Universalism?

Thought common in Evangelical circles, it seems to me, tries to erect a cage around God. 

How so? 

Because it seems to say that there is only one correct way to think, and only one right way to believe; it places one ‘correct' interpretation on scripture and asserts that this is the only correct interpretation. In so doing it tries to make God fit in a particular box, and denies the possibility of God doing things differently - by doing so it tries to constrain Him to stay in the box it has constructed...

The box is also constructed in such a way that only a limited number of people - those who ‘profess’ (think, say, and do) the 'right' things (as defined by those 'inside the box') - are on the inside… All others are therefore condemned.

This seems both supremely arrogant and very limited. It’s limited in that it's a little like viewing a landscape from within a tunnel - what you see is beautiful, but the vista is very constrained - literally 'tunnel-vision'. But with a little forward movement, one emerges from the tunnel and realises that the vision is a full 360° of loveliness. There are many more than just one view of God. Other Christian traditions are just as valid - and, indeed, often combine with our own to afford one a better, wider, view of God and His love. How can we say otherwise, without opening up the possibility that 'those outside' might say the same of our beliefs with equal validity?

God doesn't fit into any box. However big the box you try to build, God is too big (and too loving) to fit in it. 

God has no limits. 

That's scary. 

Why? 

It’s scary because we can't understand or constrain Him; we can't force Him to fit our limited vision.

Jesus said "I came not to condemn the world, but to save the world." John 12:47

I've never heard a statement so all-encompassing; so inclusive. Nor, I suggest, have you. What we have to allow for, is that, frighteningly, God might just mean exactly what He says. If His primary motivation is, indeed, love, is He going to accept that the vast majority of his creation is marred and, according to one interpretation of His words, destined to be condemned? God is bigger, and way more loving, than that. There is no compromise in those words. They do not say '...save the world, except the bits which don't say the right words, or believe the right things.' I cannot say how that 'saving the world’ comes about, in the light of some other parts of scripture (which can seem quite condemnatory and constraining) but if, as it says in John's first letter, 'God is love' then there has to be a way.

Jesus also said:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

In Matthew's gospel we find Jesus uttering these words:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. Matthew 7: 13-14

Those are tough words. And they're quite hard to reconcile with our first quotation from John, once we consider the depth of God's love for his creation. But there we go with boxes again, and our limited human understanding. One statement reads as though it is all-encompassing; the other two are pretty exclusive. They're hard, if not impossible, to reconcile.

Rob Bell, Richard Rohr and others associated with the more liberal aspects of the 'emerging church' movement are what one might term 'universalists' - they hold that everyone will be saved, ultimately, whether they believe in Jesus' death and resurrection or not. I think whether that’s true or not depends largely on how we interpret those words from John 14:6 above - i.e. what, exactly, does ‘through me’ mean? Does it mean that we have to have faith in order to be saved (as the more ‘mainstream' evangelical churches would maintain)? Or does it mean (as Bell and others seem to believe) that everyone will be saved because of Jesus’ death, regardless of belief - it’s something which had to happen to reconcile man to God, whether we believe in it or not? That, in turn, raises questions of whether or not we truly have free will (but let’s not open that particular can of worms right now - okay?).

God is both a loving God and a holy God. These two things are clear. However, on some level, they are hard for our finite human minds to reconcile. 

That means that God is mysterious. 

If He wasn't, if we could truly understand Him, I contend that He would not be God. We can experience Him, through His energies - the things He does, and says - but we cannot understand His 'essence' - i.e. that which makes Him, Him. That is beyond the capability of one of His created beings; to believe otherwise is to set ourselves up as His equals.

So we must content ourselves with accepting that some things are, and will remain, a mystery. That actually makes life simple. In the words of an old hymn:

Trust and obey, for there's no other way... (John H. Sammis, 1887)

I am content with that - living within the mystery.

Copyright © Phil Hendry, 2016