There is a movement today in Christian circles which is attempting to reconcile Universalist ideas and the Christian faith. The basic idea put forward is that continuing to teach that faith in Christ alone is the only way to God is too exclusive, intolerant, or troubling for our conscious. So because of these things, many progressive leaders like Brian McLaren are attempting to offer “new and fresh” perspectives that allow us to believe Universal doctrines are compatible with Christianity.
The alternative – that Christ alone is the way to God and eternal life – is often explained by these progressive leaders as some sort of unnecessary fundamentalist Bible-thumping dogma. To be sure, Bible-belt cultural Christianity has only fueled this idea in recent years. But this issue goes far deeper than just a few Bible verses that could simply be read from different views. The entire Bible falls apart – the entire Christian faith falls apart – if you remove the exclusivity of Christ.
Combining Universalism and Christianity is a terrible and grievous error to make. While I have no doubt that some kind, genuine and well-intentioned Christians believe and try to reconcile these two things, for the most part this teaching leads people astray and outside of Christian faith. Below I have listed 15 reasons (and there are surely more) for why Universalism and Christianity are not compatible and must not be combined.
1. Combining Universalism and Christianity undermines the finished work of Christ.
Scripture is clear that the sacrifice of Christ was the once and for all finished sacrifice for sin (Hebrews 7:27). When Christ hung on the cross, he did not cry out “It is finished…except for whatever else you want to do to get to God” (John 19:30). Christ and Christ alone has done what is necessary to bring us to God. King Jesus died – DIED – to bring us to God. The tortured, humiliated, and crucified kind of died. Why, why would we want to take away from that by saying that was only necessary for some people but not all people? That alone makes my stomach churn at the thought of diminishing the beauty and glory of Christ’s humiliation.
2. It undermines the eschatological (that is, final) reality of living in between Christ’s two advents.
Christ came once as the sacrifice for sins (1 Corinthians 15:3) and will come again at the consummation of all things. In between these two advents is the church age; in these last days God has spoken to us through the Son (Hebrews 1:2). This message of the Cross is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe (Romans 1:16) and it is the mission of the church to preach this message to all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). But if you believe in a Universal Christianity hybrid, then…
3. There is no need for evangelism.
If people can be saved by Christ but also through their own works, then why evangelize? What if I preached the gospel to someone who was on track to be saved by their own works outside of Christ, but once they hear the gospel they reject it? Well now I’ve just damned them (Hebrews 10:29). The Apostle Paul says that he would gladly trade his own salvation if it meant his fellow Jews would be saved (Romans 9), but there is no reason for him or us to feel that way if people outside of Christ can be saved.
4. Mixing Universalism with Christianity undermines the force, movement and emphasis of the Bible.
Christ himself taught that the entire Old Testament points to him (Luke 4:21, 24:13-35). The Apostle Paul teaches that righteousness has always come through faith in who the Triune God has revealed himself to be. Romans 4 tells us that those who lived prior to Christ were declared righteous because of their faith in the Triune God who saves, Romans 3:21-28 and Romans 5 tells us that we are now saved and declared righteous due to faith in the finished work of Christ. Everything points to and is climaxed in Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
5. It denies any means to preach assurance to lost and broken people.
When people are facing their own mortality, by what means do I have to preach assurance to them? Only in the gospel can I preach to someone, “Repent of your own sins, put faith in the finished work of Christ alone and subscribe to believing in him alone and you shall have eternal life (John 6:51).” What is the alternative? “Well, you can believe in Jesus, or you can just hope in your own thing, whatever it is, and hope that you’re good enough, that works too. It’s whatever.” There is no power to save and no assurance for the forgiveness of sins without the gospel.
6. It destroys the theological implications of the entire New Testament.
The first half of the book of Romans (which is arguably the theological climax of the entire Bible) is one giant argument for the need for the exclusivity of Christ. The Apostle lays the framework for understanding that no one is good on their own (Romans 3:11), that all have sinned and fall short of God’s standards (Romans 3:23), that all are equally in need of the righteousness that comes through faith (Romans 3:9, 24), that this faith must be in the work of Christ (Romans 5:1), that this faith is not something of ourselves but a divine gift from above (Romans 3:27, Ephesians 2:8-9), and that this faith only comes through hearing and believing the Gospel (Romans 10:14).
Further, every New Testament author at some point in their writing will speak of faith and repentance in Christ and Christ alone. From just a perspective of New Testament theology alone we see that any form of Universalism and Christianity are incompatible.
