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    April 17th, 2012 @ 9:33 am by Kevin

    A new study by Lifeway Research demonstrates how easily the discussion over universalism can become confused if we don’t define our terms properly.

    For the study, Protestant pastors were asked to agree or disagree with the following statement: “If a person is sincerely seeking God, he/she can obtain eternal life through religions other than Christianity.” Not surprisingly, 84% of pastors disagreed with the statement. (They didn’t bother to mention how many pastors they actually surveyed.)

    In their commentary, Lifeway says that the view that people can find salvation through religions other than God, “… is generally called ‘universalism’ or ‘pluralism’ (though technically not the same thing, they are often used interchangeably and relate to one another). So, based on this data, Protestant pastors are overwhelmingly not pluralist/universalist.”

    This statement is somewhat frustrating, because right after admitting that “universalism” and “pluralism” should not be used interchangeably, Lifeway uses them as synonyms in the very next sentence! So perhaps a bit of disambiguation is in order.

    As Robin Parry and Christopher Partridge point out in the introduction to their excellent book Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, we can identify a typology of “universalisms,” at least one of which may actually be a synonym for pluralism. But Christian universalists rarely hold to such a belief. A brief summary of Parry and Partridge’s typology:

    Multiracial universalism: In this sense, virtually all Christians can be considered universalists (except perhaps neo-Nazis) in that they believe the Gospel is for every kind of person, no matter their race or gender.

    Arminian universalism: This is the belief that God desires to save all people, but that some people choose to opt out of his salvation plan. This should be contrasted with Calvinist or Reformed thinking, which holds the view that God only desires to save the elect.

    Strong universalisms: This is actually a sub-family of views within the universalist camp. Like Arminian universalists, strong universalists believe that God wills the salvation of all. However, they are also convinced that God will actually be able pull it off. The point of disagreement arises over how God will do this. Hence, we find non-Christian versions of strong universalism arising within other religions. We also find pluralist universalism, which is the belief that all religions are different roads to the same destination. (This view is closest to the one rejected by the Protestant pastors in the survey.

    Christian universalisms: Parry and Partridge include this family of views under the label “Strong universalisms,” but I thought I’d separate them out here to avoid further confusion. This is a family of views that is united around the idea that all people will ultimately be reconciled to God through Christ. They are most definitely not pluralists. But that’s typically where the agreement ends. Christian universalists are dialoguing about a number key questions, such as…

    – Is universal salvation something Christians can reasonably hope for, or is it something of which we can be certain?

    – Do the “hell texts” in the Bible explain merely a possible destiny or the real but temporary fate of the damned?

    – Is universalism a possible Christian position among others or is it the only authentically Christian position?

    – Is the New Testament consistently universalist or does it hold multiple views in tension?

    – Must someone have conscious faith in Christ to be saved?

    – Do humans have indeterministic freedom or not? In other words, what role does the will play in salvation?

    – Is God’s punishment to be understood in retributive or restorative terms?

    – Is God free not to love and save all, or, constrained by the very nature of his being, is God bound to love and save all?

    And this doesn’t even begin to touch upon the many exegetical discussions regarding how certain passages of the Bible are to be interpreted.

    So what does the Lifeway study actually show us? For one thing, it reveals that people are still pretty confused about what Christian universalism actually is, the diversity of views that fall under that umbrella, and the ongoing conversation that is happening among Christian universalists regarding the questions outlined above.

    However, the study also reveals a significant divergence between pastors and lay people in terms of their views on this topic, with lay people far more open to the idea that salvation might be found through other religions. They also found a positive correlation between education and pluralist beliefs, with more educated pastors leaning toward pluralism.

    But hopefully you can see, these findings really have nothing to do with what pastors and lay people believe about Christian universalism, because as far as I can tell, that topic wasn’t even part of the survey.

leave a comment on this post (14 Comments)

  1. Will Hellbound unpack this topic, as you’ve done here? You’re absolutely right that even the more knowledgeable among the clergy seem not to understand the above.

  2. Uh-oh, Kevin. You mentioned the Nazis. You lose. But, not really, because this is actually a great post. I shouted a couple “amens” at my computer.

