Explorations in Theology

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Why I am not a Universalist

I am writing a few articles that stand alongside the books and are at times a response to questions from a Zoom group. It is not uncommon for a version of ‘why are you not a universalist?’ to come up. Understandable as I am not an exclusivist; I do anticipate that most who claim to be ‘born again’ will partcipate in the age to come (I do not use the ‘go to heaven’ langauage as that is not found in the Bible)… I anticipate that as God is gracious – hence my faith for myself is that I will ‘be’ there as through the cross God is gracious to include me… I also expect to be surprised who also is included!

These articles I am uploading at https://3generations.eu/explorations, but I thought I would include this one here as a post.

First I cover my back!!

I am not a Universalist (all will be ultimately ‘saved’) though I have a sneaky suspicion that God might well be. I am not only covering my back, though, as I consider that the Scriptures give us a picture of God that shows his generosity to all. Generosity is seen in the garden of Eden with the permission to ‘eat of all the trees’, or we can consider one of the reasons that Peter gives as to why Jesus has not yet appeared:

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:10).

If only a few were to be saved the longer the delay would simply mean that more people were to perish. This Scripture seems to present an optimism in the delay. Likewise in 1 Timothy 2:3 we read,

who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

Apart from not viewing the cross as a transactional exchange mechanism that acts as the answer to the wrath of God, these Scriptures are some of the reasons why I do not subscribe to a ‘limited atonement’ perspective (that Jesus died for the ‘elect’; those for whom he died will therefore necessarily be saved). There is a consistent ‘died for all’ that comes through in Scripture, and for anyone who approaches the Bible as a Calvinist to avoid the universalist perspective, I find it difficult that the uncomfortable (and to me unavoidable) conclusion is that God wants something (all to be saved) but chooses something very different (only an elect are saved). If Jesus died for all, and he pays the price for all, then I find a universalist position the most natural one to take, if we view the cross through the lens of penal substitution.

There are many ‘universalist’ texts, with the ‘as in Adam’ / ‘as in Jesus’ texts being core ones. Alongside those we have the ‘reconciliation of all things’.

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.(Col. 1:10).

to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ (Ephes. 1:10).

Another Scripture to consider is the description of Jesus as the Saviour of all, especially those who believe (1 Tim. 4:10). There is a parallel verse, language-wise, in which Paul asks Timothy to ‘bring… the scrolls, especially the parchments’ (2 Tim. 4:13) indicating that he is asking Timothy bring as many as possible. He is not asking just for the scrolls (‘only the parchments’), but is asking Timothy to take as many as possible. If salvation is only by the choice of God and he can save whoever he chooses, then it would seem he does not have to make the choices that Timothy might have to make! ‘How many can you bring Timothy? If you can’t bring them all make sure that you bring the parchments.’ If you can’t bring them all. But if God can save all he does not have to make that choice. Timothy, limited by capacity and ability, but God limitless.

The texts in favour of universalism 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’. 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 might 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.), yet when he speaks of ultimate reconciliation he does not include that subterranean sphere (Eph. 1:9f.).

Ultimate reconciliation could mean that of individuals (and demons, the devil) are included, or it could indicating that all rebellion in all spheres comes to an end. If the former then Universalism is a given, if the latter ultimate final inclusion of all as participants in the age to come is not implies by the use of such terms as ‘the reconciliation of all things’.

The ‘as in Adam’ / ‘as in Christ’ Scriptures (Rom. 5: 12-21; 1 Cor. 15: 22-23) could imply a universalism. All are in Adam (by birth) and all are in Christ (by the work of the cross). Perhaps the Corinthian texts are the strongest with the repeated ‘all…all’, but the final verse in the reference above makes us ask a question as to who ‘belongs’ to Christ. The two verses with an emphasis added are,

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.

Those who come with him are the ‘dead in Christ’ (1 Tim. 4:16), those who will be raised from the dead. The ‘all’ are the all who are in Christ. Not all are in Christ, we read,

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).

We read if someone is in Christ. The ‘if’ suggests that this is not automatic, and in the Pauline letters participation in Christ seems to be conditional on a response to Christ. Being included in his death, we read in Romans, was conditional:

We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (Rom. 6:2-4).

This ‘belonging’ to is not too dissimilar to verses in John ch. 1. Jesus came to ‘his own’ but they did not receive him. But to those who did they were born of God. Later using the same terminology in the Gospel of John we read that he sat at table with ‘his own’ (the disciples at the Last Supper). Responding to the offer of salvation seems to be the criterion that determined if those who were ‘his own’ were truly ‘his own’.

