Much as I am constitutionally disposed to resist being pigeon-holed, I guess you could describe me as a conservative Charismatic. Although I am a firm believer that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are rightly in active use today, I am troubled by some of the excesses witnessed in modern churches, blamed on “moves of the Spirit”. I would align myself with all mainstream orthodox (little ‘o’) Christian beliefs and creeds. So that sets out my stall/bias in writing this article.
Many years ago, a dear friend of mine took a turn – maybe it was a gradual turning – in his Christian walk, into a movement known as “Universal Reconciliation” (UR). I have attempted subsequently to understand what Universal Reconciliationists believe and to what extent (if any) my fellowship with them might be affected. Early on, I instinctively felt that a doctrinal chasm had opened up between us, but I do not trust my instincts, except in the sense that they reveal to me my deeper emotions. And I know that emotions can be misleading.
What is it?
The name is a fairly accurate although perhaps simplistic description of the characteristic belief of Universal Reconciliationists. To expand this slightly, they believe that all people will ultimately achieve salvation through Jesus Christ, if not in this life then in the next. This would include all those persons traditionally cited as “evil beyond redemption” – Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan, etc. This of necessity disallows the concept of eternal punishment/hell. More on that anon.
The need for grace
I think that God must find it very saddening when Christians focus more on what divides them than on what unites them. One way in which this is evident is the use of name-calling. Evangelicals sometimes call fundamentalist Christians “fundies”. Fundamentalists may call Charismatics “Charismaniacs”, and so on. An unfortunate trend I have seen amongst Universal Reconciliationists is to cover the rest of Christendom with the blanket term “ET-ers”, where the “ET” stands for “Eternal Torment”.
Granted, many Christians outside UR do believe that non-believers are destined to spend eternity/the afterlife in some form of perpetual and ever lasting punishment. But what we should remember here is that in the case of UR, “Universal Reconciliation” describes the point at which the movement departs from mainstream Christianity. For many (non-UR) Christians, eternal torment is not a major tenet of their beliefs. Admittedly, it’s in there somewhere, but this is not, I don’t think, the key focus of their spiritual lives. So it is unfair to pick one arguably secondary doctrine and make this the defining characteristic of those believers. Furthermore, calling them “ET-ers” implies a negative focus whereas I would suggest that this is not the focus or experience of the majority. And finally, note the difference: Universal Reconciliationists have (broadly speaking) chosen this label for themselves; the rest of Christendom has not (to my knowledge) chosen the label ET-ers.
So may I call for grace from Universal Reconciliationists towards your brothers and sisters in the Lord? Can we drop the name-calling?
If I am going to speak about grace, I must go on to express my dismay at the way non-UR believers have treated Universal Reconciliationists in so many cases. We should look to the fundamental primary doctrines held by these people and the fruit of their spiritual lives. I would submit that the differences are much smaller than the heresy-hunters wish to make out.
It is difficult, but necessary, when engaging in theological debate, that we focus on the issues, not on the people. We are called to love one another whether friends, enemies, those in our particular branch of the Church or those outside it. The vitriol unleashed by people on both sides of this debate is alarming, unloving, unrighteous and generally not worthy of a direct response. It is acceptable to demolish ideas; it is not acceptable to demolish people.
If you research UR online, you do not have to dig very deep to discover websites that have large sections devoted to UR (apologetically for or against). The attitudes of some of the contributors to and maintainers of those websites can be deeply saddening. Personal attacks are rife and this is extremely unbecoming for anyone who claims to be devoted to an all-loving God. UR particularly emphasises the love of God, making personal attacks all the more incongruous in those quarters. Whatever the case, it is incumbent upon all who seek to engage on this topic to do so with the utmost respect for each others’ dignity as creatures made in God’s image.
Examining the scriptural evidence
Since we’re talking about matters of doctrine, we must start with our source text, the Bible. It is important not to impose one’s presuppositions on the text. Beginning with an assumption that UR is either a correct or an incorrect position will inevitably result in the view that certain scriptures shore up that assumption. The Bible is an ancient document, which we see through the lenses of translation and dynamically shifting cultures.
I am hampered though; I do come to the text with presuppositions and fettered by my culture. Moreover, I am not trained in ancient languages and cultures, nor indeed in theology (except through limited self-study). Nevertheless, I will make the best fist I can, of examining the scriptural evidence both for and against UR and – who knows – perhaps something somewhere will ring true for my readers. I ask the Holy Spirit to guide my thoughts as I write and yours as you read.
Examining evidence is something with which I am well acquainted, having spent some 14 years in the study and practice of the law. Perhaps my approach will seem clumsy to some, but to me it is second nature. To the evidence, then.
The scriptural case for UR
I do not have the resources to conduct a thorough biblical study, but let us address a few of the typical texts used in support of UR.
