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?’”