- Maybe you think I’m “throwing out” Hell. You think that I’ve rejected the very idea of Hell.
- You might think that I’m not balancing God’s love with the fact that He is just – you might accuse me of “throwing out” God’s justice.
- You might think that I am ignoring portions of the Bible – I’m “throwing out” those passages.
- You might think I have no Biblical basis for being a Universalist at all!
- You might ask “if everyone’s going to Heaven, what’s the ‘point’ of being a Christian? In other words, if there’s no eternal hell, then what is the motivation to be good in this life?”
I hope that by the end of this series, all of these misconceptions will have been answered. And I also hope that I will be able to give you an understanding of why I am passionate about this subject, and why I think it’s so important for our time.
Please note that what I am about to do is not to bring to you a universal definition of Universalism (see what I did there?), but rather to present my own views and defend them. The steps I am about to outline in defense of my belief are more or less the logical steps I went through as I deconstructed my own beliefs as I explored what Universalism means for me. I am wary of the label "Univeralism", as I am wary of all labels - Soren Kierkegaard once said that "when you label me, you negate me." It is because of the misconceptions I outlined above that I am wary of the label, as well as the fact that I am aware that there are other "flavors" of Universalism out there. I have heard some people use the term "Ultimate Redemptionist" rather than "Universalist", and perhaps this is a better term for what I believe in. But hopefully, by the end of this series you'll have a better idea yourself.
But before we get into a defense of Universalism (or my definition of it), I would like to outline some burning philosophical questions that arise if one believes in Hell as being eternal conscious torment in a lake of fire. Questions such as:
- Why would God create billions of precious people, knowing beforehand that most of them would end up burning and screaming forever?
- How can Heaven be Heaven when some of us will know that loved ones are in this place of torment? The image being along the lines of an eternal party with billions of people in the basement being endlessly tortured throughout – how is it appropriate to party in such a situation, and how can a loving “party master” allow such a thing?
- How can a loving God justify sending billions to Hell when most of them never even had an opportunity to hear the Gospel in the first place, and the Bible clearly states that you must hear the Gospel to be saved?
- How is it just that a good person who has not said the magic incantation…er, I mean, the sinner’s prayer…will go to face eternal conscious torment while a bad person who has said it will not?
- Also, isn't this thought a little odd:
|Let's be honest - isn't this kind of like the crazy boyfriend that says "date me, or I will burn down your house while you're sleeping!"|
But to delve into these questions, I'm going to approach the argument for Universalism from a logical standpoint, because this is what eventually convinced me. I'm a computer programmer, so I think in very logical terms, and I remember in school we used to always do this exercise called "be the computer" where our professor would give us some computer code, and he'd ask us "what is the screen going to show at the end?" And he'd always try to put some trickiness in there to see if he could trip someone up. So I started to think universalism was a possibility when I started to notice a problem in the "code" of the Bible.
So I'm going to give you a series of "chess moves", but really the way I think of it is that after the first 2 chess moves I have checkmate, logically. But to give that checkmate some weight I'm going to put some more "checkmates" in there – or perhaps a better way of thinking about it is that after trapping the “king” in check mate, I'm going to keep him there while I systematically remove all the other pieces from the board as well. I'm not going to go into too much painstaking detail because this could get incredibly long (I started this as an over 50 page document on the subject of the afterlife - 2/3 of which were focused on deconstructing Hell), but there is actually plenty of material out there about Universalism if you're interested.
Chess Move #1
Does God get what God wants? In other words, is God "sovereign"? Is he "omnipotent", or "all powerful"? Jesus said that with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26), and when I think of how I John 4:8 says that God is love, to me I think that makes it logical to substitute "God" for "love" in I Corinthians 13. So when this chapter says that love never fails, I think I can logically say that God never fails. Similarly, Ephesians 1:11 says that God "works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will", and in Job 42:2 we see that Job is confident in God's sovereignty:
I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
The Psalmist declares (in 135:6) that God does whatever pleases him. In Romans 11:36, Paul states that "from him [God] and through him and for him are all things." In Isaiah 14:24-27, the voice of God declares that whatever He has planned or purposed will be done. And perhaps the strongest case for God's will being "unthwartable" is Daniel 4:35:
All the peoples of the earth
are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
or say to him: “What have you done?”