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
1 Corinthians 15:22
The UR conclusion from this passage is that all people for all time will be “made alive”, that is, saved. To evaluate this critically from a non-UR perspective: while most Christians would agree that all people are “in Adam”, we cannot with certainty say that all people are “in Christ”. There is a subtle difference between the UR reading and the non-UR reading. To illustrate this better, compare, “as in Adam all [people ever born] die, so in Christ all [people ever born] will be made alive” (UR) with “as [of those people who are] in Adam all die, so [of those people who are] in Christ all will be made alive” (non-UR). Both are arguably valid renderings of the text. This verse on its own is insufficient therefore to support either position fully. Further evidence from the text is required.
On the basis that “a text out of context is a pretext for a proof text” we should at least examine the immediate context surrounding the verse in question. In verse 23, Paul goes on to say, “But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.” This seems the question whether there will be those who don’t belong to him. Further, this raises the suggestion that the previous verse is not intended to indicate that the “all” referred to in connection with Christ is universal. This verse taken in isolation supports neither the UR nor the non-UR view.
Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men.
As with the previous verse, the UR position is tied up in the use of that word “all” – “life for all men”. Analysing the context, we see in verse 19: “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” That there is a difference between “all” and “many” is undeniable (two different Greek words are used and those words are not synonyms). On a plain reading, verse 19 gives an indication that not all people will be made righteous.
Some might argue that the “many” people referred to in verse 19 could logically include “all” people. If all people were together, that would indeed be “many”! But although the logic follows, it seems rather awkward to impose such a reading on the verse. “Many” just as logically (and more commonly) can mean “less than all”.
In verse 18 the assertion that Christ “brings life for all” does not necessarily imply that all receive life. Nor does it expand on the nature, extent or duration of that “life”. Once more, neither the UR, nor the non-UR position is conclusively proven.
For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in [Christ], 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.
This undoubtably is a key scripture for Universal Reconcilationists, not least because of the appearance of the phrase “reconcile to himself all things”. The UR position concludes that all people are ultimately reconciled with God, where “reconciliation” implies eternal blessed life, free from further punishment. This is compelling. Some difficulties present themselves, however:
- “all things” – is Paul implying that reconciliation/eternal life awaits everything, whether animal, igneous rock, body corporate, item of stationery, ideology, software product, termite mound or interstellar gas? One supposes not.
- “things in heaven” – is Paul suggesting that reconciliation and eternal punishment-free life await Satan?
- “reconciled” – does reconciled mean that for all time any deserved punishment is removed, suspended, negated or past?
If the emphasis in this verse is placed on “through him” (non-UR) rather than on “all things” (UR), a valid reading becomes, “All things which are reconciled to God are reconciled through Christ.” So although this verse might lead some to reach a UR position, we can see that a UR position does not arise from it of necessity. This verse is better evidence in support of UR, but not sufficient in itself to build a doctrine.
So far, much has been made of one small word, translated “all”. In each of these verses, the word “all” comes from a Greek word transliterated “pas” (Strong’s number 3956). Interestingly, this same word is used in 1 Timothy 6:10, which is a very familiar passage:
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
! Timothy 6:10
Earlier versions such as the KJV tended to translate this as “love of money is the root of all evil”. The New KJV now favours “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”. There is not currently a complete consensus amongst translators, but the differences of opinion should be enough to suggest that a dogmatic insistence on one particular rendering would be unwise. That said, the rendering that includes “all kinds” seems more consistent with the remaining corpus of scripture and makes good sense (in that there are certainly many evils for which money is not the root). Applying this back into the previous scriptures, where “all things” are reconciled, might this not properly be rendered, “all kinds of things” are reconciled? And so on.
That if you confess with your mouth, Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
I juxtapose these two as others have done elsewhere, in support of UR. The conclusion invited is that all people will ultimately confess that Jesus Christ is their Lord, thereby obtaining the salvation promised in Romans 10:9. The previous verse in Philippians states however, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…” This is a valid translation of the original and leaves open the possibility that while all should bow and confess, some will not.
… God our Saviour … wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
1 Timothy 2:3b-4
Perhaps we now come to the crux of it. A common line of reasoning for Universal Reconciliationists is thus: God is omnipotent. God is all-loving. God desires that all people be saved. Due to his omnipotence, everything he desires, he can bring into being, and since this would be consistent with being all-loving, all people will be saved. I do not propose to analyse that reasoning here, but returning to the scriptural evidence, we can ask: are God’s desires ever unfulfilled?
The Greek word translated here “wants” can be transliterated from the Greek as “thelo” or “ethelo” (Strongs number 2309). This word appears 210 times in the New Testament and the best place to answer our previous question is wherever the word is used in connection with God. One such instance is Romans 9:22:
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath— prepared for destruction?
In this passage we see God’s wishes (“thelo” here translated “choosing”) being restrained by God himself. Taking an overview of the context in which this word is used (and precise meaning would normally vary with context), the meaning is no stronger used in connection with God than in connection with an individual. For example, “I wish to do a parachute jump,” communicates the desire without implying that this desire will definitely be fulfilled. I would suggest that this is how 1 Timothy 2:3b-4 should be taken. It is silent on the matter of whether God’s wish in this respect will ever be fulfilled.
