Several Pauline Epistle verses (Rom. 11:32; Col. 1:19-20; Phil 2:10-11; 1 Cor. 15:22; Eph. 1:7-10) are used in support of “Christian Universalism” – the belief that all will eventually be saved. Perhaps the most challenging one comes from Romans:
- Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. (Rom. 5:18; All the verses are in the ESV)
This verse parallels all dying in Adam with all living through Christ (1 Cor. 15:22). However, many other Pauline verses are emphatic about an eternal judgment. (I’ll only take a look at the verses in the Book of Romans.) For instance:
- We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. (Rom. 2:2-5)
Clearly, Paul writes of the final, decisive judgment. If the punishment were just a matter of a few days, it would hardly be worth mentioning. Paul contrasts this judgment with the gift of eternal life, unambiguously showing that not all will receive eternal life:
- But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 6:22-23)
A life characterized by sin without repentance would not lead to eternal life. This leaves little room for universalism. According to Paul, eternal life would not extend to all:
- For if you live according to the flesh you will die [not just physically. We all die physically], but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live [eternally]… and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom. 8:13, 17)
We will only be “glorified with Him” if we live for Him! Paul declares that we even know this:
- Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die [eternally], they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Rom. 1:32)
Paul therefore lamented:
- For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my [Israelite] kinsmen according to the flesh. (Rom. 9:3)
Wishing himself accursed for the sake of his brethren can only make sense if it is understand that their fate was absolutely horrid. However, if all are to be saved, Paul was mistakenly perturbed over nothing. Instead, Paul asserted that only those who cry out for the Lord’s mercy will be saved (Rom. 10:13), and not the “vessels of wrath” (Rom. 9:22).
Paul cites God’s Old Testament assurance that “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay” (Rom. 12:19). However, many do not receive their punishment in this life. Only if there is a future judgment, can we hold to this assurance. Paul refers to the “judgment seat of God” before which we must all appear (Rom. 14:10) as a warning. However, this warning is of little consequence if we will all be saved.
In light of all this, how should we interpret Romans 5:18 that “all” find life and righteousness in Christ? Here is a suggestion that would harmonize this verse with Paul’s many assertions about eternal judgment:
- Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men [who believe]. (Rom. 5:18)
This must have been Paul’s intended meaning.