"A Wideness in God's Mercy: Universalism inn the Bible"

This posting is a version of my essay “A Wideness in God’s Mercy: Universalism in the Bible,” Universal Salvation? The Current Debate. Edited by R. A. Parry and C. H. Partridge (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 2003), pp. 77-102. Excerpted with permission of Paternoster Press. This essay was reprinted in a book of the same title published in the U.S. by William B. Eerdmans, Publishers, Grand Rapids, MI. Readers are encouraged to buy and read the whole book, which features lead essays by Thomas Talbott, and especially the essay by I. Howard Marshall, which takes a point of view contrastive with mine.

 Universalism in the Bible

Thomas F. Johnson

I. Introduction

 A. Definitions and understandings

The Bible teaches the universal saving and sovereign grace of God, who, out of love for all people and all creation, has provided ultimate reconciliation and restoration for all. While the Bible affirms the awful possibility that some may reject God’s love and be lost, it also allows us to hope that no one will ever be eternally separated from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

According to the Bible, God is a universalist. From Genesis to Revelation, God’s saving purposes always have in view all human beings, including their natural environment. This broad universalism sets the overall tone for the Bible’s teaching on salvation.[1] God wants all people to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) and has indeed reconciled them all to himself through Christ (2 Cor. 5:19).

How different is the traditional view that only those who have accepted Christ as their personal Savior (with exceptions, perhaps, for the mentally handicapped and young children) will be saved and that everyone else (the vast majority of human beings who have ever lived) will endure a hell of eternal conscious torment![2] This chapter also takes the view that Scripture teaches that unrepentant unbelievers will be destroyed after the last judgment. They will cease to exist, all the rest will be saved, and no one will be in hell forever. It may also be true that human beings are not naturally immortal and that eternal life is a gift to believers.[3]

 B. Authority and interpretation

 Writers on the biblical message of salvation often treat the relevant passages without due consideration of their historical, cultural, and human context. What the Bible says and what it teaches are not the same thing. Only the overall teaching of the Bible (on a particular issue) can be considered authoritative for Christian faith, not the apparent teaching of any specific passage. Individual passages must be placed in the context of the broader teaching of the Scripture as a whole. It may also be the case that the Bible teaches more than one thing or has more than one emphasis, and that these teachings might be in tension with each other.[4]

Further, no one does presuppositionless exegesis of Scripture,[5] or interpretation without some pre-understandings or theological commitments. There are always larger theological issues to be taken into account before one can pronounce that 'this is the teaching of the Bible' on a given subject. We as interpreters are changed by our readings of the Bible. Our theology is continually being revised, modified, and deepened as we submit ourselves to God’s Word. It is not helpful, therefore, to come to the study of ‘universalism’ with our minds already made up, as is often the case.

The weight of Christian tradition is also difficult to evaluate. Some think that because a preponderance of church theologians in past centuries has held a particular view that this throws the burden of proof on those who would disagree. Yet is it unlikely that the Refor­mation would have occurred if the Reformers had not appealed to Scripture behind the tradition of the church. It is sill the case that truth is determined by neither the ancientness of the view nor how many people have held it. Let tradition make us cautious but not foreclosed.

Given the above, it is best that we be both generous and wary in our reading of each other’s interpretations of Scripture, especially on controversial issues. We should not too readily say that a particular view is unbiblical or without Scriptural warrant, especially if it is view that is contrary to or challenges what we already believe. We should also not too readily believe that a particular exposition is the 'truth of Scripture,' especially if it coheres with what we already believe.

C. The problem of corporate wholes

Part of the problem in using the biblical texts to argue for or against universalism is that most of the biblical passages involved are talking about groups of people: Israel, the Jews, the Gentiles, all the nations, all peoples, and even Adam and Christ as corporate wholes. In the West, especially since the Enlightenment, we have been preoccupied with individuals, their beliefs, destiny, and salvation. How can I as an individual be saved?[6] The Bible, for the most part, does not reflect this preoccupation. So, we have trouble making the Bible, answer our modern questions.

It is easy to show in the Old Testament that God has always been concerned about all people as a corporate whole. Though God chooses to have a special focus on Israel, God does so for the sake of all people. Whether we are speaking of Israel or all the nations, Jews or Gentiles, we are dealing with people or nations as a whole, not with the salvation or destiny of individuals. We want to know whether every single person, every individual Sumerian, Egyptian, Mayan, Bantu, or Chinese, who ever lived got an op­portunity to make a personal decision for God! It is not that our modern questions are not important; it is simply and frustratingly that the Bible was not written to answer them. The Scriptures come from very different times and places, each with their own cultural assumptions, and they can be used only indirectly and along with other sources of authority, such as the teaching of thoughtful Christians before us, clear thinking, and Christian experience to work out or educe principles, theological and moral, by which to think and live Christianly today.

II. Universalism in the Old Testament

The kind of universalism we find in the Old Testament is the broader definition we discussed above. In the Old Testament God shows passionate interest in the whole of creation, all people, including their environment.[7] For example, in the Psalms the theme of God’s universal love and concern for all is prominent. God rules the nations and is sovereign over all the earth (22:27-28; 46:10). God loves all people.[8] And, the nations as a whole are called to praise and honor God.[9]

God called Abraham and formed his people Israel so that all might come to know and worship God. The Old Testament demonstrates God’s faithful determination that all people might know him and serve him as Lord. This is especially evident in Isaiah. Several passages witness to God’s desire that all the nations, all peoples, come and worship him. God’s deeds are to be made known among the nations (12:4). God’s servant, usually Israel in Isaiah’s Servant Songs (though see 49:5-6), will bring forth justice to the nations (42:1, 3-4). This might mean judgment, but 42:6-7 makes it clear that salvation is in view, opening the eyes of the blind and releasing prisoners from darkness. Israel as light to the nations is re-emphasized in 49:6, “that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”[10] All nations and tongues will come and see God’s glory (66:18), since Israel’s returning exiles will “declare my glory among the nations” (66:19). “All flesh shall come to worship before me, says the Lord” (66:23).

It is widely acknowledged that for most of the Old Testament that 'the traditional view in ancient Israel [was] that there is no real life after death, except in the minimal sense of a shadowy existence in Sheol, the land of the dead.'[11] Only two passages clearly affirm a resurrection from the dead: Isaiah 26:19[12] and Daniel 12:2[13], though it is intimated in Ezekiel 37, Psalm 49:15, and Psalm 73:24-25. The Old Testament affirms the justice of God in blessing the righteous and punishing the wicked, but it has almost no eschatological framework in which to carry this out. Our search for passages that discuss eschatological salvation and judgment will prove more fruitful in the New Testament.

