According to the growing form of Evangelical Universalism, all people will eventually be saved, because God will give people a second chance in hell. It is a difficult subject to approach maturely as Christians. John Stott wrote, “I find the concept [of hell] intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain” (Essentials, p. 314).
How can we handle this topic? It requires of us both loving sensitivity and hard theology; we need at the same time gentle tenderness for one another and a firm resolve to get to the truth.
Why it matters?
Universalism goes against the traditional understanding of what the Bible teaches about hell as eternal punishment, which has been affirmed by orthodox believers since the end of the apostolic era. For example the historic statement in the final sentences of the Athanasian Creed reads:
[Jesus] ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the Catholic Faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.
Article 37 of the Belgic Confession (1567) on the Last Judgment is a more modern example, affirming the same classic understanding of ‘everlasting punishment,’ portrayed in such texts as Matthew 25:14. A better known example is the Westminster Confession (Ch. XXXIII, par. II).
But whichever side of the ‘fence’ we sit on [and there are not simply two sides to this fence], we need to agree with John Stott when he says:
“Our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth... As a committed Evangelical, my question must be—and is—not what does my heart tell me, but what does God’s word say? (J. Stott, Essentials, p. 315)
As the Bereans did, I need to search the Bible to determine whether or not these things are true (Acts 17:11).
Hearing the Universalist case
We need to listen to the Universalist case, and answer the significant challenges highlighted by Universalism.
Origen is the father of this growing movement, as the first promote of an outright doctrine of universal salvation, who went against the Apostolic Fathers (e.g. Ignatius), the Apologists (e.g. Justin Martyr), early western theology (e.g. Irenaeus, Tertullian) – all who maintained that hell was an ‘eternal’ punishment of retributive justice where God repays evil for evil.
Origen taught a doctrine of universal ‘restoration’ (Greek, apokatastasis); that the anguish in hell would cause people to realise how wrong they had been; the punishment of hell would be remedial; and hell would have an end.
Origen’s writings show that his doctrine of God shaped his understanding of hell. He believed that if God was truly good then he must save everybody. His doctrine was also shaped by his hermeneutic: Although knowing they can be read other ways, he read all texts that speak about ‘all things’ coming under Christ in a ‘universalistic’ way (E.g. he read 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 which says that everyone will be made ‘subject’ to Christ as meaning that everyone will finally be saved).
However, Origen admitted that his universalism was a risky doctrine, and that his beliefs should not be spread. This was because he believed that the threat of eternal punishment was given in the Bible because it was the only thing that could motivate people to be godly in this present (Against Celsus, 6.26)
Not many at all in history, both in his time or after him, supported Origen’s views until the nineteenth century, when key liberal theologians laid the ground work for the current popularisation of universalism.
Friedrich Schleiermacher was the first modern theologian to teach universalism. He was a liberal philosopher, teaching firstly that although some texts do certainly appear to teach ‘eternal’ punishment, if read that way they contradict other passages that teach God’s total victory over evil and salvation for all. His other main argument was philosophical, contending that the existence of hell would ruin heaven, which would therefore not be heaven at all.
Next to Schleiermacher, in more recent times John Robinson (1919-1983) might be next in line as a proponent of universalism who has sparked it’s now widespread popular appeal. He was also a liberal scholar and wrote a number of controversial books, one that mounted the case for universalism (In the end God, 1950).
Robinson pointed to the many ‘universalistic’ texts and argued that these must be given ‘priority’ over the others that appear to describe the future prospect of an eternal hell. His second main argument was also a philosophical one. He argued deductively that since God is both all good and all powerful, it follows by necessity that God will eventually save everybody.
It is a serious argument. In its favour it upholds the seriousness of sin; it has a strong doctrine of the atonement; it places significant importance on both judgment and hell; it affirms justification by faith in Christ alone; and it upholds both the mercy and justice of God.
While there is good and significant cause to challenge the validity of Universalism, whether the basis of Origin’s doctrine or the approach of Schleiermacher and Robinson, we also need to feel the weight of what the Universalists are saying. Universalism’s argument is serious, and not easily contended with by Christian theological reasoning. But we primarily need to hear what the Universalists are saying because it is only by understanding the issues pointed to that we ourselves will actually come to ‘realise’ what the Bible teaches about hell.
The ‘Universalist’ texts
There is a long list of texts used in support of Universalism. Here are the key ones, but there are many others.
Romans 11:32: For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.
1Corinthians 15:22: For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
2Corinthians 5:19: that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
Philippians 2:10-11: so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, (11) and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Colossians 1:20: and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
1Timothy 2:3-4: This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, (4) who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
1Timothy 4:10: For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. Romans 5:18
Hebrews 2:9: But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
But the Universalist’s case does not only come down to long lists of ‘universalistic’ bible verses. There is a significant theological point at its heart. The Universalist’s case stands on the nature and love of God. And they contend that God’s nature is incompatible with the existence of an ‘eternal’ hell: In other words, as some of their leading proponents have expressed, ‘if eternal hell is real then love is eternally frustrated’; ‘if eternal hell is real, heaven is a place of mourning’ and so ‘heaven can only be heaven if hell is empty’. Or again, ‘God cannot be faithless to his love no matter how faithless we are to him.’
