The Narrow Way to Universal Salvation

The Bible tells us two things about salvation which do not seem to fit together: the way is narrow and few find it and salvation is universal, inclusive of the cosmos and all peoples.  Two sorts of Christianity have developed emphasizing these two ways. One focuses on biblical passages which describe a narrow path to salvation and a broad path to destruction, with the presumption that all who do not find the first path will burn in hell forever. This group is focused on evangelism, personal salvation, and going to heaven. In its harsher forms (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) no mitigating circumstance enters into consideration (age, mental capacities, opportunity to hear the Gospel), so that all those who have not accepted the Gospel are consigned to hell. Francis Xavier and Hudson Taylor might be described as commendable examples of those who have attempted to bear this heavy load. Xavier dies of exhaustion and Taylor suffers mental collapse in the course of trying to rescue as many as possible from the wrath of God.  Luther’s picture of the redeemed enjoying the sight of family members roasting in hell and Calvin’s notion that large portions of hell are populated by fingerling size infants (no larger than a cubit), would seem to point to a less commendable “bent” of mind (but bent or broken seems to be the implication).  The other brand of Christianity focuses on biblical passages describing universal salvation and assumes everyone is eventually saved – by various means depending on the sect. This group is not so focused on evangelism and is relieved of some of the harsher strictures of its fundamentalist twin. In its more fatuous form this universalist faith reduces, in the words of one of its more famous purveyors, to the lessons learned in kindergarten: “Hold hands when crossing the street and remember, imagination is stronger than knowledge, myth is more potent than history, and dreams are more powerful than facts.” This Pee Wee Herman sort of playhouse Christianity demands no strength of mind nor exertion of moral effort.

The story of Carlton Pearson nicely captures the extremes of both positions, as he makes the journey from extreme fundamentalism to a chicken soup for the soul universalism. Pearson, a black preacher who was like a son to Oral Roberts, once pastored one of the largest churches in Tulsa. Watching the genocide unfold in Rwanda on television he experienced, in quick succession, an unbearable burden for lost souls going to hell and the relief of recognizing all would be saved.  For the first time he  discovered passages like 1 Timothy 4:10, “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”  In the Netflix version of his story, he does not hesitate to inform his congregation of his new discovery that hell does not exist and that everyone is saved. They in turn quickly abandon him and he loses both the building and most of the congregation.  His turn from hell fire fundamentalism to a Hindu like spiritualism is portrayed as an overnight conversion, illustrating the two sides of a singular hermeneutic. He first believes one set of scriptures and then discovers another set, which he presumes contradict the first set.  As is evident in his subsequent writings, there is either a Christianity centered on hell and heaven or there is a Christianity devoid of any such definitive categories. Now he promotes expanding the mind so as to gain enlightenment and does not favor any particular religious tradition as the proper vehicle of this goal.

So how do we fit some 40 odd passages which describe universal salvation with those passage which describe salvation in terms of the narrow way? Can it be both or are we left with a seeming contradiction (hellish fundamentalism or bland spiritualism)? It cannot be both if salvation is primarily missing hell. The Bible cannot be saying most people are going to burn in hell forever while affirming everyone will miss hell and go to heaven. Hellish Christianity or Gnostic universalism are not, however, simply a contradiction but share several assumptions and reduce to the same disembodied notions. The two characteristic extremes miss the biblical focus on the present tense problem of sin and death, not because they are contradictory, but because they are derived from a similar anthropology.

The lie of the serpent in Genesis 3 promises innate immortality or some form of enduring life (“You will not die”) and this is directly connected to an independent or absolute knowledge (the knowledge of good and evil).  The two-part lie promises ontological and epistemological freedom from God (“You will not die but will be like gods knowing good and evil”) which is endlessly perpetuated in human religion, including hellish and universal forms of Christianity. Whether it is called the immortality of the soul, reincarnation, or cosmic consciousness, humans are thought to possess an eternally conscious, imperishable, component. Death is not the end but serves as passage to some form of enduring life (be it in hell, heaven, or melding with the One). Ultimately, hellish and universal Christianities reduce to Gnostic-like notions of flesh and spirit dualism in which death is not the final enemy but the passage to eternity.

