Exactly two months ago today, I presented The Everlasting Hell Challenge which, as of yet, nobody has been able to win. A poster on the message board where I first presented the challenge asked me to, using the exact same criteria as my original challenge, try to prove Universal Reconciliation. The challenge presented to me was:
Demonstrate convincingly that the idea that “everybody has been (or eventually will be) reconciled or saved by Christ’s death for our sins, and subsequent entombment and resurrection” is a much clearer teaching in Scripture than the idea that “the punishment for those who die without putting their faith in what Christ did alone to save them (apart from any works) is everlasting.” You must not contradict any other parts of Scripture or any other of your own theological positions in order to demonstrate this.
I decided to take the challenge, and the following is what I came up with:
The easy part of this challenge is, of course, to refer to my own Everlasting Hell Challenge and note that there’s nothing in Scripture that teaches that anybody who dies without putting their faith in what Christ did alone to save them (apart from any works) will spend eternity in torment, at least nothing that anyone has pointed out in Scripture yet anyway, so unless someone comes up with something on that front this seems to leave ET (Everlasting Torment) out of the running as an option. This leaves Annihilation and UR (Universal Reconciliation) as the only other options that I can think of.
So is there anything in Scripture that might suggest Annihilation, and if so does it seem to be a stronger argument than for UR? The only passage that I’m aware of that might suggest annihilation for those who die without putting their faith in Jesus Christ alone to save them (apart from any works) is 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9, “In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power” (King James Version). Of course when we look at that passage in a more literal translation we see it translated as, “in flaming fire, giving vengeance to those not knowing God, and to those not obeying the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall suffer justice — destruction age-during — from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of his strength” (Young’s Literal Translation; another literal translation, the Concordant Literal Version, says “eonian extermination” instead of “destruction age-during”), so even that passage doesn’t really seem to support Annihilation if we take the original Greek literally since it seems like the destruction might only last until the end of the age (or ages) or eon (or eons) rather than forever according to those translations.
So while that seems to eliminate ET as an option, and leaves Annihilation as a possible option, we still need to consider whether Scripture suggests the idea of UR at all, and if so does it seem to point more strongly towards UR than it does towards Annihilation? To be honest I’m not even sure where to begin here, there are so many passages in Scripture that seem to indicate UR. I’ll just post a few of these passages, along with my thoughts on some of them, but if you want to see a extended list (and not even necessarily an exhaustive list at that) of passages that seem to point us towards UR you can read them here: The Ultimate Redemptive Purposes of God: Scriptures Concerning the Reconciliation of All Things.
I’m going to start with a few passages from the Old Testament to show how it reveals God’s attitude towards judgement:
“O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; For His mercy endureth forever.” – I Chron 16:34
“For His anger is but for a moment, His favor is for a lifetime; Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning.” – Ps 30:5
[This actually seems to be a theme repeated throughout Scripture. God’s judgements can be severe but His mercy and grace will always be the end result.]
“And the Lord of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain [Mount Zion]…and on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples, even the veil which is stretched over all nations. He will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces.” – Is 25:6-8
[If God is going to swallow up death for all time, I would think this would include everybody who has ever died.]
“All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” – Is 53:6
[Most Christians believe that this prophetically refers to Christ. If the iniquity of us all have fallen on Him then all of us have been forgiven.]
“For the Lord will not reject forever, for if He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness.” – Lam 3:31-32
[Enough said. 😀 ]
That’s enough Old Testament for now, time to move on to the New Testament:
“What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? Thus it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish.” – Mt 18:12,14
[I really don’t think it gets much clearer than the parable of the lost sheep. I don’t see how one can read or hear this parable without coming to the conclusion that the Good Shepherd will find every last one of us.]
“Jesus said, “Father forgive them; they know not what they do.” – Lk 23:34
[Yes, He could have just been speaking of those who crucified Him, but if someone who committed that act gets forgiveness how could any of us not be forgiven (not to mention the fact that many Christians believe that all of us are responsible for His death)?]
“The next day he [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”” – Jn 1:29
“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” – Jn 12:32
[Do we believe that Christ will keep His promises?]
