Thursday, November 8, 2012

Universalism: Its Appeal and Its Error

 Universalism, the notion that we will all go to heaven, is re-entering the church with renewed vigor. Its proponents argue:

  1. We are all created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). God is love and would never subject any of His children to eternal punishment.
  1. The idea that some are “in” and some are “out” is pharisaic and detestable. Instead, Jesus received all who came to Him and denounced the holier-than-thou spirit of pharisaism.
  1. We are saved by grace. What right do we have to point the finger at others and exclude them from grace!
There are also the more secularized forms of these arguments:

  1. We are all part of the same human family. We therefore should all enjoy the same rights and benefits. Exclusivity has no place in a modern and enlightened society. Instead, we need to work for inclusion.
  1. It is sheer prejudice that claims that some humans are more deserving than others and therefore are entitled to more. This kind of prejudice should not be tolerated.
  1. If God is loving, He would find a way to include all His creation.
In light of these challenges, it is imperative that we re-examine Scripture and ask ourselves, “Who is God and what does He want – if anything - from us?”

A good place to start is with Jesus. Although He received all who came to Him, He had His requirements, which determined inclusion and exclusion. He taught more on eternal judgment – the ultimate in inclusion and exclusion - than anyone else. Here are a few of these references just from the Gospel of Matthew: Matthew 10:28; 13:12-15; 13:30; 13:38-42; 13:49-50; 15:13; 16:26; 18:7-9; 18:34-35; 21:41; 21:44; 22:13; 23:33; 24:50-51; 25:30; 25:32-33; 25:41; 25:46; 26:24.

In this regards, Jesus’ warnings are consistent with the rest of Scripture. They give us a picture of a God who hates sin and self-righteousness. Jeremiah, a Prophet of Israel, is reflective of the rest of Scripture. He highlights why God is angry at His people Israel, who had rejected their God:

  • They did not ask, 'Where is the Lord, who brought us up out of Egypt…I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce...The priests did not ask, 'Where is the Lord?'…The prophets prophesied by Baal, following worthless idols…see if there has ever been anything like this: Has a nation ever changed its gods?...But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols…My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns [instead of the living waters], broken cisterns that cannot hold water. (Jeremiah 2:6-13)
God, and this includes Jesus, has always made distinctions regarding who is “in” and who is “out.” Clearly, those who reject Him are “out.” Although He pleads for their return, He will punish, but not proactively. Instead, He will allow Israel to be punished by their own choices. Eventually, after we continue to reject Him, He removes His protective hands from us, allowing us to freely pursue own desires (Romans 1:24, 26, 28):

  • “Your wickedness will punish you; your backsliding will rebuke you. Consider then and realize how evil and bitter it is for you when you forsake the Lord your God and have no awe of me." (Jeremiah 2:19)
Why does He want them to consider these things? So that they will turn away from their sins by acknowledging them – repent! But this is the very thing that Israel refuses to do. Instead, Israel erected cisterns of self-righteousness:

  • [Israel] you say, 'I am innocent; he is not angry with me.' But I will pass judgment on you because you say, 'I have not sinned.'” (Jeremiah 2:35)
Instead of sincerely acknowledging our sins, we justify them – an abomination in God’s sight (Luke 16:15). God never required His people to accomplish great feats of self-sacrifice to merit inclusion – just an acknowledgement of our sin before our Creator and Redeemer:

  • "Return, faithless Israel…I will frown on you no longer, for I am merciful…I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt--you have rebelled against the Lord your God." (Jeremiah 3:12-13)
Clearly, God cares about sin. Sin separates us from God and creates exclusion. Yes, there is inclusion and exclusion, but this is easily remedied. However, the human race – even the priests and prophets - rejects God’s pleas and seeks to build their own cisterns. In fact, this is the message of all Scripture, leaving little room for universalism and a standard-less God.

However, we also need to face the secular challenge from those who have little respect for Scripture. So here are some considerations:

It’s therefore important that we take a close look at universalism and its implications:

  1. Universalism makes salvation into an “entitlement” program with all of the negative psychological baggage that goes along with it.
  1. Universalism makes life pointless. If everyone is saved at the end, there is nothing important to learn here – no reason to go to church or study the Bible.
  1. If our lives entail no eternal consequences, then life becomes pointless, apart from having a good time. It’s like a teacher giving all her students an “A+” regardless of their performance. This deprives us of the motivation to do right, especially when we see evil prospering.
  1. All the major religions recognize that there will be eternal consequences for our inhumanity, suggesting that God has written this truth into all our hearts (Romans 1:32).
  1. There is no adequate rationale for moral living or for seeking God without eternal consequences. It makes more sense to get whatever we can out of life if we’re all going to the same eternal home (1 Cor. 15:19). Studies even reveal that those who believe in these consequences are more apt to act in moral ways.
  1. If God is so benign and doesn’t want to see any suffer eternally, why doesn’t He model life on earth in accordance with His final heavenly plan? Why the discontinuity? If any form of eternal punishment is disagreeable to Him, why not also in the temporal world? If God has rejected the idea of eternal judgment, why has He not also ruled against the occurrence of disease, warfare, and tsunamis? Instead, continuity would suggest that we will also have to endure consequences in the next life.
  1. A universalistic God has little interest in justice and victimization if He refuses to do anything about them. Such a God would be an offense to our own sense of justice. This would undermine all of our pursuit after justice. Chaos would necessarily result.
  1. Universalism communicates the wrong message—our behavior doesn’t matter and God doesn’t care. Why then should we? Life would become brutal and unlivable if we tried to model ourselves after such a God.
  1. If we are created in the image of God and therefore have a powerful sense of justice and retribution, shouldn’t we also expect that God would have the same mind-set? If God lacked such punitive concerns, then our preoccupation with law and punitive sanctions would be something displeasing to God. Therefore, if we truly believe in a universalistic God, we should try to model our society after Him and rid ourselves of courts, prisons, fines, and even failing grades.
  1. We need suffering and consequences to become the compassionate, humble, and understanding people God wants us to be. Evidently, consequences for sin are not alien to God’s plan.
  1. Knowing that God will eventually right the wrongs that are done gives us the emotional freedom to love others by committing our concerns and longings for ultimate justice to God. Without experiencing radical victimization, we Westerners have become quite comfortable and fail to appreciate the fact that the imposition of justice brings psychological closure, which enables us to move on.
  1. A God concerned about eternal consequences proclaims that somehow, justice and mercy must coexist. Take a good look at universalism. It provides the affluent, self-indulgent, myopic West with the ultimate in designer gods, one who would tell us, “Live as you like. Far be it from me to interfere with your fulfillment and pleasures. It’ll all be wonderful in the end, however you live.” This fabrication dumps justice in favor of our immediate comforts. How convenient!
We need to ask ourselves, “Why is universalism so appealing?” Is it because it is rational or even pragmatic or is it because it supports our cultural direction and lifestyle choices?

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