by Fred Pruitt
Click here to listen to an audio of this piece. Part One
A LITTLE HISTORY
People have been asking me about the issue of “universal salvation” for at least a decade or more. In the early 2000s, when I first began to run into this current wave of “universalism” among what I could loosely call the Evangelical/Bible-oriented folks, myself included, it really took me by surprise. Though I heard of its stirrings in my early union life days, and I knew there were some among us (but were quiet about it) that held that view, I never really seriously considered the question then.
Just to clarify, when I use the term, “universal salvation,” I am meaning a belief or system of beliefs that everyone who has ever lived will ultimately be brought into the heavenly realm, fully with and in the favor of God. That also means that there is no “eternal hell”* where anyone will go after they leave this life. There are many variations, but this is the belief more or less common among them all. Of course this flies in the face of any “orthodox” Christian theology, which has held from the earliest times that there truly is such a place or state, and that there are persons who “go there.” (It is also true, that from the earliest times [some of the post apostolic church “fathers”], there have also been those who have held the universal salvation view.) *I use the word “hell” simply because its meaning is known to everyone, but one can substitute any other name, Hades, Gehenna, Sheol, place of the dead, lake of fire, outer darkness or some other.
Normally, I do not find myself occupied with this issue, because I am not usually talking about the beginning things, the ABCs of our faith, as it mentions in Hebrews 6:1. My “settling” in the elementary things of the message of Jesus Christ, was during my first few years in Christ. Since those days, my occupation, I believe by the Spirit, has been in the further things, after those beginning things are settled, when we move from our separated independent-self viewpoint, to an awareness of who we fully are in Christ, that we are one with Him, and thus find we become the fruit-bearing, life-multiplying branch, we were created to be.
All of this “activity” is for a time centered in the “self” that we are, where the greatest issue of all is settled within us – “Who am I?” This was the matter at the heart of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. “IF thou be the Son of God …” Jesus had to have it settled, and we do, too! Because when this “self” issue is settled, we find all the impediments, which in our former mindset had blocked the fullness of God’s spiritual abundance from surfacing in our lives, are no longer there. And this opens the way to a realization of our full sonship in Christ, which Paul so eloquently describes in Romans 8:28b-30:
We are those “who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”
But since this is such a “hot” issue in this moment, I would like to spend a brief little time with this, and then for myself and anyone else who would like to do so, I would like to put it behind us and get on with the business of Christ as He is in each of us, and into the meatier things of our calling.
Actually, it is one of my oldest questions or past issues with “Christianity,” that for a time served as (perhaps) a necessary obstacle to my final emptiness before the Lord as an unbeliever. I had all sorts of “objections,” when I was cornered by the witnesses that God sent my way. However, when the Lord God Himself confronted me, which some may doubt but I cannot deny, my objections paled into nothingness. When it became clear to me one night that I knew absolutely nothing of the divine life, when I had been self-convinced that I really had known “something,” I became completely undone. I deconstructed. I was unmade. It was an act of the Spirit, but I didn’t know about stuff like that then. I just knew I had become undone, but it was not long after, in the next few days, that I began to realize I had been remade.
As a non-believer, when with a nearly adult mind (19-21 yrs) I began to seriously consider the claims of Jesus Christ, the idea of a “hell” was completely repugnant to me. It just did not jive with any concept I had of “love,” if it be that “God is love,” as the Christians claimed. “How could a loving God send people to an eternity of unimaginable pain and torment because they had sex outside of marriage or drank a beer or never heard the name Jesus?” The old “what about the babies in countries where they have never heard of Him?” (that I couldn’t have cared less about) objection. It was preposterous to me. (I did not know at the time I had been fed those ideas by people who had no more clue about those things than I did.)
But then, at the time, I denied a belief in God, too. It was actually the whole package of the central Christian message that was offensive to me, an affront to my “intelligence” – Jesus the “exclusive” way to God; the existence of a “real” devil, Satan, along with his hell; the Bible as God’s “Word” to humanity; and last but not least and maybe the biggest obstacle, that salvation was not earned, but came as a gift through something called “grace.” That was the biggest puzzler of them all and the one which was at the forefront of my difficulty.
