Universalism is the name given to a group of people who believe in eventual holiness and happiness of the entire human race, as they believe to be revealed to the world in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. They believe that his work on the cross at Calvary signified the end of any danger that any person, no matter how grave their sin and rebellion, would enter eternal damnation. They further believe that the Bible, including the Old Testament, reveals this doctrine as truth and many sources of Universalist doctrine note many Scripture references to back up their claims, as well as a number of ancient church historians who support this belief system, such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Nonetheless, there is much evidence in Scripture which refutes Universalism and makes it necessary for the choice to accept or reject Christ as an act of will in order to be saved or eternally lost.
The doctrine of universal salvation is one that even the great theologian Karl Barth had to wrestle with. He writes:
The proclamation of the Church must make allowance for this freedom of grace. Apokatastasis Panton [i.e.: restoration of all things]? No, for a grace which automatically would ultimately have to embrace each and every one would certainly not be free grace. It surely would not be God's grace. But would it be God's free grace if we could absolutely deny that it could do that? Has Christ been sacrificed only for our sins? Has he not ... been sacrificed for the whole world? ... [Thus] the freedom of grace is preserved on both these sides.
Yet, most Christians know that it is necessary for a person to accept the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as atonement for their personal sin, that those who believe in him may attain salvation and the promise of eternal life. What, then, is the scriptural basis for the Universalist belief? Are all persons truly redeemed and assured of a place in God’s eternal kingdom, or does Scripture tell a different story?
Universalists far and wide quote a number of Bible verses which seem, at their outset, to support their doctrine. For example, in the Old Testament, Psalm 24:1 gives a statement of God’s ownership of all the earth as Creator and as Lord. Acts 17:26 supports this and Psalm 2:8 tells of how God gave all of the earth and the nations upon it over to Christ’s ownership, which is supported by John 3:35. The argument is made in John 17:2, where Christ is given all flesh in order to bestow eternal life upon it. Further, John 6:37 says that all people given to Christ by the Father will come to him and that he will not cast them out, which Universalists say makes it certain that all people will be reconciled to God. The Prophets Ezekiel and Malachi speak of God as Father. Universalists say that a heavenly Father will not give up souls that are his to the dominion of sin and Satan forever.
The fact is that Jeremiah 18:1-10 says that God has every right to do with his people as he sees fit, and that he will turn from those who rebel, and forgive those who turn back to him. According to Erickson,
The doctrine of an everlasting punishment appears to some to be an outmoded or sub-Christian view. Part of the problem stems from what appears to be a tension between the love of God and his judgment. Yet, however we regard the doctrine of everlasting punishment, it is clearly taught in Scripture.
Romans 9:22-24 applies the principle of the Prophet’s words. Paul says that if a potter can do as he sees fit with his creations, then assuredly God can do as he likes with his own. What then might be at work upon and qualify a person to be “prepared for destruction?”
The answer, according to Pfeiffer and Harrison, is complex. “It includes his own sinful acts and rebellious nature. It involves his environment, which makes sin enticing, as well as the judicial judgments of God.” They cite Romans 1:24, 26 and 28 as evidence to support this idea. In turning from God, people put themselves in a position to be “turned over to dishonourable passions,” as one example of a preparation for destruction.
Matthew 25:41 is quite clear about how Christ will deal with those who have turned from him and, worse yet, have believed in him yet shown mercilessness to the orphan, widow, hungry, naked and imprisoned. His description of their state is an echo of the eternal punishment of Matthew 8:12 and 25:30, which is cast into “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Romans 5:18-19 once again says that all will be reconciled. “All” is a term used extensively in the scriptural evidences used by Universalists. Thomas Whittemore, the nineteenth century’s most vocal Universalist, writes:
Paul also says, "For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous." The same MANY that were made sinners, Paul declares "shall be made righteous." This certainly asserts the salvation of all sinners.
