In Michael’s latest contribution to the present conversation, he accused James of being “on the fringe of universalism.” James has denied the charge, though continued to maintain a strong form of inclusivism, which makes this a good time to fulfill my promise to explain how I both affirm inclusivism (though not as strongly as James), and yet deny universalism. The problem is this: If we accept that it is possible for a person who did not know Jesus in this life, to nonetheless be saved by Jesus, how can we expect that anyone will fail to be saved?
Surely, it will be argued, if it is in any sense possible to come to Jesus after death, everyone can be expected to do so. If God really is all good and loving, surely everyone, upon reaching his throne, will see that and believe. Doesn’t Paul say that “every knee will bow… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11)? Does he not say that “just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many [oi polloi] were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [Jesus] the many [oi polloi] will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19)? If we interpret the first “many” to mean all people, should we not interpret the second in the same way? If so, then Christ’s death is sufficient to save everyone, so how can it fail to do so?
This is an attractive argument, but taking it all the way to universalism means ignoring Jesus’ own comments about hell, his parables about the final judgment (e.g. Matthew 25:31-46), his claim that “wide is the gate and broad the road that leads to destruction, and many [polloi] enter through it” (Matthew 7:13), and the Bible’s ever-present distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous. Thus, while Paul’s universalistic sounding comments can perhaps be used to support inclusivism, they cannot easily prove full universalism – unless we conclude that Paul disagreed with Jesus (and/or the Gospel writers) on this point.
Some might suggest, however, that Jesus’ comments are only meant to scare us into being good – like a parent that tells their toddler that if they don’t stay in bed the boogie monster will get them. Maybe God only threatens hell so we’ll follow him more readily, not because he actually intends to send us there.
Leaving aside the fact that this is actually a very disturbing picture of God, it simply cannot be maintained. The problem lies in free will: If God has any need at all to convince us to follow him, that must mean that we have a choice in the matter. But if human beings truly have a choice whether to accept God or reject him, then the possibility that some will in fact reject him can never be denied.
If it is true, as it seems to be, that our sins can become so entrenched that it becomes impossible for us to root them out ourselves, then ultimately we are all faced with an inescapable choice to either seek God’s aid, or remain in our sin. But that’s a problem, because it also seems to be the case that many people (and indeed, all of us are in danger of this) have embraced particular sins so thoroughly that not only are they unwilling to seek help in overcoming them, but they take offense at any suggestion that they need help. Unless we propose that God completely override their will, then such people might well condemn themselves to hell (which really means: choose to separate themselves from God). In such a tragic case, even God cannot help them.
For if God cannot justly override a person’s will to damn them (as any inclusivist must affirm), can he justly override a person’s will to save them? No matter how many chances God gives a human to repent, the possibility can never be denied that some, through pride, will still reject his offers. As usual, C.S. Lewis sums this up it best, in The Problem of Pain (the whole of this book, by the way, is directly applicable to our topic):
There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, especially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say, ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies, ‘How if they will not give in?’ (pgs. 119-20)
This post is part of a continuing conversation.