The essay you are about to read is my summary of a two volume 1,200 page book called The Devils Redemption by Dr Michael McClymond that I recently bought. Reading it was like entering Alice’s rabbit hole where ideas, history and theological concepts got curiouser and curiouser. I had only come across the Universalist concepts it discussed some weeks earlier, but they popped up three times in a short space of time, so I knew there must be a lot of Christians that were already down this theological rabbit hole and I needed to get to the bottom of it. I trust this essay has done Mclymond’s book justice and that any Christian who has dabbled with Universalist ideas will give it due consideration.
1. UNIVERSALISM’S HISTORY
Have any of your evangelical Christian friends recently told you that they no longer believe that hell exists and the sheer love of God will invite all humanity to heaven. Or perhaps you have been told that hell is only for a certain period, after which the fantastic love of God will bring everyone home to the father?
If you haven’t heard of these ideas yet then it won’t be long until either one of these new theological opinions pops up. They are currently crashing into Western Christian consciousness like an ideological tsunami. The term for this theological position is Christian Universalism. It’s the belief that salvation is ultimately universal to all humankind, that in the end it’s the Father’s will that all humanity joins him in heaven regardless of whether we have accepted Jesus’ offer of salvation in this life or not.
The tipping point for this ideological tsunami was in 2011 when Rob Bell’s Universalist book, Love Wins, became a New York Times bestseller and led to a Time Magazine front cover story. Rob Bell was an American evangelical mega-church pastor and responsible for a hugely popular video series called Nooma. Rob lost his job because of his book, but he is still writing and more popular than ever. He is the pointy end of a much bigger and fast-growing movement. The Devil’s Redemption documents over 30 other Christian Universalist books written just since the year 2000 and says the pace is increasing. I found three of them in my local Christian bookshop last week. Universalist websites are also flourishing. A 2011 Barna Group survey of evangelicals found that some 25% agreed with Rob Bell’s position that all people are eventually saved or accepted by God. It’s obviously what the Western church wants to believe and reflects the inclusive, super-tolerant spirit of our Post-Christian culture.
However, American evangelicals have come late to the Universalist party. Across the Atlantic the famous English evangelical theologian John Scott had already adopted Universalism in the 1990’s. Before that Universalism had been hotly debated inside the ranks of the theological elite of the Anglican Church for decades. Not surprisingly many mainland European liberal Protestant theologians made peace with the doctrine generations ago. Highly significant in their theological evolution was the influence of the German Lutheran scholar Karl Barth who, though not a confessing Universalist, left the door wide open to Universalism in his writings. Universalism has even been growing in influence inside the Catholic Church since the 1960’s and now challenges the long-held belief that only those of the Catholic Communion will enter heaven. Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar are the two theologians most responsible for this rupture with the Catholic tradition. So how far back does this teaching actually go?
A forgotten fact is that in the middle to late 19th Century the Universalist Church of America was that the USA’s sixth largest Protestant denomination due largely to the theological writings of earlier English Universalists. Around the same time there were Universalist theologians with some influence in Russia such as Vladimir Solovyov and Nicolas Berdyaev. In the 18th Century most French philosophers had unsurprisingly already abandoned the concept of hell. In the early 17th Century Universalism lived and prospered on the fringes of Luther’s Germany in the mystical teachings of Jakob Bohme. Bohme has had an outsized influence on Western history as his teachings significantly influenced the famous philosopher Friedrich Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche, from him they impacted such diverse characters as Karl Marx and the founder of the Quakers George Fox. If we go back in time from Jakob Bohme we can trace a clear and direct line of Universalist writings through the Medieval Jewish Kabbalistic scholars to the doorstep of the 3rd Century Christian theologian Origen (185-253AD).
Origen was an intellectual giant in the early church and helped crystalize several of today’s doctrines in an era when many were still fluid. However, in his First Principles he left us with some teachings that have created great confusion ever since. He taught that all souls, both human and angelic, had a pre-existence in heaven in perfect unity with God before a great cosmic division took place within God. He also taught that these human souls descend to earth at birth and that eventually all humans and angelic beings, including Satan and the demons, will need to re-ascend to heaven in a great cycle of universal restoration. Origen also boldly taught the very common Greek belief of the times that both angelic beings and humans must go through many cycles of birth and re-birth in which they might advance higher or sink lower. This was to give them as much time as needed to reunite with God. He thus believed that universal salvation is the logical outcome of a grand cosmological vision; that the end of the universe will eventually be like its beginning. He taught that free intelligent beings might go astray but not permanently, and that Gods judgements are always restorative, not retributive. To justify these Universalist claims Origen also taught that if a passage in scripture conflicts with a “known” attribute of God then the passage must be read spiritually or non-literally. This is how he put aside Biblical passages concerning God’s justice and judgement that he thought contradicted God’s loving character.
A great many of these teachings would turn up again and again in Universalist books from the 4th Century right down to the very present day. However, these bold ideas obviously did not originate in the Christian scriptures and they did not pop out of a vacuum. So where did Origen get them? Origen was in fact introducing to the wider Church some of the teachings of Christian Gnosticism, a now increasingly understood group of religious traditions that took many existing Greek philosophical ideas, especially Plato’s, and blended them with the fast-growing Christian religion of the Roman era. In fact Paul attacks proto-gnostic teachings in chapter two of his letter to the Colossians and addresses the infiltration of Greek “wisdom” again at great length in 1 Corinthians 1:20-2:16. Greek thinking infiltrated the Christian faith very, very early.