But as I said, on the night of that confrontation, I had no questions. It was not the time to raise intellectual objections. I came to the personal cosmos-shaking de-realization, that I knew “nothing!” However, having no idea that it would happen, at the point of that emptiness, I met God. Though it was more like a “Profoundly Deep Depth of Silence,” there was still a sense of Presence that reached out and brought me into a state of peace … still, in a flurry of ecstatic words I told this “GOD” I had just met – that I still wasn’t sure was there, but at the same time somehow “knew” HE was there anyway – that whatever He revealed or showed to me as “Truth,” I would take as Truth, starting with Jesus.
Prior to that moment, the Lord had already been stripping me without my knowledge. Through the somewhat eastern path He had me on, it had become clear to me that I could not be seeking a “truth” of my own making. I could not be looking for a truth which pleased me, that had bells and whistles and features like a stereo system, and I just shop for the “Truth” that has all the features I prefer. “Truth” could not be a reflection or projection of me – I knew that. So when HE (the Spirit of Truth) came, that clever Spirit had already built that mind in me, that truth IS truth, and it was not truth that must be changed for me, but in effect it was I who changed for the truth. (That is what we call repentance – a change of directions.)
So the upshot of all that, is that when Christ became real in me, the scriptures also came alive and through them the Spirit began to teach me the things of God, just little bits here and there every day. And all the previous obstacles listed above, the Bible, the “offensive exclusivity” of believing in salvation in Christ alone, the devil with his hell, and grace, all resolved in the love of God and truth of Christ as He Himself overtook me. Intellectually I could not even begin to grasp it all, but the peace and new life that began to spring up noticeably in me, validated it. Instinctively I knew (actually it was an unconscious informing by the Spirit) that I had stumbled into Life. Not some dead religion or the latest new fad belief – no, I knew I had hit the Mother Lode! There could be nothing further or greater for me: I was home, home port, shelter in the storm, safe and warm, and held in the everlasting arms of my beloved.
It was a season in my life for that kind of thing. Within just a few days of “meeting” the Lord, I had one of the greatest “openings” of my life, but I didn’t know it at the time. (I never do.) The Lord just opened my eyes one day to a scene from my recent past, and I had another “undone” moment. One of the things that had challenged me in coming to Christ and for a while after, was Paul’s word that Satan could transform himself into an angel of light, so that it was no wonder that his ministers would appear as servants of light, of righteousness (2 Cor 11:14,15). Part of my reluctance to follow Jesus as He more and more pressed me, was the consideration of those teachers and other helpers in the spiritual life that had been very meaningful and important to me to that point. I instinctively knew that to go with Christ, I would have to abandon them and all the other things I had learned.
In regard to that, one day only a few days into God’s new Life, the Spirit brought me in my mind’s eye to some of the activities and “spiritual” things I had been delving into previously. At the time I had been completely convinced it was all great light and truth, and all the people in it benevolent, loving, and sincere seekers of wisdom and truth. People may think I am being unkind or judgmental, but it was an insight that did not come from me, because I believed the opposite at the time. It was as if the Spirit drew back a thin opaque veil, revealing the truth behind what I had previously thought to be all benevolence and love. Seeing behind those appearances, the Spirit showed me I had actually been in an environment of unperceived spiritual darkness, and its intents had not been kind, but unabashedly deceptive, malevolent and insidious.
And I saw all those in the throes of that darkness, in their inner beliefs mostly well-intentioned, thinking themselves holy, spiritual and loving because of their spiritual exercises (myself at the time included), by this unholy deception were really just building an increasingly larger inner idol of self within themselves, that would be increasingly strengthened in the devil’s self-might in itself, making the deception ever greater and the bond holding them in that deception ever stronger and harder to escape. It is actually dangerous to succeed in the spiritual disciplines, because it is a fact that through meditation, thinking good thoughts, etc., one can achieve a certain level of tranquility and inner confidence that mimics true spirituality in Christ, and that is the danger. By this deception the devil keeps building a bigger and bigger castle, a greater and greater castle of “good self,” which becomes increasingly hard to let go, because it is the same deception by which the enemy of our souls self-deceived himself – his own self-perceived beauty and perfection. (It took me a while to realize that a lot of God’s folks go through that particular school on their way to Jesus, thinking it a path to holiness or enlightenment. For those who find the Son, it is. So I always appreciate their devotion and seeking, and pray they might find the heart of Love they desire.)
