Theological challenges to universal salvation

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

This is the tenth post in a series on the nature of hell. The series begins here.

In the last post, we looked at the theological case for universal salvation. So now we’re going to consider the theological challenges to this view. Here are the most common questions and challenges I’ve heard in response to a belief in universal reconciliation and restoration.

Then why even get saved now?

This is often the first response to this belief and, in some ways, it’s a logical response. If everyone is going to ultimately be reconciled to God anyway, why not just live my life and let God save me whenever? But this is actually the saddest challenge for a follower of Christ to make. The idea underlying this question is that we’re only saved to escape hell. So if that doesn’t seem as big a motivation, then why get saved? That’s a tragic attitude for a Christian. What’s our motivation for living a life in Christ? It’s living life in Christ! We aren’t just saved to escape hell and go to heaven—although this is true—but for so much more. We begin to know God now, to experience life in his presence now, to live life in the Spirit now, freedom from sin, spiritual growth and maturity, the life of the body, etc. We don’t experience this life in its fullness yet, but we do experience it genuinely here and now. We never want to think lightly of the life Christ brings us into, his life. He sacrificed everything to give us this life. We must never diminish it this way.

But what’s the big deal going to hell if you’re going to get out eventually anyway?

This is often the followup question to the first challenge above. But this doesn’t really make sense either when we think about it. When faced with a 40-year term in a maximum security prison, would we shrug our shoulders and say, “What’s the big deal? I’m going to get out eventually anyway?” If you had a choice between (a) suffering for a very long time fighting cancer, coming close to death over and over again, going through operations and radiation and chemotherapy and losing your hair, but ultimately surviving; or (b) not dealing with cancer at all—would you shrug your shoulders and say what’s the big deal? If you knew your child could either spend much of their life bound in drug addiction and all the destruction that comes with that, but ultimately survive—or never struggle with drugs at all—would that maybe be a big deal to you?

If everyone receives God’s grace, then it’s no longer a gift, it’s something God owes us.

I’m surprised by how often I hear this because this, too, doesn’t make sense if we just stop and think about it. If you have four children and you give them all Christmas gifts, does that mean they’re no longer gifts? Because you gave them to all your kids, do they somehow become something you owe your children? If your boss gives you a bonus of a million dollars, that would be an incredibly gracious gift, wouldn’t it? And if they decided to bless all of their employees with a bonus of a million dollars each, does that make this gift to you any less gracious? Is it now something your boss owed you? Of course not.

Yes, God is loving, but don’t forget he’s also holy.

Robin Parry shares how people will tell him this as if it’s something he hasn’t thought of. Oh, yeah, that’s right! How could I forget that God’s also holy? Yes, we know that God is not only loving, but also holy and just. But we must be careful to never think of his holiness as somehow in conflict with his love, or his mercy as contending against his justice. There is no such conflict within God, no struggle within his character. Everything he does is both holy and loving. Everything he does is both merciful and just.

This view doesn’t take sin or hell seriously.

The person making this claim hasn’t read very many Christian universalist theologians. Because those who believe in universal reconciliation and restoration take sin and hell just as seriously as do other believers. They believe in and emphasize the same vileness of sin, the same wrath of God toward sin, and the same judgment of those who persist in unrepentance. Ironically, it’s some who believe in eternal conscious torment who try to find a way to soften the harshness of hell, saying that hell won’t be all that bad for some of the people there, and they may even be almost happy in hell. 1 The evangelical universalist doesn’t have to jump through these hoops to try to make hell tolerable. We can teach that hell is torment, isolation, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is a “big deal” (see the challenge above). It’s the ultimately harsh judgment of God, more extreme than the other examples of God’s harsh judgment we see in Scripture. And just as the pattern we previously observed in Scripture, God’s judgment has an ultimately loving purpose, however harsh it is, leading to change of heart, repentance, reconciliation and restoration. Those who believe in universal restoration can be downright exclusivist in their understanding of salvation—insisting that people must be saved by knowingly placing their faith in Jesus Christ—because the opportunity for salvation doesn’t somehow disappear after they die.

