Does the Bible Teach Universal Salvation?
Good News Magazine
December 1976
Volume: Vol XXV, No. 12
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Does the Bible Teach Universal Salvation?
Charles V Dorothy & Lawson C Briggs  

Does the Bible say al/ will be saved? Or is it possible some will be forever lost? Here's what God's Word teaches about universal reconciliation.

   But I don't wa-a-nnta be saved!" "You better straighten up and fly right or I'll show you. I'm going to throw you in the lake of fire. You'll see.)'
   "That's just what I want. I just want to die and have it all over with forever." "Listen here, you! You know who I am! I'm God. And I'm going to burn you up. Then I'm going to resurrect you again, and then we'll see if you're convinced."
   "But I don't wanta live forever'"
   "Now you look here, you just might as well face it. I am going to save you and make you part of my family, and there's nothing you can do to prevent it. I'll throw you in the lake of fire and burn you up and then resurrect you eighteen jillion times and then eighteen jillion more if necessary, until you will be saved."
   "But I don't wanta be.... "

   Improbable scenario? Not according to believers in universal reconciliation and universal salvation.
What Universalism Is. A universalist "believes or maintains the doctrine that redemption or election is extended to the whole of mankind and not confined to a part of it" (Oxford English Dictionary, vol. II, p. 243). In other words, according to believers in universalism, no one can ever be lost, no matter how hard he might try.
   The earliest post-apostolic writings (the epistles of Polycarp, Ignatius, Clement of Rome) contain no ideas of universal reconciliation, or total salvation. We will examine in this article the claims that the early Church and apostles did teach and believe such doctrines.
   "The earliest Universalists... were Zoroaster... and his followers the Parsees, who remain in this faith unto the present day.... Next in order of time were Jews, some of whom since shortly before the days of Christ were Universalists. Among Christians and those associated with the Church the first advocates of Universalism were some Gnostics ... " (New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol. 12, p. 96). It was from these Gnostics — and not from the Bible or the apostles — that the later universalist doctrines came.
   The original concept of universal salvation is inextricably tied with the idea that man has an ever-living, ever-conscious soul: "You can't just leave all those dead people out there..." in the lake of fire or wherever else one might imagine. But we need to realize that the Bible reveals that man is a soul, not that he has a "soul" which cannot be destroyed. (Request our free booklets Do You Have an Immortal Soul? and After Death — Then What? for the proof.) The truth revealed in God's Word is that the dead really are dead — they. are not people — they are not "out there." There is no consciousness in death, either the first or the second (and the Bible does not allow for a third). Death is, in reality, oblivion (Matt. 10:28; Eccl. 9:5. 10; etc.).
   In the Sibylline Oracles, a pseudepigraphical work of around A.D. 150, this immortal soul basis comes out clearly. Universalism is claimed to be the result of the prayers of the saints who are affected by the sufferings of the living, conscious damned. Because of His great love for the saints, and their faithfulness. the Almighty is then pictured as granting his saints the salvation of the wicked.
   Will God in His love and mercy completely restore all mankind to Himself? And we must not forget the fallen angels, demons and even Satan himself, which some apparently expect to be saved! Or will the incorrigible wicked finally be destroyed without further hope of redemption?
Universalism Contradicts the Bible. "Not everyone who says to me. 'Lord, Lord,'" said Jesus, "shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).
   And " If the righteous man" — and surely many think they are righteous — "is scarcely saved, where will the impious and sinner appear?" (I Pet. 4:18.)
   "And some one said to him, 'Lord, will those who are saved be few?' And he said to them, 'Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able'" (Luke 13:23-24). There will be no second chance for them. He will say: "Depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!" (Verse 27.) "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal [Greek aionion, which does not mean merely "lasting an age" as some claim] fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41).
   But will the results of the fiery "second death" of the workers of iniquity be permanent? "Behold, the day' comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them" — leave them something? — "neither rool nor branch.... For they will be ashes under the soles of your feet... " (Mal. 4:1-3).
   To believe in a universal reconciliation, one must believe in at least one more human age, to come yet after the lake of fire and second death. But to believe this, the universalist must redefine the word "death." When Revelation 20:14 states that death itself is "thrown into the lake of fire" (see also Revelation 21:4), the meaning is that no one left alive after the lake of fire will ever die; i.e., there will be no more dying. Yet the universalist must interpret this to say that no one who has ever lived and died can be left dead, but must again be resurrected.
   Then he contradicts the statement of the Bible again ("There will be no more death") by assuming that the unregenerate may have to be thrown into the lake of fire and die again and again, each time being reresurrected to life!
