Monday, April 25, 2011

Bound for Glory?

The question of how to get to heaven has been hotly contested over the centuries. Back in the 1500’s, Martin Luther broke from the Catholic Church and launched a Reformation, partly from due to his conviction that we are saved through grace—not through the sacraments of communion or confession or other observances that he considered “works.” The wars of religion engulfed Europe in a bloodbath to settle the issue. But new research suggests such fighting may be a thing of the past.

A recent report from Barna, a religious polling non-profit, suggests that more and more Americans are embracing Universalism, the doctrine that all people will be saved, regardless of what church they happen to attend. According to the data released last week, “One-quarter of born again Christians said that all people are eventually saved or accepted by God (25%) and that it doesn’t matter what religious faith you follow because they all teach the same lessons (26%).“

A report from the Pew Center in 2008, based on interviews with 35,000 respondents, was even more striking, suggesting that a strong majority, even among evangelicals, agreed that Christianity is not the only gateway to paradise, while 83% of those describing themselves as mainline Christians agreed that Jews, Hindus, Muslims and others might make it into heaven.

Universalism—the belief that all souls will eventually be restored to God—spans the ages. Among the Church Fathers, Origen (ca. 185-254 C.E.) held this position. Mega church pastor Rob Bell, who preaches to 10,000 worshipers weekly at his Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan, made headlines more recently for describing “hell” in purely earthly terms—consisting in the cruelty, abuse and neglect we visit on ourselves and our neighbors—rather than an abode of eternal punishment awaiting evil-doers.

Universalism has been part of the American scene since the country’s beginning. Benjamin Rush, an intimate of Jefferson and Adams and along with them a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote that, “A belief in God’s universal love to all his creatures, and that he will finally restore all those of them that are miserable to happiness, is a polar truth. It leads to truths upon all subjects, more especially upon the subject of government,” establishing a principle of equality among humankind. George and Martha Washington were subscribers to the Gleaner—a magazine with Universalist leanings edited by Judith Sargent Murray, the wife of America’s most prominent Universalist clergyman of that day.

Seemingly more and more people are beginning to agree that religion should be concerned with “getting heaven into people” rather than getting people into heaven. If that means less sectarian bickering and more cooperation among people of different faiths, Universalism can’t come too soon.