So why am I writing on universalism today? I wanted to write about it for a while, but the latest inspiration has been Bryan’s post, Universalism Tendencies. Bryan’s opening line pretty much summarizes his post: “I wonder if the universalism tendencies that many Christians have are at all tied to a dislike of evangelism and witnessing to others about the Gospel?”
I’m going to be all over the map here, so be forewarned!
Universalism has come up a lot in my life. A big reason is my Armstrongite heritage, which maintained that God will give all people an opportunity to be saved in the afterlife. In the Armstrongite scenario, a person is not bound for eternal hell simply because he failed to say the sinner’s prayer before he died, for God will give him another chance. And the Armstrongites often paraded themselves around as better than other Christians because of their belief in post-mortem salvation. “How can someone believe in a God who will torture people forever and ever?,” they asked. Or, as Garner Ted inquired on John Ankerberg’s show, “What sort of God would send a little Vietnamese girl to hell because a missionary had a flat tire?”
When I got more and more into evangelicalism, I departed from the Armstrongite perspective, and so I came to believe that we needed to get people saved in this life. I was still an annihilationist in that I thought God would destroy the unsaved rather than tormenting them without end. But I had somehow absorbed in my mind the idea that post-mortem opportunities for salvation were unbiblical: I held that God would judge those who did not accept Christ in this life.
I’ve talked in other posts about the practical consequences of this idea: guilt, anxiety, stress, questions about God’s love for each and every individual, etc. I mean, how can you ever relax if so many people around you are going to hell, and you’re somehow responsible for their fate, since God wants you to witness to them? And let me boldly ask this: Why are so many evangelicals as relaxed as they are? They go on with their picture-perfect, middle class, “happy happy” lives, with their kids and their dogs and their big houses and their gardens. How do they do that, holding the beliefs that they do? It makes absolutely no sense to me.
But there have been times when the salvation issue has touched me personally. I know at least two people who lost an unsaved friend or loved one. One was a relative of mine, whose friend committed suicide. And the other was a friend at school who lost his mother, and she was basically a-religious. In the former case, I had a conversation with another of my relatives, who said, “Many people tell me that he’s going to hell, but I think God will give him another chance. What do you think?” I had to honestly reply that I didn’t find that doctrine in the Bible (which I didn’t). And, when I talked with the relative who lost her friend, I tried to witness to her, telling her that those who don’t accept Christ will receive judgment after their deaths. She didn’t really get mad at me. She just replied with disappointment in her voice, “Oh, is that the way it is?”
In the case of my friend, another friend and I were praying for the soul of his unsaved mother. I asked if that was a legitimate thing to do, since she had already died in an unsaved state. “But we can always hope,” he replied. When I told yet another friend about this, he (an ultra-right wing fundamentalist) asked, “Can you pray for people after they die? I don’t think that you can.”
What if you’re preaching at the funeral of someone who was unsaved? It seems like many funerals try to preach people into heaven, whether or not they were even Christians. I had one relative who went to church once a year, if even then. But, at his funeral, the pastor said, “He was a member of Wesley Chapel, showing that he had a deep spiritual thirst.” I don’t remember such a thirst! Neither do many of his other relatives.
But my aunt once told me about a funeral where the person was actually preached into hell. The lady who died was not a churchgoer, and the pastor said, “I’m sure that right now she wishes she had done things differently.” On one hand, that’s rather inappropriate, since the aim of a funeral is to comfort the dead person’s friends and family, so implying she’s in hell is not exactly a propos. On the other hand, what he said was consistent with his understanding of the Bible. If he preached her into heaven, then he’d be untrue to his beliefs, wouldn’t he?
I don’t like the belief that only Christians will go to the good afterlife. I think that many evangelicals can be manipulative when they encourage people to sign on the dotted line, or, more accurately, say the “sinner’s prayer.” They become friends with unbelievers specifically to convert them, and that strikes me as disingenuous.
But what’s equally amazing to me is that many evangelicals do not do this. They think that just being a good person who’s nice to unbelievers will somehow draw them to Christ. But that rarely happens. I go to a Jewish school that has a lot of evangelicals, and one of them told me that being dogmatic can turn the Jewish students off from Christ. Another said that he came to the school in “missionary mode,” which (for him) means honoring God with his lifestyle and hopefully attracting others to Christianity. But I wonder how many converts each of them made. I’d venture to say few, or maybe none. It’s hard to get people to change their religion. And a Christian being nice won’t necessarily draw people to Christianity, since there are nice people in all belief systems.
Universalists also get on my nerves. I have one relative who believes that people cannot be lost in this life. He once told me, “You know, a lot of Christians preach about grace, but they don’t understand grace. They think God will send people to hell for not getting it right in this life.” He has a point, but he’s wrong about many Christians. It’s not that they hate grace. They simply don’t see post-mortem salvation in the Bible. And they don’t believe they should make up an understanding of God that is more palatable to their desires. They accept what is written (according to their interpretation).
So where do I stand on universalism? I’ll discuss that in a coming post.