Does Everyone Go to Heaven? A Brief Survey of Universalism

(Everything below was taken from the 1st chapter of the book, "Erasing Hell: what God has said, and the things we've made up" by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle) Does everyone go to heaven? Based on what I hear at funerals, the answer is an overwhelming “Yes!” How many funerals have you attended where this was even in question? What we need to do is get down to what the Bible says about the matter. Questions about heaven and hell are too important to leave to our feelings or assumptions. But before we examine the biblical answers to these things, we have to settle an important question. Do you want to believe in a God who shows His power by punishing non-Christians and who magnifies His mercy by blessing Christians forever? Do you want to? Be honest. Do you want to believe in a God like this? Here’s my gut-level, honest answer: No. No way. I have family and friends who reject Jesus. I do not want to believe in a God who punishes non-Christians. Okay, maybe He should punish extremely wicked people—that makes some sense. But punishment in hell for seemingly good people, or those who simply chose the wrong religion? That feels a bit harsh, at least according to my sense of justice. But let me ask you another question. Could you? Could you believe in a God who decides to punish people who don’t believe in Jesus? A God who wants to show His power by punishing those who don’t follow His Son?

Now that’s a different question, isn’t it? You may not recognize the difference immediately, but read them again and you’ll see that these two questions—do you want to? versus could you?—are actually miles apart. The problem is that we often respond to the second question because of our response to the first. In other words, because there are things that we don’t want to believe about God, we therefore decide that we can’t believe them. Let me be more specific and personal. I want everyone to be saved. I do. I don’t want anyone to go to hell. The fact is, I would love for all people to stand before Christ on judgment day and have a chance to say, “They were right all along, Jesus. You really are the Savior. I am so sorry for not believing in You before, but I believe now. Can I have a second chance?” I want to believe in a God who will save everyone in the end. But is this what God says He will do? Do the Scriptures teach this? Despite what we may want to believe, we’ve got to figure out what God told us to believe in His Word. Universalism in the Bible But how do they arrive at these views? As attractive as this position is, does anything in the Bible support the idea that God will end up saving everyone? Maybe. At first glance, some passages seem to support the notion that everyone will be saved. But after taking a closer look, it doesn’t appear that they do. We don’t have time or space to cover every passage used to support Christian Universalism, so we’ll take a look at a few of the big ones: Philippians 2, 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Timothy 2, and Revelation 21. We’ll then conclude by looking at what the Bible says about choosing Jesus after we die. Every Knee Will Bow If you were on a deserted island and you uncorked an empty bottle containing Philippians 2:9–11, you would probably be a Universalist. After talking about Christ’s humble life, death, and resurrection, Paul says: Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. The key phrase here is “every knee should bow … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (vv. 10–11). By itself, this could mean that every single individual who ever lived will embrace Jesus—if not in this life, then surely in the next. But all we would need is for the rest of the Philippian letter to float ashore in order to see that Philippians 2:9–11 doesn’t teach universal salvation. In Philippians 1:28, Paul says that those who oppose the gospel will face “destruction,” while those who embrace it will be saved. There’s a contrast here between believers and unbelievers; each have very different destinies. In Philippians 3:19, Paul refers to the enemies of Christ whose “end is destruction,” while followers of Jesus look forward to resurrection and glory (3:20–21). Once more, there’s a contrast. A contrast between believers and unbelievers and their individual destinies (note the word end in 3:19), which follow the decisions they make in this life. We also need to see that Paul in Philippians 2 is actually quoting from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Here, the prophet Isaiah looks forward to a time when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess the name of God (45:23). But in that passage, Isaiah is referring to God’s salvation, which is witnessed among the nations and embraced by some but not all. In fact, Isaiah himself, in the very passage that Paul quotes, says that there will be some who embrace salvation and some who continue to resist it. So what