Tuesday, July 5, 2022

A RESPONSE TO CHRISTIAN UNIVERSALISM (Part I)


INTRODUCTION

Universalism is a system of belief that has been around for a long time and is found in about every religion, including Christianity. Many Christian thinkers over the centuries have argued for some form of universalism. Origen of Alexandria (184 - 253) is considered to be one of the earliest proponents of universalism within the Christian faith. For the most part, Universalism has existed on the periphery of Christianity, but this has changed in recent years. There is a growing movement and acceptance of what is being dubbed “Christian Universalism” among those who were once considered part of mainstream Christianity. Pastor Rob Bell is one such example. In 2011, Bell released his book “Love Wins” which thrust this universalistic approach into mainstream Evangelical Christianity.  Not all proponents of Christian Universalism agree on the finer points, but most would agree with Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson’s basic definition in their introduction to a collective work titled “Hell Under Fire”. They write, “Universalism is the view that in the end all persons will experience the love of God and eternal life. All will be saved and none will be lost.”[1] The focus of this essay is “Christian Universalism” as opposed to universalism in general.[2]  What is the difference between the two brands of Universalism? Christian Universalist pastor and author Peter Heitt describes the difference as follows:

By “universalism” some people mean that Christ saves no one, for no one actually needs to be saved. I am the exact opposite of that sort of universalism. Sometimes by “universalism” people mean that all must die, for all have sinned (it’s universal). And they mean that all must be raised for Christ is risen and Christ died for all–they mean that Christ’s cross reconciles all things to the father. In which case, I’m a universalist and I don’t see how anyone could believe Scripture and be anything but a “universalist.””[3]

Heitt and others like him insist that their position remains Christ-centered, rooted in the infallible word of God and adheres to the basic doctrines of the historic faith despite this one difference: every person that ever was, is or shall be, will in time or in eternity, be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. But the question I seek to answer is whether it is biblically and theologically possible to deny eternal punishment and affirm the historic tenets of Christian theology simultaneously. This is a good time to mention that this is not going to be exhaustive. My goal in Part 1 is to provide a brief overview and response. Part 2 will cover specific passages of scripture which Universalists frequently cite as supporting their positions. However, there will be many verses, issues and such that will not be addressed. Many others have given more thorough treatments of this subject, and my intention is to distill some of the most important points so the average believer can be informed and prepared to encounter this growing movement. I also want a Christian Universalist to read this and say, “Yes, this summarizes well what I believe”.

A SUMMARY OF CHRISTIAN UNIVERSALISM

Christian Universalism understands the nature of God's judgment not as punitive, but as disciplinary. It is a purifying fire, meant to burn away the dross of sin and reveal the love of Christ.[4] Though they insist this purifying fire is painful and serious, it is not permanent or everlasting. In fact, Universalists argue the word aiónios commonly translated “eternity” does not actually mean forever most of the time. It usually just means a very long period of time. Universalists have found support in Illarya Ramelli and David Konstan, professors of antiquities who write:

“Apart from the Platonic philosophical vocabulary, which is specific to few authors, aiónios does not mean “eternal”; it acquires this meaning only when it refers to God, and only because the notion of eternity was included in the conception of God: for the rest, it has a wide range of meanings and its possible renderings are multiple, but it does not mean “eternal.” In particular when it is associated with life or punishment, in the Bible and in Christian authors who keep themselves close to the Biblical usage, it denotes their belonging to the world to come.”[5]

According to the Universalists, since it does not mean “eternal” or “forever”,  then it means those who are on the “outside” of God’s blessed Kingdom, i.e. “the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Revelation 22:15) will be granted entrance into the kingdom through the merits of Christ upon the completion of the purification process (which means they are no longer dogs, etc). Eventually, “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Philippians 2:10-11) God’s overarching desire that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4) will be fulfilled. All will be brought to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). All things will be reconciled through the cross (Colossians 1:20). ‘All’ means all without qualification or exception. It may not happen in this age for all, but the gates of the kingdom will never shut (Rev. 21:25). Eventually, all will come to faith in Jesus and enter through those open gates.

Christian universalists also deny eternal punishment on the basis of God’s love which is the most significant of his attributes. Because God is love (1 John 4:8) he could never send anyone into everlasting torment. His love is that of a Father to his children.  He not only desires to save everyone - he can save everyone!  Since God is love, is the Father of all and is limitless in might and power, there’s every reason to believe he can and will save everyone and no reason to only save some. To think otherwise is to embrace a blatant contradiction of the very nature and character of God. It makes God out to be a monster, an unjust judge who sentences sinners to suffer eternally for sins committed during their brief earthly life. It is disproportionate and unjust. "Unending torment speaks to me of sadism, not justice.”[6] I will address the subject of “eternity” and why this perspective is biblically incorrect in Part 2.

