Universalism is gaining more steam among evangelicals who seek to present a relevant gospel and influence culture. Popular megachurch pastor Rob Bell recently wrote a controversial book dealing with this subject entitled Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.
I have not yet read this book but have read numerous reviews and quotes. Here is one from Christianity Today, directly quoting Love Wins: “God has inaugurated a movement in Jesus’ resurrection to renew, restore, and reconcile everything.”
The article continues: “The prepublication buzz [for the book] centered on Bell’s flirtation with universalism. He makes the Universalist case most fully in one chapter, while avoiding the word Universalist. He points out the many New Testament passages that point in this direction, like ‘in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them’ (2 Cor. 5:19), and Jesus’ statement, ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself’ (John 12:32). He adds to that verses about God’s omnipotence and God’s desire that all should be saved. And then he asks the arresting question, ‘Will God get what he wants?’”
These may be questions some evangelicals whisper but do not have the courage to ask in public. Because of this we need to be grateful to Rob Bell for being open and honest.
Bell is not the first high-profile preacher to go public with views that are congruent with a “gospel of inclusion”: Bishops Carlton Pearson and Jim Swilley have also gone public with views that are very similar.
At one time Carlton Pearson pastored a large church in Tulsa, Oklahoma with over 5,000 in attendance. But things changed quickly: “Due to his stated belief in universal reconciliation, Pearson was declared a heretic by his peers in 2004 and rapidly began to lose his influence in ministry with the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops. Pearson was recently the Senior Minister of Christ Universal Temple, a large New Thought congregation in Chicago, Illinois” (Accessed March 28, 2011).
According to the website for Now Ministries, Bishop Jim Swilley “provides oversight and covering to multiple churches and ministries throughout the U.S., the Philippines, and Uganda; as a visionary, his ministry is both inclusive and affirming, and His message is one of reconciliation and grace” (Accessed March 30, 2011).
The greater question is this: Should those of us in the evangelical camp who desire greater relevance, cultural penetration and influence seriously consider preaching a universal “gospel of inclusion” in which all human beings will ultimately be saved?
After all (some say to justify this position), preaching that Jesus died on the cross as our substitute so that we could be saved from the wrath of God is the same as saying that we need God (Jesus) to save us from God, which is the opposite of the God of love we are trying to portray.
On the other side of the coin, we must also realize the offense of the cross spoken of by Paul is not only that we do not have to follow the ceremonial laws of Moses including circumcision to be forgiven, but that Jesus is the only way to God and only sacrifice (Galatians 1:8-9 and 5:11-12). Galatians 5:11 reads: “But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.”
Also, Hebrews 10:8-14, 28-31 reads: “When he said above, ‘You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings’ (these are offered according to the law), then he added, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will.’ He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified….Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
This passage shows that only those being sanctified by faith in Christ will be perfected for eternity.
Let me say this: Believing that a loving God would put people in hell for all eternity is a very difficult thing for any person—evangelical or not—and is impossible for us to rationally comprehend, whether we believe in it or not. The most literal, fundamental Bible-believers among us would shriek in horror and not want to believe their unbelieving friends and loved ones have gone to hell for eternity if they were ever to experience hell for a few seconds! I personally think that most so-called Bible-believing Christians would live much differently if we really believe that such a place exists and that many we know are heading there for eternity!
Let’s examine some of the commonly used passages to justify belief in universalism or a “gospel of inclusion” and ultimate reconciliation for all humans. Here are passages commonly used to promote universalism, the teaching that all will ultimately be saved:
Examining the “whole world” salvific passages
Second Corinthians 5:19 says: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”
First John 2:4 says: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
John 3:16-17 says: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 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.”
Romans 5:18 says: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.”
The above mentioned passages can be taken at first glance to mean that all people will automatically be saved. But when read in context we find there are many other passages that say the opposite, teaching that a person needs to personally receive Christ to be His child (John 1:12-13); that a person must be born again to see the kingdom (John 3:3-6); and that it takes faith in the blood of Jesus to be personally saved (Romans 3:22, 10:9-10; Ephesians 2:8-9).
Furthermore, even these “whole world” passages are congruent with the traditional view held by most Bible-believers when examined in their context: that a person needs to exert faith in Christ in order to be saved.
