Apparently some people looking for the transcript of my debate on Christian Universalism had a hard time getting the whole thing because it’s posted in sections. To make it easier on everybody, I am posting it here in one long post.
Before you comment, note that this is a transcript of one side of a debate (my side). That means (1) it is written with a certain definitive tone (because you can’t end each section of a debate with, “But I could be wrong, I dunno.”), (2) it only addresses issues about universalism that I reasonably expected my opponent to bring up during the debate which means that there are other issues relating to universalism that are not addressed here, and (3) it only addresses one specific type of Universalism, namely, what is now known as “Evangelical Universalism,” the type of universalism that my opponent was defending.
Also, before commenting, make sure you halfway know what you’re talking about. I welcome people who have genuine questions about things I write and topics I discuss, but don’t comment on here (or email me) trying to correct me when the extent of your knowledge is limited to wikipedia-level resources and “something some guy once told me about the Bible” and similar stuff.
Why Christian Universalism is Wrong
What is Universalism?
Christian Universalism (also called Evangelical Universalism) is similar to other types of Universalism in that it argues that all people will ultimately be saved from wrath and received into the bliss of God’s presence for eternity. Christian Universalism differs from other types of universalism mainly in two ways: (1) Christian Universalists believe that all humanity will be saved, regardless of the religious beliefs (or lack thereof) through the atoning work of Christ, and (2) Christian Universalists argue their case from the Bible.
Note that whenever I mention universalism in these posts, I am referring to Christian Universalism.
I will not address issues of inclusivism nor will I argue for Christian exclusivity since that is irrelevant with regard to Christian Universalism for the reasons stated above. Also, I will not argue either for annihilationism or an eternal view of hell. Not only is such a discussion outside the purview of this debate, either of these views argues against Christian Universalism / Evangelical Universalism since both of these views presuppose that people will actually be annihilated or go to a place of eternal punishment, both of which the Christian Universalist denies.
How do I answer Universalism?
The difficulty in arguing against Christian Universalism should be obvious: it is logically impossible to prove a negative. Yet, that is what opponents of Christian Universalism must do. Building on the work of Austin Dacey, however, I can offer two ways to prove a negative that are relevant to this debate:
(1) I can show that the proposition I am negating couldn’t possibly be true because the very idea of the proposition is incompatible with what we are already certain to be true.
(2) The other way to prove a negative is to look very carefully at the evidence for the proposition in the place where you know it would be and see if any evidence exists. In this debate, we are both agreed that the text of Scripture is our final arbiter. If we look as best we can for evidence of the proposition, in this case, universalism as we have defined it, and we still can’t find it, we may reasonably conclude that the proposition is false.
How will this proceed?
My argument is that Christian Universalism is untenable from Scripture for the following five reasons:
- The sinfulness of humanity and the consequent wrath of God directed against humanity which must be appeased require a salvation that is extended only to those who place active, conscious faith in Jesus Christ alone in order to be accepted into eternal bliss in God’s presence at the time of judgment. I will argue this from Romans 1:18-32 and 1 John 2:2.
- The universal texts of Scripture are emphasized to suit the theological requirements of the Universalists’ arguments while the texts emphasizing the salvation of few are overlooked or are misappropriated to conform to their arguments. I will argue this from Romans 3:23-24 and Romans 5:12-21.
- The reality of hell and the lack of any teaching which allows for people to exit hell once entering. I will argue this from several key passages misappropriated by Evangelical Universalists.
- The nature of God as a God both of love and of judgment argues against evangelical Universalism. I will argue this from 1 John 4:16 and Hebrews 12:29.
- In my final post, I will address several other objections to universalism that demonstrate number 1, above.
The Sinfulness of Humanity and the Wrath of God directed against Humanity argue against Christian Universalism
Christian Universalism suggests that Christ will ultimately save everyone regardless of their faith or lack thereof. This is a discounting of the view God takes of sin. Sin is grievous to God and the depth of humanity’s depravity is revealed in all of humanity’s collusion in the death of the Son of God.
