The Message of Jesus: Do We Teach Universalism?
Some who criticize Trinitarian theology claim that it teaches universalism—the belief that everyone will be saved, regardless of whether they are good or bad, repentant or unrepentant, accepting or rejecting Jesus, and, consequently, there is no such thing as hell. This is not true. Trinitarian theology does not teach universalism. The noted Swiss theologian Karl Barth did not teach it. Neither theologians Thomas F. Torrance nor James B. Torrance taught it. Neither does Perichoresis Ministries director Baxter Kruger, author of The Shack William Paul Young, nor Grace Communion International.
Elsewhere on our website we state our position on universalism:
Universalism is a biblically unsound doctrine, which says that in the end all souls, whether human, angelic or demonic, will be saved by God’s grace. Some Universalists argue that repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ are irrelevant. Universalists typically deny the doctrine of the Trinity, and many Universalists are Unitarians. Contrary to universalism, the Bible teaches that there is salvation only in Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). In Jesus Christ, who is God’s elect for our sakes, all humanity is elect, but that does not necessarily mean that all humans will ultimately accept God’s free gift. God desires that all come to repentance, and he has created and redeemed humanity for true fellowship with him, but true fellowship can never constitute a forced relationship. We believe that in Christ, God makes gracious and just provision for all, even for those who at death appear not to have yet believed the gospel, but all who remain hostile to God remain unsaved by their own choice.
Those who claim that Trinitarian theology teaches universalism are either being dishonest or suffer from poor scholarship. Careful students of the Bible recognize that whereas we need not rule out the idea that God will save everyone, the scriptures are not conclusive. Therefore we should not be dogmatic about this issue.
The early church not dogmatic on hell
Why should the idea of the possibility of salvation for all arouse such hostility and accusations of “heresy”? The creeds of the early church were not dogmatic on the nature of hell. The metaphors are of flames, outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth. They are meant to convey what it’s like for people to be lost forever in a self-enclosed “world,” with their own selfish heart, their own selfish desires, adamantly rejecting the source of all love, all goodness, all truth. These metaphors are, if taken literally, conflicting. But metaphors are not intended to be taken literally—they illustrate various aspects of the topic. What we gain from them is that hell, whatever it is, is not where we want to be.
However, to ardently desire for all humanity to be saved and for no one to suffer in hell does not make you a heretic. What Christian would not want every person who ever lived to repent, receive forgiveness and experience reconciliation with God? The idea of all humanity being transformed by the Spirit of Christ and in heaven together in relationship is something to be desired. That is exactly what God desires—that all come to repentance and not suffer the consequences of the rejection of his gracious provision for them. God wants this because he loves the world (Greek, kosmos), as we read in John 3:16. God tells us to love and forgive our enemies because he loves his enemies, as Jesus loved and served even his betrayer Judas Iscariot at his last supper (John 13:1, 26) and on the cross (Luke 23:34).
The biblical revelation does not offer any guarantee that all will necessarily accept God’s forgiveness. It warns that there may be people who will refuse God’s love and reject the redemption and the adoption he has for them. Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that anyone would make such a choice. It is even more difficult to imagine that any would persist in rebellion against having a loving relationship with him. As C.S. Lewis described in The Great Divorce, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”
God’s desire for everyone
Universalism should not be confused with the universal or cosmic scope of the effectiveness of the saving work of Christ. In Jesus Christ, who is God’s elect for our sakes, all humanity is elect. That does not mean we can say for certain that all humans will ultimately accept God’s gift. But we can hope that is the case.
God desires that all come to repentance, as Peter expressed, “Not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9, NASB). Moreover, God has done everything possible to save us from the terrible and horrific situation that is hell. Yet, in the end, God will not violate the deliberate and persistent choice of those who willfully and deliberately reject his love and turn away from him. For God to override their minds, wills and hearts, he would have to undo their humanity and “un-create” them. But then there would be no human being to freely receive his costly gift of grace, life in Jesus Christ. He has created and redeemed humanity for true fellowship with him, but that true fellowship can never be constituted by a forced relationship.
The Bible does not blur the difference between believer and unbeliever, and neither should we. When we say that all people are forgiven, saved and reconciled in Christ, we mean that while we all belong to Christ, not all are in communion with him. While God has reconciled all to himself, not all are yet trusting and living in that reconciliation. So the apostle Paul says: “God was reconciling the world [kosmos] in Christ…We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled” (2 Corinthians 5:19-20). That is why ours is a ministry, not of condemnation, but of the announcement of Christ’s finished work of reconciliation, just as Paul exhorts us.
That is why we do not agree with or teach any of the various forms of universalism. Rather, we bear witness to the biblical revelation and orthodox teaching on God’s own character, mind, heart, purpose and attitude towards all manifested in Jesus Christ. We preach the universal or cosmic lordship of Jesus Christ, and we hope in the cosmic reconciliation of all those created according to his image. Since the Bible communicates that it is God’s desire for all to come to him in repentance to receive his gracious and costly forgiveness, why would that not also be the desire for all followers of Jesus? Should we desire for others something less than God desires?
Author: Joseph Tkach