Over the past few days, I’ve been blogging about Christian universalism, the belief that God will save everyone in the end. I’ve discussed this issue before, specifically when I interacted with Zondervan’s More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (search under “More than One Way” if you’re interested in my thoughts). What inspired my latest round of universalism posts was Bryan’s Universalism Tendencies, in which he asks if people believe in universalism because they don’t like to witness.
In prominent strands of evangelicalism, Christians are told that they need to witness in order to save people from hell. The Book of Romans is clear that the wrath of God is against all unrighteousness. Because all have sinned, everyone is subject to divine judgment, which means that they’re on their way straight to hell. But God has provided a solution, for Jesus Christ experienced God’s wrath in place of sinners when he died on the cross. And sinners need to receive Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf in order to be forgiven of their sins.
But, in order to believe in Christ’s sacrifice, they first need to know about it. As Paul asks in Romans 10:14, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (NRSV). And that’s why Christians need to witness–people are going straight to hell, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only thing that can save them.
But what if you don’t share the Gospel with someone and he goes to hell as a consequence? Will God hold you responsible because you didn’t witness? There are Christians who answer with an unequivocal “yes.” Their reason is Ezekiel 3:18:
“If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give them no warning, or speak to warn the wicked from their wicked way, in order to save their life, those wicked persons shall die for their iniquity; but their blood I will require at your hand.”
According to this passage, God holds the prophet responsible if he doesn’t warn the Israelites of divine judgment. And Christian exclusivists apply that passage to all Christians: God has declared that he will judge each and every human being for sin. If we don’t warn them and give them an opportunity to repent, then they will experience eternal torment (or annihilation, if you’re an Adventist). And God will hold us responsible for their fate.
But what exactly will God do when he holds us responsible? Will he send us to hell? A lot of evangelicals will say “no,” even if they’re the ultra-conservative exclusivist types. The reason is that Paul talks a lot about salvation by grace through faith, apart from works (Romans 4; Ephesians 2:8-9). Evangelicals take that concept pretty seriously (to say the least), so they deny that a failure to witness can disqualify a believer from heaven. The believer believes, after all, and that’s the only requirement for salvation.
One person in a Bible study group said that God will make us confront every single person we should have shared the Gospel with, but didn’t. And so God will sentence the unbeliever to eternal hell for his sins, and the unbeliever will look at us with shock: “Why didn’t you tell me about this?,” he’ll say.
Some may assert that we won’t get certain rewards if we fail to witness. One evangelical friend called them “jewels in his crown.” According to him, all believers will receive a crown because they’re saved by grace through faith. But they’ll get jewels in their crowns if they do good works. Wow, that’s something to anticipate! I guess it beats roasting in a fire forever and ever!
And then some think that they’ll be in heaven for all eternity with literal blood on their hands. I once read a “testimony” by a fundamentalist who became an atheist. She said that she was afraid to witness in her fundamentalist days, so she envisioned herself in heaven, trying to hide her hands from everyone else because of the blood that was on them.
Ezekiel explains more of what he means in Ezekiel 33:1-9. V 9 is crucial: “But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.” For Ezekiel, the prophet who fails to warn others will die in the destruction that God sends. Ezekiel doesn’t wrestle with the issue of “How will God hold a saved person accountable for not witnessing to others?” because he’s not talking about eternal judgment and salvation. He’s discussing God’s temporal, historical punishment of Judah.
But do Christians still have a responsibility to warn everyone about hell? A lot of evangelicals would say “yes.” At the Adventist church I attended in Massachusetts, one of the pastors said that, if a man is going down a road that is dangerous, we have a moral responsibility to warn him. It’s just the right thing to do.
Radio personality Harold Camping is about as fire-and brimstone as you can get, yet he denied that God will punish us for not witnessing. Rather, he interpreted Ezekiel 3:18 to mean that, if we do witness, God wants us to mention hell. None of this “God loves you and has a plan for your life” stuff, as far as Camping is concerned. For him, the Gospel is about salvation from judgment.
But telling people about hell is hard to do. We don’t want to appear closed-minded. We don’t like being offensive. It’s a matter of social skills! As I’ve said, I attend a Jewish school that has a lot of evangelicals. I’ll bet you money that the evangelicals there do not tell the Jewish students that they’re going to hell! If they do witness, they do so by being nice people, or by talking about how God works in their lives, or whatever.
Plus, a lot of people don’t put warning others about hell in the same category as warning them about a bad road. A bad road is tangible and verifiable, whereas Christian beliefs about hell are often viewed as one perspective about the afterlife amidst a sea of multiple perspectives. Why should people believe in our view as opposed to (say) reincarnation, or a religion that posits other requirements for entering the good afterlife (e.g., a generally righteous life)?
The evangelical exclusivist view places the weight of people’s salvations on our itty-bitty shoulders. In a coming post, I’ll wrestle more with that.