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Is Universalism Heresy?

I am a follower of Christ and have a passion to share the good news of the gospel with as many people as possible.

Does everyone go to heaven when they die?

Does everyone go to heaven when they die?

Universalist teachings focus on God’s love for humanity. They believe that God will draw everyone to Himself and that everyone will go to heaven whether they want to or not. It sounds great, but is it Biblical or a heretical teaching? Unfortunately, it is a dangerous and heretical teaching that comes from the pit of hell because it deceives people into thinking that they are going to heaven whether they come to Christ or not, when the Bible is clear that you must trust Christ and Christ alone for your salvation. I write this hub out of love because I want as few people to end up in hell as possible. Let us examine how a sovereign God could choose to relate to this fallen world.

Three Ways a Sovereign God Could Decide to Relate to a Fallen World

Now that we looked at several of God’s key attributes, let us take a look at three different ways that God could have decided to relate to a fallen world. These categories could be broken down further, but I think these three buckets give a good representation of the possibilities.

1. God Could Decide to Give no one an Opportunity for Salvation

If you or I speed through a school zone at 85 mph that has a posted speed limit of 25 mph, would the judge be a good judge if he or she let us off? He would be a bad judge, because we were endangering everyone in the school zone. It is the same with God. He is justified to execute his judgment against sinful people. After all, we are the ones who violated His laws. He is under no obligation to save anyone. Praise God that he did not decide to choose this possibility. He was willing to pay our penalty of sin, Himself. What is the penalty for sin?

“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” Romans 6:23

That eliminates this first possibility. No one who has read the Bible at all could possibly come to this conclusion.

2. God Could Exercise His Power and Save Everyone (Universalism)

This is the Universalist’s position. They believe that Jesus’ death was not only sufficient for all the sins of the world, but that God will save everyone whether they like it or not. This position is not a Biblical position. I will dig into this further below, but read John chapter 3. It draws a distinction between those who believe and those who do not believe. Scroll up to John 3:16 above and look at the part that says “whoever believes in Him, shall not perish, but have eternal life.” This part of the verse draws a distinction because those who believe and those who do not. Also, during the Last Supper, Jesus said that it was better for the one who betrays Jesus to never have been born. I am not a language scholar, but Jesus makes it clear that God is going to severely judge Judas for betraying him. If you go to heaven when you die, no matter your experience in this life, it will be awesome in heaven. Jesus can only be talking about hell when it comes to Judas.

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” John 14:6

3. God Could Exercise His Power and Save Some

This is the Biblical answer, as I will explain below. God gives us an opportunity to be saved. Jesus’ death is sufficient to pay for all the sins of the world, but like any gift, can be accepted or rejected. Once again John chapter three draws a distinction between believers and unbelievers. Look at the verses below:

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” John 3:18

Now let us take a look at Universalism in more detail.


What is Universalism?

Universalism is the belief that everyone will go to heaven when they die whether or not they have accepted Jesus as their savior. They believe it is unthinkable that a good God would send people to hell for eternity because of his love and mercy. Let us look more closely at their claims.

Biblical Texts Used to Support Universalism

Supporters of universalism will use verses that appear to support the idea of universal redemption and universal restoration. Let us look at a few of those verses in more detail.

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“This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.” 1 Timothy 2:3-6

Universalists lock on to the statement “all men” and conveniently skip over the “who wants all men to be saved.” Wanting something and it happening are two different things. I agree that Jesus died for everyone and that his death and resurrection are sufficient to cover all of the sins of the world. The problem comes when they try to say that this proves that “all men” will be saved. Universalists fail to properly exegete these types of verses in light of the context in which they appear and also in light of the rest of the New Testament, which says, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. (Acts 16:31) Another common error that they make along these lines is to take the word “all” and make it mean everyone regardless of the context. For example, I say that “I will give twenty dollars to all of you.” In order to correctly interpret that statement, you have to know who I am referring to as “all of you.” By “all of you”, I could be referring to everyone or just a few of you that are in the same room with me. The context is vital to understanding what I am talking about.