The nineteenth-century theologian Charles Hodge disagrees. In his commentary on Romans, he says:
If the all in the latter part of the verse is co-extensive with the all of the former, the passage must teach universal salvation. It is impossible that “to be justified,” “constituted righteous,” can just mean that justification is offered to all men. The all who are justified are saved. If therefore the all means all men, the apostle teaches all men are saved. This is the way in which many Universalists have interpreted the passage. But this interpretation cannot be allowed by anyone who acknowledges the inspiration of the Bible, since the Scriptures in general, and Paul himself specifically, teach that all men will not be saved (see 2 Thessalonians 1:9).
The text of 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9 tells the reader that those who do not obey the Gospel, which is to say, those who do not believe in Christ as Saviour and Lord, will be sent into a punishment of eternal destruction. Hodge is saying that a holy and true God who inspires such writing cannot be handing out free salvation to every single person. Further, with regard to the text in Romans 5, the all in verse 18 and the many of verse 19 are the same entity. The one representative (Adam-Christ) in verse 19 is set in opposition to the many he represented. Verse 18 speaks of the representative (Adam-Christ) and the entire human race. In verse 19 it is the redeemed family of man Paul speaks of, and it is “humanity as actually lost, but also as actually saved, as ruined and recovered.” Those who remain impenitent and refuse to accept the saving work of Christ are lost to damnation, and are not included in this part of the letter to the Romans, which speaks only of God’s correction in Christ the corruption made in Adam.
Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in the fourth and fifth centuries, made plain the reality of hell in his book, The City of God. He refers to the Scripture in Mark 9:43-48, where an admonishment is spoken by Jesus to his disciples to sever ties with persons or habits which cause a person to sin, and thus be “thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” Augustine says of this passage:
Now they who would refer both the fire and the worm to the spirit, and not to the body, affirm that the wicked, who are separated from the kingdom of God, shall be burned, as it were, by the anguish of a spirit repenting too late and fruitlessly; and they contend that fire is therefore not inappropriately used to express this burning torment, as when the apostle exclaims "Who is offended, and I burn not?" (2 Corinthians 11:29)
It would appear as though the Saviour himself is not a believer in universal salvation. His words are clear. He warns his followers that they are in danger of hell in Matthew 5:22, simply for calling another person a fool. Christ, as far as Pfeiffer and Harrison conclude, is speaking of the root of murder as anger against one’s fellow man. In verses 27-30, Christ speaks of the root of adultery: lust, after which he plunges into the amputation speech once more. The real source, then, of sin is not the organ subject to amputation, but lies deep in the person’s heart. The commentators say that “a man’s evil heart must be changed if he would escape final ruin in hell.”
Whittemore also makes mention of two Scriptures that fit tidily together:
God is love, and love worketh no ill. "God is love". (1 John 4:8) "Love Worketh no ill". (Rom. 13:10) This is a very forcible argument. God's nature is the very essence of benevolence, and benevolence cannot be the origin of endless evil. If love worketh no ill, God can work no ill, and, therefore, God cannot be the author of endless evil.
Universalism seems to take this as affirmation that eternal punishment is evil, but unfortunately this is sorely lacking in substance. Where there is love, there must of necessity be wrath and judgment. How can a righteous God love infinitely and not punish those who afflict and persecute those whom he loves, even if it is the person’s own self? To be so aloof is not the mark of a loving God, but of an absentee parent more concerned with his own pleasure than his children’s discipline or welfare. John 3:16 again reinforces the loving aspect of God, but Tenney says this love, translated from Greek, is “an act of the will, rather than an emotion…and its measure is defined in terms of the result. ‘He gave his only begotten Son…’ the breadth of the invitation is revealed by the ‘whosoever…’ ” He continues:
Judgment is the logical consequence of unbelief. As the man who turns his back to the sun deepens by his own shadow the darkness in which he walks, so the unbeliever intensifies the darkness of his own soul by his unbelief. His unbelief is in itself an admission of sin, since he will not come to the light to have his deeds made manifest and evaluated.