And if that weren’t enough, the Universalist case also debates an ‘eschatological’ issue. They point to the nature of the ‘End’ (Greek, apokatastasis panton; ‘restoration of all things’). The Bible from beginning to end certainly does foretell the ‘restoration’ of all things. This is something that the prophets spoke about and the New Testament echoes: In the end everything will be reconciled, rectified, restored and remedied – surely then it follows that hell in the end must be emptied, right?
The argument is fleshed out by Jurgen Moltmann [another leading proponent of Universalism], who said: “In the divine Judgment all sinners, the wicked and the violent, the murderers and the children of Satan, the Devil and the fallen angels will be liberated and saved from their deadly perdition through transformation into their true, created being, because God remains true to himself, and does not give up what he has once created and affirmed, or allow it to be lost.” (The coming of God. London: SCM, 1996, p. 255).
But what about the Scripture’s affirmation regarding the eternal duration of hell? We began by insisting that we must let the Scripture’s themselves inform us of what God’s love is like, or not like. As Evangelicals we are not interested in playing off our ideas about the different attributes of God against the others in order to ‘harmonise’ the Bible’s teaching or make it ‘reasonable’. What does God’s word say?
We have already listed some of the texts used in support of Universalism. But to build any doctrine, we need to look at what all of God’s word says together.
Jesus’ teaching on ‘hell’
The background to Jesus language on hell is the Valley of Hinnom, southwest of Jerusalem, later called the valley of Topeth. Children were sacrificed to Molech there (2 Kings 23:10), and it later became the ‘garbage dump’ of Jerusalem. Fires were burning there continually to consume the refuse. And in the intertestament period the valley became a symbol of eternal torment. When Jesus came on the scene, he picked up both this language and image and in his message brought a fearful warning about being thrown into the fire of gehenna, the Greek word for the Hebrew, ge hinnon (‘valley of [the son of] hinnom’) (In English, ‘hell’).
Jesus’ teaching on ‘hell’ was both prolific and significant. In exploring this topic, we need to begin by looking carefully through every one of the passages in which Jesus teaches on hell.
See Matthew 5:22, 29-30; Matthew 10:28 (cf. Luke 12:5); Matthew 11:20-22; Matthew 22:13 (cf. 8:12; 25:30); Matthew 25:41, 46; Mark 9:47-48 (cf. Matt 18:9); Luke 12:46-48.
In Jesus’ teaching, hell is a real condition and location; hell is fearful and terrible; hell is a place of ‘destruction,’ hell is a place of eternal punishment; hell is a place of varying degrees of punishment; and hell is avoidable, a point reflecting one of Jesus’ main purposes for speaking about hell.
The rest of the NT’s teaching about eternal punishment
The other authors of the New Testament continued this emphasis within Jesus’ core message about God’s kingdom, though somewhat dropping the ‘jargon’ and simply describing a place of ‘eternal punishment’. In coming to grips with the Bible’s teaching about hell, we need to follow Jesus’ teaching into the rest of the New Testament.
See Romans 2:6-10; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10; Hebrews 6:1-2; Jude 7; Revelation 14:9-11; 20:10, 14-15.
To the Apostles, God’s judgment is both just and retributive; God and Christ will actively punish sinners in hell [as a side, this means hell is not the absence of God]; the punishment will involve torment; and the punishment will be eternal.
The problems with universalism
There are significant reasons to challenge the validity of Universalism. The main problems with universalism are that it confuses God’s desired will with his decreed will; it exalts God’s mercy at the expense of his justice; it ignores the teaching that a person’s final state is fixed at death; it ignores the wider context of the various ‘universalist’ texts which must affect how read ‘reconciliation’
(See 2 Corinthians 5:19-20 with 6:1; Philippians 2:10-11 with 1:28 and 3:18; Colossians 1:20 with 3:6);
And it ignores anti-universalist statements in Scripture
(See Daniel 12:1-2; Isaiah 34:8-10 with 66:24; Malachi 4:1; Matthew 7:13-14, 22:14, 25:41-46; Luke 13:24; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; 2 Peter 2:4, 9; Revelation 20:10).
Bruce Milne has given a similar critique in Know the Truth that applies also to my brief summary here:
‘This critique does not imply any obscuring of the ultimate, cosmic triumph of God’s purpose, nor of the fullness and perfection of Christ’s redemptive work. At the end every knee will bow (Phil. 2:10) and God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:28). Within that perfection will lie the doom of those who will bow the knee only by constraint, not in joyful, adoring surrender’ (B. Milne, Know the Truth, p. 337).
These notes have borrowed significantly from the excellent lecture material prepared by Rob Smith, Sydney Missionary Bible College, Eschatology, 2010.