III. Universal Salvation in the New Testament

A. The Gospel of Matthew

The broad universalist theme of God’s love and concern for all people is prominent in Matthew Gospel. even though it is directed to a Jewish Christian audience. Matthew is remarkably inclusive and sensitive to God’s mission of salvation to non-Jews. Jesus is the light that has dawned on the Gentiles in fulfillment of prophecy (4:15-16; 12:18, 21).[14] Rather than the narrower and more ethnic term, 'Messiah,' Jesus prefers 'Son of Man,' a broader term that, in addition to its apocalyptic nuance (Daniel 7:13f), more closely identifies him with all humanity (Ps. 8:4).[15] Jesus’ disciples are to be lights to the world and carry the gospel to all the nations.[16] He invites to his rest all who are weary and heavy laden (11:28), counts as his close relative everyone who does the will of his Father in heaven (12:50; cf. Mk. 3:35; Lk. 8:21), and pours out his blood for many for the forgiveness of sins (26:28; cf. Mk. 14:24). Some, like the Roman centurion at the cross will confess that Jesus was God's Son (27:54; cf. Mk.15:39). We continue to see that God, though working within his covenant relationship with Israel, always has in mind his universal saving purpose.

Does that saving purpose extend to all individuals with the result that all will be? This meaning appears to be called into question by numerous passages in the teaching of Jesus in Matthew that speak of hell.[17] Anyone who says, 'you fool!' will be liable to hell (5:22). Those whose bodies cause them to 'stumble' are in danger of hell (5:29-30; 18:8-9). We are commanded to fear God who can destroy both body and soul in hell (10:28). Jesus warned the scribes and Pharisees that, as children of hell, they were in danger of being condemned to hell (23:15, 33). There are also other descriptions of punishment after death, such as:
'destruction' (7:13, in contrast to life),
not entering the kingdom of heaven (7:21),
'outer darkness' with 'weeping and gnashing of teeth' (8:12; 22:13; 25:30; cf. 13:42, 50; 24:51),
being burned up with fire,[18] a 'furnace of fire' (13:30, 40-42, 49-50), or 'eternal fire' (18:8-9; 25:41; also called 'eternal punishment' in 25:46, in contrast to 'the
kingdom' and eternal life -- vv. 34 and 46),
perishing (10:28; 18:14; 21:41),
and being tortured or cut in pieces and put with the hypocrites (18:34-35; 24:51).

Several considerations come into play when we reflect on these statements. They are all taken from apocalyptic and parabolic contexts, where Jesus is using hyperbole and exaggeration to warn of the consequences of sin, i.e., a life of evil conduct reflective of a character not in conformity with the will and nature of God. It is better to take these images seriously rather than literally. Some people are warned of condemnation or destruction due to mistreatment of others (5:22, 29-30; 18:34-35; 21:41; 23:15, 33; 24:51; 25:31-46). Others are condemned because of displayed or implied evil character (5:29-30; 7:13-14; 13:24-30, 36-42, 47-50; 18:8-9; 24:51).  The way to destruction is broad (7:13-14). Many are called but few are chosen (22:14). It is very difficult to enter the kingdom of heaven (19:23; cf. Mk. 10:23-24).[19] Only those who become like little children enter the kingdom (18:3; 19:14) and those who do the will of the Father in heaven (7:21). Sometimes the cause of a person being condemned is not specified (8:12; 10:28). One man is sent to outer darkness for not having the proper clothing at a wedding banquet (22:11-13), another for not earning interest on his master’s money (25:24-30), and a third God will torture until he or she learns to forgive (18:34-35)![20]

Despite the hyperbolic and parabolic language, if there is a literal hell, then these texts imply an eschatological separation of the righteous from the wicked (by whatever standard is applied) at death or after judgment. Are the wicked lost forever? Do they suffer forever? What is the nature of hell? Some kind of punishment after death is certainly implied. But unless the reader already begins with an understanding of hell as eternal, conscious punishment, it is not clearly taught in Matthew’s Gospel.

Hell is suffering, but is the fire or darkness (note the conflicting images) restorative,[21] or does it end in the final destruction of those who finally persist in their self-chosen path of rejection of God’s loving will for them,[22] or is it, according to the traditional view, the everlasting conscious suffering of the damned?[23] We do not know whether the weeping and gnashing of teeth are remorse and repentance leading to life, or the prelude to their destruction (7:13; 10:28), being burned up in the eschatological fire (13:30, 40, 42, 49-50). The clearest passage, Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the sheep and the goats, speaks of an eschatological separation to 'eternal life' (the kingdom) and 'eternal punishment' ('eternal fire'). But here we face the problem of whether aionios, 'eternal,' refers to a qualitative state (the life or punishment appropriate to the age to come) or quantitative (everlasting in duration).[24] Either or both meanings are possible. There is no reason to assume or read into the passage that some are lost forever. Their punishment in eternity, punishment that all deserve (for all have sinned), may burn away all that keeps them from the full realization of the image of God in which they were created.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches his disciples that they are to be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect (5:48), for he makes his sun and rain to fall on both the righteous and the wicked, and calls us to love and forgive our enemies, as God also does (5:43-47). The way to life is open for all through the mercy and forgiveness of God.[25] Will anyone finally persist in refusing God’s love?

B. Gospel and Letters of John

The Gospel and Letters of John have at their center a theological presentation of the person and work of Christ. Our consideration of universalism here will also be Christ-centered. After briefly reviewing some of John’s christological themes, we will look at the concept of eternal life in relation to faith, the judgment/condemnation/wrath motif, and then a concluding word about the nature of God in these documents.[26]

Christological themes. Jesus is the Logos, God’s agent in creation (Jn. 1:3, 10). He is also 'the light of all people' (1:4), the light that enlightens everyone (1:9), and 'the light of the world' (Jn. 8:12; 9:5; cf. 12:46). Jesus is the Savior of the world, the one who takes away the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29), the one whom God sent to save the world (Jn. 3:17; 12:47; 1 Jn. 4:14). Closely related to his role as Savior, is Jesus’ death as 'the atoning sacrifice' (hilasmos), 'not only for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world' (1 Jn. 2:2; 1 Jn. 4:10). Jesus is also the life/resurrection. As Logos he is life itself (Jn.1:4; 14:6; cf. Gen. 2:7), and he is 'the resurrection and the life' (Jn. 11:25). He is the bread of God (true bread of heaven, bread of life – Jn. 6:48), sent to give life to the world (6:33; 1 John 4:9). Eternal life is in the Son, so that to have the Son is to have life, and without him we do not have it (1 John 5:11-12).

Faith and eternal life. Another set of passages teaches that one enters into this life through faith or believing in Christ (or in the one whom sent him, 5:24). Indeed, to encourage this faith is the very purpose of this Gospel (20:31). Out of love for the world God gave the Son, 'so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life' (3:16; 3:36; cf. 10:26-28). It is God’s will that all who 'see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life' (6:40). Those who believe in Christ will enjoy resurrection life (11:25-26), and they know that this life is theirs (1 John 5:13).

Judgment/condemnation/perishing. The alternative to having eternal life is perishing (apollumi, 3:16; 10:28), condemnation (5:29), enduring the wrath (orgē) of God (3:36), or simply, death (5:24).  God did not send the Son to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved (3:17). Those who believe in Jesus are not condemned, unlike those who reject him (3:18). Light and darkness also function as contrasting elements of divine judgment. Those who do evil hate the light and love darkness, while those who do what is true and good come to the light (3:19-21). Jesus has the authority to judge humankind, separating those who have done evil from those who have done the good (5:27-29; cf. 9:39). Those who reject him on the last day will find that his word is their judge (12:47-50).