“The Son came into the world not to condemn it but to save it.” John 3:17

I agree that Jesus came into the world to save it, but if you look at this verse in context, it does not mean universal salvation. Verses 16 and 18 actually tell you that only those who believe in the Son have eternal life. The key to Bible interpretation is context, context, context.

“And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Colossians 1:20

The context of this verse is a letter that is written to the believers in Colossae. If you read the whole chapter, it is clear that Paul is not taking about universal salvation, but rather the salvation of believers. Cherry picking verses and taking them out of context is not a way to prove anything. No one reads a book that way. Reading a verse in its context is crucial to understanding the meaning. These three verses are a good sample of the type of verses that supporters of Universalism use to defend their beliefs.

Theological Arguments Used to Support Universalism

Supporters of Universalism will make statements like “God is a failure if Jesus’ death and resurrection does not save everyone” or “A God of love would not send anyone to hell.” There are two problems with these arguments. First, is the presupposition that God intended to save everyone with Jesus’ death and resurrection.

“Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” Romans 9:13

“but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” Malachi 1:3

God chose Jacob over Esau and the Bible goes so far as to say that God “hated” Esau in both of the verses above. I checked a bunch of different translations and they were all the same. For a little context, Esau was the first born son of Isaac and yet God rejected him and chose Jacob instead. The same thing happened with Isaac and Ishmael. God chose Isaac and rejected Ishmael. We need to be careful anytime that we think we have God figured out, because if we have him figured out, He is no longer God. God is always greater and bigger than we can know in this life. Second, these arguments ignore the clear teaching of Scripture. In the Old Testament, God repeatedly punished sinners for their sins, not as a way of purification, but because they simply deserved it. Sodom and Gomorrah are great examples of this along with the people of Jericho. In the New Testament, the emphasis on putting your faith in Christ and on evangelism makes no sense if everyone is going to be saved. If Universalism is true, eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. Live however you want, there are not any consequences. If you read the Bible, that does not line up with what the pages actually say.

Key Attributes of God

Let us look at some of the key attributes of God to gain some more clarity. God is so much bigger than we can ever understand. He is always greater and bigger than we can think of Him. That is what makes Him God.

“’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my way’s, declares the LORD. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9

God is a Holy God

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah 6:3

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” Revelation 4:8

Holiness is the only attribute of God that is repeated three times in a row. In ancient writings, repeating something three times showed the importance of it. In ancient writing, they did not use punctuation marks. The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk wrote that God’s eyes are too pure to look upon evil. When God appeared in a burning bush to Moses, the very ground around the bush became holy. Years later, when Moses went up Mount Sinai to meet with God, the Israelites were not even allowed to touch the mountain because of God’s holiness. We still see the reference to the holiness of God in the writings of Peter and in the book of Revelation. God is serious about his holiness.

God is a Righteous Judge

“God is a righteous judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day.” Psalm 7:11

“He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice.” Psalm 9:8

“It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Hebrews 10:31

“You are just in these judgments, you who are and who were, the Holy One, because you have so judged.” Revelation 16:5

God is a righteous judge who sees and knows everything. One day in the future, we will all stand before Him in one of two judgments: Judgment Seat of Christ or the Great White Throne Judgment. The Judgment Seat of Christ is a judgment that all believers in Jesus Christ will go through. They will be judged on what they have done for Christ, either to be rewarded or suffer loss, but they will go to heaven because they trusted Christ. On the other hand, the Great White Throne Judgment is for all unbelievers. They will have to answer for every sin that they have ever committed. The Book of Life will be opened, and anyone’s name that is not found in there will be cast into the Lake of Fire. Everyone at this judgment is not a believer and will be eternally separated from God in hell (Rev 20:11-15).

