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Will Everyone Be Saved? Print E-mail

A Look at Universalism


Written by Rick Wade

Introduction

In the spring of 2011, Pastor Rob Bell's book Love Wins hit the book stores, but the furor over the book started even before that. The charge was heresy. Bell appeared to be teaching Universalism, the belief that everyone will be saved in the end. In fact, Bell doesn't make a case for Universalism in the book, although his rejection of the traditional view of hell makes it seem so at first.

Download the Podcast This will not be a review of Love Wins but rather a look at Universalism itself. It won't do to simply label Universalism as heresy and be done with it. The way people responded to Bell's book illustrates the problem.{1} It's better to understand why this teaching has been and should be rejected.

It is important to try to represent others' views fairly. This article, which is what aired on Probe's radio program, is too short to do Universalism justice; there is way too much involved in it. Here I'll confine myself to introducing some of the important issues involved. However, a longer article in PDF form is available here to fill out the issue some more.{2}

Universalism has been believed by some Christians since the early centuries of the church. What makes it attractive? For one thing, Universalists wonder how a loving God could send people to hell—a place of conscious torment—forever. Furthermore, God is a God of justice, and a punishment of eternal torment seems incommensurate with our finite sins, as bad as they may be.

Universalists find scriptural support primarily in Paul's writings where he declares, for example, that "as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men" (Rom 5:18).

Before digging in, I need to make an important distinction. I'll be talking about Christian Universalism, not pluralistic Universalism. Pluralistic Universalism is the belief that everyone in the world will be "saved" by some almighty being or force that the various religions understand in different ways. Christian Universalism, by contrast, is the belief that Christianity holds the truth about God, man, and salvation, and that, contrary to the traditional belief, everyone will be saved through faith in Christ, even if on the other side of the grave.

The Love and Justice in God

Universalists take the traditional view of hell as being completely out of keeping with the loving character of God.{3} Philosopher Thomas Talbott believes that, because love is basic to the nature of God, everything God does has a loving aspect. Thus, there can be no eternal judgment against a person.

Because of this, Talbott sees God's justice primarily as remedial or restorative, not as retributive or punitive. Speaking of Israel, for example, he points out that God "did not spare the natural branches" (Rom. 11:21), yet eventually God will have mercy on them. Couldn't it be the same for the Gentiles, too? God's grand project since the Fall has been to save people. If He doesn't save all, hasn't He failed?{4}

Scripture claims both that God is just and that God is love (see Deut. 32:41 and John 4:8). It's also clear that God administers retributive justice. This is seen in Isaiah 3:11 where God says that what the wicked "have dealt out shall be done to him." Consider, too, God's judgment against the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Deut. 20:16-17). There is no mention of restoration.

For Universalists, love is supreme; justice serves love. Why not the other way around? Why shouldn't love serve justice? N. T. Wright asks why either love or justice ought to be seen as the highest expression of God's nature. Perhaps, he says, both are expressions of God's holiness.{5}

The cross work of Christ is instructive here. Our hope for salvation rests on the fact that on the cross "He who knew no sin became sin on our behalf" (2 Cor. 5:21; see also Rom. 3:25; Gal. 3:13; Heb. 10:10,12,14; Isa. 53:5). What kind of judgment fell on Christ? It was punitive, not restorative, and it was properly ours.

Still, even with all this, how can we possibly regard everlasting punishment as just? It's important to understand that judgment isn't merely a reflection of a sin:punishment ratio. Believing in God in the biblical sense involves both our acceptance of God in all His glory and our submission to Him whatever He may command or promise. Thus, to not believe in God in this full sense is to reject God. So when people will be punished in hell, it won't be simply a matter of paybacks for individual sins. It will be because they rejected God.

Paul and Universalism

In addition to the appeal to the love of God, Universalists often look to the letters of Paul for support. Writes Thomas Talbott, "Unlike most conservatives, I see no way to escape the conclusion that St. Paul was an obvious Universalist."{6}

Where does he find this in Paul's letters? Romans 5 and 11 are key passages. In Romans 5, Paul compares the first Adam with the second Adam, Christ. In verse 18 he writes, "Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous." In Romans 11:32 he writes, "For God has consigned all to disobedience that he may have mercy on all." "All" is taken quite literally to mean everyone tainted by sin.{7} What can we say in response?

