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Is Jesus Really the Only Way?

A lot of people believe that all “good” people go to heaven.

“After all, isn’t being good[1] what really matters? If someone is good and sincere in their beliefs then they should go to heaven. Plus, aren’t all religions basically the same?”[2]

“How could a good God allow people to go to hell?”

However, it should be asked, does God want those people to go to hell?[3] And has God provided a way for them to be saved? The answer to the first question we’ll see is no[4] and the answer to the second question is yes.

First, Scripture repeatedly says things like God desires all humans to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4). Here are three more:

“The Lord is… not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?… For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live” (Ezek. 18:23, 32).

“Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11).

So, God’s desire is for people to come to a knowledge of the truth of salvation in Jesus Christ and repent of their sins and be saved. That is God’s desire. However, that’s not it.

Second, God has also provided the way of salvation. The one God has provided the one way of salvation through the man Christ Jesus who is the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5).

Imagine we were all on an island that a very wealthy and magnificent man owns. It is on fire and we all have to get off or we will die. Now, imagine that the owner of the island built a very large and sturdy bridge to the mainland so that people could escape. And in making the bridge he himself died.

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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.

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The Day of the LORD and the Decisiveness of the Present Life

What we do in this current life has an eternal impact. The New Testament insists on the decisiveness of this life.[1] In the early church, the “idea that the coming judgment will be based on deeds done in this life was widespread.”[2] For example, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

All through Scripture it talks about the Day of the LORD (sg.).[3] The Bible does not talk about judgments starting at the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev. 20:11ff) and going from there on into eternity where people have multiple chances to repent. That’s why it says, “Behold [ἰδοὺ], now [νῦν] is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2; cf. Ps. 32:6; Is. 55:6). Acts 17:31 says, God “has fixed a day [sg.] on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him [i.e. Jesus] from the dead.”

Hebrews says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment [sg.]” (9:27). Thus, in Scripture, we do not see that people can repent after the Judgment. Actually, to get the idea of repentance after the Judgment you would have to add to Scripture. Yet, listen to Revelation: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (22:18-19).

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Texts Espoused to Teach Universalism

The goal here is not to give an exhaustive commentary on each passage but merely to show that there are very viable interpretations that are faithful to the whole of Scripture and do not lead to universalism.

Is. 45:22-23

“Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. [23] By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’”

In the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) απιστραϕητε is an imperative and means “turn around.” It has to do with changing ones beliefs and ways. It translates the Hebrew word (פָּנָה) meaning “turn” which is also in the imperative. So God here is not asking people to turn to Him, He’s commanding it. And it says that all people (from the farthest stretches of the earth) who turn to Him will be saved. But it implies that all who don’t turn to Him (in space in time before the Judgment) will not be saved. So we see precedence for “all” being saved here, that is, if any turn to the Lord from all over the earth they will be saved. Whosoever believes will be saved, Jew or Gentile. It was (in the OT and NT) an amazing thing for Paul for example that Gentiles can now be welcomed in (he called it a mystery). All the uncircumcised, the Egyptians that enslaved Israel, the Babylonians, all people that turn to the Lord (in space in time before the Judgment) will be saved. They will be saved from the terror of the Messiah’s Second Coming and the Final Destruction.

In the context, this passage would strike fear into the hearers, not comfort. This passage is saying, “repent and turn or else!” Further, v. 25 says “all the offspring of Israel shall be justified,” i.e. all those who have faith (see e.g. Rom. 2:28-29; 4:1-16; 9:6), not all without exception. “Yahweh’s speech ends with a prediction of destructive fire for those who do not submit to his reality and reign (Isa 47:14-15)… There is voluntary submission for some and involuntary submission for others.”[1]

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The Eternality of Hell

When we interpret “forever” in English, as well as in Greek, context is king. For example, when someone gets back from the DMV and says to us, “that took forever,” what do we interpret that phrase to mean? We take a number of things into account in our interpretation. We understand that it takes a relatively long time at the DMV and we understand that people very often joke about how long it takes at the DMV. We also take into account that the person is standing in front of us saying, “that took forever” which clearly demonstrates that it did not in fact literally take forever.

