To make up for missing a post last week, you get two posts this week!
In researching and writing my last post, I kept asking myself, “Will Osama bin Laden be saved?” If you ask most Christians, the answer would be a loud, resounding, NO.
There are a few ways of approaching the issue. John Calvin, the father of the Reformed tradition, taught double predestination: that is, God chooses some to be saved, and chooses others to be damned. The righteous are elected to go to heaven, the wicked are condemned to damnation. The Roman Catholic Church famously teaches that “outside the church, there is no salvation.”
What do Lutherans believe? Well, that depends on who you ask. First, I present a few quotes from the Book of Concord* which address the issue.
It is also taught that our Lord Jesus Christ will return on the Last Day to judge, to raise all the dead, to give eternal life and eternal joy to those who believe and are elect, but to condemn the ungodly and the devils to hell and eternal punishment.
The Augsburg Confession, Article XVII
That doesn’t sound very helpful. But what about other parts of the Book of Concord?
“God imprisoned all in unbelief that he may be merciful to all,” and that he wants no one to be lost but rather that everyone repent and believe on the Lord Christ [Rom. 11:32; 1 Tim. 2:4; cf. Ezek. 33:11; 18:23].
Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article XI: Election
Therefore, we reject the following errors:
1. When it is taught that God does not want all people to repent and believe the gospel.
2. Likewise, that when God calls us to himself, he does not seriously intend that all people should come to him.
3. Likewise, that God does not desire that everyone should be saved, but rather that without regard to their sins–only because of God’s naked decision, intention, and will–some are designated for damnation, so that there is no way that they could be saved.
Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article XI: Election
And we believe simply that the entire person, God and human being, descended to hell after his burial, conquered the devil, destroyed the power of hell, and took from the devil all his power.
Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article IX: Concerning Christ’s Descent into Hell
It seems to me, then, that salvation is not quite so black-and-white as some Christians make it out to be. What the Formula of Concord outlines could be considered to be an almost-but-not-quite form of universal salvation. This teaching is commonly called a heresy, but from what I can gather, this may not be the case. The Second Council of Constantinople did condemn Origen and a form of apocatastasis, the “restoration” of all things, but scholars are divided on whether Origen actually believed in universal salvation. More research is required here.
Regardless of what Origen did or did not believe, many Christians today consider universal salvation to be heresy. And it doesn’t take too much effort on the internet to find out that lots of people believe that the ELCA teaches universal salvation and condemn us for it (among other things).
Not withstanding the fact that the ELCA website is difficult to navigate–I used to say impossible until I ventured onto the Vatican website–I have found that the ELCA teaching is in line with the Formula of Concord: we teach and believe that it is truly God’s will and desire that everyone be saved. But are they?
In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “Your will be done on earth as in heaven.” We are praying that, no matter how often we screw up and try to sabotage it, God’s will will ulimately, in the end, will be done and brought to fruition. If I believe that the redemptive work of Christ on the cross was complete, then I am forced to conclude that salvation should be for everyone. Nothing can outlast God’s will.
However, we don’t know. Lutherans are particularly comfortable with not understanding every mystery of God. Martin Luther’s advice was to simply not worry about it. We don’t know who (if anyone) is saved, who (if anyone) is damned, and how the end of the world will look.
Instead, we hope. We have hope that God will get what God desires. We have hope that God’s will will be done, that will that desires all to be saved. What we don’t know, we take on faith. Is that universal salvation? Perhaps. But it is Lutheran.
*The Book of Concord is a collection of Lutheran documents, including the paramount Augsburg Confession, along with Apology of the Augsburg Confession, The Smalcald Articles, Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, The Small Catechism, The Large Catechism and Formula of Concord. The documents outline and explain Lutheran theology and are considered to be faithful interpretations of Holy Scripture. They themselves are not scripture, and are not to be held on the same level. Adherence to the Augsburg Confession is generally accepted as the requirement to be considered a Lutheran Church. The ELCA accepts the entire Book of Concord as a faithful witness to the Gospel, and ELCA Pastors are required to teach in accordance with it.