Paul begins Romans by grounding the Gospel in the “signs and wonders” (15:29) surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ in fulfillment of OT prophecy (1:3), signs which culminated in the resurrection as the sign of signs that verified Jesus’ identity and God’s acceptance of his completed work (1:4). In response, however, wicked men revealed their true nature, which is to “suppress the truth” (1:18), which they did in rejecting the prophetic witness and unjustly and viciously executing (murdering) the Son of God. In so doing, they assumed the place of God. Since then, humanity’s intentions have been to suppress the truth about their own evil inclinations. God’s wrath as active in the world today, before the final judgment, is revealed in the Gospel in such a way as to expose the unrighteousness of humanity (1:18). The Gospel reveals God’s wrath and, consequently, the “culpability of the human race at so egregious a level as to make retribution morally necessary and inevitable.”
The wrath of God is an important concept in Scripture which one cannot overlook. Leon Morris points out that there are more than twenty words used to express the wrath of God as applied to Yahweh in the OT and collectively they are used over 580 times.  The concept of God’s wrath, Morris says, “cannot be eradicated from the Old Testament without irreparable loss.” So the Old Testament is full of the concept of the wrath of God.
Many proponents of Universalism point out that Jesus never spoke of God’s wrath. Jesus, did, however, speak of hell which implies a belief in the wrath of God. This line of argumentation undercuts Universalism’s own theology since much of their argumentation comes from the epistles and the OT.
In Romans 1:18, Paul explains that the wrath of God is directed toward those who are ungodly and unrighteous before going on in chapters 2 and 3 to argue for the universal sinfulness of humanity. As Robert Jewett has pointed out, Paul begins with the wrath of God in Romans 1:18 as he develops his Gospel as stated in his thesis in 1:16-17 demonstrates that divine wrath is one of the central elements of the Gospel. To deny divine wrath, as Universalism does, is to deny a central component of the Gospel. In Romans 1:24f, that “θεὸς” is the subject of the verbs (most notably, παρέδωκεν, “to hand over” as in for judgment or retribution), indicates that God “is directly involved in the process of moral retribution” even before the final judgment.
God’s “wrath” is directed, as John wrote (3:36) toward all those who do not believe in the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Those who continue in this unbelief, Paul says, pile up wrath in anticipation of the final judgment which Paul refers to as the “day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5). He does not allow for anyone to escape God’s judgment after that day. In 1 Thess. 1:10, Paul speaks of Jesus as the one who “delivered us from the wrath to come.” These are just a few of the Scriptural references to God’s wrath. It is also noteworthy that John, in the Revelation (19:15) speaks of Jesus’ “treading the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God”.
This wrath is God’s judgment upon and punishment of the sinful for their sinful deeds. The sinfulness of humanity necessitates their judgment. Their sinfulness is only removed by the death of Christ. Universalists often point to the terminology of “death” used by Paul to refer to the judgment upon sin and take death literally, as if physical death alone is the judgment upon sin and there remains no further punishment. This is argued against by Scriptures such as Romans 2:5 (given above) where Paul speaks of heaping up wrath in anticipation of the Day of Judgment. When pressed on this point, Universalists will often resort to saying that one can be saved from hell, though we will see that the Scriptures do not allow for such salvation.
1 John 2:2 is a favorite of Universalists as it seems to imply that every person in the world will be saved because Christ’s work has effectively appeased the wrath of God for each person. While this passage does, at first glance, seem to support this idea, there are other places in the NT where this expression, “the whole world” and other similar expressions do not refer to every person without exception. For example, Luke 2:1 says that “the whole world was taxed” yet we naturally understand the obvious limitations in that statement. More to this point, Rev. 12:9 says that Satan deceives the whole world yet there are many in the immediate context who have followed Christ. Rev. 13:3 says that the whole world marveled at the beast yet he also fought against some. Clearly, then, this expression used there cannot refer to all without exception. Even in John’s own first epistle this expression is used in a way that clearly cannot refer to each without exception. In 1 John 5:19 John says that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one even though John himself is not under the power of the evil one and is writing to people most of whom are presumably also not under the evil one’s power. If 1 John 2:2 can refer to whole world without exception, then the same may be said of 1 John 5:19.
The Misappropriation of Seemingly Universalist Passages and the Need for Conscious, Personal Faith in Jesus Christ
In Romans 1-3, Paul teaches the universal sinfulness of all humanity. While evangelical Universalists agree with this interpretation (though they often treat it as little more than bad luck or something that can’t be helped, like getting a disease), they often argue that despite humanity’s universal sinfulness, through the redemption of Christ, every person will enjoy universal salvation. The use of πᾶς in two of the most significant passages, Romans 3:23-24 and Romans 5:18 (in context), argues against universal salvation.