The person that said “forever” was using it as an expression for “a long time.” However, if that same person said, “God is forever” we would understand that we need to interpret that “forever” differently. Why? Because context is king. And context is telling us that the referent in this case is “God,” not the DMV, and that fact changes the meaning of the word “forever.”

The Bible tells us that certain things are eternal/everlasting. For instance, God is eternal (Rev. 4:9-10), Jesus is alive forevermore (Rev. 1:18), heaven is eternal (Jn. 3:16), and judgment in hell is eternal. If we say judgment in hell is not eternal then we lose grounds for saying that God, Jesus, and heaven are eternal since the same words are explicitly and very intentionally used to express the eternity of each subject under question (and the eternality of hell and heaven are even paralleled in Matthew 25:46).

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Two Humanities

All throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, we see two distinct groups.[1] God has called particular people from all nations. As James Hamilton has said, “People are either seed of the serpent, on the side of the snake in the garden, or seed of the woman, on the side of God and trusting in his promises.”[2]

The careful reader of Scripture can see the enmity between the two seeds in Genesis[3] and in fact through the whole Old Testament. There are physical decedents of Eve that are spiritually seed of the serpent.[4] This is not just something we see in the Old Testament though. We see it through the whole of Scripture (cf. e.g. Matt. 13:38; Jn. 8:44; 1 Jn. 3:8). We see two distinct seeds with two distinct ends from the beginning of Genesis (cf. esp. Gen. 3:15) to the end of Revelation (cf. e.g. Rev. 21).

Notice that in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10 there are two groups: 1) those who did not believe and thus receive judgment and 2) those who do believe and thus enjoy the presence of God and marvel at Him. And notice Jesus separates the goats from the sheep based on what they did in their earthly lives (Matt. 25:32ff). People are gravely either goat or sheep, wise or fool, darkness or light, faithful or faithless, in Christ or damned.

As I have said, the Bible shows to different humanities, one lost and the other saved, one in heaven and one in hell. This is what we see throughout the story of Scripture and this is what we see reflected in other places in the early church’s teaching. For instance, the Didache (50-120AD) says, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways” (1:1).[5]

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Universalism and Historical Confessional Christianity

As a protestant who believes in sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), I believe that tradition and confessional Christianity does not hold a place above Scripture. However, I do believe it is important and helpful to consider what church history has to say on theological issues. So let’s look briefly at the question of whether or not universalism has been accepted in historical confessional Christianity.

Harold J. Brown makes an interesting point that we should consider. He says,

“curiously enough, it is heresy that offers us some of the best evidence for orthodoxy, for while heresy is often very explicit in the first centuries of Christianity, orthodoxy is often only implicit. If we hope, today, that the orthodoxy we believe is the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’ (Jude v. 3), then it is necessary to assume that it is older than heresy. But heresy appears on the historical record earlier, and is better documented, than most of what the church came to call orthodoxy. How then can heresy be younger, orthodoxy more original? The answer is that orthodoxy was there from the beginning and heresy reflected it. Sometimes one catches a glimpse of another person or object in a mirror or a lake before seeing the original. But the original preceded the reflection, and our perception of it. The same, we could argue, is true of orthodoxy—the original—and heresy—the reflection. The heresy we frequently see first, but orthodoxy preceded it.”[1]

False teachings call into question the pillars of Christianity and so teachers and creeds rise up in protection of the church’s foundational teaching. The doctrine of the Trinity has always been orthodox but there has not always been a creed stating such. The reason for this is because false teaching gives rise to defensive of orthodox teaching. Thus, in history we often see heresy argued before we see orthodoxy defended. Greg A. Allison says that the “issue of the continuation of punishment for the wicked became a point of debate with the theology of Origen”[2] (c. 185-254) so it makes sense that universalism was not formally acknowledged as heresy until later on.

Everett Ferguson says that

“apart from Origen, who entertained the possibility of universal salvation after a period of purification and education of souls in the afterlife, those who spoke to the subject understood an ultimate division of humanity in heaven or hell. The expectation of eternal reward sustained Christian endurance in the face of persecution and other hardships.”[3]

W. G. T. Shedd wrote:

“The common opinion in the Ancient church was, that the future punishment of the impenitent wicked is endless. This was the catholic faith; as much so as belief in the trinity. But as there were some church fathers who deviated from the creed of the church respecting the doctrine of the trinity, so there were some who dissented from it in respect to that of eternal retribution. The deviation in eschatology, however, was far less extensive than in trinitarianism.”[4]

Allison demonstrates in his book Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine that

“from its inception, the church has believed that there will be a final judgment of both believers and unbelievers… On the one hand, this judgment will usher believers into the presence of Christ and the blessedness of heavenly reward forever. On the other hand, following the judgment of condemnation, unbelievers will experience eternal conscious punishment in hell. Only a few Christians deviated from this understanding of the last judgment and eternal punishment.”[5]

A few more examples:

“As regards the fate of the wicked… the general view was that their punishment would be eternal, without any possibility of remission.”[6]

“Everlasting punishment of the wicked always was, and always will be the orthodox theory.”[7]

“The punishment inflicted upon the lost was regarded by the Fathers of the Ancient Church, with very few exceptions, as endless.”[8]

“Church creeds from the early Middle Ages through the Reformation and into the modern era regularly affirmed the eternal punishment of the wicked… The reality of hell and eternal punishment was thought to be as basic to Christian belief as the Trinity and incarnation.”[9]

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Is Punishment in Hell Restorative?

Universalists sometimes claim that punishment in hell is restorative. They use Matthew 25:46 as a proof-text and translate kolasin aiōnion (κόλασιν αἰώνιον) as agelong chastening or correction. Below I list four reasons why I do not believe in restorative punishment in hell.

First, the noun kolasis (κόλασις) only occurs two times in the NT (Matt. 25:46; 1 Jn. 4:18)[1] and the verb kolazó (κολάζω)[2] also only occurs two times in the NT (Acts 4:21; 2 Pet. 2:9). The majority of English translations translate Kolasis and kolazó as “punish,” “punishment,” or “torment,” (see KJV, NIV, NLT, ESV, NASB, HCSB, NET Bible). In fact, Francis Chan “checked ten commentators from different theological backgrounds and fifteen Bible translations in five different languages on the word kolasis… they all translate kolasis with the word ‘punishment.’”[3]

Second, the term kolasis is used by other literature of the period to mean (non-restorative) punishment. For example, Josephus talks about Herod being on trial and in danger of being sentenced to death, but through the intervention of the high priest, he was delivered from that danger, and all punishment (kolaseōs) (Josephus, Antiquities XV, 16). “Punishment” in the case above does not seem to be used in the “pruning” sense because he is being saved from death[4] (cf. e.g. 2 Macc. 4:38; 4 Macc. 8:9-11). Further, BDAG,[5] one of the most respected dictionaries of Koine Greek, lists all sorts of examples where kolazó and kolasis means “punish” or “punishment” in the non-restorative sense. TDNT[6] also a widely respected dictionary says that the meaning of kolasis is “punishment” and the meaning of kolazó is “punish.”[7]

Third, there are other terms that the NT uses to refer to the concept of punishment. Apollumi (ἀπόλλυμι) occurs ninety-two times and means to “destroy” (e.g. Matt. 10:28; 21:41). Olethros (ὄλεθρος) occurs four times and it means “destruction” (see 2 Thess. 1:9). Timória (τιμωρία[8]) occurs just one time and means “punishment” or “vengeance” (see Heb. 10:29). Ekdikésis (ἐκδίκησις) occurs nine times and means “vengeance” (see 2 Thess. 1:8). Orgé (ὀργή) means “wrath” (see Rom. 2:5; Rev. 14:10) and occurs 36 times.[9] William V. Crockett, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and University of Glasgow, has said, “when we examine orge in Paul we find no reason to assume that it has reformative elements.”[10] He goes on to say, “orge in Paul excludes any notion of divine love.”[11]

Fourth, there is a lot of imagery in Scripture of God’s wrath being poured out that does not look like restorative punishment. This is the type of imagery we see: “So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia [i.e. about 184 miles]” (Rev. 14:19-20 see also Ps. 110:5-6; Is. 66:24; Ezek. 39:17ff; Matt. 24:51; Rev. 6:15-17; 19:11ff; 20:11ff; 21:27). Read More…

Antithesis 23

I have no provider, I shall be in want
I will not lie down in green pastures
I will not rest beside waters of rest
My soul will not be restored
I will continue in my wickedness