7. It insults and diminishes the sacrifices of the heroes of our faith.
Peter: crucified upside down
James: put to death
Thomas: killed by a spears, burning plates and then finally burned alive
James Alpheus: stoned and had his brain bashed out
Philip: tortured and crucified
Nathanael: tortured and crucified
Simon the Zealot: crucified
Judas Thaddeus: beaten to death
Matthias: stoned and crucified
Countless early church Christians killed, crucified, burned, stoned…
Countless martyrs throughout the centuries killed for preaching the gospel.
Countless missionaries, such as the Europeans missionaries sent to evangelize the Celts and Vikings were slaughtered by the native people they were attempting to reach.
Did the Apostles and innumerable other Christians throughout the last two-thousand years die because Christianity was compatible with “doing good” or other world religions?
8. Combining Universalism and Christianity denies the power unto new life for the defeat and mortification of sin.
Jesus Christ bore our sins that we might live to righteousness (1 Peter 2:24), only in Christ do death and sin no longer have power over us (Romans 6:1-14). The gospel contains the power to set people free from slavery and bondage. Without the gospel, I instead tell people to just try harder and do what they can. Anyone who has tried to escape their own sin knows that this only leads to grief, heartache, guilt, and turmoil.
9. It makes the mistake of teaching that mankind is worth saving.
None of us deserve or are owed eternal life. We are all equally guilt and deserving of God’s wrath. The penalty for our sin is eternal death, but God in his mercy and goodness has saved those who believe in the work of Christ (Romans 6:23). To teach that Universalism is compatible with Christianity is to teach that everyone is deserving of being saved, when God’s Word tells us the exact opposite.
10. It teaches a different kind of God’s love.
The love of God is displayed to us in the death of Christ while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). The greatest love of all is displayed in that Christ would lay down his life for us and call us friend (John 15:13). The supreme love of God is displayed in Christ’s humiliation and his obedience to death on a cross (Philippians 2:1-11). If Christ’s death and sacrifice is not necessary for salvation, then this demonstration of love is obliterated. For that matter, what kind of God would destroy his own Son if it wasn’t completely necessary?
From a Universal Christian perspective, God is a cruel tyrant. From an exclusive Christian perspective, God is an amazing, loving, and sacrificial Father.
11. It denies the severity of sin and depravity of man.
The Bible clearly teaches that all of human kind has fallen and has been tainted by sin (Romans 3:23, Isaiah 53:6, Romans 3:11-18). This does not mean that we are incapable of doing “good” things for one another, it means that all of our being is subject to sin and we are incapable of overcoming the guilt and penalty for our rebellion against God. Teaching that people can be saved apart from faith in Christ finds its starting place grounded in the goodness of man, not the sin and fall of man.
12. It denies the words of Christ himself.
Christ himself repeatedly speaks of the exclusivity of faith in him. Here are just a few examples: John 6:51, Luke 24:44, Luke 24:47, Matthew 28:18-20, John 14:6. Many progressive teachers who want to combine Universalism with Christianity consider themselves “Red Letter Christians,” that is, only the words of Christ in the Gospels are supremely authoritative but the rest of the New Testament might not be. Well, even if you just consider yourself “Red Letter,” you’re still stuck with plenty of exclusive claims by Jesus himself. There is no getting out of them.
13. Piety does not diminish the need to believe the gospel.
No amount of piety replaces the need to hear and believe the gospel. Even the supremely pious and outstanding Gentile Cornelius had to repent and believe the gospel. The whole point of God speaking to Cornelius (Acts 10) was to send for Peter, which helped Peter’s realization that the gospel was necessary for Jew and Gentile alike (Acts 11:11-18).
God’s Word is clear, we are saved by grace through faith, not by any amount of pious works so that none can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). This is the beauty of God’s love for us!
14. Teaching Universalism as compatible with Christianity undermines the gospel.
What is the gospel? Simply put, it is the message that Jesus Christ the Eternal Son of God descended to earth, taking on the form of human flesh, to take our place and pay the sacrifice needed for our sins that we might believe and be forgiven of our sins, thus inheriting eternal life. This amazing forgiveness of sins comes completely apart from our own works. If you blend Universalism and Christianity together and say that the gospel or some other world religion can save, then do you really believe the gospel? How can you on the one hand preach a message that says salvation only comes by grace through faith alone and in Christ alone, but then say that someone could be saved by some other means? It simply does not work.
