ARTICLES

Volume 4 - Issue 2

The exclusiveness and inclusiveness of the gospel

By Bruce J. Nicholls

Introduction

Evangelism is a commitment to live and proclaim the Gospel. The Lausanne Congress caught this spirit in its watchword ‘Let the Earth Hear His Voice’. Evangelicals worldwide are being confronted with a number of major issues in an age of rapid cultural change and social and political revolution. As a broad generalisation we may say that evangelicals are 10–15 years behind their ecumenical and Roman Catholic brethren in analysing the contemporary issues and in seeking for relevant Christian answers. The paucity of serious literature on these issues compared with the flood of materials which take their inspiration from Geneva or Rome confirms that evangelicals have only begun their theological task. The Lausanne Congress has set the stage for a new level of evangelical involvement. There is always the danger of overreacting to the views of others, and yet the evangelical must ever seek to test every concept and practice by the norm of Scripture as the Word of God. The concern of this study is to uncover and evaluate some of the factors in the steady drift towards theological universalism and religious syncretism that is taking place in Asia and to suggest some Biblically based answers. As a background to the study some of these contemporary issues which the ecumenical movement has probed in depth include the following.

The contextualization of the gospel. If the Bible is culturally conditioned can we be sure we know what the Word of God says? How do we isolate the cultural assumptions and prejudices with which we come to the Bible from the exegesis and interpretation of the text itself? In what way does contextualization go beyond indigenisation? Must a western missionary interpretation of the Gospel always be a westernized one? Can an Indian Christian avoid Hinduising the Gospel? How will an Indian Muslim, of whom there are more than 60 million, respond to an Indian Christian theology clothed in religious Hindu thought forms? Will such cultural containment fragment the Church and create fresh communal tensions within the Body of Christ? How will a Church that looks back to traditional culture for its inspiration meet the challenge of a Marxist revolution? How relevant is it for the Chinese Church now to contextualize the Gospel in terms of Confucian culture in order to speak to the New China? In practical terms what does the Lausanne Covenant really mean when it states, ‘The Gospel does not presuppose the superiority of any culture to another, but evaluates all cultures according to its own criteria of truth and righteousness and insists on moral absolutes in every culture’?

The mission of the church in the world. The pietistic influences in evangelicalism have brought forth depths of personal piety, evangelistic and missionary zeal, but why have they not challenged the churches to their wider ministry of the Church in the world? What is the implication of the Lausanne call to ‘the whole Church to take the whole Gospel to the whole world’ for social action as well as for evangelism? Where is the focal point of God’s activity, in the Church or in the world?

Seeking world community. The WCC Nairobi Assembly 1975 asked its participants: What is the common search of peoples of various faiths, cultures and ideologies? What is meant by a worldwide community or a community of communities? What is the function of the Church as a community within the wider community? What is the relationship of the unity of the Church to the unity of mankind? This search has heightened the issue of the nature and function of dialogue. Since the first serious multi-lateral meeting in 1907 at Ajaltoun in Lebanon, followed by the formation of a WCC Department on Dialogue of People of Living Faiths and Ideologies, dialogue has attracted wide interest. Is it a part of evangelism or does it stand on its own as a separate discipline? So far evangelicals have not ventured into this field.

The struggle for liberation and the quest for human development. The Bangkok consultation, Salvation Today, 1973, discussed salvation as a struggle for justice in four social dimensions—economic justice, human dignity, solidarity against alienation and hope against despair.

Crucial questions on the use of liberating violence against institutional violence, structural injustice and legalised immorality, were discussed in greater depth at Nairobi. The controversial actions of the Programme to Combat Racism have challenged the acceptance of the status quo of many evangelicals. We may ask: What is the relationship between prophetic rebuke and popular protest? What is the function of the Church in community development? Above all, the central question of our time is: Who is the ‘Jesus who frees and unites’? Frees from what? Whom does He unite and for what purpose? Our response to universalistic theology will determine the direction our answers will take on these and other questions.