But God destroyed people in the flood, and in Sodom and Gomorrah.

Some people will bring up examples of judgment in the Bible, such as when God destroyed most of humanity in the flood or his destruction of the entire cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. If God was willing to destroy them, they suggest, then he’ll have no problem destroying people in hell. And these are serious, sobering examples of God’s judgment, no doubt about it. But was this eternal destruction? These people lost their physical lives here on earth, but did they cease to exist completely? Remember, evangelical universalists believe in judgment, even in the extreme judgment of hell. What they don’t believe is that this judgment is never-ending without any hope of reconciliation and restoration. Because these examples deal with judgment in this life only—leading to physical death—this is really comparing apples and oranges. It would be like saying, “Well, our parents disciplined us harshly, so that means they would have no problem killing us.” It’s simply not the same thing. (And don’t forget that God says he will restore Sodom [Ezekiel 16:53-55].)

The wrath of God is necessary for God to be glorified.

In the book Four Views on Hell, Robin Parry wrote the chapter on evangelical universalism. In Denny Burk’s response to Parry’s chapter, Burk takes issue with Parry’s understanding that God’s wrath is a manifestation of his love. To Burk, wrath seems to be a part of God’s character in the same way that love or holiness or justice are. 2 But this isn’t a biblical understanding of God. Is God perpetually angry? Has he always been angry? Will he be angry for all eternity? Burk seems to think so:

God does not love those who are put in hell. On the contrary, his wrath means that he is angry at them forever (Rom. 2:8). 3

Notice that Burk references Romans 2:8 to support the claim that God is angry with the lost forever. Take the time to look up that verse for yourself. Does it say that God is angry with anyone forever? This is a good example of why I always encourage people to look up Scripture references to make sure it says what they’re saying it says! In this case it doesn’t say what Burk is saying at all. So what do we see in Scripture:

For his anger lasts only a moment,
but his favor lasts a lifetime;

Psalm 30:5

You do not stay angry forever
but delight to show mercy.

Micah 7:18

How many places do we read that God is “slow to anger”? How can God be slow to anger if wrath is an essential part of his character? Is he slow to be holy? Is he slow to love? Instead, we read that God’s anger is a temporary response for a specific purpose:

The anger of the LORD will not turn back
until he fully accomplishes
the purposes of his heart.

Jeremiah 23:20

No, Parry’s view of God is much more biblical, and Burk’s is disturbingly similar to the capricious, irritable gods of paganism.

Remember what we saw in the first chapter of Colossians that just as “all things” were created in Christ, these same “all things” God has reconciled to himself through Christ, “making peace through his blood, shed on the cross [1:20].” You don’t remain eternally angry with those whom you have reconciled to yourself, those with whom you have made peace through your own blood. God reconciled us to him through Christ’s death while we were still his enemies (Romans 5:10). This is the God who chose to be crucified in order to reconcile all of his creation to himself. Would it bring him most glory to be unceasingly angry toward much of his creation for all eternity, subjecting them to endless torment to appease his wrath? Does this picture of God really glorify him, or does it actually diminish his glory? Would it not bring much more glory for him to thoroughly defeat his enemies by transforming them into his friends, even bringing them into his family as his children, so he has no more need to be angry toward his creation? Isn’t this much more glorifying of God?

Universal salvation is a man-centered theology.

A sometimes effective way to scare people away from a theological belief is to accuse it of being a “man-centered” idea. But let’s stop and actually compare beliefs. Some claim that God desires to save everyone, but that he is ultimately, eternally stymied by the stubborn rebellion of human beings. He wants to save them, but they say, “No!” Their hearts are simply too hard for God’s love and grace to overcome. This actually seems to be a bit “man-centered,” because it’s fallen humans who have the final word contrary to God’s will.

