We usually try to avoid theological debates, because they can be so head-trippy. But for those who are interested in such things, we will try to wade into the debate about universalism. It's a tricky one, because the issues are so complex and paradoxical. There are good points and bad points all mixed in together; and some are very very good, while others are horrid.
There are basically three different ways that people approach religion. They are the exclusive, inclusive, and universal approaches. The experts will almost certainly disagree with our rather simplistic understanding of these three approaches, but that is the price you pay when trying to communicate with the illiterate masses like ourselves!
As we understand it, the exclusive approach is where you believe, for one reason or another that there is only one right way, and that everyone else is excluded. So-called "cults" are most famous for that, but the bigger churches can be exclusive as well. For many years the Catholic Church taught that there was no salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church. Evangelicals teach that salvation can only come through an experience which they choose to call being "born again". And the bulk of professing Christians believe that Christianity in one form or another is the only way to heaven. The favourite proof text is the one where Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me."
The inclusive approach, which is probably closest to where we stand, is that others can be saved without necessarily seeing things the way we do. A person may, for example, be "born again" without knowing that "born again" is the secret password to acceptance by the exclusivists. In fact, a person may even be a Christian without ever having heard of Christ, simply because they are walking in all the spiritual light that they have. Inclusivists also accept the passage about Jesus being the way, the truth, and the life, but we stress that being saved by Jesus does not necessarily require that one be aware of his name or even that they be aware that they are saved. It was Jesus who made it possible, and it would not have been possible without Jesus. So the teaching that Jesus is the only way is still valid.
The universal approach goes one step further, and says that God may have only used Jesus to communicate to a particular culture, and he may have used such people as Mohammed or the Buddha to communicate his will to other cultures. In other words, sincere non-Christians are not regarded as being spiritually deprived just because they have not come to a knowledge of Jesus Christ. They may be totally saved in accordance with the teachings of their religion, on the basis that God gave them their religion to meet their needs, and he gave us our religion (Christianity) to meet our needs.
That's a very brief overview. However, there are a lot of subplots which make the issues much more complicated than that.
Certain basic assumptions may be more important in determining where these different approaches lead. We will try to look at them one by one.
God the Father and God the Holy Spirit
There is much in the teachings of Jesus that suggests people are going to be very surprised when they stand before God. Some will be kicked out when they thought they had it all sewn up, and others will be welcomed into his kingdom without ever having known that they had been helping him. (See Matthew 25:34-40 & Luke 13:25-30.) The thought here is that God's Spirit is at work in the lives of people everywhere, whether or not they have ever heard of Jesus Christ. (See Romans 1:20; & 2:14-16.)
We feel that there is a universal, instinctive recognition that Someone or some Force created the universe. All true religion stems from the human race's need to relate to this Creator. Although we creatures find ourselves trapped in time and trapped geographically, God the Creator must be bigger than all of our cultural attempts to know and serve him. This understanding should cause us to consider more seriously the arguments of universalism.
Jesus said to Nicodemus, who was steeped in the arguments about the superiority of the Jewish religion over any other, that Nicodemus would not even be able to see the "kingdom" that God was building, until he had been "born again". Jesus said, "The [Holy] Spirit is like the wind. It blows wherever it chooses, and no one can tell where it comes from or where it is going." So the full context of being born again seems to imply a dramatic shift away from being exclusive, to recognising the sovereignty of God in choosing whomever he likes, and on whatever terms he likes. If we realise that the Holy Spirit speaks to everyone in every age and in every language, we can begin to appreciate that he/she would speak in terms that are consistent with each culture as well. This too should cause greater appreciation for the universal approach.
With regard to Jesus himself, he said that people could be forgiven for rejecting him; but they could not be forgiven for rejecting the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 12:32) In other words, he accepted that some might not be able to grasp the idea of God dwelling in a human body, but it did not excuse (or exclude) them from rejecting the voice of God in their own heart. On this basis, the universalist position, which says that we should not assume that others must accept Jesus personally to be put right with God, is much more understandable.
Our own emphasis on sincerity also seems to blur the distinction between whether sincere people in other religions are necessarily inferior spiritually. In fact, it even blurs the distinction between one who believes in God and a humanist or atheist who believes in some other concept of ultimate goodness (e.g. truth or love). The issue is not whether their concept of ultimate good really is the ultimate good, but rather whether it represents the best that they know; in which case, we would believe that God judges them according to their sincerity; for sincerity itself is the "good" that God is looking for.
This seems to be another issue which would slant us heavily in favour of universalism.
Institutions vs Personal Faith
The whole debate over inclusive, exclusive, and universal approaches to Christianity seems to primarily focus on "religions" in the form of institutions. This is why we see so much reference to "culture" in the debate. "Christianity" (in the context of the debate) is represented by the Catholic Church plus the major Protestant denominations. The other religions of the world are also viewed as institutions, rather than as individuals. All of this assumes that when we talk about faith, salvation, and truth, we are talking about these major institutions. And it assumes that these institutions are the instruments through which God reveals himself to the world.