The character of God. Finally, as with the other Gospels, the nature or character of God is an important consideration in assessing the outcome of salvation. God’s essential nature is love (1 John 4:8, 16) and light (1 John 1:5). Whatever God does must be in accord with his character. It was out of love that God sent the Son to save the world (3:16-17), and his light enlightens (1:9), delivers from darkness (12:46), and cleanses us from sin as we walk in it (1 John 1:7).

In summary, the Fourth Gospel and 1 John strongly emphasize the universal love of God. God created all things through the Word and sent him into the world to be its Savior. In Jesus God takes away the sins of the whole world and gives life to all who believe in him. Those who reject the Light of the world are in darkness and in danger of perishing, but it is God’s purpose to save the whole world through Christ. All who do what is genuinely right, good, and loving show evidence of the Father’s work in their lives. In the end what matters most is that God is love, holy love, love that seeks to save the world.

C. The Letters of Paul

Paul’s letters contain many passages that are relevant to universal salvation. We will focus our discussion on the ones most often raised in this connection.

1. Romans

Some of the strongest arguments for the ultimate victory of God’s universal love come from the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans. We will examine the relevant passages under five headings:

a. Everyone needs the gospel

Paul begins his teaching strategy in Romans by stating his theme (1:16-17: the gospel is God’s power for saving everyone who has faith), and then by demonstrating conclusively that all people need this gospel. All are qualified because all are sinners: Gentiles (1:18-32), moralistic judges (2:1-16), and the Jews (2:17-3:8). All have sinned and fallen short of the glorious nature of God that, according to Jewish teaching, humanity once enjoyed before the fall (3:9-23).[27] This situation came about, according to Romans 5:12-21, because of all humanity’s participation in the sin of Adam. Because of his trespass, sin came into the world and spread to all people, causing death and condemnation for all.

b. The gospel (salvation or justification) is for all

In answer to the universal human predicament, Paul makes explicit that the gospel is the power of God for saving everyone who believes; it is good news for all people, Jews and Gentiles (1:5, 14-16; 14:8-9). God has provided, as a gift of his grace, righteousness (justification) and redemption for all who believe (3:22-24), regardless of their ethnic origin; God is the one God of all people, Jews and Gentiles (3:28-30).[28]

This is stated in even stronger terms in Romans 5. All sinners in Adam have received the free gift of God’s saving grace (i.e., life, justification) through Jesus Christ (5:15-17). This applies to all who are in Adam, affected as they are by the one man’s trespass (5:12, 17). Just as 'one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all (5:18; cf. 6:23). The theological basis for this claim is the universal application of the death and resurrection of Jesus. He died and rose for all. All people have been put right with God through Jesus Christ (5:19). God’s grace and its consequences are greater than the consequences of Adam’s sin.[29] In God’s economy, grace now has the dominion, not sin. It is hard to see how the gospel can be good news if the vast majority of people who have ever lived are condemned to an eternal hell. [30]

A somewhat parallel argument occurs in Romans 11. There, Paul maintains that God will, in the end, be merciful to all. A blindness or hardening has come upon Israel at present (11:7-10, 25) with the result that the gospel of God’s mercy has come to the Gentiles (11:25, 30). It has meant the 'reconciliation of the world' (11:15). Eventually Israel’s 'full inclusion' (11:12), or 'their acceptance' will be life from the dead (11:15), and by God’s universal mercy 'all Israel will be saved' (11:26, 31). 'For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all' (11:32). There is a wideness in God’s mercy that is far beyond human understanding. His wisdom, knowledge, judgments, and understanding are unfathomable (11:33)[31]

How God will apply this universal saving benefit to all is not stated in Romans 5, but throughout this epistle Paul clearly teaches that people receive this salvation (life, justification, and redemption) by faith (believing) in Jesus Christ the Lord (10:9-10).[32]

c. Salvation for only some?

There are other passages in Romans that have been interpreted to suggest that God’s salvation is limited only to a few. Romans 8:28-39 speaks of 'those who love God, who are called according to his purpose' (v. 28), 'those whom he foreknew' (v. 29), and 'God's elect' (v. 33). Are these passages intended to teach us about the scope of the God’s saving work? No, they are focused on the wonderful benefits believers in his saving work receive.[33] God is planning a 'large family' (v. 29). We who believe have the privilege of entering that family in this life and of experiencing the vise-grip of God’s love on our lives now.

Certain verses in Romans 9 have been taken to mean that God condemns some for all eternity and only saves a few elect ones. God chose Jacob, not Esau (9:11-2). God has mercy and compassion on whomever he will (9:15, 18) and hardens the heart of whomever he chooses (9:18).  Some are vessels of wrath, while others are vessels of mercy  (9:22-23).  But these texts must be interpreted in their context in Romans. We have already seen in Romans 1:18-3:31, 5:12-21, and in Romans 11 that God’s 'strategy' is to show that all stand condemned, that all have sinned and need the gospel, that all deserve God’s wrath, that all are in Adam and under the sentence of death, that some are hardened that others might be included so that eventually all may be saved, and that God has 'imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all' (11:32). 

d. God's judgment

No one will escape the judgment of God (14:10); 'each of us will be accountable to God' (14:12). God will judge the world (3:6), judging everyone, with absolute impartiality (2:11), according to their deeds (2:6-10) and through Jesus Christ (2:16). All people will fall under his sentence of condemnation (2:3; 5:16; cf. 11:32). But some with hard and impenitent hearts, who have been self-seeking and done evil, will experience God’s wrath on the day of judgment (2:5, 8-9), while others who have done good and sought immortality and what is honorable will be rewarded with God’s shalom (2:7, 10). For those already in Christ, there is no condemnation (8:1); they have already begun to enjoy God’s shalom (5:1). In the end, 'says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God' (14:11). 

e. God's love

God’s saving plans for all people arise out of his love. Believers experience that love when the Spirit of God is poured into their hearts (5:5).  But, as in the Synoptic Gospels, God also loves his enemies. God loved us when we were enemies, still sinners and outside of Christ. He loved us so much that he died for us. If God loved us this much when we were his enemies, now that we have been reconciled to God by Christ’s death, we have nothing to fear from God’s wrath (5:8-10).

In fact, we have nothing to fear at all. Though all kinds of fearful things may happen to us (8:35b-36), nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of Christ (8:35a, 37). There is no power or circumstance in all creation, neither in life nor in death, that will ever be able to separate us from God’s love for us in Christ (8:38-39). The love of God is unconquerable and inescapable.[34]

2. 1-2 Corinthians

Paul’s universalism derives from his faith in one God, the creator of all, and in 'one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things' (1 Cor. 8:6). God’s sovereignty includes all beings in heaven and on earth.

On the matter of the salvation of all, Paul invokes his Adam/Christ typology in 1 Corinthians 15 in the context of an extended argument about the necessity of resurrection. 'As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ' (1 Cor. 15:22-23; cf. 15:49). There has been some disagreement about how to interpret the opening of the next verse (v. 24). The phrase eìta to telos might be a reference to persons, i.e., a third group in Paul’s order of resurrection procession, and so be translated: 'then come the rest.'[35] But it is far more natural and common to interpret telos as a reference to time: 'Then comes the end,' as in nearly all modern translations and commentaries,[36] especially in the light of the temporal conjunction ótan that begins the next clause.

