Monday, August 18, 2014

Christian Universalism: Does it Agree with Scripture?

A Christian Universalist (CU) asked me to provide a few verses that would contradict universalism – the belief that God will save everyone. I did, but then began thinking that universalism defies so many of the teachings of the Bible, not simply the doctrine of a final and eternal judgment. Let me try to demonstrate with several doctrines:

FAITH: Faith is regarded as necessary for salvation. Jesus taught that those who have faith would not “perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16), suggesting that those without faith would not have everlasting life. Jesus also warned the Pharisees:

  • “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.” (John 8:24)

While the CU will claim that it is one thing to “die in your sins,” but it’s another thing for God to leave them in torment without bringing them to heaven. However, if Jesus’ concern was just a matter of their dying experience, His warning would hardly have been worth the words.

REPENTANCE: Repentance is so closely associated with faith that it is also a condition of salvation. Peter implies this:

  • 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. (2 Peter 3:9)

Coming to repentance is opposite from perishing. According to Peter, if we don’t come to repentance, we will perish. The CU, however, will argue that perishing is not the end of the story, since God will save after perishing.

However, there seems to be a note of finality attached to these warnings. For instance, the Book of Hebrews warns:

  • Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:27-28)

There is no mention of the possibility of Jesus bringing salvation to all but just to those “who are waiting for him.”

HOLINESS: Similarly, holiness is taught as a necessary fruit of salvation, without which no one will be saved:

  • Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)
There is no suggestion here that those who refuse to follow our Lord will be reunited with Him after death. If this were the case, someone could easily retort:

  • Well, I’m just having too good of a time here to worry about holiness. Anyway, we’re all going to be saved, so why bother!

OBEDIENCE: Obedience is the inevitable fruit of a living faith. Therefore, James was able to say that he could show his faith through his obedience. Therefore, if obedience isn’t present, neither is salvation:

  • “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)

These would never enter the kingdom, according to Jesus. Instead, they would be part of the resurrection of the evil:

  • “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.” (John 5:28-29)

There is no hint that this condemnation would later give rise to a free pass to heaven. Instead, Jesus warned that we should fear God who could punish us beyond the grave:

  • “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

According to Jesus, there is a fate worse than death. However, the CU discounts or minimizes this fate.

Paul repeatedly warned about the fate of those who were not living for Christ:

  • I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal. 5:21)

While Paul claimed that the eternal kingdom of God was at stake, the CU must deny these stakes.

FORGIVENESS: Forgiveness is necessary for salvation. However, the CU claims that God can grant all people forgiveness after the grave. However, this does not seem to be a possibility for all:

  • “And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.  Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:31-32)

In order to retain the viability of his theory, the CU must re-construe Scripture in a strained manner.

The Book of Hebrews also indicates that forgiveness will not be universal:

  • If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Hebrews 10:26-27)

If God’s enemies will be consumed, this doesn’t seem to give much hope for an eternal life.

PRAYER: Should the unrepentant expect to receive good from God if they do not ask for it? Not according to James:

  • You do not have because you do not ask God. (James 4:2)
  • That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (James 1:7-8)

However the CU claims that the unrepentant can expect to receive eternal life from God. This seems to be a contradiction.

MEDITATION ON SCRIPTURE: After describing the faithful man who is blessed by meditating on Scripture, the Psalmist contrasts him with the evil man:

  • Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction. (Psalm 1:4-6)

It appears that at death, the fate of the wicked is sealed. They will not be in the assembly of the righteous but will be destroyed.

EVANGELISM: Concern about the fate of the unbeliever is to motivate evangelism. However, if everyone is ultimately going to be saved, why bother!

THE INEVITABILITY OF AN ETERNAL JUDGMENT: Clearly, Scripture wants us to take these many warnings seriously:

  • For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly… the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. (2 Peter 2:4-9)

Peter argued that we must take the final judgment seriously, because if God judged in the past, there is no reason to doubt that He will judge in the future. In the next chapter, Peter equates this judgment with “the destruction of the ungodly” (3:7).  Other verses are even more emphatic about the finality of this judgment (Rev. 10:20; 21:8, 27).

These verses only represent a small sampling of verses that teach an eternal punishment. Nevertheless, I must admit that there remain perplexing questions:

  1. Of what will this judgment consist? Annihilation? Torment?
  2. How will the judgment be transacted? Will the condemned go willingly? Will judgment be self-chosen?

There are also philosophical problems:

  1. How can heaven be blissful if we know that our loved ones are suffering?
  2. The severity of eternal judgment seems unwarranted.

However, there is one final problem that I find intractable. CU Gregory MacDonald lays out the problem this way:

1. God, being omnipotent, could cause all people to freely accept Christ.
2. God, being omniscient, would know how to cause all people to freely accept Christ.
3. God, being omnibenevolent, would want to cause all people to freely accept Christ.
Now 1–3 entail: 4. God will cause all people to freely accept Christ. From which it follows that:
5. All people will freely accept Christ. (The Evangelical Universalist, Introduction)

MacDonald is claiming that if God is all-loving and all-powerful (omnipotent), He will save all. If He has both the will and ability to save all, there is no reason why He won’t save all.

However, MacDonald’s case is built on some shaky suppositions. It does not seem that God’s love, when biblically understood, requires Him to save all. Perhaps even more troublesome for MacDonald’s case is his understanding of God’s omnipotence.

Omnipotence cannot mean that God can do anything. Instead, Scripture reveals several things that He cannot do. He cannot sin or violate His Word. To violate His character is also to sin.

I used to wonder why, if God is omnipotent, He couldn’t just forgive without the cross. However, if He could, Jesus would have died needlessly. However, Scripture asserts that the cross wasn’t needless but the centerpiece of God’s plan. But to my thinking, this implied a limitation within God. How then could He be omnipotent if He couldn’t forgive apart from the cross?

Biblical omnipotence does not teach that God can do anything, but only those things He wants to do, but these are not necessarily the things that we’d expect Him to do, especially in a manner we regard as fitting.

I began to understand that the explanation for the cross lied buried within the Deity Himself – that there is something in His very nature that requires a just payment for sin. Is there also something within the nature of God that prevents Him from saving all? Perhaps, but He hasn’t disclosed this to us!

I am still perplexed by this question, but does this mean that I have to reject the concept of eternal judgment because of these unanswered questions? Certainly not! Commitment to any ideal or belief doesn’t require perfect understanding.

It couldn’t possibly! If it did, we’d have to reject science – a world filled with perplexities. In fact, we don’t even understand the basics of science – time, space, matter – let alone the behavior of sub-atomic particles.

The teaching of an eternal judgment is so thoroughly intertwined within Scripture, we cannot reject it without also rejecting Scripture and everything that we cherish. We are prone to come to quick and comfortable judgments like Nicodemus, who had been so hasty to dismiss the possibility of being “born again,” even though this was something he should have understood from Scripture. Lovingly, Jesus humbled him:

  • Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? (John 3:11-12)

The Bible speaks of heavenly things. Let us not be hasty to override Scripture merely because it doesn’t make complete sense to us.

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