Non-Christians regularly object to the teaching that those who have never heard the gospel may be condemned to hell. Many Christians don’t like it either. In fact, universalism—the belief that everyone, sooner or later, will be reconciled to God and saved by him—has in this century quietly become part of the orthodoxy of many Christian thinkers and groups.
But if all people will eventually be saved, why should they sacrifice to become Christians in this life? Why, indeed, should we endure hardship to evangelize them? Theologian J. I. Packer, author of Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (IVP), takes a careful look at the appeal and the problems of universalism.
The problem of individual human destinies has always pressed hard upon thoughtful Christians who take the Bible seriously, for Scripture affirms these three things:
1. The reality of hell as a state of eternal destructive punishment in which God’s judicial retribution for sin is directly experienced.
2. The certainty of hell for all who choose it by rejecting Jesus Christ and his offer of eternal life.
3. The justice of hell as a fit divine infliction upon humanity for our lawless and cruel deeds.
It was, to be sure, hell-deserving sinners whom Jesus came to save, and all who put their trust in him may know themselves forgiven, justified, and accepted forever—and thus delivered from the wrath to come. But what of those who lack this living faith? Those who are not just hypocrites in the church, about whose destiny Christ is very clear, but “good pagans” who lived before the Incarnation, or who through no fault of their own never heard the Christian message, or who met it only in an incomplete and distorted form? Or what about those who lived in places (modern Albania, for instance) where Christianity was a capital offense, or who suffered from ethnonationalistic or socio-cultural conditioning against the faith, or who were so resentful of Christians for hurting them in one way or another that they were never emotionally free for serious thought about Christian truth? Are they all necessarily lost?
To this question Christians have given mixed answers:
• Some have maintained that all unbelievers go to hell because, being sinners like everyone else, they deserve to. The indictment is unanswerable, but is the conclusion inescapable? Not all have thought so.
• A number of Christian thinkers have opened the door a crack—sometimes, indeed, more than a crack—to find a place for “good pagans” in God’s kingdom. The church’s earliest defenders of the faith saw Greek philosophy as a God-taught preparation for the gospel among the Gentiles. They affirmed the salvation of Socrates, Plato, and their ilk through faith in the revelation they received of the preincarnate Word. This view still has its defenders.
• Many have urged the hope of universal salvation of infants through Christ’s Cross—moving on from Augustine’s and Dante’s idea that unbaptized children who died would miss heaven but would be spared the pains of hell.
• The official Roman Catholic view was that there is no salvation outside the Roman communion and apart from its sacramental life. But the Council of Trent’s statement that believers in the truth who, for whatever reason, cannot be baptized may yet be saved through “baptism of desire” (i.e., desire for baptism) has been further developed by Vatican II: “Those who, while guiltlessly ignorant of Christ’s gospel and of his Church, sincerely seek God and are brought by the influence of grace to perform his will as known by the dictates of conscience, can achieve eternal salvation.” The phrase “guiltlessly ignorant” points to ignorance that is invincible—that is, dominant and incurable, yet due wholly to conditioning, not to negligence or ill will or any intention, direct or remote, to disobey God. This notion was originally devised to explain how Protestants could be saved. But it is now used to affirm the possibility of salvation in any religion.
(One Protestant thinker hospitable to this idea was C. S. Lewis: In The Last Battle, Aslan says he views as offered to himself all service sincerely rendered to the false god Tash. Some Catholic theologians base their confidence of universal salvation on this line of thought.)
• Among Protestants, some Arminians hold that grace sufficient for salvation is given to everyone without exception, those who do not hear the gospel no less than those who do, so that everyone’s salvation is in principle possible.
• Some Calvinists have guessed that God regenerates a certain number of unevangelized adults, bringing them to repentance and faith through general revelation alone.
• More recently, Karl Barth taught that in Christ crucified, all mankind was reprobated and condemned, and in Christ risen, all mankind is elected and justified. This has given a great fillip to explicit universalism—a conclusion that Barth himself seems to have avoided only by will power.
(Not all theologians, however, are as strong-willed as Barth. In much of today’s Protestantism, belief in universal salvation, as the fruit and measure of Christ’s redemptive victory, has become the standard view.)
The problem of the nonbeliever’s destiny is acutely felt at present in the Western churches. There are at least three reasons for this:
Pastorally, pressure is felt because post-Christian pluralism and anti-Christian alternatives are always on our doorstep. We rub shoulders with people of other, ethnic faiths; with people who are “into” cults; with disillusioned ex-Christians; with hostile scientific humanists.
In the mainline churches we find a Pandora’s boxful of mutated, not to say mutilated, Christianities: products of liberal randomness and radical reaction, of hermeneutical indiscipline, and sometimes, one fears, of sheer incompetence. Among evangelicals there remains something of a consensus on essentials, but evangelicals seem to be a quarter or less of the professing Christians in America and the Commonwealth, and outside evangelical circles one hears little more than what Eeyore called a “confused noise.” How much of the faith of the Scriptures, we wonder, do those nurtured amid the confusion ever come to know?
