The Slippery Slopes of Universalism
We're going to examine an idea that has, unfortunately, become a doctrine in a very large part of the church. While the idea is also present in many of the other religions of the world, we're going to be concerned only with it as applied in Christianity.
Basically, the idea of universalism is that eventually, ALL people, from ALL times or eras, will be reconciled to God, and be saved, and that NO ONE will endure eternal separation or punishment. Within this context, there are still several varieties, ranging from annihilationists (those who die unsaved are just *poof*, and don't exist anymore, anywhere), to limited punishment (those who die unsaved are punished for a period of time until they learn better, but not forever). Most of the variations include the concept that even the devil and his angels will be converted, and reconciled to God.
Essentially, then, universalism says that ALL can climb the mountain, and will eventually reach the mountaintop where God is, and be with Him, although the pathways may vary. This is a common idea found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and many of the Eastern Mystic religions.
The idea of universalism in the Christian church was first expounded upon by Origen, and was taught in the school he ran in Alexandria, Egypt. His teachings were in the extreme form, and taught that all who did not repent in this world would undergo prolonged chastisement in the world to come, but in the end, through that suffering and the instruction of spiritually superior spirits they will undergo a change, and be brought to a state of saving knowledge and grace. Condemned as a heresy by the Council of Constantinople in A.D. 543, this teaching continued to surface through the centuries, and is a cornerstone of the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. During the reformation, Anabaptists embraced this teaching. Later, Otinger, Bengel and Schleiermacher gave new impetus to it, and changed it into a doctrine based entirely on the humanitarian and loving aspect of God's character.
The doctrinal basis of universalism is scant, but we shall look at several aspects of it, including the original statement that gives rise to it. While this statement is not claimed by the adherents of universalism as its basis, a simple reading of the words shows its foundation, and we must acknowledge the source of the statement. That statement is found in Genesis 3:4, where the serpent says to Eve, "Ye shall not surely die". Consider the source.
Universalism makes use of certain scripturally revealed aspects of the character of God, and selected other scriptures to build its doctrine. We know without a doubt that God is love. In the universalist mind, though, this love is turned into absolute benevolence, one that is incapable of inflicting pain and suffering UNLESS it has as its end a purpose that is consistent with His benevolence. Suffering, therefore, is remedial in nature only, and has as its end the reconciliation and restoration of the sufferer. In no circumstance is this suffering to be considered endless, or eternal. In this view, the benevolence and love of God transcend and make moot all other aspects of His nature, which are also revealed in scripture. Essentially then, God is limited to having only one character trait. In conjunction with this view, is the idea that man is absolutely without responsibility or free will. He is not responsible for choosing good over evil, Jesus over himself, right over wrong, and will eventually have salvation imposed upon himself (and all others) regardless of any "choices" that he does make. There is definitely a conundrum here.
There are plenty of problems with this view of God, and salvation. First, it ignores totally any aspect of His Holiness and righteousness. Sin cannot abide in the presence of God, who is totally Holy, totally righteous, and totally sinless. He has decreed, many times, that those who practice sin shall be punished, and cannot abide with Him. In Revelation 21:27, speaking of the New Jerusalem, He says "and there shall in no way enter into it any thing that defiles, or works abomination, or lies; but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life". In Revelation 22:14-15, He says "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For on the outside are sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loves and makes a lie" . Certainly, this indicates that in the very end of all things, when the old heaven and earth have passed away, and all things are made new, there still exists "outside" those who sin, and they will have no right to enter into the city of God. Further, in Revelation 22:11, Jesus is saying to John concerning the end of all things "He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still". This is also indicative of a point in time when there is no more opportunity for a person to "change their stripes", and certainly gives lie to the universal view of the eventual reconciliation of all.
Indeed, scripture states very plainly "it is appointed unto man ONCE to die, and then the judgment" Hebrews 9:27. Although I have searched diligently, I have not been able to find any scriptures to support the idea that after death that sinners are going to be taught, counseled, or otherwise brought to an acknowledement of the righteousness of Christ so that we can then be saved. In Luke 16:19-31, we read of a man who died and went to hell. While there, he begged for mercy, even a touch of cool water. He was told "remember that you, in your lifetime, received good things, and Lazarus bad: but now he is comforted, and you are tormented. And besides this, between us and you (heaven and hell) there is a great gulf FIXED: so that they which would pass from here to you cannot; neither can they pass from where you are to here".
Universalists also draw upon a scripture, found in Acts 3:21, that refers to the "restitution" of all things. Let's read it, beginning in verse 19. "Repent therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord. And he shall send Jesus Christ, which was before preached to you: Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began". Were we to stop here, we could certainly see that there is a distinct possibility that "all things" will eventually be restored to a place and position of holiness, righteousness and perfection, just as they were before the fall of man. But, if we read a little further (context, context, and context), we see that Peter also says, speaking of Jesus, "and it shall come to pass that every soul which will not hear Him, shall be destroyed from among the people" (vs. 23). Some universalists take this to mean simply that the destruction of the person is permanent and complete...they will be destroyed utterly, soul, spirit and body, and they therefore will not be in torment, hell, or any place else. They just will no longer exist. While this is a noble thought, it does not consider any of the scripture that tells us of the eternal nature of the soul of man. It also destroys the balance of universalist doctrine concerning eventual reconciliation. In addition to this, the text of vs. 23 establishes the responsibility of man to hear (make a choice), further documenting the freedom of choice that God has granted to man. With the end result of universalism being the imposition of salvation upon all men, regardless of whether they want it or not, the doctrine once again flies in the face of the revealed will of God via scripture.
