by Louis L. King
Three theories about the hereafter hold the ground today.
Three theories about the hereafter hold the ground today. (1) The theory of limitarianism and everlasting torment: that every person who has missed Christ shall be condemned without remedy.
(2) The theory of conditional immortality: that all people who fail to obtain eternal life shall be punished, not by everlasting torment but by annihilation.
(3) The theory of universalism: that because Christ died for all, He will sovereignly and out of love bring all men to salvation.
For the purpose of this study, we shall not touch upon the second, the theory of conditional immortality. We shall not enter the intricacies of doctrine that impinge on the other two, nor attempt an exegetical study of the Scriptures allegedly for or against universalism. We will explore ways to detect new universalism as opposed to limitarianism (the belief that there will be a final judgment in which part of the human race will be condemned), as taught by evangelicals. This, it seems to me, can be adequately done by considering universalism’s view of Scripture, revelation, God, man, and sin.
THE NEW UNIVERSALISM IS A VIEW OF SCRIPTURE
Evangelicals agree that the Holy Scriptures, consisting of sixty-six Old and New Testament books, were verbally inspired by God. They constitute the authoritative, fully trustworthy Word of God. The Bible is, therefore, the divine and only rule of Christian faith and practice; and while allowing for critical study of the Scriptures, evangelicals feel that this at all times can be done in a manner that will not impugn the Bible’s historical credibility or allow the ideas of myth, legend, and invention. In light of what he knows and believes about the Bible, the evangelical feels the ground firm beneath his feet: The Bible is the Word of God, the final court of appeal in all matters of Christian faith and practice.
A. Universalists reject the evangelicals’ positive-authoritative view of Scripture on the grounds that it is unpalatable to the modern scientific mind.
A representative universalist, Nels Ferre, comments, "Our times demand a new theology with larger dimensions."5
"Pre-critical Christians (evangelicals) cannot win competently educated man. As the scientific and the historical consciousness begins to capture the intellectual leaders of the nations of the world, pre-critical Christianity will necessarily be relegated to a major myth. External revelations, whether through a book or through a supernatural figure, will become classified with all pre-critical myth-making and refused a hearing."2". . . strong strands in traditionalistic theology are immoral in their conception and repulsive to any morally sensitive and mature person."3 Biblical theology is so confining that it "can at best be the lean-to of prolonged illusion, not the sturdy dwelling of honest faith and thought."4 The Judeo-Christian theologies that "cramp" this concept "must be mostly crushed and abandoned."5
Another universalist of prominence, Dr. John A. T. Robinson, also rejects the evangelical view of Scripture. He believes that theological assertions about the beginning and end of things are couched in myth. Myth, however, is not the antithesis of scientific fact (such as legend and fairy tales), but rather is a sort of working picture. Something like a scientific formula is used to explain or describe what cannot be verified by sense experience. In Scripture, myth is something like a novel or script cartoon. The myth form is used "for the purpose of translating its fundamental understanding of God . . . into terms of the primal and ultimate, where it must apply and yet where direct evidence is, in the nature of the case, unobtainable.
"Their truth does not depend on the mythical representations themselves being scientifically or historically accurate. Neither the myths of Genesis nor of Revelation set out to be historical reconstructions,.i.e., literal accounts of what did or what will happen. As history, they may be entirely imaginary, and yet remain theologically true."6
Rejecting the authority of Scripture except as its assertions commend themselves to their minds, Robinson and Ferre do not seem to realize that "truth" discovered in this fashion may have no more authority than the human intellect that labels it true.
B. Universalists tend to disregard or show contempt for Scripture. They consider reason and their moral sense more authoritative than the Bible. Hardly any are zealous to substantiate their theology with Scripture. They say that Scripture nowhere affirms that the suffering of the lost shall be everlasting; or that Scriptural "proof" of this theory is not too much to be depended upon. If the passages containing the words damn, hell, and everlasting were removed from the Bible, nobody would think of believing in everlasting torment. Further, they say, the original meaning and use of these three words does not justify the meaning that evangelicals have attached to them. An effort is then made to explain away stern dark words, the result being the same as removing them from the Bible. Examples:
1. Eternity: "Eternity is no matter of stretched-out-time, but of fulfilled time."7
2. Hell: "Eternal Hell is naturally out of the question both as sub-justice and sub-love. No human judge has a right to inflict infinite punishment for finite transgression.8
"Hell means frustration of life and denial of fellowship with the satisfaction of fulfillment and the pain of self-punishment attendant upon them respectively. The hardest task for heaven but its final glory is to empty hell.9
"The very conception of an eternal bell is monstrous and an insult to the conception of last things in other religions, not to mention the Christian doctrine of God’s sovereign love. Such a doctrine would either make God a tyrant, where any human Hitler would be a third-degree saint, and the concentration camps of human torture, the King’s picnic grounds. That such a doctrine could be conceived, not to mention believed, shows how far from any understanding of the love of God many people once were and, alas, still are."10
"As far as the final issue of God’s purpose is concerned, there can be only one outcome. All things must be summed up in Christ because in principle, all things already are. Hell is an ultimate impossibility because already there is no one outside Christ."11
3. Punishment after death: Ethelbert Stauffer and Ferre admit to some punishment after death that is not arbitrary or vindictive, but remedial and limited as to duration. They picture it as a kind of purgatory.