Nor is this all. The public media, the national education systems, and the literary establishments are resolutely secular, which means that men, women, and children—especially children—are being powerfully conditioned against biblical Christianity. What should we say of the nonbelief found among the victims of this ideological juggernaut? They did not create the secular ideology. It created them, molding them to its own sub-Christian shape.
To generous Christian hearts it seems nightmarish that unbelief resulting from the collapse of Christian culture round a person’s head could ruin that person’s soul.
The problem presses. What does the Bible say?
Theologically, pressure is felt because Christianity faces an upsurge of Islam and other great ethnic religions—all of which resent and reject Christianity’s exclusive claim to be final truth from God for all mankind. As the world’s population explodes, the percentage of our race that gives allegiance to Christianity keeps shrinking. This not only makes triumphalism impossible, but it also makes the universal significance of Jesus Christ seem problematical to many.
One response is the claim that Christ may be perceived, or posited, in existing ethnic faiths. In other words, these faiths should be understood as being already in essence what Christianity itself is. This solves the problem of relating Christianity to other faiths by the device of deft definition. But it flies in the face of the fact that the closer one looks at ethnic religions, the more different from Christianity, both in ends proposed and in means to them, they are found to be. It leaves us with a new set of questions:
Should ordinary adherents of ethnic religions (who deny the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, and salvation by grace through faith whenever these tenets are put to them) be counted as “anonymous Christians”? Though they may be invincibly and therefore excusably ignorant, can we say that they are thus (because of their sincerity) being saved by the Christ whom, if they have heard of him at all, they reject? If so, why evangelize them? What is the point of asking anyone to change religions, if all religions are at bottom Christianity in disguise?
What does a Hindu or Muslim gain by becoming a Christian? Nothing, it seems, that he really did not have before. But shall we then discount the testimony of Hindu and Muslim converts that their conversion was a passage from death to life? Shall we conclude that the old liberal and theosophic notion of all religions climbing the same mountain and meeting at the top is true after all?
The questions press. Again we ask, what does the Bible say?
Strategically, pressure is felt because Protestantism is radically split about mission. Mission is shorthand for the task that the church is sent into the world to do in Christ’s name, for love of God and neighbor. Two views clash as to what mission involves:
One view stands in line with the patristic, counter-Reformation Roman Catholic, and last-century Protestant missionary movements. It urges that the mandate is, first, to evangelize and plant churches; second, to relieve need at all levels, giving visibility and credibility to the good news of the Savior who makes us care for others; and third, to Christianize pagan cultures.
The view of some moderns, however, defines the mission as, first, to seek justice, peace, and prosperity in communities where these are lacking; second, to engage in dialogue with non-Christian religions in order to understand them and show them respect; and third, to nurture Christians and extend the church if time and circumstances permit—which, it is acknowledged, they may not.
The first view has now the Lausanne Covenant as its charter. The second reflects what was put forward by the WCC-sponsored conference at Bangkok on Salvation Today. Which set of priorites is right? What does the Bible say?
Subordinating evangelism to socio-political concerns makes sense only if universalism is true. The universalist idea that all people will eventually be saved by grace is a comforting belief. It relieves anxiety about the destiny of pagans, atheists, devotees of non-Christian religions, victims of post-Christian secularity—the millions of adults who never hear the gospel and the millions of children who die before they can understand it. All sensitive Christians would like to embrace universalism; it would get us off a very painful hook. Let us see what can be said in its favor.
Modern universalism’s basic idea is not that no one deserves to be damned, but that everyone will eventually be brought in humble gratitude to accept the acceptance with God that Christ’s redemptive death won for them. Though hell is real, it will ultimately have no tenants.
Roman Catholic universalists hold that man’s natural inclination toward goodness and God continues despite the Fall. It is sustained by universal grace and constitutes implicit faith—an openness to God through which Christ and his salvation will in due course, here or hereafter, be received even by Judas (a good test case by which to measure universalist reasoning).
Protestant universalists often say explicitly that those who leave this world in unbelief enter hell, but then exit, having been brought to their senses, encountered Christ, and embraced him while there. The essential claim is that hell does for the faithless what the Roman Catholic purgatory does for believers: it fits them for the enjoyment of heaven.
Universalism is the ultimate optimism of grace, outstripping any form of mainstream Protestantism, Calvinist or Arminian. For universalists, hell is never the ultimate state. It is a stage on the journey home. Through post-mortem encounter with Christ (a second chance for some, a first chance for others), God sovereignly calls and saves everyone out of what the New Testament calls “eternal punishment” and “eternal destruction” (Matt. 25:46; 2 Thess. 1:9, where destruction certainly means, not annihilation, but a state of conscious ruin). No one is finally lost. Hell ends up empty.
