This article will be on the subject of Universalism. It is a continuation of a four-part series on the subjects of partial preterism, God’s sovereignty (determinism/Calvinism/Augustinianism), God’s love (free will/Arminianism/Pelagianism), God getting what He wants (apokatastasis/universalism/reconciliation), and God’s wrath (justice/judgment/retribution). There is a separate article (here) that summarizes the subjects in this series if you want something less extensive.
I also suggest that you read the previous articles in this series (linked above), so you won’t be lost. These subjects have a lot to do with my eschatology. But it should be understood that when we talk about eschatology, we are really talking about the character, power, will, and love of God. This series still won’t be exhaustive, but it will be a little more detailed than my summary article on eschatology. If you have any questions or want a more detailed response, you can contact me, and I’ll be happy to chat.
What have We Learned Thus Far?
First, we discussed partial preterism. Preterism means “past.” There are different subgroups within every biblical view, but the general idea of partial preterism is that they believe that most everything in Revelation happened already (usually by 70 AD). Almost all of the judgment passages and literally all of the “hell” passages were regarding the destruction of Jerusalem. And, to some degree, the dismantling of pagan Rome and its governing authorities of the time. I am a partial preterist, and I believe that Satan is bound from diminishing the influence of the Gospel. We are in the symbolic “1000-year” kingdom of Jesus (Rev. 20). Jesus will reign until He destroys death, and then He will deliver the kingdom to the Father (1 Cor. 15). Those who are dead in Christ reign with Him in the 1000-year reign. Those in Christ are the new heaven and new earth, they are the temple of God, they are the bride of Christ in its fullness NOW. BUT we do not fully experience it until after the 1000-year reign. After the 1000 years, Satan, death, hades, and the beast will be thrown into the lake of fire.
The lake of fire is the second death, spiritual death (Rev. 20). Anyone whose name is not in the book of life is also thrown into the lake of fire. Those whose names are written in the book of life are accepted into the eternal kingdom that will be handed over to the Father. The river of life flowing from the throne of God (Rev. 22) is the same river of fire mentioned in Daniel 7. If the lake of fire, outside of the city gates, is the second death and Jesus must defeat death before handing the kingdom over to the Father, then the river of fire must be distinguished or transformed so that God can receive the kingdom. That means that eternal conscious torment cannot exist. The only options are Annihilationism (Conditionalism) or Universalism (Ultimate Reconciliation of all). Does that mean the Devil too? One could argue that all non-people thrown into the lake were non-sentient beings. In other words, they were systems of thinking and action. However, even if Satan was a sentient being and was redeemed, could God not accomplish that? Of course, He could! And if God does not accomplish that or desire that for the Devil, what does that have to do with humans? All three options regarding Satan have historical and biblical representation.
Second, we talked about the tension between determinism and free will. There are Christians who believe God always gets what He wants. They reconcile that idea (called sovereignty) with other verses about God saving all by saying that God saves all that He predetermined to save. According to them, He also predetermined some people not to be saved. He is all-powerful and gets exactly what He wants. Therefore, some will be lost according to God’s wishes.
Meanwhile, there are other Christians who emphasize God’s love for all and how that requires Him to give all humans the ability to accept Him or reject Him. He wants all to be saved. They try to reconcile that idea with passages about God’s sovereignty by saying that He is powerful, but He can’t break human free will. Therefore, some will be lost against God’s wishes.
I sincerely have the utmost respect for my Christian brothers and sisters who believe in God’s love and man’s free will. I believe that too! I have the most sincere respect for Christian brothers and sisters who believe that God gets what He wants. They believe in God’s sovereignty! I do too! But can you see the disconnect here? God either wants to save all but can’t, or He can save all but He won’t… or….what are the other options? Are there other options that honor Christ, Scripture, the Father, the Spirit, free will, and sovereignty? That’s what we will talk about in this article.
Hopeful Universalism: God is All-Loving AND All-Powerful
*NOTE* If you want more resources talking about the specific “hell” passages, I will address that next week as I talk about the “God’s Wrath and Judgment” passages. But if you want a shorter version of that idea and/or if you want more resources on Universalism, click this link. *NOTE*
The moral of the story is that….God does get what He wants, and He wants all. He is all-loving and all-powerful. God does accomplish His will, but not at the expense of our free will. That’s Gospel! That’s good news!
In David Artman’s book, “Grace Saves All,” Dr. Artman starts the book by laying out five propositions about God and Universalism. We have already covered some of these in the last article. First, God is a loving parent to all. Second, God sincerely wants to save all. Third, God, in Christ, covers the sin of all. Fourth, God is sovereign over all. Last God will be all in all. We will now talk about the third and fifth points.
