Against Universalism

There are two quite wrong ways to come to terms with the biblical teaching on the eternal punishment of the lost. One is annihilationism, which says the lost will simply cease to exist after this life. The other is universalism, which says in the end everyone will be saved.

Both positions are clearly and decisively refuted in Scripture, yet they continue to be promoted, even sometimes by those claiming to be Bible-believing Christians, or evangelicals. Three texts are often appealed to by the universalists, so let me address each.

But first, bear in mind several basic principles of hermeneutics:
-any passage which is somewhat obscure must be assessed in light of more clear passages.
-any passage which seems to contradict a majority of other texts must be read in that light.

If we simply observed these fundamental rules of biblical interpretation, there would be little reason for anyone to drift into the error of universalism. Viewing Scripture as a whole, it is abundantly clear that humanity faces two different eternal destinies. Those who now willingly bow the knee to God and accept his provision of salvation will spend eternity with Him, while those who now reject God and his offer of salvation will seal their own fate. One day they will bow as well, but unwillingly at the final judgment of God, and they will then spend eternity cast out of his presence.

Let me briefly examine the three texts used to push this heterodox position. The first is John 12:32: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Now if one simply reads the entire 12th chapter, let alone the entire book of John, there is no way anyone can deduce from this passage that Jesus is teaching the salvation of all men.

If he was, then he makes himself out to be a liar, given the dozens of clear teachings which tell us the exact opposite. How anyone can read John 3:18, 36; John 5:28-29; 5:39-40; John 8:21, 24; John 12:48 to name but a few, and still believe in universalism is beyond me. Such people have allowed themselves to be deceived, and they are on very dangerous ground.

But again, context is everything, and Craig Keener nicely describes what is going on here: “His language refers not to salvation of all individuals (cf. 3:36), but representatives among all peoples (cf. Rev 5:9; 13:7); the context is the Pharisees complaint that ‘the world’ was now following him (12:19), and Gentiles were now ready to approach Jesus (12:20).”

Indeed, in all three of these passages, the obvious answer is to understand how the term “all” is used. It is usually clear by the context whether we are to use it in an absolute sense or not. Consider just one obvious example when it is not used in this sense.

In Matt. 3:5 we are told that “all Judea” went out to hear John’s preaching in the desert. The gospel writer of course does not mean to suggest that every man, woman and child in a 500 square mile area went to hear him. As John Blanchard asks, “Did Pontius Pilate the Roman governor go, along with all his officials? Did Caiaphas the high priest and all the religious establishment go? . . . Common sense will answer the question.”

Or as Rodney Whitacre puts it, “John does not suggest, however, that everyone will in fact be drawn to Jesus. The present text shows folk rejecting him or simply being confused, and the next section is a reflection on the mystery of unbelief (12:37-43). Satan, the jailor, has been mortally wounded, and Jesus, the liberator, is standing in the cell, but many prisoners prefer to remain in bondage.”

The next passage often appealed to is 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Once again, context makes it clear that Paul is not at all teaching the salvation of all men. He everywhere teaches the very opposite.

The point Paul is making is in fact fairly straightforward, but leave it to cultists and others to engage in blatant Scripture-twisting. David Garland provides a nice overview of what Paul is arguing for here:

“Paul assumes that the representative determines the fate of the group. All those bound to Adam share his banishment from Eden, his alienation, and his fate of death so that death becomes the common lot of his posterity. All those bound to Christ receive reconciliation and will share his resurrection and heavenly blessings. Not all humans are in Christ, however. Holleman comments, ‘Since only Christians are united with Christ, only Christians will be made alive through Christ’.”

The idea of corporate solidarity is commonly found in Scripture. As Ciampa and Rosner say of this text, “To be in Christ is to be part of the group which finds in Christ its representative and leader, which finds its identity and destiny in Christ and what he has brought about for his people. All humans who have not yet found redemption through faith in Christ remain in Adam.”

They continue, “Paul is not teaching universalism (see 1 Cor. 1:18); the unqualified ‘all’ of v. 22 who will be made alive is clarified by v. 23 with the phrase ‘those who belong to him’.” Everyone in Adam – that is, all of us – is separated from God, but everyone who is in Christ – that is, those who turn to him – will be made alive.

Finally, consider Philippians 2:9-11: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

This is perhaps the easiest passage to deal with, and it requires little comment. As the sovereign Lord of the universe, of course everyone will one day bow. As mentioned above, we either bow willingly or unwillingly. All Paul is doing here in quoting Isaiah 45:23 is reminding us that one day all of humanity will acknowledge who God is.