I walk through the valley of death
And I fear evil
for God is not with me
I have not God’s rod or staff
to comfort me
 
God has prepared no table before me
I am consumed by my enemies
Instead of goodness wrath will follow me
All the days of my perpetual death
and I shall dwell in the pit of hell forever

A Brief Exploration of Paul’s Use of “All”

There are some things in Paul’s writing that can be hard to understand, as Peter said (2 Pet. 3:16). Here we’re looking at how Paul’s use of “all” can be hard to understand (esp. when it seems like Scripture teaches particular atonement see e.g. Jn. 6:37-39; 10:11, 15; 17:9, 20; Acts 20:28; Rom. 5:8, 10; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 1:4; 3:13; Eph. 1: 3-5, 7; 5:25). Does Paul’s use of “all” have universal implications?[1]

A.A. Hodge’s words are instructive,

“Particular and definite expressions must limit the interpretation of the general ones, rather than the reverse. It is plainly far easier to assign plausible reasons why, if Christ died particularly for his elect, they being as yet scattered among all nations and generations, and indistinguishable by us from the mass of fallen humanity to whom the gospel is indiscriminately offered, he should be said in certain connections to have died for the world or for all, than it can be to assign any plausible reason why, if he died to make the salvation of all possible, he should nevertheless be said in any connection to have died for the purpose of certainly saving the elect.”[2]

It’s important to understand that to Jews all the rest of the world, the whole world, were basically just Gentiles. There were two sets up people in their mind, God’s people and everyone else. So as we think of the use of the words “all” and “world” we must be conscious of how Jews thought about the world and other people groups. Remember, the Jews are the people of promise. No other people in the whole world were. So Thomas R. Schreiner says, “We are apt to forget how shocking the inclusion of the Gentiles was to many in the first century because of our historical distance from the text.”[3]

Notice that Galatians 3:8 says that the OT Scriptures foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles (τα εϑνη). When Paul uses Gentiles here he means not all Gentiles without exception but rather all Gentiles without distinction. That is, Paul is saying that it’s not just Jews that can be justified. It’s not just one other group that can be justified. It’s not just Samaritans and Romans that can be justified but Babylonians, Egyptians, and everyone (i.e. “all,” “world”) can be justified. So, all people (παντα τα εϑνη), that is, all types of people can be justified. That is how Paul is using “all” (παντα).

Also, notice that Greek does not function the same way as English. Greek, for instance, has a different grammatical case system as well as word order. There is also different ways to say “all.” However, I am not saying that Paul did not say all in the passages in question. He did, in fact, say “all.” I only mean that for Paul to say “all” meaning one group in one place and “all” to mean another group in another place (even in very close proximity) may have been completely normal.

“Interpreters commonly assume that a word must have the same meaning it is used within the same context… However, this is not always true. A work in ancient Greek (as well as in modern languages) may very well have different meaning whether uttered in one breath or not.”[4]

Context is king in any language, but especially when written in all-caps with no punctuation.

So although Universalists frequently appeal to “Paul’s use of the word ‘all’ (e.g. in Rom. 5 and 11, and in 2 Cor. 5),” N.T. Wright points out that there is apparently no “realization of the different shades of meaning that must be understood in the particular contexts… The word ‘all’ has several clearly distinct biblical uses (e.g. ‘all of some sorts,’ ‘some of all sorts,’ etc.), and to ignore this frequently-noted fact is no aid to clear thinking.”[5] The word must be understood in context.[6] We must understand not only the immediate context at the sentence level but also how the word is being used at the next level of context (e.g. paragraph, chapter, book, etc.). That is, we need to understand what is being communicated or the argument that is being made (see Figure 1 below).

Context.png

Figure 1: Understanding Words in Context

In reference to Romans 5:15-19, Schreiner says,

“Paul deliberately used the word all to describe the work of Christ as the second Adam. Our task as readers is to ferret out the significance of this decision. Two reasons for the terminology are possible. First, Paul did not want to use a less-inclusive term because he wanted to emphasize that Christ was as great as Adam. The use of the word all reminds the reader that the grace of Christ is so powerful that it supersedes what Adam did.