In short, the Spirit showed me in a heartbeat the underlying truth of the Apostle John’s 1 John 5:19 word:
“We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” (NASB)
And also Paul’s statement in Ephesians 2: 1-3 –
“And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins: Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.”
I know some people see that in some sort of poetic or figurative sense. I do not. I see it as the reality I see every day on the evening news, if nowhere else. (But then, I see it much closer to home as well!)
Still, that does not cause me to despair, but instead to praise! Why, how could I praise when evil is so prevalent in the world, when so many are starving, without adequate shelter, or sick with no access to proper care? Or what about those who are held in oppression by totalitarian regimes, suffering unknown horrors at the hands of tormenters? Or what of the innocent (and not so innocent) victims of wars perpetrated on the earth for the sake of worldly power, selfish gain and the capricious whims of national leaders. To consider all that in its enormity and pervasiveness across the face of the earth is overwhelming and it is ALL HORRIFIC!!!
How can I praise, how can I have joy, when these very things and worse are occurring all over the face of the earth – even as I type these words?
Believe me, these things do not escape the heart of God – within me. There are times they bring me down on the floor. But –
I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD. (Ps 27:13,14).
This is, after all, supposed to be talking about “universal salvation” with its attendant issues, so I’d best get back to that. As I said, I accepted the truth as I could perceive it then, that there is a “destiny” beyond this world, one to life and another to death. My perception then was simple: For those who do not believe, whose names are not found in the Lamb’s Book of Life, that means being cast into the “lake of fire,” made for the devil and his angels, as Revelation says, fully outlined in chapter 20. Grim stuff it seems.
To make that even more solid, in those days I found that almost every book in the New Testament has some reference to judgment and the final division between those who are God’s and those who choose to remain the devil’s. It is a plainly visible, easy-to-see truth, sometimes told in parable form by Jesus, sometimes in the plain words of Jesus, and continued to be told as well by the writers of all three synoptic gospels, along with Paul, Jude, Peter, James and, of course, the Apostle John, in his gospel, letters and Revelation.
Almost every book of the New Testament mentions the tempter, or the deceptions through which wickedness reigns in human persons and society – not first of all the drug dealers, prostitutes, murderers, thieves, etc. No, first among the wicked are those who put themselves among the “good.” That disguised place of “outer” good, is much more responsible for the wickedness in the world, than are social misfits, criminals, and those who are plainly evil. People on the earth, who consider themselves “good,” are not fooled by the wickedness of the plainly wicked. Oh, but they go down by the millions and prostrate themselves and fawn upon the feet of the falsely good, whose wickedness is even greater than those of the “bad” side, because of its hypnotic deception to lure in its victims with false promises of good things.
The New Testament books talk much of destruction, too. A bit about destruction in the outer world, but the real destruction the New Testament is concerned with is the destruction in the personal lives of human beings. And though it is mentioned in the context of our earthly lives, the destruction which concerns it is spiritual, as with this that Jesus said to Nicodemus:
“He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.” (John 3: 18-21).
Then a few verses later the gospel quotes John the Baptist:
“He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” (John 3: 36).
How did I reconcile these words with God’s love in those days? Frankly, it was not a difficult thing to do, given how the Lord had brought me along. In the beginning of my Christian experience, I was a clean slate – didn’t really know much of anything! But the truth coming out of scripture and into my understanding was like drinking from a fire hose, it was flowing so fast! I just took it all in with a child’s wonder, awe and trust. As far as an “eternal hell” was concerned, which was then to me plainly said in scripture, I entrusted it to the love of God, and to a realization by the Spirit that became my continuous outlook toward God both then and now – “True and righteous are thy judgments altogether.” (Ps 19:9; Rev 16:7; Rev 19:2). It did not seem my “place” to question God’s righteousness, or to comment negatively on “His judgments.”
END PART ONE