Universalism as a theological corollary

Universalism is the belief that ultimately all men will be saved. In the nineteenth century it was largely unacceptable, today it is a respectable option. Universalism does not necessarily deny the reality of hell, but it does look beyond it to the restoration of all things and the redemption of all men. Origen, the first explicit universalist, held that Christ remains on the cross as long as one sinner remains in hell. Today universalism is usually argued as a corollary of other beliefs rather than as an explicitly defined doctrine. At the present, J. A. T. Robinson and John Hick are two of the more vocal advocates of an explicit universalism. Robinson grounds his view on the necessity of God’s nature.1 In a universe of love there can be no heaven which tolerates a chamber of horrors. This would be a final mockery of God’s nature. John Hick argues for universalism as the consequence of his treatment of the problem of evil.2 In his more recent books, God and the Universe of Faithand the Centre of Christianity, Hick has argued for universalism on the assumption that Christianity is only one way to God. In accepting other faiths as equal ways of salvation Hick denies the uniqueness of Christ, the logical conclusion of which would be to deny the Christian concept of God altogether.

Discussions about universalism have often centred around Karl Barth. Although Barth insisted many times that he rejected the doctrine of universalism, Emil Brunner insisted that Barth taught the most radical form of universalism that has ever been proposed, more far reaching than that of Origen! Barth’s emphasis upon the election of all men in Christ and his understanding of the triumph of grace gives credence to the idea that Barth was at least an incipient universalist. Though it is difficult to document it, I, for one, feel that the trend to universalistic thinking in Asia stems more from the influence of Barth than from any other source. Take for example, D. T. Niles who frequently raised questions such as: ‘Will all finally arrive at the Father’s kingdom? Can it be that anyone will reject Him even at this last’?3 Niles infers that the New Testament will not allow us to say either yes or no to these questions. But in his refusal to admit the Biblical evidence for judgement and hell, Niles has already shown his sympathy for an implicit universalism.

Other theologians have inferred universalism from their understanding of the universal work of the Holy Spirit. This approach is particularly attractive to some in the Orthodox tradition. Metropolitan George Khodr, speaking of the economy of the Holy Spirit in a universal Pentecost, suggests that, ‘The non-Christian religions may be considered as places where his inspiration is at work. All those visited by the Spirit are the people of God.’4 Khodr adds that the man of faith must wait patiently for the coming of the Lord and ‘secretly to be in communion with all men and the economy of the Mystery within which we are moving slowly towards the final consummation, when all things will be gathered up in Christ’. Is this not an implied universalism?

The concept ‘cosmic Christ’ and universalism

At the Third Assembly of the WCC, New Delhi 1961, Joseph A. Sittler in his address ‘Call to Unity’, argued that, in the search for the unity of the Church, Christ and the cosmos belong together. Sittler interpreted Colossians 1:15–20 to mean that the redemptive action of Christ and all that exists belong together. Horst Bürkle5 notes that critics argued that the doctrine of creatureship dominates the doctrine of redemption in Sittler’s cosmic Christology leaving little room for salvation in history or any understanding of justification. However, Bürkle suggests that this cosmic understanding of Christ has an important place in Christian evangelism in India, for Christ is always previous to the witness in the life of a person whom He is seeking to win for the Gospel. If Christ is the light of the world, He is also the light of the world of other religions. Derived partial truths must be set in the full light of the truth of Christ. At New Delhi Paul Devanandan suggested that, ‘We have yet to take the dominant philosophical and religious concepts of the non-Christian faiths and make them into instruments of interpretation of the Gospel’.6 Devanandan described this process as one of fulfilment. Thus Asian theologians are looking for a Christology that is universal enough to deal with the challenge of renascent Asian religions. But in doing so, has this concept of cosmic Christ lost the particularity and exclusiveness of the Christ of the Gospels? The debate on universalism must give careful attention to this point.

The idea of a cosmic Christ is not new to Christological thinking in India. Keshub Chunder Sen (1834–1884), a Hindu in search of Christ, posited an ideal Christ to whom he offered intense and loving worship. He conceived of Christ as the incarnation of the ideals of moral goodness and as the principle for harmonising religions.7 He called men to ‘be Christ’. The problem of creation, he said, was not how to produce one Christ, but how to make every man Christ. Since Christ was cosmic enough to make room for all forms of religious experience excluding none, Sen was thoroughly universalistic and syncretistic. In his spiritual pilgrimage Sen drew closer to Christian thinking and practice (as Robin Boyd and others have argued) but at the same time he journeyed closer to Hinduism, especially after he came under the influence of the mystic Ramakrishna. Mother as Kali competed with Jesus Christ for the central place in his heart. Sen’s death scene would suggest that Kali triumphed.