   But death itself being thrown into the lake of fire does not mean that the fire's effect on everything and everyone else who will have been thrown there is now cancelled out! If the destruction of "death" itself meant everything that had ever died had to be brought back to life, then the dinosaurs too, the gnats and mosquitoes, all that has ever lived, must revive. For they all died, just as man dies. It is obvious that this line of thought leads to a ridiculous conclusion.
   The Bible speaks plainly of the possibility that a person may "accept the grace of God in vain" (II Cor. 6:1), and of "those who... shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal. 5:21 ). Paul further stated that "he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life" (Gal. 6:8). Notice it is a contrast: eternal life on the one hand and the opposite reward on the other. "Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap" (verse 7).
   "How shall we escape if we neglect ... salvation?" (Heb. 2:3.) And Hebrews 6:4-8 reads: "For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.... [their] end is to be burned."
Christ Reconciles to God. Perhaps the keystone of the universal salvation concept (or "universal reconciliation " as some prefer) is Colossians 1:19-20: "For in him [Christ] all the fulness 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."
   Thus, says the universalist, Christ has already made the entire reconciliation for every human that has ever lived, and not only for them but even for the creatures of heaven.
   But there are several problems with this interpretation. First, the statement really is that God "was pleased... to reconcile" mankind through Christ. It speaks of intent, of desire, of purpose. It does not state in an absolute sense that a reconciliation has actually been made between God and every person. In fact, the whole context shows plainly that such is not the case: "And you [you Christians, only those who are converted and serve God]... he has now reconciled ... provided that you continue in the faith..." (verses 21-23).
   God, through Christ, has established the mechanism through which all could be reconciled. But reconciliation is a two-way street. Those who would be the recipients of God's grace must first accept the terms of reconciliation. They must accept Christ, who is the one and only way into the Kingdom (John 14:6).
   Second, the "whether on earth or in heaven" is a loosely inclusive expression not meant to specify a reconciliation of angels (as a matter of fact, those fallen angels or demons which might conceivably be subject to reconciliation are on earth, not in heaven). Rather, the expression is designedly broad enough not to exclude any human being who may come under Christ's atonement. It is a generalization intended to show the scope and magnitude of Christ's atoning sacrifice. The question of men being "in heaven" is not under discussion here.
   Third, "all things" does not necessarily mean "all" in an absolute sense.
"All" Doesn't Always Mean "All." Like the English word "all," the Greek word (pas, pasa, pan) may be absolute (including the entire universe) or limited (everything within certain parameters) or exaggerative (hyperbole for emphasis, not intended to be taken literally). As most readers will recognize, these three spheres of meaning are not due so much to the word itself or its root (and certainly not due to any dictionary's treatment of the word!) as to the nature of language itself, semantics.
   Says Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: "There are many verses in which it simply corresponds to popular narrative style with the exaggeration still common today. A few examples should suffice. Thus we read of 'all Jerusalem' in Man. 2:3. 'all Judea' in Matt. 3:5, 'all [hole] Syria' and 'all [pantes] the sick' in Matt. 4:24. Here pas is not to be taken strictly. It is simply a popular way of denoting a great number" (vol. 5. p. 896).
   Some other examples? We read in Acts 19:10 that "all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord." Were there no exceptions among the entire population? If not, that's almost better than John's baptismal feat when there "went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Lord an, and they were [all baptized by him" ! (Matt. 3:5-6.)
   Ephesians 3:9 — if we take "all" in an absolute sense — seems to say that it was granted to the apostle Paul personally to reach every single human in the world with the gospel. And Colossians 1:23 even goes so far as to say that the gospel had already, in Paul's life time, "been preached to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister." (One might wonder just why the end, as prophesied in Matthew 24:14, has not yet come!)
   Paul commanded the Philippians to "do all things" (Phil. 2:14). Now surely that would be both difficult and licentious! And think of poor Paul having to "endure everything" (II Tim. 2:10).
   What has been said here in reference to the universalists' use of Colossians 1:19, 20 will also suffice for the similar texts in Philippians 2:10-11 and Ephesians 1:9-10. There is no reason to believe that every animal's knee will bow, or tongue confess, as universalist doctrine would logically require. So neither is there reason to believe every man's (or angel's) knee and tongue will so respond, except those who, according to all the 'rest of the Bible, will be then a live and present. Even today the angels, faithful or fallen, acknowledge that Jesus is Lord (Matt. 8:29, 31; James 2:19). Paul's statement is a general one, meant to affirm that every knee will bow and tongue confess. But the question still remains — will some who bow the knee to Christ be saved, and others destroyed? The next article in this series will deal with this and other pertinent questions about universal salvation.