15. It denies the authority of Scripture
If you deny all of these problems by combining Universalism with Christianity, then you are left with a mangled Bible that only makes sense based on how you decide to read it. This is what pastor Tim Keller calls a “Stepford God,” a god that you yourself have created and only agrees and obeys you in your own mind.
Undoubtedly the exclusivity of Christ is a hard doctrine. Our conscious’ bear witness to this fact. After all, countless people die every day without ever hearing or believing in the gospel. But this reality is not a reason to cave in and deny the very teachings that make Christianity what it is. Knowing that people die every day without Christ should cause us to cry out in agony and despair for the lost; not to give up, sit back and do nothing. This agonizing reality is one of our chief motivators for us to reach everyone we possibly can.
The late Christian scholar J. Gresham Machen once said “You simply can’t create whatever you want and call it Christianity. You’re free to believe it, just don’t call it Christianity.” This is true today of the movement which seeks to combine Universal ideas with Christianity. You’re certainly free to believe that Christ is just one way to God (although it makes zero logical or reasonable sense to do so, based on the above). But you can’t go around calling that Christianity, because that’s not what it is. It’s Universal Deism.
Church, let us not neglect this great salvation (Hebrews 2:3). Let us not deny the blood-stained savior who purchased us and ransomed us to himself. Let us be encouraged and spurred on that God would descend and humble himself to take on our flesh that we might be united to him. There is no other message that brings this hope to a lost and broken world!
I recently gave one of the most shaping books for my Christian walk – Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God – to my father for his birthday. This book is a short but powerful exposition of the Parable of the Two Brothers from Luke 15:11-32. As I was flipping through the pages and remembering how fond I was of this book, I was struck by one paragraph that I came across at the end of the first chapter. When comparing the difference between the disobedient younger brother and the moralistic, in-it-for-himself elder brother, author Tim Keller writes this:
“Jesus’ teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect…That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think.” (Keller, 15-16)
The climate of the Western Church over the last two centuries has tried two great experiments. The first is the desire to make everything relevant in the church. Exegete and preach the Word, sure, but exegeting and preaching the culture instead is what attracts people, right? On paper, these dear brothers and sisters would still hold to an orthodox Christian faith, but their practice looks much different. A watered-down gospel is preached which lacks the conviction of sin and the grace of our Savior, all-the-while flooding congregants with bright lights and showering them with comfort.
The second experiment has been to reject traditional Christian teachings. If the “dogmatic” authority of the Bible is rejected, if the traditional ethical teachings of Jesus are ignored, if the historic creeds and confessions of the Church are disregarded, then we offer people to come to Christ and stay as they are. If we make Christianity easier for people – so they say – then more people will be attracted to Christ. Yet, these mainline churches are dying just as fast, if not faster, as the first group. There is no gospel-driven power to change in this proclamation. What is sold in these churches is no different than what the world is selling – except the world sells it for much cheaper.
And what is the result of such experimentation? I think author and scholar David Wells puts it best:
“Today, in the evangelical church, there are apparently many who have made decisions for Christ, who claim to be reborn, but who give little evidence of their claimed relationship to Christ. Something is seriously amiss if, as George Barna has reported, only 9 percent of those claiming rebirth have even a minimal knowledge of the Bible, if there are no discernible differences in how they live as compared with secularists, and if the born-again are dropping out of church attendance in droves. If these numbers are anywhere close to being accurate, then the gospel has become a stand-alone thing, and many who say they have embraced it have never entered the Christian life to which it was supposed to be the entry point.” (David F. Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients Our World, 158)
This dilemma is one area where the teachings and emphasis of the saints of our past can greatly correct and aid us. Orthodox Christianity has always emphasized three important aspects to a saving faith, which come from the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ given to us through his Word:
- Knowledge: We need to know rightly who Christ is, that he alone has the power to save (John 14:6). We need to know and understand that he alone takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), that he alone is the eternal begotten Son of the Father sent into the world to save sinners (Isaiah 49:6, John 1:1, Mark 2:17, Mark 10:45). If we say we believe in Jesus but do not understand rightly who he is, that is not faith; it’s idolatry.
- Conviction: It is necessary that we be convicted of our sin. We must understand that faith and repentance go hand in hand (Matthew 4:17). We as sinners must know rightly that we are indeed sinners and where that places us before a Holy God. We must be convicted that Christ knows what to do with our sin when we come to him (John 6:68).
