I had the fortune to grow up in the golden age of quasi-grungy worship music. In the name of reaching my generation, people sang praise songs whose styles sounded more like a Creed deep track than something suitable for a contemporary worship service. One of which, “God of Wonders” (Third Day), goes like this:
God of wonders beyond our galaxy, you are Holy, Holy. The universe declares your majesty. You are Holy, Holy. The Lord of Heaven and Earth
I still remember singing that song in the front row of youth group and having a question pop into my brain: “There are tons of people in the world who do not declare God’s majesty. What happens to them?”
Universalism can be interpreted several ways, but generally it is the belief that all of humanity will be saved or is being saved by their different religions. Perhaps there was a time in American youth ministry when this question could be easily answered by quoting scripture, but increasingly in the world today, people seem to be more comfortable leaving the topic nuanced or even rationalizing that there are many paths to the same place. After all, shouldn’t we love others in a way that “does not insist on [our] own way?” To the world, saying Jesus is the only way to the Father seems closed-minded and arrogant, particularly in this post-Christian age. Ask your students about it, and you will be surprised at how many of them would agree with the previous logic.
The world scoffs at the idea of absolute truth and preaches that no one has the authority to say there is only one way to “get to God.” But behind the “blind men and the elephant” analogies lies a battle to be fought for some of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith.
Once, I was talking with a mom about teaching on the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. She remarked, “That’s kind of heavy for youth to learn. You may want to bring the pastor in for that one.” I’ll admit, being 23 and trying to explain the doctrine of Hell to teenagers is a hefty task, but I contend that to not preach it is to diminish the rest of the Gospel. It shows us how Jesus is not just our path to true joy in this life, but also the sole path to eternal joy in the next. Our students need to know that if the Bible is true, it has radical implications for the whole world. There isn’t a person who has existed who is exempt from its’ truth. Therefore, it’s important that we take our time on the issue and get it right.
The Cross v. Universalism
To believe that there is another way or truth or life outside of Jesus not only contradicts Jesus’ own words, but it also lessens the significance of His life, death, and resurrection. By preaching the cross, we can show students the beauty, necessity, and uniqueness of the price Jesus paid for our souls. A price he is clear cannot and has not been paid by anyone or anything else.
The Gospel of Luke reveals that in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed in His hour of greatest distress saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me” (Luke 22:42). It seems Oprah wasn’t the first one to desire another way. Even Jesus asked if there was one, and the Father’s answer was clear. He sent Him to the cross to die. Further, Jesus explicitly tells His disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Both by word and action, Jesus proclaims that His blood isn’t only sufficient to pay for our sins, but the only thing that can retire the debt we owe. His way is the cross, His truth is the cross, and His life leads to the cross. If we are to follow Him, then not only should we expect to arrive at the cross, but we should recognize that His cross is our one true hope.
Lord Jesus v. Universalism
By taking away the necessity of Jesus for salvation, we cheapen the importance of Him as Lord of our lives. I put it this way to my students, “Jesus isn’t just an Instagram bio! He’s infinitely more than that to the world, and He’s infinitely more than that for you.” When we view Jesus as less than a savior, we immediately place that title onto something else. If Jesus is just a relic that we rely on from time to time in order to cope, then we would probably have no problem affirming Buddha, Muhammad, or even Tom Cruise as suitable for that task.
Jesus has to mean more than that; He does mean more than that. He has to be the Lord of our lives or else we will ultimate rely on other things for salvation, things which have no ability to redeem us.
Tell your students this! They can never hear it enough. They’re being told the opposite constantly. Jesus cannot simply be our choice, among other good options, in the cosmic draft for a savior. His Gospel reveals to us that He is one with the Creator (John 1:1) and therefore the rightful ruler over our hearts. Jesus speaks more directly on this when He’s confronted at the temple in John 10:22-30. He explains that anyone who follows Him is in not only secure in His hand but also the Father’s. Yet those who do not believe in Him are not “among his sheep.”
The Great Commission v Universalism
One of the biggest objections you will hear when you decry universalism will sound like this: “But it’s not fair that good people around the world who never get to hear about Jesus won’t be saved.” In order to address this, we have to decide what we mean by “good.” We are all about fairness in this world. But start by asking your students, “Is it fair that you get to be saved?” and see if they still want to root for fairness. Newsflash: the answer is no. My answer to that questions is a little bit like Samwise Gamgee, “By rights we shouldn’t even be here.” If we need Jesus and all of humanity is equally needy, then how can we say that some people are exempt from needing His saving grace?
Once we can establish that no one is actually “good” enough to earn his or her salvation (Romans 3:23), we can then address what we do with the discomfort we feel over the unbelieving world.
If the world didn’t really need Jesus, then why did He tell us to tell everyone about Him? If everyone didn’t need Him, then the Great Commission would be a waste of our time. Additionally, if it worked out that only those who heard would be held accountable for unbelief, then really the worst thing we could do is tell someone about Jesus and risk them not following Him. If Universalism is true, then the Great Commission is problematic at best.
So what hope do we have then for the unbelief in the world? The greatest hope. God has revealed to us that, in the end, His followers will be “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9). The Lord will proclaim the Gospel message throughout the world, and it is our immense privilege to play a role in that mission.
The other day, I spoke with a colleague from a church down the street. He used the term “hopeful universalist” to describe himself when thinking about the billions of souls existing now and throughout time who never knew or accepted Jesus. His case was poignant: What if it’s possible to hold out hope for the unsaved (God can do anything after all), and still honor the cross, the Gospel, and strive to fulfill the Great Commission? You may choose, like some theologians have, to hold on to hope that there is another shot for those who did not become a Christian in this life. But God, in his perfect wisdom, has not given Scriptural evidence to support this belief. The ramifications of worldly Universalism are grim, and to allow Universalist principles to spin unchecked in your ministry can rob students of some of the most important facets of following Jesus like trusting in His Word, accepting His preeminence, and passionately fulfilling his Great Commission.