Universalism: the theological doctrine that all people will eventually be saved.
It’s an attractive belief. Surely, if God is all-loving and all-powerful, he wouldn’t consign any of his creations to eternal damnation amongst frolicking devils in a realm of fire and brimstone! This is the sort of thinking that seems to have filtered down into the psyche of modern-day Christians and sceptics alike. Some people claim that early church fathers such as Origen held this belief, but, according to ‘Unitarian Universalism: A Research Guide’, the first undisputed universalists appeared in the 17th century, a time of spiritual tumult and political manoeuvring…make of that what you will.
The essential claim, as far as I can work it out, is that if Christ died on the cross for all of our sins, then God will forgive us all through that sacrifice. A verse that is commonly cited for this is 1 Corinthians 15:22 – “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive”. The consequence of this belief is pretty straightforward: there is no need for Hell (except maybe for demons) and everyone will slot nicely into Heaven.
As you may have guessed, I am very sceptical of universalism, to the point where I don’t think that much short of divine revelation could convince me of its truth. I’m saying this because I believe that where we know a bias exists, we should be honest about it, and also so that you don’t expect this to be a nice, cold, objective article. I’m writing this article so that you know where I stand and why I stand there.
So why wouldn’t I believe in universalism? For one thing, there is so much in the Bible against it that I think the few verses claimed to be for it can reasonably be interpreted differently. Here are some verses to give you an idea of what I mean (words of Jesus in bold):
- But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Matt. 5:22)
- Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matt. 25:46)
- They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. (2 Thess. 1:9)
- But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. (Luke 12:5)
These aren’t nice verses, but they’re there, inside the same Book which has verses on love and forgiveness. What do they show? All those verses acknowledge Hell as a dangerous reality for humans. The reason that I selected quotes from Jesus as 3 of the 4 verses is because that I wanted to make it abundantly clear that when God came to earth to take our sins on his shoulders, he did not deny the reality of Hell, in fact, he did the opposite, he warned people of its danger.
Another reason I don’t believe it is because I don’t think it’s a belief in accordance with the character of God as revealed in the Bible. I don’t want this post to be tiresomely long, but I do want to very briefly address the objection to Hell that I alluded to in the first paragraph: why would an all-loving, all-powerful God send his creations to Hell? In my opinion, based on my understanding of the Bible this oh-so-common objection is fundamentally flawed.
Is God all-loving? Yes and no. Yes, he died for us all on the cross, the single greatest act of love in history (John 3:16*). That sacrifice was for all of us, however, it is clear in the New Testament that it isn’t the end of the story. We have to claim that sacrifice through repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38). Why? Because it’s about authority – God’s authority – and whether we accept it or not. If we acknowledge God’s sacrifice for us, we acknowledge that we have no power over our lives. I think this is an important factor when we consider the nature of Heaven: eternal worship of God.
So again, does God love everyone unconditionally? No. Not in the sense it’s often meant. Why? Well he doesn’t love everyone as a father, seeing as we are only considered children of God once we’ve received him in our lives (John 1:12). I also don’t think he loves everyone in a more conventional person-to-person relational sense, either as a friend or a lover. For one thing, common sense tells us that a relationship can’t work if only one person is putting in the effort, and also, there is the abundant Biblical imagery of the Church as the bride of Christ. Who are the church? Christians. This indicates a special relationship between Christians and Jesus, whilst in Revelation, sinners and grouped together in the Harlot of Babylon imagery…and I’m going to leave that train of thought there.
I know that I’ve been very blunt here, so I want to make it clear that it is God’s desire that everyone would come to know him and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). Also, it needs to be said that if anything, this makes what Jesus did on the cross even more powerful, and even more of an example for us, because that act of practical love (agape) was not done for the benefit of God’s friends (the healthy) but for people who, for all intents and purposes, were his enemies (the sick). In all the gospels, Jesus never says that he loves us (as far as I know). What he does is tells us that if we follow him, God will love us (John 14:20), and he constantly demonstrated practical acts of love. That is the nature of agape: filling a need – not because you have to, but because you have compassion. Jesus didn’t have to die on the cross; he chose to fill that need, the need for salvation. The cross is God’s amazing, unprecedented invitation into his love. The flipside is that anyone who rejects or ignores this invitation is rejecting a relationship with God and choosing their own destiny, a godless destiny. This leads on to the question of God’s power and justice…
What do we mean when we say God is all-powerful? Do we mean that he can literally do everything, including making a stone so heavy he can’t lift it? No. C. S. Lewis explains this far better than I ever could in his book The Problem of Pain, but I’ll try and make his case from memory. Basically, he argued that God can do everything conceivably possible, but nothing that is absolutely impossible, because the impossible things just don’t work logically – thus, God can’t make an object so heavy he can’t lift it, but, theoretically, could he mutate human beings so that we grow wings and fly? Yes. That’s a silly example, but it illustrates the point.
What does this mean for Hell and universalism? It means that God can’t do the impossible and violate his own character and promises in order to save everyone. For all we like to talk about love, we ignore justice. And God is just. If we do not accept Christ, then we have to take the just punishment for our sins that has existed since the start of humanity: death. Not just physical death, but spiritual death. This also means that when Jesus speaks of people going to Hell and we try and say that it won’t happen, we accuse God of lying. The God whose words are truth – if he speaks it, it’s true – cannot lie. It’s logically impossible. Hell is completely in accordance with the justice and truth of God.
I think I’ve just about finished now…I’d be lying if I said that that wasn’t tough to write. Hell is a taboo topic in today’s culture, and I know that my views on God’s love will not be easily accepted by many Christians. As always, I am open to questions and criticism – what I don’t want is for you to go away grumbling and disillusioned. I hope you’ll appreciate my honesty, and I also hope that, somewhere in all this, my original intention of arguing against universalism came through! Below is a further explanatory note on John 3:16 and my view of God’s love if you want to get a further insight into what I believe on the subject.
*A quick note on the love topic, because I know it’s so controversial:
I have arrived at the views I hold largely because of my own reading of the Bible. I was introduced to the idea that God’s love is not unconditional in the way I previously thought by a very short book that examined the correct way to read John 3:16, hinging on the fact that the Greek word for ‘loved’ in that context is present-singular (as opposed to present-continuous). This means that John 3:16 is talking about a single act of God’s love (Jesus’ death) as opposed to a continual state of love. After reading about this, I looked through the Bible for evidence of God’s unconditional love and found nothing obvious, though I did find a lot of examples of conditional love, such as John 14:20. Furthermore, I don’t think that we have an adequate concept of what God’s love actually is. When people talk about ‘unconditional love’ they rarely say what form this love takes. The evidence in the Bible suggests the love of God, the love that we are expected to replicate, is highly practical, based around meeting people’s needs, being humble and serving people. To sum it up in one sentence, I would say this:
God wants to meet the needs of everyone, but will only enter into a loving relationship with people who acknowledge him in return.