You Shall Not Surely Die:
Is God A Universalist?
Every few years or so it seems that one of the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith comes under fire. It is not surprising when important doctrines that are clearly taught in Scripture are questioned by free-thinking post-modern thinkers in our current culture. It is more serious, though, when such doctrines are no longer considered precious by conservative, evangelical Christians. Such is the case when it comes to the doctrine of the eternal punishment of the wicked. Lately, I have been asked in a regular basis about this subject from people, some of whom sincerely wonder if it could be true that punishment is not eternal, and others who are convinced in what they believe, but are seeking a solid biblical response to those who question those beliefs. The primary reason for the increase in speculation about this subject is a recent book published by Rob Bell, but because of this book, others who question whether punishment is eternal have been emboldened to come out with their beliefs. The result is a smothering of the internet with questions about the subject of eternal punishment.
The death of hell?
Surely, everyone is aware of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person who Ever Lived. Bell’s story appeared recently on the cover of Time magazine in an article titled, “Is Hell dead?” Unfortunately for many who wish to think otherwise, hell is alive and as hot as ever. But why do so many people prefer to believe otherwise? A recent Barna survey indicates that 40% of Americans agree with the statement: “all people will experience the same outcome after death, regardless of their religious beliefs,” and the same percentage agreed with the statement: “all people are eventually saved or accepted by God, no matter what they do, because he loves all people he created.” Only 50% of Americans disagreed with the latter statement. People such as Bell say the reason so many people believe all roads lead to heaven is because the Bible does not clearly teach eternal punishment. He claims it to be ambiguous in Scripture and open to a variety of interpretations. he says: “When we get to what happens when we die, we don’t have any video footage…So let’s at least be honest that we are speculating, because we are.” Yet Bell encourages Christians to search the Scriptures and find out what it really teaches, rather than clinging blindly to the traditions of men.
Is the Bible ambiguous about this subject? Is eternal punishment of the wicked a tradition of men not clearly taught in the Bible? Do we really need video footage, or is Scripture a clear enough guide to know what happens to people after they die? These are important questions. Do you know the answers? Can you respond to a person who openly questions your belief in eternal punishment and uses the Bible to do it? It is important for all believers to be “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Pet 3:15). In the first installment of this two-part series I will show what the Bible teaches concerning the fate of the wicked, using the verses commonly appealed to by Universalists and by Rob Bell and others like him who deny being universalists, but openly question the traditional Christian teaching about hell. Then in part two I will provide a few concise answers that believers can give to those who deny that the punishment of the wicked is eternal. This way you can be prepared to answer those who question your faith. But first, a word about the importance of this crucial doctrine.
Why does it matter?
The eternal fate of those who do not know God and do not confess the Lordship of Jesus is one of the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. Scholars have analyzed the earliest New Testament documents to determine the core gospel message that was consistently preached from the beginning of the church and preached by all the apostles. Though their lists differ slightly, there are roughly seven doctrines that all the earliest Christians preached. One of those is the doctrine of the judgment of God. This was prominent in Paul’s message. Even when speaking to the Roman governor of Judea, Paul did not hesitate to speak about the coming judgment (Acts 24:25). This judgment is one of the chief reasons why it is so important to preach the gospel, share our testimony and fulfill the Great Commission. It is because people are dying without God and will face the judgment alone. They need to hear about Jesus and repent so they will be ready for the Great Day. Satan does not want people ready for the Day of Judgment, and one of the ways he keeps people unprepared is to tell them that it is not real, or that it is not as severe as it sounds. “There is no hurry. It is not so vital. You may endure some fire, but ultimately you will get out and spend eternity with God, so don’t lose any sleep over your condition with God,” he says. Or to put it another way: “You shall not surely die” (Gen 3:4). Since the beginning of humanity, Satan has been trying to make the judgment less severe. His tactics have modified somewhat, but his strategy has not changed since the Garden of Eden. And yet people continue to believe his deceptive words and swallow the forbidden fruit of his devilish doctrines.
As long as people question the severity of God’s punishment, there will be little urge to go on the mission field and spend one’s life telling others about Jesus; there will be a diminishing of the urgency to repent and become a Christian; there will be a strange lack of fear when a believer starts backsliding, and a weakening of the feeling of conviction over one’s sins. With the denial of eternal punishment, Satan can slowly erode the very foundation of the Christian faith. This is a very crucial doctrine: so crucial that the Bible has much to say about it. Jesus, it is commonly stated, spoke more about hell than he did about heaven. This makes sense, because this is such a basic, foundational doctrine. In fact, to think that the Bible would be ambiguous about a teaching so central to the faith is to cast doubt on the Bible’s role as our guide to faith and practice, and to cast doubt on the integrity of God, who gave us the Scriptures so we would know the “faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). What a glaring omission this would be? What a sloppy job of writing the holy Scriptures if such a central teaching were left ambiguous to us. Let us now turn to these Scriptures and see what they teach concerning the fate of the wicked.
