ome years ago I had a personal experience, a vision, about the profound implications of the Cross. Just before this I had read an article or something of that nature with a content that might be familiar: if somebody doesn't believe during this life, it is certain they won't be going to heaven. That is, to God.
It was the days between Christmas and New Year's. A couple of months ago, I had finally recovered from the end of a relationship. I don't always tell people it was a dating relationship. Some people don't tend to take those seriously. I did, for better or for worse. I had recovered from it by knowing that God continues to love her more than I ever could, even though I could not really be in contact with her anymore.
My background is Lutheran. I am also a Lutheran pastor. My parents had taught me that God loves everybody. Christ died for everybody. The Lutheran thing is to believe that we are saved by grace alone (like St. Paul says), apart from works. In fact, apart from our decisions. My father is a composer (Kari Tikka), and his most famous song is called Grace Song, which is about the Pauline message of strength in weakness, of salvation by grace alone.
So I knew that God loves everybody. He takes care of everybody. He will also certainly continue to love us all. I had learned that as a child, deep in my heart, but it had been recently reconfirmed in me. Also, I knew that faith and salvation are a gift, not based on anything we do, decide or merit. So – why wouldn't God take care of the most important thing, of people having a relationship with Him? If it's not our decision to be saved, one question only remained in my heart: how, then, does everybody get faith, that is, have a relationship with Him?
And I was stuck. I did not want to be a Unitarian Universalist. When I was a teenager, I had (obviously) been interested in finding out about theological matters that intrigued me. One of them was Universalism. There wasn't a lot of info available. There was book called Everybody's Going to Heaven written by a Finnish pastor. I didn't read the book then, and unfortunately, it is not based on any doctrinal premises. The only actual relatively available info about universal hope were websites about Unitarian Universalism. This view denies, among other doctrines, the divinity and incarnation of Christ.
The incarnation was something that ended up being very important to me because of a crisis induced by an agnostic teacher of philosophy in high school. The crisis made an orthodox believer out of somebody who was interested in religious pluralism. The teacher of philosophy (philosophy is taught in high schools in Finland) was agnostic even about the existence of reality and human beings. In effect, he was saying that the Matrix could be real – or not. In any case, this means that the love of your most loved ones could be a lie. This was a horrible thought. I rebelled against it.
What this led to was that faith in the incarnation of Christ was (and is) personally essential for me. It's the antidote against the lies of this (or any) age about the reality and power of love. I knew that I needed that faith. I knew it was a gift. I knew that everybody needed that faith. But Universalism, in the form that most people know of, denied the importance of faith in Christ alone.
Fortunately, when I was studying theology in the University of Helsinki, I had heard about St. Gregory of Nyssa. I knew he was an orthodox, Trinitarian Christian church father who also happened to believe in universal salvation. Therefore, I didn't think that one had to be a non-Christian or a non-orthodox Christian in order to believe in universal hope. Still, I couldn't just start to believe that everybody will be saved. I had to know how faith actually fits into all of this. Faith in Christ.
I was torn and shaken. I think I was, at times, literally shaking (I don't recall exactly). In any case, it was an existential crisis, and I believe anybody reading this might realize how those feel. One can hardly put it into usual words.
I was in my bed, alone in my small apartment, in the city I was pastoring in. I was anguished. How does faith fit into this? How? How can or could it be possible? How could actual salvation of all be accomplished?
The Cross. The Trinity. What happened was deliberate and personal, with intention and power (not theoretical, not only a play). God with a purpose. A Father doesn't give His Son to die for a potential salvation. He gave His Son to die for actual people, so that they would be saved. (A Father wouldn't give His Son to die for anything less.) For every single one, as I knew, because Christ felt the worst things that a human could experience. He was totally alone, but not without a purpose that He, Christ, also had. He decided to die in order to bring all of God's children back to where they belong. And a very important, essential Person one doesn't usually think of being there: the Holy Spirit. God's Love, the one who gives faith, was there.
The Holy Spirit is sometimes called God's Love (e.g. by St. Augustine). The Holy Spirit was not there with Christ only observing the events. He was blessing Christ's work with all and all of His might and love, so that He would be involved with the glory of the Cross in an equal way. God, the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, will work out the aim of the Cross, for all whom it was done. Everybody shall know God personally. The Holy Spirit was there so that the world will come to know God's Love, the conquering Grace that was manifested on the Cross.
When I told my father Kari and my mother Eeva about the vision, they revealed something that I could hardly wrap my head around. They had understood these things for a long time, my father since he was in his twenties (before I was born). Something, however, had made this message hidden even amidst the wonderful context of grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone.
Christians who believe in the most powerful and the most defining features of Christianity tend to not believe in Universal Salvation. At least, many vocal advocates of orthodox Christianity are usually vocal against Christian, that is, Trinitarian Universalism (which they, either out of confusion or a certain kind of fear, confuse with Pluralism). There are pastors and others who personally believe in the larger hope but don't talk about it. Many people at least hope that it could be true. Universal Salvation seems to be a sort of a public secret. I was all for plain facts. That's why I didn't notice even my parents' belief in Universal Salvation, even though they were trying to hint at it. They did so only on the basis of other normal Christian beliefs.
