Universalism in Modern Missionary Thinking

by Bassam M. Madany


On both sides of the Western Christian divide, Universalism is spreading. Some Roman Catholics and Protestants are positing the possibility of the salvation of people who have not believed --- in this life --- in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

On the Roman Catholic side, I would like to single out an article that appeared in the March, 1996, issue of the monthly journal, FIRST THINGS, under the title of Evangelizing Theology by Father Avery Dulles.

There are several excellent points that Father Dulles made, especially in his enumeration of "seven trends in contemporary Catholic theology that are less than friendly to evangelization." They are "the radical separation between faith and belief, metaphysical agnosticism, religious pragmatism, cultural relativism, religious pluralism, a false concept of freedom as well as anti-authoritarianism." What spoiled Father Dulles' article for me was his universalistic teaching by way of his interpretation of I Thess. 2:13 "We thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of man but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers."*

Commenting on Paul's words, Father Dulles wrote:

"This Pauline teaching, which is consonant with that of the other New Testament authors and the classical theological tradition, does not require one to hold that all unevangelized peoples are consigned to eternal damnation. Indeed, the Catholic Church has repeatedly proclaimed that God puts salvation within the reach of everyone. But the way in which people can be saved without hearing the gospel remains God's secret. We may conjecture that they are saved by accepting seeds of the Word (semina Verbi), which the divine Sower has liberally disseminated throughout the world, far and wide." (1)

In the early 1950s, I was a student at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. The textbook for the course on World Missions was, The World's Religions, edited by Prof. J.N.D. Anderson of the University of London. He contributed the chapter on Islam as well as the epilogue. Here is a quotation from the 1953 version:

"These other religions, then, like so much else in the world of men, are made up of elements whose ultimate origins are diverse. But in so far as these diverse elements have been welded into systems which serve only to divert and keep men from that way of salvation and life which cost God Himself the incarnation and the cross, the Christian must regard them as Satanic substitutes, however good they may be in parts. This intolerance, if intolerance it be, is not that of a sectarian and insensitive spirit, but is necessarily inherent in the nature of the Christian message." (2)

In the revised 1977 edition, Sir Norman Anderson (having been knighted by Queen Elizabeth since the fifties,) appears to have softened his earlier position. After distancing himself from the view that the non-Christian religions are some kind of preparations for the gospel of Jesus Christ, the author describes what is considered as the exclusivist's position in this way:

"Other Christians have adopted, at times, a diametrically opposite attitude. Instead of giving prominence to the elements of truth to be found in other religions, they have emphasized the darker side of their ethical teaching and the less persuasive of their theological tenets, and have concluded that they emanate from the devil, rather than from God. In particular, those who take this view insist that these other religions clearly deny, whether by explicit statement or implicit teaching, the unique claims of the 'Word made flesh' and the fundamental need for the atonement that he alone could --- and did --- effect." (3)

Sir Norman Anderson now favors a third position that contradicts what he had advocated in his earlier years.

"Yet a third view regards these other religions as not emanating primarily from either God or the devil, but as representing a variety of human attempts to explain the phenomena of life, to reach out after ultimate reality and to construct some system of thought, behaviour and religious observance which will satisfy men's needs." (4)

Having formulated this third way of looking at world religions, the author is now ready to posit the possibility of salvation for those who have not placed their faith, in this life, in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

"But what if the Spirit of God convicts them, as he alone can, of something of their sin and need; and what if he enables them, in the darkness or twilight, somehow to cast themselves on the mercy of God and cry out, as it were, for his forgiveness and salvation? Will they not then be accepted and forgiven in the one and only Saviour? And if it be asked how this can be when they have never so much as heard of him, then the answer must be that they will be accepted on the basis of what the God of all grace himself did in Christ at the cross; for it is on that basis, alone, that a God who is light as well as love, just as well as merciful, can welcome and forgive repentant sinners." (5)

These are very noble sentiments that unfortunately have no Scriptural foundations. They are mere speculations of what "God who is light as well as love, just as well as merciful," may do on the Day of Judgment.

I do not want to delve into the reasons for this shift toward Universalism among some Western Christians. They seem to be reluctant to proclaim unambiguously what Paul teaches us in his Letter to the Romans, "Because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (10:9 NRSV) Are we ashamed to tell our new neighbors who are followers of world religions that "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12 NRSV)

In the early years of Christianity, its followers encountered many of the challenges we are facing today. They did not compromise, and many sealed with their blood their marturia (i.e., testimony). That is why they were called martyrs. Are we ashamed of the Gospel that clearly testifies to the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ as a condition of salvation?


(1) FIRST THINGS, A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, Editorial Office: 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010 March 1996, Number 61, and Pp.27-32 *This quotation from I Thessalonians 2:13, is quoted verbatim from the article of Avery Dulles.

(2) J.N.D. Anderson, Editor. The World's Religions. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1953, P. 192

(3) Sir Norman Anderson, Editor. The World's Religions. Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1977, P. 232

(4) Ibid. P. 232

(5) Ibid. P. 234, 235


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