does Philippians 2:9–11 mean? It means that there will come a day when Christ returns to reclaim His creation, and everyone will acknowledge this. King Jesus will reign, and none will be able to deny it. But Paul doesn’t contradict Isaiah. With this salvation and reign also comes judgment for those who opposed Christ in this life. Isaiah said this in the very next verse (45:24), and Paul affirms it as well (Phil. 1:28; 3:19) All Will Be Made Alive Several passages in the New Testament describe God restoring all people or reconciling all things to Himself. These verses are often used to prove that God will save every single person. Here are a few of the big ones: For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor. 15:22) In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:19) In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:19–20) [God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:4) In looking at these passages, one Christian Universalist says, “Paul envisioned a time when all persons would be reconciled to God in the full redemptive sense.” Is that what these passages are saying, or is there something else going on? There seems to be something else going on in 1 Corinthians 15:22, for instance, where Paul says, “In Christ all will be made alive” (NIV). The verse by itself could mean that everyone will end up being saved, but the context doesn’t support this interpretation. When Paul says “all will be made alive,” he’s clearly thinking about the resurrection of believers at the second coming of Christ. In fact, he says this very thing in the next verse: “All who belong to Christ will be made alive at his coming” (see vv. 22–23). So the verse can’t mean that everyone will be saved in the end. In fact, following this verse is a whole lot of destruction: destruction of everyone and everything that opposes God in this life (vv. 25–26). This is why Paul concludes the letter with a forceful warning that everyone who does not love Jesus will be damned (16:22). So in this case, “all” doesn’t mean every single person. And this is a good thing to keep in mind when looking at 1 Corinthians Corinthians 15:22 and other passages like it. You’ve got to figure out from the context what “all” means. For instance, when Mark said that “all the country of Judea” and “all the people of Jerusalem” were going out to be baptized by John (Mark 1:5 NASB), he certainly didn’t mean every single individual in Judea—man, woman, and child. “All” here simply denotes a large number of people. In Acts 21:28, Paul is accused of preaching to “all men everywhere” (NASB). Did Paul really share the gospel with every single person on earth? Again, “all” means a whole lot of people in many different places, not every single individual. So “all” doesn’t always mean everything or everyone. And the same goes for 1 Corinthians 15:22, as is clear from the context. The “all” who will be “made alive” in Christ refers to believers of all types, not every single person. Does God Get What God Wants? The same goes for 1 Timothy 2:4, which says: God “wants all people to be saved” (TNIV). We could spin a provocative question out of this verse by asking, Does God get what God wants? And this would set up a rhetorical slam dunk. Of course God gets what He wants! Otherwise, He’s not God. Or if He is God, He’s not very powerful. But hold on a second. This question of God getting what He wants passes over two other important questions about 1 Timothy 2:4: (1) What’s the meaning of “all,” and (2) what does the word want mean in this context? The first question is fairly easy to answer in light of our discussion above. Once again, the context is key. Just a few verses earlier, Paul commands Timothy to pray for “all people” (1 Tim. 2:1), and this command is based on God’s desire to save “all people” (v. 4). If we take the second “all people” to mean every single person, then surely we’ve got to take the other “all” in the same way. Does Paul really want us to march through a prayer list that includes every person on the face of the earth? Maybe this wouldn’t be a bad thing, but I don’t think this is Paul’s point here. In 1 Timothy 2:1–2, he qualifies the prayer for “all people” by adding “for kings and all who are in high positions.” It seems that Paul is urging Timothy to pray for all types of people—even those Roman leaders who may persecute Christians! It’s probably the case that Paul wants Timothy to pray for all types of people because God is on a mission to save all types of people. What then does Paul mean by “want”? This issue is a bit more complicated, because this word can mean all sorts of different things. In any case, the word want does not have to mean that God wants something and is doing all He can to get it, in the same way that I want a coffee refill and simply walk up to the counter and get it. In fact, Paul, who said that God wants all people to be saved, also said that God “wants” all Christians to be sexually pure (1 Thess. 