by David Faust
What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a universalist? A knock on the door for no apparent reason.
Actually, universalism is no joke. It’s a widely accepted philosophy imbedded in the psyche of our generation. The idea that one must believe in Jesus Christ to be saved sounds antiquated, judgmental, and narrow beyond belief to postmodern ears.
The church isn’t immune to this trend. In 1985 I wrote an article for Christian Standard called “Taking the Wide Road: The Subtle Menace of Universalism.” Nearly a quarter-century later my concern about this issue has not subsided; it has increased. How seriously do we take the uniqueness of Christ and the fate of the lost? How often do we hear earnest, reasonable, straightforward teaching about judgment, Heaven, and Hell?
The Popularity of Universalism
According to Jesus, the broad road leads to destruction and the narrow road leads to life (Matthew 7:13, 14), but universalists say the wide road is the right road and all people, no matter how unfaithful and disobedient, eventually will be saved. They emphasize God’s love and mercy but minimize his wrath and righteousness. They ignore the concept of Hell and assume that all who die will go to Heaven regardless of their beliefs. Some universalists reject the Bible entirely as an authoritative standard, while others use Scripture to support their position, citing passages like 1 Timothy 2:4 (God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth”).
Universalism’s popularity comes as no surprise. If believers and unbelievers alike will experience salvation, why be concerned about new birth, holy living, or sound doctrine? Why risk offending anyone by speaking about Christ? Why draw any religious lines in the sand? Universalism is a live and let live philosophy, a religion of few demands.
A recent poll found that 70 percent of Americans believe a variety of religions lead to eternal life.1 When a leader in the Unitarian Universalist Church was asked how to become a universalist, he gave a striking response: “You may already be one without knowing it!”
Many would never call themselves universalists, but they adopt the philosophy nonetheless and express it with statements like these: “Oh well, we’re all headed to the same place,” “Don’t be so narrow-minded; Christianity is no better than any other faith,” “A loving God would never condemn anyone,” or “Sincerity is all that matters.”
A newspaper’s letter to the editor put it this way: “There may be a main road to Heaven, but there are a lot of service roads that connect to it.”
The Consequences of Universalism
When viewed in light of Scripture, however, universalism has many problems.
For one thing, it dampens our appreciation for God’s grace. If everyone is going to be saved anyway, what’s the big deal about being rescued from sin? If God intends to save us all, why not “go on sinning so that grace may increase” (Romans 6:1)? If we lose the joy of our salvation, we also lose the wonder of worship and we lose our sense of gratitude for God’s love.
Universalism steals our zeal for evangelism. In the book of Acts the church grew exponentially because Spirit-led believers preached passionately and lived sacrificially. They believed eternal life or separation from God hung in the balance and salvation could be found in Christ alone.
Universalism weakens our understanding of the church’s purpose. The Great Commission loses its urgency if we forget that Jesus not only said, “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” but he also said, “whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Love for the lost motivates us to do whatever is necessary and give whatever dollars are needed to advance the gospel, but ambiguity about our message produces apathy toward our mission.
Researcher George Barna identifies a group of believers he calls “Casual Christians” whose goal is “faith in moderation.” “A Casual Christian,” Barna says, “can be . . . a nice human being, a family person, religious, an exemplary citizen, a reliable employee—and never have to publicly defend or represent difficult moral or social positions or even lose much sleep over their private choices as long as they mean well and generally do their best.”2
When Casual Christianity rules the day, church membership degenerates into an attitude that mainly asks, “What’s in it for me?” The church at its best, though, focuses on evangelism, service, church planting, and missions—not unity for unity’s sake, doctrine for doctrine’s sake, or even “going to church” for our own sake.
The church is at its best when the love of Christ compels us to be ambassadors of reconciliation to a lost world (2 Corinthians 5:14-20). Universalism attacks the nerve center of the body of Christ, paralyzing outreach efforts and lulling believers into selfishness, indifference, and inactivity.
A Christian Response
When Jesus was asked, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” he responded, “Enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to” (Luke 13:23, 24). The Message paraphrases his answer, “Whether few or many is none of your business. Put your mind on your life with God. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires your total attention.”
Ultimate judgment is God’s prerogative, not ours. Our job isn’t to consign others to Hell, but neither do we have the right to pronounce someone “saved” simply because he “seems saved” to us. Nor is it our job to insist on man-made rules and opinions that make the narrow road narrower than it already is. Instead, we need to focus on what God has plainly revealed and trust him with what we don’t know, proclaiming the whole counsel of God even when it’s unpopular.
Cultural trends come and go, but basic biblical concepts must continually shape our thinking and our teaching:
• There is one true God and he alone is the author of salvation. “I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior” (Isaiah 43:11).
• Jesus Christ is unique, God’s “one and only Son” (John 3:16). He makes exclusive claims: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). At the cross and the empty tomb, he accomplished what only he could do.
• Judgment, Heaven, and Hell are real. Jesus said, “A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28, 29).
• Each of us has a personal responsibility to accept God’s gift of salvation. God forces himself on no one, but says, “Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17).
We serve a caring God who “is patient . . . not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9)—a God who “so loved the world,” whose Son came not to condemn, but to rescue us from condemnation (John 3:16, 17). We can share this message of hope without being condescending or holier-than-thou.
May the Restoration Movement once again demonstrate a strong sense of urgency about evangelism. May we lift up the saving name of Jesus Christ without embarrassment. Filled with amazing grace and determined faith, may we stay on the narrow road that leads to life.
1“Many Christians Say Other Faiths Can Lead to Eternal Life,” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, www.pewforum.org , 18 December 2008.
2George Barna, “Casual Christians and the Future of America,” www.barna.org , 22 May 2009.
David Faust is president of Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University and executive editor of The Lookout magazine.