God is a Sovereign

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand.” Job 38:4

“Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written: “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I hated. What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’” Romans 9:10-15

God is sovereign and in complete control of the Universe. Nothing happens apart from Him allowing it. He is the Creator of everything; He has the right to deal with mankind however he wants. He chose Jacob over Esau before they were born. Isaac and Ishmael are another great example. God chose Isaac and rejected Ishmael. Remember the verse that I opened this section with that says God’s ways are not our ways.

God is Love

“For God so loved the world, that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him, shall not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16

“God demonstrated his own love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8

God is love. Notice though, it does not say that God is love, love, love. God is not obligated to love us. He could have chosen to destroy the human race when Adam and Eve sinned and start over again. He chose to be brutally beaten and crucified on a Roman cross than to spend eternity without us. However, his death and resurrection offer us the gift of salvation. Just like any other gift, we must choose to accept it. His death was sufficient to save all that will come to repentance, but that does not mean all will. In fact, Jesus spoke more about hell than he did about heaven.

Now that we know more about what God is like, let us look at the words the Bible uses that are associated with hell.

Biblical Words Associated with Hell

The Bible has three different words that are associated with hell: Gehenna, Hades, and Sheol. Let us take a look at each one more closely and look at how they are used.

Gehenna

“1. A place or state of torment or suffering. 2. The abode of condemned souls; hell.” Free Dictionary

“In Judaism, Gehenna is a fiery place where the wicked are punished after they die or on judgment day. . . Gehenna is often mentioned in the New Testament of the Christian Bible as the place of condemnation of unrepentant sinners.” New World Encyclopedia

Gehenna is the Greek word for hell. Of the twelve times it is used in the New Testament, Jesus used it eleven times. As you read the seven verses below, pay attention to how the word “hell” (Gehenna) is used.

“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Matthew 5:22

“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” Matthew 5:29

“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole to go into hell.” Matthew 5:30

“Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut if off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” Matthew 18:7:9

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” Matthew 23:33

“And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck. If your hand causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’” Mark 9:42-48

“The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” James 3:6

How does the New Testament define the word “Gehenna”? It is clearly described by Jesus as a place that you do not want to go to. He talked about how it is better to go through life maimed than to go into hell. It is described as a place where the worm will not die and the fire is never quenched. Read the surrounding verses and verify the context and you will find that Jesus is talking about a place of torment.

Hades

“1a. The underworld abode of the souls of the dead. 2. The abode or state of the dead. 3. Informal hell.” Free Dictionary

“The term Hades in its cosmological sense, has sometimes been used in Christianity to refer to the abode of the dead, where the deceased would await Judgment Day in either peace or torment.” New World Encyclopedia

Hades corresponds with the Old Testament word Sheol. It is used a total of ten times in the New Testament, four times by Jesus and six times by others. New Testament translators sometime translate this word as hell or they leave it as Hades. I believe the latter is the better definition because it describes the place where the dead gather awaiting final judgment. This is the place that Jesus is talking about in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. As we can tell from that story, Hades is a place of torment. Before Jesus’ death, it was a place with two compartments, one for those who were condemned and one for those who would be saved by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Now, it is only those awaiting judgment are their in a conscious state of suffering. According to Revelations chapter 20, Hades will be thrown in to hell at the Great White Throne Judgment. Let us take a look at a few of those verses.

“I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” Matthew 16:18 NASB

“In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom.” Luke 16:23 NASB

“and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.” Revelation 1:18 NASB

“And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” Revelations 20:13-14 NASB

David Platt on Universalism, Rob Bell, Love Wins, Heaven and Hell

Sheol

“The abode of the dead in the Bible.” Free Dictionary

“In the Hebrew Bible Sheol (שאול) is the ‘abode of the dead,’ the ‘underworld,’ ‘the common grave of mankind’ or ‘pit.’ It is said to be the destination of both the righteous and the unrighteous dead, as described in Book of Job (3:11-19). ‘Sheol’ is also depicted as a comfortless place beneath the earth, beyond gates, where both slave and king, pious and wicked must go after death to sleep in silence and oblivion in the dust (Isa. 38:18; Ps. 6:5, 88:3-12; Job 7:7-10, 3:11-19; Gen. 2:7, 3:19).” New World Encyclopedia

