Friday, May 27, 2005

Universalism, or How an Unrepentant Hitler Could Make it into Heaven

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.”

- C.S. Lewis – “The Great Divorce”

There was a rather startling op-ed piece in Wednesday night’s Gazette. Reverend Jim Darby, responding to an earlier letter to the Gazette about “basic tenets” of the Christian faith had this to say about the writer:

“He was especially concerned to point out that “The most basic tenet of the Christian faith is that there is only one way, one truth, and one life. (John 14:6)”

The passage Reverend Darby cited follows, along with John 14:7, for contextual purposes:

John 14:6-7 (New International Version)

6 “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you really knew me, you would know[
a] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him”

Jesus’ answer was in response to a question from one of his disciples, Philip, who wanted to know where Jesus was going, which was heaven, and how he could even possibly know how he himself could get to the place where Jesus was going.

That’s the context. I believe it’s a statement of Jesus’ exclusivity and it’s clearly a basic tenet of the Christian faith.

Reverend Darby objected, noting that “God is love” ( I John 4:8b) is the most basic tenet of the faith.

I’ll cite that passage, along with verses one through seven, for contextual purposes:

1 John 4:1-8 (New International Version)

1 John 4

Test the Spirits

1 “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
4You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. 6We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit[
a] of truth and the spirit of falsehood.”

It seems clear from this passage that love, too, is a basic tenet of the Christian faith. But, embedded in the text there is also a test of spirits, answering the question “How can I tell if someone is speaking on behalf of God?” Given that context, it affirms the exclusivity of Jesus (see verse 3).

Nevertheless, Reverend Darby closed his comments with this:

“For me (my emphasis added), Christ is the only way for my (my emphasis added) salvation. I cherish the Scriptures that speak of Christ in this way as sacred texts written by Christians, for Christians, in a hostile world. My life is given to the service of Christ. We share many things in common. Where we differ on this point is that I will not extrapolate my personal faith to a declaration that limits the sovereignty of God.”

Beyond the noble language employed, there are some critical, eternally relevant, questions that need to be asked, and answered.

After reading the op-ed, the first questions that came to mind were these – Does the Christian claim that Jesus is the only way to heaven exclude love for one’s neighbor? Does this claim amount to bigotry?

The answer to both is clearly, “No!”

I’ll cite my reasons from personal experience. I recall vividly while I was in Vietnam that most people seemed quite amused with the fact that I was destroying my life. And why not. I was quite amusing in those days, fun to listen to. As I look back on it now I see that most people I knew then cared little about what I was doing with my life and where I was going. One of the few who did care was a fella’ named Tim Harrington. He came to me once and just laid it right on the line. “Dillon,” he said. “You’re a real joke. You think all these people are laughin’ with you, but they’re not. They’re just laughing at you. You’re pathetic.” The words, of course, enraged me. But he didn’t stop there. “I’m one of the only people who really cares about you. Do you know that? You’re wasting your life. You’re a real jerk and it doesn’t have to be that way.”

It took me nearly a year, along with the help of Paul Vartenisian, another of the men who really cared, to see that what Tim Harrington was telling me was the truth. He and Paul played vital roles in my return to sanity. The others? They just laughed.

I ask you, who really loved me back then? Was it the people who didn’t want to “confront” me with the truth? Or was it Tim Harrington? The answer is obvious.

Now, to the question of the exclusivity of Jesus Vis a Vis bigotry. One of my closest work relationships was with a fellow engineer, a devout Muslim, while I was living in New Jersey. He was a new employee and it was my task/privilege to help mentor him. I recall many of the wonderful times we had together and I learned a great deal about him. As a devout Muslim, he acted out of a firm belief that his day to day work was an act of worship. Who would, or could not, admire that? I also greatly admired his ethics. And he, in the same manner, admired me. That relationship grew to the point where we often discussed matters of great import. As a Palestinian he often spoke of his dream of a day when there would be a Palestinian homeland. I told him that I shared that dream, and further dreamed of a Middle-East that would be a secure home to Israelis and Palestinians living in peace. Most important of all, I shared my faith with him. I loved this man enough to tell him the truth; love compelled me to do so. I could not, in good conscience, say that I loved him like a brother, and then not tell him what I believed to be true. He listened, but never came to a point of decision. Never once did he tell me that my belief that Jesus was the only way to heaven was bigotry. He rejected it, but not once did he ever accuse me of not caring about him.