Christian Gnostic teachings acknowledged a singular but unknowable God, a similar being to the divine pleroma of the Greeks, who concentrically self-generated inferior gods that made up the trinity. Then came a cosmic crisis within the pleroma/trinity caused by the fall of one of these inferior gods called Sophia. Sophia was the Greek feminised and personified term commonly used for knowledge and wisdom. It’s where we get English words like sophisticated, Homo Sapien and philosophy. This Greek concept of wisdom and knowledge as a woman is also alluded to in Proverbs 8. The notion of wisdom as a woman is rooted very deep in ancient history.
Christian Gnosticism incorporated Sophia as the female twin of Jesus, the bride of Christ, the Holy Spirit or the Logos. She was the lowest form of the divine trinity and somehow fell away, creating the material world in the process but leaving a divine spark in every one of us. Christ was then sent from God to bring humanity the knowledge, or the gnosis, to help rescue all humanity with its divine spark from the evil material world and bring us all back to the pure spiritual world.
Importantly, Gnosticism always considered the story of the cross as allegorical, not historical. Rather. It was that story’s unveiling of secret knowledge (gnosis) and our growth into that secret knowledge that brought us back to God. This is the heart of Gnosticism: Perfection, corruption and eventual perfection through knowledge: Thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Sophia is restored; knowledge (love) wins. Elements of this gnostic teaching can even be seen in the Qur’an with its original single unknowable god, a perfect world corrupted, rejection of the cross as true history, Islam’s concept of the pre-Islamic age of ignorance and the unveiling of secret knowledge via Muhammad that leads us back to God.
So the Christian Universalist trail is long and historically deep. Yet it has always been a fringe doctrine, condemned by the vast majority of church leaders and theologians throughout the last two millennia. The newest generation of Western evangelical Universalists make the claim that they are as orthodox as other Christians who reject Universalism, and that their views on universal salvation changes nothing about Christ’s mission, the cross, free will or demons. Rather, they say it more fully reflects the nature of God as loving, not a severe judgemental tyrant, as so often depicted by fiery fundamentalist preachers or the Old Testament itself. So which camp is right?
2. WHICH UNIVERSALISM?
It is important to note that when discussing Christian Universalism we are actually talking about a cluster of different theologies rather than a single coherent doctrine. There are two main competing groups within the Universalist theological camp, with a third off to the side. The first group, which grew out of Origen’s teachings and ancient Gnosticism, completely rejects hell. The second, which includes many recent evangelical Universalists, holds to the belief in a hell of a limited duration, similar to Catholic belief in purgatory. Over the many centuries there has been little or no reconciliation between these two groups because, as you can see, their positions are completely at odds with each other.
First, the no hell group. Some of these Universalists teach that only beyond the point of death can a person fully and deliberately respond to the offer of salvation without all its earthly cultural baggage and stigma. At that all people will obviously respond positively. This neatly negates the need for hell. Yet others teach that Christs atoning sacrifice automatically embraces all humanity for every period in human history. In other words, universal salvation regardless of personal response to Christ in this life or just after. Others say that because we have the divine spark of the image of God within all of us, by default we could never be eternally separated from our loving heavenly Father. It would entail God cutting off something of himself. Most will say that the true Universalist message of Jesus has been corrupted into elitism where only a select few get to go to heaven.
Intriguingly, when closely examined, most authors in the no hell group write about a distinct personal or moral disgust at the very concept of hell, and see an eternal punishment for a few decades of sin as inherently unfair and vindictive. This justification is often summarised as: A God of love would never do such a thing because most of us who do bad things are victims of our circumstances. Or, the punishment must fit the crime; eternal hell for temporal sin does not, but Christ’s perfect eternal sacrifice does. They are grappling with the age-old issue of evil and many, such as Origen, had experienced evil or suffering first-hand which sharpened their intellectual and moral interest in the topic of eternal destiny.
Now for the second group. These purgatorial Universalists believe that hell is real and purgatory is the realm where Christ’s all-important atonement will be finally and fully understood by those who either did not get to hear about it on earth, or who deliberately rejected it. They often claim that the fire of hell is a positive cleansing process that refines and purifies those who suffer there, eventually releasing them from hells grip. Many also adhere to the traditional Catholic belief that one’s degree of rebellion on earth will determine their time in hell, or alternatively the level of punishment while there. Purgatorial Universalists emerged in Britain in the mid 1800’s just as criminal theory shifted from retribution to reformation and calls to ban capital punishment grew louder. Hence hell was seen by many Portestants as something that should be reformatory for the human soul. Purgatorial Universalists also dominate the list of recent American evangelical Universalist authors because this position is much closer to the Bible’s original teaching, but with a “tiny” tweak justified by several proof texts that we will examine shortly.