Satan knows who God is, yet refuses to willingly submit. The demons also acknowledge Christ, but that does not mean that they are therefore saved. The same is true of every unbeliever. They will one day stand before their creator with their heads hung in shame, finally realising that they have rejected the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

Such a realisation does not mean, as if by magic, that they all of a sudden will become believers. Their fate was sealed while on earth, as Hebrews 9:27 plainly attests. J.I. Packer reminds us, “It must be said with all possible emphasis that there is no scriptural support for any form of this post-mortem evangelism, probation, or conversion theorizing. What appears instead is a drumbeat insistence on the decisiveness of this life’s decisions (see esp. Matt. 12:32; 25:41, 46; 26:24; Luke 16:26; John 8:21; Rom. 2:1-16; 2 Cor. 5;10; Gal. 6:7).”

Blanchard is quite right to state that “Universalism originated in the Garden of Eden when Satan brushed aside God’s warning and assured Eve, ‘You will not surely die’. It has remained popular ever since. . . . If ever there was a doctrine to encourage moral licence, self-centred living and the irrelevance of conscience, universalism is it.”

Quite so. Not only was the Incarnation in vain, but so too are the commands to go everywhere and proclaim the gospel message to every creature. But why in the world should we, if we will all be saved in the end anyway? With such a false belief, the old saying makes perfect sense: “Let’s eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die [and then get a free ticket to heaven].”

In addition to torturing the biblical texts to fit into their unbiblical agenda, the universalists have to simply ignore or distort hundreds, if not thousands, of crystal-clear passages which say the exact opposite. Indeed, if universalism is true, then thousands of lies or deliberately misleading statements are found in Scripture:

-Was Jesus lying when he told the Pharisees in John 8:21 that where he was going, they could not come?
-Was Jesus lying when in Matt:7:13-14 he warned about many who would not be on the road that leads to life?
-Was Jesus lying when he said in Luke 16:25-26 that there is a great gulf between the place of torment and the place of blessedness, so that those in agony cannot cross over to the other side?

We can go on like this indefinitely. None of these passages make any sense if universalism is true. So either God is a liar, or he was just having us on, or the entire Word is nothing but myth and superstition. Atheists of course affirm all three, but people claiming to be Christians certainly should not.

But the worst tragedy in all this is those who reject the clear biblical teaching on eternal punishment obviously think they are far more compassionate, loving, wise and caring than God is, and God really must submit to their demands about how the universe should be run. This is the height of arrogance and idolatry.

Indeed, J.I. Packer is right to say, “There is a lack of realism here, just as there is a lack of biblical faithfulness. The universalists’ dream – fantasy, rather – about God’s universal salvific purpose is in truth a kite that will not fly in an Arminian breeze.”

He continues, “Universalism does not stand up to biblical examination. Its sunny optimism may be reassuring and comfortable, but it wholly misses the tragic quality of human sin, human unbelief, and human death as set forth in the Scriptures, while its inevitable weakening of the motives for evangelistic prayer and action is subversive of the church’s mission as Christ and the apostles define it. Universalism reinvents, and thereby distorts and disfigures, biblical teaching about God and salvation, and it needs to be actively opposed, so that the world may know the truth about the holiness, the judgment, the plan, the love, the Christ, and the salvation of our God”

To conclude, the words of C.S. Lewis about hell in his classic 1940 work, The Problem of Pain, still cannot be beaten here:

“There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture, and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of the creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts, ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies “How if they will not give in?’”

[1889 words]

18 Replies to “Against Universalism”

  1. You are proposing that we examine Scripture to see what it says overall, Bill (gasp!). The problem of people finding support for contrary views in Scripture is that they do what most people in fact do when they approach Scripture. They have an idea already firmly fixed in their mind and they search Scripture for justification of that idea, ignoring evidence to the contrary and stop immediately they find something that supports their idea, and say “there – told you so – Scripture supports this idea!”

    You can find support in Scripture for absolutely every crazy idea that has ever been dreamed up by man using that process. We do much better to study as you propose.

    John Symons

  2. Thank you Bill for showing the unchallengeable authority of God’s Word. Two classes of people -saved and lost – fill the pages of our precious bible.
    The first psalm illustrates this. S is for saved, while L is for lost. Blessed is the man (S) who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly (L) v1
    Nor stands in the path of sinners (L)
    But sits in the seat on the scornful (L)

    ‘His delight is in the law of the Lord (S) v2
    and in His law he meditates day and night.(S)

    Verse 3 speaks of a tree, rivers of waters,fruit, non withering, spiritual prosperity. (S)

    However, verse 4 contrasts, ‘The ungodfly are not so; are like the chaff which the wind drives away. (L)

    Verse 5 dismisses universalism, ‘the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.(L)

    ‘The Lord knows the way of the righteous.(S)
    But the way of the ungodly shall perish, (L) v6

    Bill, we should prompt our friends to drink at this fountain: we should pray also the Lord’s blessing on the initiator.

    Harrold Steward

  3. Thanks Bill I have learned alot from your last two blogs on hell and universalism. I have always believed that at the time of judgment there would be a chance for the souls of sinners to repent and qualify for eternal life – in ways that surpass my understanding. I understood that the souls of unrepentent sinners would be denied eternal life, destroyed for ever in the lake of fire, for although the fire burns in an unextinquishable flame – the chaff would inevitably be consumed. I understand from your article that this is the annihilationist stance.

