In late July, 1549, the first Christian missionary reached Japan bearing the “euangelion” – the “good-message” – the “good news” – English “gospel” to the people of Japan. The missionary carrying the good news of Jesus Christ was Francis Xavier. The Japanese he found there lived in a society completely arranged around their religious beliefs – various ancient forms of Shintoism. Shintoism actually teaches that there were spirits outside of one’s own tribe spirits who can sometimes be the source of new truths, innovations and ideas. So this strange man from distant parts of the world was not dismissed out-of-hand. And Xavier had lived an exemplary life consistent with his beliefs which lent his teachings some credibility. He was given a friendly reception, but it took less than a year for this new religion he was preaching to be banned by the Emporer.
One particular belief held by all Japanese was “Tama” or reverence of ancestors. The ancestors were revered because they had created the current generations. The people have come from the ancestors at birth and when they died, they would become part of the ancestors. Of course the Japanese people were very interested in the question of their revered ancestors. Xavier recounts these conversations:
“One of the things that most pains and torments these Japanese is that we teach them that the prison of hell is irrevocably shut. For they grieve over the fate of their departed children, of their parents and relatives; and they often show their grief by their tears. So they ask us if there is any hope . . .and I am obliged to answer that there is absolutely none. The grief at this affects and torments them wonderfully; they almost pine away with sorrow . . . I can hardly restrain my tears sometimes at seeing many so dear to my heart suffer such intense pain about a thing which is already done and can never be undone.”
The good news arrived and brought what to the people of Japan? Sorrow that nearly kills them? Grief that has no hope of comfort? This is what Jesus sent us into the world to bring people – news that their dead babies are being tortured in hell with no hope of escape? Euangelion indeed. Suffice it to say that the conversion of the Japanese at that time wasn’t particularly successful.
Imagine the difference if instead of Francis Xavier the people of Japan had encountered Indian Christian missionary Sadhu Sundar Sing:
“People call us heathens. Just fancy! My mother a heathen! If she were alive now she would certainly be a Christian. But even while she followed her ancestral faith she was so religious that the term ‘heathen’ makes me smile. She prayed to God, she served God, she loved God, far more warmly and deeply than many Christians.”
“If the Divine spark in the soul cannot be destroyed, then we need despair of no sinner… Since God created men to have fellowship with Himself, they cannot for ever be separated from Him… After long wandering, and by devious paths, sinful man will at last return to Him in whose Image he was created; for this is his final destiny.”
Do you suppose that hearing this teaching, the people of Japan would have be more or less open to Jesus? Do you suppose they would have loved him more or less if they had been told that their ancestors would be OK? By their fruit you will know them – which teaching brings good fruit and which bad?
True love cast out fear
There are those who claim that if we take away eternal hell, people will not convert to Christianity since in the end we’re all going to the same place. This is a lot like claiming that a man should demand his wife have sex with him by threatening to throw her into the streets otherwise she might not have sex with him. This is like claiming that God is not more attractive than a life of sin and must use fear to draw us to himself. It’s like saying that God would be happy to have a wife who makes love to him out of fear of being thrown into the street. Imagine a man who insisted that he threatened a woman to get her to marry him because she can only be happy with him and he just wants her to be happy. If a man made such a claim we’d quickly recognize him as an insane, dangerous nut-job stalker type. And yet we turn around and claim that this is how the God we serve behaves. And it’s OK that he does it because he’s God, not man. Because apparently we are supposed to have much lower expectations for God than for man. It is, in short, complete blasphemy against God. And I hope that this series on hell has demonstrated that it’s not biblical either.
Almost certainly, the biggest thing that learning of biblical universalism did for my faith was grew my trust in God exponentially. When you are walking around thinking that God will send people away to hell forever, it’s hard to trust him. We can make up all the theological reasoning in the world to explain why this is necessary or acceptable, but really who would allow so much of humanity to be lost like that? Wouldn’t it be better if the world had not been made at all if it meant that so many people were going to suffer like that for all eternity? As much as I had tried to dismiss, explain away and ignore such ideas, there was always a kernel of distrust between myself and God. Until I learned that he really is in the process of saving all men, especially those who believe.