    • The Nazis? Where?

      • Well… the Neo-Nazis. Under Multiracial. I suppose I’m splitting hairs, but every time the Nazis mentioned anywhere, I’m reminded of you sharing Godwins/Goodwins (can’t remember which) with me. That whoever brings up the Nazis first in any argument, loses.

  3. I appreciate the information. The amount of misinformation and even propaganda surrounding this topic really clouds the issue for many of us who are wrestling with the questions you listed. The question of restorative vs retributive (punitive) justice is one which really has me tied up in knots at the moment. If I believe that God is ultimately punitive it will dictate my feelings and behaviors surrounding him, leading me to respond in fear. Perfect love, the bible tells me, eliminates fear. If God is restorative it changes the way I relate to God completely. This is what Jesus came to do, turn our traditional understandings of God on their head. Thanks again Kevin I really appreciated this post.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Keith. Yes, I think Christian universalism has struggled mightily almost from the beginning b/c it has often associated with other heterodox beliefs. But there’s nothing about Christian universalism that necessitates a belief in pluralism, reincarnation, Unitarianism, etc. All of the universalists I met while making Hellbound? were thoroughly biblical, Christocentric, etc. In fact, it was their deep appreciation for Christ and Scripture that led them to a universalist position. Ironic considering they’re often portrayed as liberals who try to duck the authority of Scripture and smooth off the hard edges of Christianity to make it more palatable to a broad audience. Such claims are merely a caricature. If you’re curious to learn more, I highly recommend “Universal Salvation? The Current Debate,” b/c the way the book is formatted, it allows Thomas Talbott (a convinced Christian universalist) to make his case in the first three chapters. Then various authors (both pro and con) criticize his arguments in light of the Bible, philosophy, history and theology. You may not become a convinced universalist as a result of reading it, but you’ll at least have a far better understanding of the position, as well as the various arguments for and against it.

  4. Pingback: What is Christian Universalism — Really? | Journey Into The Son

  5. Stephen Stonestreet April 17, 2012 at 10:09 am

    Many look through the lens of religions and which one or all lead to eternal life in God… I like to view it without religions or systems of belief, but instead, simply humanity. God saved and is saving humanity as a whole, not because they are Christians, but because we all are His Creation, we are all His children. It doesn’t matter what you believe in your head, only what you are – humanity. And God sent Christ to save humanity, regardless of religion or race – Both Jew & Greek (in other words, all).

    • I was just thinking about the same thing yesterday, Stephen, b/c someone was criticizing me for daring to believe an atheist like Sam Harris might have something enlightening to share with the rest of us. It made me think that God is no respecter of the labels we put on ourselves. Case in point: Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” Pretty harsh. But I believe this works both ways, as Matthew 25:31-46 (sheep and the goats parable) illustrates. Pretty much everyone will be surprised in the end. No one in this parable says, “That’s right, I knew I had it coming.”

      • One thing to mention lest confusion ensues; though not all who calls Jesus ‘Lord’ is know by Him, neither are the ‘righteous’ and doers of ‘good works’ who deny Jesus as the preeminent Son of God or who deny Him before mankind. 🙂

  6. I think the biggest problem in dealing with the possibility of God saving the entirety of his creation, ( Psalm 145:9, Cols 1:20 ), is the concept that individuals must come to trust God in this life. Where did that come from?

    I like C.S.Lewis’ concept in his “Last Battle” book of the Narnia series. He depicts a Calormen, (pagan), soldier who is accepted by Aslan, (Jesus figure), after his death, even though the man worshipped Tash, (pagan god), during his life. When asked about this, Aslan claims that nothing noble can be done for anyone but himself. The honest pagan loves Aslan, and quickly accepts the true reality.

    I will readily assert that there is one source of life, and only one. We must willingly join the Trinitarian fellowship. The Man-God Jesus has included all of us into that circle, but most of us don’t know. That is easily dealt with in the afterlife. True, God will not force anyone to accept his love, but that doesn’t change its reality. Some may remain in hell for some time, but how can any force in the cosmos resist love forever?

    “…and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Col 1:20

    22“Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth;
    for I am God, and there is no other.

