Welcome back to my little series on universalism. This is the third and final part and just to catch everyone up quickly, this is what we have covered thus far. In my first post (which you can read by clicking here) I made a case for universalism and hopefully it was helpful to those who have never looked into it properly because in my experience, universalists are usually misunderstood in what they do and do not believe. In my second post though I flipped the coin and gave 4 reasons why I personally do not believe it to be true, you can read that post by clicking over here. Today, I am going to continue where I left off last time and give 4 more reasons why I am not convinced that UR (universal reconciliation) is the most plausible of the three views on hell. Because this post is a little long I am going to jump right in and get started.
Universalists and traditionalists both believe in the immortality of the soul. Advocating that the contrast between eternal life and destruction made in scripture is metaphorical language for the quality of life eternal beings will experience in the age to come. In more recent times though some people have noticed hermeneutical problems with this position and are now saying that the soul is not immortal in and of itself but rather that it is eternally sustained by God. Consider for example Martin Luther’s words on the topic in an address against the Pope and the doctrines of the Catholic Church.
"But I permit the Pope to make articles of faith for himself and his faithful, such as The Bread and wine are transubstantiated in the sacrament. The essence of God neither generates, nor is generated. The soul is the substantial form of the human body. The Pope is the emperor of the world, and the king of heaven, and God upon earth. The soul is immortal, with all those monstrous opinions to be found in the Roman dunghill of decretals, that such as his faith is, such may be his gospel, such his disciples, and such his church, that the mouth may have meat suitable for it, and the dish, a cover worthy of it.(1)
So one can still believe that the soul is universally immortal without necessarily believing in the Platonic concept of the immortality of the soul. But this position is one that seems to be arrived at out of a necessity to explain preconceived conclusions imparted on to scripture through some of the early church fathers. In other words, universalists may reject that they follow Plato or the Neoplatonism of Plotinus (3rd century) and his disciple Porphyry who were and remain a major influence on Christian theology today even if most people have no idea who they were. But for universalism to work practically, one has to concede that the soul must be immortal or permanently sustained by God until such a time as one would turn to God. It is not just the soul, but the body too (Matthew 10:28) that must be preserved by God and able to theoretically withstand corruption in hell for however long a period it needs to endure until those who inhabit the flames repent and are granted are eternal life. It is also worth mentioning that the early church fathers who were universalists were all Neoplatonist’s even if today’s adherents may not be. This basically means that as the church became more and more influenced by Greek philosophy and less connected to its Jewish heritage, many of the leading thinkers of the day introduced new doctrines into the church. Many Gnostic, Platonic and pagan ideas and practices were ‘Christianized’ whether we accept it or not and are alive and well in the church today.
One argument that I constantly come across is that because 2 Peter 3:9 says that God desires that none will perish, then one could argue that if in the end some are sentenced to eternal punishment (as in conscious torment or been dead forever) then Gods will is not completely accomplished in creations grand narrative. Thus, the universalist position is that ‘love wins’ is a declaration that in the end God gets His way. "All will see things His way and be won over in due time. Doesn’t Paul even tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:8 that Love never fails?”
So how does one who is not a universalist affirm that love wins (even though it’s not in scripture, I like the phrase and I’m going to use it) and that love never fails? Perhaps the best place to start at would be by clarifying what we mean when we say that ‘love wins’ or what Paul meant when he said that ‘love never fails’. For me, love wins is a statement or a declaration that we believe in the way of love which is also the way of Jesus. Love your enemies, bless them, feed them and give them something to drink and soon you will no longer think of them as your enemy but rather as a person broken by the hardships of life (just like the rest of us), partially through their own decisions and partly through what their culture, family, social standing, friends and how life’s pains and heartaches have shaped them.
We do not kill our way to peace but rather risk harm by being the first to put down our stones and offer reconciliation. Practically, this does not always work in every situation. Judas offered to kiss Jesus’ check as Jesus offered to wash his feet. But eleven of Christs disciples learned in that moment how to one day, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, serve the church properly. Jesus died at the hands of His enemies in order that they could be reconciled to Him and the early church martyrs followed His example. The more that the church endured for Christ’s sake, the more it grew and flourished to the point where Tertullian said, "The blood [of martyrs] is the seed of Christians". This is what ‘love wins’ means, not every Judas, Pharisee and Roman Centurion will be won over but eventually hate, greed and evil will have run their course and vanish, consumed by their own destructive natures and then, only love will remain.