Now just to muddy the theological waters a little more, a word or two about that third group off to one side. While the Evangelical Alliance of Britain still does not support Universalism, they published a document in 2000 called The Nature of Hell that endorsed the concept of conditionalism as a valid Christian position. Conditionalism is the idea that souls not connected to Christ will somehow fade away or be gently annihilated after death. John Stott and the Church of England have gone further and have fully embraced this teaching. Significantly, this view has never gained a foothold with most Protestants or the Catholic Church. However, it is actually a core doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
3. PRESUPPOSITIONS OF UNIVERSALISM
To fully understand any belief system you must dig down to its presuppositions; what it believes to be the ultimate unprovable truth that is taken for granted lying at the base of all its other truth claims. All worldviews have them. In the case of Christianity these presuppositions usually come from scripture. However, in the case of Universalism there is only little in scripture to back the case for the absence of eternal hell or purgatory, so its presuppositions generally come from other sources, as you can already see from the discussion above. These foundational presuppositions of Universalism primarily concern the character of God and the nature of humanity. These then logically cascade into a rejection of hell or an eternal judgement.
Universalists start with the premise that God is love and use this premise to quickly conclude that this has to result in salvation for all. They ultimately believe that because God is both all-powerful and all-loving, he is also all-forgiving. They believe that God is fair, so finite sin will in the end be met with finite judgement, or none at all. They believe that a loving God would never establish a place of eternal vindictive retribution for humanity. Some believe that God is somehow already in relationship with all humanity through our very existence, and this relationship supersedes the cross. Others believe that God is incomplete without bringing us all home because he is not separate from his creation but is actually inside creation itself, thus God is the sum of all things and subject to the laws he set up for creation.
Universalists also hold that humans are somehow deserving of God’s love, regardless of how we have lived our lives on earth. Many Universalists will see human sin as a result of terrible childhoods, ignorance, substance abuse or a hundred other external forces operating on us. We are therefore victims of evil rather than rebel perpetrators of evil. Other Universalists hold that because we were made in God’s image and the pinnacle of all creation, we therefore hold a spark of the divine within us which destines us for heaven. This is the logical extension of the above belief that God is inside his creation rather than separate to it.
Both of these presuppositions are slightly different to the majority teaching of scripture and conveniently disregard so much of the Bible that talks about the utter holiness of God or the depravity of humanity. But there are actually a few verses that lend credence to their views.
4. UNIVERSALISM’S PROOF TEXTS
Several principles must always be used when interpreting scripture, especially the New Testament. First: We must acknowledge that we are second-hand readers. All the original texts of the New Testament were documents directed to real people in the 1st Century who were dealing with both the cultural and spiritual aspects of recently coming into God’s expanding kingdom while living in a hostile social environment. Second: When reading scripture we must always look at the bigger picture and resist taking a single verse and remove it from its context, or worse, cutting and pasting several of these together into a neat doctrine. There were no chapters and verses in these original letters. They came much later. It is wise not to use them too liberally, if at all. Third: When we think we have found a nugget of truth we must check it against all other teachings in that document to see if it agrees or disagrees with the broader wisdom of both the Old and New Testaments.
Universalists typically take small sections of the New Testament writings and stretch them far beyond their intended meaning, context and purpose. I will now go through as many of their proof texts as I could find and highlight the phrases that can be seen as supporting Universalism. Underneath I have responded to each proof-text.
Romans 5:12-21 was the core of Origin’s Universalist teaching. Here are the key statements that would seem to back the Universalist cause: just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people (v.18), where sin increased, grace increased all the more (v.20), sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness (v.19).
When you read the whole chapter, or all of Romans for that matter, you can see a bigger picture beyond these few verses. addition Romans 1 clearly and extensively discusses the fact of the judgement of God on an exceedingly sinful world. In Romans 5:1-2 Paul specifically says that justification and hence peace with God comes only by a faith response to God’s grace. No faith, no peace with God. It is within this context that we read about God’s gracious offer of salvation to all humanity later in verses 12-21. For the first time in history largely culturally Jewish churches were coming to realise the new revelation that salvation was now being offered to all the whole world as well as them. This was radical. This is the spirit of the book of Romans (Roman 3:21-26, 8:9) Paul was never talking about the universal salvation of all humanity without repentance and he specifically stated salvation can never come about by works (Romans 3:20), which is exactly what purgatory seems to be.
John 17:20-21: I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me
This is Jesus’ great prayer for his future church before he went to the cross. The all of them referred to here is speaking of unity only for those who will believe that are within his growing church and kingdom, not all humanity. The world referred to are outsiders from all parts of the globe who will see this unity and connectness to God and eventually come to faith in Jesus (Habakkuk 2:14, Isaiah 11:9, Psalm 2:8, Psalm 22:27, Isaiah 55:5, Matthew 6:10, Revelation 14:6). To imply the passage teaches universal salvation without the preaching of the Gospel and a repent response takes it out completely out of context.
1 Corinthians 15:22-28: For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive (v.22). Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power (v24). For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet (v25). so that God may be all in all (v28).
Once again we must put this passage in its context. The Corinthian church was drifting backwards inside an insidious host culture of lust, debauchery and Greek paganism. In several places Paul clearly teaches the opposite of Universalism: In 1 Corinthians 1:18 he says the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. In 1 Corinthians 1:20 to 2:16 he gives us a clear and monumental refutation of the Greek concept of salvation through human wisdom (Sophia). The whole emphasis of this passage is on the saving grace of Jesus Christ and nothing else, but especially not by wisdom. If Paul really believed we are all going to heaven he would not have written this passage. Again, in 1 Corinthians 5:12 it says that God will judge those outside the church. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 again clearly states that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God, and then lists several examples of such wrongdoings such as adultery, homosexuality, thieving, slandering and drunkenness. In chapter after chapter Paul admonishes the Corinthians to live a moral life far above the level they have come to accept as normal. If we all go to heaven anyway then why would Paul do or expect such change? Why would he spend all of 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 using the example of the judgement of the Israelites in the desert to warn the Corinthians of their own danger of eternal judgement if he knew there is no judgement? Above all, why would he have even bothered to preach the Gospel and start a church there (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)?