There was a time when he left open the possibility that I, as a “person of the Book,” might one day make it to heaven. But he knew that he too had to be true to his faith, as I had to be to mine. After all, his “way” was every bit as exclusive as mine.

He once said that “One day this question will be answered.” I told him that that was only half true. Sure enough, one day we will all find out. But, just as surely, Jesus made the startling claim that He is the Way. He answered the question! And, he proved that He was correct in making that claim by His life, death, burial, and resurrection. That is normative Christian belief!

There’s a part of me that would like to believe that, in the end, we’ll all make it. But that’s wishful thinking, a Freudian illusion, as Norm Geisler once put it. Reverend Darby’s mistaken belief stems from the notion that “love will conquer all” and that all will be saved. It’s the notion that there are many paths, and each one is as viable as the next. I have one. You might have another. In the end we’ll all get to heaven by following our own paths. It’s the view, called universalism, that some have just as mistakenly held throughout Church history.

The view does not hold up in the face of truth. If we all get there in the end, it renders Jesus’ life, His sacrifice, and His resurrection utterly meaningless. If Reverend Darby is right, then normative Christianity, its core truth, is also utterly meaningless:

1 Corinthians 15:13-17 (New Living Translation)

13 “For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. 14And if Christ was not raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your trust in God is useless. 15And we apostles would all be lying about God, for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave, but that can't be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. 16If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. 17And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless, and you are still under condemnation for your sins.”

This all comes for me at a time when I’ve expressed my belief that there are times when we need to compromise for the sake of unity within the national community. But there are also times when there is absolutely no room for compromise. This is indeed the case when it comes to the core belief that Jesus is the only Way to heaven, that He is the only one who can redeem man from his sinful plight.

There are times when the temptation to dispose of the truth for the sake of unity is very powerful. After all, I, and millions of other Christians, live and work every day with people within our own communities who woo us with the universalist message. But it’s an empty message, a message that says that there is no price tag on reconciliation. It’s a faulty message that opens heaven to an unrepentant Hitler or Pol Pot. It’s a message that tickles the intellect and the ego, but it has no power to redeem. In the end it’s nothing more than an empty illusion. The people I know, the people I see every day, the people I love, deserve more than that. They deserve to know the Truth!


Dr Mac said...

A masterpiece on this issue. I was likewise disturbed with Darby's piece. I commend you for taking the time to respond. I wish your/this response could be printed in the Gazette.

I grew up believing the "good old boy" mentality, however, by the Grace of God, I know the truth, I am set free, and there is NO compromise.

James Fletcher Baxter said...

God IS Love. He demonstrated it by sending His perfect Son into the world to pay the price of perfect Justice. God IS Justice. He is every bit as much a God of Justice as He is of Love -- or any other Virtue.

Other religions are man-made. Their inventors cannot even conceive of such virtue. Their contrived religion contains no god of justice; payment for sin, other than simply earning paradise by "being nice" (?) and going through various postures and utterances. Yeah. Sure.

Obviously, 'sin' is 'not too bad' if it can be done away by such whispy deeds. Their 'god' is not very good, either. Justice? Eternity? Human self-justification fiction cannot even come close to Truth.

The only God has made Himself and His Way available to every human being who ever lived.

"They are without excuse."

semper fidelis

BTW Our God is the only God. He never gave Himself a name since He is the only One of His kind and need not be distinguished from others. Peers? There are no 'others.' (Adjective-descriptives, yes! Name: No.)

Pastor Phil Morgan said...

Excellent piece you've written. Thank you. C.S.Lewis is brilliant on the subject in both "The Great Divorce" and "Mere Christianity".

Abraham said...

Whatever you call Him, he is.

Pastor Mike said...

A brilliant piece to read before my Sunday sermon on "Truth."

Wayne Leman said...

Phil, good to see your blog up on Blog Explosion again. I'm glad I got to read several of your recent posts. They are good. Keep telling the truth!