By Ron Corson, January 13, 2015: “There really is evil in the world, and wickedness, and every brand of stupidity. There’s meanness and heartlessness and…I don’t even know which of them is me.” (Mr. Graff in Ender in Exile by Orson Scott Card, page 317)
Has it ever bothered you when you think about the idea that God grants salvation based on what someone knows or believes? What of those who have no way of knowing what seems to be the important part of attaining this salvation, due to mental capacity or cultural relevance or simply how a person was or was not raised? There are simply too many factors in play to accept the idea that God grants salvation based merely upon what someone believes.
In the early centuries of the Christian church this idea of salvation by believing the right things was first written about, but the Biblical concept of a loving God suggested to some that there must be another way of understanding salvation. The concept of how God can fail to save when that is His goal led to a number of interesting quotes found in Church Fathers on Universalism.
Noted Christian author William Barclay presents his Biblical reasons for Universalism as
“First, there is the fact that there are things in the New Testament which more than justify this belief. Jesus said: ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself’ (John 12:32). Paul writes to the Romans: God has consigned all men to disobedience that he may have mercy on all’ (Rom. 11:32). He writes to the Corinthians: ‘As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive’ (1 Cor. 15:22); and he looks to the final total triumph when God will be everything to everyone (1 Cor. 15:28). In the First Letter to Timothy we read of God ‘who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,’ and of Christ Jesus ‘who gave himself as a ransom for all’ (1 Tim 2:4-6). The New Testament itself is not in the least afraid of the word all.” I am a Convinced Universalist, by William Barclay1
Some Universalists speculate in numerous ways about how this will be done. They would probably rather not speculate so much but most assuredly feel pressured to present their views because of the more traditional views of eternal torment and the redeemed taken to heaven. However, noting that Christians throughout the centuries have made their predictions only to show no real ability at predicting the future, I will not bother to predict how things can occur, other than to say that I believe that God is capable of demonstrating firsthand to people His love and then offering them the healing of a change, in the twinkling of an eye, to begin life anew. The traditionalist will no doubt ask about those who refuse to allow God to change them. I honestly don’t think that will occur because the weight of reason and evidence are so against refusing the love and healing of God. Suffice it to say, I think if someone has a firsthand person-to-deity talk with God, not through a still small voice or some preacher’s words or some ancient book, that God can present a case that no being could counter or fail to see the wisdom of. In fact, our innate selfishness would likely say, “This is a great deal; don’t pass it up!”
The traditionalist will likely protest that we only have this life, then the Judgment. We have to learn to trust and believe in God now before we die and before the Second Coming. The problem with that view is that we see through a glass darkly.2 Interestingly, that is not talking about glass as in the glass bottle or even the bottom of a glass. No, it refers to a looking glass more commonly called a mirror, a mirror without glass at all. The ancient mirror was simply polished metal bronze or silver. Metal, as anyone who owns silver knows, tarnishes and dulls with time. What is more, it points us back to ourselves. Now we have this warped view of ourselves and God and theology but one day we will see Him face to face. Why depend on the warped view today of what will someday be known for sure? Does that really sound like the way a God of love would act toward His hurting creation?
So, why be a Christian or belong to a church if all people will be saved? Isn’t the reason to follow Christ so that we will be saved? God through Christ is the one who reveals that salvation is the gift of God. It is not something you earn by keeping a list of rules or sacrificing lives or property to gain favor with God. Christ has revealed God’s love, forgiveness and acceptance, that God desires to heal you and be reconciled with humanity. The purpose of the church is to point to this love, forgiveness and reconciliation and encourage those things in people’s lives. Thus, the members of a church that believes in Universalism move from knowledge-based salvation to practical healing of relationships with other people. Which I would think is an even higher calling than personal salvation by believing the right things.
Does that mean, then, that all religions are equal? that they all lead to the same place? Unfortunately, all religions are not equal; not all religions lead to healing and helping relationships with other people. Keep in mind that aside from the practical aspects of a religion, the good things it does or the evil things it does, its supernatural claims remain unverifiable. The Islamic terrorist who cuts off a journalist’s head in pursuit of his religious goals, whether for the glory of his god or the establishment of his caliphate, is judged by us on his actions rather than his beliefs. However sincerely that person may believe that he has the truth and is following the dictates of those beliefs, those beliefs are still unverifiable so the actions must be what we judge.