   The doctrine of universal salvation appeals to many because, quite naturally, we would all like to believe none will be lost. We should not, however, hide our heads in the sand from the biblical facts.
   "The Lord is not slow about his promise... not wishing [KJV, willing] that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (II Pet. 3:9). Peter used the Greek word boulomai which, depending on its usage in context, may be used in reference to a "wish," "want," "desire," or" of decisions of the will after previous deliberation" (Arndt, Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 356). This verse shows us God's desire.
   But does it show God will force salvation on those who do not wish to receive it? Of course not. God has given mankind free moral agency, which means their end is not predetermined. Forced " universal salvation " would destroy free moral agency. Under no circumstances will God force everyone to repent and be saved.
   What is the context and purpose of Peter's statement? He is exhorting that no one be lost through their carelessness, since God certainly wants them saved. The fact he brings it up is evidence one can be lost. He warns of the lake of fire in verse 10, then exhorts: "... What sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness.... Therefore, beloved... be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace" (verses 11, 14).
   He then tells us Paul taught the same thing: "So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction ... " (verses 15, 16). They are headed for "destruction," not universal salvation says Peter. And what does Paul whom they twist, say?
   Again we are informed God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (I Tim. 2:4): But Paul uses the Greek word thelo, which only expresses a wish or desire. If is the same word Paul used in I Thessalonians 4:13 ("But we would not have you ignorant") and Galatians 4:20-21 ("I could wish [KJV) desire] to be present with you.... you who desire to be under [a human system of] law").
   If God had decreed that everyone will eventually be saved, then why did He command man to make a choice? Why did He even create man with a mind able to choose? Why did He make man have to suffer all the trials of this life? 'Why didn't He just make us fully spirit Sons in the first place?
   Man has to decide. He must choose. He must will to go God's way and resist going the way of sin and suffering if he wants immortality. If — and only if — he chooses this way, will God then give him, freely, eternal life.
   But what will happen to those who do not repent of sin, to those who choose to go the way of sin and suffering? The apostle Paul answers: "For the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). And Jesus Christ said: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
   Do you notice that the two possible alternatives reveal opposite destinies — to "perish" on the one hand, or to receive eternal life" on the other?


   "Universalism is the characteristic doctrine of those who believe that all souls will sometime be induced to repent and turn from their sins, and that so all will be saved. Advocates of this doctrine are found in nearly all denominations of religion, Christian and heathen. Some of these advocates differ from their parent religion or sect only in holding that the benefits of salvation will finally be enjoyed by all men. Even among those organized as a Christian Church and called Universalists nearly every variety of doctrine is represented except as to the distinctive and confident hope of Universal Salvation" (New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol. 12, 95ff).

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Good News MagazineDecember 1976Vol XXV, No. 12