Discussing Universalism (Warning: Long Post)
I just got back from our monthly young adults Bible study, and boy is my head swimming. As always we participated in a long, passionate and heated discussion. It is important for Christians to critically examine their beliefs to ensure they are consistent with scripture and sound biblical doctrine. However, this time around some questions were asked and concepts debated that might have left some people with more questions than answers. Therefore, in order to further our understanding I will take this opportunity to address what was discussed, and to unpack what scripture has to say on the topic.
For the benefit of those who were not in attendance, I will try and summarize the discussion. The evening began with me posing the question, “What is the one thing you struggle with the most?” The group produced a variety of answers, but it was when I gave my response that the bearing of our conversation was set. I shared that I had always struggled with the doctrine of eternal punishment. I struggled with it not because I refused to believe eternal judgement exists, but rather I wrestled with the implications of the fact that it does. I would love to believe that everyone makes it and that no one falls short of the glory of God. I would love to believe it, but I just can’t afford to live that way. In the process of the conversation it became apparent that I was not the only one to struggle with with this.
For those of us who might struggle with the doctrine of Hell and eternal punishment, we have three potential options; ignore it, deny it, or accept it. I am finding more and more Christians are opting out of the traditional concept of judgement and Hell. Given an unbeliever does not hold the Bible as their standard for truth, I can easily understand why they would choose to ignore or deny the notion of Hell. Believers, on the other hand, should require scriptural support when establishing their understanding of the concept. During the process of our discussion two arguments were made in defense of universalism, which is ultimately door number two in our three options.
The scriptural argument put forth at our Bible study basically centered around the idea that if Christ died for the world, and paid the price for all sin, would that not make all men righteous (John 1:29, Rom 5:12-18 – emphases on vs 18, 1 Tim 2:6, 1 John 2:2)? This would be a logical conclusion if words like “all”, “every” and “world” were without qualification or exception. If one was to take these verses in isolation, and did not interpret them in light of the full counsel of scripture, you might have reason to believe “all” and “every” meant without stipulation. However, God left plenty of scriptures (Dan 12:2, Matt 25:31-46, 2 Thes 1:9, Rev 14:10-11, Rev 20:10) speaking of eternal death and judgement such that one would have a difficult time holding to the idea that all men were made righteous without exception.
The second argument used to defend universalism was one I can honestly say I had never heard before. It was argued that the Greek word translated “eternal” was actually age specific and it did not mean everlasting or without end. Essentially if this was true eternal punishment would not go on forever, but rather it would only last for a set span of time (or age). After this set period of time those who denied Christ in this life would receive him as saviour postmortem, which is supposedly the point in time when Rom 14:11 is fulfilled. In order for this to happen a lot is riding on the meaning of one Greek word. Isn’t that the way it always is with theology?
This argument hinges on the meaning of the Greek word aionios. Aionios shows up 70 times in the new testament and is translated into words such as eternal, everlasting and forever. If we are to dispute the original meaning of a Greek word we will have to approach the problem the same way the scholars and translators do. When it comes to understanding the usage and meanings of words translators customarily go to other period texts to confirm the conventional usage of the word. Since aionios is used 70 times across multiple books of the Bible it is a pretty safe to say that one should be able to determine how the original Greek audience would have understood the text. Strong evidence that scholars have properly translated aionios can be found in 2 Corinthians 4:18, where it is used in contrasting transient and eternal things. The weight of this verse would be lost if you simply understood it to mean some things are more transient than others. Aionios is also used to describe eternal life (Matt 25:46), God’s eternal nature (Rom 16:26), Jesus’ eternal dominion (1 Tim 6:14-16), Christ’s eternal salvation (Heb 5:9), secured eternal redemption (Heb 9:12), our eternal inheritance (Heb 9:15), Christ’s eternal glory (1 Peter 5:10), Jesus’ eternal kingdom (2 Peter 1:11) and his eternal gospel (Rev 14:6). If we were to believe “eternal” is better understood as a set span of time we would also be forced to believe God’s kingdom, dominion, glory and nature were no longer eternal. In order to treat aionios in an intellectually honest fashion we would need a consistent understanding of its meaning, one which does not deviate unless the text demands it. Since aionios is so intimately associated with God’s nature and authority we would risk downgrading him if we were to understand it to mean anything less than eternal.
In order to both address the original question of man’s righteousness, and to bring this post to a conclusion, I would like to highlight what both Jesus and John said in scripture.
John 3:16- 18 (Jesus speaking) 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 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. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
John 3:35-36 (John speaking) 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
In both of these sections of scripture you see statements that use seemingly comprehensive words like “all” and “world”. However, we discover they are not without qualification. If we do not believe in the Son we are yet condemned and his wrath remains on us. Although it would be nice to believe that Christ’s completed work upon the cross made every man, woman and child righteous, scripture will not allow me. The good news of the gospel is God has imputed Christ’s righteousness as our own. It is a free gift of the highest quality, sufficient for the remission of the sin of every man. However, it is only effective for those who believe. That is where scripture leads us, and where I must be satisfied.