The spirit of Sen has deeply influenced the direction of Indian Christian theology. Using the philosophical categories of Sri Aurobindo, P. Chenchiah (1886–1959) sought to hold together the ‘raw fact of Christ’ with a universal or cosmic Christ whom he virtually equated with the Holy Spirit. Salvation is ‘reproducing Christ’ or ‘becoming Christ’. In the end the whole cosmic order will be incorporated into Christ. Although he spoke much about the manhood of Christ, Chenchiah showed little interest in the details of Christ’s life and passion. Chenchiah’s Christology has a remarkable similarity to Teilhard de Chardin’s process of Christification and cosmic redemption. This search for an inclusive Christ is mind-stretching, but in failing to deal with the problem of sin and the finality of the Cross and resurrection, he fails to do justice to the exclusive claims of Christ’s lordship.

Raymond Panikkar took up the theme of the cosmic Christ in his important book, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, in which he proposed that Christianity and Hinduism meet in the cosmic Christ. The Christian encounter with other religions begins with the ‘naked Christ’ stripped of ecclesiastical trappings and dogmas. But he is the unknown Christ for, ‘When a Hindu is saved, he is saved by the grace of Christ and is incorporated into the supernatural order and yet he may know nothing about Christianity’.8 Therefore the Christian mission is not one of bringing Christ in but bringing Him forth, so that when Hindus think of Isvara,the true revealer of Brahma, they are in fact, without realising it, acknowledging the hidden Christ. Unless Christ is strictly a-historical a devout Hindu would resent such a claim. Christ is present within the sacraments of Hinduism as He is within the sacraments of Christian grace, so that the Hindu is saved through the sacraments of Hinduism but only because Christ dwells within them. In a later book, The Trinity and World Religions, Panikkar suggests that the Christian understanding of the Trinity fulfils the deepest experiences or realisations of the great religions of the world. The logic of Panikkar’s position is universalism.

It is of some significance that M. M. Thomas sees his book, The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance, as a parallel to The Unknown Christ of Hinduism.9 But Thomas’ interests extend beyond the religious culture to the secular humanism emerging in India. From the perspective of a Christocentric universe, a concept for which Thomas acknowledges his indebtedness to Karl Barth, he explores the possibility of the Christocentric relativisation of both empirical Christianity and atheism in order to open doors of partnership in planning for the concrete future of society.10 Confronted with a worldwide pluralism of religious and secular faiths he sees a Christocentricity which recognizes the relativity of all forms of human existence as the starting point for revealing the grandeur of Christ, which he calls ‘a Christ centred syncretic process which is to be welcomed’.11 Thomas cannot be accused of explicit universalism but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that his somewhat Barthian Christocentricity, and his brilliant capacity to synthesise diverse theological traditions into a ‘living theology’,12 will in the end lead to some form of neo-universalism. Only a more thorough exegesis of Scripture can prevent this from happening.

Spirituality and universalism

One of the dominant theological moods of our time is that of existential personalism. It has its roots in Kierkgaard, Buber and Brunner. Existential personalism is the belief that the human self is a concrete reality and a clue to the structure or meaning of the total cosmos, and the most fundamental relations of life are the I-thou person to person relationship. Subjectivity is the inner passionate concern to interiorise reality, maximising the experience of faith and minimising dogma and rational formulations, thus removing all acts of God and decisions of faith from the category of objective verifiability.

This spirit runs strong in contemporary Indian Christian thought. A recent contribution of Samuel Rayan S. J.13 ably illustrates this point. He notes that the Indian spirit is one of openness to many different experiences, viewpoints and traditions and that the truth of religion is to be found in living experiences. ‘Such openness,’ he thinks, ‘can spare the Church the mistake of absolutising itself and its historical heritage or opposing as the only prophet and servant of God on earth’.14 This diversity belongs to the Spirits charismata, and so he appeals, ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a plurality of theologies, faith—formulations, worship—forms and ecclesial structures shape up and emerge’.15 To achieve this spirituality of interiorisation and at the same time a spirituality of involvement in the world, Rayan calls for a kenosis of the Church, a self-emptying of its traditions and pomp so that the Church ‘will live in a humble attitude of openness, questing, listening and learning, seeking to understand, correct itself and repent, seeking to humanise the swell and sweep and twists of history’.16

This very person-centred approach anchored to the culture and practicalities of life is very attractive to the relativistic spirit of Asia (and the West) but it floats in a sea of subjectivity. Unless spirituality begins in the meeting of the transcendent God of Holy-Love and the sinner in rebellion against God, the interiorising of faith degenerates into a vague mysticism. The Church must empty itself of its vain glory, but only to proclaim more effectively the glory of Christ who died and rose again, triumphing over all principalities and powers.

