Anglican Samizdat

March 17, 2009

The Cuddly Christianity of the Anglican Church of Canada

In the latest Niagara Anglican, Michael Burslem has written an article which contends that every person is saved through Jesus atoning death whether he wants to be or not:

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.

[…..]

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.

At least the author, to his credit, does hold to the orthodox Christian idea that salvation comes through Jesus alone – but it comes to everyone: this is a Universalist position. It is one that fits conveniently with the ACoC’s preoccupation with other faiths: after all, if everyone is saved, following Jesus in this life isn’t a very compelling or necessary calling, particularly once it becomes a little inconvenient.

Universalism seems on the face of it to be appealing – it is nice, Canadian, even; but is it true? There seem to me to be a number of problems:

Jesus spent quite a lot of time discussing Hell: verses like this would be needless scaremongering if no-one is going to end up there:

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. [30] And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” Matt 5:29ff

I had a long discussion with a theology student – who is a Universalist – on this subject. His main arguments were: God is too loving to consign people to Hell and, once confronted by God after death, no person would be able to reject Him. On the first point, Clark Pinnock, a Canadian theologian who is not a Universalist, opts for the final destruction of the wicked rather than their eternal torment. I’m not sure he is entirely convinced of this, but either way, I personally don’t wish to be snuffed out or tormented. On the second, if when a person finally meets his maker he has little choice but to accept the gift of salvation – it is thrust upon him – God will have removed his free will, one of the main characteristics of being made in His image. He might just as well have done this in the first place and not allowed us to sin at all. Whether we will all be given one last chance to accept or reject God is arguable; if we are, we will still be free to reject Him – and, after a lifetime of practice, I think some will. For it to be otherwise would render all that went before meaningless. God is loving; is removing a person’s ability to turn God down – to expunge that part of God’s image within us – a loving thing to do? I believe not.

The willingness of members of the early church to endure a gruesome death for the sake of holding fast to the Gospel makes little sense if all are saved. They were not Universalists, they believed that decisions made in this life effect one’s predicament in the next; this is why they had to tell others the Good News. If all are to receive the benefits of the Gospel, why did they have the urge to enlighten others in this life when there is an eternity for all to ponder it in the next?

Although Universalism may be a comforting idea, in the end it won’t be much comfort if it isn’t true – and I fear it isn’t.

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7 Comments

  1. How about “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved”. Doesn’t that imply some sort of statement of faith on our part?

    Comment by Muriel — March 17, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

  2. David,
    You are to be commended for having the patience to continually rebut the steady stream of heresy masquerading as theology in the ACoC. I can’t be thankful enough for ANiC. For me, ANic is a refuge of faithfulness in a cesspool of apostasy.
    Peace,
    Jim

    Comment by Jim Muirhead — March 17, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

  3. Dear David,

    “The willingness of members of the early church to endure a gruesome death for the sake of holding fast to the Gospel makes little sense if all are saved. They were not Universalists, they believed that decisions made in this life effect one’s predicament in the next; this is why they had to tell others the Good News. If all are to receive the benefits of the Gospel, why did they have the urge to enlighten others in this life when there is an eternity for all to ponder it in the next?”

    My understanding of early church history is that early Christians were ‘universalists,’ certainly in the school of Alexandria. The Gospel was that God loved everybody so much that they were saved, in spite of themselves, and for that they suffered dearly. It was only after the Treaty of Milan, 313, when Constantine ordered an end to the persecutions, and soon after that Christianity became tied to the Roman Empire, was it that Christians began to differentiate between ‘who’s in’ and ‘who’s out,’ and delegated those ‘out’ to hell. Then the Gospel changed to become rescue from burning in hell. I made a big error in my essay in the title of bishop Spong’s book. The title really was, “Why Christianity (not the church) has to change, or else die.” Actually Christianity did change with Constantine, and I believe it’s changing back with the demise of Christendom. Jesus never intended there to be a Christendom in the first place. Christianity was never intended to be a religion, but a way of life, and I think we’re slowly, and painfully, getting back there; to where we should have been in the first place.

    With reference to the quote from Matthew 5.29, it has to be understood that the Bible is a Middle Eastern book, and should be read through Middle Eastern eyes. Middle Easterners are noted for their colorful picturesque language that should be interpreted symbolically, and not literally. Compare Jesus’ sayings that he is ‘the door,’ ‘the bread of life’ or ‘the light of the world,’ or compare the imagery of the Song of Solomon, which is very similar to modern Arabic love songs, sung today.

    You may call this heresy. I came to believe this way while a member of St. George’s, Lowville, under the pastorate of Charlie Masters. Maybe I had been thinking this before, but I only ‘came out of the closet’ after I saw where he was taking the parish over the same-sex debate. I told Charlie that I disagreed with him, but still loved him, and he replied, “I love you too, brother.”