Initial Reflections

On the surface this all appears to be reasonable and compatible with mainstream Christian teaching. God is still judging sin. Christ’s sacrifice is still needed and being applied.  Plus, it is very appealing. We were once concerned about the eternal state of a loved one and the tribes in the world who have never heard about Christ. According to this view, they are not lost for eternity, they will get to heaven eventually.

I would be lying if I didn’t think this sounded desirable and attractive, because it does. I say this because I want it to be clear that I understand why many find eternal judgment so distasteful. I understand how terrible this sounds and think that it is terrible despite the charge of some Universalists that those like me delight in the prospect of unbelievers burning forever. I readily admit some act this way even if they do not actually believe this. But the unfortunate reactions of some should not be factored into whether or not it is true. While part of me wants to believe Universalism is true, that part is not the objective, rational side, but the emotional side. I want to feel good about everything I believe, and I want others to be accepting of my beliefs. I think many feel this way, which is no doubt why universalism is attractive to so many.

However, not everything that is “true” looks or feels good, nor is it meant to. Yet my observation is that much Universalist thought is driven by what feels and looks good. Since it is emotionally difficult, even nauseating to conceive of God leaving the unregenerate in everlasting punishment, then it must not be true. Even the great Anglican pastor and theologian John R.W. Stott was driven emotionally, not to Universalism, but to Annihilationism late in his life. “Emotionally, I find the concept [of eternal torment] intolerable.”[7] 

Theologian Dr. Sinclair Ferguson, reflecting on Stott’s statement writes, “There is, surely, a profound sense in which this ought to be the reaction of all of us… That [people] should be banished forever into the outer darkness, with no escape exit, should fill us with a sense of horror.”[8] Perhaps God’s intention for such strong emotional responses to the prospect of eternal torment is to drive us out into the world to “save others by snatching them out of the fire” (Jude 23).  Certainly our emotions in some way reflect God since we are made in his image, but our emotions are also tainted by sin and thus are not reliable guides. Therefore we must set aside emotions and sentiments and look strictly at what the Bible says.

Also, I will admit that my study of this matter has forced me to ask some hard questions of myself. If I really do believe that God’s judgment is final and everlasting, where’s the sense of urgency? Where are the tears? (Luke 19:41-42) Where is the unceasing anguish? (Romans 9:2) I have to admit, if I really do believe judgment is final and forever, my attitude and actions do not consistently bear this out. I have also come to realize that many Christians are either practical Universalists (they really do think all will be saved despite their claims to the contrary, which is why they lack any urgency) or they are hyper-Calvinists (the elect will be saved without my help when God wills it, so again, no urgency). The desire that all to be saved is admirable and ought to be a desire present in every Christian.  

However, I do not believe Christian Universalism is biblical or compatible with the historic Christian teaching. The more I have examined Christian Universalism, read the writings and interacted with those who hold to this view, the more convinced I am that Christian Universalism undermines the gospel and departs from nearly all of the core doctrines that undergird the faith. At best it weakens the work of Christ, or at worst makes it unnecessary. Michael McClymond (to whom I am indebted for many of my insights) is right to point out:

“The great irony of Christian universalism lies in its eclipse of grace. The effort to extend grace to all has repeatedly ended up compromising or even eliminating the notion of grace. What seems to be “all grace” turns out on inspection to be “no grace”...“The graciousness of grace has always been linked to particular divine actions viewed as contingent rather than necessary. Stated otherwise, the grace of God depends on God’s will and is not necessitated by God’s own nature or essence.” [9] 

If every word and sentence in a book is highlighted, then nothing is highlighted.  If everyone wins the game, no one wins. Or as the villain “Syndrome“ from the Disney movie “The Incredibles” puts it, “If everyone's super, no one will be.” If everyone is saved, then no one is saved and the cross is emptied of its power. Grace is no longer grace. And that is what I hope to show: Christian Universalism eclipses the Christian message of grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.  Of course, Universalists such as Peter Hiett disagree: “...people jump to the utterly bizarre conclusion that it is unbiblical and renders the cross of Christ pointless. IT’S JUST THE OPPOSITE.”[10]  But merely making this claim does not make it so.

All Doctrines are Connected

I once took a trip with my family to the Florida Everglades. We took a boat tour with the National Park Service, and one of the striking facts made by the Park Ranger was how the Everglades is impacted by what happens as far north as Orlando. Everything trickles down because everything is connected. For many years no one understood this which is why the health of the Everglades declined and is currently said to be “on life support.”

