By Michael Burslem - Retired Physician, Writer, St. George's, Guelph
Published: March 2009
Related Topics: Lent, Social Justice, Spirituality
During my recent visit to Britain I was reminded by my sister in law that about 40 years ago I had come over and told everybody in the family that unless they repent and believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and saviour, they would go to hell. I had total amnesia of it, and I could only profoundly apologize for having said so. Whether I did say it or not, I certainly believed it, even before I became a rabid Evangelical. The Quicumque Vult in the Book of Common Prayer concludes, "This is the Catholick Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved." This creed deals with the Trinity and Deity of Jesus Christ, which no infidel could possibly accept; so for many years that settled my questioning as to who was saved, and who was not. My error was to believe that anybody who didn't believe as I did was an infidel.
A few years back I met a Baptist friend (he now attends an Anglican church) who had a more catholic or universal view on it. He pointed out to me the ten lepers cleansed by Jesus, but only one returned to thank him. He asked if it were ever recorded that Jesus withdrew the healing from the other nine. When we acknowledge Him as Lord and Saviour, we are, like that Samaritan leper, thanking him for our salvation; but others who do not, are they not no less saved than we? My friend argued that this indeed was Good News, because our salvation didn't depend on us, but on God.
At the time I was attending St. George's, Lowville, then a traditional Anglican Evangelical church, and I was a bit timorous to broadcast such an heretical idea. However, I did gather courage to speak to a wise friend. He surprisingly didn't bite my head off, but suggested I read The Fingerprints of God, by Robert Farrar Capon. I did so and discovered that there was good theological justification for a universal world view. Jesus died for all, 'while we were yet sinners,' not after we had cleaned up our act, but before.
The thought occurred to me that perhaps we have been looking at the Scriptures with blinkers on, determined by our own theological or denominational background, and we all underestimate the bountiful grace of God; Grace Abounding as Bunyan entitled it.
Firstly, those who deny theism, as Bishop Spong does, are certainly wearing blinkers, because they just cannot see what the rest of us see through the eyes of faith.
But even those of more 'orthodox' persuasion, I also believe, are wearing blinkers; both Catholics and Evangelicals. Catholics see no salvation outside the church; but means of salvation seems to be some pious action around the Eucharistic elements, which have some atoning value of their own, quite apart from the death of the Lord Jesus and His resurrection. Also Evangelicals, who see no salvation without a personal faith in Jesus, tend to make the act of believing a ritual to earn their personal salvation. Neither, I feel, see the total picture, and neither of them "get it."
To defend a universal atonement I would have to say from the start that there is no other way to God than through Jesus, and His atoning death and resurrection. Nobody can claim to be saved by any other means. The work of salvation is done, finished and complete, not by us, nor by any other deity but the one and true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Apostles boldly proclaimed the Good News, "You have been saved by the precious blood of Jesus Christ." Whether we acknowledge that fact by believing it, or not, is up to us, but I think it does not change our state of salvation, which is a gift from God. This indeed is Good News.
It may naturally be asked, "What of Hitler?" Firstly, Sin is Sin and heinous in the eyes of a Holy, pure and just God. Secondly, all of us have fallen far short of God's holiness. Thirdly, if we deny that God's grace can cover the sin of Hitler, can we really be sure that His grace will cover our own sin? (Should we in the first place be judging the sins of others? Even of Hitler? That's God's job, not ours.) God declares that through the death and resurrection of Jesus his Grace has covered the Sin of all, Hitler's and ours too. This is Good News.
The Lord has commissioned us to proclaim this Good News to the whole world. We are His ambassadors; but, if people do not accept us, as they probably won't, are they no less saved? The rub is that in order to be good ambassadors we have to be their servants for God's sake, and servanthood goes against our grain.
Bishop Spong has written a book, Why the Church must Change, or else Die. I do not for one moment think that the church will ever die, as the Lord has said that the gates of hell will never prevail against it. But I do believe that a paradigm shift is warranted, (perhaps not as great as Spong suggests) which is what he really is saying, if the church is ever to get its message out. But first we have to be sure what our message is, and I fear that among those who call themselves Christian there's much disagreement about that. We may have to rethink our cherished, entrenched positions, going right back to the Sermon on the Mount. Lent is that time of year when we assess, and re-assess, what we really and truly believe. I don't claim now to see the picture any more clearly than I did forty years ago, but I shall never, ever, again tell anyone that they'll go to hell unless they believe in Jesus as saviour.