Now let’s look at the other belief. According to this view, God’s love is unconquerable and can overcome the hardest heart (compare this with Romans 8:38-39). God’s grace is always greater than sin, more powerful than sin, always surpassing sin (Romans 5:15, 20). God will not stop until he has restored to himself everything that was lost to him (Luke 15). 4 God’s truth will overcome everything false; God’s light will drive out all darkness (Revelation 22:5). God will be completely victorious over all of his enemies, even destroying death itself (1 Corinthians 15:26). Show me again how this is “man-centered”?

But what about free will? Does God force people to repent?

This is the most thoughtful challenge to Christian universalism. What if people don’t want to be reconciled and restored? I want us to take some time to really think about this. Let’s begin by assuming—for the sake of discussion—that some people just won’t stop rejecting God. I’ll explain later why I don’t believe this is true, but let’s assume for now that it is. Does this mean that God’s hands are tied, that there’s nothing he can do? Is the free will of humanity somehow the most sacred, inviolate virtue above everything else? And where exactly do we go in Scripture to see that human freedom is the one principle that overrides all others?

If your two-year-old is running headlong straight into a busy street, do you place their free will above all other concerns? Or do you take immediate, decisive action to prevent them from being destroyed? (“No!”) We do allow children to experience the consequences of their actions when it doesn’t actually destroy them. We allow them to pay the price for their free will choices so they can learn what is beneficial and what is dangerous. We may let them touch something that’s hot, for instance, so they learn that hot things burn. But there’s a limit to how much free will we allow them, isn’t there? It’s one thing touching something hot; it’s something else entirely to stick their arm in the fire. From God’s perspective, how much different are we than a two-year-old?

It’s common for evangelical Christians to say things without realizing how contradictory they are. For instance, we frequently say that “God is always a gentleman,” that God won’t force himself onto anyone. And then, virtually in the same breath, we can talk about God as the “Hound of Heaven” who aggressively pursued us unrelentingly until we surrendered. And we never stop to realize that these descriptions of God contradict one another. If God is always a gentleman, someone needs to explain that to Paul who was knocked to the ground and blinded on the road to Damascus. Or to C.S. Lewis, who describes himself as being brought in “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape.” (He goes on to say of God, “His compulsion is our liberation.”) 5 That doesn’t sound like a gentleman to me, but it does sound like a very focused parent intent on doing what is best for their child. The Calvinist understanding of compatibilism is only a problem if God doesn’t compatibilistically save everyone.

(It’s also a little ironic that many of the same people who insist that passages such as Philippians 2:9-11 can’t be voluntary worship—that these people are being forced to acknowledge God—will then turn around and question how God could be forcing people to repent! Apparently it’s okay for God to force people to confess Jesus Christ as Lord as long as he doesn’t actually save them! This also makes me think of debates between Calvinists and non-Calvinists. Arminians and other non-Calvinists are quick to say their problem with Calvinism isn’t the issue of free will but one of honoring the biblical, loving character of God. Some have even said the only way they could be a Calvinist is if they were a universalist. But then, when presented with a biblical, evangelical universalism, they reject it because they think it doesn’t preserve their concept of libertarian free will. Maybe their focus on free will is greater than they thought!)

So am I saying that God doesn’t respect the free will of the lost but forces them to repent? Not at all. But we need to think about what we mean by a “free choice.” As many Arminians will clarify, they don’t so much believe in free will, but in freed will. We were bound in sin and rebellion and our fallen sin nature, but God freed us, enabling us to choose, so that we could embrace him, placing our faith in Christ. For a choice to be free, it has to be . . . free

Let me illustrate. Suppose someone is under the influence of a powerful drug and they attack someone else. Are they responsible for their actions? Maybe, especially if they knew the dangers of the drug before taking it. But what if someone put the drug in their food or drink, and they consumed it without knowing? If they had no control over their behavior, then they would be deemed as not responsible for what happened. Their actions were not done by way of a free choice.

If we walked into a room and saw a young man holding his hand in a fire without pulling it out, 6 even though it was being burned, what’s the first thought that would go through our minds? “There’s something wrong with that guy,” right? Why? Because people don’t do that—not freely. If we’re doing something that painful, that self-destructive, our action itself is evidence that something is wrong with us. This isn’t a choice we’re making freely; there is something else causing us to act in this manner.