While it is clear in the early chapters of Genesis that humans were created for life with God it is also clear that apart from God’s sustaining life, through the Tree of Life or through his presence, that humans die: “in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17).  This peculiarly Hebraic understanding does not allow for an imperishable soul, “For you are dust, And to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). James Dunn describes this death as including all that it means to be human; “there is no suggestion of a distinction between ‘spiritual’ and ‘physical’ death: human weakness (Ro. 5:6), the corruptibility of the flesh, and death are all of a piece in that they characterize the whole sweep of creaturely alienation from the creator.” As 2 Samuel 14:14 portrays it, “For we will surely die and are like water spilled on the ground which cannot be gathered up again.” Typical is the sentiment of Psalm 103:15-16, “As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, And its place acknowledges it no longer.” While there are vague hints, as early as the book of Job, of bodily resurrection, the notion of innate immortality or a “natural” survival of death is nearly totally lacking in Jewish thought.

Richard Baukman claims, “Hope for eternal life beyond death was a remarkable development in the faith and tradition of Second Temple Judaism.  At the beginning of this period, in the late sixth century B.C.E., there may not have been any such belief at all.”  Even in the Gospels the developing Jewish hope for resurrection, due to the strong emphasis on death as final, was not shared by all (witness the Sadducees) and those who embrace this hope presumed it would occur only at the end of history.  It is  in light of the presumed finality of death in Hebrew thought that the death and resurrection of Christ take on universal implications. Christ’s death and resurrection in the middle of history, given this Jewish context, means the apocalyptic final age has broken into ordinary time. The scriptures are fulfilled, sin is forgiven (as the penalty for sin and its fruit – death –  is suspended), the community of Israel is reestablished on a new basis (Gal. 6:16), and there is a new way of construing the world (“He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead“ (Col. 1:18)) as this end time is commensurate with “new creation” (II Cor. 5:17; John 1).

Just as creation ex nihilo depicts God calling creation from out of nothing, given the Jewish notion of the finality of death, resurrection is on the order of creation from nothing.  But the “nothing” is marked in this instance by all that is perishable. Paul depicts God using “things that are not” to “nullify the things” presumed to possess being (I Cor. 1:28).  In Ro. 4:17 he equates resurrection power to God calling “into being that which does not exist.” This new existent is “the many nations” arising from the faith of Abraham. Though he is as good as dead and Sarah’s womb was dead, resurrection faith believes God can bring life out of death. Resurrection/recreation is unfolding in the midst of a world that is passing away. It is not just that people die but their world is perishing. Abraham is called from a people that are scattered and which vanish. Jerusalem fell, Hellenism perished, Rome was sacked, and antiquity expired. The Middle Ages have vanished and the Modern age is vanishing but as the perishable is ever passing away, the imperishable (resurrection) epoch is unfolding in its midst. The body of Christ – the Church (a socio-cultural-political alternative) – survives and prevails.

The world of perishable, fragile, contingencies is not simply a reference to the body but to the temporary forms of this world. The perishable world is made up, in Paul’s depiction, of marriage, weddings, funerals, social station, worldly possessions, and various religious markers, all of which are to be considered as already nothing. Live, Paul advises, “as if not” bound by the priorities of this world:

from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess;  and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away. (1 Co 7:29–31, NASB)

The paradox of a narrow path leading to universal salvation is resolved in transit by those living “as if not.”  “Christ Jesus abolished death (the ‘not’) and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (II Tim. 1:10).  Death is no longer the orienting factor, as the priorities of this vanishing epoch are displaced by a resurrection lifestyle.

The Cross defeats and is defeating the deception which would make the “not” and nothing of death an absolute something. The Cross does not address Gehenna (in the New Testament or as a category), as hell or Gehenna is precisely not the prolonged dying of this vanishing epoch. Those Christ describes as “the living dead” are his contemporaries and his warning is not that Gehenna is a continuation of this process but its end. To confuse hell with the predicament of the living dead is to repeat the mistake of the hellish, Gnostic Christians. The Valley of Hinnom (the place infants were sacrificed to Molech, the place where the bodies of criminals were disposed of – eaten by worms and allowed to rot) is not a metaphor for eternal infant sacrifice or for infinite criminality and rebellion but for the annihilation of these sorts of evil.  It is a place of annihilation which consumes the last vestiges of evil and death as the fullness of life and creation emerge in the coming age without admixture of death.  “For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:53-54).

Christ is the beginning (new creation), the singular first born from the dead who is reconciling all things to the Father (Col. 1:18). Paul combines the strange juxtaposition of “all creation under heaven” having already received this Gospel founded on the narrow and singular “fleshly body” of Christ (Col. 1:22).


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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