I would guess that it is the dominance of individualism that hinders Universal Salvation from being heard or its existence even being acknowledged. At least this could be so in Finland and in Europe, where religious beliefs are held very personally. Finland is the country where the biggest percentage of people pray out of the Nordic countries. Nevertheless, people can be very shy about sharing their faith in Christ. Universal Salvation is a doctrine that can be especially longed for, out of a desire for permanent reconciliation and faith in the love of God. This was what started my path. However, fear of being rejected or of not being actually heard might prevent one from sharing this hope openly. Even though it might be needed by a young Christian looking for helpful (not judgmental) certainty in an existentially troubled world.
The vision that I had showed me how Universal Salvation is true because of the Trinity's action and intention. However, I was faced with a strange conundrum. In the US, a pastor might be defrocked because of his views on Universal Salvation. This was never any real danger for me. I am a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. Because Lutheranism is all about grace alone, if I preach about grace for all forever, it might not be that controversial for many people (though for many it is, obviously). What was more troubling for me was the lack of interest or something else that's hard to define, even among some friends and pastors and Christians I knew.
How does one understand universal salvation in a context like this? It is very different than the American Evangelical context, for instance. In any case, I decided to do a doctorate in theology, in order to have a fuller understanding of what universal salvation means and to share it with people. Especially the Lutheran perspective was (and is) important for me. In any case, through my research I have endeavoured to find a good overall theological framework for Universal Salvation. This has, surprisingly enough, possibly made it easier for some people to understand what the whole thing is about.
The Holy Spirit, The Church, and Music
Robert Jenson, a Lutheran theologian who recently passed away, is one of the main sources of my thesis. He doesn't necessarily talk about Universal Salvation explicitly, but his ideas provide a possible framework which makes it more understandable. According to Jenson, the Holy Spirit is the power of God's own future. In this capacity, as this Person of eschatological insurpassibility, He guarantees that what we preach about forgiveness is true. He also makes the real presence of Christ in the sacraments unconditional to all. The Holy Spirit is the triumph of God's action in Christ. The Holy Spirit makes the suffering of Christ the ultimate good of all creatures. This sounds similar to what I've been saying previously, though Jenson was shy (or sometimes seemingly reticent) about anything related to totally explicit Universal Salvation.
According to Jenson, the way the Person or personal nature of the Holy Spirit is to be felt and understood is through the Church. If the Holy Spirit is also hope for all, this means that hope for all is actually experienced through community: the Church. We are not alone in our salvation or even in the way it happens. This is very different than the very individualistic evangelical emphasis on personal decision, or the individualistic pluralism of modern day society. But I've also noticed that talking about community, the interpersonal nature of salvation and hope, makes Universal Salvation actually more understandable to people.
Even as a phrase, Universal Salvation is inherently communal. It is not Individual but Universal Salvation. But salvation, especially universal salvation, is also not an individualistic deal – ”now I'm good with God”, or ”now I won't go to Hell, because I've accepted Jesus”. What is salvation, then? I've come to see that it is essentially music. Confessing Christ means salvation (Romans 10:9). But confession is essentially joyful praise. Every tongue shall praise God. (Philippians 2:9-11)
So the proper way to understand Universal Salvation might not be that each of us will be saved individually once we have made the proper decision and then we will be free from something bad. Maybe a more constructive way of understanding Universal Salvation is that the Holy Spirit is leading all people to praise God together, in one big harmonious choir around the Cross of Jesus. This is also something that can happen right now, through love shared between people, and through the praiseful liturgy of the Church.
An Opera and a Conference
And another way salvation can happen is in and as opera! I and my father had a lot of discussions around the topic. My father has a way of making music about theological themes that are close to him. For instance, he has made an opera called Luther (about the Reformer). Now he has made an allegorical opera about Universal Salvation, from the beginning to the end and maybe beyond. The title of the opera is Love is Strong as Death. One of the central lines of the opera is: ”Every tongue shall join in song.”
My wife Katie Tikka is doing the English translation of the opera. She is an American, from Wisconsin. I got to know her a long time ago (just after high school) because of our common interest in Tolkien's languages. We were out of contact for a while (and I had the aforementioned relationship that didn't work out in between). However, very soon after I had the vision of the Cross I felt or heard God speaking to me that I shall have a wife. Little did I know that it would be a restoration of my first love.
Right after Katie and I got engaged, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Before we got married one year later, he was cured. He had composed and written the opera before the cancer. Now he will have the chance to conduct it himself. My sister Maisa Tikka is doing the stage direction. It's a family effort. Please pray that the coronavirus or people's fear of it won't disturb the plans (they would only do so temporarily anyway).
In addition to the opera, I'm arranging a conference on Universal Salvation. The name of the conference is Toivo – Hope. Toivo is Finnish for ”hope”. The international speakers are Ilaria Ramelli, Brad Jersak, Robin Parry, Peter Hiett and George Sarris (who will do a performance of John 18-20). You can find more info about it here. There will be videos, God willing! My intention is to make Universal Salvation no longer a public secret in Finland. That's also what the opera is doing in its own powerful way.
Love is as strong as death. God won't settle for being a friend. He will continue to be the Lover, whatever it takes. And what it definitely takes is music and scholarly study, done together.