Packer lists four reasons that universalism is growing today.
1. Living in what have become multi-religious communities and rubbing shoulders regularly…with people of many faiths, we would like to tell ourselves that their religions are as good for them as ours is for us – which means that, whatever salvation is, it will finally be theirs as we hope it will finally be ours.
2. Few today are as clear as they need to be on the specifics of the Christian view and way of salvation and how it differs from what is prescribed and hoped for in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and other world faiths. So no problem is seen in treating all religions as one and on that basis taking universalism for granted..
3. With Christianity losing ground so fast in the West, it is reassuring to think that God will finally save all those who now shrug off Christianity as an irrelevance, and reassurance in the face of troubling facts is always welcome, at least to most people.
4. Establishing affirmative rapport with non-Christian faiths remains a main agenda item for liberal theologians, and that is a frame into which universalism naturally fits. Thus…universalism…will generate more interest in the future than it does now.
I have no doubt that the fact that the world has become a smaller place has aided in many things, including exposing many people to other world religions that would never have been exposed to them before. But, I think this is just a convenient excuse to use. A statement like this could be made about liberal theology, word of faith theology, Mormonism, and many more. This is definitely not unique to universalism.
His second point is nearly the same as the first, and my point then is nearly the same as my first point. Throughout Christian history this has been true. After all, isn’t this the excuse the Roman Catholic Church has given for the huge division between clergy and laity? The laity is too stupid, too common, or not “called of God” therefore those in power and leadership in the church must, for the good of the peasant class, tell them what to believe.
Packer says that Christianity is losing ground in the West, but never gives any explanations for that. Apparently, then, universalism is merely an opportunistic belief system that is capitalizing on the demise of Christianity. I know this is probably more than he believes, but it does seem to follow based on what he said. Again, universalism is not the cause of the demise, but I believe thinking people who have been so suppressed and oppressed by the modern Christian church are finally getting fed up with the treatment they have received. They are actually studying the Bible using many of the available modern tools at their disposal, and coming to conclusions that others before them could not have come to because of their societies and place in history.
I think that people are opting for universal salvation because they, like myself, are finding out that many Bible texts they have been taught for so many years are just flat wrong. So many things in the church are not what they have seemed for too long. I think people are waking up to the false teaching they have received and there is a disconnect between what they have been told and what they see. This is causing many questions and the answers are not being found in traditional denominationalism but in universal salvation.
Liberal theology can be blamed for a lot of things, including pluralism and the like, and many are following a more New Age focus and trying to find Jesus in anything and everything. I do agree that, as Packer says, it is “increasingly important that we should properly understand it [universalism] and soberly assess it by the light of the Bible.” That is what I have sought to do throughout this book review (as well as the last two years of my life) and I have seen the traditional view of hell and the end times and, for that matter, salvation as seriously in error, according to what is taught in the traditional church.
Packer says that all forms of universalism make the following claims:
1. Universalism alone does justice to the biblical revelation of the love of God, that is, of God as love…that one day God will be all in all.
2. Constantly implicit (though not always verbalized): Evangelism is not the prime task in the Christian mission, whatever….Matthew 28:19-20 might seem to indicate.
He says concerning number one, “that universalists claim any belief in the eternal loss and unending torment of any of God’s creatures makes God out to be a failure and something of a devil.” He further says that this is a bold claim and that it basically indicts most Christians’ beliefs and that most Christians are dishonoring God.
Of the second claim he says that universalists are basically out of the closet and out in the open with their beliefs. They are being more and more accepted as mainstream and this is a huge concern. He says the universalist believes the Christian mission should be radically altered in light of universalist eschatology.
I am not as strong in my belief as his first statement suggests. I have read many volumes of those who hold a strong belief like that, but I am not there. I do believe that universalism gets the love of God more right than many or most other theologies. I think all others are deficient but not devoid of the knowledge of the love of God. I truly believe that mainstream Christians need to seriously think, reflect, and study this whole idea of God being all in all, God restoring all things, and the whole concept of ECT (eternal conscious torment). If one would look at these biblical ideas from texts such as Rom 5, 1 Corinthians 15, Colossians 1, Philippians 2 and many others they might also re-think this whole idea of ECT in hell.
