7 Things for Universalists to Consider

Some have claimed that all people will be finally saved, even after torment in hell. However, there are all sorts of inherent problems with that view. Here’s a brief list of problems to consider.

Consider…

1. There Is No (Clear) Scripture That Teaches Universalism

The doctrine of universalism goes against the clear teaching of Scripture and finds no clear teaching supporting what it argues. Yes, I understand that there are a few passages that if you pull out of context and place into a certain system of thought, can seem to support the doctrine but it is not the texts natural meaning in context.

Further, if one espouses universalism they need to say that hell is either hypothetical, pedagogical, or temporary, not everlasting. However, all these options flatly contradict and do violence to the teaching that Scripture clearly lays out. If God wanted to communicate to us that universal salvation was the final reality than He could have clearly communicated such to us, but He didn’t. The doctrine of universalism is in no way clear from Scripture, even in passages where you would expect it to be taught.

For example, in Isaiah 30 it talks about the LORD being gracious and it uses “new creation language” (v. 18-26) but then it talks about the LORD’s “furious anger” and about “a burning place” that “had long been prepared” (v. 27-33). Again, when talking about the restoration, i.e. new creation passages, we don’t see hope of restoration of the unrepentant wicked. Actually, we just see how much intentionality goes into their destruction (“place on the jaws of the people a bridle that leads astray,” “long been prepared,” “made ready,” “fire and wood in abundance”).

There is no clear Scripture that teaches universalism but many that I believe argue clearly against any hope of universalism.

2. What Is Meant By “Given Up”

We see from Romans 1 that God judges people by giving them up to their sin. If every restraint in hell is taken away and people “are given up wholly to sin, which, instead of purifying them, will tend above all things that be conceived, to harden them in sin, and desperately establish it.”[1]

Also, the imagery in Scripture does not lead us to think that there will be a time of redemption and restoration for those that have been condemned to hell. Think about the imagery of Jesus coming on His white horse, think of the blood being as high as a horse’s bridal (Rev. 14:20), think of the blood splattered on Jesus’ robe (19:13ff). The punishment that is inflicted does not give a hint of being restorative. Instead, in judgment, people are “given up.” “The wicked that are finally impenitent, are represented as wholly cast away, lost, made no account of… which is quite inconsistent with their punishment being medicinal, and for their good and purification.”[2]

When humanity is given up to their sin they have nothing restraining them from caring out greater and greater forms of wickedness and they also have no hope of something coming to restrain them since they have been “given up” and they have no hope of then turning since it is abundantly apparent that they are “dead in their trespasses and sins” and if they have been “given up” then they won’t then be “made alive” and regenerated. Also, we can see that if they have been given up to sin and their sin continually increases in depths of depravity then the sinner once “given up” to sin is thus always continually more worthy of hell. Thus, hell is eternal with no chance of acquittal.

God giving up humanity to their sin and forsaking them is most serious because it is in no way remedial, medicinal, or loving. So, for instance, parents discipline children in love to teach them. They do not forsake them and give them up to their own devices because they desire good for them; however, when God finally gives up people to their own devices there is no hope for those people.

The Messiah will trample His enemies under His feet. Which means He will crush them (cf. e.g. Is. 63:1-4; Rev. 14:20). There is nothing that makes me think that they will be uncrushed or brought back to heaven out of the “second death.” To say the “second death” is to be explicit and emphatic, there are gravely no second chances.

3. Jesus’ Teaching

W. G. T Shedd bluntly said, “Jesus Christ is the person who is responsible for the doctrine of eternal perdition.”[3] So I think J. I. Packer is correct in saying,

“One has to ask, soberly I hope, and reverently, how could the Lord have made the fact of eternal punishment for the impenitent clearer than he did? What more could he have said to make it clear if passages like this [e.g. Matt. 25:46; Rev. 20:10; 15] do not make it clear? It is, to be sure, a fearful doctrine but it is there in the gospels, and we must take it as seriously as we take any other elements of our Lord’s teaching.”[4]

If we don’t take our Lord’s teaching seriously when it comes to eternal punishment then what’s going to stop us from not taking the Great Commission or any number of other things seriously?

“The simple fact remains that if we cannot trust Jesus Christ when He speaks about hell and eternal punishment, then we cannot really trust Him when He speaks about heaven and eternal life.