- Trust: Every fiber of our being must places its trust in the grace of Christ and not in our own moralism (John 1:17, Luke 24:47). We must transfer the trust from ourselves and our efforts to earn anything to the once-and-for-all work of the blood-stained Savior.
Both the elder brother and the younger brother knew who their father was (Luke 15:12). Yet, it was the prodigal younger brother who was convicted (Luke 15:17-19) and then trusted (Luke 15:20-24) in his father, which led to the great feast at the prodigals homecoming. The elder brother was never convicted of his dependance on his father and therefore never trusted him, and it is for this reason he remained outside of the great banquet. Despite his good works and high sense of morals, the elder brother never came in to the feast. If we want to see more prodigals come home and more moralistic church attenders come to the banquet, then we must present and live out a holistic gospel.
Church, let us press in to be faithful to the God who has called us home to the banquet feast.
This is a paper I wrote in the summer of 2013. Not my best work, but my critiques and criticisms stand. For the PDF version, click here.
David Hume’s definitive work Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is widely considered a philosophical classic, particularly in regards to the relationship between philosophy and the knowledge of God. I was quite eager to read this work, as Hume is not only commonly referred to in the letters and writings of giants like C.S. Lewis, but was the subject of much deliberation in the classic debate between Doctors Gordon Stein and Greg Bahnsen in 1985. In this interaction with the text through a discussion of its characters and thoughts, it will be seen that this book fails to accomplish the devastating critique on religion that it attempted to prove.
- A Brief Background
It would first be helpful to understand a brief background of Hume and his work now being discussed. David Hume was a British Philosopher who lived from 1711-1776. The Dialogues are one of a handful of popular texts Hume wrote that have had profound impact on modern philosophy. Hume is cited as having large influence in the lives of renowned thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley.
The Dialogues are a unique text in that they were publish posthumously. After finding out he had intestinal cancer, Hume arranged for the work to be published after his death. This task was ultimately carried out by his nephew in 1779, three years after Hume.
The text largely focuses on arguments from empirical observations and statements of fact. The latter quarter of the book takes a slight turn to some discussion on the “Problem of Evil”, but for the most part Hume spends a majority of his time attempting to dismantle any sort of cosmological argument from design. This argument is heralded as a “devastating critique” to cosmological arguments, and has been the basis for conclusions by many succeeding philosophers and theologians writing after Hume’s death.
This text is also unique for another reason in particular. Harkening back to Plato’s many dialogues, Hume’s Dialogues employs the classic Philosophical system of a fictional dialogue between two or more characters. This system is meant to be the authors attempt at best communicating complex ideas through relatable (yet stereotyped) characters representing opposing views. The Dialogues are then written as if they are the recordings of one Pamphilus in an address to his friend Hermippus. The dialogue observed by Pamphilus takes place between three characters, Cleanthes, Demea and Philo.
- A Discussion of Main Characters and Arguments Made
The first prominent character of Hume’s Dialogues is accurate and rational Cleanthes. Hume wastes no time communicating to the reader that Cleanthes primarily thinks and argues from rational thought and empirical observation. It is clear throughout the text that Cleanthes is the equivalent chief-opponent of Hume, and it is his attempt to completely dismantle the arguments of someone like Cleanthes.
It is Cleanthes’ belief that “students of philosophy ought first to learn logics, then ethics, next physics, last of all the nature of the gods” (Page 5). As the book progresses, Hume portrays Cleanthes evermore as a philosopher at the far end of a spectrum, where only rationalism and empirical data can belong. Cleanthes is certain that because we use evidence in the realms of all natural, mathematical, moral and political science, we therefore ought to in theology and religion as well (Page 12). Cleanthes echoes the argument of Francis Bacon when he says “A little philosophy makes a man an Atheist: A great deal converts him to religion” (page 13).
Cleanthes’ major argument relies on the classic anthropomorphic argument from design. He argues that the universe is “one big machine”, made up of many smaller machines and parts, that have been adjust top such an accuracy that they surely point to a grand designer. These parts and machines resemble the thoughts and contrivances of man, so therefore we ought to conclude that the author of nature ought to be somewhat similar to the mind of man at a much larger scale. It is “by this argument alone” that Cleanthes proves the existence of a deity (Page 19). He will continue to say later that the intricacies of the universe, such as the way males and females fit together, as well as “millions and millions” of other instances are natural and convincing arguments that cannot be rejected (Page 31).