This is also true in theology at nearly every level as one of my professors in seminary, Dr. Richard Pratt put it, “All doctrines form webs of multiple reciprocities.” In other words, all doctrines are connected and hang together and even interpret one another. One doctrine cannot be altered or rejected without affecting the others. They are all like building blocks and beams that form a structure. Removing one part of the structure weakens the whole and puts it at risk of collapse. Christian Universalism has done just that: abstracted the characteristics of God and teachings in scripture that are preferred from those which are not preferred under the guise that the faith once for all entrusted to the saints can continue to hold together. The universalistic belief that Jesus died on the cross for everyone, and therefore everyone will be saved in the end causes more structural problems to the Christian faith than Universalists are prepared to admit. What follows are six ways Christian Universalism undermines Biblical Christianity and eclipses the grace of God which has been manifested in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

1. Christian Universalism Nullifies Christ’s work of Grace on the Cross

As I mentioned above, Peter Heitt and other universalists still hold to the necessity of the cross and think it is bizarre for anyone to suggest universalism nullifies the cross or obscures his grace in any way. But they are unable to explain in any meaningful detail why the cross was necessary, what it accomplished and what sort of reality we would be facing if Christ decided not to come. Would we then be facing an eternal sentence after all? What exactly does God’s grace in Christ deliver us from? What does ‘grace’ even mean? All they can say about it is it's for “all” without any qualification. But just thinking about the meaning of grace exposes the deep flaws of universalism.

Grace has been defined in many ways: God’s Riches AChrist’s Expense; unmerited divine favor; getting what I don’t deserve (mercy) and not getting what I do deserve (justice). If a sinner does not deserve eternal punishment, then what does he deserve? Whatever it is, not receiving what I deserve would be grace.  Yet what we read from Universalists is that those who die without faith will still face a period of judgment meant to purge them of all sin. This can only mean one of two things:

i. Jesus’ death limits the unbeliever’s punishment to however long it takes to make them pure.

Universalists argue that the concept of eternal punishment is disproportionate to human sin and inconsistent with God’s love. But here’s the problem: If all the cross does is shorten someone’s punishment and/or provides a second chance for them, then the Universalist must concede that eternal punishment is what was deserved after all. He must also admit that Jesus’ sacrifice is only sufficient to deliver a person from a portion of what his sin deserves. But if eternal punishment is what is deserved, it cannot logically be considered disproportionate. In the end, the Universalist must concede that God’s intended punishment is eternal, and that God, seeing that his justice was unjust, sent Christ to balance things out to make the sentence more proportionate by suffering for them. What this does is it limits the efficacy of Christ’s atonement.

ii. The unbeliever missed the chance in life and must face judgment on their own and go through the purging process to be saved.  Brett (the only name disclosed) states it this way on his website: “We are saved from sin and given new life already and don’t have to wait until after we are judged![11] The problem with this should be obvious as it makes the cross the best way to attain eternal life, but not the exclusive way. It grants a person entrance into the Kingdom of God not because Jesus suffered on their behalf, but because they faced the judgment of God alone and emerged from that experience as one fit for heaven. But if Jesus truly died for them then this should not happen. If Jesus died to save his people from their sins, then it logically follows that he died to save them from the punishment which sin deserves whether we call this hell, condemnation, wrath or judgment. “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.” (1 Thessalonians 5:9–10) And if Jesus died for everyone, then no one should go there or suffer there ever: not for an “age” or even for five minutes, even if they die without faith because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 8:1)

Yet, according to Universalists like Heitt and Brett, all are in Christ Jesus whether they believe it or not.[12] To say that a person (albeit unknowingly) possesses this new life in Christ even as an unbelieving person, yet must wait to enjoy it until after he is judged, nullifies the cross by making a way for one to enter the kingdom apart from the work of Christ. The person is made righteous by his own suffering under the curse of the law. Jesus did not become a curse for him and does not save him from it since he still suffers under the curse (Gal. 3:13).

At best, these options make a person a co-savior with Jesus or, at worst, it makes a person his own savior. Both are another gospel and do great violence to Jesus’ exclusive claim to be the ONLY way to the Father (John 14:6) and to the sufficiency and efficacy of his single offering up of himself on the cross. The unbeliever is saving himself through the works of the law by facing the penalty for the law on his own. Yet Paul plainly states, “if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:21) If I can in any way, even in part, suffer for my own sins and become more righteous and pure through that process, then the cross is of no effect or use. McClymond points out this is why many past Universalists ended up becoming Unitarians. “The unitarian view…requires no mediator nor the mediation of salvation.”[13] A sincere reflection on the theology of the cross makes a universal application of the cross impossible. And this is precisely why Universalists are forced to remain vague on their theology of the cross. Consequently, this also affects how sin is viewed.

