Saturday, 25 June 2016

Does all really mean all? – Revisiting Universal Redemption

A few years back when I first decided to study the different views of hell I wrote a blog post on Universalism which is the idea that all people will eventually be saved. In my original post I dismissed it rather nonchalantly and have felt ever since that I needed to revisit it with something a bit more thorough. Over the last few years I have continued my study and while I am more convinced than ever that scripture teaches conditional immortality as opposed to universalism or eternal conscious torment, I do feel that I have a better understanding of where Universalists are coming from these days than I had previously. In fact, I can appreciate their understanding of the character of God more than that of the traditional view which paints a picture of a merciless judge whose anger is never satisfied and looks nothing like Jesus. Nevertheless, I think that they are in error and that the consequences of it are rather grave (pun intended).

So let’s get right to the question in the title of this post, does ‘all’ mean ‘all’ in the sense that Universalists believe it does? These are some of the scriptures that you might find come up in these sorts of conversations:-

Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.  - John 12:31-32

Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.  – Acts 3:20

Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. - Romans 5:18

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. - 1 Corinthians 15:22

When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. - 1 Corinthians 15:28

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. - 2 Corinthians 5:18-19

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. - Ephesians 1:7-10

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. - Philippians 2:9-11

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 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. - Colossians 1:19-20

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” - Revelation 21:5

The case for Universalism might look compelling from the texts above nevertheless I believe that the ‘all’, the ‘everything’ and ‘the world’ as they are referenced above refer not to every human being but rather to all who are in Christ and the creation as a whole one day being redeemed. There are several reasons for believing this which I will lay out point by point while simultaneously revealing why I find universalism to be incorrect.

It’s not faithful to Jesus’ own teachings

One thing I admire about universalism is the focus it has on the person of Christ. I believe it accurately paints God as merciful, gracious and loving toward all. I too believe that God’s mercy, grace and love are beyond measure and comprehension! Likewise, I also believe that God desires that none would perish and that He wills for all men to be saved. I believe that God looks exactly like Jesus but it is precisely for this reason that I find it ironic that many Universalists cite Jesus as the reason they hold to their view. I had already started writing this article when I came across Benjamin Corey’s latest series of posts; he believes that the scriptural evidence points toward conditional immortality but has confessed that he is attracted to the idea of universalism, one of the things he said in a recent post is “the more I see God as revealed in Jesus, the more this position (universal redemption) seems to be the one most consistent with the doctrine of God as exampled by Christ”. This seems to be a common idea in the writings of Universalists which I find puzzling because Jesus’ own words throughout the New Testament seem to contradict the idea that all will eventually be saved. While I am in full agreement with them about the character of God as revealed in Jesus, I do believe it is dangerous to separate His character from His teachings, consider the following verses for example-

Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, only those who actually do the will of my Father will enter. – Matthew 7:21

Work hard to enter the narrow door to God’s Kingdom, for many will try to enter but will fail – Luke 13:24

Jesus spoke often in this way and one has to ask, if ‘all’ means ‘all people who ever existed’ then what does ‘not everyone’ mean? It does not say that some will struggle to enter before eventually coming right. The idea Jesus gives is that the road that leads to destruction is a busy one in contrast to the road that leads to eternal life and that it is final in its destination.

Jesus’ parables seem to contradict universalism

Many of Jesus parables provide insights into the final judgment as well. The story of the wheat and the weeds reveals how the weeds will be gathered together and ‘burned up’ (Matthew 13:24-43).  The parable of the evil farmers says that those who the kingdom is taken away from will be ‘broken to pieces’ (Matthew 21:44). Similarly, the parable of the Great Feast says that those who ignored the Kings invitation were ‘destroyed (Matthew 22:7).

One of the things that I find to be vital to universalism is the idea that life after death is eternal for everyone and that there will be opportunities in the afterlife for repentance and union with Christ. But looking at something like the story of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25 where five of them ran out of oil and they were excluded from the marriage feast gives no indication that there is hope of a second chance for those who woke up too late to enter the party. These are all words from Jesus’ own mouth and it is just a few examples from one of the gospels. Similar words and parables are spoken elsewhere as well (consider Luke 19:27) but I feel the point has already been made that a Christ centered eschatology requires a holistic approach to both how He lived and what He taught.

A common false assumption

Many of the lists I see where scriptural evidence for universal redemption is presented use verses like 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 to point out that Christ died not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world and that God is no longer counting the sins of people against them. But I think it is a faulty assumption to tie forgiveness of sins and eternal life together as though they were the same thing. Yes, forgiveness is essential to restoring a right relationship with God but consider a practical example of what I am trying to say. If I forgive someone who has wronged me I have no ill feelings toward them but it does not necessarily mean that any sort of a relationship has been established between us because they might still wish evil on me.

Forgiveness is the first step toward reconciliation but it remains of no value to the offender if they do not receive it and make amends. Consider the men who crucified Jesus, His words to them were, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”.  Does this mean that His executioners were ‘saved’ because they had received forgiveness? I don’t think so; I just think that Jesus was not holding their sin against them. If I were in his place I probably would have been thinking, “these guys are gonna poop in their pants one day when they see me at the pearly gates” but, fortunately for us, God is not like me. This is why Paul follows verses 18 and 19 with verse 20 which says,”We speak for Christ when we plead likewise that you be reconciled to God”. Would the prodigal son have been restored to his position in the family if he had never gone home and instead remained in the mud with the pigs? No, there is no indication that the father in that story held anything against his son for wasting his inheritance but there is also no reason to believe that the son would have eventually benefited from his father’s love, mercy and grace had he never returned home.