Cleanthes’ ultimate downfall in his argument is his confession that his argument only goes so far, and then must stop lest he continue on ad infinitum. When he is backed into a corner by Philo, Cleanthes’ concedes that he relies on his empirical evidences to point to an author, and so therefore he stops at the idea of a divine rather than continuing past the material world and into the metaphysical realm when asking the question “…and who made that?” This confession ultimately becomes Philo’s sticking point against Cleanthes, as well as Philo’s seeming victory over him.
When the argument takes a turn towards discussing the “problem of evil”, Hume portrays Cleanthes as a man who is so logically and rationally based that he cannot concede any sort of argument from emotion or feeling. Philo begins his argument based on a universal understanding of human wickedness and misery, a sentiment that Demea shares with Philo. However, Cleanthes says that he does not understand the argument being made, “I can observe something like what you mention in some others, but I confess I feel little or nothing of it in myself, and hope that it is not so common as you represent it” (Page 76). It is Cleanthes’ belief that human misery and divine benevolence are contradictory, and only if you deny universal misery can you believe in divine goodness (Page 79).
The second character of Hume’s Dialogues is the orthodox and religious Demea. Demea is portrayed as arguing purely a priori, and that we must have assumed presuppositions to know anything about God. He is the polar opposite, on the opposed end of the philosophical spectrum from Cleanthes. Demea does not really argue from any particular religious perspective, although it is hinted he is supposed to be Christian which is likely. This character gets the least amount of text in the book, a rough estimate probably being about ten percent or less. Demea is also portrayed as being incapable of keeping up philosophically, and often resorts to shouting or quick retorts which are dismissed even quicker. Ultimately unsatisfied with the direction of the conversation, Demea storms off before the conversation is even over (Page 93).
This character is uncertain of any part of philosophy or science, and regards the principles of religion as the starting point for all matters of discussion (Page 5). The existence of the divine is assumed, and Demea therefore raises the argument that the supreme question is not concerning the being but the nature of God (Page 17). The interesting thing about Hume’s portrayal of Demea is that Demea at times appears to be more of a skeptic than either of the other two characters, yet is supposed to be the most committed to religion. Because God is so much higher than us, says Demea, his mind and attributes are completely unknowable to us (Page 17). It is in this regard that I question whether we can critically say that Demea is supposed to be the Christian character, a topic which I will address in my criticisms later in this paper.
Unlike Cleanthes, Demea believes that we ought not to imagine God with any resemblance to man (Page 18). Demea proclaims that knowledge of God must be argued a priori, to do otherwise is to give the advantage to Atheists. It is our infirmities in our nature that our untrustworthy, as our thoughts are “fluctuating, uncertain, fleeting, successive, and compounded” so we are therefore unable in our own reasoning and understanding to reach any understanding of the Divine (page 33).
There are a few points in the text that Demea and Philo seem to somewhat agree. The chief religious character of the Dialogues concedes that much of his understanding comes from the idea that each man feels deep within him the truth of religion, which is bred from universal misery amongst men (Page 71). It is a similar argument that Philo argues from shortly thereafter. As the conversation on misery and evil continues, Demea becomes progressively unhappy with the direction of the conversation and storms off (Page 93). The last sixth of the book is then left to what is portrayed as the first-fruits arguments of Philo and Cleanthes, meant to be too lofty of Demea’s understanding.
The final character in Hume’s famous text is Philo the philosophical skeptic. It is widely regarded that Philo most likely is meant to be Hume writing himself into this fictional dialogue, as Philo’s views most closely resemble much of Hume’s other writings. Ever the skeptic, Philo believes it is impossible to trust our senses, thoughts or empirical observations but ultimately sees a priori arguments as equally unsatisfying.
Philo’s character gets the significant majority of screen time in this text, likely at least sixty percent of the book is Philo’s dialogue. He has something to say about everything, but never actually lands on any solid ground. Philo is much better at critiquing Cleanthes and Demea rather than actually making any statements of belief. But it is this idea that really sums up Philo’s character, critical and skeptical of everyone to the point that he has no foundational truths himself. Philo’s views are much more based on probability, so while one idea can be more probable than another, it can never be absolutely certain.
Like Demea, Philo believes that human reason has contradictions and imperfections and cannot be trusted (Page 6). It is actually this initial agreement that fools Demea into thinking that the two of them are in agreement. Demea’s realization that this is not the case is a contributing factor to his departure early from the conversation. A post-modern hipster, Philo believed that perfection was relative and therefore we cannot comprehend the attributes of the divine (page 18).