Dialogical theology and universalism

Theology which is existential and personalistic finds in dialogue a method of communication between people of different faiths and ideologies that is congenial to its spirit. From the time of the Jerusalem Council (1928) when there was a fresh awakening in interest in the values of non-Christian religions to New Delhi (1961), dialogue in the ecumenical movement was set within the framework of Christian communication as a useful means of evangelism; however, since then dialogue has developed a new role as a theological discipline in its own right. The question is being increasingly asked: Is it an alternative to evangelism? In the recent Chiang Mai consultation (April 1977) on Dialogue in Community, there was an uneasy silence on how dialogue for peace and justice between communities was to be related to evangelism and to Church growth. Christians must share with their Muslim and Hindu neighbours in the political, economic and social life of the nation but is there a danger of dialogue becoming a secular methodology to establish the Kingdom of God on earth?

Lynn A. de Silva of Sri Lanka understands dialogue as a meeting between persons of different persuasions for mutual understanding, spiritual enrichment and action, and for building bridges of reconciliation between different communities. Its purpose must be seen in the context of the common human search for community.17This would be acceptable to all Christians as far as it goes but on what theological basis is this approach to dialogue built? What does de Silva mean when he speaks of recreating human community and bringing to participation in it ‘the spiritual insights of all religions and ideologies’? What is the implication of Raymond Panikkar’s statement that there must be a total openness to truth in dialogue to the point of willingness to be converted to the belief of the other partner? Wesley Ariarajah of Sri Lanka goes even further, ‘Anyone who approaches another with an a priori assumption that his story is “the only true story” kills the dialogue before it begins’.18 Ariarajah assumes that since the locus of God’s saving activity is the human community, all human beings, not just Christians, are part of God’s activity in the world and share a common future. It is a sin to absolutise the Christian religion and theology implying that the other religions are false. This is clearly universalistic in intent. If all theology is the ‘story telling’ of one’s experience in faith then Biblical revelation is no longer a reliable and final authority. Ariarajah’s alternative is to posit a ‘cluster of criteria’, putting the inner certainty of experience, anubhava, alongside Scripture and tradition, which means that all the religious descriptions of the human predicament are valid. The Christian should not impose his conceptual framework of creation-fall-redemption on the Hindu advaitin or the Buddhist’s understanding of anicca, anatta and dukkha.To do so is ‘wilful blindness’. Such an approach is totally unacceptable to evangelical Christians.

Responsible dialogue recognises our common solidarity in Adam as persons created in God’s image, yet defaced by sin. Openness to each other cannot be separated from faith and witness to Jesus Christ as the only Saviour and Lord. It recognizes that evangelism, social justice and community harmony and development all belong to the Gospel; one cannot be isolated from the other. Apart from the grace of God, dialogue is an exercise with limited value. The dialectical method of Kierkegaard, which is basic to some theologies of dialogue, must be questioned. The movement from assertion to counter-assertion will not lead to truth unless there is an objective reference point which coheres with the logic of the law of non-contradiction. The crisis of dialogical theology is an epistemological one.

Integrated religion and universalism

Both Judaism and Islam have achieved a high degree of integration between religion and culture, between the individual and the community. They offer a complete way of life. In their call to righteousness and obedience to the one true God they appeal to religious universalism.