Universalists often want to translate Romans 3:23-24 to emphasize the participles (e.g., “all those who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God are being justified freely by his grace”). This makes those who are falling short in v. 23 synonymous with those being justified in v. 24. Their argument, then, is that since “all have sinned” in v. 23 is usually taken as universal, the justification of v. 24 is also seen as universal.
As J. William Johnston argues, however, the pa in v. 23 is anaphoric and refers back to the categories stated in v. 22: Jew and Gentile. This use of πᾶς is consistent with other similar passages both in Romans (10:12, 16, 11:32) and in other Pauline passages (e.g., 1 Cor. 10:1-4). So the “all” referenced in Romans 3:23 is all without distinction which means the accompanying participle in v. 24 cannot mean all are justified without exception but must also refer to all believers without distinction.
Since Paul does argue for the sinfulness of humanity and Evangelical Universalists agree on that point, they must seek elsewhere for scriptural support for universal salvation. They often then turn to Romans 5:18, “So, therefore, as through one man’s transgression all men came to condemnation, even so through one man’s righteous deed justification of life came to all men.” Once again, it seems that all who are sinful will experience justification through Jesus Christ. Two factors in the text, however, argue against this conclusion. First, the connection to v. 17, which one must not overlook, argues that this is an “unbalanced comparison.” In v. 17, death reigns but life does not reign. Instead, those who “receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness” will reign and Paul states specifically they will reign through Christ.
As Douglas Moo makes clear, this “justification of life” in v. 18 has been accomplished in Christ “for all those who belong to him [i.e., Christ]” and the uses of πολλοί in vv. 15 and 19 and πάντας ἀνθρώπους in vv. 12 and 18 confirm this. In addition, the language of “justification” is only used of “the status actually conferred on the individual, never of the atonement won on the cross itself” and Moo points to the “careful distinctions in Romans 3:21-26” to support his argument. Each person in the given two groups is affected by the head of that group. Those who are in Adam are affected by Adam’s sin such that their natures are fallen and under the condemnation of death whole those who are in Christ have received grace, righteousness, and life.
Not only that, the change from πᾶς to πολλοί in vv. 15 and 19 demonstrates that v. 18 is a summary of Paul’s argument from v. 12 up to this point showing the effect of each respective head upon the members of the group of which he is head.
The Reality of Hell
Several passages speak to the reality of hell and almost all of them are explained away by Universalists. A favorite argument of universalism is that the OT prophets used the images of fire and burning as metaphors for God’s judgment, which they determine to be physical death and nothing more (I will speak more on that in a moment). When pressed on this issue, they will often then say that people will be saved from hell. Applying the standard stated above, namely, that one would expect to find evidence of this in Scripture it is telling that the Scriptural passages for the reality of hell both emphasize finality of hell.
For example, Isaiah 66:24, cited by Jesus in Mark 9:42-38, is given in the context of a new heaven and new earth passage (see v. 22) and so must be viewed as emphasizing eternal destiny. This is also the way Jesus uses the passage in the context of Mark 9. Neither the OT nor the NT passage allows for one to escape from this destiny.
Daniel 12:2 speaks of life and death as eternal realities, which implies that there will some who enjoy one while still others will experience the other. Likewise other passages universalists are so fond of quoting such as Matt. 18:6-9, Jude 7, and Rev. 20:10, 14-15, each of which passages speaks of the fires of hell, Rev. 14:9-11 which speaks of torment, Matt. 25:31-46 which speaks of punishment, and Jude 13 which speaks of eternal darkness. These images, literal or not, speak of a destiny that awaits someone and none of these passages allow for the conviction that one will escape these places once condemned there. 2 Thess. 1:5-10 speaks of the Lord’s return to execute vengeance and to punish those who persecute the believer and those who refuse to believe while glorifying those who do believe in Jesus Christ. This last passage is consistent with Jesus’ own words in John 5:27 where Jesus says that the Father has given him authority to judge and John 5:29 where the Lord speaks of two destinies for those who will be raised in the final resurrection. Again, he does not permit there to be any change of status after death, much less final judgment. Indeed, Paul makes clear that one’s destiny is determined by the actions done in this life (2 Cor. 5:10), implying that there will be no second chance after death, much less while in hell.
