The Growing Trend Toward Universalism
We recently received a letter from a courteous reader who asserted his belief that all people will be saved ultimately. He feels there is Bible support for this position, though he introduced not a solitary passage in defense of the theory. Perhaps there is some value in discussing this theme—in this day of widely diversified religious views, and a growing tendency to excuse or justify every conceivable ideology.
The dogma of universalism is not new. It has roots back into the post-apostolic age. A few of the “church fathers” (e.g., Origen) laid the foundation for this teaching. John Murray, a former Calvinist, introduced the doctrine in America in about 1770. It has had its relatively prominent defenders from time to time.
Harper Publishing Company of San Francisco recently released a new book titled, If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person. Authors Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland assert that every one will be saved, regardless of his religious persuasion—or even if he has none at all. Professor Ty Inbody of the United Theological Seminary has characterized universalism as “one of the hottest burners on the Christian stove today.” But the dogma is a wistful fantasy with no biblical support or logical underpinning.
The doctrine of universalism is entertained only by a fractional element of those who loosely identify themselves with the Christian movement. In addition to Gulley and Mulholland, a few others more prominent than they, have sought to establish this concept. John Hick, former professor of philosophy of religion at Claremont University (California), has written the following: “We must thus affirm the ultimate salvation of all mankind” (1976, 259). Scottish theologian, William Barclay, took a similar position. This view is espoused, of course, by the Unitarian/Universalist Church.
The Biblical Doctrine
For the informed Bible student, there does not need to be an elaborate defense of the proposition that multitudes will be lost eternally. The scriptural affirmations are too profuse and definitive to assert otherwise.
(1) David declared that “the wicked shall be turned into hell [Sheol], and all the nations that forget God” (Psalm 9:17). “Sheol” is used some sixty-six times in the Hebrew Old Testament. While the term sometimes is generic (i.e., the depository of the dead generally), it is also used for the realm where the wicked receive their punishment (Job 11:8; Psalm 9:17; 139:8; Proverbs 23:14).
(2) The prophet Daniel declared that a segment of those who “awake” from “the dust of the earth” (i.e., they are to be resurrected from the grave) will experience “everlasting shame and contempt” (Daniel 12:2). A clear distinction is made between the saved and the lost.
(3) Hades is the New Testament term for that state between the death of the physical body and the day of judgment. In some New Testament passages, Hades stands for the abode of the wicked, i.e., the environment where they are punished before their ultimate banishment into the final domain called hell (
gehenna) (Mathew 11:23; Luke 16:23; Revelation 20:13).
(4) Jesus taught that there is a “hell” (
gehenna) into which the wicked will be cast. In this horrible realm, they will suffer eternally (Matthew 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; James 3:6). Christ also taught that “many” would enter this condition of “destruction” (Matthew 7:13-14)—which is not a state of extinction, but of punishment and affliction (cf. Matthew 25:46; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, ASV).
(5) The apostles affirmed that some would be lost. Paul spoke of those who will not escape the “judgment of God” and the awesome “day of [his] wrath” (Romans 2:3, 5). Elsewhere he wrote of the “punishment” of the wicked in an “everlasting” abode of separation from the Creator (2 Thessalonians 1:9). He spoke also of the terrible slaughter of spiritual rebels at the time of the Lord’s coming (2 Thessalonians 2:8). He cataloged those who will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21). These references assert the very opposite of universalism!
Peter similarly took note of an ultimate accountability to God. He spoke of “lusts, which war against the soul” preliminary to the “day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:11-12). He listed egregious sins for which men will be held responsible by him who “is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Peter 4:3-5). His question “What shall be the end of them who obey not the gospel?” is clear enough in its implication (1 Peter 4:17-18). The apostle spoke of “heresies” that will “destroy” the wicked person (2 Peter 2:1ff; cf. 3:7).
How could anyone possibly survey such a variety of sacred texts (in concert with numerous others of similar import) and then contend for the concept of universal salvation? Only by a complete disregard for the plain meaning of the inspired narratives could such a conclusion be drawn.
The natural inclination of humanity is to deny the doctrine of punishment for those who rebel against God. Yet the idea of ultimate and eternal retribution for sin has been virtually universal among those who identify with Christianity. This is inexplicable on mere naturalistic grounds. It concedes the compelling biblical case.
Arguments Employed in Defense of Universal Salvation
Those who advocate the dogma of universalism occasionally will appeal to the Bible in support of their misguided ideology. We will comment briefly upon a couple of these rationalizations.
(1) It is alleged that the idea of some being lost is contrary to the goodness of God. Supposedly, as a perfectly good being, he simply could not allow that. Two things may be said in response to this idea.
First, the Lord’s goodness must not be interpreted in such a way that conflicts with the affirmation of his justice (Psalm 89:14; cf. Genesis 18:25). Justice demands punishment for sin. Do we suppose that a good government should provide no penalty for robbery, rape, and murder?
Second, the fact that suffering is tolerated (and even used) by God within our earthly environment is a forceful demonstration that Jehovah’s goodness is not compromised by the negative consequences of human rebellion. One must not foist his own jaded sense of goodness upon his perception of the Lord, contrary to clear scriptural revelation.
(2) It is contended that the Scriptures actually affirm universal salvation. Does not Peter declare that God does not wish that “any should perish”? (2 Peter 3:9). Yes, but this phrase represents the ideal will of God; he does not want anyone to be lost. That is why the Lord made adequate provision for the redemption of anyone who “wills” to accept salvation (Revelation 22:17). The real issue is this: what if men do not repent? (2 Peter 3:9b). What if they have no interest in salvation? In that event, those who have rejected divine grace, by means of their disobedience, will receive the terrible consequence of such. And remember this: just two verses earlier Peter had spoken of the “destruction of the ungodly.”
But did not Paul declare that God wants “all men to be saved”? (1 Timothy 2:4). Yes he did. But again, one must discern between what Heaven wills ideally and the reality that the Lord also honors human volition, i.e., freewill. When godless people choose to reject divine grace, as expressed through Heaven’s plan of salvation, they bring upon themselves “destruction and perdition”—as the apostle revealed in this same epistle (1 Timothy 6:9; cf. Acts 13:46).
If the doctrine of universal salvation were true, it would make no difference what anyone believed, taught, or practiced—however bizarre, untrue, or destructive. The consequence of all religious and moral activity would be identical ultimately.
Who can live with such an irrational conclusion? The doctrine of universalism has no basis in either the Bible or logic. It must be rejected summarily by those who esteem the Scriptures as a revelation from God.
“Universalism” Out of Abilene Christian University
Richard Beck is an Associate Professor and “experimental psychologist” at Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas. Beck has produced a series of articles under the general caption, “Why I am a Universalist.” His aim is to “build a plausibility case for Universalism.” He declares: “I think Universalism is the best soteriological position to stake out logically, biblically, theologically, scientifically, and morally.”
Universalism is the theory that there will be a final and complete salvation of all beings. It is entirely alien to biblical revelation. How can a “Christian” university possibly host a faculty member of this caliber?
- Gulley, Phillip and James Mulholland. 2003. If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person. San Francisco, CA: Harper.
- Hick, John. 1976. Death and Eternal Life. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.