We believe that this is a major error, and one which has seriously clouded the whole debate. Organisations are not necessarily wrong, but neither are they necessarily right. They are only as right as the individuals in them are; and the bigger they get, the more likely it is that pure motives on the part of a few individuals are going to be distorted by the rule of the institution.
Because of this institutional approach to what are essentially spiritual (i.e. personal) issues, the Twentieth Century has been characterised by a massive political power struggle between the forces of institutional evangelicalism and the forces of institutional liberalism. Both sides put far too much weight on the political control of institutions. Evangelicals, for example, have been frustrated by the fact that in every debate, the liberals have pretended to offer a compromise along the lines of "Let's agree to disagree." But agreeing to disagree is precisely what liberalism (i.e. the move from exclusive to inclusive to universal) is all about.
The exclusivists keep asking, rightly, "Where do we draw the line between right and wrong?" Certainly the line has shifted more and more over the years. In the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) for example, practising homosexuals, humanists, atheists, and pagans are now all welcomed on equal terms with evangelical Christians in most British and Australian congregations, not just as attenders, but as members. Sexual unions of just about any sort and any duration are considered to be a matter of each person's preference. It is conceivable that satanists could one day be welcomed under such a universalist approach.
The Quakers are uniquely suited to such universalism, because meetings are conducted largely in silence; and when anyone speaks, they "speak into the silence" rather than in dialogue with other members. Those present accept only as much as they wish, and they are urged to just ignore whatever does not "speak to their condition". Quakers have led the way in ecumenical experimentation precisely because they are able to get all sorts of people to sit down around the same table. The fact that no one has to say anything obviously helps!
But is it really necessary for anyone to put all the pieces together in an institutional way? Certainly if we can say that there is sincerity in every religion in the world, we must also be prepared to recognise that there is insincerity in every religion as well. So merely succeeding in getting all of the sincerity and all of the insincerity together at one table won't necessarily achieve anything, unless someone has a few clues as to how to tell the difference between the two. Rather than drawing lines (or circles) based on religious institutions, perhaps we should be drawing them based on more spiritual considerations (such as faith, love, or sincerity).
Our personal opinion is that the ecumenical movement is a counterfeit of what God really wishes to accomplish in the human race. But that opinion arises from our opinion that religious institutions in general are a counterfeit for true Christianity (or true faith). True Christianity is, we believe, both universal in its application, and extremely exclusive in its practice. We believe that each one of us stands before God totally stripped of our religious affiliations. We are judged as individuals, and in accordance with what we as individuals know of ultimate Truth.
Faith in God
Although it is convenient to argue the universalist approach on the basis that God is bigger than any of our separate religions, we should not forget that God is bigger than the total sum of all of our religions as well. Explanations for the origins of the present liberal movement in theology center on such things as Darwin's theory of evolution. They presume that Darwin said or did something that made it imperative for any honest person to doubt what they had previously been taught about God in their churches.
Presumably Darwin's unproven theory threw out the window any concept of an infinitely powerful supreme Creator being able to create the universe in six days. But for a person of faith, such presumptions are ludicrous. Of course He could have created the universe in six days. He probably could have done it in six hours if he had so chosen. On the other hand, he could have been working at it for an eternity or two. The point is that he did it. He/She/It is the Creator, the ultimate source of our existence. You don't start pushing him/her/it aside just because someone comes up with either a theory or evidence that purports to describe how it was done.
It is a little more understandable to say that Darwin's theory (along with other revelations about the fallibility of the Bible) destroyed confidence in the religious institutions. These institutions had been making extravagant claims about the Bible for quite some time; and yet these claims could have been refuted centuries earlier if anyone had been of such a mind.
A catastrophic loss of faith in the institutions should have little or no effect on faith in God the Creator. And any movement which confuses the institutions with the Creator himself, is very likely to be full of people who have never seriously considered the implications of genuine faith in God. Consequently what the institutional universalists are building will most likely mean almost nothing in terms of genuine faith in God. People of faith will continue to have faith, while people without faith will continue to pull strings and manipulate, in an effort to build a bigger and better institution to save the world.
Bear in mind, however, that this and other arguments in support of points made by the evangelicals, do not presume that the evangelicals (as an institution or as a political force) evidence any more faith in God than do the institutional universalists. In fact, it is precisely because they were so institutional and so lacking in faith to begin with, that the present movement has sprung up. Both sides have shown themselves to be equally blinded by issues relating only to the preservation or construction of religious institutions.
Definitions of Love
One of the more convincing arguments used by liberals (those moving in the direction of inclusive or universal approaches) is that a God of love would never exclude anyone from his plan of salvation. But this argument is dangerously close to presuming that the human mind is greater than the mind of God. Yes, Christian teaching says that God is a God of love. But it also teaches that God is eminently just. And it grew out of thousands of years of tradition (not only in Judaism, but in all the religions of the world) during which this God of love allowed the human race to see him also as an angry and jealous God. The Christian God of love did not choose to reveal himself as such at the very beginning of human existence. He seemed content to let the human family get to know him as a judge and executioner first. It is this God of love who has given us death as well as life, and pain as well as pleasure. And he seems to suggest that these things are instruments through which he teaches those whom he loves. Every other religion in the world seems to accept this reality as consistent with their God. So is there any reason why we cannot accept that a God of love also has the right to punish people if he so chooses? And is there any reason why we should not be very cautious and very humble in our questions when we do not think his punishments are fair?
