We are going to briefly scan the concept of Universalism, and with that specifically Universalism as we encounter it within the Christian faith. To be clear, the idea is not unique to Christianity, but the Christian brand poses a couple of difficult issues that begs an answer.
What I want us to do then in addressing the topic, is to look at three aspects regarding Universalism. Firstly I would like to define Universalism. This will lead us into a characterisation, and lastly, and probably most importantly, I want to look at the effects of Universalism on the Christian Faith. This I will do by highlighting a couple of areas of influence.
Before we start, let us first look at a text in Scripture, which deals somewhat with our topic. Remember that in Jesus’ time, there were no such title as Universalism. This, however, does not mean that the ideas underpinning it were not present, and what is amazing to me is the way that Scripture addresses these issues. Let us turn to Luke 13:23-30.
And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
The question that is asked, concerns salvation, and more specifically, who will be saved. In the question we see that there was an interpretation that salvation is only granted to a “few.” In answering the question, Jesus does not answer yes or no regarding the quantity, but describes the reality of the final Day of Judgment. In His answer, it is clear that not all are granted salvation, but those who gave head to His warning in verse 24 to “strive to enter through the narrow door.” Immediately, therefore, we are presented with a very harsh reality, namely that salvation is granted to some, but withheld from others. There is a second reality, and that is that exclusion from the Kingdom of God is final. This is clear from verses 24b (“many … will seek to enter and will not be able”) and 25 where we read that the door will be shut by the master. They will also be “cast out” of God’s kingdom (verse 28). A third reality is that some who thought that they were safe, will actually be shocked to hear that they had a false sense of security.
Universalism, at its very core, challenges the Scriptures on the question of salvation. It actually goes much further, in proposing a totally different teaching, which boils down to “ALL WILL BE SAVED.” Robert Schuller calls it a “wideness in God’s mercy.”
There are different brands of Universalism, which promotes this idea. We can roughly identify three brands for the purposes of this discussion:
- Christ is the way, and unbelieving people are saved shortly after death;
- Unbelievers are saved after death and after a time of punishment;
- Unitarian Universalism, which is the most radical. They also teach that Jesus is not the only way to salvation. Salvation is to be found in other religions as well, even in atheism, pantheism, panentheism, agnosticism, etc.
I want to read to you the 8 points of a movement called Progressive Christianity. To be honest, I think they only use the term “Christianity” as a smoke screen, and because many of their staff and contributors work from a so-called, but corrupt, Christian viewpoint. These are the 8 points then:
“By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who…
1. Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life;
2. Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey;
3. Seek community that is inclusive of ALL people, including but not limited to:
- Conventional Christians and questioning skeptics,
- Believers and agnostics,
- Women and men,
- Those of all sexual orientations and gender identities,
- Those of all classes and abilities;
4. Know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe;
5. Find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes;
6. Strive for peace and justice among all people;
7. Strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth;
8. Commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.
This will be considered on the extreme side of Universalism. The sad truth is that those who hold to the idea that Christ alone is the way but that all are saved, are no better off than those who disregard all boundaries and profess blatantly that Christ is but “a way” and not “the way.” For both of these – and those in-between – hold that all will be saved.
Character of Universalism
This leads us to ask what characterises Christian Universalism. How can we identify it? I would like to point out the following identifying marks:
Universalism opens up salvation for anyone. No-one is to be excluded. Contrary to the exclusive nature that Jesus teaches in Luke 13, Universalism allows for alterations to Jesus’ answer. One example is the way in which they answer the question of judgment. It is clear from what Jesus said that those who did not believe will be cast out, shut out, and denied entrance. Universalism answers to this in a rather creative way. The most “orthodox” is the view that it is true what Jesus taught, but there is more. Punishment will only be for a time, and then salvation will be granted. Judgment is not seen as punishment, but correction. This totally blurs the distinction between unbelievers being judged by God for their rejecting the truth, and believers being disciplined by a loving Father. To the extreme, judgment is denied altogether, appealing to the moral character of God, whose love is apparently more than His righteousness. And so, everyone is granted salvation – even the worst of sinners!
High Level of Tolerance
Furthermore, there is a high level of tolerance in Universalism, which is actually a result of its inclusive character. All lifestyles should be tolerated, even if it is contrary to God’s standards. The argument follows the idea that sin is not sin anymore, because God does not judge anymore, but corrects. Therefore you will experience a very high tolerance of sin in Universalism. Grave acts of sin, like homosexuality, idolatry, etc. are allowed within the church, as God will not condemn these sins and sinners, but in the end His Love will win, to use the famous approach of Rob Bell.
Push for Equal Moral Rights
This undoubtedly leads to a push for equal moral rights, as all share in the same life and destiny. The current drive to push gay rights in the church is a very good example of this. Also the drive to regard mysticism from Roman Catholicism and the eastern religions, are direct consequences of a belief system that includes everything and tolerate all types of viewpoints and behaviour.
Scripture One of Many Religious Documents
It should be clear by now that Scripture is regarded as just another religious document amongst many other – and it is totally optional if you want to live by it or not. After all, you will be saved even if you do not believe its content and message. God’s Word is no more regarded as such.
Effects of Universalism
Having highlighted some of the characteristics of Universalism, I would like to come to discuss the effects Universalism has on the Christian Faith in general, and the Church specifically. In this I hope it will become clear that stating that all will be saved, although very plausible and innocent on the surface, actually redefines the Christian Faith and the nature and calling of the Church of Christ.
Now, these points are not what you will hear from a Universalist, neither is it what they want to hear – they will probably be offended by what I am saying here. What I am doing is drawing conclusions about the effects of this belief system on the Church.
