Does the Bible Teach Universal Salvation?
For almost nineteen centuries there have been professed Christians who taught universal salvation. And since certain Oriental religions hold that all souls will eventually attain to the state of “nirvana,” it might be said that universal salvation is believed by hundreds of millions today and that it goes back centuries before the time of Christ. But does the Bible, God’s Word, teach universal salvation?
WHILE what is known today as the “Universalist Church” goes back not quite two centuries, the teaching of universal salvation sprang up shortly after the last of the apostles had fallen asleep in death, certain sects teaching it as early as A.D. 130. In 195 one Clement of Alexandria taught it and one of his pupils, none other than Origen, strongly advocated it. It seemed incredible to him that God would torture his creatures in a burning hell for all eternity, and that without any results, and so he held that all hellish torment was remedial and would end as soon as it had accomplished its purpose: “All souls, all intelligent beings that have gone astray, shall, therefore, be restored sooner or later to God’s friendship. The evolution will be long, incalculably long in some cases, but a time will come when God shall be all in all.”
While Catholic theologians, especially Augustine, thundered against Origenism, as it was called, universal salvation continued to have its advocates in their church as well as in other religious organizations that claimed to be Christian. It was taught by the Albigenses of the eleventh century, the Lollards of the fourteenth, and in the fifteenth century by many of “the Reformers before the Reformation.” Many were the clergy excommunicated, exiled or dismissed from their positions by religious organizations because of teaching universal salvation, in both Catholic and Protestant organizations.
In England, for a time during the seventeenth century, universal salvation was among the heresies punishable with imprisonment, other “heresies” being punished with death. About the same time in the United States, in the very religious colony of Massachusetts, one John Gatchell was sentenced “to the pillory and to have his tongue drawn forth and pierced with a hot iron” for teaching universal salvation.
It appears that for the most part those who held to universal salvation had their hearts in the right place. Said one: “Endless punishment [torment] for the wicked would argue, not the justice, but the injustice of God.” Believing the Bible to teach the torments of hell for the wicked and that the human soul was immortal, they questioned that hell’s torments would continue forever. One speculated that all such torment would end with the grand jubilee at the end of 50,000 years.
Among the texts of the Bible used by Origen to support universal salvation was First Corinthians 15:25, 28 (NW): “For he must rule as king until God has put all enemies under his feet. . . . then the Son himself will also subject himself to the one who subjected all things to him, that God may be all things to everyone.” For God eventually to be all things to everyone, Origen reasoned, all intelligent creatures must eventually be reconciled to God.
Another text used to support universal salvation is Philippians 2:10, 11 (NW): “So that in the name of Jesus every knee should bend of those in heaven and those on earth and those under the ground, and every tongue should openly confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” It is claimed that if every knee is to bend and every tongue to confess it must follow that all that live will eventually be reconciled to God.
Then there is Romans 5:18. “Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” Regarding this text a Universalist publication of 1930 states: “The parallel here is perfect. Adam’s one offense is counteracted by Christ’s one just award. The act of Adam eventually affects all mankind. So Christ’s work, eventually, must also actually justify all mankind. . . . If Adam’s offense only gave each one an opportunity to sin, so that some become sinners and others not, then we might say that Christ’s work brings justification to all subject to their acceptance. But we must acknowledge that man has no choice in becoming a sinner, thus also will it be through the work of Christ. Both are actual and universal.”
THE BIBLE’S POSITION
That some will not gain salvation is made clear in the Bible from Genesis through Revelation. In sentencing Adam God said: “For dust you are and to dust you will return.” That means annihilation, not salvation. Regarding Sodom and Gomorrah we are told that they “are placed before us as a warning example by undergoing” judicial everlasting punishment. At Revelation 21:8 (NW) we read that all the wicked will have their portion “in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur. This means the second death.” Nothing is said about a redemption or a resurrection from this second death.—Gen. 3:19; Jude 7, NW.
Yes, Christ will “destroy the one having the means to cause death, that is, the Devil.” The wicked are as “vessels of wrath made fit for destruction.” Their name “shall rot.” The “goats” are told to depart “into everlasting cutting-off.” According to the dictionary, to destroy means to bring to nought, to put out of existence, and destruction means extinction, extirpation, annihilation.—Heb. 2:14; Rom. 9:22, NW; Prov. 10:7; Matt. 25:46, NW.
Those believing in universal salvation stress God’s mercy. But in showing mercy God does not ignore justice, but is selective. “I will show mercy to the one to whom I may show mercy.” He “is angry with the wicked every day.” To the willfully wicked who spurn his reproof, he says that he “will laugh at your calamity.”—Ex. 33:19, NW; Ps. 7:11; Prov. 1:24-32.
