If election is true, what is the danger in universalism?

Universalism teaches that Jesus died for all people and that all will eventually be saved.  It also teaches that if someone rejects Christ in this life, he can accept Jesus in the next one, even if he is a horrible person who severely blasphemed God.  The danger with this is that based on this principle in universalism, someone could adopt an attitude of complacency and would then choose to live a life of sin and rebellion and wait until the afterlife to become a true believer--even if there is some "purification" involved in the afterlife.  The obvious problem is that if universalism is wrong and the person hopes to be saved in the next life, he'll face an eternity of hell instead of heaven.  This is an inherent weakness in Universalism.

CARM has many discussion boards.  One of them is on universalism.  I have raised this issue to them many times and two responses have come forth:  one is to ignore the point altogether and not admit it exists.  The other is to ignore the issue and counterattack.  The most prevalent counterattack against me is a challenge regarding election (I'm Reformed in theology) and ask that since God's elect cannot be deceived, how can universalism pose a threat to the elect?

In part, the Universalists deflection of the real question is understandable since they desire to defend their position at all costs, a consistent pattern with them.   But, what is amazing is their inability to admit the possible danger in their position.  To them, it is quite impossible to consider anything in universalism to be less than perfect.  This is disconcerting.

Nevertheless, I'll answer their objection, even though they refuse to address mine, in hopes of encouraging them to actually face the issue and admit the danger.

Reformed theology teaches that God elects, from all eternity, those who will be saved and that this election cannot fail; those who are elected to salvation will be saved and only those who wanted to be saved are elected to be saved.  Likewise, it is not possible for the elect to lose their salvation since the cross has made it secure.

Universalism can contribute to people procrastinating regarding salvation in the here and now in order to wait until the afterlife where they have a second chance, an opportunity to be purified in a hell-like state after which they will then be able to go to heaven and be with God forever.  Of course, if universalism is wrong, then those who had erringly put their hope in Universalism's second-chance-in-the-afterlife-belief would be lost forever.  The question then is, if election is true, does it really matter regarding Universalism's truth or error?

Yes, it does.  First, God does not want error to be taught, regardless of election or not.  Universalism is an error.

Second, both election and warning against false teachings are taught in the Bible.  Therefore, there is no contradiction since God's word teaches both.

  • Election:
    • "And unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days shall be cut short," (Matt. 24:22, cf., Mark 13:20).
    • " . . . so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect," (Matt. 24:24, cf., Mark 13:22).
    • "And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other," (Matt. 24:31, cf., Mark 13:27).
    • "now shall not God bring about justice for His elect, who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them?" (Luke 18:7).
    • "Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies," (Rom. 8:33).
  • Warning against false teaching:
    • "Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves," (Matt. 7:15).
    • ". . .See to it that no one misleads you.  "For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many," (Matt. 24:4-5; cf, Luke 21:8).
    • See also Acts 20:29; 2 Cor. 11:13; Eph. 4:14

Therefore, for the Universalist to think that the two issues are contradictory in any way is unwarranted because the Bible teaches both concepts.

"The subject of election is God, who chooses on the basis of his sovereign will for his creation. Associated with election are theological terms such as ‘predestination,’ ‘providence,’ and ‘covenant.’"1 The elect are God's chosen people who were set apart from the foundation of the universe to be saved, to belong to God.  So, if this is true how can I consistently warn people against the errors of universalism?  Actually, if the universalists wanted to be consistent, why would I warn anyone about anything?  Shouldn't I just sit around and do nothing because God will take care of it all regarding the elect?  The answer is simple.  God ordains the means as well as the ends in election. He uses Christians, freed from sin, to do His sovereign will according to His command to refute error and make disciples.

  • "Holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict," (Titus 1:9).
  • "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations. . . " (Matt. 28:19).
  • "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" (Acts 4:28).

Obviously, God wants people to refute error, to make disciples, yet it is He who predestines people.  How does this work?  I am not sure.  But God has it under control.  Furthermore, we do not know the criteria by which God elects, but elect He does. The Bible teaches that plainly. It is not, however, based on anything good in us for there is nothing good in us; we are sinners.  That is why God shows no partiality; that is, He does not elect based on anything in us.

Also, God says the prayers of a righteous man (Christian) can accomplish much with Him (James 5:16). How can that be if He predestines all things (Eph. 1:1-11; Rom. 8:28-29)?  I don't know. But, He predestines and He instructs us to pray because it makes a difference with Him. How does that work?  Again, I do not know, and I cannot explain the mind of God.  But, God predestines, commands us to be careful about false teaching, and instructs us to go make disciples.

Is it contradictory to say that God elects and that our prayers can influence Him?  Not at all, since both are true in scripture.  Furthermore, I absolutely believe that God predestines (Eph. 1:1-11; Acts 4:28) and I believe my prayers and efforts (i.e., CARM) make a difference. In fact, I am far more evangelical than most people: I've literally got thousands of hours in evangelism experience, preaching, teaching, witnessing, apologetics, web, radio, etc, and I have many testimonials how the efforts have made a difference in peoples' lives.  This all goes to prove one very important point:  God ordains the means as well as the end.