Now let’s think about salvation. We were created to live in relationship with God. Even in our fallen state we long for that connection. This is why throughout history humans have been drawn to religion of some kind. As Christians, we know that all of our most intense longings and yearnings, the deepest questions, even the ones we can’t express—all of this only finds satisfaction in Christ.  We only find ultimate fulfillment and purpose in Christ. We even only really come to truly know ourselves in him.

Do people reject God? Of course. (We did ourselves at one time.) Why do people reject God? We could make a list of reasons, couldn’t we? Some don’t believe that God exists; some resist authority; some don’t like religion or have been hurt by Christians; some feel they’d be giving up too much control. So people do have reasons for rejecting God. But are they good reasons? Would we say that any of these are sound, logical reasons why someone should reject God? No, not at all. In fact, we’d try to help the person see that these “reasons” for rejecting God are illusions, they’re fairy tales. God does exist; Jesus is very different from religion; we don’t really have control over our own lives, etc, etc. 

So there is no sound, rational reason for rejecting Christ, and every reason to receive him. Anyone who rejects Christ, especially in hell, is not doing this freely. To refuse what you were created for and what will satisfy every longing and desire put within us by God, but to instead “choose” to remain in a state of torment and ongoing death, is not a free choice. It’s an insane one, one devoid of rational thought, just like the young man holding his hand in the fire. Just as Scripture describes the lost in this life, such a person is bound in deception and darkness. The question is what does God do with this person? Does he bring the young man to the point of clarity so he understands the insanity of holding his hand in the fire and can then make a free choice? Or does he say to the young man who is bound in delusion and completely irrational, “You want to hold your hand in the fire? Fine! I’ll make sure you hold it there forever!”

But some will say, “Yes, it’s insane and they’re deceived, but that’s just their nature! It’s their nature to reject God; that’s why they’re in hell!” But wait a minute. Let’s think about that. Yes, we all have a fallen, sinful nature, but did we choose to have that nature? Did you choose to be born into a sinful, rebellious race? No, the Scriptures are clear about this: “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all [Romans 11:32].” Now, we all do subsequently sin by our own volition, so we all stand guilty before God. But we didn’t choose our sinful nature. All of us were subjected to this sinful nature (so that God could have mercy on all of us). God brought each of us to the point of clarity and freedom where we knew the incomparable greatness of knowing Christ our Lord. That’s the only way we could be saved! Otherwise we remain bound in sin, rebellion, darkness and death—not by free choice but because this was part of God’s plan. We were bound in disobedience. God freed us so that we could make a free choice, and we chose life in him. 

The very same thing is still true of the lost person in hell. They’re not able to make a free choice until God brings them to this point of clarity and freedom. Until then, they remain bound in sin, rebellion, darkness and death—not by free choice but because it’s part of God’s plan. He has bound us all in disobedience so that he could have mercy on us all. And, just as with many of us, it can be a long, drawn out process to bring us to that point of clarity, freedom and surrender. God will use anything in our lives to bring us to this point of freedom of choice—even hell.

But isn’t this torturing people until they give in? Isn’t this forcing them to believe? Not at all. Most evangelical Christians are quick to describe hell as the absence of God. (This doesn’t necessarily mean that God can’t be active in hell. People are experiencing ultimate alienation from God in a way that’s analogous to a child experiencing alienation from their parent while on time out. They are strongly experiencing, from their perspective, the absence of their parent.) People insist on an existence without him, and so God complies, giving them what they think they want. The difference is that the Christian universalist doesn’t believe that God unlovingly binds the lost eternally in their state of deception and delusion. He gives them what they think they want in order to show them it’s not really what they want! This isn’t torture, it’s punishment intended to bring clarity leading to repentance.