Paul's main point in Romans, with respect to the issue at hand, is that salvation is not just for Jews but for all people, and it comes through faith in Jesus. In chapters 1 through 4, Paul argues that everyone knows God exists but sins anyway and is deserving of punishment. Furthermore, the Jews had no safety net because they possessed the law; they broke the law themselves. Salvation has come through faith in Christ alone. In fact, faith has always been the basis of salvation. Paul sums up in chapter 5: through Adam everyone is tainted by sin; through Christ alone is found salvation for everyone. That he doesn't mean every single person will necessarily be saved is clear in Romans 11:22. The Jews who will be grafted back in are those who "do not continue in their unbelief."

Second Thessalonians 1:7-10 is an important passage for understanding Paul's teaching on eternal punishment. There Paul says that those who do not obey the gospel "will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might." Gregory MacDonald, a Universalist, acknowledges that this is an especially problematic passage for Universalists.{8}

Jesus and Universalism

It's often been noted that Jesus makes the strongest statements on hell in Scripture. Universalists believe they have been misunderstood.

Given that Paul clearly taught Universalism, Thomas Talbott believes, passages such as Matthew 25, where Jesus spoke of separating the sheep from the goats, must be interpreted in that light. Talbott characterizes Jesus' prophetic teachings as "hyperbole, metaphor, and riddle . . . parable and colorful stories."{9} He says that "Had it been Jesus' intention to address the question of universal salvation . . . in a clear and systematic way, I'm sure he was capable of doing so."{10} Jesus is simply teaching what would have been our fate were it not for the atonement.{11}

Did Jesus make any clear statements about the finality of judgment? I'll mention just three passages.

In Matthew chapter 7 we read the severe warning from Jesus that in the end not everyone who claims Jesus as Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven. "I declare to them," Jesus said, "'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness'" (vv. 21-23). There is no mention of a second chance later.

In the parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1-13), when those who weren't prepared knocked on the door and asked to be let in, the bridegroom refused, saying he didn't know them. One must be prepared or be locked out. There's no hint of a later unlocking of the door.

In Matthew 25:46, Jesus speaks of "everlasting punishment." "Everlasting" is the English translation of the Greek word aiōnion. Universalists argue that this word refers to an age of punishment because the root word, ai­ōn, means just that—an age with a beginning and an end. But aiōnion isn't just a form of aiōn; it is a form of the word aiōnios which means "eternal."

According to the standard Greek lexicon of our day, aiōnios can mean, among other things, with a beginning but without an end.{12} One example is when Jesus said He was going to prepare a place for us (Jn. 14:2,3). Paul says that this new home is "eternal in the heavens" (Rom. 5:1).{13}

When Jesus speaks of punishment in Matt. 25:46 as everlasting, He means just that. Everlasting life or everlasting punishment; it's one or the other.

Postmortem Salvation

Because obviously not everyone dies in Christ, postmortem salvation is an essential component of Universalism. There must be people saved after death.

There is no direct scriptural teaching about postmortem salvation. The closest is the much disputed passage in 1 Peter 3 where Peter speaks of Jesus making proclamation to the spirits in prison (vv. 19-20). It is not at all clear that the event spoken of in 1 Peter refers to the evangelization of all the lost after death. Theologian and New Testament scholar Wayne Grudem names five possible interpretations of this passage in an article, and says that even more are possible.{14}

Gregory MacDonald believes that Rev. 21:25, which says that the gates to the New Jerusalem will never be closed, indicates that unbelievers can exercise faith after death and come in. Verse 24 speaks of the kings of the earth entering the city along with the glory and honor of the nations. MacDonald identifies these with the kings defeated earlier with the beast (19:19). They had been enemies; now they are not.

In response, we note that "kings of the earth" is a common designation in Scripture for earthly rulers.{15} It is entirely reasonable to see John, in Revelation, as talking about one group of kings who side with the beast and another group who are part of the kingdom and who enter to bring homage to the King.

