As soon as I was done on Sunday someone came up to me and said, “You didn’t really enjoy preaching that did you?”
“No I didn’t,” I answered. And I couldn’t really imagine anyone who would.
It was the third and final part of a series I taught on the subject of Hell – a topic I couldn’t really imagine anyone “enjoying.” But it’s necessary all the same. It’s necessary because if Hell is indeed a real place (and Jesus emphatically taught that it was), and those who are without Christ are destined to go there, then the consequences are both personal and tragic. It’s personal because there are people in this category we know and love, and tragic because this concerns their eternal destiny.
The traditional teaching of the church has always been hell is forever and those that go there will be conscious of their suffering. But that has been challenged recently by two alternative theories that are gaining popularity: universalism and annihilationism. We’ll take a look at universalism in this post and its cousin – annihilationism in the next.
Universalism, simply stated, is the belief that all individuals will eventually go to heaven – regardless of what they have believed or how they have behaved. Universalism has a very popular following (understandably) even among atheists and agnostics. Ironic isn’t it. I mean if there is no God then there is no afterlife – in heaven, hell or any other place. And yet I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who claim that there is no God and yet are 90% sure they are going to heaven.
Take Barbara Cartland for example. She wrote romantic novels for a living (in fact she’s in the Guinness Book of Records for selling the highest number of them). Some years back she was interviewed by the Sunday Telegraph. The reporter asked her if she was afraid of dying: “Not a bit,” she replied. “It will either be better than this life, or nothing at all, in which case there is no point in being frightened.” She was obviously backing both horses – universalism and annihilationism! And as far as the first was concerned she was confident it would be “better than this life.” As with so many like her, the prospect of any kind of judgement or hell was completely out of the question.
C.H. Dodd (1884-1973), a popular liberal British minister who taught that God would eventually forgive everyone and treat unbelievers as if they had believed said, “In the end no member of the human race is left outside the scope of salvation.” It just goes to show you need to be careful what ministers you listen to. You might wonder – how do they get this from the Bible? They have a number of favourite texts, one of them being John 12:32 where Jesus said,
“Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
The question here is – what did Jesus mean by “all people”? Did he mean all of humanity? Theoretically he could have meant that. When Paul, in Acts 17:25 told the people of Athens that God “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything,” he clearly meant the whole of humanity. But there are other places in Scripture where words such as “all” and “the world” do not refer to all humanity. Let me give you an example: when John the Baptist began his preaching ministry in Judea Matthew tells us that, “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him” (Matthew 3:5). Was he saying every single human being in that vast area went out into the middle of the desert to hear him? Did Pilate and the Roman Governor and all his officials go? Did every shepherd and shopkeeper; every boy and girl and new-born child go? I think not.
It is obvious that when Jesus spoke of “all men” being drawn to himself he meant people from every age and nation and culture and background. The gospel has universal reach but it does not guarantee universal salvation. This goes for most of other texts that the Universalists use, such as Colossians 1:20 where Paul speaks of God reconciling “all things” to himself and 1 Corinthians 15:22 where he says “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” The word “all” is not unrestricted; it has limitations placed on it by the context.
The seeds of Universalism can be traced all the way back to the Garden when Satan brushed aside God’s warning and said to Eve “You surely will not die” (Gen 3:4). It’s Satan’s lie. Live for yourself, defy God’s Word and ignore the gospel warnings – its okay; hakuna matata – no worries mate. Everyone is going to heaven.
You know the line at the end of children’s stories: “And they all lived happily ever after.” We call that kind of story a fairy tale. Universalism is exactly that.