    The idea of an eternal after-life of peace, joy and harmony in God’s restored kingdom depending eternally upon torture of the souls of unrepentent sinners does not resonate with my idea of goodness. I thought, surely God’s kingdom should be rid of the threat of evil.

    However we could be in for a nasty surprise and find that the idea of endless benevolence and forgiveness many of us assume could be a fallacy. I gather from your articles that good and evil are like two sides of a coin and perhaps Lucifer / Satan and forces of evil will continue the struggle for ascendence in perpetuity. I note, in your C.S. Lewis quote,reference to “if a game is played it must be possible to lose it”. If life and the afterlife is a very “serious game” then we all need to know about it as we ponder in shock and awe about our loved ones who don’t believe in Our Father in heaven.

    Jesus said: But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37).

    This gives pause for sobering thought.

    Rachel Smith

  4. Thanks Rachel

    No, neither the Bible nor I teach an endless dualism. Only God is sovereign, and the enemy has been defeated, and his final doom we read about in Revelation. And in my articles and comments I already have addressed the justice of God in his judgments, and have made the point that it is we who seal our own destiny.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. Bill, do you hear yourself, you say, if I have read you right;

    8. Concluding Observations
    Bell presses the boundary issue in this book. Even though he does not want to be labeled a universalist, he clearly wants universalism to be seen as a legitimate, orthodox option for Christians (p. 109-110). Yet universalism is anything but orthodox. It was condemned as a heresy at the Second Council of Constantinople, and Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants all eschew the idea that ultimately hell will be empty with all people eventually inheriting eternal life. To say that universalism is in the orthodox mainstream is simply an historical error.

    Does such a statement as this, concern you in any way?
    John R Wallis

    John R Wallis

  6. What do we do in this case with the millions who die at all ages who lived what we would call decent lives although born in sin. Does that then mean their fate is sealed if they did not come to know Jesus Christ. There has to be thousands every day.
    Daniel Garza

  7. Sorry, I thought it was your work.

    What surprised me is the “open admission” that “we protestants” are unashamedly, in agreement with the Roman Catholics.

    Yes, and I know it is true, but why do we, why have we taken our standard of “Orthodoxy” from Roman?

    John R Wallis

  8. Thanks John

    But I find your comment rather strange. How does saying that various groups affirm the same thing result in Protestants taking their standards from Catholicism? That does not follow in the least. The Catholics also affirm the doctrine of the Trinity. Should I therefore renounce this teaching simply because a non-Protestant holds to it? As far as I can tell, Catholics put their pants on one leg at a time, just as Protestants do. Does that mean Protestants are bowing to Catholic authority or standadrds?

    And what is wrong with being in agreement with people when they are right? If an atheist says that 2 + 2 = 4, must I therefore disagree with him because he is not a Christian? If a Muslim says there are 7 days in a week, am I obliged to disagree with him simply because he is a Muslim? All truth is God’s truth, so when someone from a different belief system says something which is true, I have no problem with agreeing with him. That does not mean I have bowed down to him, or embraced his entire system of thought.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. I find it hard to believe that God would sentence his imperfect creation to infinite punishment for finite sins. I hardly see how this could be a victory dance for God. True victory would be the conversion of the most chiefest of sinners to become a child of God. Is it impossible to say that God’s judgments cannot bring righteousness?

    Billy Mitchell, USA

  10. Thanks Billy

    But as I have said before, we send ourselves to a lost eternity. It is all our choice. We shake the fist at God in this life and tell him we want nothing to do with him, and God graciously allows us to make our own choices in this regard, for now and eternity.

    Forcing the unrepentant against their will to endure his presence forever would not be a victory at all, but a pyrrhic victory. I again quote Lewis: “I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts, ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies “How if they will not give in?’”

    We make our own bed and lie in it. There is nothing at all unjust about that. What would be unjust would be to force those who hate God and his holiness to have to live with him forever. God is too much of a gentleman to allow that.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  11. Thanks for covering the topic so clearly, Bill. I remember attending a discussion at a Christian college on Universalism, where one lecturer was proclaiming the view that as Christ died for all, so all would be saved. What threw me somewhat was they began to get so excited with the thought that Satan would be forgiven and allowed back into Heaven. Why? Because God is not willing that any should perish and so God always achieves what He wills. It was disappointing to see leadership in a Christian evangelical college seem so willing to rewrite evangelical belief. But its the way of the world now, I guess.

  12. Thanks Thaddeus. One somewhat older work is quite useful:

    -Cameron, Nigel, ed., Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell. Baker, 1992.

    I will need to do an article listing other titles here, but a few that would cover this include:

    -Milne, Bruce, The Message of Heaven and Hell. Inter-Varsity Press, 2002.
    -Morgan, Christopher and Robert Peterson, eds., Hell Under Fire. Zondervan, 2004.

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