The universal teaching of Scripture
I recently was sent an article from an apologist blogger who felt emboldened to speak out about his Universalist beliefs, partly because Rob bell has cleared the way for him. He denies being a Universalist, because he believes that sinners do go to hell and suffer. But he believes that they eventually get released and enjoy eternity with God. This does not really free him from the category of Universalism, for thousands of self-avowed universalists would shout amen to that teaching. It also does not free him from inevitable comparisons to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Despite his denial, he fairly presents the basic interpretation of key texts that Universalists always give for why they deny the eternality of punishment. It is as follows: Jesus taught about hell but never said it was eternal. Both the Hebrew word (olam) and the Greek word (aion) for hell refer to a long period of time, or an age, but they do not mean “forever.” The term “eis tous aionas ton aionon,” literally rendered “into the ages of the ages,” is wrongly translated to mean “forever” in our Bibles. Moreover, the New Testament teaches that all things will eventually be reconciled to God (Acts 3:21) and all enemies will be defeated, including death (1 Cor 15:25-28). And Paul taught that all would be saved (Rom 5:18; 1 Cor 15:22). Let us examine these Scriptures more closely.
The phrases that literally say “into the age(s)” or “into the ages of the ages” occur 45 times in the New Testament. It is an idiom that carries that basic meaning, “forever.” By definition, an idiom is a word or phrase that does not mean what it literally says. Usually, an idiom stands out because its literal translation does not make sense. For example, when someone says they are spitting into the wind or giving someone a piece of their mind, it would be wise not to take them literally. The same holds true of Greek idioms in the New Testament. A perusal of the 45 places where one of the phrases rendered “forever” or “forever and ever” appears quickly shows that a literal translation of these words results in a clumsy, or even nonsensical rendering of the sentence. But in every single instance, rendering the term “forever” makes sense and fits neatly into the context of the sentence. There is no question among scholars that this is a classic example of a Greek idiom. To claim that the phrase refers to a limited amount of time betrays a lack of recognition of this fact.
But some of the other verses cited by Universalists should be taken literally. When Paul says, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22), he means just that. All who are in Adam die and all who are in Christ shall be made alive. It just so happens that every human who ever lived (besides Adam himself) is in Adam. So death comes to everyone. But only those who confess Jesus as Lord and repent of their sins are in Christ. So Paul is not asserting that all humans will be made alive. Not everyone fits into both categories. Similarly, in Rom 5:18, when Paul spoke of “justification that brings life for all men,” he was saying that the atonement was universality offered, not universally effectual. In other words, the death of Jesus brought justification “for” all men. That means anyone can be justified. But because not all believe, not all receive this justification. Paul did not say that all men are justified. He nowhere says such a thing.
Concerning the restitution of all things, note that Peter said “all things,” not “all people.” This is a reference to the entirety of creation being set right at the end of the age. Concerning this subject the most explicit passage is 1 Cor 15:25-28. Here Paul states that all enemies will be put under the feet of Jesus. This does not mean, nor would any ancient reader take it to mean, that all enemies will be converted to Christ. Psalm 2 gives a clearer picture of what this means: “Ask of me and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery” (vv. 8-9). The rule of messiah Jesus, where everything and everyone is placed under his feet, refers to his control over the whole earth. Those who do not believe in him will be forced into subjugation under his feet. This is the nature of the millennial kingdom. Believers serve him with gladness; unbelievers with fear. There is no hint of the salvation of the nations when Jesus returns to earth. Rather, for those who fight against Jerusalem, “their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths” (Zech 14:12).
The aforementioned blogger made the comment that the duration in hell for the wicked is for an age, claiming that the wicked are punished for the remainder of the age, until Jesus returns. Echoing the words of scores of Universalists, he said it was not the reflection of a God of love to give people eternal punishment for the sins of fifty or seventy years. I would contend it is not reflective of a God of love or of justice to give one sinner 6,000 years of torment and another only 6 years, simply because the latter’s sins occurred closer to the end of the age. That is inconsistent. Besides, when Jesus returns, we do not see a picture of people being freed from hell. Rather, we are told, the beast and the false prophet “were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulphur. The rest of them were killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse” (Rev 19:20-21). This does not sound like the end of hell for the wicked, but the beginning. For those who claim hell extends until the end of the millennium, not the beginning, the same problem persists. After the millennium is over, all whose names are not written in the book of Life are thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:15). This is called the second death, not a new lease on life.
The teaching of universalism, whether its proponents object to that title or not, is the result of a failure to understand that our God of love is also a God of justice. True love will never produce injustice, but always true justice. God’s love sent Jesus to die for our sins. Sadly, many to not accept God’s love, choosing to shut God out of their lives. In return for this rejection, they get exactly what they asked for: God will be shut out of their lives forever. That is probably the simplest explanation of what hell is. The key idea is not fire or punishment or pain. The thing that makes hell so horrible is that God is not there. Those who reject God spend eternity without him. This is the clear teaching of Scripture. That is the only fair reading of the relevant texts that sensible exegesis will afford. Only when one approaches the text with a presupposition that a God of love will not punish people eternally will a different doctrine emerge. Rather than take our own ideas to the Bible and make it mean what we think it should mean, let us lay down our politically correct, seeker-sensitive, man-pleasing wisdom and submit to the plain wording of Scripture, admitting that just as heaven is eternal, so is hell.
You Shall Not Surely Die, Part 1
You Shall Not Surely Die: