A number on the evangelical left (for evangelical left read neo-liberals) are intent on foisting some version of universalism (that all will ultimately be saved) or quasi-universalism on the evangelical community. Unfortunately, among many they are likely to find an open ear for not only do many have a woefully inadequate basic knowledge of what the Bible teaches but the salvation of all is naturally appealing. One example of a quasi-universalism is the belief that in hell there will be a further opportunity to repent and trust in Christ. We are told that holding out such a hope is surely, at the very least, a generous and loving approach. Is it not better to hope that all may ultimately be saved than to say that millions will be in hell?
Well, it is only a generous and loving hope if it is true. If, however, there is no biblical ground for such a hope and every indication that the opposite is the case, it is far from loving. It is not loving for a doctor to tell a patient with a life-threatening illness that although they would be better to get it treated immediately nevertheless if they don’t they shouldn’t worry for they can get it treated at a later date. This is not loving, it is criminally irresponsible and negligent. Doctore are likely to be struck-off for such advice.
Likewise, those who preach that there is an opportunity for sinners to be converted in hell when no such optimism is merited from the biblical revelation (which is after all the basis for all Christian belief) are not acting in love but are being criminally negligent and are also in danger of being ‘struck-off’.
The whole thesis of universalism (that all will be saved) whether as a belief or a hope faces intractable opposition from Scripture. In the previous post we noted that Jesus himself, when asked about the number who will be saved, is guarded in his response.
Luke 13:22-30 (ESV)
He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.’
His words, ‘“Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.‘ by themselves would lead any responsible teacher of Scripture to be chary of any universalistic inclinations they may cherish. His immediately following words would be enough to close completely the mouth of any who fear God from positing or preaching postmortem conversion.
‘When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
The picture is clear. There is a time of opportunity but it is not forever. God’s patience and grace is not extended forever. The invitation to the heavenly Kingdom is not indefinite. There is a point when some may wish to enter but find they are too late. Yes, undoubtedly people from every nation will be in the kingdom (it will be universal in its scope and vision and embrace), but not all from every nation will be there. Undoubtedly, the ultimate fulfilment of Jesus’ words lies at his Second Coming and his Kingdom is completely realized. Then the door is shut. Ironically those who are ‘shut out’, and are on the outside in this text are some who assumed they were on the inside (we ate and drank in your presence and you taught us…). There is a ‘cast out’ group who wish they were not. And their bitterness and gall is because they know they will have no further opportunity to enter. They are told to ‘depart’, a word pregnant with finality (Cf Matt 7:23).
Jesus (and it is nearly always Jesus who spells out the terrible fate of the damned) says something similar in Matt 25. In the parable of the Wedding and Ten Virgins the five careless virgins find themselves shut out from the wedding celebrations (another image for the Kingdom of God) with no prospect of a late entry.
Matt 25:10-13 (ESV)
And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Once again (with the arrival of the bridegroom) the door is decisively shut against them and there is no hope of it opening, however much they plead. Notice again, here they wish to enter and are refused. At the end of the chapter the parable gives way to plainer language when Jesus says,
Matt 25:41-46 (ESV)
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
However, one interprets this text it is clear that on the day of judgement there are two final and unalterable destinies for humanity. Everyone finds himself in one or the other and there is no further possibility of a switch.
In the story of the rich man in hell (again recounted by Jesus) the rich man in hell is told,
Luke 16:26 (ESV)
And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’
Two points are worth observing here. Firstly, the chasm or gulf is not the unrepentant heart of the rich man (a weak and specious suggestion some forward). It is clearly a gulf God has fixed. Again we are reminded of doors that God has shut; people do not remain in hell because they want to be there but because their fate is now fixed. Secondly, from this insight (however parabolic) into the state of the damned, N T Wright’s view that those in hell are effectively de-humanised has a hard time justifying itself. The rich man seems only too human and that is part of the terror of the picture.
In desperation, some tell us that the gates of the New Jerusalem are never shut (Rev 21:25) so that those outside (the lost in hell) can enter. But this interpretation is as derisory as it is desperate. The open gates signify the security of the city – it has no enemies to fear . Indeed nothing that defiles it can enter (v27). Only the redeemed can enter (Rev 22:14) while eternal outside are those with unwashed robes – the unholy (v15). To try to introduce some kind of postmortem salvation here is not only contrary to the rest of Scripture but to the thrust and intention of the text itself. Indeed, the angel who gives the vision, far from speaking of a postmortem evangelism (salvation after death), speaks of destinies already drawn and decided.
Rev 22:10-13 (ESV)
And he said to me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.” “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
The writer goes on to make a very solemn pronouncement. He says,
Rev 22:18-19 (ESV)
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
It is a very serious thing to meddle with what God has revealed, one may find oneself among the ‘shut out’.
This post does not by any means tackle all the arguments of those who espouse a universalitic hope. But I hope they will help reassure some believers that what evangelicals have taught for centuries is truly biblical; that ‘today is the day of opportunity’, that hell is forever and fixed for those who find themselves there, and that of all things that are unloving the most unloving is to allow sinners to think that they may stall in trusting Christ now for they will have an eternal opportunity to do so, perhaps damnably unloving.
In the words of Mike Wittmer,
‘I wish that God would empty hell, that he would save everyone who has ever lived. But I can’t say I hope for that, because I don’t have a promise from God to hang my hope on. Christians may have lots of good wishes for deceased atheists, but we don’t have hope. Not because we are mean or stingy, but because we dare not offer more hope than God promises in Scripture. That would be false hope, the cruelest hope of all.’