Randy Alcorn just re-published Michael McClymond‘s article titled 12 Questions for Those Considering Universalism (originally published in December on The Gospel Coalition website as 12 Questions for the Would-Be Universalist). Because some Christians who haven’t studied the topic carefully enough might not know how easy it is to answer these questions, I thought I’d quickly do so. That said, anyone who really has studied soteriology in depth will already know the answers to most of these questions. However, if you aren’t someone who knows how we Scriptural Universalists (sometimes also referred to as Concordant Universalists) answer them, please see my free eBook Bible truths you won’t hear at church — Learn what Scripture really says about sex, hell, tithing, and much more for more details on the answers provided here.
1. How should we interpret Jesus’s words regarding ‘hell’ or ‘Gehenna,’ ‘the outer darkness,’ ‘the fire that is not quenched,’ ‘the worm that does not die,’ and the like?
Michael followed this question up with more questions: Christian belief in the reality of hell and the possibility of separation from God rests on Jesus’s own words in the Gospels. “Hell” or “Gehenna” and other related terms point toward a state of punishment and suffering after death. Yet if everyone without exception is headed toward the same final destination with God—as universalists claim—then why do we find Jesus saying the “sheep” will be separated from the “goats” (Matt. 25:31–46)? That the “wheat” will be separated from the “weeds” (Matt. 13:30)? That the “wheat” will be separated from the “chaff” (Matt. 3:12)? That the “good fish” will be separated from the “bad fish” (Matt. 13:48)? That the “wise virgins” will enter the wedding feast but the “foolish virgins” will be stuck outside (Matt. 25:1–13)? Separation is occurring in all these passages.
First, it helps to be aware that these judgements aren’t all referring to the same thing. For one thing, there are at least three different “hells” in the Bible (at least in the King James Version), and none of them are referring to the same place. I’m not going to get into the details of what all three are here (although I covered that in depth in my eBook), but the “hell” that’s referring to the Valley of Hinnom (or Gehenna) is quite literally that: a valley in Israel where carcases (meaning corpses) will be consumed by fire and by maggots (or “worms”) in the future, as made clear by Isaiah, and is also a reference to the lake of fire.
The “outer darkness,” on the other hand, is simply a reference to anything outside of Israel when the kingdom of heaven begins there in the future, and many Israelites will weep and gnash their (quite physical) teeth in anguish when they’re exiled from Israel, forced to live in figuratively “darker” parts of the world, after Jesus returns. This is what the separation of the wheat and weeds is referring to as well, by the way, and has no connection to the salvation most people think of when they hear the word “salvation” (and the separation of the sheep and the goats is similar, but is referring to Gentiles rather than to Israelites, and where they’ll end up living after the Tribulation ends, based on the way they treat believing Jews during the Tribulation). And while some of the “weeds” will indeed end up in the lake of fire instead, not all of them will (at least not at this particular judgement). If you really aren’t familiar with these facts and are claiming to have rejected Universalism already, that’s quite embarrassing for you, so please do read the first three chapters of my eBook that I linked to above, since I go into detail on why this is what Jesus was referring to there.
Michael then wrote: But if universalism is true, there can be no truly lasting separation. And in that case, isn’t Jesus’s teaching highly misleading? Are we to imagine that our Savior frightened his hearers by describing a fixed separation of sinners that will never occur, or a future state of punishment that will not exist?
This assumption is due to a lack of understanding of what Jesus’ message was about in the first place. Jesus was discussing the hope of every Israelite He spoke to, which is to get to live in the kingdom of heaven when it begins in Israel in the future. The threat of missing out on that would strike fear into every one of His listeners’ hearts, or would have if they took Him seriously anyway. This wasn’t a threat relevant to any Gentile, though, since Jesus’ message at the time was only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, as He once had to explain to His disciples (and which is something most modern readers of the Bible seem to have missed as well). Gentiles enter the kingdom in entirely different ways from the way Jesus’ audience members will get to, as anyone who has studied Scripture should know, and as I explained to those who don’t in my eBook.
2. If hell is a temporary state but heaven is a forever state, then why are both denoted by the same word as ‘eternal’?
Michael adds: Universalists often argue that aionios as applied to hell or punishment doesn’t mean “eternal” in the strict sense, but merely “age-long.” In other words, hell exists but it’s temporary. In that case, though, we’d need to conclude heaven too is temporary—that heaven comes to an end.
And he’s right. Heaven does come to an end. But it will be replaced by a New Heaven (just as this planet will be replaced by a New Earth). That said, going to heaven isn’t what salvation is about for most people anyway (only some who get saved will go to heaven, which also isn’t what most people assume it is to begin with; it isn’t a place the dead can go, at least not in a conscious state). Besides, pretty much nobody in Jesus’ audience was looking forward to heaven (or will ever go to heaven), but were rather looking forward to the kingdom of heaven when it begins on earth (specifically in Israel). Again, I go into much more detail on this in my eBook, but the simple fact that anyone thinks salvation is primarily about going to heaven tells us they haven’t studied Scripture enough to be able to decide one way or the other on Universalism at all yet.
3. What about the ‘two ways’ theme in the Old and New Testaments?
Michael: The New Testament’s teaching on heaven and hell doesn’t materialize out of nowhere.