In none of these verses is an exception left open for some other personality's will getting in God's way. So I'd answer the question "does God get what God wants?" in the affirmative. To say that God is “sovereign”, or “omnipotent” is actually the prevailing belief of most denominations of Christianity, so I don’t think I’m challenging anything in this move. But I must point this belief out as it adds a significant amount of weight to my next move.
Chess Move #2
After we’ve established that God gets what God wants because He is “sovereign”, when we are on the topic of Hell, the logical next step would be to ask: what does God want? Now if you believe in eternal conscious torment for everyone who is not a "Christian", then logically you have to conclude that this is actually what God wants, that is if you answered the first question in the affirmative. But if that's the conclusion you make, then it becomes very, very difficult to call God "good". I mean, I really have a very tough time understanding how people can reconcile those two ideas - that God is good and loving, and yet two thirds (if you're optimistic) of the beings He has created are purposed for going into a place of eternal conscious torment in the basement while the rest of us are partying upstairs. “Oh, don’t listen to all that screaming downstairs – we’re having a party, people! Here, let’s turn up that music – everyone get your dance on!”
But is that really what God wants? Well, what does the Bible say about that?
I Timothy 2:4 says that God wants all people to be saved, and 2 Peter 3:9 says that God doesn't want anyone to perish but wants everyone to come to repentance. I believe, logically speaking, you have a checkmate there against eternal conscious torment.
One of the tricks people will use to try to wriggle out of verses like I Timothy 2:4 is to make it seem as if God's desire is like our desire - as if God wishes for something to happen, but if something gets in the way He won't force the issue. And this might seem like a great point, until you examine the Greek word that is translated "wants" or "desires" in I Timothy 2:4 - the word is "thelo", which is defined in Thayer's Greek lexicon as: "to will, have in mind, intend, to be resolved or determined, to purpose". This isn't some wishy washy sort of desire - like "well, I wish this would happen, but it's not going to." This is something God pursues with resolve and determination - with intention.
Now, statistically, if we believe that only people who claim Jesus as their savior will escape the eternal conscious torment of hell, then this means that the majority of the population of the world are going to hell – this implies that God is a colossal failure. But God is love and love never fails. Either there is no eternal conscious torment, or the Bible is a liar.
Now, I used this argument with some friends of mine, but one of them pointed to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and said “well, God didn’t want them to eat the fruit!” He was implying that God actually doesn’t get what God wants (interestingly enough: my friend was a Calvinist). If this is the line of reasoning you jump to in reply to my checkmate, then I believe you are answering the wrong question – I believe you are answering the question “does God get what God wants right away.” This is the wrong question – the question I am really asking could better be stated as “does God get what God wants eventually”, or “does God get what God wants in the end?” And going back to I Corinthians chapter 13, if God is love, then we know that God does not demand His own way (verse 5), and God is patient (verse 4). So, keep that in mind while we go back to 2 Peter 3:9:
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. [emphasis mine]If you look at stories like the story of Adam and Eve and answer my question (“does God get what God wants?”) in the negative, then you are answering the wrong question.
But we could also go at this problem from the other side - up until now, I've been arguing the positive, that God loves all and wants eventual salvation for all. But what if we go at the problem from the negative? Does God desire destruction for the wicked? For the answer, I give the following two scriptures:
As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways!
Lamentations 3:31-33In Genesis 12:3, God speaks his intention to reach the whole world through Israel. Over and over we read that God is not a God who shows partiality or favoritism (Deut. 10:17, 2 Chron 19:7, Job 39:14, Acts 10:34, Rom. 2:11, Eph. 6:9, I Pet. 1:17). Jesus also declared the universal scope of his mission (see Mt. 28:18-20, John 12:32, Acts 1:8).
For no one is cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.
These verses make it pretty clear that God does not wish destruction upon anyone! Add this to the proposition that God is sovereign, or omnipotent, and what do you get? The eventual universal redemption of all!
Before I move on, I'd like to point out the problems that arise if we reject either "Move #1" or "Move #2". Because it boils down to one of two options: either God is not willing to save all men, or He is not able to. If God is not willing to save all men, but God is able to do all things - then this means that God is not good, because God created 2/3's of mankind knowing that they had no hope of salvation and yet God made them for the purpose of torturing them for all eternity. Such a God is a sadistic monster and is clearly not worthy of being worshiped. A loving God would not create beings for which there was no hope but eternal torment - so if God is not willing to save all, then God is not loving.