It seems that the chief difficulty with those holding universal salvation is that they made a mistake in building on false doctrine in their efforts to harmonize their beliefs with the God of love. Unable to reconcile a God of love with eternal punishment in the form of torment, they made the punishment of limited duration. They should have eliminated the torment, but allowed the duration of the punishment to be eternal. Annihilation, destruction, extirpation, extinction are eternal punishment, but they do not involve conscious eternal suffering and are therefore compatible with a God of love.
And the reason that they made this mistake is their holding to the erroneous teaching of the immortality of all souls. Believing that all intelligent creatures, once coming into existence, must continue to live forever, they concluded that, since it is unthinkable that God would uselessly torment them forever, eventually all such will be reconciled to God.
But the Bible nowhere says that immortality is an inherent quality of all intelligent souls. On the contrary it tells us that “the soul that sins shall die,” that no man “can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol,” or gravedom, and that Christ “poured out his soul to death.” And also that Christians are now seeking incorruptibleness and in the resurrection will be clothed with immortality.—Ezek. 18:4; Ps. 89:48; Isa. 53:12, RS; Rom. 2:7; 1 Cor. 15:53, 54, NW.
“The wages sin pays is death, but the gift God gives is everlasting life by Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 6:23, NW) If all were to receive life regardless, it would not be a gift. A gift implies a choice. God’s Word shows the alternatives for his creatures to be, not life in happiness or life in torment, but life or death. “I have put life and death before you.” (Deut. 30:19, NW) If man does not appreciate life sufficiently to live it in harmony with God’s righteous laws, then he loses it. Such is wise, just and loving on God’s part. Just as Adam and Eve did not appreciate life and so were returned to the dust, likewise all intelligent creatures who do not appreciate life will have extinction as their destiny.
With all the wicked destroyed in God’s due time, it must follow that then all that live will be submitting themselves to God and Christ Jesus so that God will be all things to all that live. And then, too, every knee will bend and every tongue will confess that Christ is Lord, for the knees and the tongues of the wicked will have been destroyed.
But what about the argument that such texts as Romans 5:18 show that just as man had no choice in inheriting sin he will have no choice in inheriting life, each being automatic, as it were? Such a conclusion is in conflict with God’s Word from Genesis to Revelation, for his Word shows repeatedly that life depends upon the right course of action. Everlasting life was not forced upon Adam; it was made conditional. It was offered as a gift. Neither will everlasting life be forced upon his offspring. Besides, nowhere do we read that death is a gift. It is a penalty, inescapable once it is merited.—Ezek. 18:31, 32.
As for Romans 5:18, its meaning is made clear by the New World Translation: “So, then, as through one trespass the result to men of all kinds was condemnation, likewise also through one act of justification the result to men of all kinds is a declaring of them righteous for life.” Time and again when the term “all” is used in the Greek Scriptures, “all kinds” is meant, not literally “all.” A case in point is Acts 2:17. According to most translations God there states: “I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh.” Now we know that at Pentecost God’s spirit was not poured out literally upon all flesh, but only on a comparative few. But God did pour it out on ‘sons and daughters, young men and old men, on men slaves and women slaves.’ And so the New World Translation reads: “I shall pour some of my spirit out upon every kind of flesh.” The same is true regarding 1 Timothy 2:3, 4 (NW); it is God’s will “that all kinds of men should be saved.”
HARM OF THE TEACHING
Can there be harm to the teaching that eventually all intelligent creatures that ever lived will be reconciled to God? Yes, because first of all it robs God of his glory as one worthy to be worshiped by free moral agents. Further, it makes void the very issue for which God has permitted mankind to remain and in which he takes the greatest delight, namely, Can intelligent creatures keep integrity in spite of all that Satan can do to turn them aside through temptations or persecution? Why should Jehovah have directed Satan’s attention to Job’s integrity-keeping course if all mankind and even Satan himself eventually will become reconciled to God and gain everlasting life?
Universal salvation is a snare of the Devil to throw Christians off guard by promising them salvation regardless of what they do or do not do. It is frequently embraced by those who once appreciated the light of truth that God is letting shine upon his Word today but who for one reason or another became offended and separated to form their own little movement. By subscribing to universal salvation these, apparently unconsciously, make room for themselves in spite of loss of integrity. But for such there is no more a hope for salvation than there was for Judas whom Jesus termed “the son of destruction.” As both Peter and Paul show, concerning these once having been enlightened and then fallen away, ‘it is impossible for them to be revived again to repentance.’—John 17:12; Heb. 6:4-6; 2 Pet. 2:4-22, NW.
Although many well-meaning professed Christians from the second to the twentieth century of our common era have taught universal salvation, the Bible does not teach it. God is love, but he is also just. In love he offers everlasting life to those who meet his conditions, and in justice he has decreed that those who spurn his gift merit everlasting death.