2. Christian Universalism Minimizes the Severity of Sin

Universalists try to mitigate some of these issues by minimizing the seriousness of sin. How serious is sin? Dr. Mark Talbot explains:

“...the whole tenor of Scripture is to portray sin as incalculably serious. There is nothing about ourselves (Matt 5:27-30; 18:6-9) or the world (Matt 16:24-28), no honors (1 Cor 4:9-13; 2 Cor 6:4-10) or riches (Ps 84:10; 1 Tim 6:6-10), and no pleasures (Heb 11:24-26; 1 Tim 5:6; Luke 8:14), that are worth getting or keeping if they cause us to sin. Scripture takes even our most minor transgressions against God's law, if they remain unatoned for, as altering our relationship with God in a qualitative and not just in a quantitative way (James 2:10; Matt 5:17f.; Gal 3:10).”[14]

R.C. Sproul describes sin as “cosmic treason...against a perfectly pure Sovereign.”[15] And cosmic treason against a perfectly pure Sovereign calls for cosmic and perfectly pure retribution. But what exactly would such retribution entail? We already know Universalism considers the doctrine of eternal punishment to be grossly disproportionate.  In our modern legal system there are maximum and minimum sentencing requirements which have been lawfully established to prevent a judge from arbitrarily and disproportionately sentencing jaywalkers to life sentences in prison and assigning serial killers to nine months of community service. Thus, a criminal who spent three years robbing banks should not be sentenced to death, let alone be sentenced to spend eternity in eternal punishment. Since sin is committed in time, then the punishment should reflect this. There is a point at which even the worst sinner has ‘been in hell long enough’ to quantitatively satisfy God’s justice. He’s been purged, served his time and paid God back. He should be allowed to enter the kingdom of God. The Bible certainly teaches that just punishment should be proportionate to the crime (Deut. 25:1-3), but the Universalist’s idea of what would be fair punishment is affected by their minimalistic view of sin. Here are two factors that contribute to this minimization.

i. Universalism does violence to the holiness of God. Universalism focuses heavily on God’s love coupled with God’s power but at the expense of God’s holiness. On Brett’s website, he argues for universal salvation on the basis of God’s character which he lists as follows: “God is Merciful and Compassionate; God's Wrath is Temporary; God is Trustworthy, Reliable and Good; The Forgiveness of God; God is Just.”[16]  “Holiness” is noticeably absent despite the fact that the holiness of God is one of the more dominant characteristics of God we find in scripture. Sure, he mentions “wrath” and “justice” but his understanding of these are flawed due to his separation of God’s holiness from his love among his other attributes. Without holiness, “his patience would be an indulgence to sin, his mercy a fondness, his wrath a madness, his power a tyranny, his wisdom an unworthy subtlety.”[17] The exclusion of God’s holiness is a recurring problem in Universalistic teachings which is deeply problematic as Theologian John Frame explains:

“...the defining or essential attributes of God should not be considered parts of him, but rather are perspectives on his whole being, that is, his essence. [...] Each attribute describes God’s entire complexity, not just a part of it. So no attribute is separable from the others.”[18]

It is fascinating that at the end of the article, Brett invites the reader to “Consider deeply.  Who is God?  What is He like?”[19] The only way we can do this is by looking at ALL of the data we find in scripture, not just the selective parts.  We cannot deeply consider God’s mercy, love, justice or goodness apart from a deep consideration of his holiness.  It is only when the holiness of God is deeply considered that sin is seen for what it truly is and what it deserves. Furthermore, his love is seen as holy and his goodness is seen as holy. Ultimately, every sin is judged against the bar of God’s holiness as theologian John Murray said, “wrath against sin is the correlate of his holiness.”[20] Octavius Windslow described God’s judgments as “His holiness in dreadful exercise.”[21] But what are we to understand by the term “holy”?

“[It is a] biblical term generally meaning “to be set apart.” The term is used widely in Scripture to refer to a variety of people and objects alike but ultimately points to God as the one who is qualitatively different or set apart from creation. Holy may also be used to describe someone or something that God has “set apart” for special purposes. In the (New Testament], holiness takes on the sense of ethical purity or freedom from sin. The fullness of the biblical witness, then, testifies to God’s holiness, understood as God’s “otherness” and “purity,” as well as to God’s prerogative to set people and things apart for God’s own purposes, together with the resulting godliness in the lives of those whom God declares to be holy.”[22]

R.C. Sproul describes God’s holiness this way: “When the Bible calls God holy, it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost totally foreign to us.”[23] The Prophet Isaiah provides for us a biblical example of what happens when a sinful man encounters the holiness of God. He was for the most part a decedent, God-fearing man. He was the Lord’s prophet! Yet when he saw the Lord in a vision he was utterly traumatized. It was in this moment that Isaiah was confronted with the foreignness of God, the heinousness of his sin and what his sin deserved.

“I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”” (Isaiah 6:1–5, ESV)

What did Isaiah learn that day? Not that “love, love, love is the Lord of hosts”, but holy, holy, holy! And he learned that his sin, minor by comparison to many others in Judah at that time, still warranted his utter demise and doom which is what all sin deserves. And any claim to the contrary does not hold to a biblical view of sin or of the holiness of God.

ii. When Adam sinned, he was exiled from the garden and from the presence of God. This was not for a season. It was not a cosmic “time-out” where God would let him back in once a proportionate amount of time passed. This was perpetual and unending apart from a significant change in mankind’s condition and status. The Universalist will no doubt say, “But the cross is what allows us to return!” Yes, but without the cross the Universalist must admit that apart from the cross, this was irreversible, proportionate to the crime and entirely deserved. Mankind had committed high treason against the Holy One and lost the right to be near to him and consequently lost the right to live forever (Gen. 4:22).

