Heresies I sometimes secretly want to believe: 1. Universalism

I grew up reading C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series. I loved it then, and I love it now. One of the many great things about these children’s books are the way in which they, through the genre of fantasy, convey some great truths about the gospel.

For Christian readers, perhaps the most controversial part of the series comes in the final book, The Last Battle, particularly in exchange between a character called Aslan (kind of like the Narnian Jesus), and Emeth (a disciple of Tash, the devil character) in the Narnian heaven. Here it is:

“…the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, “Son, thou art welcome.’ But I said, ‘Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.’ He answered, ‘Child all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.’ Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, “Lord, is it true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?’ The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, “It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites – I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him….”

It goes on a bit more, but the gist is – all the worship that Emeth has done towards Tash is counted as if towards Aslan, and thus Emeth will spend eternity with Aslan.

It’s a lovely thought – Emeth may have been misguided in worshiping the devil-like Tash, but the way he conducted himself and the good service he did mean that he too, like the followers of Aslan, can go to heaven.

I sometimes secretly want to believe this is the case in real life. That followers of other things – people who reverently worship in a different religion, or live reverently in their unbelief of God – can go to heaven. After all, God is more concerned with the attitude than anything else, isn’t he?

If this is the case, there’s no need for me to evangelise people who are living well in their own particular faiths. Which is great, because the world is telling me that if it’s working for them, I should just let them be.

If this is the case, then the way we worship is more important than the direction of our worship.

 

Universalism

But it’s not the case! This notion fits into a heresy known as universalism. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a universalist as “One who holds, esp. member of an organised body of Christians who hold, that all mankind will eventually be saved.”

Probably this heresy has proved so popular because it sounds quite nice. If we believe it, we don’t have to think about a God who damns people to hell, and we can let people of other religions get on with living their lives, safe in the knowledge that if they do a good job in serving their god, it will be counted as service to the real God anyway, and we’ll all end up in heaven together in the end.

But it’s not true.

The thing is, the direction of our worship does matter. A lot. 

 

The Old Testament

In the Old Testament, the Israelites often wandered from God and began to worship other beings. God takes huge issue with this. In the Ten Commandments, he says:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” – Exodus 20:4-6 (ESV)

It’s something of a weird idea, God being jealous. But the point is, it is right and proper that God’s people – people saved by him – worship him, and him alone. God doesn’t say “Don’t make an idol, unless you worship it really well, then it’s okay because it’s only the attitude that matters.” God is a relational God, and so he is upset when people worship anything other than him.

Think of it in terms of a marriage. If a married man loves and serves his mistress, does that count as service to his wife? Of course not! He’s totally disregarded the person he should be loving and serving – his wife – and the way he treats his mistress is largely irrelevant. If he was serving and loving his wife, he wouldn’t have a mistress.

In the Old Testament book of Hosea, God uses a metaphor of marriage to describe the way his people have sinned against him. He describes them as an adulterous wife:

For their mother has played the whore;
she who conceived them has acted shamefully.
For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers,
who give me my bread and my water,
my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink…
…she did not know
that it was I who gave her
the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and who lavished on her silver and gold,
which they used for Baal'”. – 
Hosea 2:5,8

At the end of the day, adultery is adultery, and idolatry is idolatry. God didn’t count the Israelite’s idol-worship as worship of him, because it wasn’t – in fact it was the opposite. It was a total rejection of him and what he’d done, as they built statues and claimed they were their gods.

Or think of it in terms of war. In a battle, what is ultimately more important – how good you are at fighting, or whose side you are on? If you lose the battle, I doubt the enemy would say “you fought on the other side, but that’s okay because you did a good job – we’ll let you share in our victory”!

Serving well means nothing if you are serving the wrong person.

Who you serve is more important than how you serve.

 

The New Testament

It’s much the same when we come to the New Testament. Again, who people follow is so much more important than the way they do the following. 

In John 14:6, Jesus puts it bluntly: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus clearly states that the only way people can be saved, can be reconciled to God the Father, is through trusting in him, and him alone.

If Jesus had taught that the way to salvation was simply worshiping whatever you worship with a reverent heart, then I doubt people would have had a problem with him. I doubt the Jewish leaders would have plotted to kill him, and I doubt the followers of Jesus would have faced the persecution that they did, and still continue to do today. It is Jesus’ exclusive claim that he is the only Saviour that was, and is, so scandalous.

After Jesus died, rose again and ascended to heaven, his followers continued to proclaim that salvation is found in Jesus, and Jesus alone. In Acts 4:11-12, they say:

“This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” 

From there, the gospel is proclaimed to everyone – including those who are reverently following their own religion or moral code. The followers of Jesus correctly understood that people are saved, not by living a good life, but by trusting in the only one who can save them – Jesus Christ, the Lord.

 

Where to from here?

First up, don’t go and burn all your C.S. Lewis books. Despite portraying some powerful truths in a vivid way, I don’t think we can take all aspects of The Chronicles of Narnia as “gospel”. Lewis himself said was more of suppositional than allegorical. And whether or not Lewis himself believed in universalism, I think he undoubtedly has a lot of great things to say about Jesus and Christianity.

When I read The Last Battle I sometimes secretly wish it was true – that good works done in a different direction are ultimately counted as service to God, and therefore people can be saved. But:

  • Salvation does not depend on what we do! The bible teaches that we are so thoroughly sinful, that we have no hope of being saved on our own merit. It’s only through the cross – through God sending his sinless Son to die in our place, that we can be saved. By grace alone we are saved.
  • God is a relational God, and a jealous God. As such, whether or not we serve him and his Son Jesus is a much more important question than how we well we serve anything.
  • As a Christian, I don’t pick and choose my beliefs based on what I like. Instead, I believe the truth that God has revealed to us, through his word, the Bible. Sometimes I secretly want to believe heresies like universalism, and yet that’s not what the Bible says. Ultimately, I need to be listening to and trusting in the real God, the real Jesus, and not the Jesus I make up in my head. Christianity is not about choosing what’s comfortable to believe – it’s about believing the truth.

People are saved, not based on what they do, but who they trust in. And salvation is only found in Jesus Christ. So my aim should be to trust in him, and him alone, and to point others to him.