Most of Philo’s hot air is spent refuting Cleanthes, the chief argument being the argument from design. Upon Cleanthes’ initial statement of his argument, Philo responds with the typical house analogy – if we see a house we conclude there was a builder, therefore when we see a universe we conclude a designer. However, as Philo reasons, a house and the universe are so different that there is no way we can make this analogy work between the two, inferring the same kind of certainty about a designer as we would about a house builder (Page 20). Philo also refutes Cleanthes’ idea of the universe resembling a machine made up of many small parts when he says “I will not allow any one part to form a rule for any other part” (Page 24). Ultimately, Philo says, there is no ground to suppose a divine plan for the universe as an architect draws up a plan for a house (Page 37).
As I said before, the lynchpin in Cleanthes’ argument would be his admission of needing to stop his argument with the idea of a divine, otherwise he would have to go on ad infinitum. This confession of Cleanthes comes shortly after Philo argues that Cleanthes must take his anthropomorphic arguments into infinity, continually questioning the matter of existence of the forces behind subsequent forces (Page 38). Philo basically argues that if we suppose a designer, we must then ask “Who designed the designer?”
As Cleanthes believes that the universe is entirely uniform and obviously pointing to a designer, Philo believes that the more we study in biology, anatomy and chemistry the more we should see that the universal cause of life is vastly different from mankind and not uniform at all (Page 42). Since Philo observes the universe to be more of a system of connected but different parts rather than a well-oiled machine, he asserts that the universe much more resembles a plant or animal than a designed machine (Page 53). The universe therefore most probably arose from a process of generation or vegetation, rather than design. However, even on this supposition Philo seems more intent on just arguing with Cleanthes rather than asserting it as fact, as even Philo confesses this is a new argument that he just thought of during the course of the conversation.
During the discussion on wickedness and evil, Philo does argue from a universal feeling of misery and wickedness amongst man. Man, he says, is the greatest enemy of man (Page 73). However, true to form, while he concedes this is the best argument for a deity, Philo also sees it to be inconclusive. Bringing up the classic “problem of evil” credited to Epicurus, Philo says Epicurus’ questions remain unanswered and thus Philo remains a skeptic (Page 77). Therefore, because man universally agrees on wickedness and evil, which could point to some divine, this divine being, or “original source of all things” must be entirely indifferent to good or evil (Page 91).
Now that a survey and foundation of the three primary characters and the arguments have been conducted, I will continue into my interactions and criticisms with the text.
- Criticisms of the Text
David Hume’s Dialogues is a text that has piqued my interest for quite some time, and I was very eager to finally have a reason to sit down and read it. I knew that this was a text that I would ultimately not agree with, but I was hoping to get a taste of “the other side”, a chance to really understand arguments made against orthodox faith, and to be intellectually challenged. Unfortunately, while this text did make some interesting points and at times was challenging to understand, the Dialogues failed to make the point that it intended to make. While I understand the argument Hume was trying to make, it ultimately failed for three reasons: 1) because it categorically straw-man’s its characters and arguments, 2) because it does not adequately and completely address the subject matter, and 3) because its skeptical undertones completely undercut any reliability of the authors arguments.
While it is widely recognized that the skeptical Philo is playing the part of Hume in this text, the other two characters are completely stereotyped and straw-manned into two completely unrealistic and irrational people. The first rule to any good response and debate is to never straw-man the ideas of your opponent as it makes you appear rude and uneducated, yet this is something Hume fails to accomplish throughout his text. Cleanthes is a character that has no tolerance for any argument other than that from observed, rational thought and has no conception of the moral or emotional realities of humanity. On the opposite end of the scale, Demea is an orthodox religious character who is neither orthodox nor very religious. His apparent lack of foundation on any characteristics or attributes of God is surprising, and he really belongs in more of a new age/mystic camp than any orthodox Christianity that I am aware of. Even more frustrating is the depiction of Demea’s character, who is not only quick to fly off the handle but appears unable to respond to any of the more intellectual arguments made by either Philo or Cleanthes. Ultimately, Demea is fooled by Philo into a false sense of security and must storm off from the conversation before it even ends. This picture of a religious person does have some truth to it, but it is not the entire story nor is it appropriate to paint a false picture that it is so.
More to the point, with such opposite characters standing in contrast to Philo, one would be led to believe that the third character Philo would play the part of the middle ground where the two polar opposites could dialogue and interact. Instead, Philo is skeptical and critiques both sides but never really lands anywhere himself. This leads to a false sense that there is no blend between the religious thinker (Demea) and the philosophical, rational thinker (Cleanthes).