Thus, as an act of will, God gives the love to his children in the form of himself as Christ, the God-man, upon condition that the children believe that this is so, in effect choosing to receive that love as an act of will which complements God’s. A reciprocal response, then, is what God requires, which flies in the face of Universalist beliefs. Further, the fact that the condition of belief is present in this statement of God’s salvation is evidence that not all persons who hear the Gospel will believe in Christ and his triumph over sin.
A danger in the exploration of universal salvation is confusing it with universal atonement. 1 Timothy 4:10 and Hebrews 2:9 say that Christ died for all men and is the Saviour of all, “especially those who believe,” or makes an offer of salvation to all. “Those who believe,” according to Erickson, “are still distinguished from the rest of humanity.” In addition, these verses do not actually say that the offer would be accepted, nor salvation received by all. The atonement might be there waiting, but until it is received as an act of choice, salvation cannot be had.
A great deal of the damage done by Universalist belief is the creeping in of moral relativism. What point is there in denying one’s own pleasure and comfort, in order to do good to those less fortunate, if one is certain to make it to heaven and eternal life in Christ anyway? This relativism comes on the heels of a simple paradigm: the denial or misunderstanding of truth as an absolute. As Pilate says to Jesus before condemning him to the cross, “What is truth?” This is an excellent question. The fact is that much of the human race has lost sight of what is true, though the ways of righteousness are inherent in our original makeup:
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.
Human beings have a natural propensity to know what is right and, for the most part, are inclined to want to do it, even though it might be contrary to their baser desires. Nonetheless the culture of the twentieth century has moved into a place of self-serving and unmerciful attitudes which makes the Gospel even harder to accept.
According to the current Pope, Benedict XVI:
This [relativism] is also the reason why practice is now substituted for truth…we do not know what is true, but we know what we should do: raise up and introduce a better society, the kingdom, as people like to say, using a term taken from the Bible and applied to the profane and utopian sphere.
All religions then, as Benedict sees it, being caught up in this regnocentricity (kingdom-centred philosophy) which replaces the church centred (ecclesiocentric), Christ-centred (christocentric) and God-centred (theocentric) paradigms in today’s culture, are mostly alike in terms of morality and religiosity, but ignore the deeper level, the source of their existence, and instead focus on building the future, in a way that steers Christianity and any other religion away from its true purpose. Relativism has thus been a progenitor of Universalism, in that the mission of the church as God’s ambassadors is perverted from being the bringing of good news to people for whom it was intended to spreading a perceived “superior culture” and imposing beliefs or societal norms upon other cultures for no good reason, and wrestling away their cultural identity and heritage.
Relativism basically says that objective truth does not really exist, so truth becomes primarily subjective and is defined by the receiver of the information deemed to be truth. For example, what may be a blue balloon to most people may be a red balloon to a few people who choose to receive it as such because of varying levels of personal comfort or indiscriminate intellectualism. Therefore God’s truth is up for interpretation and can be made to say virtually anything, and so the Bible becomes subject to reader-response criticism and truth is subverted in the name of human self-centredness.
Universalist philosophy then is governed by a relativistic bent. Romans 11:32, for example, is taken by Universalists to mean that people are disobedient by design so that God can show how merciful he is by letting them off the hook! What Paul means, however, is that Israel has rejected God’s offer and he has offered the same grace to the Gentiles, but that only the people who choose to receive it will profit by it, to paraphrase Erickson. F.F. Bruce says of the statement, “that he may have mercy on all:”
That is, on all without distinction rather than all without exception. Paul is not here thinking of those who, like Pharaoh in 9:17, persistently reject the divine mercy. He ‘does not intend to make a definite pronouncement about the ultimate destiny of each individual man. But the hope of mankind is more, not less, secure because it is rooted in the truth about God, rather than in a truth about man himself.’