Consider the way this problem is worded by authors John Kronen and Eric Reitan in "God's Final Victory":
God loves every one of His creatures with a profound and unwavering benevolence; and He wills upon some of these creatures the very worst kind of evil conceivable, and He wills that they suffer it for all eternity, even though it cannot possibly do them any good, since it never culminates in anything but more of the same.
I sincerely hope my readers are able to see the contradiction between the first part of the above statement ("God loves every one of His creatures") and the end ("He wills that they suffer for all eternity").
But the other side has it's own problems - because if God is willing to save all men, but not able to, then we cannot have any confidence in the efficacy of God's will. If God's will can be thwarted, then how can we say that God is "sovereign"? Consider the following analogy - the situation is as if a person had the choice between eternal bliss on the one side and thrusting themselves in a fire on the other, and we are saying that after being given this choice repeatedly for all of eternity they still choose to thrust themselves into the fire. That this would continue for all eternity, and that an infinite God with infinite time and resources would not be able to ever tempt these poor souls into choosing eternal bliss over continual burning seems dubious at best - and even if this were possible, I'd question why God either does not allow them to be consumed by the fire or made them so they wouldn't be in the first place?
Once again, I turn to John Kronen and Eric Reitan in "God's Final Victory":
That someone created in the divine image, and hence naturally ordered towards the good, should eternally reject the perfect good strikes us as prima facie unlikely, especially if God continues unremittingly to seek the creature's repentance. Furthermore, that an omnipotent and omniscient God should eternally fail to find a morally legitimate way to transform an unwilling creature's heart strikes us as prima facie dubious.
So one might argue that God does not continue to unremittingly seek repentance - but if this is the case, then we'd be once again back into the world of the problems with confirming God's goodness: why does God give up on His own creatures, and is it good to give up on any being and allow them to face eternal torture? Do we not have a responsibility to save conscious beings from such a horrible fate? And if love demands that we save conscious beings from a horrible fate such as this, why doesn't it compel the Eternal Being whose very nature is love (I John 4:8 and 16) to continually strive for the salvation of these beings?
But as we've seen in these first two "chess moves", the Bible implies that God is both willing and able to save all. As 2 Peter 3:9 says, "God is not willing that any man should perish but that all should come to repentance", therefore God is willing that all should be saved. And the Bible implies that God is able to save - Hebrews 7:25 says that God "is able to save to the uttermost", 1 Chronicles 29:11 says that God is "sovereign over all the sky and earth" and goes on to say: "You have dominion and exalt yourself as the ruler of all." Isaiah 46:10 says that God's purpose "will stand" and He "will do all that [He] please[s]"!
Chess Move #3
As I pointed out before, I Timothy 2:4 says that God wants all people to be saved. But then you might argue "well, what does the word 'all' mean?" Well, we should always allow scripture to interpret scripture, so let’s look at some other verses that talk about “all” to figure out what scripture means when scripture says “all”. It's actually interesting once you accept universalism to do a study on "all" and the phrase "the world" and see the many many many times those two show up in the New Testament, and then to realize how we've been trained (dare I say brainwashed?) to read right past those phrases without ever really thinking about the possibility that they actually mean what they say. Because I grew up being trained to say "oh, those don't really mean ALL as in everyone, they mean 'all believers' and there's going to be believers from every country in the world, and that's why the Bible sometimes says 'the world'." But does this line of thinking logically make sense? Or are we allowing our assumptions to shape the way we read scripture, rather than allowing scripture to shape our assumptions?
To answer that question, let me start by asking you this: does a word change meaning to its opposite meaning halfway through a sentence without any contextual clues to show us that it has done so? In other words, we know that "table" can mean more than one thing - I might say "I'm doing my multiplication table at the kitchen table", and so we know we're talking about two different things there, but we have contextual clues to tell us that, and actually the root meaning of the word, "a flat surface", hasn't really changed. Well, if a word can change meaning willy nilly without any contextual clues, then it becomes very, very hard to communicate, and if we're going to play by those rules I could probably use them to prove to you that God is a flying spaghetti monster (yeah, that's what "love" means in I John 4:8). So in order to be able to effectively communicate with each other, we have to have certain rules, one of them being that if we have established a meaning for a word, that word does not change meaning unless there is context around it to indicate that it has done so. So with this rule in mind, we approach the following verse:
I Cor. 15:22Now in the first half of the verse, it is pretty clear to me that “all” means “every human being who ever lived and whom ever will live.” I mean, it’s a scientific fact that everyone dies – it’s proven over and over and over again throughout history. So when we approach this verse, we see that Paul is using a method of communication known as a “simile” – he’s making a comparison between one thing and another in order to prove a point. He’s saying “just like ‘a’ is true, so ‘b’ is also true in the same sense.” So when I approach this verse, I think it is logical to say that what Paul is communicating here is that just like every human being who ever lived and ever will live has died or is going to die because we’re “in Adam” (or have inherited his legacy), because of Christ every human being who ever lived and ever will live will be made alive.