Ferre, for instance, believes in punishment beyond death, for "hell is the moralization of the future life in that no one gets to heaven or `gets off easy’ if he persists in defying God." It is an intensification of suffering and sorrow, and Ferre is confident that it will be adequate to cause "the sinner to know that the strange country is not good for him," and then he will come to himself enough to want to go back to the Father and home.
And according to Robinson: "The New Testament continually stresses the need for decision for Christ here and now and without delay, but it does not give to the moment of death the overriding significance which it later acquired. On the one hand, it asserts that a man must make up his mind `now, while it is called today.’ It does not say `anytime before death’. . . it never dogmatizes to the extent of saying that after death there is no further chance."12
These men assume a post-mortem "probation" and set up a standard of retribution unknown to the Scriptures, namely, not according to deeds, but according to needs.
C. A more prevalent practice among universalists is to stress the hopeful and wonderfully attractive passages of Scripture. Yet in this they are exegetically unsound since they employ the proof-text method to arrive at conclusions to the detriment and even denial of equally clear Scriptural teachings about judgment. God’s love and will are the golden threads that run throughout Scripture, they assert.
Such passages as these are magnified. "God who wills that all men should be saved" (1 Tim. 2:4). "Who wills that all men should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). "And I, if I be lifted up will draw all men unto myself" (John 12:32 ). "All flesh shall see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:6) . "His grace bringing salvation to all men" (Titus 2:11). "We trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men" (1 Tim. 4:10).
"He is the propitiation not for our sins only, but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2). "He was manifested that He might destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3:8). "He shall overcome the strong man armed (the devil) and take away his armour and divide the spoils" (Luke 11:21-22) . "The time of the restitution of all things" (Acts 3:21). "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive . . . Then cometh the end . . . when all things have been subjected unto Him . . . Then shall the Son also be subjected unto Him that put all things under Him that God may be all in all" (1 Cor. 15:22-28).
UNIVERSALISM’S VIEW OF REVELATION
Evangelicals maintain that God has given man a supernatural revelation. It is a "discovery by God to man of Himself, or of His will over and above what He has made known by the light of nature or reason."13 This revelation is unique and exclusive in its written form and in the person of Jesus Christ.
Universalism claims that God is too great, too unknowable, to reveal Himself in a single, once-for-all revelation. It revolts against a unique revelation in history, that God actually made Himself known in a particular person at a particular time.
If, however, God speaks in an infinite variety of ways, but never decisively, man is thrown back upon himself to determine how to reach ultimate truth. He then seeks through his reason or intuition to find the answers, and some universalists take this position.
Bishop Pike wrote in the Christian Century, "But as to that which can save, it is on the earth broader than any particular historical revelation, even the full revelation of Jesus Christ, but the kind of God I first believed in, who would limit salvation to a select group of people, is an impossible God. As to this God, I am now an Atheist."14
Nels Ferre said, "The first choice which seems obvious, is that the Christian faith alone is true and that all other religions are pagan and false. I reject this answer… Religion is essential to all and is God’s call to all people… There can no more be a Hindu, a Christian or a Bahai medicine of immortality than there can be a Chinese, Aryan or Indian cure for cancer."15
Dr. Woodbridge Johnson, chairman of the Department of Religion at Park College (Presbyterian), wrote an article entitled "Non-Christian Salvation" in The Journal of Bible and Religion (July, 1963), and stated "that since such meanings as saved and lost seem both absurd and immoral to the modern mind, they might well be described as Christian nonsense. Heaven is laughed at for connecting boredom or idleness, and hell because it turns God into a sadist. No man can be evil enough to deserve the latter fate." He goes on to say that "light is good in whatever lamp it burns."
And Nels Ferre states, "Strong strands in traditionalistic theology are immoral in their conception and repulsive to any sensitive and mature person."16
"A Jewish-Christian mythology cannot speak authentic words of salvation to confident and honest modern men."17
UNIVERSALISM’S VIEW OF GOD
Almost alluniversalists base their doctrine upon their concept of God as a God of love. To do this, certain teachings of Scripture about the nature of God are stressed to the detriment and even denial of other equally clear teachings of Scripture on the same subject. Since universalists cannot conceive of a God who would condemn any of His creatures to eternal punishment and find it hard to respect such a God, they conclude that God would not do such a thing. They insist that the perfection of divine love precludes everlasting punishment, no matter what the Bible may say. If any part of humanity were consigned to eternal perdition, it would reveal the divine love as imperfect and non-all-embracing.
In effect, the universalist is guilty of patterning God after himself, equating divine with human love. He therefore concludes that since he himself would not confine any human being, no matter how perverse, to eternal suffering, neither is God capable of such retribution. Dr. Robinson is a prime example of this. He makes all the things connected with man’s ultimate destiny hinge upon his personal view of the nature of God. If anything in Scripture does not fit his view, then it is labeled as a presupposition "of a particular age and place and is not integral to… truth."18
"The God I believe in, and the God I see in Christ, could not be all in all in these conditions; such victory could not be the victory of the God of love. The truth of universalism is not the peripheral topic of speculation for which it has been often taken. If God is what ultimately He asserts Himself to be, then how He vindicates himself as God and the nature of his final Lordship is at the same time the answer of what He essentially is."19
"Indeed every statement of Christian eschatology, whether of the end of the person or of the world, is an inference from some basic truth in its doctrine of God, and must be judged and tested accordingly. False ideas of the last things are direct reflections of inadequate views of the nature of God."20
"Many equivocate this point or surrender their sense of truth to traditional or confessional faith, but either God is sovereign love or He is not. It does us no good to cry rationalism or philosophy. God is a God of truth and we must worship Him with all our minds. Before our own Lord each must stand or fall. For this reason we must be unequivocally emphatic. If He is sovereign love, the question as to the outcome is completely closed. Love will win unconditional surrender from all that is not love and God will rule everywhere and forever."21
Universalists have written a vast amount about the sovereign, radical love of God. Dr. A. W. Tozer, however, has pointedly commented on their concept of God as sovereign love this way:
"The Apostle John, by the Spirit, wrote, `God is love,’ and some have taken his words to be a definite statement concerning the essential nature of God. This is a great error. John was by those words stating a fact, but he was not offering a definition.
"Equating love with God is a major mistake which has produced much unsound religious philosophy and has brought forth a spate of vaporous poetry completely out of accord with the Holy Scriptures and altogether of another climate from that of historic Christianity.
"Had the Apostle declared that love is what God is, we would be forced to infer that God is what love is. If literallv God is love, then literally love is God, and we are, in all duty, bound to worship love as the only God there is. If love is equal to God, then God is only equal to love, and God and love are identical. Thus, we destroy the concept of personality of God and deny outright all His attributes save one, and that one we substitute for God.
"The words `God is love’ mean that love is an essential attribute of God. Love is something true of God, but it is not God. It expresses the way God is in His unitary being,as do the words holiness, justice, faithfulness, and truth. Because God is immutable, He always acts like Himself; and because He is a Unity, He never suspends one of His attributes in order to exercise another."22
"Neither, however, should one simply assume as some do, that the nature of God and special character of Biblical redemption are essentially incompatible with a limited salvation. For to do so is not only to build upon a weak exegetical foundation but, also, to neglect those explicit scriptural statements which belie the assumption. The contention, therefore, that one attribute of God (love) must ultimately triumph over all other attributes (justice, righteousness, holiness) and over every power or will of demon or man to reject this love must be recognized as only assumption."23
UNIVERSALISM’S HUMANISTIC VIEW OF MAN
The proponents of this doctrine measure the slow process of missionary evangelism against the exploding world population. Modern medicine and the introduction of wide-scale sanitation are having a boomerang effect. Pagan populations are increasing at a geometric ratio. India’s population increases twelve million a year. Last year the earth’s population increased by 63,000,000. The question is, Are we to write off these countless people and proclaim them lost? Or are we to write them all in with the generous doctrine of universalism?
"If we write them off, then this reduces Christianity to a small band among the earth’s millions. It also means that the lives of the vast throngs of heathen are meaningless, for meaningfulness is found only in Christ. To write them all in means that every life is meaningful even though lived without the consciousness of the saving work of Christ."24
Dr. D. T. Niles does that in his book, Upon the Earth. He writes them all in. "I… keep always in the foreground of my thought the fact that all those to whom I am privileged to speak about my Lord are already one with me in His saving ministry. I believe Him and confess Him, they do not: and yet the essential facts of the Gospel remain true for them as for me.
God made us.
God loves us.
Jesus died for us.
Our trespasses are not counted.