‘Love never fails’ is really another way of saying ‘love wins’. Interestingly though, two verses before Paul declares that love never fails he also states that ‘love does not seek its own. This is critically important and is worth repeating, love does not seek its own. We are not to confuse love with need, declaring that God is love does not equate to God is needy and has to have things His way. Let me illustrate the point that I am trying to make with an example. Suppose there was this guy who met a girl and he was just infatuated with her. But this was more than just lustful yearning or a deep affection for this particular lady. As he grew to know her better he loved her deeply with an agape kind of love. He only wanted the best for her, to see her grow, flourish and be happy. But suppose that his love was not reciprocated, suppose that he spent some time in the ‘friend zone’ but that she met someone else who won her heart and eventually she married this other guy. Her husband was not good to her, he was jealous and broke her down with his words but they had a kids and a family and she chose to stick with him through the good and the bad. Where is the first guy in the story gone? He still loves this lady, his desires and intentions for her are one hundred percent pure but she has totally cut him off because she does not trust his intentions and does not want to make trouble at home with her jealous husband. Does the loving man respect her wishes and stay away or does he remain in the shadows waiting for a chance to get involved? If he chooses the latter and the woman clearly states that she feels as though she is being stalked and does not appreciate his presence what is he to do then? Love is complicated. It was an act of love that let the father divide his son’s inheritance and permit the prodigal son to leave home. It was an act of love when God placed two trees in the Garden of Eden giving Adam and Eve a choice to be in union with Him or to do things their own way. It was an act of love when God came to earth to live among us knowing that wicked men would spit in his face and crucify Him. Love serves but it never coerces, love hopes but it never manipulates, love wins, but it is usually messy and comes with many scars.
The Meaning behind Words
Oftentimes the various outlooks on hell come down to our interpretation of certain words in the Bible. One word in particular that is sometimes discussed is aionios which is the Greek word often translated as ‘everlasting’ or 'eternal' in English. Universalists claim with a certain degree of validity that aionios does not necessarily mean forever and point to specific examples of this in scripture that we have already mentioned previously. The problem though is that taken in its context ‘everlasting’ is clearly the correct translation to use in certain instances. For example, in the New King James Bible Matthew 25:46 reads as below:
And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
- Matthew 25:46
- Matthew 25:46
In this verse we see a double use of the word aionios, once it is translated as everlasting and once as eternal. The double use of the word contrasts the punishment of those who were selfish and unloving in this life with those who were charitable and giving. The righteous do not receive life for a certain period of time as their reward but rather are rewarded with immortality. UR may argue that the verse means that the sheep receive life in the age to come while the goats receive an age proportionate punishing but that seems to take away from the point Jesus was making contrasting the two in the first place.
Other words like death, destruction and consume take on non-literal meanings as well for universalists just as they do within the traditionalist camp. To give an example, the wages of sin is not 'death', or the wages of sin is not ‘eternal conscious torment’ but rather something akin to the wages of sin is ‘purgatorial cleansing’.
The Unforgivable Sin
In my experience there are three things that Christians are deathly afraid of. The first would be hell, the second is when your pastor asks you to turn around and greet the people around you in church (or is that just us introverts?) and the third thing is that one may have unintentionally committed the unforgiveable sin and blasphemed the Holy Spirit sometime in the past. Let’s take a look at Mark 3:28-30 to determine exactly what the unpardonable sin is and what its repercussions are for universalism.
“Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation”— because they said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Some have taken these words and taught that the unforgivable sin is suicide, others teach that it is to verbally curse the Holy Spirit while others have suggested that it is to attribute the work of the Spirit to the devil. Because there is so much debate about exactly what it means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit I think it is worth slowing down and dissecting these words a bit. So lets break down Mark 3:28-30 into four parts and really consider what Jesus is saying.
“Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and
whatever blasphemies they may utter…”
The first thing you may notice is that the text says that ALL sins will be forgiven the sons of men. This lines up with verses like John 1:29 which says that Jesus bore and has taken away the sins of the world and 2 Corinthians 5:18 which says that God has, in Christ, reconciled all men to Himself. It is important to keep in mind though that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same things as salvation (see Romans 5:10, 2 Corinthians 5:18-6:2 and Colossians 1:19-23).