Another passage used by the universalists to support their contentions comes from Ephesians 1:10, "that in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth". In conjunction with this passage is one found in Colossians 1:20: "and through him to reconcile all things unto himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross, through him, I say, whether things upon the earth or things in the heavens". While on the surface this appears to point to a reconciliation of "all things", there is a little to be desired in the reading of it. First, the passage from Ephesians is open to interpretation, as in "gather together in one all things (which are) in Christ". This reading certainly harmonizes with other scriptures, notably from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, which says "But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. (15) for this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive (on the earth) and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep (dead in Christ). For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." There certainly doesn't seem to be a meaning in the Ephesians passage that would automatically make "all things" to be truly all-inclusive, covering not just the penitant and humbled believer, but also the unrepentant, scoffing, murdering, lying, thieving sinner. The Colossians passage seems to be far more amenable to an all-inclusive interpretation, were it not for the following verse (21), where Paul brings in the specific people that had been reconciled. This says that the people of Colosse had a part in their reconciliation (choice), but in no way implies that ALL will be reconciled, or that there will not be SOME who, by the exercise of their free will, refuse to enter into that reconciliation.
As noted in the above paragraph, there is another problem with universalism. The passage from 1 Thessalonians speaks of a certain group, which has no hope. Why would Paul speak of such a group of people in this manner if there existed a hope of inevitable, complete and final reconciliation with God? Paul spends much of his time and effort exhorting the believers to "make their calling and election sure", to stand as examples to others "which have no hope" so that they may come to know God and accept Jesus as their atonement for sin. It does not seem reasonable to believe that if Paul had in mind that everyone would eventually be saved, that he would put so much time and effort into preaching the gospel, and strengthening those who had been converted. Nor would Peter, John, James, Barnabas, Luke, Matthew, Phillip, and so on.
Universalism, as a doctrine, is untenable at best, and blatant heresy at worst, and denies consistently one thing that is repeated throughout scripture, summed up as "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness". For a doctrine to be established as sound, and scriptural, it must of necessity take into account all scripture, and everything that is said about a given subject. Universalists blatantly disregard the multitude of scriptures that exist relating to the utter and final condemnation of unbelievers and unrighteous people to an eternal existence in hell, totally and forever separated from God. One of the favorite arguments to justify their beliefs relates to the use of the term "eternal", claiming that in the original scriptures, the word translated as eternal (meaning forever) is aionios, or aionian. While they claim (with others) that aionios means "age", and is therefore related to a specific and finite period of time, Strong's (166) defines aionios as meaning "perpetual (also used of past time, or past and future as well): eternal, for ever, everlasting." This word is derived from "Aion (Strong's 165): an age, by extens. perpetuity: by impl. the world; a Messianic period (present or future): age, course, eternal (for) ever (more), world (began, without end)." While there are instances where the use of the word aionios properly can be construed as meaning a finite and specific period of time, it does not in all instances mean that and that alone. When God is referred to as "eternal", the word aionios is used. Certainly we cannot believe that God is only going to exist for a finite and specific period of time. In Matthew 19:16 we have a person inquiring of Jesus what they must do to have "eternal" life. The word, again, is aionian. Surely this person would not be asking about a limited and finite period of time to come after the time he was already in? Many times in scripture, the singular word translated as "eternal", or "ever-lasting" carries a meaning of "age to age", or aion to aion. It seems to me to be very difficult to say then that eternal is not eternal, aside from the fact that it then makes God Himself a being limited in time.
It is often argued that those who believe in the eternal and final condemnation of sinners to a place of torment makes them bloodthirsty, self-righteous, condemnatory, unforgiving, and cold-hearted. I would submit that exactly the opposite is true. Knowing that there is a place reserved for the unrepentant, and taking as a clue the scriptural description of what hell entails for the one who ends up there makes the true believer more anxious to spread the gospel, more willing to do whatever is necessary so that someone else may have the opportunity to escape that grim reality. It indues the believer with a sense of purpose, which is to tell others of how to escape condemnation, to pray for the well-being and salvation of others, to endure all things so that others can see the light. On the other hand, the universalists don't really have any impetus or enticement to fulfill the great commission, to undergo trials and testing other than to save themselves a relatively small measure of discomfort. What person, being exposed to the torments and ravages described in scripture about the place called hell, would want to stay there more than a few moments? Who, in their right mind, would not immediately call upon the Lord Jesus Christ to save them from that condemnation? Why would the early Christians willingly face being torn apart by lions rather than deny Christ, if they knew they were going to be saved anyway?
Let's read for a minute about some of the descriptions given in scripture of hell...that place of condemnation. It is a place of fire (unquenchable, everlasting, has worms that don't die); (Matt: 3:12; 13:42; 25:41; Mark 9:45, 46), 48; Reserved for unbelievers (2 Pet. 3:7 ; A lake (Rev. 20:10, 14 & 21:8 ) ; it is also described as brimstone, coals, consuming, and devouring. It was not created for man, but for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41), it has a mouth and gets larger (Isa. 5:14), and is a second death (Rev. 21: 14; 22:8). See the study on Hell for more on its reality.
While I personally agree with God " who would have ALL men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth..." (1 Tim. 2:4), I also am a realist (as is God), knowing that not all men will come to that knowledge, or be saved. There always have been, and always will be until the new world and heavens are created, those who reject God, and even more who reject Jesus as the ONLY atonement for our sins. But my wishes, my desires, do not in any way alter the fact that God has decreed eternal punishment for those who reject Him. Universalism extends a false hope to people by giving them the opportunity to put off today what needs to be done....acknowledge the sovereignty of God, the atonement of Jesus, and to be saved....before it is too late.
It is appointed ONCE to man to die, and then....JUDGMENT. That judgment is based upon whether or not we are written in the Lamb's Book of Life, and we can only get written in while we are alive...by choosing Jesus as the atonement for our sin, and as savior of our souls.