The Nature of God: Loving and Just
Universalism prefers to emphasize God’s love at the expense of God’s wrath. This view does injustice to the wrath of God since God’s wrath is seen as part of God’s glory. For example, when God reveals himself to Moses in Exodus 34 he reveals not only his compassion and his covenant faithfulness, but also his judging of the sin of the people. To minimize God’s wrath one must also minimize God’s compassion, his covenant faithfulness, and his forgiveness, all of which are also seen in this divine revelation.
To say that God must practice the same forgiveness he enjoins upon us overlooks two key notions: (1) God does forgive those who come to faith in Christ, and (2) it holds God to an impossible standard in that it expects God to sacrifice one aspect of his character at the expense of another. To say that God’s love and grace will supersede his judgment and wrath is to establish priorities in the attributes of God that Scripture does not support.
It is true that 1 John 4:8 and 16 use a predicate nominative subset construction to state that God is love. Note, however that Hebrews 12:29 uses the same construction, in the context of a discussion of God’s judgment against not just humanity but the entire created order (quoting the prophet Haggai) do emphasize that “God is a consuming fire.” This means that if God is “love” as part of his essential nature, then God must also be a God of wrath and judgment, too, as part of his essential nature.
God’s moral attributes are tempered by his non-moral attributes. That is, God’s love must be an infinite love. Likewise, his justice or his wrath, or his truth, must also be infinite. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) expresses this correctly: “Q. 4: What is God? A: God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” Each of these eight attributes is governed by the three states of infinity, eternality, and immutability. With regard to this issue, both God’s holiness and his justice are infinite and eternal, not just his love. To give one priority over the other is to do injustice to the character of God as he is revealed in Scripture. To alter these priorities to suit our own fallible notions of morality is to fashion a god simply to suit our own likings.
If one can say that we must subordinate divine justice to divine love why can we not do the opposite and subordinate divine love to divine justice? While this is what the universalist accuses the traditionalist of doing, their accusation falls short of the mark. The traditionalist recognizes that both God’s love and God’s judgments are attributes of God. Since God is simple (in the philosophical sense) he must possess both of these attributes as part of his essential nature. To subordinate one to the other in either direction is to throw God’s nature out of balance and thus make God less than the God he has revealed himself to be.
The fact is, many of the arguments inherent in universalism revolve around the human notion of fairness which not only compels God to act solely in accordance with human understanding, it also overlooks the all-knowing justice of God by which he can judge each person in absolute righteousness since he knows all things including the human heart (John 2:24-25; Heb. 4:13). It also ascribes to God an attribute absent in scripture. While the Scriptures repeatedly describe God as “just,” “righteous,” and “holy,” nowhere do they describe God as “fair,” as we understand fairness. So the EU, since he cannot see divine retribution as anything but unfair, applies human categories of fairness and then accuses God of injustice for his “righteous judgments.”
But why is God unloving simply because he does not save all? As B. B. Warfield has illustrated, we might be rightfully angry with a doctor who could save everyone but didn’t, but we would not necessarily be angry with a judge who refused to show mercy. Indeed, we recognize that no criminal has the right to expect mercy and for us to demand mercy for them is overthrow the very idea of justice.
Though God has presented himself in healing terms (Isa. 53:5; Mal. 4:2), he does not present himself as such when it comes to salvation and condemnation. Instead, he represents himself as a judge (e.g., Gen. 18:25) and Jesus claims the same authority of judgment for blessing or condemnation for himself under the Father’s authority (John 5:26-29).
John 5:26-29: “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of condemnation.”
The implication in this passage is that the judgment is final and there is no change in destiny.
Odds & Ends
I would like now to provide some additional objections before summing up this debate
(1) Universalism claims that their view is no deterrent to one’s living the Christian life. This may be true since evangelical universalists (Christian universalists) obviously identify with Christianity. Morally, however, I can find religions that will allow me to live as well as many Christians live with fewer obligations. Eschatologically, if all will be saved I need not worry about my eternal destiny.
(2) Despite many universalist claims that universalism is no hindrance to evangelism, universalists can give no compelling reason why one ought to be a Christian. If Hitler will be saved (and many universalists make this claim implicitly when they respond to the question “What about Hitler?” by citing Romans 5:20: “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound”) I see no compelling reason why I would not be saved.
