Is universalism true? Will everybody be saved?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

(To my readers: These questions come from an Asian believer who is seeing the effects of false teaching in his church. Both the questions and the answers are long, but I'm leaving the questions largely intact so you can hear his angst. Please pray for him and his fellowship.)

Question 1: Are Universalists saved? I know that it's wrong, but I have to ask a more specific question on this matter. I have recently ran into friends (who are Christians from my own church) who believes "all religion leads to the same God" and I heard this quote before so many times on the internet (e.g. Oprah), but I was shocked once I started asking these questions to my friends. Also 3~4 of the fellowship leaders (the small group gathering after the service) seems to think of this way, and one of them has been teaching kids in Sunday school for 10 years. But I can't really talk about this openly. Reason is because of friends who have lost their loved ones in an unbelieving state, and I am afraid they will lose their faith if I say something wrong. But what if... what they have is not a true saving faith? professing Jesus as their only savior, but at the same time believing other religions can also save, to me this feels like just religious acting (in Rome do as Romans do) and this is where I am starting to worry. I can't look into their hearts, don't know Jesus's future plan for them, I don't want to be a stumbling block. I need wisdom. I will write another follow up question, right now.

Question 2: I need advice on: How to write my pastor in a loving, respectful manner, questioning about his teachings? (is there a biblical pattern?) and I don't want this to be seen in a prideful way. I am nothing, I have no theological backgrounds, a normal Christian struggling everyday with my sins, but kept from God by his grace. Back to the subject: there's a reason behind, why my church friends tends to think of this way (universalism). My pastor was once accused by heresy with "descend to hell" teaching (summary: Jesus might've saved people in hell, we don't know for sure, so pray for the dead, it's at least what we can do) and later he justified this as pastoral purpose for the people who lost their loved ones. At first, I did understand his reasons, but only until I've seen the consequences. My friends say "but pastor said..." so it's not just my own guess, but no one really argues about this anymore because my pastor is just too well known. I seriously thought of moving to another church, but I am worried about my friends, so I decided to stay and pray, but there's no way for me to bring up (bring back) this issue. Maybe my pastor doesn't knows. Maybe he only had good intentions. I should go ask him first, right?

Answer: Dear friend, I cannot begin to tell you what wonderful questions you have just asked. Although universalism is the doctrinal topic that is troubling your fellowship, dealing with its poison is the real problem of your heart. After all, you did not ask me if universalism is wrong; you asked me if its adherents were saved — and you are concerned about how it is affecting your church. This tells me that you are more concerned with people than with ideas (and bless you, my brother) — but that you also see how critically they are related… and, bless you again.

First, you are correct: universalism is wrong; it cannot coexist peaceably with the Bible. But even though you know this, I will go into more detail for your encouragement and to broaden your defense… but telling you how to behave in your own church — a church that is on the other side of the world from me (USA) in both culture and geography — is an uncomfortable task. It will be almost as “messy” for me it has been for you… and I see your tears on the page! So, I will try to help you with that issue…. but please… although I know that you want to be a humble servant while you address these issues with your pastor, do not hand him this response; my remarks are designed for you; they should be digested and become your own convictions before they are passed on.

By way of introduction, let me propose that there are three “theologies” that must be considered in this answer. First, there is natural theology. This is where we study God by using our own thinking and observations — but without consulting Scripture. The second type is biblical theology. This looks at the scripturally revealed God, and this is the Christian’s touchstone. The third type is popular theology. This is where Oprah lives… and a good many universalists live there, too.

How do these relate to your question? You should always know who owns the yard you’re playing in. If you are in natural theology’s yard, you may well discover God. If you are in biblical theology’s yard, you can play with Jesus himself. If you are in popular theology’s yard, you can sell books and magazines… and one of these things is not like the others.

Christians will find themselves involved with all three of these theologies — and your church seems well mixed. This is why I called biblical theology the Christian’s touchstone. Since Christians cannot help but intermix with the culture and topics of popular theology, we must bring every thought in subjection to Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 10:5) — and we do this by bringing them to the touchstone, the Bible. .. and I know that you do this: If you were not concerned with what the Bible says, you would not have written to us. Amen.