God, in Christ, covers the sins of all people. When we accept Jesus, we are hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). God reconciles the world to Himself through Jesus, not counting their sins against them. In other words, He died for all (2 Cor. 5:14-19). Christ’s sacrifice was not only for the sins of believers but for the sins of the entire world (Jhn. 3:16; 1 Jhn. 2:2). Jesus gave Himself as a ransom for all people (1 Tim. 2:5-6). He is the savior of all, especially those who believe (1 Tim. 4:10). Paul said that just as through the wickedness of one man, Adam, all have been condemned to spiritual death, through the righteousness of the “New Adam,” Jesus, all will be made justified and spiritually alive (Rom. 5:18; 1 Cor. 15). God wants to save all and He has the means to do so in Christ.
God will be all in all. He will reconcile all of creation to Himself. He will, once again, say it is “very good.” In my opinion, Colossians 1:16-20 best exemplifies this reality. Jesus is the exact image of the Father. He is in all, and He holds all things together. Through the cross of Christ, God is at peace with all creation, heaven, and earth. He is reconciling all things to Himself. Or, as Jesus said, “all things are being made new” (Rev. 21). When that process is fully realized, the kingdom of God is handed to Him, and He will be all in all, reconciled to all creation (1 Cor. 15:28). This is the mystery of God revealed in Christ (Eph. 1:9-10). Jesus told the disciples that they would be a key part of that process. They would see the restoration of all things to God (Matt 19:28; Matt. 17:11). Jesus came to destroy the works of the Devil (1 Jhn. 3:8). Jesus reigns over the kingdom for 1000 years, and then He will defeat death and restore all things (Acts 3:21). There is a sense that He already has defeated death and restored all things, but one day we will see the fullness of this mystery. That is the meaning of that fancy Greek word, “apokatastasis.” It means the restoration of all things. God will be all in all. All will ultimately choose Jesus and be reconciled to God because every knee will bow before Him and confess gladly that Christ is Lord (Psalm 22:28-30; Isiah 45:23; Rom. 14:11; Phil. 2:9-11).
Another point to consider is that in almost every case of destruction, God later says He will restore. For example, He said that He would restore Israel in Romans 11, and He said He would restore Sodom in Ezekiel 16. How does He restore what is already destroyed? Well, He’s God. For Him, all things are possible. The Greek word that we translate as “eternal” carries the idea of an age or a season. Eternal fire/destruction is the fire/destruction of the age or of the season. And usually, when that idea is used, there is a direct correlation with the imagery of an OT passage and an OT town that does not have a literal “unquenchable fire” still burning. When the phrase eternal life is used, it is with reference to the life of the season/age. That truth is why Annihilationists (Conditionalists) say that the reward lasts forever, but the punishment does not. The consequence of the punishment might last forever, but the action of punishment does not.
For the universalist, the fire is a refining fire. It is not literal. God’s presence is a consuming fire for those who reject Him. But for those who do not refuse Him, His presence is life because He is the source of all life. The fire is eternal in the sense that it is, in a way, one with God’s nature. When it accomplishes its goal, it is no longer a fire. The goal is to refine us. We have a baptism of fire ourselves as Christians. That’s what John the Baptist speaks of. That’s what the apostles received on the day of Pentecost. That’s the fire of 1 Corinthians 3:12-15. That’s the fire of 1 Peter 1:7.
God’s punishments are always restorative, not retributive. Now, someone might say, “I know some passages that prove that idea wrong!” I bet you do! I have read those passages as well. I’ll go into more detail about how I understand these passages of wrath and judgment next week. But for now, suffice it to say that 1) hell is a literal place meant for a literal time that has already passed, 2) the lake of fire (the second death) must be defeated before God can be all in all, and the kingdom is handed to Him, 3) Jesus will destroy death, 4) God will be all in all, 5) God will restore all things and all creation to Himself, 6) every knee will bow and tongue confess gladly that Jesus is Lord.
Now, this is all my hope, at least. But remember, when I say “hope,” I mean it in the biblical sense. The word “hope” means confident expectation from the biblical perspective. I am a hopeful universalist. People have free will to choose or reject God, even after death. There are plenty of passages we can point to show that. But I am convinced that we all will be convinced of God’s love and glory.
Furthermore, church history shows that Universalism was the predominant view for the first 400 years of Christianity. This is nothing new! I would say that if I were only cherry-picking verses to use from the Bible, I’d probably lean towards Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT). I’d say that if I read things in the context of the passage but without the context of the biblical narrative, philosophy, and history, I would believe in Annihilationism. If I read passages in the biblical context and narrative but left no room for church history or biblical philosophy, I’d lean towards a Classical Purgatory. That’s a view that says that many will be saved and all will have postmortem opportunity, but that ultimately some might reject God. But when I consider the passages, the biblical narrative, Christian philosophy, and church history, it seems very likely to me that, ultimately, all will choose God because God is overwhelming and undeniable. There is almost zero chance that ECT is true, in my opinion. Some form of Annihilationism or Classical Purgatory might be true. But my confidence is in the ultimate reconciliation of all to God the Father through Jesus Christ. Jesus, Scripture, history, philosophy, and personal prayer have guided me to this understanding of God. He wants to save all, He is able to save all, and He will save all. – Jesse