(3) If universalism is true, there are many passages of Scripture that become irrelevant, not only passages where evangelism and proclamation of the Gospel are enjoined, but also passages that urge holiness of life and passages that warn of falling away from the Gospel.
(4) Universalism tries to have their cake and eat it, too. For example, when asked why most people in church history did not believe in Universalism, they say majority count does not settle the issue yet they constantly point to Early Christian writers to make their case. As a corollary, arguments based on historical Christians who held to one of the various forms of Universalism proves nothing. The Scriptures are the sole and final arbiter deciding the answer to this question.
(5) Universalists say the Bible’s promise that the redeemed will live on in perfect bliss requires universalism because the redeemed cannot live in perfect bliss for eternity when they know that their loved ones are suffering in hell or have been annihilated (depending on one’s view of hell). This objection is not only telling, it reveals that universalists are arguing based on human emotion and human perceptions of fairness. The promise to “wipe away every tear” in Revelation 21:4 comes after the final judgment and the lost have been condemned to divine judgment. In that day, we will be like Christ (1 John 3:2) and we will have the mind of Christ in the fullest (1 Cor. 2:15; Phil 2:5) and will be able to see God’s righteousness clearly.
I said at the beginning that there are two ways to prove a negative that are relevant to this debate:
(1) I can show that the proposition I am negating couldn’t possibly be true because the very idea of the proposition is incompatible with what we are already certain to be true.
(2) The other way to prove a negative is to look very carefully at the evidence for the proposition in the place where you know it would be and see if any evidence exists.
I have accomplished both of these objectives in tonight’s debate. I have demonstrated that Universalism is untenable from Scripture for the following five reasons:
1. The sinfulness of humanity requires a salvation that is extended only to those who place active, conscious faith in Jesus Christ alone in order to be accepted into eternal bliss in God’s presence at the time of judgment.
Universalism is incompatible with this understanding because it posits that all persons will eventually be saved regardless of their faith in Christ in this life. Universalists also present no evidence for why the Scriptures would call on people to believe in Christ and why Christians are enjoined to proclaim Christ if all will be saved anyway.
2. The universal texts of Scripture are emphasized to suit the theological requirements of the Universalists’ arguments while the texts emphasizing the salvation of few are overlooked or are misappropriated to conform to their arguments.
Universalism fails to interpret these texts properly not only with regard to the syntax and context of the passages, but also with regard to the whole of the Scripture’s teaching.
3. The reality of hell and the lack of any teaching which allows for people to exit hell once entering.
Universalism misinterprets passages, misappropriates passages, and ignores other passages to make their case.
4. The wrath of God that is directed toward sinful humanity must be appeased in order for any person to be accepted into eternal bliss in God’s presence at the time judgment.
Universalism fails to explain how the wrath of God has been appeased on behalf of those who do not trust in Christ.
5. The nature of God as a God both of love and of judgment argues against evangelical Universalism.
Universalism does an injustice to the character of God by emphasizing those attributes which seem more important to their moral understanding and ignores or minimizes passages that emphasize other, less palatable attributes of God.
 Robert Jewett, “The Anthropological Implications of the Revelation of Wrath in Romans” in Reading Paul in Context: Exploration in Identity Formation, Essays in Honor of William F. Campbell Kathy Ehrensperger and J. Brian Tucker, eds. Library of New Testament Studies 428 (London: T & T Clark, 2010), 30.
 Jewett, 27. This entire paragraph paraphrases Jewett’s line of reasoning. Note that Jewet is himself a universalist.
 Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 131.
 Morris, 156.
 Jewett, 24-25.
 Jewett, 29.
 See Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (London: SPCK, 2008), 20.
 J. William Johnston, The Use of Pas in the New Testament in Studies in Biblical Greek vol. 11, ed. D. A Carson (New York: Peter Lang, 2004) 133-137.
 This is this author’s translation.
 Johnston, 137-143 for a more complete explanation of the issues attendant upon the use of paj in this passage and for a good survey of the commentaries in this regard.
 Johnston, 142.
 Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 343.
 Moo, 343.
 For more detail regarding the passages in this section and other passages relevant to this discussion, see Edward William Fudge and Robert A Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 129-169.
 Fred G. Zaspel, The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Wheaton: Cross way, 2010), 419.