After Church – The Insufficiency of Universal Salvation

Really, though, this presents a false dichotomy.

Really, though, this presents a false dichotomy.

Weird title, huh?

This “idea” became rather popular in recent years. Simply put, “universal salvation” implies that every human being that lives will, in some sense or another, be saved of their sin through the redeeming love of God and His Son, Jesus Christ. What amazed me, upon first hearing about it, came from the wealth of background involving this particular belief. Richard Bauckham, in his historical survey of universal reconciliation (the more technical term of the thing), says as such:

“The history of the doctrine of universal salvation (or apokatastasis) is a remarkable one. Until the nineteenth century almost all Christian theologians taught the reality of eternal torment in hell. Here and there, outside the theological mainstream, were some who believed that the wicked would be finally annihilated (in its commonest form. this is the doctrine of ‘conditional immortality’). Even fewer were the advocates of universal salvation, though these few included same major theologians of the early church. Eternal punishment was firmly asserted in official creeds and confessions of the churches. It must have seemed as indispensable a part of universal Christian belief as the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation. Since 1800 this situation has entirely changed, and no traditional Christian doctrine has been so widely abandoned as that of eternal punishment. Its advocates among theologians today must be fewer than ever before. The alternative interpretation of hell as annihilation seems to have prevailed even among many of the more conservative theologians. Among theless conservative, universal salvation, either as hope or as dogma, is now so widely accepted that many theologians assume it virtually without argument.”

Which struck me as strange. Was this a modern development? Apparently not. From what we derive from the writings of the early Church fathers, universalism appears a desired outcome of at least some portion of the Christian population. Origen usually gets the rap for such thinking, but it certainly retains a longer historical horizon then that. From my perspective, the reason for its existence isn’t intentional destruction of Christian doctrine. Rather, it takes one portion of the Gospel and assigns a higher place to its position than anything else: specifically, grace and love. We can say, with relative certainty, that they ignore the “justice” of God in deference to His justice. I’m making a rash generalization here, obviously, but any theological construct can turn out in this way. Free will works both ways, and so does predestination – in that sense, one can’t escape it.

And yet, we have passage like John 14 in the Bible:

Jesus *said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.

As a response, one could easily say “this isn’t referring to salvation, grace, or any of the above; read the context!” I would totally say the same thing, anyway! So here’s the surrounding verses, then:

“Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.” Thomas *said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?”Jesus *said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.

If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.”

Philip *said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus *said to him, “Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. 11 Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves. 12 Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.

I wonder about the specificity of “Father” in the Gospel of John. Jesus goes to prepare a place for them – then He tells them that they cannot go to the Father except through Him. Why be so specific? Why do we take this a different way? Do we not believe that the early Jesus Movement didn’t belief with a strength of conviction wholly undeserving if, say, everyone were saved?  What about Luke 23?

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” 40 But the other answered, and rebuking him said, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” 43 And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

So what happens to the thief who insults Jesus? Does he get saved too, or is this just a metaphor for something? An allegory? I find, in universal salvation, that you must rescind the tenets of Christianity to get to such a conclusion. You create a Jesus in order to make him fit your goals and create moral pronouncements. Furthermore, why evalgenize? What a worthless endeavor when Christ saves all! Why bother helping anyone with anything? The logical conclusions to these ideas, of course, aren’t followed. Why? Because God, according to this crowd, works in an entirely illogical way that just happens to fit their worldview. The same happens in a case of absolute predestination; the motive and the cause become secondary, almost irrelevant, to Christianity. You can lose both ways.

Free will becomes a moot point on either side. God’s omnipotence overrides your will as a person to choose or not choose God’s love. God does not allow you, a human person, to make decisions. He creates us in His image, and then coerces us into salvation. Yet, in the Bible, we find that never becomes the case. God’s longsuffering and laments when His children choose contrary to His love, but He does not prevent them from making mistakes.

Either case accommodates, and tends to dilute Christianity. There is always the search for adaptation, either to defend the faith or to make it more appealing to its detractors by adapting their own metaphysical assumptions and ideas into the fold. This has been done to great e ect through Christianity’s history – even those initially opposed to Christian belief have, over time, taken its newly-minted version as something entirely acceptable. It is also in that work that the singular, faith-based character of Christian thought becomes an idea rather than an emotion, the mind being cut off from the source. This subtle problem has blossomed in the modern era through the diversity of opinions, and will only continue when the assumptions of any particular culture are placed onto it.

At what point do we allow one particular in Christianity to swallow the rest of the doctrines whole? Much depends on the authority of Scripture in this regard. This is why, though I can accept the idea that God loves us all, I don’t think love involves coercion or force – even from a God in heaven. Universal salvation, far from being the more “loving” idea, actually shoves salvation down your throat and says “take it”. The whole of the Christian religion implies choice, risk, and action – without these elements, it’s nothing but hot air and good feelings. That’s why I cannot accept this notion, much as it probably appeals to everyone.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.
  • It’s slightly hard to concentrate on the seriousness of this post when I have an ad on the right for ninja swords and gear flashing in purple. Haha. Okay. Stopped giggling. So, I don’t know why I am so inclined to avoid the subject of hell/universal-salvation so much, but I do (at least in dialog). I think it comes from the weird way the Bible addresses the subject. Like, Jesus doesn’t seem to typically talk about hell or “who gets in” to Heaven, except when he’s talking to/about believers. Like it’s almost as if he didn’t even bother to discuss what happens to those who don’t know him. And he usually uses the most violent imagery for the religious folks who are resisting his truth. Okay, by omission, he is quite possibly (probably) inferring a similar demise for those who aren’t into it. Then there’s the whole doctrine of hell at large. For something so important, why don’t we hear anything other than stuff about “the grave” in the Old Testament?  Probably getting dangerously close to babbling/offering ceaseless questions. So I’ll stop there.

    • @Mjoshua Haha, no problem. Babbling is fun!
       
      Anyways, call me a Catholic, but I’ve always had a penchant for tradition. You know, people getting together and deciding “Hey, what exactly happened here?” Then, theology becomes formulated over time and eventually made rather secure and straightforward. I find it uncanny that, so early in the development of Christian doctrine and dogma that there was a decision to be made between Christ and not-Christ always astounded me.
       
      I don’t think it’s so much Jesus stating directly ‘believe in me and you won’t go to hell” – if that wasn’t the biggest perversion of evangelizing that there ever was. But there’s some sort of consequence, surely, for those who make a decision against what we call the Lord of the Universe. Otherwise, what would be the point of it? H Reinhold Niebuhr says of such a theology: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
       
      And then it would all be sort of worthless, wouldn’t it? It would not be worth fighting for, or dying for, as the case may be.