    Sincerely from your Christian brother,

    Michael

    Comment by Michael Burslem — April 4, 2009 @ 10:51 am

  4. Michael,

    Thank you for responding.

    I agree that Universalism was held by Origen and some others; I don’t think one can necessarily infer from this that early Christians were ‘universalists’ in a general sense. In Origen’s case, he was sufficiently intractable that he was prepared to suffer for what he believed – perhaps to be honoured as a martyr. I still doubt that an ordinary Christian would be prepared to die for his faith if all will be saved regardless of decisions made in this life.

    As things stands Universalism was condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 553 and, although it is making a bit of a comeback, there haven’t really been any particularly good or new reasons given for believing in it; other than the warm fuzzy feeling.

    Actually Christianity did change with Constantine, and I believe it’s changing back with the demise of Christendom. Jesus never intended there to be a Christendom in the first place. Christianity was never intended to be a religion, but a way of life, and I think we’re slowly, and painfully, getting back there; to where we should have been in the first place.

    I can’t see how Christianity itself can change: our comprehension of Christianity might be more or less accurate, but the thing itself remains the same. The Nicene Creed – which I presume is what you are referring to – didn’t change Christianity, it stated what it is in a more succinct and elegant way.

    To say that Jesus didn’t intend there to be a Christendom or for Christianity to be a religion ascribes to God a severely myopic incapacity to predict the outcome of his actions. I am quite certain he wanted and foresaw both. The painful place we are getting back to is that of paganism as Christendom crumbles and the church follows.

    With reference to the quote from Matthew 5.29, it has to be understood that the Bible is a Middle Eastern book, and should be read through Middle Eastern eyes. Middle Easterners are noted for their colorful picturesque language that should be interpreted symbolically, and not literally.

    That passage was one of many where Jesus talked about hell. As for “interpretation”, we appear to have a different view of how to read the bible. I think we need to understand what the intended meaning of the passage is; as soon as we start using words like “interpret” we have drifted into the realm of conforming the meaning to our own prejudice. In this particular case, while the plucking out might be overstatement, it is overstatement to emphasise the undesirability of ending up in hell; if there is no hell, the entire verse is colourful and – meaningless.

    Another way to look at all this is through Pascal’s Wager: either of us could be wrong; if I am wrong, nothing much is lost, since we are all saved anyway; if you are wrong, for many people, there is everything to lose.

    Comment by David — April 4, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

  5. Dear David,

    My thinking is universalist because from my reading of scripture I believe both Jesus and Paul were. The fear of hell is not the reason I’m Christ’s disciple. It’s because I hunger and thirst for righteousness; to see the Kingdom of God here in earth, not in some never-never land which we call heaven. With my eyes of faith I do see it here and now, in spite of what my natural eyes see. Eternity is now.

    We know from Article XXI that general councils may have erred, and that includes the Council of Constantinople of 553. Since then, I believe, the church has been way off on the wrong tack, and now, with the demise of Christendom, is the time to get back on course, and I see signs of that happening, which I merely reflect upon in my writing for the Niagara Anglican. There are a couple of articles in the works, which explain this further.

    This may draw fire from big E Evangelicals (I would call myself a little e evangelical) but I think it expounds the spirit of scripture, rather than the letter.

    Your brother in Christ,

    Michael

    Comment by Michael Burslem — April 23, 2009 @ 10:31 am

  6. Michael,

    For a Christian to call heaven a “never-never land” seems to me to be remarkably short-sighted. Surely, as a Christian you believe in an afterlife and, therefore can also see that our 80 years spent in this life will be overshadowed by an eternity in the next?

    I really can’t see that hungering and thirsting after righteousness is a particularly good reason for being a disciple of Christ: the only reason that is good enough or needed is that he is who he claims to be and did what the scriptures claimed he did. As his disciples we are called to try and do what is right, but to become a disciple because of a desire to do good is a reversal of cause and effect.

    Although general councils are fallible, overturning thousands of years of scriptural understanding by asserting Universalism smacks rather of cultural partiality: if the church has been off track for so long what gives our age the sudden flash of insight that can set it straight? To simply say your reading of scripture leads you to Universalism is scarcely enough to warrant tossing out centuries of Christian scholarship that says otherwise.

    Comment by David — April 23, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

  7. “God is too loving to consign people to Hell”. Love requires justice or it is not love. A judge in our criminal court system is no less loving because he or she sentences a murderer to life imprisonment for their crime.

    In the same manner, we all justly deserve hell, for our crimes against God and He is no less loving when he executes His judgement.

    Mercy is also a component of love, and God showed us mercy without compromising His perfect justice by sending His son to die in our place as a substiture for us and atone for our sins against Him.

    If we repent of our sins and place our trust in Jesus we will be forgiven of our crimes against God and granted life eternal with Him.

    Totally Awesome!

    Comment by James — June 18, 2009 @ 11:10 am


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