Even if v. 24a is not a reference to the resurrection to life of all the rest of humankind, Paul states clearly in v. 22 that all persons will be made alive in Christ.[37] When he makes this assertion more specific in v. 23, he mentions first Christ himself, then 'those who belong to Christ.' How are we to understand this? There are two apparent alternatives, and both are problematic. Christ may be understood as the forerunner, the first fruits, of a general resurrection of all persons, who come alive only because he rose from the dead. They all 'belong to Christ' because he has redeemed them all and reconciled them all to God (2 Cor. 5:14-15, 19). The problem is, however, that 'those who belong to Christ' usually refers in Paul’s letters to Christian believers.[38] On that alternative, it is difficult to make sense of Paul’s assertion that 'all will be made alive in Christ.' The answer that the second 'all' does not mean 'all,' while the first 'all' ('as all die in Adam') does, is patently unsatisfactory.

Three solutions are possible. It may well be that Paul has a genuine universalist hope here, contending that the sovereign grace and love of God will ultimately prove victorious over all sin and unbelief. It may also be that Paul is speaking in broad, general terms, while not ruling out that some (few?) might reject God’s provision of new life in Christ. Thirdly, perhaps Paul envisions Christ as the beginning of a whole new creation. Adam heads the old creation, and in it all who have come from him, who belong to him, die. Christ, by contrast, heads a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). One enters it by being reconciled to God in Christ (2 Cor. 5:18-19) and by being made alive with him in the resurrection at his coming (1 Cor. 15:22-23). There is no one else in the new creation. Just as all the people in the old creation were Adam’s and died, so all persons in the new creation belong to Christ and live. He saves them by his atoning death (2 Cor. 5:19, 21) and makes them 'imperishable' and 'immortal'[39] by their restoration to his image (1 Cor. 15:47-49) in the coming resurrection (1 Cor. 15:42-57). In this sense, the two 'alls' in 1 Cor. 15:22 are compatible if not exactly coordinate.

As a result of Christ’s reign, every ruler, authority, and power hostile to God, all God’s enemies, will eventually be destroyed, including 'the last enemy,' death (15:24-26). Then Christ will hand over the peaceable kingdom to God, and God will be 'all in all' (15:28).

3. Philippians

Four verses in Philippians pertain to our subject. Phil. 2:10-11, coming at the end of the early Christian hymn in 2:6-11 that Paul uses to reinforce his teaching on humility (2:1-5), says,
'so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.'[40]

This is the ultimate, universal submission of all beings to Christ. Is it voluntary or involuntary, glad or forced? The strongest argument in favor of the former is the word 'confess' (exomologeō). Every use of this word in the New Testament connotes a voluntary confession.[41] This includes all uses of the cognate verb, homologeō and the related noun, homologia. Inherent in the nature of confession is willing and, sometimes, joyful acknowledgement. It will not do to suppose that the humble confession of Phil. 2:11 is a reluctant and forced confession from Jesus’ conquered enemies.[42]

Two passages in Philippians speak of the 'destruction' (apōleia): of the Philippian Christians’ persecutors (1:28) and of those who are 'enemies of the cross of Christ (3:19). 'Their end is destruction' (3:19). Paul entertains the possibility that some of those who oppose Christ’s work will not attain the salvation awaiting believers (1:28) or gain a resurrection body (3:21).

One way to bring together the diverging eschatological emphases of these two sets of texts from Philippians is to understand that all powers and persons who persist (if any do) in their opposition to Christ and reject God’s salvation in Christ will be destroyed, leaving all remaining powers and believers to bow in glad submission to Christ the Lord. One might alternatively hope that God will destroy that in them which was God’s enemy (though he always loves them) and that, in the end, through the fire of hell, they may yet be saved.

4. Ephesians

One of the distinctive features of Ephesians is its emphasis on the universal sovereignty of Christ. As in Philippians 2, God raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand 'far above all rule and authority and power and dominion' and gave him a name 'above every name that is named,' now and forever (Eph. 1:20-21). This is the same sovereignty God has, who is 'Father of all,' and 'above all and through all and in all' (4:6).

Once, all people were under God’s wrath (2:3), and, if they continue in their disobedient rebellion and sin, they will experience God’s eschatological wrath and miss the kingdom (5:5-6). But God’s mercy, love, and grace abounded richly to save us (Gentiles, aliens and strangers from the commonwealth of God’s people – 2:11-16). We who were dead in sin God made alive with Christ  (2:3-5). It is entirely God’s doing; our part is to say the 'thank you' of faith (2:8-9). This is all part of God’s Christ-centered 'plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him' (1:9-10).

The NRSV’s 'gather up all things in him' does not capture the flavor of the Greek text’s anakephalaiōsasthai ta panta en tō Christō. Better is the NASV’s, 'the summing up of all things in Christ,' or the RSV’s 'to unite all things in him,' or the NIV’s 'to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.' It is God’s will and definite purpose (1:9) to sum up all things in the universe in Christ. The word was used in Greek rhetoric to sum up or recapitulate an argument. In Romans 13:9 Paul uses it to say that love sums up the whole law.[43] Lincoln points out that the prefix ana-, indicates 'a restoration of harmony with Christ as the point of reintegration.'[44] God plans to redeem, restore, and reunite his entire broken and fragmented cosmos in Christ (cf. Rom. 8:18-23), including all beings not just humanity. The historic inclusion of the Gentiles through the Pauline mission is just one part of God’s plan of universal reconciliation accomplished through the cross of Christ. (2:11-16).

5. Colossians

As in Ephesians, Colossians emphasizes the creational sovereignty of Christ. As God’s image and agent in creation (1:15-16), 'he himself is before all things . . . so that he might come to have first place in everything.' (1:17-18).  He is the head of every ruler and authority (2:10), having disarmed the powers and triumphed over them through his death on the cross (2:14-15). Christ’s sovereignty is for a purpose, the universal reconciliation of all things to God, which God accomplished in him (1:20).[45] 

As to humanity, God raised us to new life with Christ and forgave us all our sins (2:13-14). But some reject what God has done for them and continue in disobedience; they are warned that 'the wrath of God is coming' (3:6). There is much in the universe and in humanity that needs correcting, purging, and destroying. How God’s wrath will be applied we do not know; that it will be applied is assured.[46]

6. 1-2 Thessalonians

Eschatology is a principal topic in 1-2 Thessalonians. Paul’s possibly earliest writing is alive with expectation of Christ’s soon return.[47] The Thessalonians are waiting for God’s Son to come from heaven.  He will deliver them from 'the wrath that is coming' (1 Thes. 1:10). That wrath of God has already come upon Judean Jews (1 Thes. 2:14) who had been persecuting Paul (1 Thes. 2:16).[48] But the Thessalonian Christians can be confident that 'God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ' (1 Thes. 5:9). In Paul’s theology, God’s wrath is the working out in human history of his righteousness (Rom. 1:16-18; 2 Thes. 1:5). Sin has consequences, and God’s wrath, represents God’s holy and loving judgment on all that is not in conformity to his good purposes for people and the world. God’s righteousness is determined to set things right and to display God’s just and holy character in view of sin and evil in the world (Rom. 3:25-26).[49] It might be construed as part of God’s redemptive plan or as the final, eternal working out of destruction against disobedient, hardened and finally impenitent sinners (2 Thes. 1:8-9; 2 Thes. 2:10, 12). The writer of 2 Thessalonians[50] contemplates the possibility that some, who are perishing (2 Thes. 2:10), will be destroyed (avelei), annihilated (katargēsei) forever from the presence of God (2 Thes. 2:8), especially 'the lawless one,' whom the Lord Jesus will destroy when he is revealed (2 Thes. 2:3, 8).