Paul opens chapter 15 by reinforcing again that by this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Only those believed the gospel and who hold firm will be saved. In light of all that has been said, verse 22 more correctly tells us that all those who are in Christ, and stay in Christ are the ones who will be made alive, not everyone on the planet who has ever lived!
Universalists would logically read verse 24 as a future spiritual state in heaven where all have come to Christ. However there is another way to read it and that involves the authority of Christ bringing globe-shattering change to our world, transforming it into his kingdom as he told us to pray in the Lords Prayer: A world where the mustard seed has become the biggest tree in the garden (Matthew 13:31-32), where the rock that hit Daniel’s visionary statue grows until it fill the whole earth (Daniel 2:31-35), where his kingdom covers the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14), and a world where all the nations have been discipled (Matthew 28:18-20). A planet where the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end (Isaiah 9:7). This is a more consistent reading of the passage, though one not very popular in Western churches as they are falling further and further in love with their secular post-Christian culture. Verse 28 therefore tells us that the final victory over Satan’s destructive plans for humanity will come to naught.
Ephesians 1:10: to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfilment, to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
Once again, looking at the wider context is dangerous for the Universalist interpretation of this verse. Either all of Ephesians is speaking about universal salvation, or none of it is. In Ephesians1:13 Paul says that his readers only came into their salvation when they believed the Gospel message. Their salvation did not occur outside this event. In Ephesians 2:1-10 Paul repeatedly states that we have been saved by God’s mercy and grace through faith and that outside of this grace there is only death and wrath. The rest of Ephesians does not concur with this one single proof text.
Understanding the concept of unity on earth is simple. The kingdom inaugurated by Christ will bring unity on earth because this is what Jesus asked us to pray: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). The message of liberation in Christ must go to every nation, tribe, language and people (Revelation 14:6). Bringing this unity to heaven as well could have something to do with the fact that the angels were not privy to Jesus’ mission to come to earth and die as an atoning sacrifice for his human subjects (1 Peter 1:12). The angels are on a learning curve as well as us.
But exactly what does Paul mean by the term heaven in this passage? This word has multiple meanings where it occurs elsewhere in Ephesians. In Ephesians 1:3 we are told that we, the church, are already in heavenly places. It is clear that from God’s perspective, there is no separation of earth from heaven as he says we are already there. In Ephesians 3:10 we are also told that God is making known his wisdom to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realm. In Ephesians 6:12 he again says that we fight against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. The use of the term heavenly when referring to Satan and the demons is different to its other uses, it is more in line with the words sky or high places. The demons were removed from God’s presence so are invisible spirits in our realm. This is why in Ephesians 2:2 Paul calls Satan the ruler of the kingdom of the air. To say that Ephesians 1:10 is preaching Universalism is clearly simplistic.
Ephesians 4:13: until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Little needs to be said as it has been said already. This statement comes at the end of a passage teaching the Ephesian church the function of the five-fold ministry gifts. His point was that if these gifts are working then there will be unity in the church, not the whole earth. The verse has nothing to do with such an inconsistent notion as universal salvation without repentance and turning from sin.
Philippians 2:9-10: Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Yes! Every angelic, human and demonic knee shall bow and confess Jesus is Lord. However, this does not mean they will be saved. It just says they will bow. Nowhere in scripture does it explicitly teach the salvation of demons or of all humans. So it cannot be assumed just because Christ’s sovereignity is acknowledged. Unfortunately Origen taught that it did, but scripture does not. This verse follows directly from a previous lengthy description of Christ’s humility into a sense of Christ’s supremacy and sovereignty, It does not elevate humans but Jesus.
Colossians 1:20: and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross
At first glance this passage seems to suggest universal reconciliation of all creation. However, the entire book reads differently. Colossae was a small Gentile market town in what is modern day Turkey. It is ironic that all of chapter two of Colossians highlights the creeping asceticism and ceremonialism, worship of angels, emphasis on visions, elevation of secret wisdom and adherence to dead religious festivals that were taking over that church. It actually points toward this church coming under the influence of an early from of Gnosticism mixed with extreme Judaism.
In addition, the verse used above as a Universalist proof text comes at the end of Colossians 1:15-20, a lengthy passage lauding the supremacy and divinity of Christ the creator. Paul was pointing his flock back to Jesus the solitary source of our reconciliation with heaven rather than human wisdom mentioned in chapter 2. In Colossians 1:23 Paul tells his readers that the very same reconciliation mentioned in verse 20 is conditional. Only if they continue in their faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel will their reconciliation be assured. This is the exact opposite of the Universalist message. So whatever was meant by the reconciliation of things in heaven to Jesus, it is clearly not telling us that the cross automatically brings every human on earth or every spiritual being in heaven back to God! The rest of this letter, and the New Testament as a whole, lines up nicely with Pauls emphasis on conditional salvation in verse 23. Colossians 1:20 cannot be decoupled from the wider message.
1 Timothy 4:10: That is why we labour and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, and especially of those who believe.
In 1 Timothy 4:1 Paul opens this section of his letter by saying that some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. If universal salvation is what Paul was really teaching then why would he have made this statement? This verse also suggests that Satan uses false teaching to deliberately thwart the purposes of God. Could it be that Universalism is one such teaching since it dilutes and destroys the fire of the Gospel within a few generations wherever it is taught? Concerning Jesus being the saviour of all people; this is the expanded vision of salvation and deliverance leaping from the nation of Israel to all humanity is in view here as was mentioned before several times. It is not talking about not universal salvation. The statement especially of those who believe implies that this segment of humanity have secured their salvation while others wait for their spiritual liberation.
Matthew 27:52-53: and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.
1 Peter 3:18-19: For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits, to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built
1 Peter 4:6: For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.
These three final passages are admittedly difficult to reconcile to any other New Testament passages. Universalists teach that they suggest Jesus went and preached the gospel in hell and released all the souls trapped there, and he may do so again in the future. However the passage in Matthew specifically says these people were already holy and came out of their graves, an event we can neither refute or credit. These were not souls still outside God’s kingdom. The references in 1 Peter is also past tense, specifically saying the people preached to were the disobedient long ago from the time of Noah, people who had never head of God’s grace. Whatever we make of these references it must be emphasised that in both texts the emphasis is on the past tense, not the future tense. Most Bible commentators simply ponder over why Peter wrote these two passages. Many facts will only become clear after we pass through the valley of death.
5. RESPONDING TO UNIVESALSIM
Responding to Universalism is relatively easy, as long as the person you are talking to accepts the Christian scriptures with their emphasis on the atonement of Christ as authoritative. If ones basis of authority is human-centric, philosophical, emotional, in non-biblical teachings, mystical experiences, and/or their concept of God is deeply influenced by modern popular culture, then the issue becomes much more problematic.
Universalism destroys the need for the Cross: The orthodox Gospel simply says that God became a human, came to earth on a mission of grace and died on a real cross to pay the complete price for our alienation from God. In response to this offer it then says that only through individual faith-filled repentance is there a guarantee of salvation. It says nothing of a second chance, or of the non-existence of hell, or of temporary hell. Why?
Universalism is wishful thinking that neglects the messy incarnation and substitutionary atoning death of Christ and then also negates human free will. It forgets that Christ himself had to actually appeal to sinners to follow him through their own free will. He never once forced them or said that one day they would all join him in heaven. There was no message of universal salvation in any of his discourses. Christian Universalism takes the beginning and the end of John 3:16, and creates the following new message:
God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son so that everyone has eternal life.
It deletes the all-important phrase that whoever believes in him which occupies the middle of the original message. This is why most Universalists in 19th Century America eventually became Unitarians, as they ultimately and logically denied the need for Christ’s substitutionary atonement, and also forget about the need for a human free-will response to God’s offer of grace. No matter which message you preach; that there is no hell or that hell is temporary, most people will respond the same…Then let’s eat, drink and be merry because we eventually go to heaven anyway!!! When you adopt Universalism you erase the distinction between the church and the world. You don’t need the church, you don’t need Christ, and you don’t need the cross. Just enjoy the world!
Universalism destroys God’s love: Pope Benedict the 16th has been heavily involved in the Christian Universalism debate on the side of traditional Catholic teachings. He says the doctrine of hell, rather than highlighting God’s lack of love toward humanity, in fact does the opposite. He says it shows God’s unconditional respect for his creation. You cannot have love without respect. God bravely created us with the capacity to reject him or embrace him. The ultimate abuse of our freedom, to reject him, would never be used by our creator as a lever to negate the very principle of freedom he gave us. In other words God respects us so much and values our freedom and independence so much, that he will always honour our spiritual decisions. This is ultimate respect and therefore ultimate love. For God to do anything less would be acting as a jilted cosmic lover who selfishly demands the return of the one he lost. The loving offer of divine grace would become the shameful demand of divine decree. True love releases the object of that love from forced obligation.
Universalism unfortunately takes permission as the prime axiom of God, calls it love, and then says all other attributes of God are subservient to that one attribute. All the while it forgets that the greatest expression of divine love was not permissive licence but Christ’s death on the cross (John 15:13). Universalism simply reinterprets the word love to fit our modern Western definition with all its twisted connotations such as embodied in the catchcry: Love is Love. The word love in Universalism becomes painful tolerance without consequence. Love is taken out of scripture, reinterpreted, and then used to condemn the clear teachings of scripture. Love becomes a blanket theological amnesty for rebellion and rampant sin without the need to turn from sin in repentance. This new definition of love is used to stigmatise God’s divine justice, holiness and the fairness of hell. It then eradicates them all. God becomes the cosmic parent who lets his ratty kids get away with rape and murder, literally!
Universalism Destroys God’s Grace: Grace originally meant a demonstration of a ruler’s favour in relation to his subjects, both in disposition and action. It was always the exception that broke the rule. It is mentioned 127 times in Psalms alone and is a central theme in Paul’s writings referring to salvation. Grace is the visible demonstration of Jesus’s free, unmerited and utterly undeserved favour. It is the opposite of law, obligation or destiny. Grace is the ultimate expression of God’s love. Grace therefore has the following components: 1. It’s an inner attitude that is demonstrated by a visible gift. 2. It is always undeserved. 3. It is always freely given. 4. It is never an obligation. 5. It is always given to someone who is in relationship with the giver. 6. It is received with gladness. Universalism destroys grace because of any one of the following four assumptions:
1. I am saved because I am divine: Because we are somehow innately divine with the spark of God within us, then it is impossible for us to be eternally separated from God as this would leave him incomplete. Heaven becomes pre-ordained destiny, not an undeserved gift freely offered and received. Taken to its logical conclusion this position posits that humans could in effect save themselves, which is classic eastern New Age/Hindu/Buddhist/Gnosticism thinking. This Universalist claim turns grace into obligation.