When we die we shall go to Him who will be our judge.
"These affirmations are true of all men and for all men whether they know them or not, like them or not, accept them or not."
At Luther Theological Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, Dr. Niles stated: "In every community there are those who bear His name. The firstfruits are only the guaranty that all belong to Him. Our primary concern is not that when a man dies he shall go to heaven but that each man shall be concerned about his society, his world-in India the caste system, in America the race question, etc."
H. Vernon White blatantly proclaims a humanistic theology. "The center of concern for a Christian program of activity and service is not Christ but humanity. The Christian mission does not exist primarily to get more people to acknowledge Christ as Lord, to follow Him instead of Buddha or Mohammed or some other Saviour."25 "Christian missions like God’s love are thus man-centered."26
UNIVERSALISM’S EFFECTS ON MISSIONARY IMPETUS
New universalism can have only an adverse effect upon the missionary program and its impetus.
A. It cannot help but blunt evangelistic effort and destroy the urgency of preaching to the lost. This seems undeniable. If a man is convinced that sooner or later all men will be saved, he cannot consistently urge sinners to repent and believe in Jesus for the remission of sins, on penalty of being everlastingly banished. Nor can he preach passionately as Paul did: "Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20) .
B. The propelling quality of genuine, compassionate concern for those who have never believed or have never heard the Gospel would be absent if it were not believed they were in imminent danger.
C. It robs the church of the urgency to witness in order to bring about the return of Christ and the consummation of His victory. The final end of the church age depends upon the universal proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom
(Matt. 24:14)-not by the success of the preaching but by the fact of preaching "in the whole world".
D. Simply to inform all men in all parts of the world that they are in fact redeemed might evoke desire and willingness to obey the great commission of Jesus, but statistics provide sufficient evidence to the contrary.
E. Universalism cannot help but quench the Holy Spirit, whose work is to give powerful impulses to witness.
1. Rejection of the trustworthiness, authority, and illumination of the Holy Spirit-breathed Scriptures in favor of one’s own reason, intuition, and moral sense can do no other than grieve the Spirit.
2. In denying any place for judgment passages, one rejects the Holy Spirit’s work "to reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment" (John 16:8). When the Holy Spirit is quenched and grieved, missionary zeal and witnessing power (His special work) cannot be accomplished in the church.
F. Universalists obliterate the glory of God, first by patterning God after themselves and then by making man the goal of the redemptive mission. In the language of Ephesians, however, the goal of missions is the "praise of His glory."
In 1906, Dr. Augustus H. Strong, writing the preface to his monumental Systematic Theology, stated:
"We seem upon the verge of a second Unitarian defection, that will break up churches and compel secessions, in a worse manner than did that of Charming and Ware a century ago. American Christianity recovered from that disaster only by vigorously asserting the authority of Christ and the inspiration of the Scriptures. We need a new vision of the Saviour like that which Paul saw on the way to Damascus and John saw on the Isle of Patmos, to convince us that Jesus is lifted above space and time, that his existence antedated creation, that he conducted the march of Hebrew history, that he was born of a virgin, suffered on the cross, rose from the dead, and now lives forevermore, the Lord of the universe, the only God with whom we have to do, our Saviour here and judge hereafter. Without a revival of this faith our churches will become secularized, mission enterprise will die out, and the candlestick will be removed out of its place as it was with the seven churches of Asia, and as it has been with the apostate churches of New England."
1. Nels F. S. Ferre, The Atonement and Missions (London: LMS, 1960), p. 30. 2. Ibid., p. 5.
3. Ibid., p. 6.
4. Ibid., p. 13.
5. Ibid., p. 30.
6. J. A. T: Robinson, In The End God, (London: James Clark Co., 1958), p. 34.
7. Ferre, oh. cit., p. 29.
11. J. A. T. Robinson op. cit., p. 119.
12. Ibid., p. 32.
13. Pardington, Outline Studies in Christian Doctrine, 1). 29.
14. The Christian Century, December 21, 1960.
15. The Pulpit, September, 1961.
16. Ferre, op. cit., p. 6.
17. Ibid., p. 13.
18. J. A. T. Robinson, op. cit., p. 35.
19. Ibid., p. 102.
20. Ibid., p. 31.
21. Nels Ferre, The Christian Understanding of God (New York: Harper, 1951), pp. 219, 220, 224, 225, 227f, 230cf, 240.
22. A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, pp. 104, 105.
23. Edwin D. Roels, God’s Mission, p. 73.
24. Bernard Ramm, Eternity August, 1964.
25. H. Vernon White, A Theology for Christian Mission, (New York: Millet Clark and Co.)., p. 79.
26. Ibid., p. 92.
Copyright © 1965 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.