“So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One, the many will be made righteous. And the Law came in that the transgression might increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more!” – Rom 5:18-20
[Granted, the Bible isn’t an algebra textbook, but if we were to break this passage down formulaically (assuming that the “all” and “many” in both groups refer to the same people) it would be very difficult to come to any conclusion other than UR.]
“For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it in hope, that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” – Rom 8:19-21
“For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all. Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” – Rom 11:32,33
[These two passages tell us that God is ultimately responsible for the state the world is in, which means that He planned both sin and the fall, but for a reason. They also seem to indicate that His plan for causing us to suffer in this fallen world will ultimately be positive for everybody.]
“For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fulness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.” – Col 1:19-22
“Christ is all, and is in all.” – Col 3:11
“Even though I [Paul] was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor, yet I was shown mercy, because I acted ignorantly in unbelief.” – I Tim 1:13
[As David Sprenger put it, If the prerequisite for mercy is ignorance and unbelief, then who will fail to qualify?]
“For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to be borne at the proper time.” – 1 Tim 2:5,6
“For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.” – 1 Tim 4:10
[“Especially” doesn’t mean “exclusively.” Please note that it also doesn’t say that God is the “potential” Saviour of all men, nor does it say God is the Saviour of “all kinds of” men, but that He simply is the Saviour of all men, and in order to be a Saviour you have to actually do some saving, hence all men are (or will be) saved.]
“But now once at the consummation He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” – Heb 9:26
[Sin isn’t put away by our faith, it was put away by His sacrifice 2,000 years ago.]
“And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” – 1 John 2:2
[You knew I was going to bring this one up, didn’t you? 😀 ]
While there are many more passages I could go over, I’ve probably taken up enough space here already (but check the page I referred to above for lots more). So while the Annihilation option has 1 potential passage to back it up (and depending on the translation and/or interpretation one uses, one could argue quite convincingly that it doesn’t even do that), I quoted 20 passages (out of many others that I didn’t post) that seem to point us towards UR (and not just point towards, some of them seem to state the position quite clearly, at least when taken at face value). If we were simply going by quantity I’d say that UR wins hands down, but even after we’ve taken context and interpretation into consideration I would posit that UR still has much more going for it that Annihilation (and 100% more going for it than ET for non-believers, seeing as we couldn’t find any passages to back that position up).
Now there is one more position we haven’t covered, and that’s the idea of ET for those who don’t do certain works (including the work of not avoiding certain actions/inactions), which pretty much every passage traditionally used to argue for ET could easily be interpreted as saying. I’ve obviously left that position out since neither I, nor most other Evangelicals and other Protestants I know, believes that salvation is by works, and the challenge included the clause that you must not contradict “any other of your own theological positions in order to demonstrate” your conclusion. Also, depending on one’s translation and/or interpretation, it can easily be argued that these passages are referring to an age of punishment rather than an eternity as well (check out Young’s Literal Translation and the Concordant Literal Version and see for yourself).
So I leave it to you. Zero passages supporting ET for non-believers (ignoring the seven or so passages possibly supporting ET for those who don’t do certain good works, depending on one’s translation and/or interpretation), one passage possibly supporting Annihilation for non-believers, and twenty-plus passages seeming to support UR. With all that in mind, I would ask why anybody would continue to believe that the Bible teaches that non-believers in Christ suffer everlasting torment in hell after death (apart from the fact that it’s what you were taught by your church and many would suffer negative consequences from other Christians for changing their mind on this issue)? Equally, I would ask how anybody can not believe that Scripture clearly teaches Universal Reconciliation in Christ?
[June 20, 2020 Update: At the time I originally wrote this post, I wasn’t aware of the difference between the Gospel of the Circumcision and the Gospel of the Uncircumcision, so I didn’t know that only Paul technically taught Universal Reconciliation, and that the non-Pauline passages were written only to Israelite believers and, for the most part, didn’t apply to Gentiles at all. That said, very few people who read this or believe in ET actually believe there are two Gospels at all, so from their perspective those passages would have to still be just as valid to prove UR, and there are more than enough passages written by Paul that prove it anyway without even needing the non-Pauline passages if they do believe in the two Gospels.]