Those same theologians who explain away Old Testament stories of God's judgment by saying that humankind was progressing through various "primitive" notions about God prior to the advent of Christ, seem to contradict their own theology when they ask Christians to stop thinking of non-Christian religions as being inferior in some "primitive" way. We can't have it both ways. Or if we do, then we set on a course which will end up consuming ourselves by our own tails.
In countries like Australia, for example, where institutional Christianity is generally regarded to be the dominant religion, universalists continue to ask us to pay homage to the various festivals of the other religions of the world at the same time that they ask us to do away with our own. They campaign to resurrect tribal cultures and languages that have been destroyed by missionary activity, at the same time that they condemn Western culture as though it were the source of all that is evil. If they believe, as we do, that God is far greater than all of our cultures, then why not push for the end to all cultures, and urge people to rediscover God in some universal way instead. On the other hand, if they believe that all cultures can exist alongside one another, then why oppose Western "Christian" culture?
Faith in Jesus
Although we have already said that faith in God the Father, and a responsiveness to God's Holy Spirit appeared to have been higher than acceptance of Christ himself on the priorities that Jesus Christ taught, we should not forget that even that statement stands or falls on whether or not Jesus Christ said it. It is not fair to use the teachings of Christ to devalue Christ when this can be done, and then to ignore those same teachings when they seem to contradict such conclusions.
This same Jesus also said that the Holy Spirit would direct people to him. (John 14:26) He said that the Holy Spirit would not speak about himself/herself, but rather that the Holy Spirit would "glorify" Jesus, the Christ. (John 16:13-14) Jesus said that if people really had faith in the Father, they would receive the Son. (John 8:42) He said that anyone who did not honour the Son does not honour the Father. (John 5:23) He said that people did not have God's word in them if they were not willing to receive the one whom God had sent. (John 5:37-38) He said, "He that is of God, hears God's words." And he went on to say to the leaders of the Jewish religion, "You do not hear my words because you are not of God." (John 8:47)
The obvious conclusion of all of this, is that genuine faith in God, genuine response to God's Spirit, and genuine sincerity will eventually lead all true believers, all sincere people in the world to the feet of Jesus Christ. True, it may not happen overnight, which is why Jesus said that a person could be forgiven for rejecting him. But over time, and providing people really are sincere, we will all come together in Jesus. The fact that this has not happened is proof of only one thing: that there is precious little faith left in the world.
And this leads us to what Jesus said about "the last days". He said that there would be many "false christs" offered to the masses. (Matthew 24:4-5, 24) Universalism suggests that every religion has their own christ, and one is just as valid as the other. Jesus also said that people would claim to believe that he is divine, but then refuse to obey his teachings. (Luke 6:46) This is what the evangelicals do.
Jesus said that he would return miraculously to the world, but that by the time he does, genuine faith and love would be almost nonexistent. (Matthew 24:11-13, and Luke 18:8) There is not room here to go into the details (See our book Armageddon for Beginners for further details.) but the Bible predicted a great "falling away" in the church, and the rise of a single world government which would exercise total control over the world just before Jesus returns. It says that many people will lose faith in him ever returning, and that they will choose to take matters into their own hands instead. All of this characterises much of what is presently operating under the banner of ecumenicalism and universalism. Many of these people are actively campaigning for such a world government, even though the Bible predicts that when it comes to power it will be used to "make war with the saints" and to cause suffering such as the world has never known before.
Until and unless we return to childlike faith in Jesus , and utter dependence on our heavenly Father for our every need, we are going to be spiritually lost, whether we call ourselves exclusivists, inclusivists, or universalists. Our only hope is the kind of faith that the early Christians had... a faith in God that they were willing to die for. Tolstoy described it as the kind of faith that would sacrifice your own son if God asked you to. All people with such faith will ultimately be drawn together as one and hunted down by the opposition. But if we will continue to walk in the light as he (God the Father) is in the light, we will have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ will cleanse us of all sins... no matter what our religion may happen to be! (I John 1:7)
We started by defining the three religious positions as exclusive (believing that there is only one way to be saved, and any who do not follow it will be lost), inclusive (allowing for others who have not yet found the "way" to be saved on the basis of other criteria, such as faith in God, or sincerity), and universal (believing that every culture has their own set of rules about God, and God works through each one separately).
We considered how some arguments tended to support the universalist position, but we concluded that the generally understood concept of universalism was false on several grounds, namely that it was more concerned with religious structures than with personal faith in God and related virtues; that it operated on a contrived definition of a loving God; and that it rejected the complete teachings of Jesus in favour only of those which supported its arguments.
We concluded with a plea for people to step outside the confines of traditional theology and get serious about personal faith in God and in his Son, Jesus.
(See also Many Paths Up the Mountain)
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