When the New Testament writers speak about eternal or everlasting punishment, they are building upon this original banishment from Eden which plunged humanity into a state of sin and misery.  The good news of Jesus Christ is that he has made a way for those who are in Adam, and under his curse to escape it and return (1 Cor. 15:22). But this door of opportunity shuts at death. For those who remain in Adam remain under the curse of Adam’s sin: “You shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). This is the “second death” (Rev. 21:8). But those who are in Christ (and ONLY those in Christ) will be given eternal life and granted the right once again to eat of that tree and live forever with the Lord (Rom. 5:16-17; Rev. 22:14). Heitt’s reference to 1 Corinthians 15:22 means the opposite of what he thinks it means.[24] We are either in Adam or in Christ. Those in Adam remain under the curse and remain exiled. Those in Christ, the second Adam, live forever. That is how the New Testament repeatedly describes the two possible roads that any human is on at present.  This is why eternal punishment is entirely just. All are under this sentence unless they are brought from death to life (Rom. 6:13, 1 John 3:14).

3. Christian Universalism distorts the Goodness (and consequently the love) of God

I have already mentioned Universalism’s exclusive focus on God’s love at the expense of God’s holiness. By this I do not mean that Universalists focus on God’s love too much. I really don’t think this is possible. What I mean is they have the wrong idea about his love. And it is upon this wrong idea about God’s love that Universalism stands. This wrong idea of his love is based on a wrong idea of his goodness. “If God is all-knowing and all-powerful and does not save all, then God is not all-good. The logic of this statement is hard to avoid, and it exposes a deep problem which faces Western Christianity.”[25] 

While this may be a “valid” argument, this does not make it true. Anyone who has studied logic knows that even a false premise can be formulated into a valid logical argument.  In this case, the logic is based on a faulty and unbiblical premise of God’s goodness. Universalists limit God’s goodness to his kindness, love, mercy and grace. It never includes his holy wrath or anger against sin which the Bible tells us are also manifestations of his goodness. For example, Moses had an encounter with the Lord’s goodness that would have killed him had God not graciously intervened.

“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:19–23)

This shows that the goodness of God is so incredibly severe and intense that it is hazardous to sinful human beings. God had to hide Moses in the cleft in the rock and cover it to prevent him from perishing at the sight of God’s goodness. Here’s the interesting irony: if God had allowed Moses to look directly into the brightness of his goodness, and Moses perished, it would not mean God was not good. It would actually prove he was good and prove Moses was not good. But at the same time, God’s goodness protected Moses from God’s goodness! To again refer to the story of creation and the fall, if God had never decided to create, his goodness would not be diminished in any way. If he had decided to wipe out Adam and Eve, even destroying their souls (Matt. 10:28), his goodness would have remained intact. What this means is God is good either way: whether God is condemning sinners or saving them from condemnation, God is displaying the fullness of his goodness. When those who commit terrible crimes are arrested, convicted and sentenced we call that good. We rejoice justice has been upheld and believe such justice is necessary.  Likewise, the idea that God could condemn anyone to an eternity of hell does not diminish his goodness, it is actually one of the many ways his goodness is proven. Furthermore, this shows that universalists hold to a shallow and sentimental view of God’s goodness which is much greater, deeper and complex than Universalist’s are prepared to admit.

This deeply flawed view of God’s goodness trickles down to a flawed view of God’s love. The argument goes something like this: Because God is love, he cannot send people into eternal torment for this would not be love. A God who loves is a God who saves, and if he loves everyone then he will save everyone. Without a doubt, “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) In fact he has always been “love” even from eternity past before anything was created. This will be true in eternity future. If God had decided not to create mankind, the saying would still be just as true: “God is love.”

But Universalism’s insistence that God’s love necessitates the salvation of all requires one to also believe that without mankind, God wouldn’t be love. This means he needs mankind to love in order to be love. If he does not love mankind then he’s not a God of love which means he had to create out of need. This assaults and blasphemes God’s character and nature for it cannot speak about God without some reference to mankind which exposes another problem. It shows Universalists have borrowed from the gnostics who believed every person is part of the divine nature. “I cannot finally be damned because I am part and parcel with God.”[26] Mankind came about due to a fracture or shattering within the being of God. Each individual person is a shard (or an aeon or emanation) of the divine which has been separated or alienated from God. The cross is God’s plan to reunite every shard to himself.  This view brings God down to be less than what he truly is and raises man up to be more than what he truly is. It erases the distinction between the Creator and Creation which we find in Scripture (Ps. 100:3, 139:14; Is. 40:28, 44:6-8) which degrades God’s goodness and love. But the God we meet in scripture needs no one and is not obligated to anyone. From eternity past, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit enjoyed an inter-Trinitarian love within himself. God is self-relational and self-sufficient. God was content, needed nothing, and no one.

