Salvation for Everyone?  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

One of my cyber-companions is Canon Bryan Owen of St Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral in Jackson, Mississippi. In a recent post on his blog Creedal Christian Bryan addresses the issue of universalism, the notion that God will save absolutely everybody with little if any regard to how they live during their time on earth. A corollary to this is that hell does not exist, or if it does it does not last forever.

Despite the Episcopal Church's reputation--well-deserved, to a large extent--as a haven for spiritually and intellectually vacuous liberals who would uncritically accept universalism as an article of faith, Bryan shows that the current Book of Common Prayer actually contains numerous references to hell and the extreme desirability of being saved therefrom. Check out the post with a BCP close at hand, if you dare.

This got me interested in seeing what other Christian traditions say about universalism. The short answer is that I cannot find any major Christian church affirming this as a dogma--but please correct me if you know otherwise. The idea was first postulated by Origen in the third century but he was condemned by a church council held a couple of centuries later during the reign of Justinian. Of course, a good number of individual Christians have adhered to universalism as a personal belief or at least have flirted with the notion.

A thornier problem is whether non-Christians--even very upright non-Christians--can be saved under any circumstances. We all know what many of our born-again brothers and sisters say about this issue. What about Roman Catholics and the Orthodox?

Roman Catholic teaching has actually shifted over the centuries. For most of its history, the motto "outside the Church there is no salvation", with "Church" understood to refer only to the Church of Rome, was a fair assessment of official RC teaching. A typical expression comes from Pope Eugene IV in a bull issued in 1441: "...Those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life..."

Things changed rather drastically with Vatican II. A comment on the conciliar document Lumen Gentium says: "...The Church now solemnly acknowledges that the Holy Ghost is truly active in the churches and communities separated from itself...The non-Christian may not be blamed for his ignorance of Christ and his church; salvation is open to him also, if he seeks God sincerely and if he follows the commands of his conscience for through this means the Holy Ghost acts upon all men; this divine action is not confined within the limited boundaries of the visible Church." (Click here for more information on Roman Catholic teaching on this matter).

An Orthodox view is presented by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev in his article "Eschatology", which appears in the highly recommended The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology (2008, p 113):

Regarding those who are outside the Church, St Paul writes that they will be judged in accordance with the law of conscience written in their hearts (Rom 2:14-15). Virtuous pagans, says Chrysostom, are astonishing because 'they had no need of the law but fulfilled everything contained in it, having inscribed in their minds not the letter, but deeds.' And he draws a radical conclusion: 'If a pagan fulfills the law, nothing else will be necessary for his salvation.' When acts committed during one's life are evaluated, moral criteria will be applied to all people without exception, the only difference being that Jews will be judged according to the Law of Moses, Christians by the gospel, and pagans according to the law of conscience written in their hearts.

This entry was posted on Monday, January 26, 2009 at Monday, January 26, 2009 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .




I recommend You to read Bishop Kallistos Ware's book The Inner Kingdom. Volume 1 of the Collected Works. There Bishop Ware writes about his thoughts concerning this subject by referring to the Church Fathers.

PS. I just found Your blog, and I love it. I am a member of the Finnish Orthodox Church.

November 10, 2012 at 2:14 PM

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