There are many passages in scripture similar to those above. There are too many to list here, but of those I have analysed, a similarly inconclusive position arises. For the avoidance of doubt, I have not found any scripture that provides conclusive evidence in favour of UR, but please understand that this mere fact must not be taken as a positive assertion that UR is false. In that respect, we must next consider whether there is any scriptural evidence negating UR.
The scriptural case against UR
Since a principal tenet of UR is that punishment for unbelievers will be limited in time (or not happen at all), it is appropriate to examine those scriptures that touch on eternal punishment.
He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power
2 Thessalonians 1:8-9
Everything turns on the correct translation of the word here rendered “everlasting”. Unsurprisingly, it transpires that this is an extremely contentious point between UR and non-UR believers. On the face of it, on a plain reading of the NIV at least, UR is obliterated by this translation, but is the translation correct?
Different translators have different views. Here are a few:
- eternal destruction (NASB, NLT, ESV, CEV, ASV)
- everlasting ruin (destruction and perdition) (Amplified)
- everlasting destruction (KJV, NKJV, Darby, NIV)
- destruction that continues forever (NCV)
- everlasting pains (Wycliffe)
- destroyed for ever (Worldwide English)
- eternal exclusion (JB Phillips)
- eternal exile (The Message)
- destruction age-during (YLT)
Of the translations (and paraphrases) surveyed, there is a broad consensus that the duration of destruction/punishment will be eternal or everlasting. In those translations it is difficult to impute a cessation to the period of punishment, at least not without second guessing the translators. In a couple of the translations, the intensity of the punishment is moderated to “permanent exclusion”. It is still without temporal limit.
The UR counter to this stems from translations such as Young’s Literal Translation, which focuses on the “ages” translation of the Greek word “aionios”, viz “they will be punished for an age”. The majority of translators disagree with this conclusion, but it seems to me that the bible is the best arbitrator on the question. Where else is this word used? Aionios occurs 72 times in the New Testament. Interestingly it is used in connection with life as well as with punishment. For example:
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
“Eternal” here is aionios in both cases. If the UR position is correct that “aionios” punishment is limited in duration, then it must also surely assert that the “aionios” life is similarly limited in duration. Any other approach would be inconsistent. So if 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 does not conclusively support the non-UR position (if there is a valid question concerning the correct translation of aionios) it cannot support the UR position either, in the light of verses such as Matthew 25:46.
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.
This is one of many passages within Revelation concerning the punishment of the wicked. In this instance, the flavour of the passage conveys a permanent sacrifice-like punishment of a particular group of apostates. On a plain reading of the text, one must emerge with an impression of a devastating outpouring of God’s judgment upon some unbelievers. Words such as “fury”, “wrath”, “torment” and “sulphur” enhance that impression. I would advise caution here however: Revelation must be approached with great care. It contains much that is allegorical, much that is prophetic, much that appears poetic even. Extracting a clear prediction of the future (to the extent that Revelation may contain as yet unfulfilled prophecy) is beyond me. I accept Revelation as one of those mysteries of God, to be revealed at his good pleasure.
So, the evidential strength of Revelation 14:9-11 may legitimately be brought into question by UR believers. That it is evidence against their cause cannot be called in question. That it is perhaps not utterly compelling may be.
There are many scriptures that say similar things to those we have studied thus far. One scriptural concept deserves particular attention before we wrap up this section however: that of the unpardonable sin:
I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.
I cannot play Devil’s advocate with these verses. I must simply pray that I never stumble into such error.
The problem of free will
I do not wish to stray far from my biblical studies approach to this debate, but I do wish to express some thoughts on the topic of free will. It presents philosophical difficulties for me when I address Universal Reconciliation. My understanding may be coarse and inelegantly expressed, but for me, the Universal Reconciliationist says this: you will be saved whether you want to be or not. If you reject God initially, it is inevitable that you will ultimately repent and return to him.
In this eternal, UR view, free will becomes illusory. If a person’s choice (of God) is inevitable, predictable and effectively impossible to avoid, how can we reconcile this with what we instinctively know and feel (and believe the bible teaches moreover) about free will?
There is another problem: if it is inevitable that people will choose God, over the eternal time scale, is it not also inevitable that they will subsequently choose to reject him again? Or is it impossible, having chosen God, to reject him (thus negating free will once more)? The matter of salvation becomes bound up in the works of the individual, rather than in the sacrifice of Christ. This, compounded with the dismantling of free will, makes the UR position one that would require very careful scrutiny indeed, were one to choose to embark down that path.
Does UR present a case to answer?
Taking all things together, UR does indeed have a case to answer. Whilst I maintain that if we take an orthodox view of scripture whereby it is internally consistent, a non-UR position appears to emerge more strongly, this is not to say that UR views should be dismissed summarily. They rightly challenge the non-UR approach to scripture and this challenge must be met with grace and dignity.
It is not my objective to reach a conclusion on this subject, although my own position remains unchanged having conducted this study. For the reader, further material may be of interest. Might I suggest two starting points – in the interests of balance, one from each camp:
Bible quotes above: THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.