Anyone who has struggled with addictions, or who has worked with those bound in addiction, has seen that some people have to hit absolute rock bottom before they come to a sense of clarity about their own problem. We see something similar in the story of the prodigal son and his father. The father gives the son his inheritance, strengthening him in his resolve and ability to pursue his self-destructive path, a path that would end in a pigpen—a horrible end that brings perfect clarity to this prodigal son. The universal reconciliation and restoration view is that, for many, hell is the pigpen. Hell is where many will come to that place of clarity and repentance. It’s the tough love of God, allowing his strong-willed, rebellious children to get exactly what they think they want, to show them what they really need and want. God will use anything—even our own rebellion—to bring the very last of his sheep back to him.

So is this just wishful thinking? Are we just making this up? What did we see when we searched the Scriptures (here and here)? God desires to save everyone. We see this clearly in Scripture. We also see in Scripture that some people will be lost when they die and will experience hell. But we also saw passage after passage that tell us that God will ultimately reconcile and restore everyone, all of his creation. And we saw in Revelation that even the evil, rebellious kings of the earth—who were cast into the lake of fire—eventually come into the city, the new Jerusalem, the heaven-on-earth church of God. 7 This is God’s plan. He has bound everyone over to disobedience that he might have mercy on everyone.

The alternative is that either God doesn’t love some people and desire for them to be saved, or that he’s not able to save them. But we don’t see either of these in Scripture. We believe that God desires and intends to save everyone he has created, and that he is well able to accomplish everything he desires and intends. We believe that our perfect God has always had a perfect end for his perfect plan. As Thomas Talbott describes, he is the grandmaster chess player who doesn’t need to control our moves but who is always 12 steps ahead of us—and who is assured to win. 8 And this is a good thing for all of us!

Anyone who believes this won’t be motivated to share the gospel with others.

It’s very ironic to see this challenge come from Calvinists, and we do. This is the very same challenge they receive sometimes! It’s not true of Calvinists (Calvinist believers are very often passionate about evangelism, missions and church-planting), and it’s not true of evangelical universalists either. In fact, many who embrace this truth describe the same change of perspective. It’s amazing when we begin looking at every single person we come into contact with as someone who will eventually come to faith in Christ. No one is a lost cause! Not only does this mean we can’t ever mentally dismiss anyone, but it also gives us great confidence and enthusiasm in evangelism. Everyone with whom we share the faith will eventually repent and believe! Everyone is save-able! This doesn’t make us less interested in evangelism, it makes us much more eager to share the truth and love of Christ with those we know will ultimately embrace this truth!

If this is true, why aren’t the Scriptures more clear and explicit that all will be saved?

This was something I wrestled with at one time. And there are a few things to think about here. First, as others have pointed out, we do see a great many passages that clearly and explicitly tell us everyone will be reconciled to God and restored. There is actually much more clear, explicit biblical support for this belief than there is for many other beliefs we take for granted.

Also remember that the Old Testament only clearly mentions resurrection once. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t true, just that God hadn’t revealed everything to them yet. We also saw in the story of Jonah that God gave him a message of judgment, but didn’t reveal that he would relent from that judgment if they repented. We can never presume to know every detail of what God’s going to do. And—as with Jonah—we should assume that God is loving and merciful, eager to relent from destroying people.

Still, some might say, why don’t the passages that speak of hell also tell us that people won’t be there forever, that they will eventually be saved? But remember, hell is the punishment of God. How many of you when warning your children of punishment include the comforting detail that the punishment won’t last forever? “If you disobey me you’ll sit in your room without any electronic devices—but don’t worry, it won’t last forever! We don’t do that, do we? It’s not that it’s untrue; it’s just not helpful at the moment. It actually wouldn’t make sense for God to add to the passages warning of hell that they’ll still be saved. We find that truth in other passages.