The wall around the city marks a boundary between those who may enter and those outside.{16} "Outside" doesn't necessarily mean simply outside spatially but can also mean those not included in the circle or group.{17} Those who are able to enter the city are those whose names have been written in the Lamb's book of life (21:27). No promise is given that a person's name can be entered after death.

There is no clear promise in Scripture that there will be an opportunity for people to be saved after death. Are we willing to risk the eternal damnation of people by presenting the supposition that there will be?{18} Universalism is conjecture built upon a basic notion of what the love of God must mean. The case built from Scripture, however, is too fragile to sustain it.

This article barely scrapes the surface of this subject. I urge you to look at the longer article, "Universalism: A Biblical and Theological Critique," also on Probe's web site.

Notes

1. My comments regarding the hasty reaction to Love Wins are given in a short article on Probe's web site titled "(Ir)Responsible Critique: The Rob Bell Affair."
2. The longer version, titled "Universalism: A Biblical and Theological Critique," is available on Probe's web site here: www.probe.org/atf/cf/%7B3db354b7-83ad-49c0-95c3-d23bb106154d%7D/UNIVERSALISM.PDF.
3. Gregory MacDonald, a Universalist, states that "The love of God is very important for the Universalist. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it is a strong belief in God's love that often drives people towards Universalism." Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006), 100. Note that "Gregory MacDonald" is a pen named used by Robin A. Parry. To reduce the possibility for confusion over book titles and author names, I will refer to him as MacDonald when referencing his book The Evangelical Universalist.
4. See for example John A.T. Robinson, In the End God (New York: Harper & Row: 1968), 116.
5. N. T. Wright, "Universalism and the World-Wide Community," Churchman 89 (1975): 197-212.
6. Thomas Talbott, "A Pauline Interpretation of Divine Judgment," in Parry and Partridge, Universal Salvation?, 48.
7. Thomas Talbott, "Christ Victorious," in Parry and Partridge, eds., Universal Salvation?, 18-19.
8. MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist. 151-54.
9. Talbott, "A Pauline Interpretation of Divine Judgment," in Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge., eds., Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 43.
10. Talbott, "A Pauline Interpretation," 50-51, n. 18.
11. Ibid., 45.
12. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, eds., 2nd ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press,1979), s.v. "???????".
13. Other Scriptures that refer to our future as eternal include Luke 1:33, John 4:14, John 6:51, 58; 8:51; 10:28; 11:26; and Rev. 22:5. Another reason we know eternal life extends into the future in a temporal sense is because it is the life of the Son and he has no end (1 Jn. 5:11; cf. Jn. 1:4). We will have life everlasting because Jesus, to whom we are now connected, has life everlasting.
14. Wayne A. Grudem, "Christ Preaching Through Noah: 1 Peter 3:19-20 in the Light of Dominant Themes in Jewish Literature," Trinity Journal 7.2 (Fall, 1986): 3-31.
15. See Matt. 17:25; Acts 4:26; Rev. 6:15; 17:2, 18; 18:3, 9.
16. Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, s.v. "Wall, Hedge, Palisade," by N. Hillyer, 3:948. Hillyer takes the wall to be symbolic, but the same meaning would apply to a literal interpretation.
17. For other Scriptures on this use of "outside" see Mk. 4:11; 1 Cor. 5:12f; Col. 4:5; 1 Thess. 4:12.
18. See Jay Wesley Richards, "A Pascalian Argument Against Universalism," in William A. Dembski and Jay Wesley Richards, Unapologetic Apologetics: Meeting the Challenges of Theological Studies (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 217-218.

© 2012 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Rick WadeRick Wade served as a Probe research associate for 17 years. He holds a B.A. in communications (radio broadcasting) from Moody Bible Institute, an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology/philosophy of religion) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Master of Humanities (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Dallas. Rick's interests focus on apologetics, Christianity and culture, and the changing currents in Western thought. Before joining Probe Ministries, Rick worked in the ship repair industry in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at rwade@pobox.com.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

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