We are going to switch for a while from cosmic to personal issues surrounding eschatology. [Personal: issues such as 'what happens after death?', 'what is the fate of the unevangelised?', 'rewards and punishments: heaven and hell?'] As we do this we will have to be content at times with an approximation rather than a definitive answer on certain subjects. We have become focused on subjects such as ‘life after death’, ‘who will go to heaven’, but the NT is focused on the completion of God’s creation project in which humanity finds their setting.
Let me start with some beliefs that I consider are periphery to scripture.
1. Purgatory and Limbo
These are both essentially Roman Catholic doctrines. Purgatory refers to the suffering that all who die at peace within the church, but are not perfect, pass through before arriving at heaven. This period of suffering will vary in degree and is in order to make satisfaction for sins. Matthew 5:25,26 (‘given over to the tormentors until the debt is paid in full’) is used to underpin this position, however it needs to be noted that the overall thrust of biblical teaching denies such a belief.
(There are other Scriptures are used to defend the belief in purgatory, particularly those that refer to the fire of testing of the believer (see, for example, Luke 12:59; 1 Cor. 3:10-15; 5:5, 15:29). However these Scriptures do not refer to a refining process that a believer goes through subsequent to death, but to the judgment all believers will face.)
According to Roman Catholic theology Limbo is the place where souls of unbaptised infants go. This is founded upon an interpretation of original sin (children are defiled and so guilty) and of infant baptism (this sacrament washes away the defilement) in such a way that unbaptised children are unfit for heaven. Limbo is not taught explicitly in Scripture but becomes a theological necessity for those who interpret original sin and infant baptism in such ways. Given Jesus’ attitude to children it is surely better to assume that they are granted entrance to the kingdom of heaven in a unique way (Matt. 18:2,3). On certain issues the Bible might not speak with a loud and clear voice but we can be sure of the mercy of God toward any child that dies.
There are also those who have a view similar to purgatory – those who believe that hell is a purifying fire and ultimately all will be saved. Universalism.
Purgatory and Limbo are exclusively Roman Catholic doctrines and have no adequate foundation within the Bible. However, when we come to the issue of Universalism it needs to be acknowledged that this view in differing forms has had support from theologians of differing schools. (There is an excellent book from evangelicals that give a lot of support toward universalism: entitled Universal Salvation? (Paternoster Press, 2003), and edited by Robin Parry and Chris Partridge.)
An appeal can be made to a number of Scriptures. Some texts speak of a universal reconciliation taking place (e.g., Col. 1:20; Ephes. 1:10; 1 Cor. 15:24-28); others such as 1 Tim. 4:10 speak of Jesus’ specific, but not exclusive, relationship with believers. [That Scripture says: 'He is the Saviour of all people, especially those who believe...' This can be compared to Paul’s words to Timothy to 'bring... the scrolls, especially the parchments' (2 Tim. 4:13). By focusing on the parchments it does mean that the scrolls are to be ignored and rejected. Similarly Jesus is said to be the Saviour of believers in a specific way might not mean that the others are excluded from his salvation.]
Then there are the universalist texts concerning the death of Jesus for the whole human race, as well as the Adam / Christ passages in Paul, that we read in Rom. 5:12-19; 1 Cor. 15:22. The contrast is between Adam as the first human and Christ as the eschatological human. The effect of each is described in equal terms: all… all, many… many.
Universalism, by strict definition, mean that in the end all will be saved, regardless of a person’s response to Christ this side of death / parousia. The view is summed up by John Hick with the words, ‘God will eventually succeed in his purpose of winning all men to himself in faith and love.’ (Evil and the Love of God (MacMillan, 1977), p. 342.) I suggest that the universalist is right to emphasise the will of God for salvation but is wrong to underplay the human response needed for salvation.
Although not strictly called universalism, there are views that propose some form of ‘second chance’ for those who die. An appeal to 1 Peter 3:18-4:6 as being descriptive of Jesus preaching to those who had died not hearing the Gospel is taken by some scholars, such as Clark Pinnock, to mean that ‘death is the occasion when the unevangelised have an opportunity to make a decision about Jesus Christ.’ (To use that very unclear Scripture to back this up would not be wise… the meaning is anything but clear.)
Others such as C.S. Lewis (tentatively) proposed that there might be an escape from hell for those who had a change of heart. (The Great Divorce, (MacMillan & Co., 1946).)
Others make an appeal to such descriptions as the gates of the New Jerusalem always being open with the kings of the earth bringing their glory and honour to the city (Rev. 21:24ff.), [this is argued for example by David Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology, Vol. 2., (Harper, 1979), pp. 224-230], or to the leaves of the tree of life being for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2). Although these views are not strictly universalism they do illustrate that the fate of those who have never heard the Gospel is an acute issue to be faced.
There is always value in emphasising to quote the title of a Clark Pinnock book a ‘Wideness in God’s Mercy’.
I came across Neal Punt’s book Unconditional Good News some time back and I think that he with some justification has explored the possibility of approaching the theme of salvation from the opposite end of the spectrum to that normally accepted as evangelical. He effectively suggests that
- all are saved except for those who reject Christ, rather than,
- all are lost except for those who accept Christ.
He maintains that all are elect in Christ and only those who do not see fit to acknowledge God will be lost. He argues this from a Calvinistic (and perhaps Barthian) position that all are elect in Christ except for those the Bible explicitly says will be lost.
The strict form of universalism seems to stretch the evidence beyond what the texts in favour of universalism will uphold, and they cannot be taken in isolation from other texts. God’s saving purpose has universal scope but people may refuse to enter into that purpose. In Col. 1:19-23, for example, the Colossian believers enter into the reconciliation effected by Christ ‘provided they continue in the faith.’
Further, universal reconciliation does not, in and of itself, necessarily imply that all will voluntarily submit to Christ. All ultimately confess the Lordship of Christ, but not all do so willingly. Although Paul says that all will acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus, including that which is is under the earth (Phil. 2:9f.), when he speaks of ultimate reconciliation he does not include the subterranean sphere (Eph. 1:9f.).
However, we can conclude that the possibility of universalism is not so beyond the stretch of the NT that it be declared an invalid interpretation.
Before we press in to the issue of final destinies and life after death, we will first look at the nature of humanity and inevitably have to look at what the Bible teaches regarding the ‘immortality of the soul’ and the implications from the biblical teaching.