Sadly, many contemporary people feel that there’s no place for judging other people’s actions. But the reality is that everyone has to make those kinds of judgments; those who say that we should not judge are themselves judging. Hypocrisy does no one any good in the long run. You probably can’t judge someone’s sincerity of belief or determine whether a belief has caused a certain action. But the action remains, and everyone still is responsible for his or her actions. In any society, actions must be examined and judged as to whether they help build up or tear down.
Needless to say, from a Christian point of view such things are not arrived at by a literal reading of the Bible. In fact, almost no one actually interprets the Bible literally. Not even the writers and those who first received the writings of the Bible books. A good example is the doctrine of hell. Some denominations hold very high authoritative views of the Bible but don’t accept that there is an eternally burning hell. Others believe that hell is not fire but just separation from God. Hell serves as a good example because there is no evidence in the real world to support one view of it or another. Most of the many supernatural events and ideas contained in the Bible have no real-world evidence to back them up. So the Bible is probably the least problematic of the foregoing reasons for a universalist view.
Where does this leave the universalist? Universalists recognize that there are numerous different ways for people to draw meaning from their religion. A fundamentalist requires a strict set of rules to be followed. He finds comfort in his “knowledge.” His belief is a special kind of knowing. Liberal Christians find more comfort in being able to reason out what they should and should not do. The problem comes when one’s beliefs cause danger and threats to other people. This we see most clearly now in Islamic factions. But at one time or another, we have seen such beliefs on display in Roman Catholic Christians or Protestant Christians, such as their persecution of Mormons. (Mormons themselves persecuted others; e.g., the Mountain Meadows Massacre.)
One of the important Bible verses applicable here is “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). We judge evil and good by actions, and that is not always easy. America drops an atomic bomb that kills over 100,000 people but ends a war which very likely would have killed millions more. Some evil can result in good. Joseph was sold into slavery that turned out for the good of both Israel and Egypt. But society agrees about numerous other evils, such as pedophilia, taking innocent people hostage for ransom, etc. Stoning or beheading homosexuals is evil; it is not evil to believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. In free and democratic governments laws can be changed when enough people want the laws changed. Disagreeing with a law is not evil either. A motorcycle operator may not agree with a helmet law, but that does not make him evil; it depends on the law. A sharia law Islamist may disagree with a law of murder so that he can perform an honor killing. That very well could be evil. There are going to be many factors to consider and no one is going to escape this life without judging such things and making decisions. The case has to be made citing evidence and reason; a belief in something unknowable should carry the least weight in any decision process.
Something else is probably pretty important and is paid a lot of attention by people when they talk about their Christianity – a relationship with God. This idea is mentioned a lot but is very ill-defined. You are supposed to establish and maintain something entirely foreign to every human being, namely, a relationship with someone not here, with someone you can’t see or hear or touch. Every other relationship we have includes our being able to see and hear or write back and forth, to communicate in some type of direct matter. Thus, when the traditional Christian talks about a relationship with God, he is not using the term in any of its practical applications to people. This is really a serious problem in terms of language and in terms of understanding God. The best that Christian religions can say about this relationship and communication is that God wrote us a letter a couple thousand years ago that we call the Bible. Or perhaps when you ponder something you will get a “burning in your bosom,” as the Mormons would say. Or maybe it is the still small voice that speaks to you, but how do you tell that voice from your own voice in your thoughts? We are left in a very confused position. Those who claim to have more truth than any other religion must realize that they may not know as much as they think they do – about God, about themselves or others, and certainly about the future.
Practically every paragraph above deserves its own article and I would encourage those interested to explore the topics further, even though on first glance something such as universalism seems to be both a dangerous concept and a greatly expanded conception of the love of God.
1Quoted from William Barkley: A Spiritual Autobiography, pg. 65, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1977.
21 Corinthian 13:12, KJV