Will All Be Saved?
While pretty much everyone likes the concept of eternal salvation, many find the parallel concept of eternal damnation to be very troubling. Some have argued that this is not only troubling, but that it is inconsistent with the character of a God who is love. (1 John 4:8). A loving God, it is claimed would not send anyone to eternal damnation. Thus, those sent to hell will remain there for only a period of time, after which they too will be redeemed to spend eternity in heaven. In short, that there will be an Universal Salvation.
The defense of Universal Salvation rest on three main points. The first, as we have already seen, is the claim that eternal damnation is inconsistent with the character of God. The second is that the Bible does not really teach that punishment will be eternal. Finally supporters point to verses they claim supports them when they say that all will be saved.
God and Eternal Punishment
Could a loving God really send people to eternal punishment? Supporters of Universal Salvation say no. But there is a basic problem with this argument and all such arguments, for it places us as judge over God. To answer this question the way the supporters of Universal Salvation want us to, we would have to judge eternal punishment from Gods point of view and be able to say that it would be wrong for God to do this. But given our finite minds, how can we ever possibly have enough understanding so as to pass judgement on infinite God? We cant. As such, there is no way for us to make such a judgement. As Ecclesiastes 11:5 says, "As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mothers womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things."
There is another problem with such arguments. Inevitably they stress one attribute of God (in this case Love) above all others. While it is true that God is love, God is not just love. God is also a righteous God who loves justice (Ps 11:7), a God of judgement (Ps 1:5), a God of vengeance and retribution (Is 35:4). Given the sinfulness and rebellion of mankind, the real question is probably not why doesnt he save all, but why does he save any!
The Bible and Eternal Punishment
The second line of argument is that the Bible does not teach that there will be eternal punishment. Verses such as Matthew 25:46 which speak of "eternal punishment" are, according to this position, mistranslations. The claim is that the Greek word which as been translated as "eternal" does not really mean eternal but only refers to an age or aeon, and not an eternity.
Now it is true that the Greek word aion, can have a meaning of age or aeon, but like the previous argument, this one also suffers from a fatal flaw. In this case the flaw is in the assumption that a word as a single meaning derived from the composition of the word. In short, the argument is that since aion means age, it can never mean eternity.
The belief that a words meaning is determined from the word itself or its component parts is call the root fallacy. A classic example of this is seen in the Greek work ekklesia a word that is commonly translated as "church" in the NT. This word is a compound of the roots ek (out of) and kal (to call). As such, if the words roots or etymology were the only consideration, one might expect it to refer to those "called out." In fact, it is not that uncommon to hear pastors refer the church as those who have been called out the world by Christ.
But however nice this may fit into a sermon outline, this is not the meaning of the word. To see the problems with such an approach to determining the meaning of a word one only needs to apply this method to the English words "pineapple" (pine+apple) or the word butterfly (butter+fly). As can be seen with these words, while the meaning of a word may be related to the roots for a word, there is no direct relationship. This is especially true since words often change there meaning with time. As such, while the may have been a relationship between the roots of a words and it meaning at one time, this relationship may disappear completely as the meaning of the word changes. For example, the English word nice comes from the French word niais (which means silly) which in turn come from the Latin word nescius which means ignorant. Thus if we were to determine the meaning of nice based on the roots, rather than being a complement, to call someone nice would be an insult.
The main problem with this is that while there may be a relationship between the roots of a word and it meaning, there is no direct link. In fact, as we have seen, there may be no connection at all. The meaning of a words is not determined by its roots, but rather is determined by its usage. The word pineapple refers to a fruit, butterfly to an insect, and nice is a complement instead of an insult because this is how people generally us these words. In short a word means what the author intends it to mean. Since they normally wish to be understood, authors will normally use words that are well know to the reader in a context that is clear. But it is how a word is used that determines what it means, not it roots.
