Thoughts on Universalism
Recently there has been much discussion online about the doctrine of universalism. Universalism comes in various forms, from the belief that 1) all people are already saved regardless of whether they place their faith in Jesus to 2) a modified form that teaches that some will be punished for their sins in the afterlife but will ultimately be reconciled to God via some spiritual process of purging. Being that there are several stripes of universalism it can be difficult to speak broadly about it. Nevertheless I will. For the purposes of this discussion I will refer to universalism as the belief that every living human being (with possible one or two exceptions) will ultimately find forgiveness of sins, restoration and reconciliation with God in his blessing. Notice that this definition is fairly broad. It can include those who do not believe in eternal bliss with God, nor does he delineate God’s method for saving everyone.
The historic Christian position on salvation is found in best known (and often abused) verse in the Bible, John 3:16:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Those who place their faith in Christ find “eternal life,” while those who do not “perish.” The following verses clarify this movement from wrath to grace:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:17-18 ESV)
The incarnation was intended to deliver the people of God from God’s righteous judgment. As it now stands all people are “condemned already “and under the rightly-deserved displeasure of God. How is one delivered from this wrath? Through believing in the Son of God, Jesus Christ. The doctrine of universalism denies the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ as the means of obtaining forgiveness, reconciliation, and right standing before God.
The doctrine of universalism is spiritual poison, and the kind that makes you feel good as it kills you. It contradicts all of the Bible in general and the New Testament in particular. We still have verses like Dan. 12:2:
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
and Rev. 20:11-15:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:11-15 ESV)
The question is often put this way: how can God be good if he condemns people to hell? Questions like this should not be off limits. We shouldn’t make people feel condemned simply by raising the issue. Nevertheless, we also shouldn’t give the impression that the church (as it listens to Scripture) hasn’t addressed this issue and provided a strong response at that. This question of God goodness in relation to hell needs to be rethought and the underlying assumptions challenged. First, the question should be seen from another perspective. I think this way of asking the question is more helpful (and biblically faithful): How can God be good if he rightly judges the wicked for their sin? When asked that way we can see that of course God is righteous if he condemns the wicked. In fact, God would not be good if he didn’t judge the wicked. And that is the point I think is overlooked by the universalist position.
Here lies a temptation: We want a good God, but one without wrath. But this just doesn’t follow from Scripture. Scripture teaches that God’s holiness demands wrath against sin as an expression of His goodness. How could we call God good if he didn’t judge sin? Would we call a human judge good if he released murders, liars, thieves, and rapists? No, we would rightly call him corrupt. And this is the glory of the gospel and the central point of Rom. 3:23-26. On the cross God (the Father) shows himself to be just, righteous, and good because he doesn’t even let Christians “off the hook” for their sin. Instead he condemns it, pours out his wrath against it…in the body of Jesus Christ on behalf of the people of God. So our forgiveness is the result of God’s wrath being satisfied against us. For those who trust in Christ (and them only) no divine wrath remains, “For there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
Lastly, this is directly tied to 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” Think about that for a minute. John says that this is a justice issue. God’s goodness is on the line here. When Christians sincerely repent from their sins God would be unjust not to forgive them. Why? Because Christ suffered the penalty already for them and it would be unjust of God to require double payment.
The universalist position denies the necessity of repentance and the justice of God for the sake of holding up an unbiblical understanding of love.