Second, one of the prominent themes of Paul’s theology, and of Romans in particular, is the inclusion of the Gentiles. We have seen that the folding of the Gentiles into God’s saving purposes was the distinctive element in Paul’s call to the apostleship. He often emphasizes in Romans that God has called the Gentiles, not just the Jews, to be his people (Rom 1:5, 7, 13-14, 16; 2:11, 26-29; 3:23, 29-30; 4:9-12, 16-17; 9:24-26, 30; 10:11-13, 20; 11:12, 15, 17, 19-20, 30; 15:9-12; 16:26). Recognizing this assists us in comprehending Romans 11:32, “God has enclosed all under disobedience, so that he should show mercy to all.” The first all must include all people without exception, for Paul leaves no room for the idea that some people are obedient and hence need no room for the idea that some people are obedient and hence need no mercy from God! But if the second all is of the same breadth as the first, then Paul is a universalist, teaching that God’s saving mercy will be poured out on every single human being. The interpretation is doubtless attractive, but the context reveals its improbability. Romans 9-11 often speaks of the future punishment of those who are unsaved (Rom 9:3, 6-7, 13, 18, 21-22, 31-33; 10:2-4; 11:7-10, 20-23, 28). These chapters oscillate between the salvation promised for the Gentiles and the salvation pledged to the Jews. Any attentive reader of Romans 11 is aware that it features God’s saving plan relative to both Gentiles and Jews. When Paul says, therefore, that God shows mercy on ‘all,’ the idea is that God’s mercy extends to both Jews and Gentiles, Thus, we need not conclude that ‘all’ refers to all people without exception. More likely, when Paul considers Christ’s work, the referent is all people without distinction. Both Jews and Gentiles are recipients of Christ’s gracious work.”[7]

Schreiner goes on to say,

“Such an interpretation is also a sensible reading of 2 Corinthians 5:14-15. The love of Christ controls Paul, and he concludes that ‘one died for all, therefore, all died’ (2 Cor 5:14). The ‘all’ for whom Christ died are not all without exception but all without distinction, including both Jews and Gentiles… All those for whom Christ died ‘actually’ died—they died in the death of Christ to the power of sin… those living refers to those who are spiritually alive. Those who are spiritually alive are the ‘all’ for whom Christ died in 2 Corinthians 5:14”[8] (cf. Rom. 6).

John Piper helpfully adds to our conversation,

“It would be an incorrect, superficial reading of this text [i.e. 1 Corinthians 15:21-23], as well as Romans 5:17-19, to assume that it is teaching universalism in the sense that all human beings will be saved. The ‘all’ who are acquitted in Romans 5 are defined in Romans 5:17 as ‘those who received the abundance of grace.’ And the ‘all’ who are made alive in 1 Corinthians 15:22 are defined as ‘those who belong to Christ.’ Moreover the other texts cited in this chapter [here are some of them: Dan. 12:2; Matt. 3:12; 18:8; 25:41, 46; Mk. 9:43-48; Rev. 14:11; 19:3; 20:10] make it highly unlikely that Paul means to teach here that all humans are saved.”[9]

Mark Rapinchuk demonstrates

“It seems reasonable to conclude that a major emphasis of Paul’s through­ out Romans is the universal nature of sin and salvation. But this universal nature is defined as without ethnic distinction rather than without excep­tion. When Paul speaks of “all men” he speaks in the sense of both Jews and Gentiles, not in the sense of every individual. This understanding of “all men” is not only consistent with the use of πάς and άνθρωπος in Biblical Greek, it is entirely consistent with the flow of Paul’s argument and emphasis in Romans.”[10]

We can also look at other examples where it doesn’t make sense to use “all” with the sense of “all without exception.” For instance, did Paul really preach to “all creation” and to the “whole world” (see Col. 1:6, 23)? No. We know that he did not. So “all” does not always mean all without exception. Also when Paul in Acts 22:15 “speaks of being a witness to all people” (πρὸς πάντας ἀνθρὼους), he clearly does not mean all people without exception; ‘all’ refers to the inclusion of the Gentiles in his mission (Acts 22:21).”[11]

Ephesians 5:20 says we are to give “thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Does “always” (παντων) here mean all times without exception? It doesn’t seem like it. For instance, when Lazarus died we see “Jesus wept,” not “Jesus gave thanks.”

