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.
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.
What we do in this current life has an eternal impact. The New Testament insists on the decisiveness of this life. In the early church, the “idea that the coming judgment will be based on deeds done in this life was widespread.” 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.). 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).
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.
“Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.  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.”
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).
All throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, we see two distinct groups. 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.”
The careful reader of Scripture can see the enmity between the two seeds in Genesis and in fact through the whole Old Testament. There are physical decedents of Eve that are spiritually seed of the serpent. 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).
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.”
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” (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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
“Everlasting punishment of the wicked always was, and always will be the orthodox theory.”
“The punishment inflicted upon the lost was regarded by the Fathers of the Ancient Church, with very few exceptions, as endless.”
“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.”
If we don’t understand things in their proper context there will be grave results. Let’s look at a few verses as an example and apply a skewed hermeneutical approach and see what the result is.
John 3:16 says, “God sent His Son” and we see that Jesus as God’s son is confirmed in other Scriptures. Take for example Romans 8:32. Or Hebrews 5:8 tells us that although Jesus “was a son, He learned obedience.” Luke 2:42 says that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”
So, it could be argued that Jesus, as God’s Son, was created and had to learn. After all, doesn’t “son” mean “son”?! Isn’t that the clear reading of the text? If the Bible says that Jesus is a “son” and “the firstborn of all creation” does that mean that Jesus is not eternal? Does it mean that He is a created being?
If we just look at the word “son” and extrapolate its meaning without understanding the context and the sense in which the author is using the word we can make very dangerous and false conclusions. Is Jesus a son in the sense of being a created being? No! That is the Arian heresy. We must understand what the author meant and we must use clear texts to help us interpret the less clear. A bad hermeneutical approach will lead to all sorts of false and destructive doctrines.
When looking at any doctrine it is important to understand a number of things. When looking at the sonship of Jesus for example, it is important to know the Old Testament and cultural importance of sonship. It is also important that other Scriptures are factored in. For example, John 1:1-14 and Colossians 1:15-17 show us that Jesus is not created but instead Creator.
So, “the obscure passage must yield to the clear passage. That is, on a given doctrine we should take our primary guidance from those passages which are clear rather from those which are obscure.” Charles Hodge said in his Systematic Theology that
“If the Scriptures be what they claim to be, the word of God, they are the work of one mind, and that mind divine. From this it follows that Scripture cannot contradict Scripture. God cannot teach in one place anything which is inconsistent with what He teaches in another. Hence Scripture must explain Scripture. If a passage admits of different interpretations, that only can be the true one which agrees with what the Bible teaches elsewhere on the same subject.”
Here are some important affirmations for biblical hermeneutics:
- We should affirm the unity, harmony, and consistency of Scripture and declare that it is its own best interpreter.
- We should affirm that any preunderstandings which the interpreter brings to Scripture should be in harmony with scriptural teaching and subject to correction by it.
- We should affirm that our personal zeal and experiences should never be elevated above Scripture (see Rom. 10:2-3).
- We should affirm that texts of Scripture must be interpreted in context (both the immediate and broad context).
- We should affirm that we must only base normative theological doctrine on clear didactic passages that deal with a particular doctrine explicitly. So, we should affirm that we must never use implicit teaching to contradict explicit teaching.
 Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics, 37.
 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, Introduction, Chapter VI, The Protestant Rule of Faith.
 See “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics,” Article XVII.
 See Ibid., Article XIX.