This brings me to my next criticism of the text, and that is that Hume did not adequately nor sufficiently address the subject matter. Based on the primary subject of the book, attempting to address whether or not men can come to know and understand the divine on their own merit, one would think there would be more room given to the vast considerations that should and need to be made. As Hume even states in his opening pages, “What truth so obvious, so certain, as the being of a God, which the most ignorant ages have acknowledged, for which the most refined geniuses have ambitiously striven to produce new proofs and arguments? What truth is as important as this…?” (Page 2).
If then this truth is so important, where are the considerations of morality? Where is there discussion on blending the rational and theological minds together? After all, God created us to be rational beings who all have a common sense of God we “feel within ourselves” (Page 71). If this is true, there must be more room allowed for discussing the intersection of faith and philosophy. Regrettably, the Dialogues fails to accomplish this in any way.
Further, Hume only dedicates approximately one-fourth of a very short book to the lofty discussion of pain and evil in the world. When countless volumes of the subject have been written by philosophers and theologians alike, how can such a large conversation be sufficiently squeezed into such a short space? Hume brings up the classic Epicurean problem, “Is he willing to present evil, but not able? Then is he important. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”, but then he blows right through those high questions and never addresses them. I fail to see how this is an ample argument for any reader to buy into when it is not even expounded upon.
Further, why is Demea unable to respond to these charges? If he is meant to play the orthodox Christian (which is questionable at best), how can he not echo similar words as Augustine says, “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil” (Kerr, 114)? Is this not what we see in Christ’s victory over death on the cross? Hume’s silence in this area is staggering and causes me to lose respect for him as a fair author or thinker, unable to adequately depict the argument he is trying to deconstruct.
Finally, Hume makes it clear in this book that he is trying to push the ideas of Philo as the strongest and most realistic. This is seen in the fact that Philo gets the large majority of text to speak, and also in the way neither Cleanthes nor Demea are able to adequately respond to Philo’s charges. Philo himself is skeptical of Cleanthes’ rational thinking, as well as Demea’s weak attempt to argue the common sense of the divine. While he originally makes an argument for the divine from the common sense of wickedness and evil in men (Page 71), he then contradicts himself by saying “But there is no view of human life, or the condition of mankind, from which, without the greatest violence, we can infer the moral attributes, or learn that infinite benevolence, conjoined with infinite power and infinite wisdom, which we must discover by the eyes of faith alone” (Page 81). So are the common senses of man adequate, or are they not? Philo’s shaky ground gives him no place to stand, leaving his arguments unconvincing nor impactful in any tangible way.
In the closing pages of Hume’s work, Philo asks the rhetorical question “Who can explain the heart of man?” (Page 102). There is a Christian response to this question, and that is of course through the illumination of truth via the Holy Spirit through His Holy Scriptures. If I could, I would love to awaken Hume for a short conversation and complete the Scripture he is no doubt invoking, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). I would like to explain to Hume that his skepticism is no better than a house built on sand, and that he needs the Rock (Matthew 7:25-26) to firmly stand on in order to be led into “all truth” (John 16:13). Regrettably so, this is a conversation that will never take place. Praise God for taking the skeptic, lost Hume in all of us and redeeming us, giving us blood-bought sinners a place to stand firm on in truth and righteousness.
Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. 2 vols. Lexington, KY: Empire Books, 2012
Kerr, Hugh. Readings in Christian Thought (second Edition). 2 Sub ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume/
 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “David Hume,” accessed July 20, 2013, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume/
From A.W. Pink’s “Saving Faith”
The terms of Christ’s salvation are erroneously stated by the present-day evangelist. With very rare exceptions he tells his hearers that salvation is by grace and is received as a free gift; that Christ has done everything for the sinner, and nothing remains but for him to “believe”—to trust in the infinite merits of His blood. And so widely does this conception now prevail in “orthodox” circles, so frequently has it been dinned in their ears, so deeply has it taken root in their minds, that for one to now challenge it and denounce it is being so inadequate and one-sided as to be deceptive and erroneous, is for him to instantly court the stigma of being a heretic, and to be charged with dishonoring the finished work of Christ by inculcating salvation by works. Yet notwithstanding, the writer is quite prepared to run that risk.