4:3). Ever met a Christian who was not sexually pure? Does this mean that God is not getting what God wants? To figure out the meaning of “want,” it’s helpful to consider what theologians have called God’s moral will and His decreed will. Some things may be part of God’s desire for the world, and yet these desires can be resisted. God doesn’t desire that people sin, but He allows it to happen because humans are moral agents who often make evil choices. God is not a puppet master who pulls everyone’s strings to suit His will. That’s why the Lord taught us to pray things like “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). God’s desire—His moral will—is resisted. And then there’s God’s decreed will. This refers to those things that God makes happen regardless of what humans decide. He sometimes uses our bad choices—our rebellion against His moral will—to carry out His decreed will. There’s a difference, in other words, between God’s values that please Him (moral will) and those events that He causes to happen (decreed will).15 Is this getting too heavy? Maybe an illustration will help. In Judges 14—16, we read about a loose cannon named Samson. Though he was mighty in warfare, his moral compass was significantly flawed, as seen in his love for ladies of the pagan sort. At the beginning of the story, Samson fell in love with a Philistine woman, which was against God’s moral will (Judg. 3:1–6) And yet Judges 14:4 says that his love affair was “from the LORD.” God was “seeking an opportunity against the Philistines,” and so He used Samson’s lust to oppose the Philistines. Samson’s love for pagan women went against God’s moral will, but became part of God’s decreed will. Samson was free to go against God’s moral will, yet God intervened to carry out His decreed will in using this situation to fight against the Philistines. Now back to 1 Timothy 2. In what sense does God want all people to be saved? The word underscores God’s moral will, His desire to save all types of people. They are free to reject this because it isn’t God’s decreed will, but the verse captures God’s heart nonetheless. So a question framed as, does God get what God wants? implies that if He doesn’t save everyone as He set out to, then He’s a failure. But this is a naive assumption at best; at worst, the rhetoric is tremendously misleading. misleading. Paul’s point is not that Timothy is to pray for every single person who ever lived, and neither is it that God has decreed that He will save everyone. The point of 1 Timothy 2 and other passages like it (e.g., 2 Peter 3:9) is that God is not a bigot; He’s not a racist; He loves to reverse social-class distinctions because His love knows no boundaries. The gospel has broken down all ethnic and socioeconomic barriers through the cross of Jesus Christ, as Paul says elsewhere (Eph. 2:11–22).16 God even wants pedophile maniacs like Caesar Nero (i.e., “kings and all who are in high positions” in 1 Tim. 2:2) to repent and come to Jesus! Paul nearly got to Nero with the gospel and had his head chopped off in the process. But that’s another story. Who Left the Gate Open? Let’s flip to the last book of the Bible, where some argue that all will ultimately be saved. Revelation 21 envisions believers flowing into the “New Jerusalem,” which in one way or another depicts our final state. John, the writer, says that “its gates will never be shut” (v. 25) and that “the kings of the earth” will “bring their glory into” the New Jerusalem (v. 24). But who left that gate open? What is John saying by using this image of open gates? Some have taken this to mean that God will forever wait with open arms (or open gates) for unbelievers to turn to Him. “Once they have been purified in the lake of fire,” says one writer, “those most vile of all men … will be free to enter the New Jerusalem through gates that never close.” But does the image of open gates show that “those who have said no to God’s love in this life” will have endless opportunities to say yes to it in the afterlife?18 This is an interesting suggestion. I would love to believe it, but three things in the text make it hard for me to accept that theory. First, Revelation 20 and 21 have already described the “lake of fire” as the final destiny of those who don’t follow Jesus in this life. There’s nothing in Revelation that suggests there’s hope on the other side of the lake. Second, there’s nothing in the text that says the lake of fire is intended to purify the wicked. On the contrary, the judgment scene in 20:11–15 explains that the lake of fire is for punishment. And third, even after the open-gates passage of 21:24–26, John goes on to depict two different destinies for believers and unbelievers: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” (22:14–15) This passage says that there will be an ongoing separation between believers and unbelievers. What determines their destinies is whether or not they “wash[ed] their robes;” in other words, whether or not their sin has been