7. The Pastoral Epistles

One of the characteristic phrases of the Pastoral Epistles is 'God our Savior.' It occurs five times in 1 Timothy and Titus (1 Tim.1:1; 2:3; Tit. 1:3; 2:10; 3:4) and almost nowhere else in the NT.[51] God is called Savior because he 'desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth' (1 Tim. 2:4), has saved us 'according to his own purpose and grace' (2 Tim. 1:9; Tit. 3:4-7), and has provided the one mediator between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, 'who gave himself a ransom for all' (1 Tim. 2:6; cf. 2 Tim. 1:9-10). God’s universal saving intent is seen also in Titus 2:11: The 'grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.' In a remarkable statement, Paul[52] says that Christians have set their hope on God, 'who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe' (1 Tim. 4:10), implying that God is also the Savior of those who do not yet believe. God’s intention and action to save all people could not be stated more clearly.

God alone 'has immortality' (1 Tim. 6:16). It did not exist as a possibility for humankind before Christ abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel' (2 Tim. 1:10; cf. 1 Cor. 15:53-54).

D. Hebrews, 2 Peter, and Jude[53]

1. Hebrews

A prominent feature of the Letter to the Hebrews is its set of warning passages (2:1-4; 3:7-4:11; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:14-29). These state that only those who persevere in faith and obedience will be saved (5:8), while those who fall away in disobedience and unbelief will be lost or destroyed (10:39), or miss the rest God has prepared for his people (3:18; 4:11). In fact, the author apparently believes that repentance is impossible for those who have fallen away from the faith and back into sin (6:4-6; 10:26; 12:17). Hebrews also warns of certain and fearful judgment in the age to come (9:27). It will include 'fire that will consume the adversaries' (10:27) and destroy the devil (2:14), 'for indeed our God is a consuming fire' (12:28). There is nothing here of hell as eternal conscious punishment. A universalist might see these passages as warnings and note that the author of Hebrews does not think that they really apply to his readers (6:9). Or, he may hold that in the end all will come to repentance and faith, though for some it may be through the consuming fire of God’s love. An annihilationist might understand that the judgments in Hebrews are not hypothetical and that indeed the unrepentant may fall away and be destroyed in eternity.

Finally, it is helpful to note that Hebrews contains several instances of the adjective 'eternal.' In nearly every case, they refer, not to unending time, but the quality of eternity, the kind of life that characterizes the age to come. 'Eternal judgment' is not a judgment that lasts forever but one that takes place in eternity (6:2).[54] 'Eternal redemption' might refer to the duration of salvation but could just as easily mean the Christian’s heavenly redemption (9:12), especially in view of the contrast between the earthly sacrifices of Israel’s priests and Christ’s priestly role in the heavenly sanctuary. The 'eternal Spirit' is not the long-lasting Spirit but the divine Spirit (9:14). Christians also have an 'eternal inheritance,' the reward and blessing of the age to come (9:15). This important point needs to be remembered when we are assessing the meaning of verses that speak of eternal punishment and eternal life.

2. 2 Peter - Jude

There is a close literary relationship between 2 Peter and Jude.[55] They treat some of the same themes in some of the same terms. Both have a strong flavor of the apocalyptic language of destruction and judgment. Despite this, the writer of 2 Peter reminds his readers of the patience of the Lord, who does not want (or is not willing, boulomenos) anyone to perish (apōlesthai) 'but all to come to repentance' (2 Pet. 3:9). God wants everyone to be saved and enter Christ’s 'eternal Kingdom' (2 Pet.1:11) or eternal life (Jude 21).[56] This is a surprisingly common New Testament theme.

2 Peter and Jude are both replete with words of judgment against the false teachers (2 Pet. 2:1-2) and ungodly intruders (Jude 4) who are disrupting Christian communities. They are bringing condemnation (krima) and destruction (apōleia) on themselves (2 Pet. 2:1, 3). Like the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, the ungodly will be reduced to ashes (tephrōsas, 2 Pet. 2:6, NRSV: 'condemned  . . . to extinction') 'by undergoing a judgment of eternal fire' (Jude 7). Indeed, a coming eschatological fire will destroy everything in heaven and earth (2 Pet. 3:7, 10, 12). Like irrational animals, 'born to be caught and killed,' the ungodly will be destroyed by fire (2 Pet. 2:12; 3:7). Even now, the fallen angels and the unrighteous are being kept in a punishment of 'deepest darkness' until the final judgment (2 Pet. 2:4, 9, 17; 3:7; Jude 6, 13).

E. The Book of Revelation

The joyful theme of the Book of Revelation is the victory of the Lamb (11:15-17; 12:15; 17:14; 19:15-16). Several passages that include all creation show that God continues to have in view, even in the eschaton, his plan for all humanity. The redeemed come from every 'tribe and language and people and nation' (5:9; 7:9-10; 14:6). The 144,00 of Revelation 14 are the firstfruits of all humanity (14:4), the opening wedge of a great tide that will come to worship God and the Lamb. There will be a new heaven and a new earth centered in a new Jerusalem, where God will dwell with humanity (21:1-3). All the nations will walk in his light (21:24) and be healed by the tree of life in its midst (22:2). Revelation closes with an open invitation to all: 'Come, and let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift' (22:17).

Prior to this final victory, there will be a time of judgment. Judgment is a prominent theme in the second half of the Revelation (11:18; 14:7; 15:4; 20:4, 11-15).  It is one of the roles of the Messiah (19:11), and his/God’s judgments are righteous and true (16:7; 19:2). It takes concrete shape, first, in the judgment against the evil city, Babylon (17:1; 18:8, 10, 20) and, finally, in the last judgment and destruction of the devil, the unrepentant dead, and Death and Hades themselves (20:10, 11-15; 21:8; cf. 14:11). All are repaid according to their works (2:23; 20:12; 22:12; cf. 14:13). One of the primary reasons for judgment is a lack of repentance on the part of human evildoers (2:16, 21-22; 9:20-21; 16:9, 11; 21:8).

Judgment will take the form of God’s wrath against sin (11:18; 14:19; 15:1; 16:1) and will result in the affliction  (14:10; 19:20; 20:10, 15) and destruction (11:18; 17:8, 11) of 'the beast' (17:8), those who worship false gods and destroy the earth (11:18; 14:9), impenitent sinners (21:8), and those not written in the book of life (20:15). Some are in the book of life, and apparently some are not (3:5; 13:5; 17:8; 20:15; 21:27).