There does appear to be the belief in a final judgement,

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5:12).

Perhaps there is a post-death opportunity to respond to Jesus, but Scripture is not explicit about that as a future possibility, with the strong emphasis that our lives and responses pre-death determine participation in the age to come.

Finally, the warnings (particularly in Hebrews) I consider are not theoretical warnings to keep us in line but warnings of the consequences of rejecting Jesus. Those two final words (‘rejecting Jesus’) also give me an optimistic hope that many will be included in as participants when the renewal of all things take place, for I place the emphasis on the exclusion of those who (in some way actively) reject Jesus, rather than a narrow approach that insists that only those who have received Jesus (and how is that defined depends so much on one’s tradition) are included in.

Those in summary are reasons why I am not a universalist. I think I have left sufficient in the above paragraphs to show that I am not of a simple ‘all born again are in’ and ‘all not born again are out’ belief. (Of course that begs also a huge question of the use of the term ‘born again’ and to whom that applies.) I am optimistic, I believe as Clark Pinnock described it in ‘a wideness in God’s mercy’.


Addendum

I consider that the strongest appeal to universal salvation would be if a penal substitutionary view of the cross is held to. If Jesus paid the penalty for all, then all are free, irrespective of their acceptance of that. Certainly for God to endlessly punish people for their sin that has been ‘paid’ for I would consider is a gross injustice. The ‘limited atonement’ perspective (Jesus only died for the elect) seems the only way to protect a penal substitutionary from becoming a substantial piece of the pro-universalist argument. Hence on the cross, I consider we have to find another way of understanding what took place there.

4 thoughts on “Why I am not a Universalist

  1. It is interesting that you say penal substitutionary atonement would be the strongest argument for universalism as most proponents of it reject that theory of atonement. Thinking in modern times of Brad Jersak or David Bentley Hart. In fact the Orthodox fathers who believed in it as a possibility would have subscribed to a different view of atonement too as the Orthodox Church does not subscribe to penal substitution as far as I have learned. I see that it would make sense logically though so interesting then that its advocates were strong believers in only the very limited elect being saved and the rest would burn in hell forever. What do you believe happens to people who ‘reject Christ’ whatever we mean by that – I know you have a wider view of who is saved than many? I have a strong hope that all or at least most will be saved -‘ hopeful inclusion’ perhaps being my position veering towards Universalism or really really wanting to!.

    1. Hi Joanna

      Very sharp on the penal substitutionary perspective (although not sure that Brad would describe that he was a universalist, probably with the same sneaky position that I hold concerning God?). I have maybe confused it a bit by throwing penal substitution in – just for me that viewpoint – held by the majority of evangelicals – would (for me) push me to universalism. It also seems the logical arrival point for all who adopt a Barthian approach on election. I think is the position of (e.g.) Baxter Krueger.

      If there are those who are lost, I cannot see the ‘eternal punishing’ aspect being taught (and I think only the Jewish book of ‘Judith’ can be pulled in to suggest that this is a thought within Judaism… of course many will say it is taught and then quote certain texts, but my point in the article is that they do not support my, nor someone else’s, views with total clarity. Eternal punishment is vastly different to that – it is a verdict that is not reversed, in popular language ‘annihilation’ or better termed ‘conditional immortality’. The soul is not immortal (that is Greek thought due to a despising of the material) so only God has immortality – and those who receive it as a gift. One writer (JDP) knows this and I was amazed in his book that he then appealed to the immortality of the resurrected body as supporting an eternal hell of torment! (The resurrection body of the believer we can say is drawn from the resurrection of Jesus, we cannot say this of the resurrection of the unbeliever.) Hell / lake of fire imagery is drawn from Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed by eternal fire, with the ‘smoke of its torment’ rising up as a result. Sodom is gone, the RESULT is eternal.

      So now you are pushing me to my less-than-water-tight view. A generous optimism but does not include everyone, but no-one ‘burning forever’ in hell. Ideas of second-chance (‘gates never closed’) perhaps, but probably not. And then God… the God who has a bigger heart than all of us combined! And the work of Jesus to save, a cosmic event that goes beyond my comprehension.

  2. Thank you Martin so interesting. I think that I can live with the thought of conditional immortality though I prefer alternative view that all may be saved. Although it is the height of arrogance and narcissism to think God would decide or order his universe with something I am comfortable with I need to learn more humility there!! I suppose it is just about trusting his nature and knowing he gives everyone the maximum chances to respond and as you say he is so much more merciful than our wildest dreams.

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