Christian universalism is the belief that Jesus’ work will ultimately save everyone, including those who don’t believe in him. In my experience, the biggest objection Christians have to this is the Great Commission:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)
Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. (Mark 16:15)
…that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations… (Luke 24:47)
The argument goes something like this: if all will be saved, why is Jesus telling us to go out and make disciples/spread the Gospel? Clearly it was Jesus’ wish that we go out and save souls. With a “going to heaven when I die/salvation from eternal damnation to hell” view of the Gospel this question makes complete sense.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, but Gregory MacDonald’s book, The Evangelical Universalist, argues that in the end Jesus does save everyone. However, the author also appears (though I haven’t read the book yet) to believe in a literal hell as well as the need for evangelism (he considers himself Evangelical). How can this be?
I had a bit of an epiphany yesterday in this regard. It may, in fact, be what MacDonald will argue in his book as well. If, as I suggest in a previous post, the Gospel is much broader than “my ticket to heaven”; if the Gospel is not only about the forgiveness of sins, but also about God restoring creation, justice, truth, beauty and spirituality; if Jesus has invited us to participate in the Kingdom of God here and now; then MacDonald’s position could make sense.
The purpose of all three versions of the Great Commission is not, by all appearances, “saving souls” in the “saving from hell” or “becoming religious” sense of the term. Matthew’s gospel says “go and make disciples”—that is, teach others to live in the Kingdom way, as followers of Christ; Mark says “proclaim the Gospel”, which, as we’ve seen, may well be a much broader term than many of us have previously envisioned; Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed”—repentance, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is not just “being sorry for your sins”, it is turning away from our current allegiances and way of living (which gives it a similar meaning as “discipleship”).
Within this broader understanding of the Gospel, it is plausible for Jesus to tell his disciples to evangelize even if salvation is ultimately universal as there is still Kingdom work and living to do here on earth. The Kingdom of God is at hand, proclaimed Jesus, it is now: live the Kingdom way and teach others to do so as well.
This may seem heretical to some of my readers. I don’t hold this view at this point, so don’t lynch me (by removing my from your RSS reader)—I am just thinking out loud. But I am, as Brian McLaren (I think) called it, a hopeful universalist. I’m not sure why Christians (particularly Evangelicals) are so hostile to the notion of Christian universalism. In this frameworkd, Christ is still “the way, the truth and the life” (but saves all). Isn’t that a beautiful notion? It may, of course, conflict with the justice of God and a whole host of other theological points, but it’ll be an interesting subject to read and think on.
I’m looking forward to getting back into MacDonald’s book. I had already read the first two chapters but was distracted by other books several months ago and have not read it since. As I say, MacDonald calls himself an Evangelical, and he approaches the notion of universalism from within the historical Christian views of salvation and hell (i.e. Calvinism, Armenianism, etc) and from a Biblical perspective. I’ve failed at every other attempt at blogging through a book, but I’ll give it another go with The Evangelical Universalist (once I’ve finished reading it).