June 26, 2021 - Universalism

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Today we’re going to talk about: are we lost without Christ? The belief that Jesus is the only way to God, and that humans are lost without him, is a bone that sticks in almost everyone’s throat. It is admittedly one of the most difficult Biblical truths to swallow.

Consequently, universalism (the belief that everyone will be saved, no matter what they believe or do) is one of the most appealing falsehoods on the market. Who wants to be uncool by being an exclusivist in our modern, inclusive age? Yes, the belief that our faith in Christ is the only way to God is one of the first doctrines that we who believe it would set aside if we thought that reality would allow us to do so.

We feel the pinch of this doctrine when we question whether our good Muslim or Hindu neighbor can possibly be lost. We likewise feel the pinch when we are asked hypothetically whether the good person who has never heard of Christ must be lost. We feel this, whether the non-believer is someone we know, or a nameless, faceless stranger.

Let me share with you some thoughts that have helped me make sense out of this issue.

First, let’s forget the claim that faith is just an accident of where we were born. The principles of space flight are just as true, whether you were born in Texas or Indonesia. So what if you are more likely to learn them if you were born in Texas? Where you were born doesn’t change the laws of physics. Neither does where you were born change the truth about how to reach God.

But how can life and death depend on something we do not know? For the longest time, the world has not been able to find the cure for HIV. Until we do, not knowing the cure is death for those who have the disease. When we do find the cure, it will be suicidal if HIV patients refuse to accept that cure. But wishing that it were otherwise, or complaining that it’s not fair, cannot change the truth.

Is HIV always fatal? Maybe not, but we are wise to treat it as if it is always fatal, by avoiding exposure to the disease at all costs. The same goes for the question of whether failure to accept Christ is always eternally fatal. Only God knows for sure, but we must treat the Christ-less condition as if it were always eternally fatal, and leave the details in the hands of God.

But God sends no one to hell for what they do not know. Ultimately we all “know too much” to claim ignorance before the throne of God. Deep in our hearts, we all know we are sinners who need a Savior. The critical question is whether we are willing to take action on what we do know.

What is so cool as we read the book of Acts is that we see that God has a track record of breaking down every barrier so that good people who haven’t heard yet can hear the Good News of Christ. So when we see areas of the world where people haven’t heard, God knows whether their hearts are ready to hear yet or not. The recently exploding number of Muslims reportedly seeing dreams of Jesus seems to be evidence that God is doing what God did in the book of Acts.

Is there another way to be saved? The answer can be seen in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus agonizes over the idea of suffering all the pain of hell on a cross the next day for the sins of humankind. Jesus begs God for another way for people to be saved: “Take this cup away from me!” If there was any other way for the world to be saved, the cross becomes a stupid mistake. I am convinced that there was no other way. The whole world needs what God offered us on the cross. And that’s a very humbling conclusion I am compelled to draw.

We need not be arrogant – in fact, we must not be arrogant as we affirm that Jesus is Lord of all. If someone believes the world is flat, we don’t need to call them stupid or treat them like dirt. But neither must we agree with them or humor them in order to love and respect them. We can respect someone, without accepting their beliefs as equally true.

In fact, the best way we can respect our non-Christian neighbor is to acknowledge that at least one of us must be wrong, however well-intentioned we may be. Because if all beliefs are equally true, they are all equally false, which is demeaning to everyone’s beliefs.

How can a good person still be lost? None of us is truly good, except in a relative sense. And if my non-believing neighbor doesn’t need Jesus, then logically I don’t need him, either. That’s a dangerous conclusion to draw.

Jesus makes it all about him. Like it or not, I agree. We are lost without him.

So what about hell? Is hell a hideous threat, unworthy of our enlightened age? Is hell merely a state of mind that exists only here on earth? Or is hell a sober future reality that we will want to avoid if at all possible, a place for which any notion of “hell on earth” is just a foretaste?

If hell is only here on earth, then it is notoriously unfair, because too many undeserving people suffer it, and too many deserving characters escape it. Which compels us to believe, or at least adds to the plausibility, that there must be a price to pay beyond this life for crimes against the moral order (if one accepts the existence thereof).

Neither the time in which we live, nor polling data, can change the truth of whether such a future place of torment exists or not. It is chronological snobbery to insist that hell cannot exist because we are too enlightened to believe in anything so supposedly primitive or horrid.