The Universalist may be inclined to respond saying even if this is all admitted, it does not change the fact that God loves everybody as John 3:16 plainly states: God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son. But what is meant here by “world” and in what sense did God love it? D.A. Carson explains;

In John 3:16 God’s love in sending the Lord Jesus is to be admired not because it is extended to so big a thing as the world, but to so bad a thing; not to so many people, as to such wicked people. Nevertheless elsewhere John can speak of “the whole world” (1 John 2:2), thus bringing bigness and badness together. More importantly, in Johannine theology the disciples themselves once belonged to the world but were drawn out of it (e.g., John 15:19). On this axis, God’s love for the world cannot be collapsed into his love for the elect.”[27]

Universalism cannot see how God can love in different ways and degrees, despite the fact that human love can vary in these ways. To elaborate, the love a man is to have for his wife is to be greater than his love for his children. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25). Nowhere are parents told to love their children in this way. We are told “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all of your soul and with all of your mind” (Matt. 22:37). We are also told to love our neighbor, but the degree of this love is different: we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:39). Likewise, the inter-Trinitarian love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is greater than God’s love for the world as stated in John 3:16. In fact, it is because of this inter-Trinitarian love that love for the “world” is even possible.

Certainly it is true God does love those who hate him as Jesus explained in the Sermon on the Mount.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44–45). The point here is that when believers show love for those who persecute them, they are reflecting God’s goodness back to their enemies, for this is what God does. He causes rain to fall on the fields of the just and the unjust. He is good toward all he has made (Psalm 145:9), and this either leaves them without excuse for their unbelief (Rom. 1:20) or leads them to repentance (Rom. 2:4). We should not take John 3:16 to mean God plans to save every person, as the rest of the verse says: “Whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” The offer of salvation is made to the world, but only those who believe or have faith in the Son receive the gift of everlasting life, and only those who have been appointed unto eternal life come to faith (Acts 13:48).

4. Christian Universalism Redefines Faith

According to Christian Universalism, those who perish without faith in Jesus Christ will be given opportunities after death to put their faith in Christ.

It seems that one of the main objections to the notion that God will ultimately save all people stems from a misunderstanding of the word “faith.” I say this because some people seem to think that the salvation of all people negates the importance of faith for salvation. This is not the case. The argument is not that faith is no longer needed, but rather that all people will come to faith as God draws them to Himself. You see, faith is trust in God. And when the Bible repeats God’s promise that “every knee will bow and every tongue confess” that “‘in the Lord alone are deliverance and strength,” we see that all will have faith.”[28]

Again, we see that Christian Universalism is forced to redefine biblical words for its system to “work”. According to Hebrews 11, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Notice that faith is connected to hope which is also “unseen.”  “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (Romans 8:24–25). Indeed, we do not hope for things we already possess, or things we see are there. Rather we hope for what is yet to come which is unseen. That is the essence of faith: “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). This is the point which the author of Hebrews makes repeatedly in Hebrews 11, that the Old Testament believers walked by faith and lived by faith (Heb. 10:38),  yet these saints “all died in faith, not having received the things promised…” (Hebrews 11:13).  

Thus the Biblical understanding of “faith” is assigned to this life and is the means by which we apprehend the promises of the life to come. Once we pass from this life, as Horatio Spafford put it,  “faith shall be sight.” Faith will be no more. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12, ESV). Yet, it is clear that faith is necessary for receiving the salvation and eternal life promised in Christ Jesus. “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). The reward of forgiveness of sins and life everlasting is given to those who diligently sought Christ in this life, longed for his appearing and died possessing faith in Jesus Christ.

This same truth applies to the second coming of Christ. When Christ breaks through the clouds in glory, faith will give way to sight. Those who have believed will marvel at him at his appearing because they believed (2 Thess. 1:10). They will be gathered to him (2 Thess. 2:1) and will appear with him in glory (Col. 3:4). But those who did not believe will not marvel in this way but will mourn or wail when they see him in his glory.

“Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.”  (Revelation 1:7)

“Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”” (Revelation 6:15–17)

While it is true that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, not every knee and tongue will do so with gladness and delight as Revelation 1 and 6 reveal.[29] There is a finality being described in these passages. Those who mourn and cry out to be hidden fully see the Lord Jesus in all of his glory. If there was a moment for them to repent this was it. But there is no humility, no change of heart, and no repentance.

5. Christian Universalism Undermines the Biblical Doctrine of Adoption

Another argument made by universalists for the salvation of all has to do with the Fatherhood of God. This is not merely a technicality for it has direct bearing on how we understand the New Testament doctrine of adoption which is critical to the gospel. Brett quotes Malachi on his webpage which says, “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?” (Malachi 2:10, ESV). He then offers the following interpretation and application:

It is clear that this is referring to everyone because Malachi expounds on the idea, tying the fact that He created us to his Fatherhood. All of humanity was created by God. Therefore He is the Father of us all…With this in mind, it is wholly unreasonable to say that our Father will torment His children endlessly in hell. This is not how He characterizes Himself. Far be it from us to impose such a doctrine on Him. Any earthly father who vengefully tortures his children is rightly deemed an immoral monster. ”[30] 

The error Brett makes here (as do all Universalists who argue this point) is he removes these verses out of their context. Malachi was writing to and speaking about Jews, not to everyone in the world as he claims. The “Fatherhood” of God was being appealed to on the basis of the covenant relationship with God. This is a redemptive category, and can only be considered a creation category pre-fall (Luke 3:38). After the fall the status of the relationship became hostile  (Col. 1:21). We were God’s enemies, not his children. (Rom. 5:10)

...remember that you [Gentiles] were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:12–13, ESV)

“At that time”, means prior to their conversion. At that time they had no hope. They were without God, without a heavenly Father, without a Savior. In other words, they were not children of God but children of the devil. It is not until God sends the Spirit of his Son into the heart that anyone can legitimately cry “Abba, Father.” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6) Consider what Jesus said during his confrontation with the Jews who claimed God was their Father, but refused to believe in him.

Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:42–44, ESV)

The universalist no doubt will point to passages that say otherwise.  Acts 17:28, for example, which says, “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “ ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’” Paul is using words from Epimenides of Crete and the Greek poet Aratus to build a gospel bridge to the people of Athens.

The Athenians divided the people of the world into two classes: the Greeks and the barbarians. Everyone not born in Greece was considered a barbarian. Paul challenges this theory by focusing attention on the origin of man. Without mentioning his source, he teaches the creation account of “Genesis states that God is man’s creator (Gen. 2:7). Furthermore, out of one man, Adam, God made every nation on this earth. God purposed to have the entire globe inhabited by the various nations that originated from this one man (Gen. 1:28; 9:1; 11:8–9). This means that the human race is integrally related as its members populate the entire earth (compare Mal. 2:10). Because of his common origin, a Jew ought not to despise a Gentile and an Athenian philosopher ought not to loathe a Jew. God, who created humanity, governs and provides for it. For that reason, man has to acknowledge him as Creator and Lord.”[31]

The point is simply that this God Paul proclaims made everything and holds everything together. He is the Creator and Sustainer of all life and being. This was in stark contrast to the gods of the Greeks and Romans. This meant only the God who made them was worthy of being worshiped. Another is Ephesians 3:14–15, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named”. This passage has puzzled translators and commentators for some time as it could mean the same as Acts 17:28. But because Paul is speaking to believers in this context, it is more likely he is referring to the family of believers who are in heaven and on earth: those who have already died and are present with the Lord, and those who remain here on earth[32] (Heb. 12:23). To argue against eternal punishment on the basis that all mankind are presently children of God overlooks what it cost God’s one and only Son to secure this adopted status for all who believe in him.

6. Christian Universalism Diminishes Evangelism

The New Testament presents this matter of Evangelism as one that is urgent and should be made a priority. Consider Paul’s own anguish over the unbelief of his fellow Jews, even expressing a willingness to trade places with them. “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:2–3, ESV).

“For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18–19, ESV).

Paul devoted his entire life proclaiming Christ crucified and risen throughout the Roman world. He gladly endured many hardships along the way because he believed it was absolutely necessary that the gospel spread to the nations. “For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16, ESV). “[We] are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore[33] you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20, ESV). This same urgency is seen in the other Apostles, John the Baptist, and our Lord Jesus because of what is at stake.

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:34–37, ESV).

Jesus is warning his hearers of what is at stake if they do not heed his call to follow him: They lose everything and have no hope of recovery. They have forfeited their souls! Jesus essentially holds out two ways to live: save your life now and lose it in the next, or lose your life now and save it in the next. But this urgent warning is weakened if universalism is true. J.I. Packer agrees: “If everyone’s final salvation is guaranteed anyhow, whether or not people become Christians in this life is no longer crucial.” [34]

Summary and Final Thoughts

Unless God’s holiness is carefully and fully considered, sin will be minimized. As long as sin is minimized, eternal punishment will never make sense. And it is only when we understand the significance and severity of our sinful state and what is eternally at stake that the gospel comes to us as good news. When these biblical factors are excluded, the message becomes “another gospel” which promotes a dangerous and false hope. Paul had this to say about those who preach a false gospel: “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9). The word “accursed” (‘anathema’ in Greek) means to be delivered up to the judicial wrath and curse of God.[35] Paul repeats the warning in this verse to stress the seriousness of the matter. The reason why is because a false gospel leaves people under God’s wrath and sends people to hell. It misleads and deceives which is simply put, the work of the devil. But if Universalism is correct and that wrath is only for a season, Paul’s warning is disproportionate and unwarranted. His zeal for the gospel and evangelization of the nations is misplaced since heaven is in everyone’s future regardless of what decisions they make in this life. Pascal's wager is very applicable here: if Universalists are right, then little to nothing is lost. If universalists are wrong, the loss will likely be catastrophic not only for those they misled, but for themselves since those who teach will give an account of what they have taught (Matt. 12:36, James 3:1).