dealt with through the blood of Jesus in this life (see Rev. 7:14). I think it’s a stretch to suggest that unbelievers can wash their robes while in the lake of fire and then enter the gates. To sum it up, there are some passages in the New Testament that seem to say everyone will be saved. But after looking at the context, we see that these passages probably don’t mean this. Not only would this contradict many other passages that speak of judgment and retribution (as we will see in the following chapters), it doesn’t align well with the context of the passages themselves. What about Those Passages That Say There Will Be a Second Chance? I said at the beginning that the one thing all Christian Universalists agree upon is that after death there will be another chance (or an endless string of chances) to choose Jesus. The Universalist view depends upon it. So we need to wrestle with all the postmortem second-chance passages to see if they actually teach this view. The problem is, there aren’t any passages that say this. No passage in the Bible says that there will be a second chance after death to turn to Jesus. And that’s frightening. It’s frightening because the idea of an after-death conversion is the most important ingredient for the Universalist position. It makes or breaks this view. But there is no single passage in the Bible that describes, hints at, hopes for, or suggests that someone who dies without following Jesus in this life will have an opportunity to do so after death. One Christian Universalist admits this. Arguing for the possibility of people getting out of hell, he says: “Clearly my interpretation is underdetermined by the texts.… I am not so much exegeting the texts as trying to draw out the logic of New Testament theology as I understand it and its implications for those texts. In the process I may be offering ways of reading the texts that go beyond what their authors had in mind.” (MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 140) Keep in mind that we’re not simply trying to settle a doctrinal issue. We’re talking about people’s destinies. The thought that someone may end up banking on a second chance after they die even though the biblical authors never explicitly said this is … well … Terrifying. These are eternal destinies we’re talking about. We can’t be wrong on this one. To make a compelling case that “the love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God” without clear biblical evidence is incredibly dangerous—especially if you are one of these “sinners” and things don’t work out like this. If the doctor said your daughter is going to be fine, and she died three days later, you’d call the authorities. The Bible does not say that there will be a second chance after death. In fact, some passages even warn against this type of false hope. For instance, toward the end of His life, Jesus told a parable about second chances (Luke 13: 22–30). Jesus is making His way to Jerusalem, and His disciples ask how many people will end up being saved. Jesus answers that few will be saved, but even worse, many who think they are saved will end up on the “outside” of the kingdom, so to speak. While outside, they’ll knock on the door to see if Jesus will let them in. What will happen when Jesus comes to the door? According to those who believe that there are second chances after death, Jesus answers, “Come on in!” He has to, right? To think that Jesus would answer any other way is cruel. It would be unloving and unjust! Could Jesus actually say, “‘ Door’s locked. Sorry. If you had been here earlier, I could have done something. But now, it’s too late’”? Yes, actually, He could. Though we may wish for the door to fling open, Jesus says that He will do the opposite: “When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.… Depart from me, all you workers workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” (Luke 13: 25–28) This passage “gives no hint whatever that the door will remain permanently open.” If Jesus believed in second chances for those who reject Him in this life, then this parable is dangerously misleading. For those who follow Jesus, there is everlasting life in the presence of God, but for those who don’t follow Him, there will be punishment. And as we have seen in this chapter, the Bible doesn’t seem to hold out hope for a second chance. How scary this is for those who will find themselves on the other side of the door wanting to come in, banging and begging, wishing they had made some different choices while they had the opportunity. It’s sobering to think about this parable. Jesus did not say these words so we would one day merely discuss them in a book. Like all Scripture, this parable is meant to impact our souls. Please take some time to at least read it again. Read it with care. Read it with conviction, knowing that there will be people on the outside, in a terrible place of punishment. A place called hell.

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