Second Corinthians 5:19 should be read in the context of 2 Cor. 5:17 in which the qualifier “if any person be in Christ” brings clarity to the fact that a person has to be saved in order to be reconciled. In this context 2 Cor. 5:19 can be seen to mean that Jesus reconciled the world to Himself, meaning either He saved all people potentially through His efficacious blood or that Jesus died for all kinds of people (i.e. His salvation extended beyond ethnic Jews).
The same can be said for John 3:16-17 which is balanced out by the context of John 3:18 which says “whoever believes not [in Him] is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
Romans 5:18 doesn’t refer to all human beings being saved because the qualifier in context, Romans 5:1, teaches that through faith we have peace with God through Christ and that the power of salvation is extended only to those who believe (Romans 1:16).
Thus, the mistake here, as in most heresies and cults, is that folks take a biblical passage out of context by not reading the entire biblical letter or book.
Here is an example of why context is so important: Let’s imagine a man were to receive a “Dear John” letter that starts with his girlfriend informing him she wants to break off their relationship forever. But, in the middle of the letter, she says she still loves him and will enjoy all of their memories together. He reads the entire letter but focuses only on the middle part of the letter and thinks she still loves him and wants to be together. By doing this he completely misses the point of the letter that was given in the opening part, which gave the context for the rest of the letter.
The same effect takes place in 1 John 2:4 in which it seems as though Jesus is a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. But this verse most likely refers to the efficacious potential of the blood and not the actual application of salvation. Again, the context can be seen by 1 John 1:9 which refers to confessing sin in order to be forgiven and 1 John 5:12 which speaks about a person having the Son to qualify for eternal life.
Universalists also use John 12:32 which quotes Jesus as saying “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” They twist this passage to make it seem as though all will ultimately be reconciled. But Jesus, speaking to Jewish followers, was merely speaking about how His sacrifice would draw all people from all ethnic backgrounds and nations, not only Jews. Also, drawing “all people” can be explained by prevenient grace (the process describing the period of time when God’s Spirit convicts a person) but does not necessarily mean that all who experience conviction of sin will be saved.
Universalists also use psychology by asking “Doesn’t God always have His way?” Then they quote 2 Peter 3:9 which says: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” So, they ask, if God is not willing that any should perish, do you think we will overpower His omnipotence? Of course, the context of this passage is found in 2 Peter 3:8 in which Peter is speaking to God’s “beloved.” That is to say, God is not willing that any of His children should perish.
Furthermore, we also have an instance in which Jesus wept over His people because they rejected His desire to bring them to Himself as a hen gathers her chicks, but they were not willing and were left desolate and judged as a nation (Matthew 23:37-39). So here we have a passage in which God didn’t have His way or get what He desired!
Finally, the grand passage of Romans 8:29-30 teaches us that only those God foreknew and personally called would be justified and ultimately glorified. (Of course, those with an Arminian view of salvation would have a harder time disproving universalism than a Calvinist-Reformed position according to this passage, although it is still possible.)
Romans 8:29-30 says: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
If everyone were equally called and drawn to Christ then all would be justified. But this passage makes it clear that a person has to be foreknown and predestined before they hear a particular call to God, which Calvinists sometimes refer to as irresistible grace. Thus, all are not saved; only those He has foreknown for predestination!
Finally, the Bible makes it clear that He commands all people everywhere to repent in this life before they face the judgment: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)
The following passage in Revelation 20:11-15 states as clearly as tar on snow that all people will not be saved: “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.”
Is hell a metaphor, is hell eternal, and is hell literal?
Jesus spoke more about hell than He did any other subject, either directly or indirectly. Hell was very real to Him and not just a metaphor. He told His disciples to fear God who casts both body and soul into hell (Matthew 10:28); that hell was made for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25: 41); and that hell and its torment is forever (Matthew 25:46).
Some say that when Jesus spoke about a person perishing (John 3:16) or being destroyed (Matthew 10:28) that He was referring to annihilation (total destruction, in which a person ceases to exist consciously any longer; this is the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ teaching on hell). But, the Greek word used in Mark 2:22 (apollomi), in which a wineskin is ruined (it still exists but is no longer able to fulfill its purpose, hence it is ruined forever) is the same Greek work Jesus used in reference to hell (Matthew 5:29-30, 10:28).
Also, in Mark 9:48 Jesus says that hell is “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” A fire can only remain if it has something to burn. If a worm cannot die in this fire, then who is to say that the flame would annihilate a human soul?