Judaism fully acknowledges its ethnic heritage; it is essentially not a missionary movement. No Gentile needs to become a Jew in order to find God, for God has made man free and endowed him with all that he needs to lead a reasonable and righteous life. If a man fails to live up to God’s standard of righteousness he has only himself to blame. Judaism, as distinct from Old Testament faith, does not look for God’s intervention in history other than through His general providence. There is no need for God to become a man and to die a violent death in order to save mankind from unrighteousness. In the words of Jacob Jocz, ‘Judaism is a wholesome religion, rational, uninhibited and human. Here there is no dialectic between spirit and matter, no strain between time and eternity, no dualism between holy and profane. The Synagogue’s faith does not rest on a paradox but upon reason … In Judaism we meet religious man emancipated, self-reliant and autonomous’.19

In this way Judaism challenges Christianity to acknowledge a religious universalism. It is not surprising that theologians such as Frederick Grant, late of Union Seminary, New York, regard Jewish conversion as ‘bad taste’. For him there is no real difference between the two faiths; Christianity only adds extras. But as Jocz reminds us, if Christianity has ‘no Gospel for the Jews, it has no Gospel for the world’.20

In a somewhat parallel manner Islam challenges Christianity to universalism. Islam is a complete way of life, al-din. It is a system which integrates all religious, social, economic and political institutions on the foundation of iman, the conviction and commitment to accept God as the Lord and to submit completely to His will as revealed in the law, to which all the prophets give witness. Islam is din al-fitrah or natural religion, which is innate and present in its fulness in every man. Isma’il al Faruqi asserts, ‘The man who is not homo-religiosus, and hence homo-Islamicus, is not a man’.21 Islam teaches that man does not need salvation as Christians understand it, but hidayah or divine guidance to know and obey the will of God. Da’wah, as a call to all men to the path of Allah, is a call to them to recover their true rationality, innocence and dignity as God’s khalifah or vice-gerents on earth. Man is free and responsible to actualise the will of God in space and time and so integrate religion and culture. Thus Islam sees itself as the basis of all historical religion and therefore all men, Muslim and non-Muslim, are brothers. As the ecumenical religion it is the ground for universal religion.

The Church’s response to the challenge of the Synagogue and the Mosque is to witness to Jesus Christ as Lord and the only name by which men can be saved. The universal Christ of the New Testament, who is both cosmic and historical, demands exclusive allegiance. Christ is the stumbling block to both Jew and Muslim and only as Christ reveals Himself in love and grace to those who seek Him can this rejection of Him be removed. If Jesus Christ is reduced to a messianic leader or a prophet the Church becomes a synagogue. It is not enough to accept Martin Buber’s concession that Jesus is the messiah of the Gentile world; He is niessiah of the whole world, Jew and Gentile.

The Christian understanding of redemption from sin and the law is a further stumbling block to Jewish and Islamic universalism. Jesus showed that no man could keep the law perfectly and thereby be saved, for the law goes beyond outward behaviour. He came to fulfil the purpose of the law, so that in His death on the cross and resurrection from the dead sinners may be justified apart from the works of the law. Only in the cross can the full meaning of grace be understood. Jesus showed that the new factor in salvation is the Holy Spirit, the necessary divine agent in conversion and in the receiving of eternal life. The Holy Spirit stands for man’s surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Christians share a common interest in the Old Testament with Jews and Muslims. The Christian denies that it is merely a preparatio evangelica to the Gospel for its message is basic to our knowledge of God, man, sin and salvation. Christ fulfilling the Old Testament is a serious stumbling block to the Jew. For him the Old Testament is complete and autonomous. For the Muslim both the Old Testament and the New Testament are fulfilled in the Qur’an. We can only accept the statement of David Brown, ‘Whenever people find their way to Christ, their own history and culture are, in an important sense, their Old Testament, the education out of which they come into the Christian faith,’ if we do not reduce the Old Testament to a preparatio evangelica.22

Panentheism and syncretism

The Hindu religious tradition alternates between a monistic pantheism and a theistic mysticism. M. M. Thomas has recently drawn attention to ways Indian Christian theology has developed along these two paths of advaita(non-duality) and avatara (incarnation) in their interpretation of metaphysical foundations and search for the inner spiritual experience.23 Brahmabandab Upadhyaya and more recently Swami Abhishiktananda have sought to define the Christian advaitic vision in terms of the Trinity. Chenchiah theologised within the metaphysical framework of Sri Aurobindo’s neo-advaita. On the other hand, A. J. Appasamy worked within Ramanuja’s visishtadvaita framework of qualified monism to produce a Christian doctrine of avatara and bhakti marga (way of love and devotion). Thomas sees these two traditions as syncretistic in the sense of inter-mixing fragments of different cultures and religious traditions. He thinks they need to be evaluated ‘to see whether they developed an inner coherence to the syncretistic thought and far more important, whether the coherence is centred in the Jesus Christ of God.’ Thomas suggests that this evaluation will depend on the meaning given to these two poles of personalism and historicity and the relationship between them.