2. I am saved because I am human: Because I am human then I am somehow eternally conjoined with the God who became man, Jesus. Salvation for the one means salvation for all, from the cross onward. Universalists say the cross was equal to the fall and both were universal in effect and cure. The second Adam has grafted all of us back into the tree of life. This was Karl Barth’s position. These Universalists insist that Gods plan of salvation will fail if just a single human is left externally separated from God. This position becomes forced grace for all regardless of whether they volitionally decide to receive the gift, or not. This Universalist claim turns grace into a legal decree.
3. I am saved because I have suffered: This view says that after death an indefinite but limited period of suffering in hell will completely take the place of salvation by grace. This idea of hell as a cleansing fire instead of an eternal judgement originally came from Origen who got it from Plato’s wise fire. This is the most common Universalist position, but was opposed by Karl Barth. In truth it is an extension of the belief that we are saved because we are divine, but some are just a little less divine than they thought because they did not accept Christ’s grace while alive. This position is the opposite of all that is taught in the Christian scriptures and begs the questions: Why did Christ come at all if works, in this case post-mortem suffering, will eventually suffice? Why bother with the Great Commission if in the end we all go home anyway? Why not dispense with the grace and just have purgatory for everyone? Why drag people out of hell by decree if it is against their will? This Universalist claim turns grace into works.
4. I am saved because God wills it: This position says God simply reverses all consequences for sin and rebellion at the time of death. This is the only position that fits the scriptural definition of grace in any conceivable from. However, grace it turns grace into universal hyper-forgiveness, a blanket solution for all humanity without the requirement to believe and turn from sin. This trivialises the Christian life, with its sincere repentance, high standards and spiritual yearning for the heart of God. It trivialises so much of the New Testament’s admonition to live a holy life. Everyone gets in to heaven instantly so why bother with the church or Jesus. Morality be damned. This position makes a mockery of just about every page of the New Testament. The so-called “inspired” words of God become a lie. Grace is no longer the exception that breaks the law. It is the law.
In summary, instead of affirming God’s grace to the world, Universalism, in its various shades of teaching, actually destroys God’s merciful act of grace on the cross of Calvary. It’s a clever heresy and one the Western church seems to have fallen for because it fits the spirit of the age.
Universalism destroys the Judeo-Christian concept of God: In most forms of Universalism a primal cosmic drama is a critical presupposition to many of its teachings and beliefs. As alluded to earlier, it involves a division within the Godhead, or within the original unknowable God, or perhaps within his immediate circle of lesser divine begins. It is a division that must be fixed, and can only be fixed if all creation and all humanity is reconciled to him, bringing peace once again to heaven. This is a classic Greek drama. This is classic Plato. This divine drama formed the basis of Gnosticism, seeped into Christianity via Origen, cascaded down through the centuries, and is present in almost every single Christian Universalist proponent and writer to this day. Unsurprisingly, it is also present in the theology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons. It even appears in the highly influential poetry of the two famous Islamic Sufi mystics Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi and Ibn ‘Arabi.
This presupposition of cosmic division within the godhead subtly drags God into his creation rather than leaving him separate and sovereign. He is no longer free of obligation and independent. However, the Bible tells us categorically that God is independent of his creation, and that that there was simply no division, conflict or tragedy in God prior to creation. The only conflict was within the angels, chiefly Satan, not within the Godhead. There is no drama or problem in heaven that has to be fixed. Rather, there is a very real problem on earth caused by Satan that has to be fixed. The real drama is that the God of heaven came to earth to destroy the works of the evil one, was killed by humans and rose from the dead. The final solution to Satan’s sabotage was an offer of grace, motivated by love but ever respectful of the status of humanity as free spiritual and moral agents. The drama unfolds here, every day of our lives as the global church continues to make great inroads against Satan’s shrinking control over humanity.
Universalism puts all the risk, danger and division in the wrong place and in doing so changes the very nature of God. God is no longer sovereign and separate. He is now just the sum of all things, at the other end of the same continuum as the “aware” universe of the New Age movement. He is now obligated to his creation. He is now somehow broken or incomplete or evolving, or stained by the humanity of the cross, and needs to fix himself by fixing all humanity. The reconciliation of the world becomes a reconciliation with himself. Agape love has devolved into philio love. God is now co-dependent with humanity. This is not the God of the Bible but a Greek or pagan God. This is why Universalism in the USA disintegrated. Once you deny the God of the Bible and the need for the cross you eventually lose your faith. Universalism will eventually destroy everything it touches.