Klyne Snodgrass says this in his commentary on Ephesians,

“When the Bible uses “all” or “every,” we must ask whether it is meant with or without qualification. Paul’s intent is not that we are to be thankful for evil or tragedy. John Stott is correct in saying “everything” in verse 20 is hyperbole. We are not asked to thank God for evil. Rather, we are asked to live out our awareness that all of life, even the “bad,” is lived out under his control and in relation to him.”[12]

Thus we see that “all” does not always (or very often) mean all without exception. The extent of what “all” is meant to convey must be understood through an understanding of the context and the intention of the author.

Thus, Schreiner looking at the context concludes that “the reason Paul can speak of the Christ’s death in expansive, all-inclusive terms in 1 Timothy 2:6 is because he sees his ministry as worldwide (2:7; cf. Acts 22:15), his soteriology is universal in the right sense (2:5; cf. Rom. 3:28-30), and he is confronting an elitist heresy that was excluding certain kinds of people from God’s salvation (1 Tim. 1:4). Paul wants to make it clear: Christ died for all kinds of people, not just some elite group.”[13]

Titus 2:11 says “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (᾿Επεφάνη γὰρ ἡ χάρις τοῦ θεοῦ σωτηριος πᾶσιν ἀνθρπὼοις). Some believe that “all people” (πᾶσιν ἀνθρπὼοις) refers to all people without exception, however, it more likely refers to all people without distinction.[14] Schreiner goes on to explain that “a good case can be made for such a judgment, because Paul refers to people from various groups earlier in chapter 2: older men (v. 2), older women (vv. 3-4), younger women, younger men (v. 6), and slaves (vv. 9-10).”[15] We also see in verse 12 and 14 that it talks about “us” and not all without exception. It says Jesus “gave Himself for us [not all without exception] to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works” (v. 14). This verse reminds us of 1 Peter 2:8-9 where it talks about two different groups of people. The first group stumbles and disobeys the word because that is what they were destined to do (v.8). The second group is a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession (v. 9).

What about Romans 11? Some people use Romans 11 to support their views on universalism. However, as has been said and as John Piper demonstrates, context is king.

“In [Romans] 11:30–31 the two groups in view (Israel and Gentiles) do not have reference to every individual Jew and Gentile that exist. The same corporate groups are in view that have been in view since 11:7. The stumbling (11:11), failure (11:12), rejection (11:15), hardening (11:7, 25), and disobedience (11:30–31) of corporate ethnic Israel lead to the mercy (11:31), salvation (11:11), riches (11:12), reconciliation (11:15), and coming in (11:25) of a “full number” of Gentiles. This in turn leads to the mercy (11:31), acceptance (11:15), and salvation (11:26) of “all Israel,” the same corporate entity that had to be temporarily hardened (11:7, 25) and rejected (11:15)… There is no exegetical warrant for construing the two “all’s” of 11:32 to refer to anything other than the complete number of Jews and Gentiles in the corporate entities referred to throughout the chapter. A universalistic reading of Romans 11:32 is not exegetically defensible.”[16]

Romans 9 should also be looked at. Paul anticipates that God’s righteousness will be called into question. He asks, “Is there injustice on God’s part?” Paul answers, “By no means!” (v.14). God elects and has mercy on whoever He choses (9:11, 15-16). Who are we to tell God what He can and cannot do?! (v. 20). “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (v. 21 cf. 22-23).

Also, remember the way the Jewish community would have understood “all.” For example, let’s briefly look at the last part of Isaiah 66. I would argue that Isaiah has the most eschatology in it of the OT books. Isaiah 66:22:23 says,

“For as the new heavens and the new earth
that I make
shall remain before me, says the LORD,
so shall your offspring and your name remain.
From new moon to new moon,
and from Sabbath to Sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
declares the LORD.”

It says, “all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD.” And it says they shall “remain before me.” Wow! It seems these verses teach universalism! However, remember our phrase: Context is king!

Look at verse 24: “And they [referring to ‘all flesh’ v. 23] shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against Me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” It’s clear here that “all,” even “all flesh,” does not mean all without exception. The Jews reading Romans would have been familiar with this passage and the theology behind it. Also, notice how emphatic verse 24 is and notice how the NT authors picked up on this same language.

