 5:18-19; 1 Cor 15:22-28; Phil 2:9-11; Eph 1:10.
Unfortunatley, we don't have time to look in detail at each passage.
Is it right?
Why pluralist universalism isn’t true (all religions lead to God)- Jesus is clear he is the only way. Christianity is the only religion whereby God comes to us and rescues us. We can’t rescue ourselves. We are the problem!
Exclusivist universalism may be true - I don’t know - but even if it is; it doesn’t mean that we don’t evangelise, we don’t take sin and morality seriously.
I started by looking – tongue in cheek- at some of the advantages of universalism. But these are also the problems of universalism.
Evangelism – if universalism were true, then why evangelise. However, we are told explicitly that we need to go and share the good news, heal the sick and raise the dead.
Discipleship – if universalism were true, then why bother with discipleship? What does it matter what we do now, how we behave now? Yet we are called to be disciples, followers of Christ.
Hell – we often hear or ask the question – how can a God of live send anyone to hell?
It’s the wrong question! Apart from the fact that God doesn’t send anyone. If we deny him we have to face the consequences.
The right question is, “How can a just God of love not us the guilty to hell? How can we who deserve hell, not be sent there?”
The Scriptures are clear hell is real; it is a place of suffering.
Exclusivist universalists get round this by saying it’s a place of purifying.
The so what?
So What? By Miles Davis – a key question.
What’s the take home on this?
Ideas have legs!
Archbishop Temple once asked his father why don’t the philosopher’s rule the word? His reply? They do, decades after they have died. Ideas have consequences.
We are commanded to be transformed. How? By the renewing of our minds. It’s not an optional extra – it’s a command! Renewing our minds means under the direction and leading of the Spirit to think through and tackle these difficult issues.
The question shouldn’t be how does if affect me? But how does it help me to help others.
One issue that the topic of universalism raises is what is the purpose of salvation? Why are we saved?
Is it to escape hell? No!
The gospel isn’t turn or burn!
The purpose of salvation is not to make us feel good either! The purpose of salvation is to glorify God.
Why are we saved? It isn't so we escape the fire of hell!
If there was no hell would you still follow Jesus? Would you still want to share the good news?
Preaching the gospel is not an optional extra, it is a command.
However, preaching and sharing the gospel involves respect for others, we do not manipulate or force the gospel down people’s throats. The motive of evangelism is love for others, not the fear of hell.
God reveals himself in three ways: a creational revelation, and inscripturated revelation and an incarnational revelation. Other faiths and religions can see truth by looking at God’s creation, but it can only be seen clearly when viewed through the corrective lenses of scripture, because creation is also fallen. But there is also the incarnated word: Jesus, and his Holy Spirit who comes to live in us, he is the one who leads us into all truth.
It’s not what we are saved from that matters it’s what we are saved for.
We are saved for the kingdom of God, we are saved for the world.
Is church a cruise ship or a battle ship?
We are not here to be entertained; we are here to be trained. Training is hard work, and for many of us that involves thinking through hard issues. Thinking through what it means to disciple nations, to transform culture, what it means to be a Christian in our work. We haven’t even begun.
“If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, if Christians are to occupy the “high ground” which they vacated in the noon time of “modernity,” it will not be by forming a Christian political party, or by aggressive propaganda campaigns. Once again it has to be said that there can be no going back to the “Constantinian” era. It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.”
We are to be a battle ship not a cruise ship.