Universalism redefines Scripture. I have mentioned this already, but I need to stress it again. The Bible is no longer seen as God’s Word to man, but man’s words about God. There is no longer a regard for the absolute authority of God’s Word. When Christ commands “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near,” it is not necessarily a command, but more of a suggestion. God’s word is therefore softened to make it more acceptable to man, who may or may not obey it – that is totally optional. The regenerating power of God’s Word is denied. It has to be, because if you hold that as part of your faith, you immediately exclude those who deny God’s Word, and this is unacceptable in the Universalist’s frame of mind.
Not only is Scripture redefined, but so is God Himself. Scripture is not the norm for knowing God anymore, but man’s own ideas about God. Scripture’s precedence must make place for a natural theology, where God is interpreted from anything else apart from scripture. This includes nature, but more often man’s own experiences, physical, emotional, and spiritual. These are then used to define God. If anything is not acceptable to man, then God is excluded from it. So God is not seen as the Judge of the living and the dead anymore, but the Corrector of morality. There is no longer such a thing as the Wrath of God by which God will condemn the “workers of evil” to an eternal punishment. God’s righteous nature is made subordinate to His love – if not replaced by it. God’s moral character is actually challenged. A famous argument is that a God of love will not condemn one of His creatures to an eternal hell. God’s morality must therefore be changed to make Him more acceptable to man, and the new standard for God’s moral character is man’s morality – which allows all into heaven, because that is the loving and right thing to do.
If God is redefined, it follows that we are to accept a modified, reinvented Christ – something like “New and Improved.” Logically Universalism has to deny the uniqueness of Christ in order to get all into heaven, for a unique Saviour poses a very definite problem to the Universalist. But Universalism cannot get rid of Him altogether. That would be blasphemy. Therefore, Christ is not seen as Saviour anymore – which would mean He IS the only way. Instead, He is made an excellent example for all men to follow, much like the Buddha, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. His concern is not the sin of the world anymore, but the social well-being of man. His salvation work is also redefined. The atonement he achieved is changed. The substitutionary character is replaced with the idea that He had to come close to man, so close that He had to experience man’s deepest sorrow. His crucifixion is seen as identification and not as substitutionary.
Man is also redefined by Universalism. Man is not sinful, but rather a troubled being who often times make bad mistakes and decisions. Man is not born in sin, and his life is not one of total sinfulness in enmity towards God. Deep down man is good and this affords him the right to salvation. God will definitely not shut out his good creatures from eternal life with Him. Following this, man is in no need of repentance. This will imply sinfulness. Repentance is for those weaklings who do not already realise that man is not sinful. Generally speaking, man is not required to bow before God in acknowledgement of his sin before a holy God. Man is instead granted the freedom to live life as he pleases, as his salvation is a sure fact, regardless of his lifestyle.
I have already made references to this aspect, but will confirm it again. Salvation is redefined. The whole argument that ALL will be saved, makes the salvation work of Christ unnecessary and in fact obsolete. Christ’s suffering and death to save man must therefore be redefined, as it is really not needed for salvation. It makes faith in the substitutionary work of Christ obsolete, as even those who blasphemed Christ, will eventually be saved. It follows that doctrines like the efficacy and sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice is discarded altogether.
Redefines the Church
All of this brings into question the reason for the Church’s existence. Christ sent His apostles with the commission that “repentance and forgiveness of sins” were to be preached by them. But, when ALL are saved, this is not needed anymore. Now the focus is placed on social upliftment. The Churches call is now to social upliftment, and no longer spiritual restoration through repentance and forgiveness of sins. Missionary work is being replaced by being missional. The Church is changed into no more than a non-profit socio-political entity, a catch pool for all in need of social comfort.
Lastly the eschatology of the Christian Faith is redefined. Heaven and hell is spiritualised, and hell dropped altogether. The focus is shifted from an eschatology that awaits the Saviour and Judge of the World, who will reward with eternal life those who believe in His substitutionary death, and condemn those to eternal death who denied Him, and persecuted His followers, to an “already realised eschatology.” The present is what matters, this is the utopia. The future kingdom is already available to ALL, faith or no faith.
In conclusion, we need to return to our text in Luke 13:23-30 and the realities I mentioned there. I would like to recap on them:
- Salvation is granted to some and withheld from others;
- Exclusion from the Kingdom of God is final;
- Salvation is not to be found in a false sense of security, but faith in the final work and person of Christ.
There is, however, a fourth reality that I want to point out now that we have defined Universalism, and that is that the gospel has universal implications. This is clear from verse 29. Jesus says that people from all over will recline at the table in the Kingdom of God.
We would do good to remember these truths that Jesus teaches in these words.
1 Kofahl, Robert E. “Billy Graham Believes Catholic Doctrine of Salvation without Bible, Gospel, or Name of Christ.” Accessed Jun 16, 2014. http://www.biblebb.com/files/tonyqa/tc00-105.htm
2 Progressive Christianity, “The 8 Points”, last accessed 16 June 2014 at http://progressivechristianity.org/the-8-points/
Allen, Ken. “What is ‘Christian Universalism’?” Accessed Jun 15, 2014. http://www.christianheretic.com/articles/article35.html
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Kofahl, Robert E. “Billy Graham Believes Catholic Doctrine of Salvation without Bible, Gospel, or Name of Christ.” Accessed Jun 16, 2014. http://www.biblebb.com/files/tonyqa/tc00-105.htm
Progressive Christianity, “The 8 Points.” Accessed Jun 16, 2014. http://progressivechristianity.org/the-8-points/
Weeks, Louis B. “A Brief Look at the ‘Reformed’.” The Bulletin of the Institute for Reformed Theology Volume 5 Number 1 (2005): 1-8