Over a hundred verses suggest otherwise

There is a common saying that scripture should interpret scripture. In another post I have shared well over a hundred verses that speak of the end of those outside of Christ in descriptive language, using terms and phrases like perish, destruction, destroyed, the second death, consumed, burned up, melting away, ash and ‘as though they had never been’. Unlike eternal conscious torment which relies on three New Testament verses from two different books and universalism which relies mostly on some of Paul’s words and the last two chapters in book of Revelation, conditional immortality draws from almost every author and book throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.

While I do not think that we should count up our proof texts in deciding on a winner, I do think that the weight of scripture leans one way and that the verses that are less clear should be interpreted in light of the ones that are more plainly understandable. A piece of the puzzle can be misleading when it is not viewed as part of a larger picture.

Does God always get His way?

While universalism makes room for hell, judgment and even free will, I think the idea that all mankind will eventually see things God’s way is a misplaced hope. Irresistible grace applied to the scripture that says that God desires that none would perish and all would be saved would contradict scriptures like Jude 10-11 and all of the other verses that speak of men perishing. If immortality or eternal life is a gift of God to those who are in Christ alone, it seems a dangerous assumption to say that that life will be eternally sustained (even if it takes a billion years) for those outside of Christ until they eventually repent of their own free will. The only scripture that comes close to saying something like that is Revelation 21:25-27 but I do not think in light of everything else we read in the Bible that infinite opportunities for repentance would be the best interpretation of those verses. The gates that are never shut simpy indicates to me that there is total peace and no outside threat to those in the New Jerusalem.

Does rejecting universalism limit grace?

Universalism says that “Love never fails” and that “God’s mercy endures forever”. Does rejecting universal redemption then reject these scriptural sayings? I believe not, for as someone once said, the immortal God came as a mortal man to earth and conquered death so that mortal man could live forever. On the cross love defeated the enemy we call death, this is the very definition the Bible gives us of love (1 John 3:16) thus Jesus, with his last breath, could whisper, “It is finished”. There is however I believe a place away from God where failure IS a certainty; a place where death IS inevitable, not because God failed but because men failed to recognize love and mercy when it was extended toward them.

Some may struggle with the idea of a loving and good God that pushes the ‘destruct’ button or the ‘torture them forever’ button on the wicked and I am one of them. I have written about that elsewhere so I will not repeat what I said over here again (though I would recommend reading that article by clicking over here). What I will say here though is that I agree with C.S. Lewis when he said that “The doors of hell are locked from the inside”. Sometimes, love and grace do not get there way, we see it now and we will see it later on before it can be said that Christ has become ‘all in all’. It cannot be said that it is a failure of love, grace and mercy if some are lost then anymore than it is a failure of love, grace and mercy when accounting for evil in the present. We know a day is coming when all the pain, the hate, the death and evil around us will be no more but we cannot deny its current reality.

What Christ in all means

Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.  – Acts 3:20

When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. - 1 Corinthians 15:28

The popular view of hell imagines a future creation where Christ one day reigns in and through a small percentage of humankind while the vast majority of people suffer eternal conscious torment. I picture this (for illustrative purposes only) like heaven being located in, let’s say Australia with a giant wall built around it and every other place on earth is then hell where most of humanity went. In this view God’s justice is never in all eternity satisfied as He continually needs to torment those who rejected Him. This does not fit well with what I believe scripture teaches about the restoration of all things in Christ.

Universalists try to fix this by saying that hell will one day be empty; it is essentially in their view a place that is constantly decreasing in population. This makes more scriptural sense but ignores most of the things we have discussed above regarding the destruction of the wicked. So I agree that hell will be a place constantly decreasing in population, how I see it though is that hell is a place outside the city of God (Rev 21 & 22), a place where people have being left to their own destructive devices (Romans 1:25), a place where evil runs its natural course until one day there is nothing left but what is in Christ.

The strongest among you will disappear like straw; their evil deeds will be the spark that sets it on fire. They and their evil works will burn up together, and no one will be able to put out the fire. – Isaiah 1:31.

God as all in all then must refer to a new creation where, like in Genesis, we can say that everything, not just people but everything, the whole of creation is very good indeed. This leaves no room for continued evil but it does not necessarily mean universal redemption either. For me, conditional immortality is the logical conclusion to arrive at.


  1. Wesley,

    Thank you for sharing this well thought out blog post. Like you, I have become convinced that the Bible teaches Conditional Immortality.

    Because I am in a setting where the majority view is Eternal Conscious Torment, I have spent a lot of time understanding why Conditional Immortality is true and Eternal Conscious Torment is not. I am thankful for your blog post and others which take the case for Universal Redemption seriously and yet by sticking with the whole Bible still end up firmly convinced of Conditional Immortality.

    Grace and Peace,
    Mark (with Hope and Joy!)

    1. Thank you very much for your kind words Mark. I appreciate the message and can relate to your situation of being in the minority. i think all of us who are not 7th day Adventists can :)