Regarding mission work and the Great Commission, at least for me, it takes pressure off of me and the focus off of me and puts it squarely where it belongs: on God and the saving work of Christ. When I talk to people now about God, salvation, the Bible, etc. I have a freedom in my thoughts to know that whatever I say concerning these things I know in the end God will overcome my shortcomings and frailties. He will acknowledge my loving effort for Him and will still open the minds of whom He chooses to in this life. He still sends preachers to help people understand that it is ultimately better to believe now (in this life) rather than later (after physical death). He still expects obedience from those who believe now. It still would be wrong and disobedient to not honor His commands. But the reason we do mission work is completely different compared to the reason most mainstream Christians do mission work. Universalists, I believe, do mission work to share the joy of the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, rather than the avoidance of hell in the afterlife.
There are whole segments of the Christian population that believe you must first show a person that they are a sinner and on their way to ECT in hell, and then when they are thoroughly scared, give them the Gospel and how to avoid ECT in hell. Ray Comfort and Living Waters ministries, of which Kirk Cameron has been a part of for years, espouses this very thing. Some very prominent theologians and pastors claim that until someone sees their sinfulness and their desperateness and despicable-ness as a wretched sinner in need of saving, they will never appreciate the Good News of Jesus Christ. For them it must be the negative first and then the positive. First you must, in essence, scare the “hell” out of them so they can then appreciate God’s love for them. Let me ask a serious question: How does this approach work with your kids? Do you,as a parent, threaten them with horrible things so they will come to love you, or love you more? I would ask you to try this one on for size: just like the Father, try overcoming your kids “evil” with good. Try loving your kids more despite the sins they commit. See what happens. Are you the person who believes that perfect love casts out fear? Are you the person who believes that love conquers all, that there is nothing greater than God’s love, that nothing can thwart His love, or overcome His love? Think about these things deeply today! Then take a look at your evangelistic methods and ask yourself how things are going and whether you need to make a change today!
I look so forward to sharing my beliefs on this subject and what I believe the Bible really says about it. I think Paul really gives great insight into this matter. My beliefs will have to wait for now.
Examining Universalism I: The Method of Assessment
As usual this portion of the review has gone longer than I expected. I do want to review the next section though. It covers 2-1/2 pages so hopefully it won’t take long to get through. He begins by saying that most universalists hold some common ground with orthodox Christians concerning studying the Scriptures. First, it is common that biblical teaching is from God and is viewed as true and trustworthy. The point of contention is seen in interpretation and application. He says interpretation must be context, author, and focus-specific. We must understand the thought-flow of the words used and not stretch them beyond their limits. If we do we will be reading into the text something that is not there. Second, writers of Scripture should not be assumed to contradict themselves. What they write in one place should harmonize with what they write elsewhere. And third, we must keep in mind the immediate point the author is trying to make and the effect he is wanting to produce in the readers.
Consequently, all of Scripture is in harmony with itself. Major themes should not contradict one another. The major thrust of Scripture should be seen in the events recounted by its authors and the doctrines espoused should adhere and promote God’s work and guiding of His creation towards His goal.
Packer says that everything that is said of God involves analogical (figurative, non-literal) use of human language. He says this is a given because although we are made in the image of God, we do not share His attributes with Him. Though we may love, He does not love like us because His love is perfect and ours is not. God is not defined in our finiteness nor our we defined in His infinite-ness. For example, just because God is called “father” does not mean “physical progenitor” and therfore He is not like earthly fathers in all respects.
Packer further states that we must remember that we can draw false inferences about God if we overlook these analogical words used to describe qualities inherent in God. For instance, if we say that a good father would never expose his son to such suffering as Jesus underwent on the cross, applying this to God the Father, we are casting on Him earthly father qualities that He does not possess being perfect and holy and loving.
Packer lays this groundwork to help explain away many universalists reading of Scripture that he believes violates this analogical principle. In Examining Universalism II: The Meaning of Salvation, the next section, we will see this in practice, according to Packer. I understand what Packer is driving at but will reserve judgment until I see concretely what he is talking about and the examples he uses of universalist misinterpretation of Bible verses leading to a wrong view of salvation and consequently hell.
I do believe most Christians understand that God is far different than us and that He is perfect and we are not. Most know they are not omnipotent or omnipresent, etc. Most Christians also, I believe, understand that finite, fallible humans and human language fail to fully communicate and describe who God is and what He is like. Most understand that God is spirit and doesn’t have hands or wings. Though many have not heard the term anthropomorphism (describing God using human characteristics) they do understand that God is not man, but man’s creator and therefore far beyond man’s comprehension. I look forward to exposing his next section to the reader.
Until then, God’s richest blessings to you!