This attempt to discover a Christ-centred syncretism may also be described as a search for a panentheism which may be defined as ‘the belief that the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe so that every part of it exists in Him, but that His Being is more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe’.24 J. A. T. Robinson believes that the panentheistic model is the most appropriate and perhaps the only appropriate model for today.25 This view that God is in everything and everything is in God in an interlocking of relationship between the Personal and the All, attempts to bridge the gap between the Creator and creation. It is both a going beyond the God of theism and a journey inwards. Panentheism undergirds the neo-platonism of the medieval mystics, and it is central to the theology of Teilhard de Chardin and to Process Theology.

Robinson suggests that the ‘all in all’ of 1 Corinthians 15:28 is the charter of Christian panentheism.26 The God who was in Christ is the God who is and must be in all. Robinson thinks that this essentially incarnational model is appropriate for all systems. It is not inclusively Christian.

I wish to express the opinion that panentheism, which is particularly congenial to the Hindu mind, rather than offering a new appreciation of the cosmic Christ and of the Christian mystical experience, will prove to be the greatest threat to Indian Christian Theology which wants to take seriously the historical and verbal dimensions of God’s self-revelation as well as the personal and existential. It finds no place for the ‘once and for all’ of Christ. It is the hall mark of the syncretism of the future. It is the basis of the new universalism. The answer to the paralysing fear of this syncretism is not a retreat from theology and from dialogue with people of other faiths, but a theology of mission and evangelism that comprehends the whole of Biblical revelation and which brings all speculation to the bar of Biblical authority. This is the only basis for a relevant and effective contextualization of the Gospel.

Some Biblical responses to universalism

The case of proof texts. It has been suggested that there are three classes of proof texts to which universalists appeal, namely, those that predict the salvation of all men (eg. Acts 3:21; John 12:32; Romans 5:18), those that declare God’s intention to save all (eg. 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), and those that suggest that all men are already objectively reconciled to God because of the Cross (eg. 2 Corinthians 5:19; Titus 2:11; Colossians 1:20; Hebrews 2:9; 1 John 2:2). At best these texts leave the question open. Universalism may be drawn as an inference from some of these verses but they cannot be used to prove it. They do, however, show that there is a wideness in God’s mercy and that His love is directed toward all.27 To assume that the word ‘all’ in passages such as Romans 11:32 means ‘all men individually’ is to take the text out of its context and out of the epistle as a whole.28

A biblical theology of judgement and hell. It is noted that Jesus spoke more often of hell than He did of heaven, and that His use of awesome imagery as in Mark 9:47 can hardly be reduced to the ‘infinite seriousness’ of judgement (John Hick). Nor can hell be described as a means of grace for the final redemption of all. Leon Morris suggests that if people choose to live without God in this life they must also live without Him in the next. He comments, ‘Universalists must face the fact that eternal life means life with God and with God’s people. Those who prefer to live apart from God would find this kind of life quite intolerable.’29 The nature of eternal punishment is beyond our comprehension and from the human perspective is too awful to contemplate; as human beings we would always opt for some form of conditional immortality, but the Scripture gives us no such hope. Further, the Christian looks in vain to the Scriptures to give a clear answer to the question of the eternal state of those who have not heard the Gospel. The Christian can only echo Abraham, ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right’ (Genesis 18:25). Hell is spiritual death, being cut off from the presence of God. Wright suggests, ‘In terms of heaven, hell is a thin, slight world whose only attributes are negatives’.30 In the light of the clear teaching on the resurrection of both the just and the unjust (John 5:28, 29; Acts 24:15) this statement seems less than adequate. Clearly the resurrection of the unsaved cannot be compared with the resurrection of the believer who is to be recreated in the image of Christ. Yet the New Testament teaching that judgment will be according to works (Matthew 25:31–46; Romans 2:6) would suggest that a substantive reality must be attributed to the resurrection of the unrighteous and to the nature of hell.