Universalism destroys Western Christian culture: The western world was built on the Judeo-Christian worldview. Once that worldview is destroyed Western civilisation will disintegrate with it. Universalism is just one aspect of the West’s unfolding rejection of God’s sovereignty. It is a metaphysical rebellion against spiritual reality, rejecting God’s universe as it is and substituting one that is emotionally preferred. It tells us that God’s divine judgement itself is the evil to be avoided (Isaiah 5:20) and that the traditional Christian doctrine of salvation is arrogant. One does not become a Universalist without rejecting the Biblical God, Biblical grace and Biblical love. Universalism is wishful Christian utopianism. It is a Christian New Age movement. It is Christian inclusiveness, tolerance and diversity. It is a Christian cosmic evolutionary theory. It is also cosmic co-dependency. It is modern criminal theory applied to Christianity. This mindset is alien to the Judeo-Christian worldview, with its emphasis on individual responsibility and accountability before God and society, the Protestant work ethic, the economic, political and economic freedoms that are unique to Christian civilisation. It is socialism applied to religion, spiritual equality for all.
Universalism destroys Jesus’ teachings: Jesus was very specific in his teachings. He did not mince words. He talked about heaven, hell, and how both were eternal. So, either he deceived us and knew the word eternal doesn’t mean never-ending, or he was ignorantly wrong and Universalism’s extra knowledge has superseded his teachings, or perhaps he was actually right and Universalism is just a very clever heresy designed to destroy his teachings. The answer is one of those three.
Matthew 25 is a problematic passage for Universalists. In it Jesus teaches extensively about the separation of the ten virgins, the separation of the unwise servant, and the separation of the sheep and goats. He is obviously going out of his way to get a point across. In that first parable there was rejection and separation with no hint of reconciliation or end. In the second parable there was the now familiar rejection, as well as being sent to a place of darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth. Still no hint of reconciliation there. In the third parable eternal punishment is specifically added (verse 46).
There are two Greek words for the concept of eternity in the New Testament; aidios which appears just two times, and aionios which appears everywhere else. Purgatorial Universalists, for example Rob Bell (Love Wins p.31), argue that eternity means a long period of time, an eon in our language, but not never-ending time. Ironically the Greek word aionios is used twice in Matthew 25:46. The word eternal is used for those who go to eternal punishment and those who go to eternal life. So to argue that eternal punishment is not actually eternal in the old fashioned sense is to also argue that eternal life is not eternal, that heaven too will come to an end! So what happens when time is up in heaven, oblivion? This makes a mockery not only of Matthew 25:46 but of John 3:16. Strangely, no purgatory-believing Universalist argues for a temporary heaven. But they should!
In John 5:24-30 Jesus uses similar language to describe what happens after death. He says those who follow him have eternal life, and have crossed over from death to life. They will not be judged but those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. Is this reference to eternal life temporary in meaning as well as Matthew 25:46 because it used the word eternal? There is nothing here that even sniffs of a temporary condemnation or temporary eternal life.
In Mark 9:42-48 Jesus is talking about the danger of stopping children from coming into his Kingdom. Over and over again he uses the language of spiritual life contrasted with a hell where the fire never goes out, where the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched (see also Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17). Here the word eternity is not used but the message is of a nasty place that clearly and obviously never ceases to exist. These three references clearly demonstrate that the Gospels do not need the word eternal to convey the concept of an eternal realm called hell, a place of judgement for those outside Gods kingdom.
The no hell group of Universalist authors have an even bigger problem and use various excuses to get around these scripturally obvious teachings of Jesus. Some will claim that these passages are just an example of threat discourse to persuade us to follow Jesus. (this claim, by the way, would make God a liar if Jesus really was God and it also undermines credibility in all other aspects of scripture). Others claim that references to hell are symbolic and were never meant to be taken literally. Still others claim that eternity is a suspended state where God resides so therefore has no sense of time (in which case it would no longer actually be eternity, but rather suspended animation with no time component). Some say that the terms eternal and hell have qualitative as well as quantitative aspects. Others say that hell is simply that place where God is not, or that hell is another term for the fire of annihilation. Still others claim that there is a cannon within a cannon full of secret knowledge such as the list of Universalist proof texts outlined above. Some Universalist authors, quite a few in fact, just claim that their Universalist position comes from visions and supernatural experiences that supersede out-dated scripture. Jacob Bohme and Jane Leade are the most prominent of this last group.
Any way you cut the arguments of Universalists of any persuasion, it is clear that the common sense literal and wider scriptural context of Jesus’ teachings is being squeezed by clever philosophical arguments into a leaky mould that simply suits the presuppositions of the advocate. It is no wonder that liberal theology is so self-destructive!
Universalism destroys the epistles: In 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 we see Paul yearning to leave his earthly body and be joined to God in heaven, clothed in his heavenly dwelling. He concludes the section with the statement that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. Yes there will be a judgement day for all humanity, not stated as eternal, but definitely a judgment.
The book of Jude, probably written by Jesus’ own brother (Mark 6:3) since the author identified himself as the brother of James (Jude 1), specifically talks about the fallen angels kept in darkness, bound with eternal chains for judgement on that great day. Jude then goes on to liken that day to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. He says their destruction serves as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. Here the Greek word Jude uses for eternal is aidios. The only other occurrence of this Greek word translated as eternity in the New Testament is Romans 1:20 where it says that God’s invisible qualities; his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. Once again we can confidently say that, as we have above, if Jude’s use of the word eternal is not actual never-ending, then God’s eternal qualities are likewise not eternal! A non-eternal God is an oxymoron.