We also read that the ‘nations’ are to be judged. Revelation is ambivalent about the nations. On the one hand, they will be punished with wrath (19:15). On the other hand, the nations have been victims of the powers of evil, deceived and forced to do wrong (14:8;18:23; 20:3, 8). But the ultimate hope is that ‘all nations will come and worship before you’ (15:4). In the final vision of the new universe, the nations walk by the light of the Lamb, ‘the kings of the earth will bring their glory’ into the holy city (21:24, 26) through the open gates of the New Jerusalem (21:25), and the tree of life produces leaves ‘for the healing of the nations’ (22:2). The nations are not cast into the lake of fire, but the powers which had deceived them are (19:20; 20:10; cf. 20:14).
Some have held that those thrown into the lake will be purified in it and eventually make their way into the open gates of the heavenly city.[57] This is not impossible, and Revelation does not make it explicit. The purposes and duration of hell are left in the hands of the Lord and the Lamb.

And this consideration leads to an important issue that must be addressed: the nature of this punishment in hell, whether John’s images of it are to be taken literally, how it coheres with other New Testament teaching on the same topic, and finally how we are to understand it.

In 14:10-11 those who made the mistake (either willingly or under coercion) of worshiping the beast will be 'tormented with fire and sulfur,' and Jesus and the angels will watch them suffer. The 'smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever,' and there is no rest for them day or night. In 19:20 the beast and the false prophet, both symbolic figures of opposition to God and God’s people, are 'thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.' In 20:10 the devil is added to the lake of fire and sulfur, 'and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.' In 20:14-15 Death and Hades are also thrown into the lake of fire, along with 'anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life.' Finally, in 21:8 various kinds of sinners, including 'the cowardly' or fearful, unbelievers or faithless people, all liars, and people guilty of sexual immorality, also take their place 'in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death'[58]

The Revelation is apocalyptic literature; at least the sections under consideration are. It is char­acteristic of apocalyptic to use images, pictures, metaphors, and symbols to convey the teaching or principles behind the figurative language. John uses a wide variety of images from a wide variety of sources, and sorting out their meaning is the hardest part of the exegetical task.[59]  It is not always possible to tell what John meant to convey through his images and where to draw the line between symbol and the thing symbolized.

Most would agree that it is mistake to read apocalyptic literally, as if it were 'future history.' It has been a common hermeneutical principle to let didactic passages establish teachings and then find them illustrated or fleshed out in symbolic passages.[60] Therefore, since so much is at stake in these texts one must use the greatest caution in interpreting them and err, if necessary, on the side of the less specific and more general. The Book of Revelation assures us that God is in control of history, that Christ will ultimately reign in victory over all the evil powers, including sin and death, that his victory is our victory so that the people of God will be triumphant, even if through suffering, in the age to come, and that finally God will judge and destroy evil and those who have caused it once and for all.[61]

We have also seen throughout our study of the Bible’s teaching on universalism that, while there is a strong theme of God’s loving plan to save all people, the main teaching about the ultimate destiny of those who persist in unrepentant rebellion against God and the good is they will be utterly destroyed. The Revelation alone introduces the element of everlasting[62] conscious punishment in a highly pictorial and symbolic passage. To allow this one set of passages from an apocalypse to dictate the teaching of the rest of Scripture is unwise and improper in seeking to form a sound and faithful biblical eschatology.

Finally, mature Christian readers need to ask themselves whether they are prepared to take literally passages that portray Jesus watching the unending torment of sinners, such as fearful unbelievers, liars, and people guilty of sexual sins, in the light of Jesus’ attitude toward sinners during his ministry. The extreme imagery of the Apocalypse forces us to choose between pictures of Jesus and leads us to seek interpretative solutions more consistent with the nature of God as revealed in Christ.

IV. Conclusion

The case for universalism is stronger than is usually realized. God’s saving love for the world is a prominent biblical theme from Genesis through Revelation. God is the Lord and Savior of all and does not want any to perish but all to be saved. God provided salvation, forgiveness, justification, and reconciliation for all, indeed for all creation. Eventually, everyone will confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Yet, we do not know how God’s judgment works out with respect to individuals. Paul speaks most often about the eschatological salvation of groups or corporate wholes.

The traditional view that the vast majority of people who have ever lived will suffer in a hell of eternal conscious torment is inconsistent the biblical data. It has to be read into the texts from later teachings in church history. Only Revelation’s apocalyptic, symbolic treatment of hell comes close to this position. Most of the relevant New Testament texts teach the destruction of finally impenitent unbelievers and the gift of life and immortality to repentant believers. There is no biblical doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul.

Thomas Talbott makes good use of the 'positive' texts of the New Testament to defend his position on universalism. Passages such as Romans 5:12-21; 11:11-35; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28; 2 Corinthians 5:17-20; Ephesians 1:10; Philippians 2:10-11; Colossians 1:20; and 1 Timothy 2:3-6 can be understood to teach that God has provided salvation for all people and that universal reconciliation of all things is God’s eschatological goal. The objection that salvation is only for those who believe does not reach Talbott, since he would agree. All will, on his view, come to believe and be saved, as an outcome of their encounter with God, in all his beautiful and purifying holiness and love.

Talbott’s position is weaker with respect to the 'negative' New Testament texts. Several passages appear to teach the final destruction of rebellious and impenitent evildoers. Faith and character are inseparable, so that the New Testament consistently speaks of the salvation of those who believe and do the good and the destruction of those who reject God and work evil. Talbott believes that hell is real and that it is purgative and restorative. This view rests more on good theological, philosophical, and moral grounds than on the biblical texts themselves, which leave the matter open.

 The New Testament’s primary teaching on the extent of salvation is that all will be saved except those who knowingly and willfully reject God and God’s forgiving love. People begin to do this in this life by their response to God through the way they live and the character they develop. Those who persist in rebellion will perish. Talbott cannot conceive that any would knowingly and sanely refuse God’s love and choose instead to suffer in hell or perish. Yet, humans have misused their God-given freedom from the beginning, and people who have been deforming their souls all their lives by choosing against the good and for evil may not any longer see the presence of God and heaven as a desirable environment. Recently, a friend said to me, 'Maybe there are not two places, heaven and hell, but just one place, heaven, and to some it seems like hell.' In that case, God’s love would be the consuming fire destroying all who refuse the light to their eternal loss. Yet, the mercy of God is wide, and the grace of God is great. Will anyone finally persist in refusing the inescapable love of God?[63]