In a day when nothing in the Bible supposedly counts unless it’s in red print (i.e., spoken by Jesus), how can we throw out hell, when Jesus preaches it more than all other voices in Scripture combined? Jesus is the one who uses the name Gehenna for “hell” 11 out of the 12 times the term is used in the New Testament (the 12th time is by his brother James in James 3:6).

Jesus does not invent Gehenna as a name for hell. The name Ge-Hinnom means “Valley of (the Son of) Hinnom,” the valley on the southwest side of Jerusalem where children were once burned to Molech (Jeremiah 7:31), which becomes a 24/7 pile of burning garbage by the time of Jesus (a colorful image!). The name Gehenna is never used before the NT era, but we find it all over the teachings of Jesus’ fellow rabbis.

In addition, Jesus refers to the place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” 7 times (no one else does so), and refers to “Hades” 3 times as the opposite of heaven (in Luke 16, he is referring to a place of overheated torment). Aside from Jesus’ references to hell, the NT has four mentions of the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10-15), and one reference to “Tartaros” in the form of a verb “to cast into Tartaros” (2 Peter 2:4).

Hell does not truly develop as a Biblical teaching until the NT. In the Hebrew Bible, Sheol is the name usually translated “hell.” It is actually the Hebrew name for the underworld, the abode of the dead, a dark, dusty place roughly equivalent to the Greek Hades, which is usually used to translate the term. Unlike the Greek Hades, however, the Semitic underworld has no punishments, just hopelessness and oblivion for all, regardless of their earthly deeds (see Ecclesiastes 9:10, Isaiah 38:18). There are traces of fiery future punishment in the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 66:24), but nothing like a developed doctrine of an eternal destiny for the condemned.

The only way to dismiss Jesus’ warnings about hell is to claim that he was just being rhetorical. An honest (rather than wishful) belief about Jesus does not permit this option. Jesus is either using scare tactics, which we would consider to be unethical, or else he is preaching what he considers to be an urgent, truthful warning to us all.

What does Islam think about this subject? The Quran speaks of hell over 200 times by my personal count, usually borrowing the Jewish term “Gehenna” into Arabic. This does not count the Quran’s references to the Hour of Doom. What the Quran says about hell makes the 26 references in the New Testament look mild by comparison. Hell is the place where people drink “scalding water, festering blood, and other putrid things.” (Sura 38:55) “On that day you shall see the guilty bound with chains, their garments blackened with pitch, and their heads covered with flames.” (Sura 14:49) “Hell shall be their couch, and sheets of fire shall cover them.” (Sura 7:41) Here is one issue on which I actually agree with the Quran, although I find its description to be unnecessarily vivid.

The flames of hell do not have to be literal to be real, particularly because when we speak of a world other than our own, we are often forced to use analogical language. Yes, the flames do seem to conflict with the darkness. But when the Bible uses symbols like this, the reality is likely to be more painful than the symbol.

I find it hard to escape the conclusion that hell is a real destination for souls that we should seek to avoid at all costs. To conclude less, fails to do justice to the teaching of Jesus. And if you want to play the game of claiming that this teaching comes from the early church rather than from Jesus, then you have to throw out the parables of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), and the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), both of which are firmly tied to this teaching.

C. S. Lewis has a compelling picture of hell in his book The Great Divorce. Lewis pictures hell as a dreary place where people keep moving farther and farther away from each other. And when residents of hell get the chance to take a bus tour of heaven, only one person decides to stay. It reminds me of the scene in Revelation 9 where God pours down plagues on unbelievers trying to get them to cry “Uncle!”, yet after all that effort to compel a change of heart in them, we read that they “did not repent” (Revelation 9:20-21).

If not for our belief that hell is to be cut off from the Author of life and love, I could almost picture heaven and hell as if they were the same place. To be in the presence of God would be heaven for some, and hell for others. Imagine: to spend forever with Someone you can’t stand! That would truly be hell.

The Good News about hell is that God in the flesh has gone there in our place, to endure an eternity of hell for every one of us, so that no one would have to go there. Hell is a place we send ourselves, by rejecting the greatest gift of grace ever given.

