I’d say it’s a good bet that nobody alive right now thinks they’re going to die and go to Hell. At least there’s nobody mentally competent who thinks it and also isn’t actively working on changing that end result, such as by obeying Acts 2:21.
Admittedly, the idea of Hell isn’t accepted as much as it used to be, so let’s step back from it to something less ‘hellish’ and ask a similar question. Have you ever met a person who believed in life after death and thought that, once they died, they’d for sure experience something awful?
The folks at Pew Research say that only 17% of people think that this life is all there is, meaning 83% believe we live on in some way. And I’ve never met one who felt that their “Round Two” was going to be bad.
The ultimate expression of this thinking in Christianity is found in the teaching of universalism, also called ultimate reconciliation. It’s the idea that God will eventually reunite with every soul at some point so that everyone willingly spends their eternity with Him.
No eternal punishment. No everlasting separation. Instead, as the title of one book on universalism reads, All Shall Be Well.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? There’s only one problem: all won’t be well. At least, not for “the many” who Jesus said would be going through the gate that is wide and traveling on the way that is broad, which leads to destruction (Matt. 7:13).
Which means universalism is a lie.
The oldest lie in the book
The concept of universalism can be traced back to the Garden and is the oldest lie in the Book. After mocking God’s prohibitions and His consequences to our first parents, Satan snidely asserted, “you surely will not die!” (Gen. 3:4).
Interesting, isn’t it, that the first ever-denied doctrine was judgment? And it’s as hot as ever today.
From a church history standpoint, scholars point to Origen of Alexandria (AD 185-254), an African theologian, as the first to defend universalism. Origen took an allegorical approach to Scripture, was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, and poo-pooed the eternal suffering of sinners in Hell.
Flash forward thousands of years to the popular release of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. Following Origen’s thinking, Bell asked the following questions as his primary arguments for universalism:
“Doesn’t God want everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4) and doesn’t God get what He wants?
If these things are true, asked Bell, how is universalism not the inevitable conclusion?
The answer is that Jesus said Hell is real, a fact acknowledged even by non-Christians. To prove my point, the defense calls to the stand the skeptic Bertrand Russell who wrote, “There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and it is that He believed in Hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.”
A plain reading of Scripture shows that Russell is right in his conclusion that Christ preached Hell. You can’t read His account of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19–26), His ending to the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:13-14, 21-23), many of His parables (e.g., Matt. 13:40-41, 22:13), His admonitions of sin’s consequences (Mark 9:43), and more and walk away thinking anything else other than Christ considered Hell a very real destination for some people.
So, given that, why does anyone believe in universalism?
The primary struggle of those espousing the teaching is in reconciling God’s mercy and the reality of eternal judgment. The antidote for their confusion comes in the form of getting a clear understanding of God’s antecedent and consequent wills.
God antecedently desires all to be saved, but consequently wills a grace-rejecting person to experience His punishment. Or, as Thomas Aquinas explained it, “Hence it may be said of a just judge, that antecedently he wills all men to live; but consequently wills the murderer to be hanged. In the same way, God antecedently wills all men to be saved, but consequently wills some to be damned, as His justice exacts.”
Thankfully, Christ takes our place on those gallows and satisfies God’s justice for our sin.
But that isn’t the case for those who reject Him. So, while 87% of people may believe in life after death and think their next life will turn out well, Scripture says that won’t necessarily be the case.
The teaching of ultimate reconciliation/universalism is appealing to our human kindness, but it is simply wrong and unbiblical. Scripture teaches that beyond this life, there are no second chances.
Instead, the Bible declares, “Today is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). Love does indeed win for those who turn by faith to Christ in this life and embrace Him as Savior.
Those who don’t and dismiss the concept of Hell will find out that eternity is an awfully long time to be wrong. Or, as writer Os Guinness put it, “For some, Hell is simply a truth realized too late.”
Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.