Actually, “going to heaven vs going to hell” isn’t a theme in the Bible at all, so right off the bat we’re off to a bad start with this question.
Michael: The universalist idea of only one outcome for everyone—regardless of choices made—doesn’t merely contradict one verse here or there. It runs against the whole thrust of Old and New Testament teachings.
We don’t teach “only one outcome for everyone” at all. In fact, many people will miss out on a lot, including “eternal” life in the kingdom of heaven, and some will even end up experiencing “eternal” damnation. Yes, there’s an ultimate end result of physical salvation that everyone will eventually experience (a very long time from now), but in the meantime there are many judgements you don’t want to go through if you can avoid them.
4. Why did Jesus need to die such a horrible, agonizing death on the cross for our sins?
It’s questions like this that make me question Michael’s (and Randy’s) salvation in the first place (relatively speaking, of course). Without Christ’s death for our sins, nobody would be saved, and if they don’t understand that, they haven’t believed the Gospel that Paul preached to the nations and aren’t in the body of Christ themselves, which means they’ll miss out on heaven (although perhaps they’ll still get to experience the kingdom of heaven; and they will, of course, eventually experience immortality on the New Earth).
5. How should we interpret the end-times teaching of Revelation?
These are events still to occur, and some will even die a second time in the lake of fire. But, as we know from Paul’s epistles, Revelation isn’t the final chapter in the story: 1 Corinthians 15:22-28 is, and it tells us that death will be destroyed, which would have to include the second death (otherwise some people would remain dead at the end of the ages, and death won’t be able to be said to have been destroyed until nobody is left dead, or is in a state of slowly dying — meaning being mortal — any longer).
6. Doesn’t the New Testament show that salvation is connected to faith?
This is where the hermeneutical concept of perspectives comes into play; a concept few Christians are familiar with, I’m sad to say. I’m not going to get into the details here, because I covered it all in my eBook, so I’ll just say that it’s only salvation from a relative perspective which requires faith (okay, technically salvation from an absolute perspective did too, but that was Christ’s faith, not our own). If you aren’t familiar with the other types of salvation (and what the differences between salvation from an absolute, relative, and physical perspectives are, and why each of these are different from one another), you aren’t ready to say you’ve studied soteriology enough yet to make any decisions on Universalism.
7. What’s the historic teaching on final salvation in the major branches of Christendom?
Who cares? We should only be interested in what Scripture says, not in what denominational “statements of faith” or creeds say. Plenty of others have written about Universalism from this angle though, and it’s actually pretty well known that Universalism was largely held to — if not the majority position — back in the so-called “early church days,” but apostasy entered quickly, as it always does, so what most Christians after that apostasy believed doesn’t really matter to those of us in the actual body of Christ.
8. What would happen if Christian congregations or denominations embraced universalism?
Believing in Universalism on its own isn’t enough. You also have to understand what Paul’s Gospel is and what it means, which few Christians today do. As for what would happen, I couldn’t say, because it will never happen during this age since God always keeps truth hidden from the masses (see “the narrow gate” and all).
9. What’s the final destiny of Satan and demons?
Colossians 1:20 answers this.
Michael writes: In Scripture, however, there isn’t the slightest hint that Satan or the demons will ever be saved. Jesus speaks of the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).
Embarrassingly, this statement demonstrates that he has no idea what Jesus was referring to there. The “eternal fire” in Matthew 25 isn’t a reference to the lake of fire or any other “hell” at all, as any Concordant Universalist could tell you, and it isn’t specifically the “fire” that’s being prepared for the devil and his angels in that passage either. I’m not going to explain here what Michael should already know, however, but instead am going to again direct you to the first three chapters of my eBook, since I explain what this is all referring to there.
10. Can sinful people make atonement or satisfaction for their own sins through their own sufferings?
Of course not. What a silly question. Only what Christ accomplished did that. And it indeed did (contrary to what most Infernalists and Annihilationists believe).
11. Is it plausible to believe there will be a ‘second chance’ for salvation after death?
There isn’t a second chance, because salvation isn’t based on chance in the first place. And nobody who is dead can get saved. However, Paul makes it clear that, after the resurrection(s), everyone will eventually experience the sort of salvation he primarily wrote about from a physical perspective.
12. Is universalism compatible with the Christian mandate to preach the gospel, practice self-denial, and suffer for Christ and the gospel?
Absolutely. I don’t think there’s actually even a question about that, at least not among any Universalists I know, so I don’t think this question even deserves consideration.
Michael wraps things up by saying: Perhaps one underlying reason why professing Christians today are examining or embracing universalism is that they don’t want to be placed on the hot seat in a world that’s increasingly hostile toward Christianity. They’d like to avoid ever being in a position in which they must tell a non-Christian that there are dire consequences for rejecting Christ.
That might be the case for some Universalists, but as for me and other Scriptural/Concordant Universalists, I was actually resistant to the idea at first. The only reason I even came to accept it as true is because I couldn’t refute the scriptural interpretations and arguments that I later laid out in the first three chapters of my eBook. So, once again, for anyone who wants to know more details about the answers I gave above, please check it out (again, it’s free): Bible truths you won’t hear at church — Learn what Scripture really says about sex, hell, tithing, and much more