[1] Gen. 1-11; Rev. 21:1; Isa. 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet. 3:13
[2] This or something quite like it has been the view of the majority of Christian theologians from the early centuries. See G. S. Shogren, 'Hell, Abyss, Eternal Punishment,' in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 459-62;
J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, second edition (New York: Harper and Row, 1960), 483-85; John F. Walvoord, 'The Literal View,' in William Crockett, Four Views on Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 9-28; William Crockett, ‘The Metaphorical View,’ in Crockett, Four Views, 41-76; and Robert A. Peterson, 'Part Two: The Case for Traditionalism,' in Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 115-81.
[3] Rom. 1:23; 2:7; 1 Cor. 15:53-54; 1 Tim. 1:16; 2 Tim. 1:10; cf. 4 Ezra 7:96; 4 Macc. 17:9-12; 18:23. These two views are sometimes known as annihilationism and conditional immortality.
[4] E.g., the contrasting emphases in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament: Job and Ecclesiastes vs. Proverbs and Job’s friends.
[5] Rudolf Bultmann, 'Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible?' in Existence and Faith, ed. Schubert Ogden (New York: Living Age, 1960), 289-96.
[6] See the insightful essay, 'Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West' by Krister Stendahl in Paul among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976) 78-96.
[7] There are surprising passages that tell of God’s concern for animals, e.g., Gen. 1:21; Jonah 4:11; Ps. 84:3.
[8] Cf. Psalm 33:5; 36:7; 62:12; 85:5; 86:15; 100:5; 103:8; 107:43; 117:1-2; 136:26; 145:8-9.
[9] Cf. Psalms 67and 96.
[10] All quotations in this essay are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted.
[11] Bernhard W. Anderson, Contours of Old Testament Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 321. See also Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 774: '’Sheol’ was frequently used simply of the state of death, to which it was presumed all persons go.'
[12] But this is a resurrection only for the faithful, not for the wicked. According to Isa. 26:14, their shades do not rise; they are destroyed and all memory of them is wiped out.
[13] The apocalyptist of Daniel 12:2 foresees only a resurrection of 'many,' not all. 'Here the writer is not speaking about a general resurrection,' Anderson, Contours, 318; so also Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 245. Some remain dead and are not raised, some receive eternal life, and others receive 'everlasting contempt.' Daniel 12:2 comports with none of the four debated views of the afterlife, including the traditional position. Apparently the biblical data were not designed to make the theologian’s task an easy one!
[14] Cf. also the worship of the Magi in 2:1-12.
[15] Jesus may have chosen and used the term 'Son of Man' for just this reason: to identify himself with all people.
[16] 5:14; 24:14; 26:13; 28:18-20; cf. Mk. 13:10; Lk. 2:30-32; 24:46-48. Acts also repeatedly emphasizes the availability of salvation to all, especially through Peter’s witness (Acts 10-11; 15:7-11) and Paul’s mission (Acts 9:15; 13:47-48; 14:27; 26:17-18, 22-23; 28:28).
[17] Only the Greek word ge’enna is properly translated 'hell.' Hades is not hell but is the realm of the dead. In Matthew it occurs in 11:23 and 16:18.
[18] In Mark 9:48 (Matt. 18:8-9), in hell, 'their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched (9:48). This description was drawn from Isaiah 66:24, where it is applied to the dead bodies of those who have rebelled against the Lord. Is it a purifying fire, a destroying fire, or a fire of eternal conscious suffering? This passage does not give us the answer, though in context purification is suggested, since the next verse, Mark 9:49, says that 'everyone will be salted with fire,' a reference to salt’s purifying function. ‘We should not read into these sayings later speculations about the eternal punishment of the wicked in hell . . . . What occurs on the lips of Jesus here in not a developed doctrine of everlasting punishment, but an affirmation in quite conventional terminology that none could be more “lost” than they who choose to renounce the life of the kingdom and cling to the life of this world and its fleeting powers’ (Hugh Anderson, The Gospel of Mark, New Century Bible [London: Marshall, Morgan, and Scott, 1976], 238).
[19] Jesus’ disciples ask in astonishment, “'Then who can be saved?” (Mt. 19:25).  Jesus replies that salvation 'is impossible' for human beings, 'but not for God; for God all things are possible' (19:26). Salvation rests solely upon God’s grace.
[20] Note that the traditional causes for a person being sent to hell, such as rejecting or not accepting Christ or the gospel, are not mentioned. If the Matthean texts are taken literally, they teach that anyone whose character and conduct are out of conformity with the will of God deserves to be punished in hell, i.e., 'the wages of sin is death' (Rom. 6:23a). But according to the good news, all are sinners for whom Christ died in order that they might enjoy the gift of God, which is 'eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord' (Rom. 6:23b). Christ gave his life for the sins of the world, in order to rescue us from the punishments threatened in the Gospel of Matthew.
[21] See Christopher D. Marshall, Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), especially 175-99. There are two passages that appear to teach something close to purgatory. In Luke 12:47, Jesus tells an eschatological parable in which servants of a late-returning master receive severe and light beatings, depending no whether they knew or did not know their master’s will. There is no mention of hell. Also, in another parable (Luke 16:19-31), a rich man is seen suffering in Hades (not Gehenna), paying a penalty (temporal?) for the evil things he did in life. That purgatory is in view is too speculative, and introduces a category from the Church’s later teaching, but clearly there is nothing here of eternal conscious suffering. The rich man cannot pass from Hades to Abraham’s bosom until his suffering is completed, but no time is specified. Only if one already believes in the traditional hell would one see the concept here. For an alternative interpretation of this parable, see David Powys, Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1997), 218-228.
[22] See Edward W. Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: The Biblical Case for Conditional Immortality . Rev. ed. Edited by Peter Cousins (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 1994), especially chapter 10 'Final Punishment in the Teaching of Jesus, 93-143.
[23] Robert A.Peterson, 'The Case for Traditionalism,' in Fudge and Peterson, Two Views of Hell, 83-181.
[24] Marshall, Beyond Retribution, 186 n.123, argues that 'eternal life,' being an ongoing state, includes the idea of everlasting duration, but 'eternal punishment' refers to a process, a process whose consequences are eternal in the sense of 'ultimate in significance and everlasting in effect, not in duration.'
[25] The hope of sharing in the life of the age to come depends solely on the mercy and grace of God. When Jesus commands us to love our enemies, it is because this is what God does: 'Be merciful as your Father is merciful' (Lk. 6:36). This is also what Jesus does from the cross, saying about those who are crucifying him, 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing' (Lk 23:34).
[26] The Johannine writings also contain several broad, inclusive, non-christological statements about who receives salvation. Those who do good come to the light, so that all may see that 'their deeds have been done in God' (3:21). Those who have done good will arise at the resurrection of life (5:29). 'Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father' will come to Jesus (6:45), and the Father draws all who come to him (6:37). Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether Jesus’ teaching is from God (7:17). Everyone who does what is right has been born of God (1 John 2:29), and everyone who genuinely loves is born of God and knows God (1 John 4:7).
[27] C.E.B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans: Volume 1: Romans I-VIII, International Critical Commentary, edited by J.A. Emerton and C.E.B. Cranfield (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975), 204-05.
[28] God’s ultimate redemption of all includes the creation as well. Creation waits with longing for its own liberation at the time when God’s children receive their redemption (8:20-23).
[29] See 'much more surely,' 5:15; 'abundance of grace,' 5:17; 'where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,' 5:20.
[30] We might say with Barth that God has provided salvation for all in the Elect One Jesus Christ. It will be a great victory for God’s grace and love. It is nearly incredible that some would opt not to be forgiven, repent, and come to the party. But I do not see that this requires that all will actually come. The door of the banqueting hall, like the gates of the New Jerusalem, are, however, always open, and we can hope.