Furthermore, if hell is either annihilation or a metaphor then Jesus lied in telling the story about the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). In this story the rich man is in conscious torment and is never annihilated or ceases to exist or feel pain. Furthermore, if this story is only a metaphor or a parable (as the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach) then why would Jesus go against the usual form of His parables, in which He never mentions the names of real people (Lazarus and Abraham)? Here is the passage:
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19-31)
Another belief that is the kissing cousin of universalism is pluralism: the belief that there are many ways to God besides Jesus. This is the gist of pluralism: Although Jesus is the Son of God and the highest manifestation of God and His will (John 14:9), other religions also teach a lower level of truth about God and, hence, are also able to be a dispenser of God’s grace to penitent followers.
The idea behind pluralism is that each person only has a certain amount of revelation about God and will be judged according to the revelation they have. The implications of this belief are significant: If someone is a good Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, follower of Confucius, etc. they will be saved even though their religion is not equal in value or revelation to Christianity.
Scripture challenges this position. Jesus wasn’t too kind with all His religious predecessors when He called them “thieves and robbers” (John 10:8). He said in no uncertain terms that He is the only door to salvation (John 10:9) and the only light of the world (John 8:12). Divine revelation only comes through Him (John 1:9) and through the Spirit He sends (John 16:7-15). Jesus left no doubts as to His place as the only way to salvation when He said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” and that “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The apostles carried this theme and taught that salvation is only in the name of Jesus, and that there is no other name by which a person can be saved (Acts 4:12).
Finally, there are some who interpret Romans 2:12-16 to mean that God will give everyone a chance to choose Christ after they die. This is because everyone has a sense of God’s revelation in their hearts that they follow the best they can, based on following the innate Law of God given to men at birth through their conscience. Let’s look at this passage:
“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:12-16)
According to this passage God is no respecter of persons and will judge all people (Jews and Gentiles) equally, whether they had the law or not. The whole point of this passage is that a person was held accountable in the Old Covenant times by the natural law inherent in nature and testified to by the human conscience—before the revelation of Christ was revealed. Both natural law and the Law of Moses serve only as schoolmasters leading us to the Savior because knowledge of sin should lead us to cry out to God for His mercy and salvation by grace.
(Galatians 4:24 and Romans 2:12-16 go hand in hand. Both show that Jews who had the law and non-Jews without the law have no excuse before God—the former passage because of divine revelation through the prophets, and the latter passage because of the revelation of God through nature and natural law. See also Romans 1:18-22.)
Some good people I know and respect do stretch this passage to lay open the possibility that those who have never heard the gospel will have a chance to be saved if they follow their conscience and attempt to seek God with all their heart, even if they never know the full revelation of God in Christ. Of course, I don’t think this is what Paul is saying here in the context of Romans, and I would not want to take a chance and give people a false hope based on an ambiguous understanding of this passage.
Also, the Bible tells us that even those who have never heard the gospel are without excuse and will be held accountable because of the wonders and beauty in creation which declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1-4). God promises all, whether they have heard of Christ or not, that if they seek Him with all their heart they will find Him (Jeremiah 29:13).
Finally, the entire Old Testament, especially the writings of the prophets, shows us how God feels about sharing His glory with other gods and/or religious beliefs (Isaiah 42:8). Here is a passage from 2 Kings 17:35-41:
“The LORD made a covenant with them and commanded them, ‘You shall not fear other gods or bow yourselves to them or serve them or sacrifice to them, but you shall fear the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt with great power and with an outstretched arm. You shall bow yourselves to him, and to him you shall sacrifice. And the statutes and the rules and the law and the commandment that he wrote for you, you shall always be careful to do. You shall not fear other gods, and you shall not forget the covenant that I have made with you. You shall not fear other gods, but you shall fear the LORD your God, and he will deliver you out of the hand of all your enemies.’ However, they would not listen, but they did according to their former manner. So these nations feared the LORD and also served their carved images. Their children did likewise, and their children’s children—as their fathers did, so they do to this day.”
Those who espouse that there are many ways to God (even if they believe and teach that Christianity is the most accurate and highest revelation of God known to humanity) are espousing syncretism. They teach that we can worship Jehovah and still have other belief systems and views about God, and that this is acceptable to God as long as we are sincere because our revelation of God is not yet complete.
The above passage from 2 Kings 17:35-41 shows that God is against this mixture of religious belief (ecumenism, pluralism or syncretism) and only tolerates worship of the one true God.
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