Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Some claim that Trinitarian theology teaches universalism, the belief that everyone will be saved, regardless of whether they are good or bad, repentant or unrepentant, accepting or rejecting of Jesus, and that, consequently, there is no such thing as hell. I have two problems with this claim, which is a “straw man” argument (a logical fallacy). First, accepting Trinitarian theology does not necessitate belief in universalism. Noted Swiss theologian Karl Barth did not teach universalism. Neither did theologians Thomas F. Torrance and James B. Torrance. In GCI, we teach Trinitarian theology, but not universalism. Our website clearly states our position:
Universalism is a biblically unsound doctrine, which says that in the end all souls, whether human, angelic or demonic, will be saved by God’s grace. Some Universalists argue that repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ are irrelevant. Universalists typically deny the doctrine of the Trinity, and many Universalists are Unitarians. Contrary to universalism, the Bible teaches that there is salvation only in Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). In Jesus Christ, who is God’s elect for our sakes, all humanity is elect, but that does not necessarily mean that all humans will ultimately accept God’s free gift. God desires that all come to repentance, and he has created and redeemed humanity for true fellowship with him, but true fellowship can never constitute a forced relationship. We believe that in Christ, God makes gracious and just provision for all, even for those who at death appear not to have yet believed the gospel, but all who remain hostile to God remain unsaved by their own choice.
Careful students of the Bible recognize that though we need not rule out the possibility that everyone will in the end repent and receive God’s gift of salvation, the scriptures are not conclusive. Therefore we are not dogmatic about this issue.
My second problem is this: Why should the possibility that all would be saved arouse hostility and accusations of “heresy”?
The creeds of the early church were not dogmatic on the nature of hell. The biblical metaphors are of flames, outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth. They are meant to convey what it is like for a person to be lost forever in a self-enclosed “world,” with their own selfish heart and desires, adamantly rejecting the source of all love, goodness and truth. If taken literally, these metaphors are conflicting. But metaphors are not intended to be taken literally—they illustrate various aspects of the topic. What we gain from them is that hell, whatever it is, is not where we want to be. To have an ardent desire that all humanity be saved and that no one suffer in hell, does not necessarily make a person a heretic. What Christian would not want every person who ever lived to repent, receive forgiveness and experience reconciliation with God?
The idea of all humanity, transformed by the Spirit of Christ and in heaven together, surely is to be desired. That is, in fact, exactly what God desires. He wants all people to come to repentance and not suffer the consequences of rejecting his gracious provision for them. God wants this because he loves the world (cosmos), just as we read in John 3:16. God tells us to love our enemies, just as Jesus loved and served even his betrayer Judas Iscariot at the Last Supper (John 13:1, 26) and on the Cross (Luke 23:34).
However, the Bible does not guarantee that all will necessarily accept God’s love—it warns that there very well may be people who will refuse God’s forgiveness, rejecting the redemption and the adoption he has for them. Still, it is difficult to believe that anyone would make such a choice. And it is even more difficult to imagine that any would persist in rebellion against having a loving relationship with God. As C.S. Lewis described in The Great Divorce, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”
Universalism should not be confused with the universal or cosmic scope of the effectiveness of Christ’s saving work. In Jesus Christ, who is God’s elect for our sakes, all humanity is elect.
That does not mean we can say for certain that all humans will ultimately accept God’s gift. But surely we can hope that they do. According to the apostle Peter, God does not want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Furthermore, God has done everything possible to save us from the terrible and horrific situation that is hell.
Yet, in the end, God will not violate the deliberate and persistent choice of those who willfully and deliberately reject his love and turn away from him. In fact, for God to absolutely override their minds, wills and hearts he would have to undo their humanity—he would have to uncreate them. Of course, were he to do that, there would be no human being there to freely receive God’s costly gift of grace, which is life in Jesus Christ. God has created and redeemed humanity for true fellowship—a relationship with him that cannot be forced.
The Bible does not blur the difference between believer and unbeliever, and neither should we. When we say that all people are forgiven, saved and reconciled in Christ, we mean that while we all belong to Christ, not all are in communion with him. While God has reconciled all to himself, not all are yet trusting and living in that reconciliation. Therefore the apostle Paul says, “that God was in Christ, reconciling the world (cosmos) to himself…” So, “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:19, 20, NASB). And that is why ours is a ministry, not of condemnation, but of the announcement of Christ’s finished work of reconciliation.
Our focus is to bear witness to the biblical revelation and orthodox teaching concerning God’s own character, mind, heart, purpose and attitude towards all people, manifested in Jesus Christ. We preach the universal or cosmic Lordship of Jesus Christ and so hope in the cosmic reconciliation of all those created according to his image. Since the Bible tells us that it is God’s desire for all to come to him in repentance to receive his gracious and costly forgiveness, that is our desire as well.
With love, in Christ’s service,