By Joel Settecase / 9-minute read
Have you ever thought about Hell? I remember staying awake in bed when I was seven years old, thinking to myself how awful it was that people were, at that very moment, suffering in Hell, and there would be no escape for them. If you're like me, you have wrestled with the idea of hell and even questioned whether or not its fair for God to send people there.
This is certainly not a new question, and we are most definitely not the first people to wrestle with it. In fact, going back to the early centuries of Christianity, there were those who put forward the idea that Hell was not actually everlasting, and that one day all persons (even evil spirits and Satan himself) would one day be finally reconciled to God.
This school of thought is called Universalism. So what should Christians today think about Universalism? Is there an acceptable form of Christian Universalism?
In this episode of the Think Podcast, we're going to help equip you to find the answer. Our goal is going to be to compare and contrast Christian Universalism with orthodox Christianity.
We'll look at what the Bible teaches about sin, salvation and the afterlife, and then present some of the best arguments in favor of Christian Universalism, to help you answer them.
What Does Universalism Mean In Religion?
Matt Slick, over at CARM.org, defines Christian Universalism as, “the position that all of mankind will ultimately be saved through Jesus whether or not faith is professed in Him in this life. It claims that God's qualities of love, sovereignty, justice, etc., require that all people be saved and that eternal punishment is a false doctrine.”
It received broad acceptance early on, but then was condemned as a heresy (false teaching) after about two hundred years (which, in the span of church history is really a drop in the bucket).
Is Universalism a Heresy?
Universalism teaches that all persons will eventually be reconciled to God. The Bible does not teach this. Therefore, Universalism is a false teaching. It may be called a heresy. While it is not on the same level as outright denying the Gospel or the Trinity it is nevertheless dangerous. This is because Universalism:
Devalues God’s word
Undermines the urgency of evangelism
Downplays God’s holiness
Deemphasizes the seriousness of sin
Gives sinners a false sense of assurance that they will be fine if they don’t repent.
We will look at the theory of Universalism from three perspectives:
What the Bible teaches about sin (hamartiology)
What the Bible teaches about salvation (soteriology)
What the Bible teaches about the end of history and final judgment (eschatology)
Bible Verses Against Universalism
In this section, we examine the biblical teaching on the nature, seriousness and consequences of sin. We talk about what sin is, why it matters and where it leads. Then we looked at the passages addressing salvation, specifically that it does not depend on man, but depends completely upon God.
Verses we looked at include Romans 9:16; 2 Timothy 1:9; Romans 9:11; Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:1-2; Ephesians 1:9; Romans 11:5; Matthew 11:25-26.
After this we talked about the biblical truth that sinners who gain forgiveness do so because God raises them to spiritual life. We looked at Ephesians 2; Romans 8:8; Romans 1:1-6; 1 Corinthians 4:7.
We also saw that Jesus himself answered the question of whether those who are saved will be few, in Luke 13:22-30.
After wrapping up our deep dive into the study of sin, we looked at more Bible verses against Universalism, specifically dealing with judgment. We saw that Judgment is fair (Romans 2:5-12; 9:22-23), final (Hebrews 9:27; Matthew 25:46), and conditioned on having having one’s name written in the book of life (because trusted in Jesus in this life) (Revelation 20:11-15; 21:8), and that holiness needed to see God is a gift from God (Hebrews 12:14; Philippians 2:13).
Arguments for Universalism
In Part 2 of the episode, Joel brought forth what he believed are some of the best arguments in favor of Universalism. Why do this? Because it is important to accurately represent the view one is refuting, out of a desire for truth and accuracy.
The arguments, in brief, are as follows, with their responses.
Would God create people only to destroy them? This is the wrong question. The right question is, does the Bible say he does this? And if he does, and knowing God is fair, how do we understand this truth in light of that fairness?
Do we really believe that Satan wins and God loses, because most people go to Hell for eternity? The answer is that there is no giant scoreboard. Scripture is clear that God wins.
Doesn’t everyone deserve a chance? This is a man-centered perspective that neglects to factor in the reality and gravity of sin, which means that no one “deserves” God’s grace and mercy (though God is incredibly kind to bestow it on believers!). We stayed here for awhile to discuss the deadness of man in sin and his inability to have faith apart from God’s grace. Relevant verses: Romans 8:7-8; Ephesians 2:1-2; Mark 1:15; Ephesians 2:8-10, also Colossians 2:13 and Ephesians 2:5.
What about Bible passages that seem to teach universalism? We looked at four passages and one Greek word, aionion (often translated as eternal), and refuted the claims that any of them support universalism. When Scripture says God will reconcile “all things” (Colossians 1:20) and that “God will be all-in-all,” that is saying that, again, God wins in the end. When Scripture says that “in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22) or that God is the “Savior of all people” (1 Tim. 4:10), their context reveals that the authors had in mind the elect.
As for the word aionion--doesn’t it just mean “for a long time?” Again, context is key, and context tells us when it means “eternal” (as it does when referring to the judgment of Hell.
Two arguments we addressed had to do with major movements within church history. They follow.
Orthodox Church Universalism
What about the Early Church Fathers who believed in Universalism, and the Eastern Orthodox Church that (allegedly) believes in it today? We did discuss the Greek doctrine of apokatastasis, or final restoration of all persons, which was believed by Gregory of Nyssa, Origin and others.
In the final analysis, we saw that theologians and churches must all be tested by Scripture alone as the final authority.
We looked at Rob Bell’s infamous book from about a decade ago, Love Wins, and saw that Scripture is clear that, in the end, love does in fact win. However, what that looks like is very different from Universalism and from what Rob Bell presents in his book.
Love wins because God wins, and God is love.
We saw that Universalism is not established in the Bible, and that while a case can be made from Scripture, it is far from conclusive and actually does not hold up under the most rigorous scrutiny. So then, this does not mean that one cannot be a Christian and also a Universalist. It does, however, mean that Universalism is a false doctrine and that, as we saw above, it is dangerous. Christians leaning in the direction of the Universalism Heresy would do well to apply Scripture to it and abandon the theory.
People, Resources and Articles Mentioned in this Podcast Episode
The Potters Freedom, by James White, esp. p. 129.
Concise Theology, by J. I. Packer, esp. pp. 137, 258, 261, 264
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