The general meaning of the Greek word ekklesia is not "those called out," but rather simply refers to a group of people gathered together for some purpose, as opposed to a crowd (Greek: ochlos) were there is no purpose. But even here this is only the general meaning. The particular meaning can only be determined once the word is placed into a particular context.
To see this consider the word run and what it means. Ask a number of people what run means and you will probably get several different answers such as in the following sentences:
"I am going to run in the Boston Marathon tomorrow."
"Honey, I am going to run down to the store for some milk."
"Be sure that you dont run up a big phone bill this month."
While related, the word "run" does have particular and different meanings in each sentence. For example, since I am not in a wheelchair, the first sentence says I will be literally be running using my legs. Now theoretically I could be literally running in the second sentence, but this is not at all demanded. Most likely I will be using the car. In fact, in our house run and drive are synonymous for the second sentence, where they clearly are not in the first sentence. If you try to use the meaning of literally running in the third sentence you end up with complete nonsense. Thus the word run can have several different meaning and the particular meaning is only determine by the context is which is it appears.
The same is the case with the Greek word aion. While it is correct that aion can mean aeon, or age, it can also mean life span, epoch, long time, and eternity. When used as an adjective (aionios) it means eternal or forever. That it can and in some places does have the sense of eternity in the NT can be seen in the uses of this word in places like Luke 1:33, "and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever." (also see Matt 6:13, Mark 11:14, Luke 1:33, 1:55, John 1:14, 6:51 to name just a few).
Greek uses repetition as a way to show emphasis. Thus aionas ton aionon literally would be an even stronger way of stating forever and is often translated "for ever and ever." This phrase is used in Gal 1:5 of the glory of God "to whom be glory for ever and ever." The same in Phil 4:20, 2 Tim 4:18 and Heb 13:21 (of Christ). 1 Tim 1:17 uses this phrase to refer to the "honor and glory for ever and ever." Heb 1:6 uses this to refer how long God will rule "Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever." 1 Peter 4:11 uses this to refer: "To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever" and again in 5:11 "To him be the power for ever and ever." The book of Revelation uses this phrase to refer to "his God and Father -- to him be glory and power for ever and ever" (Rev 1:6); The time that Jesus will live, "I am alive for ever and ever" (1:18); How long God will live, "who lives for ever and ever" (4:9, 4:10, 10:6, 15:7,); The length of time that God and Jesus "be praised and honor and power, for ever and ever" (5:13). Rev 7:12 says "Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever." Rev 11:15, and 22:5 give aionas ton aionon as the time that Jesus will reign.
In all of these places aionas ton aionon refers to things that will last forever and ever. Not only does this Greek phrase refer to the eternal nature of God reign, praise, glory, etc, but it is also used to speak of torment and punishment in Rev 19:3 and Rev 20:10. Given this consistent pattern of usage, it is a real uphill battle to try and explain why this usage of the phrase should not also be applied to Rev 19:3 and Rev 20:10.
This is especially true when other verses on this subject are taken into account. For example Matt 25:46 speaks of eternal punishment (eis kolasin aionion) and eternal life (eis zoen aionion). The structure is of this verse is one of contrast, and because of this aionion (eternal) must have the same meaning for both. Thus if the life that waits the righteous is eternal, then so is the punishment of wicked. Or, put the other way, if punishment of the wicked is limited and will end, so will life of the righteous.
A similar contrast exists in John 3:36, "The one believing in the Son has eternal life, but the one disobeying the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him." This in context, is contrasting the fate of those who believe and those who disobey. In this verse there is a contrast between "eternal life" and "will not see life." To make it even clearer, this latter point is emphasized with "the wrath of God remains." To claim this is not eternal is to ignore the context and the explicit contrast that is being made.
Thus this second claim fails. The Bible does speak of eternal punishment for the wicked. And the argument against such claims are based on a false understanding of the way that language works.
The Bible and Universal Salvation
The third claim is that the Bible does in fact teach that all will be saved. Key verses cited in support of this claim are Rom 5:18-19, Col 1:20, and 1 Tim 4:10.
Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
The issues in this verse are complex but a conclusion of universal salvation is by no means the only legitimate understanding and several key features argue against it. First off, again contrast play a very important role here. In verse 18 the contrast follows the pattern
"through the one (offense/righteous act) to all men to (condemnation/justification of life)"
In verse 19 the pattern is:
"through the (disobedience/obedience) of the (one man/one), (sinners were constituted/righteous will be constituted) the many.
Thus it is clear that what is being contrasted here is Adam and Christ and their effects on humanity. The universal salvation view of this verse is dependant on a particular view of original sin which holds not just that the fall of Adam led to our condemnation, but that we are condemned specifically for Adams sin regardless of what we actually do. Only with such a view is the parallel strong enough to allow universal salvation. But this is a view which is by no means certain.
More to the point, however, these two contrasts do not merely repeat each other. Rather the first set of contrasts (v18) concern the cause or reason, the second (v19) concerns the result. In this light, it is key to note that while the cause in verse 18 was "to all men" the results in verse 19 are only to "the many." While Adams actions brought condemnation to all, as Christs actions bring salvation to all, verse 19 only says that "many" were made sinners and "many" were made righteous -- a deliberate vagueness that avoids the conclusion of universal salvation. In fact, if universal salvation were the teaching of the Bible, one wonders why Paul would have changed from "all" to "many."
And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
A conclusion of Universal Salvation from this verse is dependant on three assumptions. 1) reconcile in regards to humanity refers to salvation; 2) things refers to us individually, as opposed to humanity in general. 3) all is being used in an absolute sense. The first two are reasonable assumptions, but they are still merely assumptions. As a result, Universal Salvation is at best an inference drawn from the text, not one directly stated in the text. As a general rule, when our inferences drawn from the text differs with the direct statements of the Word of God, it is our inferences that should be questioned.
But the real problem here is that the conclusion of universal salvation depends on taking "all" in an absolute sense. The simple fact is that in both English and Greek "all" does not always mean absolutely ever single one, especially in general statements such as this one. For example, Heb 3:16 states that "Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt?" Here the author is referring to Num 14:2 which says "All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron." Yet it is clear from the passage in Numbers that not literally "all" rebelled/grumbled. Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb were led out by Moses but did not rebel.
Thus when this passages in understood in the context of the rest of the Bible there is not reason to conclude that it teaches universal salvation.
1 Timothy 4:10
(and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.
Here the conclusion of Universal Salvation is based on the conclusion that "Savior of all men" is the same as "will save all men." This is simply a conclusion that does not hold up. That Christ died for the sins of the world and that he offers salvation to all, means he is the Savior of the world. This is not negated by the fact that some will reject his offer of salvation. In short, Christ is savior of the world because of what he did, independent of our response. Thus the conclusion of Universal Salvation is unwarranted.
In addition, however, note that Paul adds "especially of those who believe." This says that in some sense that Jesus is Savior is especially true of those who believe. It is especially true, because not only is Christ their savior because he provides the means of their salvation, (as he does all men), it is especially true because, as a result of their belief they are actually saved. Thus one again the claim that this verse teaches Universal salvation is false.
Thus, as we have seen, of the three main ways that supporters of universal salvation back up their position, none stand up to critical examination. The first is based on the false assumption that we can judge God and determine what he would and would not do. The second is based on a basic misunderstanding of the way language works. And the third draws unwarranted conclusion form Biblical passages.
While God is a god of love, he is also a god of Justice and judgement. Repeatedly the Bible speaks of eternal punishment and contrasts it with eternal life. Nowhere does the Bible say that the wicked will in the end be saved and the verses that are claim to teach universal salvation, when understood in context, are easily understood as fitting in with those that teach eternal punishment. Thus we must reject the ideal of universal salvation, and instead believe the Bible when it says that "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Mt 25:46)