How do we know that God is love? Through the person of Jesus Christ. No one knows more about God’s love than Jesus Christ. Do universalists dare presume they can teach Jesus Christ something about God’s love? The One who embodied God’s love spent more time talking about the horrors of hell than the glories of heaven.”[5]

N.T. Wright has perceptively said,

“The passages which warn most clearly and unmistakably of eternal punishment, are found on the lips of Jesus Himself. This is the point at which the usual argument comes dangerously close to cutting off the branch it sits on. It says ‘God is love’: but we know that principally (since it is not evidently true) though the life of and death of Jesus Christ. We cannot use that life as an appeal against itself—which is precisely what happens if we say that, because God is love, the nature of salvation is not as it is revealed in the teaching of Jesus and in the cross itself, the place where God has provided the one way of salvation.”[6]

Further, different places in Scripture Jesus pronounces judgment upon people (e.g. Matt. 10:14-15; 11:21-24; Mk. 8:38) thus “is it reasonable to suppose, that the very Judge that is to judge them at the end of the world, would peremptorily declare, that they should not escape punishment at the day of judgment; yea, solemnly denounce sentence upon them, dooming them to the distinguished punishment they should then suffer for their obstinacy in their lifetime; and yet appoint another time of trial, of a great many hundred years between their death and the day of judgment, wherein they should have opportunity to escape that punishment?”[7] Is it reasonable to suppose this is the case even when all Scripture tells us nothing of it and rather clearly contradicts the idea that there will be opportunity to escape punishment?

What did Jesus mean by the great chasm that was fixed between Lazarus and the once rich man (see Lk. 16)? Why did Jesus say that it would have been better if Judas would have never have been born (see Matt. 26:24)? What did Jesus mean when He spoke of “one group going away into eternal life, and the other group going away into eternal punishment, the judgment being passed in each case on the basis of what they had done in this life?[8] (cf. Matt. 25:31-46).

Jesus said, “He will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For [notice the judgment is based upon things done before the judgment] I was hungry and you gave me no food,… sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Matt. 25:41-43). But why would Jesus say all that if in the final analysis it were not true? Or why did Jesus say, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father [again people are judged based on what they do before the judgment] who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21)? And why would God say, “I never knew you; depart from me” (v. 23) if they were already paid for through Christ’s blood? Why could not they too come boldly before the throne of grace (cf. Heb. 4:16)?

4. Rewards For Endurance And Vice Versa

We are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him” (Rom. 8:17). If we fail to follow the Lord in faith now, in this life, then it is clear we will not be glorified with Him in heaven. The basis of our reward or eternal ruin is based on a life of faith here. Although, thankfully, that doesn’t mean we have to be perfectly faithful.

Paul says, “If we have died with him, we will also live with Him” (2 Tim. 2:11 cf. Jn. 12:24-26; Rom. 6:1ff; esp. v. 8).[9] So, if we don’t die with Him we won’t live with Him.  “Died” in the sense that we see in Romans 6 and not necessarily actually physical death. Rather, Paul is referring to union with Christ.

Next we see, If we endure, we will reign with Him (2 Tim. 2:12 cf. Matt. 10:22). So we see “with this phrase, the teaching deliberately introduces the idea that future eschatological blessing (however that might be conceptualized) is dependent to some degree on the quality of present human response in history.”[10] Further, it says, “if we deny Him, He also will deny us” (v. 12 cf. Matt. 10:33; Mk. 8:38). The point that Paul is making here for Timothy, and by extension others who come after him “is the importance of ongoing faithfulness, as here measured by endurance as a prerequisite to obtaining the promise.”[11] If we don’t own our relationship with God and our commitment to God here (in space and time before Judgment) then He will not own us as His own at the Judgment.

However, we also see that “if we are faithless, He remains faithful—for He cannot deny himself” (v. 13). This last verse sets God apart from humanity. God is always faithful; it’s who He is. Even when we are faithless, God remains faithful. However, that does not do away with the truth of the previous verses but does serve to encourage Timothy (and us) that God is faithful even when we struggle. That is, this passage is not saying that we have to be perfect to “live with Him” and “reign with Him.”[12]

The book of Revelation teaches us that it is those who “conquer” in space and time who can eat from the tree of life and who will not be touched by the second death (Rev. 2:7, 11). It’s the one who conquers on earth before the final judgment that has the “white stone” as admission to heaven (2:17). So, we see in Revelation that there is a clear and decisive end to the chance that people have to repent. The one who conquers is the one “who keeps my works until the end” (v. 26). It is those who conquer on earth before the coming of the Lord Jesus that will be dressed in white garments and have their names in the book of life (3:5).