…but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness,
I should point out here that the word for forgiveness Jesus uses is the word aphesis which does not mean to pardon someone but rather carries the meaning of ‘being released from bondage’. Had Jesus used the word charizomia which is also translated as forgiveness into English then the meaning of the text would have been that Jesus would never forgive people for blaspheming the Holy Spirit which is how most people would naturally read His words. But because Jesus uses the word aphesis, the idea being presented is that the Pharisees were so hard hearted and stubborn that they were in bondage to their own delusions. To attribute the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan was as far off the edge as one could possibly be because the Spirit always points us to Christ. 1 John 5:16-17 speaks of a sin which leads to death and sin that does not lead to death and I suspect that John may have been touching on the same topic there. For if it is the Spirit which sets us free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2), then it makes sense to conclude that the rejection of the Spirit will keep us in bondage to death. Another thing worth mentioning here too is that Jesus uses the word ‘never’ with the word everlasting’ which makes a case for what I said in the previous section that sometimes aionios can indeed mean ‘forever’.
… but is subject to eternal condemnation…
The one who blasphemes the Spirit is subject to eternal condemnation but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap everlasting life (Galatians 6:8). The people who attribute the works of the Spirit to Satan are the same people who reject the Christ whom the Spirit validates.
“And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life…” - John 6:40
Jesus said to her, “I’m the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
– John 11:25-26
– John 11:25-26
Will all of this in mind, Jesus adds the words:
Because they said, “He has an unclean spirit”.
Many have used this last phrase to conclude that the unpardonable sin is attributing the works of the Spirit to Satan. I tend to think that there is more to it than that. If I were to tell my kids that they are not allowed to eat chocolate before dinner it does not mean that candy and ice cream are permissible. The intended message beyond the statement would be that we don’t eat junk food that is going to spoil our appetites before we sit down to eat something healthy first. The Pharisees were clearly guilty of something different than what cessationists (people who believe that the miraculous gifts ceased when the Bible was finished been written) today would be. They were not just denying the working of the Holy Spirit behind a miraculous sign. Rather, they were denying the Spirits hand in the work because it would have forced them to conclude that Jesus was Israel’s anointed messiah. It is the Spirit that reveals Christ to us (Luke 3:22, 1 Corinthians 2:10-14) and who baptizes us into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). By the Spirit we are granted everlasting life (Galatians 6:8), given access to the Father (Ephesians 2:18) and sealed for the day of redemption (Ephesians 4:30).
Universalists may object and say that people never really reject God but only the false images of God that religion has given them. There is some truth in that statement, I am sure that we all know people who have rejected God because of the way that Christians have treated them. Others reject Christianity because of things like the Crusades which were done in Christs name but could not have been further removed from the message of Christ Himself. The universalist may argue, “when people see Him for who He really is, it will be different”. My counter objection here though is that when God walked among us as a person people not only rejected Him but they nailed Him to a cross because the way of Christ is contrary to the way of selfishness and power. “Ah but in heaven they will see Him in all of His glory” one might add. But didn’t Satan see Him in all His glory at one time and still rebel, even causing a multitude to follow him?
Jesus’ teaching on the unforgivable sin leads me to believe that there are people who will ultimately reject Him. Even if there were post mortem opportunities for repentance, some people who are stuck in unbelief would only dig their heels further into the ground. Defiantly blaspheming the Spirit they would find no release from the self-imposed bondage that stubbornly keeps their eyes shut. Like the rich man in Luke 16 who still thought of Lazarus as someone unworthy to sit at the table with him and only good for running errands to give him water and deliver messages to his brothers. I submit then that the unforgivable sin is the ultimate and final rejection of the Holy Spirits witness and work in the world which is to point us to Christ in whom alone we have salvation. Its mere mention by Jesus is a large obstacle for universalism to overcome.
He who has the Son has life and He who does not have the Son does not have life. – 1 John 5:12
I know that I went off on a few tangents in this post but I trust that they added value to the points that I was trying to make. But there you go, those are my 8 reasons for personally rejecting universalism. to recap, here they are again.
1 – I'm unconvinced by the universalist interpretations of their supporting texts.
2 – Forgiveness does not equate to salvation.
3 – All the scriptures that do not fit universalism.
4 – Doubts as to the possibility of post mortem repentance.
5 – The soul is not inherently immortal as some of the church fathers believed (3rd to 6th century AD.
6 – Philosophical arguments like ‘God gets His way’ don’t add up.
7 – The meaning of words like death and everlasting.
8 – The unforgivable sin.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too. Are there other reasons for objecting to universalism or is my thinking misplaced on some of these points? Let me know and thanks for reading along.
1 - Martin Luther, Assertion of All the Articles Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull, June 15, 1521