How could people who understand the Bible believe that everyone will be saved eventually — no matter what they’ve thought, no matter what they’ve done… and even if they don’t want to be? How could such a belief coexist as “true” with the many biblical assertions to the contrary? (Psalms 11:6, 7; Matthew 7:13-14, 21; 18:9; Mark 14:21; Luke 12:9; John 5:28-29; 17:12; Acts 24:15-16; Romans 2:7-11; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10; 2:10; 2 Timothy 2:12; Jude 7; Revelation 21:8; 22:14-15) It cannot. So why do so many people insist that universal salvation is true? Hans Christian Andersen has shown us part of the answer in his wonderful tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

In Andersen’s tale, many “important” people of the land claimed to see the Emperor’s new clothes… in spite of the fact that they simply did not exist! It took a child to declare the truth (Matthew 19:14) — that the Emperor was naked! Universalism is like that. Many important people claim to see it… and the masses indulge the elite for fear of being thought stupid… incompetent… irrelevant… irreverent…

But even a child can understand that Jesus plainly taught the opposite… and hey… it’s called “Christianity” and not “Oprahanity,” so let’s hear what Jesus has to say about this “nobody goes to hell” business.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21–23, NIV)

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41, NIV)

I do not mean to say that proponents of universal salvation have no biblical data. Indeed they do. But their interpretations of the data are at variance with the truth. Let’s look at two of their classical citations.

“Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” (Acts 3:21, NIV, emphasis mine)

“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned …. Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 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.” (Romans 5:12–19, NIV, emphasis mine)

If you read the verses above (as well as Romans 11:32; 1 Corinthians 15:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:19-20; Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:20-23; 1 Timothy 2:3-4; 2 Peter 3:7) with a presupposition that universalism is true, they can appear to support a universalist position… but only if you read with one eye. Let us look at another favorite, by with both eyes, to see how these verses can be misinterpreted.

“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 3:9, NIV, emphasis mine)

Wow! Maybe universalism is true — because this verse says in plain English that the same omnipotent God who created the universe does not want anyone to perish. Therefore, none shall perish… right? Or else God’s will is violated!

On first blush, this seems reasonable. But universalists assume that God is talking about the outcome in this verse. He is not. He is talking about his attitude. God does not want anybody to perish — I mean, who does! But he doesn’t want the free will of his creatures to perish, either (Joshua 24:15)… and that, dear friend, is the death knell for universalism.

Universalism is half right, though. The redemption wrought in Jesus Christ is indeed available to everyone — no matter what they believe! It was given as a gift to the world (Jn. 3:16) — and that includes everybody. But God’s saving gift must be appropriated and applied to be efficacious in the individual — and not everyone does that. Therefore, since there is a thing to do which, by its nature, God cannot do — and that same thing, by human nature, some will not do — logic insists that some will be lost.

“But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God….” (John 1:12, NASB95, emphases mine)

Note how the qualification for salvation (“as many as received Him”) is totally dependent upon the actions of the human and not upon God. Sure, God does the giving… but God does not do the receiving. He is involved … God has extended his hand to give… but the candidate for salvation must be proactive; he must reach out and take the gift in order to possess it. Without this, John 3:16 is only one-half of a transaction.

But note also the logical restrictions put on salvation by the phrase to them. Only those who have who have responded to God’s universal offer will be saved. Some, simply and sadly, will not respond to God… or else “free will” is an absurd term. These are those who will be lost. Therefore, the notion that everyone must be saved eventually is at minimum illogical, because it changes humanity’s essential free-will into determinism, its logical opposite. But at maximum, it is anti-biblical. It strips Jesus Christ of his onliness (1 Timothy 2:5) — and his onliness is the logical defeater to universalism.

This highlights what I think is the most important argument against universalism. Universalism has, by definition, a deterministic outcome. That is, no matter what people do or think or say, they will all have been predetermined to wind-up in heaven (— and some kicking and screaming!) This is simply incompatible with libertarian free will. So, I find myself asking the same question that I ask those who are on the extreme edge of Reformed theology: why would God bother making such a creation? Would his making meat-puppets somehow redound to his glory?

God might as well have made fire hydrants as to make human beings whose so-called “free will” had to result in a predetermined outcome… albeit a pleasant one… I mean, again, why would God bother with such a process? He certainly does not have to prove anything to himself… and the only other beings would be the fire hydrants.