Salvation is by grace, by grace alone, for a fallen creature cannot possibly do anything to merit God’s approval or earn His favour. Nevertheless, Divine grace is not exercised at the expense of holiness, for it never compromises with sin. It is also true that salvation is a free gift, but an empty hand must receive it, and not a hand which still tightly grasps the world! But it is not true that “Christ has done every thing for the sinner.” He did not fill His belly with the husks which the swine eat and find them unable to satisfy. He has not turned his back on the far country, arisen, gone to the Father, and acknowledged his sins—those are acts which the sinner himself must perform. True, he will not be saved for the performance of them, yet it is equally true that he cannot be saved without the performing of them—any more than the prodigal could receive the Father’s kiss and ring while he still remained at a guilty distance from Him!
Something more than “believing” is necessary to salvation. A heart that is steeled in rebellion against God cannot savingly believe: it must first be broken. It is written “except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). Repentance is just as essential as faith, yea, the latter cannot be without the former: “Repented not afterward, that ye might believe” (Matt. 21:32). The order is clearly enough laid down by Christ: “Repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Repentance is sorrowing for sin. Repentance is a heart-repudiation of sin. Repentance is a heart determination to forsake sin. And where there is true repentance grace is free to act, for the requirements of holiness are conserved when sin is renounced. Thus, it is the duty of the evangelist to cry “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord (from whom he departed in Adam), and he will have mercy upon him” (Isa. 55:7). His task is to call on his hearers to lay down the weapons of their warfare against God, and then to sue for mercy through Christ.
The way of salvation is falsely defined. In most instances the modern “evangelist” assures his congregation that all any sinner has to do in order to escape Hell and make sure of Heaven is to “receive Christ as his personal Saviour.” But such teaching is utterly misleading. No one can receive Christ as his Saviour while he rejects Him as Lord. It is true the preacher adds that, the one who accepts Christ should also surrender to Him as Lord, but he at once spoils it by asserting that though the convert fails to do so nevertheless Heaven is sure to him. That is one of the Devil’s lies. Only those who are spiritually blind would declare that Christ will save any who despise His authority and refuse His yoke: why, my reader, that would not be grace but a disgrace—charging Christ with placing a premium on lawlessness.
It is in His office of Lord that Christ maintains God’s honour, subserves His government, enforces His Law; and if the reader will turn to those passages—Luke 1:46, 47; Acts 5:31 (prince and Saviour); 2 Peter 1:11; 2:20; 3:18—where the two titles occur, he will find that it is always “Lord and Saviour,” and not “Saviour and Lord.” Therefore, those who have not bowed to Christ’s sceptre and enthroned Him in their hearts and lives, and yet imagine that they are trusting in Him as their Saviour, are deceived, and unless God disillusions them they will go down to the everlasting burnings with a lie in their right hand (Isa. 44:20). Christ is “the Author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him” (Heb. 5:9), but the attitude of those who submit not to His Lordship is “we will not have this Man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14). Pause then, my reader, and honestly face the question: are you subject to His will, are you sincerely endeavoring to keep His commandments?
Alas, alas, God’s “way of salvation” is almost entirely unknown today, the nature of Christ’s salvation is almost universally misunderstood, and the terms of His salvation misrepresented on every hand. The “Gospel” which is now being proclaimed is, in nine cases out of every ten, but a perversion of the Truth, and tens of thousands, assured they are bound for Heaven, are now hastening to Hell, as fast as time can take them. Things are far, far worse in Christendom than even the “pessimist” and the “alarmist” suppose. We are not a prophet, nor shall we indulge in any speculation of what Biblical prophecy forecasts—wiser men than the writer have often made fools of themselves by so doing. We are frank to say that we know not what God is about to do. Religious conditions were much worse, even in England, one hundred and fifty years ago. But this we greatly fear: unless God is pleased to grant a real revival, it will not be long ere “the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people” (Isa. 60:2), for “Evangelism” constitutes, in our judgment, the most solemn of all the “signs of the times.”
What must the people of God do in view of the existing situation? Ephesians 5:11 supplies the Divine answer: “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them,” and everything opposed to the light of the Word is “darkness.” It is the bounded duty of every Christian to have no dealings with the “evangelistic” monstrosity of the day: to withhold all moral and financial support of the same, to attend none of their meetings, to circulate none of their tracts. Those preachers who tell sinners they may be saved without forsaking their idols, without repenting, without surrendering to the Lordship of Christ are as erroneous and dangerous as others who insist that salvation is by works and that Heaven must be earned by our own efforts.