I do not relish the doctrine of hell, especially the everlasting nature of hell. However, if in the final analysis it is not true—if universalism is correct—then how is Scripture true? How can Jesus and Scripture be trusted? Jesus made it emphatically clear on numerous occasions that hell is everlasting. If what Scriptures says is not finally true it also detonates a fuse under the Biblical foundation for good works and brings the imperatives in Scripture to persevere and pursue the Lord to an untimely end.

5. It Distorts Scripture And Theology

Some doctrines don’t seem as significant as others especially when they sting the way the doctrine of hell does. However, honeybees as much as they sting and seem insignificant are very important. If we destroy them our ecosystem will suffer irreparable harm. In the same way, if we take away the sting of the eternality of punishment we do irrevocable harm to the whole theological system. We belittle sin, the holiness of God, humanity as created in the image of God and their choices, and we do violence to the teachings of Scripture. Universalism, I believe, sadly also subverts Jesus and His work on the cross.

The view that all will be justified eventually in hell does great and unrepairable harm to the connection of works to faith, our need for perseverance, and it surprisingly underemphasizes the significance of human choices and responsibility and in so doing degrades humans (if our choices and actions are not that important then much of Scripture is lying and we can do away with all the biblical teaching on investing in eternity). This is to cut off the power cord to much of biblical motivation.[13] We are to be ready because the Lord is coming like a thief in the night. It doesn’t say we are to chillax because after all we’re all going to be redeemed in the End no matter what. The Universalist’s Bible, like Jefferson’s Bible, has holes in it.

We cannot maintain that all will finally be redeemed and take the Bible seriously. Yes, I suppose we could take some of it seriously but we would be the ones with the scissors standing over it taking out what we don’t like. We could perhaps take some of it seriously but most of it could be laughed at or at least easily disregarded as not that serious. But the Bible is serious. It’s serious because “the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fullness of joy and refreshing which shall come from the presence of the Lord: but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.”[14] It seems universalism does not take sin seriously enough which is a great injustice to God and should strike us as shallow. There are profound injustices… This view sets up ourselves as the judge. A place we do not and should not hold.

We must always be ready to meet the Lord, always! This is a great prod to faithfulness (1 Thess. 5:1-101 Peter 1:72 Peter 3:14). Peter reminds us that since the present world will be dissolved we should not then live for this world but the next. And thus have morals shaped by the next Kingdom and not this evil one (2 Peter 3:111 Cor. 7:2629). Universalism destroys the doctrine of the perseverance of the Saints. We, contra to Scripture, could do whatever we wanted and not have to run the race with endurance and still end up in endless bliss once we repent in hell.

6. Election And Atonement

It is the chosen elect (see e.g. Deut. 7:7-8; Jn. 15:16; Acts 13:48; Rom. 11:5-6, 7; Eph. 1:4-5; 1 Thess. 5:9; 2 Thess. 2:13), people from all over the whole world, every tribe, language, and tongue, who have their names written in the book of life, not all without exception, who will escape eternal punishment in hell. There is an unbreakable chain of those who are chosen, redeemed, and finally saved and glorified. Why would God chose some for destruction (Rom. 9:22; 1 Pet. 2:8; Jude 4) and some for salvation (Rom. 9:23; 1 Pet. 2:9) if all people were going to be redeemed in the end?

As John Owen demonstrates in his formidable work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Jesus died for the sins of particular people. So, what did Christ accomplish in the atonement? If He died for all the sins of all people then why do people suffer in hell at all, for any period of time? Isn’t their sin paid for? How is it just for God to take double payment? Or did Christ die for all of the sins of the particular people that God set His affections on to save?

J. I. Packer says that the doctrine of particular redemption says,

“without doubting the infinite worth of Christ’s sacrifice or the genuineness of God’s ‘whoever will’ invitation to all who hear the gospel (Rev. 22:17),… that the death of Christ actually put away the sins of all God’s elect and ensured that they would be brought to faith through regeneration and kept in faith for glory, and that this is what it was intended to achieve. From this definiteness and effectiveness follows its limitedness: Christ did not die in this efficacious sense for everyone.”[15]

If He did, then why would anyone ever have to suffer in hell at all, isn’t their sin paid for? Didn’t Jesus bare it, pay for it? Wasn’t His sacrifice effective? Didn’t He say “it is finished”? Didn’t He bare the wrath of God in place of all those from every tribe, language, and tongue that would trust in Him for salvation? Aren’t those who die and are absent from the body present with the Lord, as Paul says?