If you thought Universalists had a problem with Jesus’ teachings and the epistles, then what about all the references to judgement in the book of Revelation? Terms such as the judgement of the seven churches, the winepress of wrath, abomination of desolation, defilement, famines, scorpions, locusts, plagues, swords of judgement, death, destruction, the seven trumpets, the four horses of the apocalypse, and the lake of fire for those outside the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 20:11-15) are used over and over again. Regardless of the historical timeframe you lock Revelation into, past, present or future, this book is all about God judging humanity. The book finishes with the following two statements: Nothing impure will ever enter (the new Jerusalem) it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 21:27). Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. (Revelation 22:14-15). Universalists of any stripe have great difficulty with the book of Revelation and what it tells us about the utter holiness and intolerance toward sin that lies at the very heart of the creator of the universe.
Universalism destroys the Old Testament: The Genesis story begins with the drama of the temptation, fall and divine judgement of humanity. We were meant to live innocently forever in the presence of God on earth, but we sought equality with God on our own terms. The result was the knowledge of good and evil and we as a race tend toward evil while believing our knowledge is making us clever. The unfolding of this evil trait inside the heart of man cascades through the pages of the Old Testament in murders, death, sexual depravity, wars, child sacrifice, disgusting worship practices, corruption, enslavement and a thousand other evils. When these evils are confronted and dealt with through great floods, the wiping out of wicked civilisations and the like, Universalists squirm with excuses such as the God of the Old Testament being different to the God of the New Testament, or spiritualising these passages, or arguing for a cannon within a cannon, or for the growth of God himself inside his creation, or that scripture carries two contradictory messages that can never be reconciled. Universalism claims it has secret knowledge of God’s real intentions to hide the consequences of humanity’s evil side.
Let’s zero in on the wiping out of the Canaanites, men, women and children, to show the justice of God’s judgements. Did the Canaanites deserve national capital punishment or not? Does their punishment suggest God is a moral monster? Firstly it must be noted that God waited over 400 years for the Canaanites to turn from their sin but they didn’t. All the while their sin was hideous. Its debauchery was dictated primarily by its fertility religion that tied eroticism of all varieties to the successful agrarian cycles of planting and harvest. In addition to divination, witchcraft, and female and male temple sex, Canaanite idolatry encompassed a host of morally disgusting practices that mimicked the sexually perverse conduct of their fertility gods: adultery, homosexuality, transvestitism, paedophilia, sex with all sorts of beasts, and incest. Worse than all that, Canaanites practiced mass child sacrifice. All the Canaanites were guilty of these evils, not just military combatants. The punishment indeed fitted the crime. Universalism would have us believe it didn’t, that they should not have been punished at all. God didn’t either, not for 400 years. They had time to turn.
By now you should be able to see why Christian Universalism has remained on the fringes of Church history for some 1,800 years. It has been firmly rejected over and over again by the great theologians of both the Western and Eastern churches: Augustine, Jerome, Luther and Aquinas were just a few that spoke out strongly against Universalism, always mentioning Origen as the source of the insertion of so many Gnostic heresies into church history. Luther said Origen’s teachings made a mockery of Genesis 1-3. Aquinas argued that the original creation contained no equality with God or divine spark in everything. Jerome objected to the effect Universalism had on peoples morals and their desire to preach the Gospel. Augustine destroyed the Origenist idea of a non-eternal eternity using just Matthew 25:46. Even the atheist philosopher Porphyry scoffed at Christian Universalism when he said Some people are bent on finding a means of avoiding the limitations imposed by the Jewish Scriptures, and yet they do not want to break with them altogether. The use commentaries that do not hang together and have no bearing on the text. This absurdity originated with a man I knew when I was young, Origen. (Eusebius: Ecclesiastical History 6.19.5).
It is also clear now that Christian Universalism often uses elaborate, non-literal, philosophical, cultural, emotional and allegorical approaches to scripture to justify its position. It also takes verses out of context, sees a cannon within a cannon, and re-interprets isolated scriptures into a series of doctrines that does not agree with the wider direction of both Jesus’s teaching and the writers of the New Testament. It has turned Jesus into a cosmic Santa Clause by subverting the need for any human response to the atoning grace of the cross. It is one more step in the paganisation of the modern Western evangelical church which, thank goodness, is now less than 25% of the global evangelical community. The other 75% are busy doing a sterling job of actually winning the lost so that they can actually enter heaven the way Jesus and scripture taught! Love doesn’t win without effort.
Christian Universalism also sees humans as victims rather than as sinners who wilfully choose evil over good, and then allows the unrepentant to sit down at the same heavenly table as their violated victims: The abortionist with their murdered babies, the rapist with their prey, the emotional manipulator with their target, Stalin with Billy Graham. It thereby trivialises crimes against God’s most precious possession in the universe, the pinnacle of all creation and the only creatures ever made in his own image: Humans. Jesus alluded to the cosmic consequences of these crimes when he talked about millstones around the necks of those who cause children to stumble (Luke 17:2). Paul reiterated this point when he said anyone who destroys God’s temple (us) will themselves be destroyed (1 Corinthians 3:17). Paul also warned the Romans that God’s judgement awaited all those who love wickedness: For ever since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through His workmanship, all His creation, the wonderful things that He has made, so that they who fail to believe and trust in Him are without excuse and without defence. (Romans 1:18-32).
And here’s a thought that has been in the back of my mind while writing this entire essay: If I was Satan and I knew hell was real, and I wanted to take as many people there with me as possible, this is exactly the theological spin I would be whispering to well-meaning but misguided Christians: “Hey, hell’s not real, chill out”.
I rest my case.