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