I ask again: If Jesus efficaciously died for all people then why would anyone ever suffer in hell at all? Why are not all people who died instantly in blissful fellowship with God if Christ died for them and reconciled them to God? How could someone who has their sins forgiven and is “in Christ” suffer in hell? That would not make any sense. If Christ bore their punishment (Is. 53) than why do they have to bare it for a time in hell? What did Christ’s death accomplish, was it “finished” or not?

So, it seems, we are left with a few options. 1) Christ’s death was effective for all of His elect so they can escape hell. 2) Jesus’ death wasn’t finally effective. Jesus died for all people without exception yet failed to free them from the flames of hell. His atoning death was lacking in some way and thus all people are liable to spend at least some time in hell. 3) There is no hell and Scripture and especially Jesus are deceiving. I clearly believe that the first option is the only biblical and orthodox option. The only way to retain the effectiveness of Jesus’ death and keep the authority of Scripture is to say that some people will be in heaven forever and some people will be in hell forever.

How would someone turn to God in repentance when they have been given up to their debased mind (see above)? How would they turn to the Lord when the flesh is no help at all and they may have never heard of the gospel of Jesus? Scripture teaches that none turn to God by their own violation because we are all spiritually dead. We have to be regenerated by the Spirit to believe in Jesus and repent of our sins.[16] Yet, Judgment means to be left in our sins and forsaken. How then would any turn to God in repentance?

Let’s look at Isaiah 53:11: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their [i.e. “the many”] iniquities.”[17] This verse shows us that Jesus bore the wrath of God on the cross for the many and yet when He saw the many people from all nations that His sacrifice had purchased He was satisfied. However, Jesus did not see all people without exception, He saw “the many.” He saw the many for whom He had given His life and who would be free from the penalty of their sin because of His sacrifice.

We see in Isaiah 53 that Jesus died and successfully secured the salvation of “the many.” Jesus was the propitiation for “a precise company, numerous but not all-inclusive. These [i.e. “the many”] are the specific objects of the Servants saving activity.”[18] We see that Jesus’ expiatory death was successful, He accomplished the end that He set out to accomplish and He said, “It is finished.” How then can some people say, “It is not finished”? How then can people say that some people will still go to hell at least for a time (or for an aeon)?

If Christ’s propitiatory death justifies all people, as some understand Romans 5, then would anyone suffer in hell for any length of time at all? Is Christ’s death sufficient or not? Did Christ just purchase merit for us? And thus some people have to suffer in hell for a time?

How does the universalist explain how Christ justifies all people and yet some people still will go to hell for a time?!

7. My Other Posts On Universalism 

For more on universalism click here.

___________________________

[1] Edwads, 516.

[2] Edwards, 515.

[3] W. G. T Shedd, Dogmatic Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1889), II, 680 as quoted in Packer, Celebrating the Saving Work of God, 174.

[4] Packer, Celebrating the Saving Work of God, 175.

[5] Timothy K. Beougher, “Are All Doomed to be Saved? The Rise of Modern Universalism,” 15.

[6] N. T. Wright, “Towards A Biblical View of Universalism,” 55.

[7] Edwards, 517.

[8] Packer, Celebrating the Saving Work of God, 178. Italics mine.

[9] Paul is providing “a theological basis for the behavior Timothy must seek to emulate” (Towner, 508). “In combination with the solemn introductory formula, this genre emphasizes the certainty of the promises and warnings spelled out for Timothy” (Ibid.).

[10] Towner, 510.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “If a believer fails to persevere fully but yet stops short of apostasy, God will remain true to his character, true to his promises, and therefore will remain faithful to that person” (Mounce, 519).

[13] J. I. Packer says “If all are… ‘Doomed to be Saved,’ then if follows that the decisiveness of decisions made in this life, and the urgency of evangelism here in this life, immediately, are undermined” (Packer, Celebrating the Saving Work of God, 171).

[14] The Westminster Confession of Faith.

[15] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology.

[16] It is only through God choosing to regenerate us (give us a new heart, a heart of flesh, new birth, make us alive) that we chose Him. “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is no help at all” (Jn. 6:63). It says in Ephesians that God chose His elect people in Christ before the foundation of the world that they would be holy and blameless before Him. It then says (Eph. 2) that those people who believe in Jesus are no longer dead in sin but made alive and in union with Christ. The unregenerate people walking around are not in union with Christ, they’re not made alive. It says nothing of people being made alive after the Judgment.

[17] “This is the Servant’s experience: whatever he may have had to endure, that darkness is replaced with light now that the fruition of his offering can be seen in redeemed lives” (John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 403).

[18] J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 442.

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 9 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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