Universal Salvation–Christian Heresy?
We’ve been discussing how universalism as well as the Kingdom (0r Realm) of God are two central issues in current efforts to widen the “tent” of Christianity. And the two are particularly intertwined. For those who take the Gospel to be the Gospel of Jesus more than the Gospel about Jesus, the Gospel is mainly about the influence (some might say “rule”) of God in a spiritual yet this-world kind of way. It is personal but also vitally social, and should impact not just believers but the systems of society. This it does in various ways that are mainly outside the political and legislative process, though elections and legislation gets affected, elevated.
So, in all this, Jesus is seen as enjoining us to “save our own souls” rather than try to “gain the whole world” (not his exact words, but close) — save them via the interwoven fabric of faith, values, relationships and actions. This is the “Kingdom of God is within you,” or in the alternate meaning of the Greek preposition, the “Kingdom of God is among you.”
In itself, this does not equal universal salvation… which many believe is heresy in relation to Christian orthodoxy. Perhaps a “loss of soul” in Jesus’ thinking is permanent and irreversible upon death–such people (the vast majority in traditional Christian thinking) cannot be “saved.” But there is no question that the vision and emphasis of Jesus was about the heart, about compassion, and about how genuine compassion–the love of God and “your neighbor as yourself”–results in actions, not mere creeds or beliefs. While Jesus is quoted as having some strong, condemning words for hypocrites and oppressors of the poor, and referring to “hell” (or Ghenna), it is not at all clear that he believed or taught eternal punishment. Those who believe that rejection of certain beliefs about who Jesus was and his role on earth prevents the possibility of salvation are left to find this concept in other parts of the New Testament.
This is where a critical point emerges: Is there good reason to believe that the New Testament represents, or was intended to represent, a systematic set of dogmas? Were its authors indeed writing God-breathed revelation, with inviolable authority? Or were some, but not all? (We do not know the authors of most of the NT books… the main exception is 7 or so of the letters attributed to Paul. Otherwise, we have no certainty of true authorship and/or know little about the author–as with Luke, who was only possibly, not likely, the traveling companion of Paul.) If indeed, the New Testament is not a unified whole written by people who shared a critical core of orthodoxy in common, or to whom were revealed truths to flesh out the meaning of Jesus (as “Christ” or Messiah) and his mission, then piecing together statements on salvation (predestination, etc.) by Paul or others, trying to align them with some by Jesus himself, or “James” (in the NT epistle bearing his name), is a futile pursuit, at best.
The presently-important corollary of this: The “Old Testament,” the New Testament, and their combination as the Bible does not reflect a consistent set of theological teachings, expectations of spiritual events, etc. Pastors and theologians have long operated as if it did, and the creeds and more detailed teachings of various “orthodoxies” are based on this unproven (and I believe clearly fallacious) assumption. Letting go of it and using the Bible more in the spirit of the various genres in which it was written, with objective eyes on what is likely historical and what is likely not, and that it reflects competing authorities, will resolve much within the highly emotion-laden issues around universal or limited salvation.