    23By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity
    a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow;
    by me every tongue will swear. Isa 45

  7. Is it “judgmentless” though? Is the death pentaly “judgmentless” then? I don’t think that’s a strong philosophical defense of why God desires to perpetuate evil’s existence and torment most? of His creation for all eternity. Josh, I expressed by concern in a way that shared my heart. The concern is both legitimate and real (not philosophical ). Real enough to keep me from accepting your form of annihilism. Real enough to stand as one of the mentioned reasons why the ex-Christian pastors and scholars who wrote The Christian Deluslion left the Christian faith. Real enough to make the atheist wonder what he has to lose since if he’s right to gets what he expects (annihilism) and if he’s wrong he gets what he expects (annihilism). Real enough (fill in the blank).In short, I felt your response was belittling. I of course know you well enough to know that you wouldn’t intentionally belittle me. But still, I think my concern is legitimate enough that if the annihilist whats to persuade the traditionalist to their side, you cannot just wave your hand at this very real concern.Brian said: Do you really think that this is a fair assessment of the annihilationist position? Brian, no. I have not studied fully the annihilationist position. That assessment was based on my understanding of the annihilationist position: that at the last judgment everyone outside of Chtrist will cease to exist. Whether that assessment is correct or not, neither you nor Josh have even suggested otherwise. If that assessment is correct than yes, that is a judgmentless gospel in my oppinion. I wish there were time to explain further what I mean by judgmentless gospel , but I am on break and have to move on Ronnie said: Please don’t think that! At the resurrection, all men will be raised and judged according to their deeds. Conditionalists have always believed that the death of the wicked will not be instantaneous, and that analogous to executions in this life, there will be some process involving pain. In similar fashion, the severity and length of the punishment that culminates in death can (and will) vary from person to person. Conditionalists do not deny torment, they just don’t think that it lasts forever. Ronnie, this statement alone changes everything! If Brian and Josh both affirm this than I wonder why they did not say so in their responses. The hesitation by the traditionalists is that annihilism presents a judgmentless Gospel (since at the last judgment those outside of Christ simply cease to exist), makes me wonder how many annihilist have this misconception of their own view!I should be obvious through this whole discussion that Hell is a subject I have never investigated or reconsidered. There’s only so much time to reconsider each presupposed idea we all have. I am willing to change my view on this subject if annihilism (or should we say Conditionalism ) were as you say.If this is so, then the issue is not whether we believe in Hell after the last judgment, this issue is merely the nature and duration of Hell. It’s as Clark Pinnock said:My difference with [the traditional] view is about the nature of hell, not the fact of hell.Thanks for the discussion everyone. I consider this conversation over but look forward to further dialogue. (I hope I have dispelled any accustions that Derek at Covenant of Love is unteachable!)

  8. First, the statement, “…the view that people can find salvation through religions other than God…is generally called ‘universalism’ or ‘pluralism’” not very accurate. Salvation through other religions is okay as a general description of pluralism but I doubt most Christian universalists would describe their universalism this way. CU is the idea that all are saved through Christ’s sacrifice, not the notion that salvation is found through other religions.

    Second, there is at least one form of Christian Universalism (mine) that allows for pluralism. I.e., it’s entirely possible that the atonement carries in it such a tremendous expression of grace that it includes those who are genuine and devout in thought and practice of their religion as conforming to the salvation of Biblical faith required of time and space. Jesus spoke largely in metaphors. His comment, “… unless you believe that I am He, you shall die in your sins.” may be interpreted that those who believe in Truth (Jn 14:6) are saved.

    A cursory study of philosophy/metaphysics reveals that people generally (and in some cases specifically) divide into categories of believer/unbeliever. Though extremism is thankfully rare, it’s fairly easy to spot those philosophies (and their proponents) whose modus operandi is to create opposition to those lines of thought that tolerate and embrace a moral/spiritual worldview. People the world over fall generally into the ‘for’ and ‘against’ category [though we all fall specifically into both in some areas of belief] with respect to traditional moral norms. I find it very plausible that those in other religions in the “for” camp are Christ’s elect the same as those who profess Him by name.

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