But God did bother — didn’t he! Therefore, it is incumbent on us, the “botherees,” to take that free will and to respond to his revelation in Jesus Christ. That was his purpose from before the foundations of the world (1 Peter 1:20)… and that’s where universalism should have died — before it started.

To address your real problem, however (whether or not a person who holds this view can be saved), we need to look at a passage which, in my opinion, defeats universalism in one fell swoop.

“Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” (Mark 3:28–29, NIV, emphasis mine)

Here is another plain statement from Jesus that counters the notion of universalism. Jesus speaks of a sin that “will never be forgiven,” and he goes on to qualify that as “an eternal sin.” Frankly, I do not see how the notion of universalism can survive this atom bomb of logic from the lips of the most credible person ever to walk the earth. But within this passage lies the answer to your real question of who can be saved.

As draconian as this passage sounds, it sets the limits on the range of people who are candidates for salvation. Those who commit this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit are not eligible; all others are. Now, I am not saying that all others will be saved; I am merely saying that there are no other technical restrictions on salvation… even though there are many pressures against it.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the single anti-salvific act because it is the ongoing rejection of the Holy Spirit’s testimony about Jesus Christ. So, it is not something that one does at a point in time — like cursing God. It is, by nature, and ongoing sin. But this type on-going might also stop-going… and the person who stops resisting the Holy Spirit can be saved.

What this means to your question, then, is that salvation is possible in any person who has (legitimately) come to Christ — no matter what else they believe. This will take a lot of qualification, of course, but we should understand that there is a difference between the “technical” qualifications to become (and to remain) a Christian, and the behaviors that are associated with Christian congruity, Christian maturity and the Christian’s sanctification. Becoming a “new creature” is one thing (2 Corinthians 5:17) — but looking like a “new creature” is another (James 2:14)… and it sounds like you have a few strange looking characters roaming around your church.

That being said let us look at the technical possibilities because it is indeed possible that a universalist can be saved. How so? Salvation is a positive process — and one’s baggage is a non-issue in the salvific moment. If a person-of-the-world, who holds to universalism as a cultural default, finds the Christ — but truly and surely — that person would be both saved and a subscriber to universalism. You see, coming to grips with the sins of the world would be extra baggage in the salvific moment, and an earnest seeker need only come to grips with the sins of the self to be saved.

True — we hope to knock the rough edges off our new believers. But that’s why we have churches and Christian education… you know... the ongoing stuff. In this, we will certainly “add” to the Christian. But let us not add to salvation. A person’s knowledge does not need to be full or pure to enter the kingdom of God. He must be willing — that is the moment’s import. The rest is a process.

“The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.” (Acts 16:29–34, NIV)

In a very few hours, the Philippian jailer and his family came to faith in Christ, served the brethren, received a quick education, were baptized — and they rejoiced! Let me ask you, do you think that those few hours sufficed to rid these pagans of every old idea — that a blast of holiness gave them a spiritual lobotomy? Or is it more reasonable to believe that they still held some beliefs that would inappropriate in a mature believer even while they were sinking below the waters of baptism? How could this not be true! I mean, we grow in Christ for a lifetime — and newbies are stupid by definition! It was the jailer’s positive actions under a sufficient knowledge of Jesus Christ that saved him, not a mind emptied of error.

So, although pure doctrine should be our target, its lack would be the natural state of those newly saved. Therefore, virtually any insane idea can coexist with a true Christian. But — and this is a huge but — such craziness should never be found in a Christian who has been around for a while.

Those persons in your question might indeed be saved — just immature… although somewhat senior, too, which is a shame. But since none of us are the Holy Spirit, none of us can really know whether another person is truly saved. All we can do is watch for the fruit. A Christian should be growing in faith and knowledge while serving — but also, he should look like Christian. Does someone who has redefined the gospel into universalism or after-death-salvation look like a Christian? Not to me… but such attributes won’t show up in the dark.

Although I appreciate your sensitivity toward your friends whose loved ones have died in an unbelieving state, that is history — and we have neither the ability nor the obligation to ameliorate it. We should learn from it, but then move on. If your friends are so fragile in the faith that they may “lose” it (although true salvation cannot be lost ), perhaps they do indeed need to “lose” it… so that they might find the true gospel — and thereafter rest in truth. Besides, none of us really knows the status of those who have died before us. Perhaps they had saving faith as a child — but then grew up as worldly adults. We make educated guesses about each other, no more than that.