How is this view of hell’s empty landscape supported? No biblical passage unambiguously asserts universal final salvation. Universalism is in fact a theological speculation that discounts the evident meaning of some New Testament passages in favor of what is claimed to be the overall thrust of New Testament thinking: that God’s retributive justice toward men is always a disciplinary expression of redeeming love.
It would be nice to believe that; but Scripture nowhere suggests it when speaking of divine judgment, and the counterarguments seem overwhelmingly cogent:
1. Does not universalism ignore the constant biblical stress on the decisiveness and finality of this life’s decisions for the determining of eternal destiny? Can this emphasis be evaded? Surely not.
2. Does not universalism condemn Christ himself, who warned men to flee hell at all costs, as having been either incompetent (ignorant that all were finally going to be saved) or immoral (knowing but concealing it, so as to bluff people into the kingdom through fear)? Can this dilemma be overcome? Surely not.
3. Does not the universalist idea of sovereign grace saving all nonbelievers after death raise new problems? If God’s ability to bring all humans to faith eventually is posited, why would he not do it in this life in every case where the gospel is known? But if it is beyond God’s power to convert all who know the gospel here, on what grounds can we be sure that he will be able to do it hereafter? Can any universalist’s doctrine of God be made fully coherent? Surely not.
4. Does not the thoughtful Christian conscience reject universalism, just because one cannot apply it to oneself? “I dare not say to myself that if I forfeit the opportunity this life affords I shall ever have another; and therefore I dare not say so to another man,” wrote James Denney. Is there any way around this? Surely not.
Universalism, therefore, will not work. This life’s decisions must be deemed to be in every case decisive. And thus, proclaiming the gospel to our fallen, guilty, and hell-bent fellows must be the first service we owe them in light of their first and basic need. The proclamation must have the priority that the older, the historic catholic, mission strategy gave it.
“I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians … to preach the gospel,” wrote Paul. “For ‘every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’ But how are men to call upon him … of whom they have never heard?… Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom. 1:14–15, 10:13–14, 17, citing Joel 2:32).
Light for All
But could God, in particular cases, work with and through the light of general revelation—light that comes to every human being—to evoke repentance and faith, and thus to bring about the salvation of some to whom no verbal message about God forgiving sins has ever come?
The question is prompted by Peter’s statement: “In every nation anyone who fears him and does right is acceptable” (Acts 10:35). It is supported by Paul’s assertion: “[God] did not leave himself without witness” (14:17). Add to that his strong declaration of general revelation from God to all mankind in Romans 1:18–2:16. Consider the acknowledgment and worship of Israel’s God by Melchizedek, Jethro, Job, Abimelech, Baalam, Naaman, the sailors in Jonah’s boat, Cyrus, and Nebuchadrezzar. Compare John’s description of the preincarnate Word as “the true light that enlightens every man” (John 1:9; cf. v. 4) with his analysis of the sinner’s judgment as flight from the light, while “he who does what is true comes to the light” (3:19–21). That God will judge us all according to what we have done with the light we were given, and that that is supremely just on his part, I take for granted.
In Christianity and World Religions, Sir Norman Anderson states the question as it relates to non-Christian worshipers: “Might it not be true of the follower of some other religion that the God of all mercy had worked in his heart by his Spirit, bringing him in some measure to realize his sin and need for forgiveness, and enabling him, in his twilight as it were, to throw himself on God’s mercy?”
The answer seems to be yes, it might be true, as it may well have been true for at least some of the Old Testament characters. If ever it is true, such worshipers will learn in heaven that they were saved by Christ’s death and that their hearts were renewed by the Holy Spirit, and they will join the glorified church in endless praise of the sovereign grace of God. Christians since the second century have hoped so, and perhaps Socrates and Plato are in this happy state even now—who knows?
But we have no warrant to expect that God will act thus in any single case where the gospel is not known or understood. Therefore our missionary obligation is not one whit diminished by our entertaining this possibility. Nor will this idea make the anti-Christian thrust and consequent spiritual danger of non-Christian religions seem to us any less than it did before.
If we are wise, we shall not spend much time mulling over this notion. Our job, after all, is to spread the gospel, not to guess what might happen to those to whom it never comes. Dealing with them is God’s business: he is just, and also merciful, and when we learn, as one day we shall, how he has treated them we shall have no cause to complain. Meantime, let us keep before our minds mankind’s universal need of forgiveness and new birth, and the graciousness of the “whosoever will” invitations of the gospel. And let us redouble our efforts to make known the Christ who saves to the uttermost all who come to God by him.
James I. Packer is professor of historical and systematic theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, and a senior editor of CHRISTIANITY TODAY. A brief biography of Dr. Packer appears in Christopher Catherwood’s Five Evangelical Leaders (Harold Shaw, 1985).
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