And one other possibility to consider. God shared with Abraham his plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33). Abraham responds by contending with God for them: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” And we see in the passage that this is exactly what God intended. He wanted Abraham to respond this way, and almost eggs him on. Later, God tells Moses to get out of the way, that he’s going to destroy the people of Israel and start over again with him. Again we see someone, this time Moses, pleading with God on behalf of the people (Exodus 32:9-14). Either God had lost control and needed to be talked down by Moses, or Moses did what God wanted him to do all along. He stood in the gap for the people. He put himself on the line, pleading with God to forgive and not destroy the people. And, of course, we know that Moses was a type of Christ, pointing forward to the one who would perfectly stand in the gap for all the people, seeking the forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration of all the people—as God had always intended. We then see Paul also standing in the gap for the people, willing to put his own life on the line so his people could be saved. 

If God desired Abraham to have a heart for people that would cause him to appeal to God for them to be saved; if he desired Moses to put his life on the line to plead that God would show mercy to the people and relent from judgment; if we see this heart in Christ himself, in his sacrifice and in his prayer for the very people who were killing him; if we later see this same heart in Paul toward his people who were stubbornly rejecting their own Messiah—maybe this is the heart he wants us to have toward the lost as well. Maybe he’s not as clear as he could be in Scripture in order to see if we will have a heart that longs for each person to be reconciled to God and restored, or if we’ll have a heart that either calls for fire from heaven to destroy our enemies (Luke 9:52-55), or hearts that cause us to simply shrug our shoulders in indifference at the fate of the lost.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that people would struggle with what is, for them, new and very different ideas concerning hell and who will be saved. I would actually discourage anyone from embracing too quickly any change of view. It’s good for us to wrestle with these things, to question and to challenge. What has surprised me, and deeply troubled me, is the anger I sense in many responses to this belief. Why would the thought that God might actually save everyone cause any Christian to respond with anger? Shouldn’t we be moved with compassion for the lost as Christ was? Shouldn’t we desire that all be saved as God does? Aren’t we to love even our enemies? Why are we so often like Jonah, who was angry that God would relent from judging Nineveh, or like the older brother of the prodigal, who was angry that his father would take his lost brother back in and restore him? Why are our hearts too often like these hard-hearted people in Scripture . . . instead of like Christ’s?

If we must come to the conclusion that God won’t actually save everyone, shouldn’t that be a sad realization? And if we do become convinced that God not only wants to save everyone but will, wouldn’t that result in tremendous rejoicing, praise and worship? Isn’t this what we want? And wouldn’t this bring God even more glory, to be a God who doesn’t have to eliminate his enemies or imprison them as they persist in rebellion, but a God who completely triumphs over every enemy by bringing them to the point of perfect clarity where they surrender to him, embrace his truth and love and grace for them, and are transformed from enemies into servants and even children?

I believe that God has always had the perfect end to his perfect plan. I believe that his truth and his love are not only unconquerable, but that nothing in all creation can ultimately and finally stand against God’s truth and God’s love. Nothing.

If you’d like more expansive arguments for and against the differing views of hell, I’d recommend beginning with one of these books:

Four Views on Hell (2nd ed.) by Preston Sprinkle, Denny Burk, John Stackhouse Jr, Robin Parry, and Jerry Walls

All You Want to Know about Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin by Steve Gregg

For much deeper and more complete presentations of the evangelical universalist view of hell, I would strongly recommend the two books listed below. I’ve tried to footnote specific ideas I first encountered in the writings of Thomas Talbott and Robin Parry, but there isn’t much in my thinking on this subject that hasn’t been deeply affected by these brothers. I strongly and warmly recommend both of these books:

The Inescapable Love of God (2nd ed.) by Thomas Talbott

The Evangelical Universalist (2nd ed.) by Gregory MacDonald

  1. Jerry L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 128.
  2. Denny Burk, “An Eternal Conscious Torment Response” in Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed., ed. Preston Sprinkle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 131.
  3. Burk, Four Views on Hell, 131.
  4. Steve Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 57.
  5. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1955), 279-280.
  6. Thomas B. Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 171-185.
  7. Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2012), 114-120.
  8. Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 170.

[The views I express in this series of posts are my own. The church I serve, The Orchard, doesn’t have an official position regarding the nature of hell but allows the freedom of differing views. Our church association, the Evangelical Free Church of America, includes the explicit belief in eternal conscious punishment as part of the Statement of Faith.]