Universalists teach that all people will eventually be saved through the atonement of Jesus. They maintain that the Bible teaches that God wants all men to be saved, therefore, all men will be saved. In this, they deny the eternal nature of hell as conscious punishment of the lost. Two of the most prominent verses appealed to by them to support their position are as follows:
- "For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; 4Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:3-4).
- "The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9).
If these three verses were all that we had to go on, then the universalists might be able to produce a strong argument. But, since we do not make doctrine out of one or two or even three verses, but the whole of God's counsel, we know that the universalist teaching cannot be true. For example, in Matt. 25:46 Jesus said, "And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal." The same Greek word (aionion) is used to describe both punishment and life. If eternal (aionion) life is indeed eternal (aionion), then eternal (aionion) punishment is also eternal (aionion). Also, consider Mark 3:28-29 where Jesus said, "Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin" (NASB). Verse 28 says that all sins shall be forgiven. Verse 29 clarifies the statement and flatly says that there is a sin that "never has forgiveness." (See my article on this Mark 3:28-29 and Universalism.) Likewise, consider Rev. 20:10 which says, "And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever." And compare the usage of "forever and ever" with 2 Tim. 4:18, "The Lord will deliver me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen." In each verse, the exact same Greek phrase (eis tous aionos ton aionon) is used. (See also my article on Forever and Ever.)
Nevertheless, the Universalists claim that the two verses at the beginning of this article are strong evidence that God will save all people. If they were that strong, then the majority of Christians would accept universalism, but they don't. So, how do we who believe in the eternal nature of punishment for sins deal with these verses?
1 Timothy 2:3-4
"For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; 4Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:3-4).
Does this verse prove that God will save all people? No, it simply states that God "will have all men to be saved." The word "will" in Greek is "thelo." It means "will" (1 Cor. 7:36), or "desire" (Mark 9:35; Phil. 4:17). God desires that all people be saved. But, not all people will be saved. But then, is this stating that God's will is not carried out? Well, yes and no. God wants that people not sin. Do they sin? Yes. Is God's will accomplished in this? No. Is God in control? Yes, yet His will that they not sin, is not carried out. They will be judged for their sins (if not justified by faith in Christ) and fall under the condemnation of God. Yet God does not want them to perish as it says in Ezekiel 33:11, "'As I live,' saith the Lord GOD, 'I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live.'" Will they perish? Yes, because God punishes the sinner who is not covered in the blood of Christ: "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him" (John 3:36).
Consider the case of a righteous judge who must sentence a man to death. The judge is a good man, honest, and full of mercy. Yet, he must enforce the law set before him. Is it his will (desire) to sentence the man to death? No. But, because there are laws, he must enforce them. Likewise with God. He desires that people not perish, but many will because they reject God and His Messiah. They will then face the judgment of the Lawgiver. The Law will be enforced.
So, does 1 Timothy 2:4 prove that God will save all men? No it does not.
2 Peter 3:9
"The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance."
The same argument above applies to this verse. God can and does desire that people be saved yet His desire is not carried out. Furthermore, repentance is something that God gives: "In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth" (2 Tim. 2:25). The NASB, NIV, RSV, and NKJV say "grant them repentance." If God wants all to be saved, why is it that God will not give to them what they need in order to be saved? Why doesn't He just cause people to walk according to His word? Can He do that? Yes He can: "And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them" (Ezekiel 36:27). So, why then does God not grant repentance to all and put His spirit in them all so they keep His word? And let's not forget where Jesus said he spoke in parables so that people would not understand His meaning. Consider Mark 4:11-12, "To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God; but those who are outside get everything in parables, 12 in order that while seeing, they may see and not perceive; and while hearing, they may hear and not understand lest they return and be forgiven." Note that the parables are so that they will not see or hear. Paul states in Rom. 11:8 that God hardened Israel so that Israel would not see or hear the truth: "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes to see not and ears to hear not, down to this very day." And to make things more complicated, God has commanded that Israel respond in faith to His call (Isaiah 42:18).
What are we to make of all of this? If it is God's will that all be saved, then why does He not grant them all repentance? Why does He not put His Spirit in all people? Why does He speak in parables so that people will not understand? Why did He harden Israel so they would not accept the Messiah?
It is because there is more to this whole issue than a simple, "God wants all people to be saved, therefore, they will be." There is more to God's will and purpose than a generic intention of saving all people.
Does God desire one thing and yet ordain another? Yes.
Yes, God can desire one thing and ordain another. For example, it is clear that God does not want people to sin, yet Acts 2:23 states, "this Man [Jesus], delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death." God planned that Jesus go to the cross. But in order to do that, men had to sin for it to occur. Did God want them to sin? No, but it was part of God's ordained plan.
Likewise, Herod (Luke 23:11), Pilate (Luke 23:24) and the Jews (Luke 23:21) all sinned in their efforts that lead to Christ's death. Yet it says in Acts 4:27-28, "For truly in this city there were gathered together against Thy holy servant Jesus, whom Thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur." It was not God's will that Herod, Pilate, and the Jews commit sin, but it was the will of God that this come to pass. God's ways are not ours. He is sovereign over all creation and can even use sinful men to accomplish His will.
Consider Pharaoh. God told Moses to command Pharaoh to let His people go (Exodus 8:1), yet God says in Exodus 4:21, ". . . but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go."
Consider Sihon king of Heshbon. In Deut. 2:25 God says He will put the fear of Israel in people's hearts. In 2:26-27 Moses sent messengers to King Sihon to allow his people to pass through the area. Yet it says in Deut. 2:30, "But Sihon king of Heshbon was not willing for us to pass through his land; for the Lord your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, in order to deliver him into your hand, as he is today."
But this raises another question: Could God have prevented them from sinning? Yes he could have. Remember Abimelech in Genesis 20? He was the king in Gerar and Abraham said that his wife, Sarah, was his sister (Gen. 20:2). Abimelech would have sinned but God did not let him. In verse 6 it says, "And God said unto him in a dream, Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her."
Okay, so why do I bring out so many "contradictory" verses dealing with God's will and purpose? It is to demonstrate that God can desire one thing and yet ordain another. He can desire all men be saved, but not ordain that it occur.
Why would God do such things?
The only place in scripture I can find that comes close to answer this question is found in Romans 9:22-23: "What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: 23And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory."
This passage of scripture has been debated and analyzed by a host of theologians and I will not here seek to make a defense of the position I hold. Instead, I will conclude by saying that ultimately it is God's glory that is the issue and that in His sovereignty, He wills and works according to His purposes and not man's.