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
This is not the only place where Paul makes the Adam/Christ comparison. In Romans 5:18-19, Paul makes two similar statements back to back, both stating that all who were effected by Adam's sin will be redeemed by Christ:
Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
And once again in Romans 11:32, Paul states:
For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
I find it very difficult to find any logic in the claims that state that Paul is only talking about "people who believed in this life" in these statements. If this is his intention, then he is a horrible communicator, because it seems very clear in each of these statements that the very same set he is speaking of in the first half of the sentence is the very same set he is speaking of in the second half.
But still, there are those who attempt to argue this point further and say “all doesn’t really mean ‘every human being who ever lived or ever will live’”, and they insist that it actually means “all believers”, and then I pull out this card:
I Timothy 4:10If “all” doesn’t really mean “all” but is actually a subset of “every human being who ever lived and ever will live” that is limited to “all believers”, then why does Paul then specifically point out a subset of “all” who are “those who believe”? If the subset and the main set are one and the same, why does Paul call special attention to the subset? That would make no logical sense whatsoever! And along those same lines:
That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.
I John 2:2Once again we find that special attention is being paid to a subset – our sins – and then John is saying that this atoning sacrifice applies to a larger set outside of this subset, and that larger set is “the whole world”.
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
Before I move on, I'd like to take a quick sidetrack and mention one of the problems with the arguments used as an attempt to justify eternal hell. To the question of how it would be just for an infinite punishment to serve a finite crime, the argument has been used that it is a finite crime against an infinite being who is infinitely offended. But if this were true (there are reasons this is questionable, not least of which I will discuss in Chess Move 8), then it would require an atoning sacrifice of infinite worth to fully meet the supposed demands of justice. And if the atoning sacrifice were of infinite worth, then God could no longer be impelled by the supposed demands of justice to torment any creatures - for if there were a sacrifice of infinite worth, then God could not fail to recognize this infinite worth and fail to apply its worth to any creatures. God would have to forgive the entire race in light of a sacrifice of infinite worth - otherwise, were he to limit His forgiveness only to those who accepted the sacrifice (and the reasoning which insists that forgiveness is withdrawn if it is not accepted is questionable at best), then he would be failing to attribute to this sacrifice its full worth. With this reasoning, I John 2:2 would seem to imply that Christ's sacrifice is indeed of infinite worth and does indeed apply to all human beings.
So I think I can logically conclude that when the New Testament says “all” or “the world”, it’s actually talking about “every human being who ever lived and ever will live.” And once you accept that, it totally changes how you read other verses that talk about “all” or the world, like these (just for a couple quick examples):
For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.
For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed. He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds.
So now that we’ve established what “all” means, I think I can confidently say "check mate...again".
Perhaps the clearest "universalist passage" is this one:
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.
What's interesting about that passage is that Young's Literal Translation renders the phrase in verse 20: "to reconcile the all things to himself...." And if you look at the context of this passage that was set up in verse 16, you'll see what "the all things" is that Paul is talking about:
For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.
It's harder to come up with a clearer picture of Universalism than that.
But you probably have more questions - I did. So I have worked out some more "chess moves" which will repeatedly check mate eternal conscious torment, as well as capturing all of Hell's pawns, knights, bishops, rooks, and queen. But I will save these moves for the next post. To give you a taste of what is to come:
Chess move #4: Forever?
Chess move #5: Hell is a mistranslation.
Chess move #6: What is the Biblical definition of death?
Chess move #7: How are we "saved"?
Chess move #8: Jesus is our defense attorney and our judge - how can we possibly lose that case?
Chess move #9: No fear.
Chess move #10: Wasn’t Origen a heretic?
Chess move #11: What about the wrathful God of the Old Testament?
Chess move #12: Calvinism is Totally Depraved
Conclusion: Testing the fruits.