When the Good News of Jesus’ once-and-for-all atoning sacrifice for human sin hits the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD, it doesn’t take long for believers to think, “Great! But what about people who came before us? What about the Hebrew Bible saints? And what about all of the other nations who lived before Christ came along? What does the cross of Christ do for them?”

Paul tackles this question in Romans 3:25-26. After taking 2 chapters of this letter to make the case that both Gentiles and Jews are all sinners who need a Savior, in this chapter, Paul delivers the heart of the Good News: Christ Jesus is “the One whom God put forward as an atoning sacrifice,” a sacrifice to be received “through faith in his blood.”

The saving death of Christ, says Paul here, is “for a display of the righteousness of God, because of the passing by of sins previously committed.” The cross is where God shows that God has implemented a solution for all the sins that happened before anyone could believe in Christ. God didn’t just blow off all of those sins; to show that God is righteous, God paid the price for those sins himself. (Remember, Christ was God in the flesh, taking away all that sin.)

That’s the “forbearance of God” Paul speaks of in verse 26 where God “endures” the sins done before the sacrifice of Christ that would take them all away. By enduring sin until the day that sin can be permanently taken away, Paul says, God shows himself to be just, now that the Savior has finally come. Christ’s sacrifice covers those who now place their faith in him, but apparently it also covers those who came before Christ. In that way, Paul says that God does not leave previous sins unpaid for, which leaves God free to “justify” (literally “make righteous”) those who trust in Jesus, now that he has come.

So God apparently pays the price for ancient peoples to be saved. But how does that work: by faith, or how? The answer may be in 1 Peter 3:19, where we are told that Jesus preaches to the “spirits in prison, to those who disobeyed back then when the patience of God was waiting.” Here, Peter is speaking of those who died in Noah’s flood, but in his next chapter (1 Peter 4:6), Peter speaks of the Gospel being preached to “the dead” in general. Such an interpretation of what Peter says is highly speculative, but it’s far from an offbeat point of view. If it is correct, here would be where ancient peoples are given a one-time chance to place their faith in what Christ has done for them.

So Paul provides a solution to Jews and non-Jews at Rome who wonder how the Good News of Christ can be Good News to those who lived before he came. His solution: “the forbearance of God” toward “sins previously committed.” But what about people today who haven’t heard? As we continue in Paul’s letter to Rome, Paul gives no indication that people today who haven’t heard are off the hook. In fact, he indicates in Romans 10:14 that their need is urgent: “How shall they call upon one in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in one of whom they have not heard?”

Paul goes on in verses 17 and 18 to say that “faith comes by hearing.” But then he asks, “Did they not hear?” The precise wording he uses in the Greek means, “Don’t tell me they did not hear!” His very next word is menounge: “of course they did!” He then quotes Psalm 19:4: “Their voice [what the heavens say about the glory of God] has gone out into all the world, and their words to the ends of civilization.”

As I have argued in my post called “How Can Jesus Be the Only Way?”, God sends no one to hell for what they did not know, but as Paul argues here in Romans 10, we all “know too much” to plead ignorance with God. We can’t say we “haven’t heard.” In that post, I went on to observe from the book of Acts and from modern events on the mission field (like all the Muslims who are seeing visions of Jesus) that whenever a person responds to the light God has given them, God will move heaven and earth to give them all the light they need to believe.

That is all of the authoritative Scripture that God has given us to answer the question of those who have had no chance to place their faith in Christ. God can save those who were too young or have no mental capacity to believe, if God so chooses, based on all that I have said above. But we have no grounds on which to say more.

Now, many of us have friends who have a whole religious system that they believe will save all of those who have died without hearing their message, or at least offer them the chance to accept or reject that message. Their belief gives them an appealing hope, but I am convinced it is a false hope, unwarranted by what God has actually said in his word.

God has provided for the salvation of those who lived before Christ came. God has provided enough light for everyone else to know that we are sinners who need a Savior. The rest is in the hands of a God who is loving and just. If we needed to know more, God would have told us more.

But some say that God has told us more. A lot of what we’ve been talking about today has been highly debated over the ages. How do we know who has the right answers to these questions? Some folks we know claim that God has given them the authority to tell us the right answers to questions that God’s word doesn’t clearly answer. does God’s word give any of us such authority? We’ll talk about that next time on Biblical Words and World.

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