It isn't up to me to figure out all the nuances of God's mind and how all of it fits together. I leave that to Him, and I go forth in obedience to His declaration (predestination/election) and His command (make disciples).

A possible explanation

Alright, so I've pleaded ignorance, in part, on this subject.  Nevertheless, I offer a possible explanation of how this can work.

  1. God's total knowledge eternally encompasses all actions of all beings and all possible and actual permutations of all events of all things.
    1. This means that from before the universe existed, in the mind of God, all potential existences and all potential combinations of all events were already known and understood by God; hence, true omniscience.
      1. This would include all things done by "free will" creatures anytime and anyplace in the then distant future under all actual and potential circumstances.
  2. Since all things have been eternally & simultaneously known by God (even the "free will" choices made by all people), then, when He planned the universe, it is necessarily true that all things which were known and consulted by God were included in His plan of election as He placed people in and where He did according to His sovereign will to "do whatever Thy hand and Thy purpose predestined to occur" (Acts 4:28).
    1. It cannot be that God remains ignorant on any subject. When He created the universe He did so knowing everything that could and would be. Since He is all powerful, it is natural to state that He included all possible outcomes in His sovereign plan, including election. This election may or may not be influenced by foreknowledge concerning our actions and desires.
    2. This plan can easily include our prayers and the resulting ramifications of the teaching of false doctrines that damn people.
    3. Our prayers can, then, have an influence with Him from all eternity, yet He has not changed from all eternity. The only way that this can be is if He knew everything about everything and included what He desired in the universe that He constructed and set in motion.
  3. It is perfectly logical, therefore, that in our time reference, we can make choices, influence God, be warned about apostasy and false doctrines, and actually truly make a difference in people's lives (for good or bad), and have all these things sovereignly included in the plan of God by which He elects and predestines.  This way, the idea of a false doctrine damning and God's election are not mutually exclusive.
    1. In other words, God knew all that what we would do (good and bad) and took it all into account when He constructed the universe and put us in it and developed His sovereign plan by which He has predestined what will occur.  After all it says that ". . . He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will," (Eph. 1:4-5).  Is this predestination apart from His infinite knowledge of our influence upon Him (James 5:16) from all eternity?  Of course not.
    2. Therefore, what we do makes a difference in the lives of people.  False doctrines are still dangerous and are to be warned against -- the outcome, of which, are included in God's sovereign plan of election.  He still predestines, we still can influence God in our prayers (James 5:16) and God's warning about apostasy and false doctrines are still valid.

Objections answered

But, some universalists will object that the doctrine of election can cause the very same thing of which universalism is accused; namely, a false sense of security in salvation.  Certainly, this is a possibility.  But, the Bible says that God elects (Matt. 24:22, 31), His sheep will never perish (John 10:28), those who say they know Jesus and do not keep His word are liars without the truth (1 John 2:4), and the Christian is a new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17): "Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come." It is this last verse that is extremely relevant here.

Being a new creature in Christ means that the Christian is no longer a slave of sin (Rom. 6:16).  He is now free.  A true Christian will not use the grace of God to sin (Rom. 6:1-3) and expect to be saved no matter what.  Why?  Because a true Christian is at war with the flesh (Rom. 7) and does not remain in sin (John 8:31; James 2:14).

But, the very fact that the universalists bring up this counter-argument is an admission of the weakness of their own for they recognize it and try to apply it to a different situation as a means of defense.   In so doing, they do not answer the original problem; they only change the subject and hope the problem will go away.

Also, as election deals with Christians, universalism deals with Christians and unbelievers.  The Christian is regenerated and changed and will not abide in sin; he cannot because he is not a slave to it anymore and will not use his security in Christ as a license to sin.  The unbeliever is not saved and can still hope in eternal life after death so they can sin now.  And it is to this charge that the universalist has failed to respond adequately.

Another objection raised by Universalists is "How do you know if you are elect or not"?  This question demonstrates a lack of understanding of biblical theology. The Bible says that "These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:13). It is certainly possible, according to God's word, to know that you are elect. On a practical level, I would say that anyone who has trusted Jesus as Savior (not a false Christ as in the cults), will have the knowledge and testimony of the Holy Spirit living within him and he will observe a change in his own heart. This is a demonstration of regeneration. Furthermore, only Christians have the mind of Christ and know that Jesus is God in flesh, risen from the dead, and ascended into heaven, which the Bible says an unbeliever cannot accept (1 Cor. 2:14).2

  • 1. Achtemeier, Paul J., Harper’s Bible Dictionary, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985.
  • 2. Infralapsarianism is an issue within Reformed theology dealing with what may have happened in God's mind regarding the logical order of His considering whom to elect into salvation before the foundation of the world.  The word means "after the fall."  The position is that God first decided he would allow sin into the world and second that he would then save people from it.  By contrast, the supralapsarian ("before the fall") position holds that God first decided that he would save some people and then second that he would allow sin into the world.  
    I am somewhat bewildered by this difference within Reformed circles since all knowledge with God is eternally known and simultaneous.  It would seem that the distinctives between infra and supralapsarianism would be moot.

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.