Thursday, June 10, 2010

Universal Salvation... It's not all bad!

I’ve had reason lately to contemplate the suggestion of universal salvation – that is, everyone will be saved in the end. No need for repentance, conversion or any sense of morality, you’re just “in”. I’ve been thinking about this for no other reason than I take the words of The Army’s sixth doctrine very seriously… “made an atonement for the whole world”. Similarly, I look at passages such as Titus 2:11; “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (ESV), and ask myself the question “What does it mean to say “all people?”. How do we address that? Do we actually mean, “the whole world” or do we rationalise it in some way as needing a caveat clause: only those who go through some “initiation process” of some kind “get in” (be that a “sinners prayer” or otherwise)? I recognise that there is a fairly weighty scriptural basis for the suggestion that some people are “in” and some people are “out”. The Bible does speak of a place of punishment, and a place of reward, and Paul frequently uses the phrase “in Christ” which suggests there are some who are “out of Christ”. But for me, as I said to a friend over coffee the other day, I’d much rather dance with a doctrine that said “all people are saved” than one that suggests that 75-80% of people in the world are going straight to hell. There’s a certain amount of attraction towards and comfort in universalism there. It says a lot about the extensiveness and extravagance of God’s love and grace. I’m not a universalist, though. I’m still not convinced that it’s orthodox, and neither has the church been throughout its history. I’m with Karl Barth at this point, though, who when accused of being a universalist (which he wasn’t) he responded by saying “I’m not, but would it be so bad if I was?” However, I do find that upon raising even the possibility of universalism there’s a certain amount of discomfort that arises in people almost immediately. Stop and assess your own thoughts and feelings as you’ve been reading this particular posting. Are you disagreeing with any suggestion of universalism? Have you been considering a strongly worded rebuttal (which is welcomed by the way)? What’s going on inside your head at the mention of this word? “Universalism” is just one of those theological dirty words (It’s a shame it’s not spelt with four letters). It seems to be one place of common ground as a “no-go zone” regardless of one’s particular theological bent in other areas. I have to ask why is that so? Again, would it be so bad if God did, in fact, save everyone in the end? Would it be so bad if God did say that “Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for all, you don’t have to do anything, you don’t even have to be a particularly nice person, you’re all saved, you’re all in!” This is where the discomfort arises. How would we feel if our next door neighbour in eternity was Adolf Hitler? Or Osama bin Laden? Or an axe-murderer? Or a child rapist? This, I suspect, is the underlying source of our discomfort with any suggestion of universalism. We want retributive justice. Like when we watch any movie based on a theme of “us” and “them” we want to know that the bad guy gets it in the end. Reminiscent of the scene in Bruce Almighty when he’s standing in the rain screaming at God, we know God can do some pretty good “smiting” and we’re looking forward to when he does that to “those evil people in the world” in the end (i.e. not “us” but “them”)… Universalism, for all its faults, does have one thing going for it. It exposes within us the limits of our own love for others; particularly the love we have for our enemies. What did Jesus say? “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love you neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45 ESV). In the context of this discussion those words become particularly powerful. When was the last time you prayed for Adolf Hitler, or Osama bin Laden, or much closer to home someone who insults me? When have you prayed for your enemy's eternal salvation? I don’t think I’ve ever done that! “Lord, have mercy upon him/her.” It’s almost painful to type those words in reference to those "enemies", let alone pray them. But doesn’t that say more about me than it does about God? Doesn’t that expose in me the extent of my ability to love my enemies, whilst at the same time showing just how far God goes to provide a means of salvation for all people. In the light of that, consider these words from Romans… “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:6-11) We were “enemies of God”, Paul suggests, yet still at that time Christ died. It’s as if we are the terrorist, or the mass murderer, or the child rapist in our considerations above. We deserved God’s retributive justice (“Smite me Almighty Smiter!” as Bruce Almighty so aptly said), but instead of it being directed towards us it was directed towards Christ. God should have punished us. God should have destroyed us, yet because of his covenantal love and the faithfulness of Christ he fulfilled his promises to Abraham, Moses and David through Jesus Christ and now makes them available to all people, Jews and Gentiles, through Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. This still amazes me and to be perfectly honest I still don’t fully understand it. But boy am I thankful! Let’s not forget that this is where we’ve come from and in the light of that consider where we’re going, and also who’s coming with us. Do we just want it to be “the lost, the last and the least” (as important and absolutely vital as they are). It’s interesting that often that phrase is said by those who are “the found, the first, and the finest”. Or should we also be desparately seeking “the worst, the woeful and the wicked”? To coin a completely overused phrase… what would Jesus do? “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”

Sermon: Luke 24:13-35