Your recent trials demonstrate the problem of a church body that does not uphold sound doctrine: they skew the Christ — and this speaks to your comment about their being saved. I might have surprised you with my teaching on the technical requirements for salvation, but make no mistake: such salvation will not occur under a skewed picture of the Christ — and that is what we have under universalism. If Jesus is not presented as the only sacrifice for sin — uniquely qualified as sinless — this destroys God’s redemptive impetus. Why would he send a member of the Godhead to suffer this horrible shame and death if any — and I mean any other way were possible — and universalism teaches that every other way as possible. That is not different from Christianity… it is opposite from Christianity. As such, universalism has more potential to harm the kingdom of God than does paganism.

At least with paganism, you know what you’ve got. With universalism, you are presented with “the Christ”… but it’s a neutered Christ, being one among many. This is the diabolical part — making people think that, “I’ve got mine!” when they don’t have the right thing at all… and they are lost for eternity because of the ruse.

I am, therefore, horrified about this “praying for the dead” issue. It is one thing “for pastoral purposes” to assure a four-year-old that her dead kitty is in heaven. It is quite another “for pastoral purposes” to teach a congregation that the dead have a continuing chance at salvation. That notion is counter-salvific, it insults the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and it is anti-biblical to the core. No orthodox Protestant would go anywhere near such a statement! So, yes, my friend — if you are staying at this church, you must find out if these accusations are true… and ultimately, from the pastor himself.

I appreciate your sense of inadequacy and humility in this task, but the fact that you are the one who was asking these tough questions while the rest of the fellowship is accepting these false teachings shows me that you are one of God’s lions. As such, you should protect the pride: Go ahead and roar. These issues need to be clarified and made public at the very least. Some may accuse you of causing division — and it is true that division might come by your hand. But since your purpose is for truth and correction, it will be the sword of the Lord that divides, not you. So be brave. If God has convinced you, then proceed. If not, sit tight and keep praying.

As for how to do this there is no biblical model for correcting a pastor — only on becoming one (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9; James 3:1). It is reasonable then, that if you have an embedded pastor who is found wanting in these qualifications to take action. With this, the biblical instruction for correcting a wandering brother might be instructive (Matthew 18:15-20).

As for your case, in particular, I do not recommend tackling these complaints with a letter. I do, however, recommend that you talk with your pastor. Make a formal request to speak with him in writing. State your reason for the meeting clearly, and include a brief summary of your issues. This way he won’t be “blindsided” by the topics (because the “pastor is too well known,” and he is assumed to be right [“but the pastor said…”], he might be clueless about the problems), and he will schedule an appropriate block of time. Be complete — but not too expansive: Remember, this is primarily a request for an appointment; this is not where you make your case. But most importantly, state your expectations clearly: what do you expect from this meeting? Make sure the pastor understands that going in. This does not bind an administrator to answer each query fully, but it does bind him to address each one — if not to full satisfaction, then as an item to follow-up.

Are you alone in this? If not, share with the others who have the same concern and begin praying before the meeting. I would not advise spreading too much information around among those who don’t know about your concerns, but if this is a “praying body” of believers, you may ask for unspoken prayer. (I will pray.) I sense from your note that you are a humble person and that you will have no problem maintaining a respectful subordination with your pastor — no matter how he responds. But being respectful does not mean that you remain passive during the meeting. It is incumbent upon you to see that all your concerns are addressed. If God has raised you up for this task (and it looks like that to me), you are speaking for him — and you are advocating for the Body of Christ.

As such, you may well become a “stumbling block” within your fellowship (1 Peter 3:8) — but you are in good company: Jesus was the original! And the only people who stumble over truth are the people who should stumble over the truth, or else… Jesus got that part wrong!

I applaud your decision to remain in this church. This shows your servant’s heart… and I am beyond impressed with you, my brother. Just be prepared. When people tell the truth, falsehood explodes! — and you will be in the blast zone. This could be the arm of God removing you from that church. If this occurs, do not be dismayed. This would just be you moving to another local body… but on God’s terms and in God’s time.

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