“Truth by definition excludes.” – Ravi Zacharias
Universalism and pluralism are on the rise according to the Barna Research Group (2011). In fact, the Barna Research Group (2011) indicated that now 25% of born again Christians believe that all people will eventually go to heaven regardless of religious affiliation in this life. Moreover, the reasoning behind this belief is due to the assumption that most religions have the same teachings, and that they the main differences is the means by which the same things are taught (Barna Research Group, 2011). Though universalism seems to be widely accepted by both the Christian and secular populous in some manner, it is not difficult to discern the clear, even fatal flaws in this form of philosophy.
To begin, universalism is not a historic system of belief in itself. With the notable exception of some Eastern religions, universalism was seen as foolish in the Western world. This has completely changed in a measly 50 years. In the present day, the dominant mindset in philosophy is defined by not being able to be directly defined; it is moral and philosophical relativism to the highest degree (Aylesworth, 2015). As Greg Aylesworth (2015) writes, the term “postmodernism” was first coined by Jean-François Lyotard in 1979. Aylesworth (2015) discusses the fact that postmodernism as seen today is drawn greatly from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and psychologist Sigmund Freud.
In the present day, the dominant mindset in philosophy is defined by not being able to be directly defined; it is moral and philosophical relativism to the highest degree.
The philosophy of these two individuals is based mainly on focusing solely on oneself. When the direct emphasis is on the indulgence and satisfaction of each person, morality and ethics begins to wade into relativism (Aylesworth, 2015). Kenneth Schenck (2014) also highlights the apprehension this mindset has regarding metanarratives, which is the indication of an overarching truth that is persistently true. Ideas and truths are therefore not left to an external force, but one’s own internal force (Schenck, 2014). Ergo, postmodernism argues that there is no absolute truth.
This segues into the recent development of universalism. During the modern age, the idea that all religions and beliefs are true based on one’s own feeling and intuition would be regarded incredulously. Modernism relies heavily on the rationality of the human mind and its capabilities to come to truth and logical conclusions (Schenck, 2014). The idea of universalism or any other relativistic approach to philosophy would have vehemently been opposed by any thinking man of this age. However, relative thinking is clearly shown as rising in the past fifty years, and universalism has followed this rise closely. Neglecting the notion of a metanarrative creates an ambiguous world where nothing is true yet everything is true at the same time (Schenck, 2014). All being true at a single time is often used as a way to defend universalism, and the analogy of the elephant is often cited to pose this argument (Koukl, 2013). This same analogy will later be discussed in more detail.
In order to begin assessing the validity of the philosophical claims of universalism, one must firstly become somewhat familiar with the basics of the field of philosophy. This are of study has three main branches which include metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. As Schenck (2014) writes, metaphysics questions the nature of existence and reality. Metaphysics is accredited with some of the most often asked philosophical queries like “is the world outside of myself real?” Epistemology is the branch that aids in determining what is true (Schenck, 2014). An example of epistemology would be determining what is or is not considered “good thinking.” Schenck (2014) poses that the last branch, called axiology, ponderes what is both beautiful and valuable, and why it is or is not valuable. The diverse interpretation from each worldview alone as it relates to these three branches itself proves inconsistency.
As James W. Sire (2009) articulates, the way that each person approaches and addresses these three parts of philosophy shapes what is called a worldview. Particularly, Sire (2009) lays out how various world religions approach philosophy, and how the religion’s worldview is expressed. Universalism asserts that all paths lead to God regardless of one’s philosophical approach to life or one’s worldview (Schenck, 2014). This idea is innately postmodernist due to its implications demanding relativity. Many universalists will contend that each and every religion is a different nature of true reality, and therefore leads to God. Though many universalists adopt this mindset, they fail to take into account how different the worldviews of humanity are. They begin to boil religions down to nothing more than slight alterations of the same viewpoint.
They begin to boil religions down to nothing more than slight alterations of the same viewpoint.
However, as Sire (2009) writes, this is a gross inaccuracy that all religions are the same. For example, true Islam is unable to agree with even the most basic Christian doctrines (Sire, 2009). The divinity of Christ is amongst the foundation for Christianity, and without Christ, nobody on earth would be able to go to heaven by believing and following Christ. On the other hand, Islam would oppose this doctrine and claim it as pure heresy to equate this prophet with Allah. Christianity believes eternal life can only be found through Christ: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’”(John 14:6,ESV). On the other hand, Islam would be baffled by such a claim as the Gospel of John states. Furthermore, Islam charges its followers to eliminate and control all heresy spread throughout the world, which includes claiming Jesus Christ as theanthropic (Sire, 2009).
