Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Universalism, a potentially a dangerous doctrine

Universalism is the belief that everybody - Christian, Hindu, Muslim, religious and non-religious, believer and unbeliever - will ultimately be saved and enjoy an eternity of bliss with God forever. But it is, I believe, a dangerous and mistaken doctrine to preach, and although it expresses what, on the surface is a very tolerant and inclusive position, it actually is the opposite.

First, not everyone wants to be 'saved' or spend eternity with God. I always remember Dave Allen the Irish comedian stating that he could not think of anything more boring than sitting on a cloud playing a harp and stroking the ego of a God who wants nothing more than for us to worship him. The picture is obviously a mistaken one, and he seems to be confusing humans with angels, nevertheless what he is expressing is his desire to be left alone and disappear into non-existence when his life is over. And so for a God to force him to live forever would not appear a very loving thing to do.

So for atheists who want oblivion, and Buddhists who want basically the same thing, any talk of being forced into heaven would appear to be more hell than heaven, and would certainly undermine the notion of love which, as Paul reminds us is "kind" and "always protects" (1 Corinthians 13) which presumably means kindly protecting and upholding the free will of the other.

Second, to force people into heaven also would be to be very intolerant. Intolerance - THE great sin of the 21st century - is defined in the dictionary as:

"an unwillingness to accept views, beliefs, or behaviour that differ from one's own."  

In trying to be tolerant - which is the great virtue of the 21st century - what is actually happening is that by trying to force a view of God onto those who don't and won't believe, is actually doing the exact opposite.

Third, and this is key for me, although it all sounds very nice - and believe me in terms of members of my immediate family I would love it to be true - there is actually very little warrant in Scripture or tradition for such a thing. Of course there are texts that can be interpreted that way - if you remove them from their contexts - but closer examination of the WHOLE counsel of God will show that this is mistaken. Take one such text from Paul's First Letter to Timothy, Chapter 2 verse 4 which states:

"(God) wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth."

In isolation this looks promising. But earlier Paul talks about Jesus who "came into the world to save sinners" (1 Timothy 1:15). Why would he do that if all would be saved anyway? And looking at the greater context of Paul's other writings it is clear that just as it is possible to be saved, so it is possible not to be. (Look at Romans 2:8 for example).

Fourthy, and logically, to preach and give people the false hope of universalism is dangerous - even if you believe in it - because you may be wrong. Let me give an example. Let us say that your brother or father are atheists. You have, as a Christian, a choice. You can either pray for them that they will accept Jesus - his death and resurrection - trusting Him for their salvation and therefore being saved. Or you can just say to yourself - and to them - that God will save them anyway, so don't worry. If you are right and God will save them, all well and good (but even that has problems regarding their own freedoms). But if you are wrong then you have either given them false hope or you have refused to play a part in God's plan to save them because you would not witness to them or pray for them. You then will be held responsible for their eternal separation from God. Can you live with that? I could not. So logically would it not be best to pray for them, encourage them to explore the Christian message and believe in Jesus, rather than run the risk of getting it completely and fatally wrong?

Lastly, I did mention earlier that traditionally and historically the church never taught universalism. That is not strictly true because some within its ranks have held that position, the most notable being Origen who lived from 185-254. However these were lone voices and many, including Origen, were accused of heresy as a result. So although some have advocated it, it is not a position the church feels is consistent with the teaching of the Bible or indeed the life and witness of Jesus who in many places warns about the dangers of an existence without God. So it is logically safer, and more consistent, to do what you can, as Jesus asked, to call men and women to believe in Jesus so that he can do what he came to do, and save them. After all that is what he desires.

Note: The above icon is of the Last Judgement.

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