Sheol is a Hebrew word that is used 66 times in the Old Testament. It is the Hebrew version of Hades. Some say that it should be translated as “grave”. The King James Version translates it 31 times as “grave”, 31 times as “hell”, and 3 times as “pit”. The verses below show that Sheol means much more than grave.

“For a fire has been kindled by my wrath, one that burns to the realm of death (sheol) below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains.” Deuteronomy 32:22

“The dead are in deep anguish, those beneath the waters and all that live in them. Death (Sheol) is naked before God; Destruction lies uncovered.” Job 26:5-6

“The grave (sheol) below is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you—all those who where leaders in the world; it makes them rise from their thrones—all those who were kings over the nations.” Isaiah 14:9

“From within the grave (sheol) the mighty leaders will say of Egypt and her allies, ‘they have come down and they lie with the uncircumcised, with those killed by the sword.’” Ezekiel 32:21

“Then I will bring you down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of long ago. I will make you dwell in the earth below, as in ancient ruins, with those who go down to the pit, and you will not return or take your place in the land of the living.” Ezekiel 26:20

Let us look at specific Bible passages in their context that will demonstrate why the arguments for universalism are unbiblical.

God's Word

God's Word

Why Universalism is Unbiblical

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for ever good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16

“Do no be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” Matthew 10:28

When it comes to interpreting the Bible, we cannot just ignore passages that we do not like. We must read each passage in its context and in context of the rest of the Bible. The Bible is filled with references to God’s wrath and judgment. Let us look at the following proof texts and their context.

Free Will

“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” John Piper

“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:5

Everything that God does is for his glory. He created mankind to worship him. God gave us free will to decide whether to obey him or to disobey him. He wanted us to choose to worship Him. Genesis chapter 3 tells us of how that turned out. Adam and Eve decided that they would rather be “like God” than to obey God. It does not make sense that God would force us to go to heaven if he gave us free will in the first place. Think about it this way, trying telling someone you love, that you only love them because you have to. Nobody wants love like that.

“You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” John 4:22-23


Purpose of Evangelism

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19-20a

“At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him [Stephen], dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.” Acts 7:57-58a

“After they were severely flogged, they [Paul and Silas] were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully.” Acts 16:23

Another great argument against universalism is the emphasis that the New Testament writers put on evangelism. His disciples were imprisoned, persecuted, and ultimately all martyred (except for John who was exiled to the Island of Patmos). Stephen preached Jesus before the Sanhedrin and was stoned to death. Paul preached all over Europe and Asia and was routinely imprisoned, beaten, and eventually beheaded in Rome. Since then, Christians have been persecuted and martyred ever since. If everyone is going to heaven when they die, why was there so much emphasis on preaching the gospel? Why lay down your life to spread the gospel? Would it not have been better to spend time taking care of the poor and sick? Why does the New Testament tell us to “believe” on the Lord Jesus Christ and we will be saved if we all are going to be saved anyway (Acts 16:31)?

Exodus 12 - Passover

“On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every first born—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.” Exodus 12:12-13

At the time of the first Passover, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. God was sending plague after plague against Egypt so that Pharaoh would let his people go. God told the Israelites to kill a lamb and put its blood on the doorpost of their homes so that when God passed through Egypt, He would see the blood and skip over that house. The Israelites had a choice to make; they could disobey at the loss of their first-born or obey and be saved. Remember that the Passover is symbolic foreshadow of Jesus, the Lamb of God, being sacrificed for our sins. We too have a choice to make; we can either accept that sacrifice or reject it.

Matthew 7:13-14 - The Narrow and Wide Gates

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14