Moreover, not only are there these specific inconsistencies, there are also large, overarching differences between the example of Christianity and Islam that proves universalism to be a blissfully ignorant belief. Metaphysically, these two religions both claim a monotheistic view, and that both Allah and the God of the Bible are sovereign beings (Sire, 2009). However, if this were the case, then both of these deities would be forced to battle in order to determine who is truly sovereign. Alas, no Muslim or Christian would claim this view as his or her perception of reality. There cannot be two two omnipotent beings at once. The very nature and foundation of these two religions appear similar to the common eye, but even an example of two monotheistic religions prove to be incompatible with one another (Schenck, 2014).
Furthermore, the postmodernist mindset that all are transported to where they desire to go after death does not compute with the idea of a devout atheist and a devout follower of Christianity. Relativistically, these two worldviews can exist at the same time because truth varies from one person to the next (Schenck, 2014). However, it is unable to be answered how an atheist can perish into nothingness while a devout Christian go to heaven all in the same world. This seems silly to the common man because it simply is incompatible to the highest degree.
Another presentation of universalism is seen through the analogy of the elephant. As Greg Koukl (2013) details readers, this is an old Indian parable wherein pluralism is asserted to be ultimate reality. The parable is made up of several blind men all feeling an elephant, one may feel the trunk, one may feel the leg, and one may feel its stomach. The man feeling the leg may say “this is a tree,” the one feeling the trunk may say “this is a snake,” and the one feeling the tail may say “this a rope” (Koukl, 2013). However, one day all the men are able to see, and they realize that the assemblance of each viewpoint is what leads to the ultimate truth, which is realizing what an elephant truly is. On the contrary, one way Koukl (2013) successfully defeats this argument is in a creative and unique way. Koukl (2013) contends that this parable neglects the fact that Christianity claims that this metaphorical elephant can speak, by which he means God speaking through both the Bible and specific revelation upon salvation. Furthermore, this analogy only serves as an assertion, not as an argument. An argument is a well articulated viewpoint that provides evidence, while an assertion only serves as an opinion without logical explanation (Koukl, 2013). The elephant metaphor does not account the reality of various religions’ claims, and this metaphor does not ultimately point to universalism.
Philosophically, this concept of everyone going to his or her desired destination after death proves to be an innately faulty mindset. However, many Christians claim to hold this view, and with another objective look this mindset can also be disproved. The specifically Christian approach to this is that all people will be eventually be saved by the triune God, and that his love will surpass all sins regardless of how people live on earth. As Sinclair Ferguson (1990) points out correctly, the doctrine of “Solus Christus” must firstly begin with the baseline assumption of evil. Whenever a human is born into existence, so the wrath of God follows the inevitably sinful actions that will be committed by said person (Ferguson, 1990).
For example, Matthew 16 verses eight and nine point out the reality of depravity and eternal punishment through an analogy:
And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (ESV)
However, this is where the great gift of God incarnated into flesh bears the sinfulness of those who believe, and therefore eliminates the wrath of God from their life. The ramification of this is that the Bible clearly declares Christ as the only way to not be subjected to eternal justice (Ferguson, 1990). In this way, Christian universalism does not only prove to be philosophically inconsistent, but also biblically inconsistent.
However untrue universalism may be, it would be downright hypocritical to not offer what the most desirable aspect of Christianity offers. This winsome part of Christianity is the fact of a full life that is able to be found in Jesus Christ, the one who not only helped create humanity but also died for humanity. The same deity that invented the infinitely complex cosmos came to earth in the form of his own creation so that he could reconcile humanity’s sinfulness with the grace of himself. A truly apologetic approach to universalism or any other type of philosophy should not seek only to disprove, but to spread the love and grace of God to all nations of the earth. The word of God still rings true to this day:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 29:19-20, ESV).
Aylesworth, G. (2015, Spring). Postmodernism. Retrieved from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy website: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/
Barna Research Group. (2011, April 18). What Americans believe about universalism and pluralism. Retrieved from https://www.barna.com/research/what-americans-believe-about-universalism-and-pluralism/
Ferguson, S. (1990). Universalism and the reality of eternal punishment: The biblical basis of the doctrine of eternal punishment. Retrieved from Desiring God website: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/universalism-and-the-reality-of-eternal-punishment-the-biblical-basis-of-the-doctrine-of-eternal-punishment
Koukl, K. (2013, February 20). The trouble with the elephant. Retrieved from Stand to Reason website: https://www.str.org/articles/the-trouble-with-thelephant#.Wi7oEMaZOT8
Schenck, K. (2014). A christian philosophical journey. Marion, Indiana: Triangle Publishing. Sire, J.W. (2009). The universe next door. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.
Sire, J.W. (2009). The universe next door. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.