Once that kernel of distrust was gone, the things which Christianity asks of us became much easier as well. Up to that point, the world had seemed like a kind of dangerous place to live in. It much suck me in and lead me somewhere that could put my entire salvation at risk. Or reveal that it had never been real to begin with. So I kept a safe faith. I didn’t move too widely lest I get lost. But universalism taught me that I could never wind up someplace that God could not rescue me from – that he’d come back for me if I was the one sheep that was too dumb and stubborn to move away from danger. I gained freedom – “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” I could learn to live in this world as it is rather than hunkering down and keeping safe until I died. Unless Christ came again before then and set me free. Again.
Another pleasant thing that happened when I became a universalist was I found it much easier to accept and get along with other people. Once God could be trusted with them, I didn’t feel such a strong, subconscious need to try to control, direct or influence others. They could be wrong and it wasn’t the end of the world because I could trust that God would deal with whatever needed to be dealt with. He could do what he needed to do with or without my help. Without the mental pressure to somehow direct people to a saving relationship with Christ, it was much easier to just get to know them and learn to appreciate what made them who they are. That rather than trying to angle for a way to “evangelize” to them became my main objective.
Universalism and Evangelism
Not too long ago, a young woman from the homeschooling community in our area was going around our local YMCA after the weekly homeschool gym and swim session. She carried her bible in hand, looking for someone to witness to. I know her family and their religious beliefs. As I watched her, I could hear in my head the sort of “talk” that had prompted this: “people everywhere need to hear the gospel. And you don’t have to travel far away to spread the gospel. There are people all around you who have never invited Jesus into their hearts. They could be anywhere – you don’t know until you talk to them. You could be the only person who ever really talks with them about Jesus, so don’t worry about being embarrassed or afraid – just do it. Maybe you could practice on the people at the YMCA next week. They’re nice and you might even be able to help someone find salvation. You never know.”
I could practically see her painted on bravery as she forced herself to walk up to other kids and parents. She had clearly practiced before hand and was using a sort of “script” to approach people and ask follow-up questions designed to illuminate whether a person had genuinely been saved. I was very proud of my boys that day. They listened and actually talked a bit with her. Were very kind and wished her luck. No weird faces, no impatient attempts to hurry up and get away. No doubt they saw the same thing I saw: a young woman who was motivated by something true and good in her heart to do something that was clearly very uncomfortable and even painful for her to do. Because she believed that this is what God desired of her. It was painful to watch, frankly. And I knew exactly how she felt – I had been there myself.
After learning about universal salvation, my desire to share the gospel with people became stronger. But since I no longer felt the pressure of being responsible in some way for bringing other people to belief, I felt comfortable waiting until it would actually make sense to talk to someone. It wasn’t an emergency. If they happened to get hit by a bus right after I saw them, I wasn’t going to think, “I had a chance to tell them about Jesus and didn’t. What if they are in hell?” I know that God had it. Evangelism became a matter of following the leading of the Spirit rather than something I presumed I was supposed to be doing. I didn’t assume that it was my job to get the job done with each person I met. My desire to tell people about God has only gotten stronger since learning about universalism. Only now it’s driven by a heart that’s over-flowing and not by a sense of responsibility – a mere duty on the checklist of things good Christians do. Besides, clearly I reach more people with my blog than I ever did by making myself excruciatingly uncomfortable trying to tell people they are going to hell and need Jesus.
My whole faith life and in fact, this whole life we’re all living makes so much more sense to me now that it ever did when I believed in eternal hell. I can honestly and whole-heartedly say that learning about it has made me a better Christian in every way. I am more trusting which makes me more obedient which allows me to grow more quickly in my faith and which ultimately makes me more loving. I lost absolutely nothing by rejecting the notion that of eternal hell, but gained so much.
So, that’s it for Hell Week (it was an extra long week!). I want to thank everyone who has Liked my facebook page. If you haven’t joined The Upside Down World on facebook yet, you should go do that now. Before you walk through a doorway and forget!