On the topic of universal salvation 2 Peter 3:9 is often a favorite verse. It says God does not wish that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. Yet, we must note the context. The immediate context tells us what God does in response to His desire. It does not say that because He desires that all should reach repentance He will one day mysteriously (and against all the Bible seems to say) pull people out of the hell (into which He cast them) so that they won’t finally perish. Instead, we see, in light of God’s desire, He is patient and does not bring judgment right away (cf. v. 15; Rom. 2:4-11). Yet, nevertheless, heaven and earth are waiting for the “day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Pet. 3:7).

So, this text is saying God is patient and does not wish that any should perish so God has refrained His judgment for a time so that all types of people can repent. However, it also reminds people to repent while they still can. It says, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief…” (v. 10) when it will be too late to repent. “Therefore,” it says, “since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by Him without spot or blemish, and a peace” (v. 14).

The second thing to consider with this verse is the two different senses in God’s will. Theologians helpfully and accurately discuss the two different senses in God’s will as the decretive will of God and the permissive (or perceptive) will of God. I suggest John Frame’s treatment in The Doctrine of God.[17]

It seems true in one sense that God desires that none should perish but that all should come to repentance but it is also true that God desires to pour out His wrath on the wicked. See 2 Thessalonians 2:8-12:

“And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. [9] The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, [10] and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. [11] Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, [12] in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.

Notice also that Romans 9 tells us that God is glorified through vessels of wrath (ὀργή[18]) prepared for destruction (Rom. 9:22). God has set His affections on some and not on others. And that is His prerogative alone and He is just in all His judgments.[19]

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[1] While the “all” texts do need to be explained “the onus lies with proponents of a universal atonement to explain why Paul would employ limited or definite language, if there really was no limitation in the intended object of the atonement” (Jonathan Gibson, “For Whom Did Christ Die?: Particularism and Universalism in the Pauline Epistles” 293 in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective [Wheaton: Crossway, 2013). Further, “Paul has the linguistic arsenal to state unambiguously that there was no one for whom Christ did not die, he chose not to use it. The terms ‘many,’ ‘all,’ and ‘world’ remain undefined and ambiguous, dependent on context for their meaning” (Ibid., 329).

[2] A.A Hodge, The Atonement (1867; repr., London: Evangelical Press, 1974), 425.

[3] Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory: A Pauline Theology, 185. Hedrick explains Paul’s use of “all” in Romans 5:18 by saying that “among other things Paul is combating the ever-present tendency of Jews to regard themselves as being better than Gentiles” (Romans, 183).

[4] S. M. Baugh, A First John Reader: Intermediate Greek Reading Notes and Grammar, 19.

[5] N.T. Wright, “Universalism and the World-Wide Community,” Churchman 89 (July-September 1975), 200.

[6] In understanding the context it is important to understand the Pauline context; that “in the whole of Paul’s preaching it is unthinkable to refer to justification to all men without distinction” (Ridderbos, Paul, 341n32).

[7] Schreiner, Pau l, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 184. See also Schreiner, Romans, 292.

[8] Ibid., 186.

[9] John Piper, Let the Nations be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 129n20.

[10] Mark Rapinchuk, “Universal Sin and Salvation in Romans 5:12-21” 441 in JETS 42/3 (September 1999) 427-41.

[11] Thomas R. Schreiner, “’Problematic Texts’ for Definite Atonement in the Pastoral and General Epistles.”

[12] Klyne Snodgrass, The NIV Application Commentary: Ephesians, 311.

[13] Schreiner, “’Problematic Texts’ for Definite Atonement.”

[14] Ibid., 8.

[15] Ibid.

[16] John Piper, “Universalism in Romans 9-11?” (http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/universalism-in-romans-9-11).

[17] See 528-42; he even has a section titled “Does God Desire the Salvation of All?”

[18] See William V. Crockett, “Wrath that Endures Forever” in JETS 34/2 (June 1991) 195-202. E.g. “When we examine orgê in Paul we find no reason to assume that it has reformative elements” (198). And on page 199 he says, “orgê in Paul excludes any notion of divine love” (199).

[19] See John Piper, The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1993).

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