“All without distinction” is a contrasting idea to “all without exception.” The latter simply means all persons, period; every last human being. The former means something different. Where all persons in a particular group are counted, the rest are excluded, such as in the case here, where the all refers to a particular set of persons, distinct from the rest, who are outside the frame of reference. When Jesus says, “you will be hated by all men for my sake,” he is not saying every last person will hate his followers. He is speaking of men without distinction of race, colour, or nationality. However, they are all of them contrary to his teaching and so Jesus means all men whose philosophies run counter to his teaching will hate the disciples. This applies today in the realm of public offices and schools, where philosophies which run counter to the values of biblical teaching and the centrality of Christ as head of the church in essence “hate” disciples of Jesus and seek to edge them out, in a passive-aggressive fashion, as is befitting the times.
Navigating back to the Scriptures in the fourth Gospel, it is seen from a Universalist perspective that John 17:2 means that all men without exception are given to Christ, and John 6:37 means, since all things and all creatures and all persons have been given to Christ by the Father, that he will not cast out anything, or anyone, from his kingdom. Yet, if it is seen through the lens of “all without distinction,” and the verses before and after it (John 6:35-40) are taken into account, Jesus is saying that the responsibility for choosing to come to him is on the individual person. This is not to say that the elect are not drawn first by the Holy Spirit, but it is to say that ultimately, the choice is left to a person to accept or reject the Gospel. Hendrickson notes:
Note that verse 37 also teaches: a. that in working out the plan of redemption, so that salvation is bestowed upon the elect individuals and upon the entire elect race, there is complete harmony and cooperation between the Father and the Son: those whom the Father gives, the Son welcomes, and b. that the work of redemption cannot be frustrated by the unbelief of the Jews of which mention was made in the preceding verse: there is an elect race; a remnant will most certainly be saved.
“All that the Father gives me” then, is a statement that reflects the elect as one body, a singular people, and does not include those whom the Father does not give, thus the ones who are lost.
So, in the analysis of merely some of the available arguments on both sides of this debate, it is clear that the debate is far from resolved. Erickson does point out, though, that “Indeed, simply on the basis of numbers, there appear to be considerably more passages teaching that some will be eternally lost than that all will be saved.” In terms of all Scripture being inspired text, the favourable interpretation then is in opposition to Universalism. In terms of God’s love, there must of necessity be wrath and judgment. More evidence is found to support the traditional and systematic understanding of salvation, and it is by far the more popular belief. More than this, and tragically for the Universalists, it is the correct one.
Augustine, St. The City of God against the Pagans. Edited by R.W. Dyson. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Barth, Karl. God Here and Now. SanFrancisco, CA: Harper-Row, 1964.
Bruce, Frederick F. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1988.
—. Introducing Christian Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992.
Hendrickson, William. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1953.
Hodge, Charles. The Crossway Classic Commentaries: Romans. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993.
Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, A Division of Good News Publishers, 2003.
Jamieson, Robert, A.R. Fausset, and David Brown. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary on the Whole Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977.
Pfeiffer, Charles F. and Harrison, Everett F., ed. The New Testament and Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1971.
Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal (Pope Benedict XVI). Truth and Tolerance. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2004.
Tenney, Merrill C. John: The Gospel of Belief. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976.
Whittemore, Thomas. "Plain Guide to Universalism." Auburn University. 1840. http://www.auburn.edu/~allenkc/univ3.html (accessed December 12, 2010).
 (Barth 1964, 41-42)
 (John 3:16)
 (Whittemore 1840, 6)
 (Ezekiel 18:4, Malachi 2:10)
 (Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine 1992, 400)
 (Romans 9:22)
 (Pfeiffer 1971, 556)
 (Whittemore 1840, 68)
 (Hodge 1993, 167,168)
 (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown 1977, 1152)
 (Augustine 1998, 1065)
 (Pfeiffer 1971)
 (Whittemore 1840, 12)
 (Tenney 1976, 89)
 (Tenney 1976, 90)
 (Erickson, Christian Theology 1988, 1031)
 (Romans 2:14-15)
 (Ratzinger 2004, 72)
 (Erickson, Christian Theology 1988, 1032)
 (Bruce 1993, 211)
 (Matthew 10:22)
 (as in Psalm 2:8 and John 3:35)
 (Hendrickson 1953, 234)
 (Erickson, Christian Theology 1988, 1030)