[31] See Clark H. Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992).
[32] 1:16; 3:22; 3:25-26; 4:16, 23-24; 5:1; 10:17.
[33] Such benefits as: God’s work in all things for them, v. 28; restoration of the imago dei in Christ, justification, eschatological glory, vv. 29-30; and God being 'for us' and allowing nothing ever to separate us from his love (vv. 31, 35-39).
[34] See Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, (Universal Publishers/uPublish.com, 1999), especially chapter 12, 'Love’s Final Victory, ' 200-20.
[35] Talbott, Inescapable Love of God, 65. See NRSV footnote loc. cit.
[36] See the discussion in C.K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 355-56.
[37] See the parallel argument in Romans 5:12-21, especially Rom. 5:18.
[38] Cf. 1 Cor. 1:12: 'What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ;’' 1 Cor. 3:23: 'and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God;' 2 Cor. 10:7: 'If you are confident that you belong to Christ, remind yourself of this, that just as you belong to Christ, so also do we;' Gal. 3:29: 'And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise;' and Gal. 5:24: 'And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.'
[39] Cf. 1 Cor. 15:42-57. We are not naturally 'imperishable' and 'immortal.' We are given it as a gift in Christ (cf. Rom. 2:7; 1 Cor. 15:53-54; 2 Cor. 5:4; 1 Tim. 6:6; 2 Tim. 1:10). Others who lack it perish and are destroyed (2 Cor. 2:15; 3:3). There is no sound biblical reason to adopt the Platonic doctrine of the inherent immortality of souls. See the arguments in Edwin W. Fudge, The Fire That Consumes and the debate between Fudge and Robert A. Peterson in Two Views of Hell.
[40] Quoted from Isaiah 45:23, a verse that calls upon all the nations to turn to the Lord and be saved.
[41] People willingly confess their sins: Mark 1:5 (par.); Acts 19:18; James 5:16 1 John 1:9. They give thanks or praise: Matt. 11:25; Rom.14:11; 15:9. They confess their faith: Matt. 10:32 (par.); John 9:22; Acts 23:8; Rom. 10:9-10; 2 Cor. 9:13; Phil. 2:11; 1 Tim. 6:12; Titus 1:16; Heb. 3:1; 4:14; 10:23; 13:15; 1 John 2:23; 4:2-3, 15; 2 John 7. They willingly acknowledge or tell the truth: Matt. 7:23; Acts 24:14; 1 Tim. 3:16; 6:13; Heb. 11:13; Rev. 3:5.
[42] Cf. 1 Cor. 15:25-26; Heb. 10:23.
[43] Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 42 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), 33.
[44] Ibid.
[45] 'The unusual feature of this passage is that it refers to the reconciliation of ‘all things‘ . . . and that as a past event,' Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 44 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982), 53. Cf. 2 Cor. 5:19.
[46] See the fine treatment of this passage in O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 184-85.
[47] E.g., 1 Thes. 4:15: 'we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord.'
[48] It is unknown in what form Paul thought the wrath of God had come upon the Jews of Judea. It cannot be the Jewish-Roman war and the fall of Jerusalem, unless this passage is a later interpolation, as some, including F. F. Bruce, think possible. See F. F. Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 45 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1982), 43. 48-51.
[49] See G. L. Borchert, 'Wrath, Destruction,' in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by G. F. Hawthorne and R. P. Martin (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 991-93.
[50] Some think that 2 Thessalonians may be by a writer other than Paul, an inconsequential factor for those who consider than canonical New Testament authoritative for faith and life, regardless of how questions of authorship or authenticity may be resolved.
[51] The only other occurrence of the exact phrase is in Jude 25. However, Mary’s spirit rejoices in 'God my Savior' (Luke 1:47); God is the Savior of all (1 Tim. 4:10); and Jesus is called 'our God and Savior' in Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1.
[52] The Apostle Paul is the stated author of the Pastorals. Whether he is the actual author is not relevant to our investigation.
[53] We have selected only the most relevant texts in the interest of brevity. On James, see 5:3, 9, 12, 20 and their warning of judgment, especially upon the rich. On 1 Peter, see 1:17; 4:5, 17-18 (judgment). The most difficult passage to interpret in 1 Peter is the notoriously obscure 4:6, which says that 'the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.' No one really knows what this text means. 'The dead' may be Old Testament believers who, having suffered the death, as everyone does, get to enjoy the resurrection through the proclamation of the gospel. It would be tenuous exegesis to turn this passage into a text that supports the universal salvation of all who have died. That possibility cannot be established through this doubtful text. See the fine discussion in J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 49 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1988), 235-42.
[54] Cf. 'eternal glory' in 1 Peter 5:10.
[55] See Jerome H. Neyrey, 2 Peter, Jude, The Anchor Bible, vol. 37c (New York and London: Doubleday, 1993), 120-21; and Richard Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter, Word Biblical Commentaries, vol. 50 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 141-43.
[56] These two uses of 'eternal' can be read equally well as references to the everlasting duration of Christ’s kingdom and of life there or as qualitative descriptions of the nature of the that kingdom and life, i.e., as belonging to eternity or the age to come.
[57] G. B. Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 279-80: ‘Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a more eloquent statement than this of the all-embracing scope of Christ’s redemptive work,’ 280. See also M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1989), 221-22. For the traditional view, see G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1999), 1097-1101. Beale does not seriously entertain alternative viewpoints.
[58] In Wilfrid Harrington’s view, The ‘second death,’ identified with the ‘lake of fire’ here [20:14] and in 21:8 is also named in 2:11 and 20:6. In each case it is most reasonably taken to signify annihilation.  In Wilfrid J. Harrington, O.P., Revelation. Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 16 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993), 205.
[59] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, second edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 236-38.
[60] Edward John Carnell, The Case for Orthodox Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), 63-64. Grant R. Osborne says, 'I personally believe that one reason for the use of cryptic symbols was to keep the reader from giving the future fulfillment too great a place in the message of the book,' The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991), 231.
[61] See a similar summary in Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible, 239.
[62] The one use of the word 'eternal' in Revelation does not connote everlasting duration but something like true, heavenly, or divine (14:6). Other terms are used in the texts of torment to connote lasting duration.
[63] We may hope that all will be saved, but we cannot know this. So, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope” That All Men Will Be Saved”? (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), and Richard John Neuhaus, “Will All Be Saved,” First Things (Aug/Sep 2001), 77-82.”Eternal damnation is certainly proclaimed in the Gospel. To what degree is it realized in life beyond the grave? This is, ultimately, a great mystery. However, we can never forget that God ‘wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tm 2:4),” Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, edited by Vittorio Messori (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 73.


Edward Fudge said…
Tom,thanks for your thoughtful work, which I quote and/or reference several times in the new chapter on universalism in the forthcoming revised edition of THE FIRE THAT CONSUMES, due out in June (Cascade Books/Wipf & Stock academic) with foreword by Richard Bauckham. Cordially, Edward
Phil said…
Well written, Tom. This topic is much discussed now in Grand Rapids esp. with Rob Bell's book, "Love Wins".

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