I have no doubt that many who do teach such things have good intentions and strongly believe they are vindicating God’s reputation. They want people to know his love and grace and believe teachings of eternal punishment are a turn-off to unbelievers. They do not want God to appear to be a monster. But I submit that they have only traded one monster for another. Universalists such as Heitt and Brett still believe that there is a period of judgment which is meant to reveal the love of God and purify the person. But what this amounts to is a god who tortures people until they agree to love him and to receive his love. I personally do not find this version of God and judgment to be more appealing in any way. In fact, what is considered appealing is irrelevant. All that matters is what is true and what Christian Universalism promotes is most certainly not true.

Then why is it so appealing to so many? I can only offer theories. I can see how someone who lacks assurance of salvation might come to see Universalism as a comfort. I can also see how someone who is hardened in sin could find this perspective attractive. In essence, it allows for someone to continue in sin and unbelief and offers false assurance and hope. And this is why it is so dangerous and contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ.


[1] Morgan, Christopher and Peterson, Robert “Hell Under Fire (Zondervan Academic, 2004)

[2] Any reference to “Universalism” or “Universalist”, I make should be understood to refer to “Christian” Universalism/Universalists.

[3] https://relentless-love.org/conversations/are-you-a-universalist/

[4] Heitt, Peter, https://www.relentless-love.org/articles/my-theological-journey-in-part-and-so-far/

[5] Ramelli, Illaria; Konstan David, Terms for eternity: Aiônios and aídios in classical and Christian texts. Gorgias Press, 2013. p.238

[6] Wenham, "The Case for Conditional Immortality," p. 189

[7] David L. Edwards and John R.W. Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 314.

[8] Ferguson, Sinclair “Hell Under Fire” (Zondervan Academic, 2004)

[9] McClymond, Michael “The Devil’s Redemption”, (2018: Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic)  p.23

[10] Heitt, https://relentless-love.org/articles/introduction-theology-relentless-love/

[12] Heitt, https://relentless-love.org/articles/all-things-new/ (Comments on 1 Cor. 15:22)

[13] McClymond, Michael “The Devil’s Redemption”, (2018: Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic)  p.22

[14] Talbot, Mark  “The Morality of Everlasting Punishment” http://reformedperspectives.org (Vol. 11, No. 31, Aug. 2009)

[15] Sproul, R.C. “The Holiness of God” (Tyndale, 1985; 1998) p.115

[16] “Brett” https://salvationforall.org/2_Is_Salvation_For_All_Biblical/5_argument_characterofGod.html

[17] Charnock, Stephen. The Existence and Attributes of God

[18] Frame, John M. “The Doctrine of God” (P&R Publishing, 2002) p.388

[19] “Brett” https://salvationforall.org/2_Is_Salvation_For_All_Biblical/5_argument_characterofGod.html

[20] Murray, John “Collected Writings Vol. 2” (Banner of Truth, 1977), p.81

[21] Winslow, Octavius. The Attributes Of God: Our God (The Knowledge Of The Holy) .

[22]  Grenz, S., Guretzki, D., & Nordling, C. F. (1999). Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (p. 60). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[23] Sproul, R. C.. “The Holiness of God” (Tyndale, 1985; 1998) p.38.

[24] Heitt, https://relentless-love.org/articles/all-things-new/

[25] Artman, David “The Necessity of Christian Universalism” Grace Saves All (Podcast)

[26] McClymond, Michael “The Devil’s Redemption”, (2018: Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic)  p.1026

[27] Carson, D.A. “The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God” (2000: Wheaton, IL, Crossway) p.17

[28] Brett, https://salvationforall.org/6_Philosophy/9-what-is-faith.html 

[29] The language in Philippians 2 of every knee bowing, etc. is also found in Isaiah 45:23-25. There a distinction is made between those who were incensed against the Lord and those who were counted as his people. All bow and confess, but one group is justified and glorified. The other is “coerced into submission…” (McClymond, p.963).

[30] https://salvationforall.org/5_Biblical_Judgment/2_Fatherly_justice.html

[31]  Kistemaker, S. J. Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Vol. 17, p. 634). Baker Book House.

[32] Sproul, R. C. (1994). The Purpose of God: Ephesians (p. 83). Christian Focus Publications.

[33] Paul is earnestly begging and pleading.

[34] Packer, J.I., Zondervan,. Hell Under Fire . Zondervan Academic.

[35] G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. 1). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. p. 354