A dogmatic theology of creation and redemption. Universalists tend to confuse God’s work as Creator and His work as Redeemer generally in the direction of the creation-incarnation-consummation axis of revelation. Or they argue that all knowledge of God is saving knowledge rejecting the distinction between general and special revelation. Universalism has a natural tendency to abstract from the reality of sin and to reduce the human predicament to ignorance or trespass. Without a noetic knowledge of God (Romans 1 and 2) man is not responsible for his sin, but it is only in the historical Christ Event interpreted by God Himself, that the grace of particular salvation is possible.

Practical tests for evaluating universalism

The test of evangelism. Jesus began His ministry by saying ‘the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the Gospel’ (Mark 1:15). In his understanding of the truth of the Gospel for a dying world Paul confessed, ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.’ Can universalism produce an alternative motivation which will produce an equivalent sense of urgency in evangelism?

The test of the Church as community. The Church as ‘the community of the new people of God called out and called together’ (Hans Küng) is God’s chosen agent in the world. It is a community called to unity, to worship and to love God, and to a caring ministry to those outside its membership. It is a community redeemed out of the world yet commissioned to a deep and costly penetration into the world, judging and transforming culture and society. It is the salt and light of the world. Will universalism strengthen this image of the Church or weaken it to the point where both Christ and the Church become anonymous?

The test of persecution. Jesus warned that not only would the Gospel be preached throughout the whole world but that Christians would be hated by all nations for His name’s sake. Churches in Asia today are facing increasing tribulation and persecution from either Marxist political powers, or from fanatic religiously dominated rulers or from right wing military dictatorships. The Church is weak and it faces an identity crisis. Does universalism offer a depth of conviction and commitment that will enable Christians to stand in the evil day? Only a full orbed Biblical eschatology can provide the right answers and point to the source of power to overcome all things.


1 In the End God, London, 1968.

2 Evil and the God of Love, London, 1966.

3 Upon the Earth, Madras, 1963, pp. 92, 95.

4 Christianity in the Pluralistic World—The Economy of the Holy Spirit, Living Faiths and the Ecumenical Movement, Geneva, 1971, p. 140.

5 The Debate on the ‘cosmic Christ’ as Example of an Ecumenically Orientated Theology, Indian Voices in Today’s Theological Debate, Lucknow, 1972, pp. 198–214. The German edition of the article was published in 1966.

6 Cited, p. 211.

7 See lectures, Jesus Christ Europe and Asia (1866). India asks, Who is Christ? (1879).

8 The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, London, 1964, p. 39.

9 The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance, Madras, 1970, p. xiv.

10 Man of the Universe of Faith, Madras, 1975, p. 154.

11 Ibid., p. 157.

12 See The Acknowledged Christ of the Indian Renaissance, op. cit., pp. 314–319.

13 Spirituality in the Indian Church Today, The Church: A Peoples Movement, ed. Mathai Zachariah, NCC, 1975.

14 Ibid., p. 17.

15 Ibid., p. 18.

16 Ibid., p. 26.

17 Dialogue, Vol. 1, No. 1, April 1974, Colombo, p. 2.

18 Towards a Theology of Dialogue, The Ecumenical Review of Theology, Vol. 19, No. 1, January 1977, p. 5.

19 Christians and Jews, London, 1966, p. 39.

20 Ibid., p. 48.

21 On the Nature of Islamic Da’wah, International Review of Mission, Vol. LXV, No. 260, October 1976, p. 395.

22 David Brown, A New Threshold, BCC, 1976, p. 11.

23 Some Trends in Contemporary Indian Theology, Religion and Society, Vol. xxiv, No. 4, December 1977, pp. 4–18. This was a lecture given at the University of Uppsala in connection with the 500th anniversary celebrations of the University.

24 Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross, 1957.

25 Exploration into God, London, 1967, p. 145.

26 Exploration into God, op. cit., p. 145.

27 See A. J. Packer, Universalism and Evangelism, Berlin Congress on Evangelism, 1966.

28 See N. T. Wright, Universalism and the Worldwide Community, The Churchman, Vol. 89, No. 3, July/September 1975, pp. 197–212.

29 Universalism, Berlin Congress on Evangelism, 1966.

30 Ibid., p. 202.

Bruce J. Nicholls

International Co-ordinator of the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship