God: Abounding in Love, Punishing the Guilty (Lecture)

Don Carson explores the Bible’s teaching on heaven and hell, God’s loving mercy and just wrath, in this lecture at The Gospel Coalition’s 2011 National Conference.

For the related panel discussion, click here.


Welcome to this additional session, Grace Abounding in Love and Punishing the Guilty. That’s the way God introduces himself in Exodus 34. He’s full of love and mercy, but he does not hold the guiltless innocent. Let me begin with prayer, and then I will talk for a number of minutes. Then there will be a panel up here that will push some of the discussion a little farther. Let’s pray.

Put a guard on our lips, Lord God, we beg of you, so we may speak what is truth reverently in submission to your most Holy Word with respect and charity toward all yet not flinching from things we sinners find hard sayings in Scripture, learning rather to conform our minds to your most Holy Word. We beg these mercies in Jesus’ name, amen.

In very substantial measure what we’re doing in this session is considering universalism. Everybody knows, of course, the extra session was precipitated in large part by Rob Bell’s recent book, Love Wins. Both the panel and I will be saying some things about that book in due course, but I want to set the stage on a bigger venue, as it were. Rob is the latest exemplar of this position, but it’s not as if he invented it. It’s not as if what he is saying is brand new, so it’s perhaps helpful to paint with a larger brush to begin with.

1. Definitions.

I shall begin with a few clarifying definitions.

A. Universalism is the belief ultimately everyone will be saved, however you understand saved in different religions. Everyone will go to heaven. Everyone will be with God, however it is put. That means if there is a hell.… Some universalists think there is, and some universalists think there isn’t. If there is a hell, it will one day be emptied. The citizens of hell is an empty set, ultimately. This is not to be confused with annihilationism.

B. Annihilationism argues, although there are some who really are rightly assigned to hell, there they may be punished for different lengths of time, but they will ultimately all be utterly destroyed, annihilated. So this is not saying, therefore, they will be saved, transferred from darkness to light after death, a postmortem salvation. It is saying, rather, they will be utterly destroyed, annihilated. That is an important topic, but it’s not one I’m going to spend much time on today.

Beware the attempts to muddy the definition of universalism. Rob says he is not a Universalist if by universalist we mean God somehow imposes his will on people to force everybody to go to heaven whether they want to or not. Of course, if that’s what you mean by universalist, he’s not a universalist, because he doesn’t think God forces his will on anybody. Rather, he thinks love wins. He keeps working at them and working at them until he has them all on his side.

As virtually everyone in the field uses the term, universalism does not refer to the mode or degree of force or attractiveness of God’s love or anything like that. It refers to the result. That is, are there any people who are finally rejected absolutely and eternally, or will everyone be saved? That’s the first thing. We need to be clear about definitions.

2. Theological assertions.

Universalism in the broad discussion usually builds out of several theological assertions. In other words, people assert certain kinds of things to be true about God, reality, sin, and the like. Then out of these assertions, they then draw their inference, their conclusion, that hell itself must become an empty set. Let me list a number of them.

A. Everyone in the world, without exception, is savingly loved by God and is already reconciled to God. The way that plays out is to keep asserting this means there is no wrath anymore hanging over everyone. There is still some form of judgment. We’ll come to that, but at the end of the day, the fundamental wrath has been taken away. It’s gone for everybody equivalently.

B. Because of the wideness of God’s mercy, people from other religions will find their way to heaven, to God, somehow. Some universalists will say in this life, perhaps through the fact that they’ve responded to whatever revelation they’ve received or perhaps they have been saved actually through Christ whether they know it or not.… Universalists vary in what they affirm in this regard.

Some say they may not become saved in this life, but in the life to come they will be saved. Regardless of their background, regardless of what they knew of Jesus before they died, all will finally be saved, and this is credited finally to the wideness of God’s mercy and the fact God is fair in his dealing with human beings where fairness is so often tied to whether or not people have heard about Christ and have had enough information.

C. Initially, the only lost people are those who reject God’s love. In other words, on this view God’s love has already been demonstrated in the cross. All of God’s wrath has been turned aside. That’s not really an issue. The only people, then, who are not saved, as it were, are those who self-consciously reject God’s love.

Some reject God’s love in this life, and therefore, they form a sort of hell for themselves. Some may, at least initially, resist God’s love in the life to come too. Ultimately, the hope is all of them will be won over by the glory and the magnificence of God’s love.

D. Despite their rejection of his love, that does not mean they are unloved. God’s love continues to pursue such people. One can, therefore, at very least hope ultimately everyone will be saved. At this point universalists can be divided into two camps. With someone like Karl Barth, everyone could be saved, but he doesn’t go quite so far as to say everyone will be saved.

With someone like John Hick, everyone will be saved. There’s no question about it, however long it takes. There are some who then sort of waffle between the two positions and say one of those is right, but they’re not quite sure which is.

E. This set of theological commitments invariable teaches other theological things that are not always acknowledged. In other words, the question of universalism is not just about numbers. It’s not just about being orthodox across the whole spectrum and then saying, “But you know we all believe God loves us, and we all believe the cross achieves a great deal,” and so on. All we’re doing is saying it is so powerful we add a few more numbers and eventually everybody is in.

Universalism as I have read it in the literature at least is never merely a question of numbers. It’s always tied to a whole lot of other things that are not always explicitly articulated. Let me explain. This view of God’s love and complete absence of wrath, sooner or later, affects your view of the atonement.

There are any number of people nowadays who want to think of the atonement as not actually setting aside in any sense the wrath of God but somehow conquering sin or conquering death or overcoming evil, but not setting aside the wrath of God, because after all God loves us. Thus the wrath of God, sooner or later, is reduced from the scene, and that gets harder and harder to square with Scripture the more you push it. We’ll look at some texts in due course. I’m merely giving you an overview.

Then this begins to affect also our view of holiness. Instead of such blistering holiness that even the angels of God, who have never fallen into sin, cover their faces before him and cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,” everything gets suffused instead with softer light, and God’s love becomes a little bit more sentimental. They would say richer. I would say it’s becoming impoverished because it is not tied so tightly to holiness.

I don’t think you see the spectacular love of God until you see the spectacular holiness of God. The two actually diminish each other as any one of them is diminished. The more you emphasize holiness and love, the clearer you are beginning to understand how the Bible is put together. If, on the other hand, you diminish one, you inevitably diminish the other one.

If you soften your views of God’s holiness, then what the cross achieved also is a little weakened. If instead you say everyone is saved because of the love of God, pretty soon you’re not only diminishing wrath and thus diminishing the atonement, you are diminishing the very character and glory and integrity of God.

This then is touching other matters as well. We keep speaking of God’s love as if the Bible speaks of God’s love in utterly univocal ways. That is, it always speaks of God’s love in exactly the same way. I’m convinced the Bible speaks of God’s love in a number of different ways depending on context. Context, context, context.

For example, in some evangelical circles, how often do we hear, “God loves everybody just the same”? Is that true or not true? It depends. There are some passages where it is true, and there are some passages where it’s not true, depending on what the focus of the discussion is. Let me back off just a wee bit.

The Bible can speak of God’s love in at least these ways. Sometimes the Bible speaks of God’s providential love. He sends his sun in his rain upon the just and upon the unjust. In that sense God is loving both the just and the unjust in exactly the same way. He’s providential, and Jesus can use that truth in the Sermon on the Mount to say, “So also we ought to love our enemies. We shouldn’t be counting people up that way.”

Then the Bible can speak of God’s love in an intra-Trinitarian context. That is, the Father loves the Son; the Son loves the Father. In that kind of context, God the Father finds the Son lovely. That is to say the love is tied to the loveliness of the object. There is no sin in the Son. The Father is not saying to the Son, “I love you despite what you are.” When the Son loves the Father, he’s not saying, “Well, I love you, heavenly Father, but frankly, I don’t like you a wee bit. You’re a bit of a disappointment.”

He’s not saying anything like that. The Son finds the Father utterly loveable, and indeed this intra-Trinitarian love of God, which is talked about so much in John’s gospel, then is supposed to become the very model and framework in which Christians also learn to love one another. Reread John 17. That’s a second way the Bible speaks of the love of God.

A third way is God’s love is spoken of in a yearning, inviting, passionate, welcoming sort of way. Think, for example, of the prophecy of Hosea, where God dares to depict himself as the almighty cuckold, the ultimate betrayed husband. Though betrayed, he still loves them anyway. He goes after them anyway. “Turn. Turn. Why would you die? The Lord has no pleasure in the death of the wicked.”

Then in the fourth place, sometimes God’s love is spoken of in a particularizing way. “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” In theological terms God’s love is tied to the doctrine of election. Israel itself is chosen before God that way. Reread Deuteronomy 7 and Deuteronomy 10. Why has God chosen Israel? Not because Israel is bigger or more intelligent or mightier, the best of the nations.

“I set my affection on you because I loved you. I loved you because I loved you.” It’s bound up in the mystery, the categories, the mind, the plan, and the sovereignty of God. It’s a wonderful thing, and that is applied equally to God’s choice of believers under the terms of the new covenant. Reread Ephesians, chapter 1.

Then in the fifth place, sometimes God’s love is conditioned by our obedience. We might call that a covenant love or a familial love. There is a sense in which I love my kids, I think, unconditionally. I have a daughter who is in California teaching special education, special needs kids. I have a son who is in Afghanistan. If they were not there, if one was a hooker on the streets of LA and the other was a drug pusher in the streets of New York, I think I’d love them anyway. They’re my kids.

There is some sense in which I love them unconditionally. Yet I have to tell you when they were 18 or 19 and had the car and I said, “Get home by midnight,” if they didn’t get home by midnight, they got in about 10 past and they didn’t have a jolly good reason, they would face the wrath of Dad. That didn’t mean I didn’t love them. In one sense I loved them unconditionally. In another sense my love is contingent upon their obedience.

So in the New Testament, likewise, Jude can say, “Keep yourselves in the love of God,” which turns on obedience. Reread the Ten Commandments. The same sort of thing is said. Do you see? “If you love me, you will keep my commandments, and then I will do such and such.” The alternative, instead, is for judgment or discipline to be poured out in one fashion or another.

All of these ways the Bible has of talking about the love of God. All of them make sense, and it’s easy enough to see how they cohere when you realize, on the one hand, God is sovereign and, on the other hand, he’s personal and interacts with us as persons. If you take any one of those ways of talking about God’s love and then absolutize it, you will make mincemeat of the doctrine of God. You will utterly destroy what the Bible says about God.

You simply cannot take one of them and then absolutize it. If you say, for example, “God loves everybody exactly the same way,” that’s true of the first way the Bible speaks of the love of God, but that makes no sense at all about what the Bible says about election or about contingency and obedience. It just doesn’t make any sense at all.

“God will never love you more than he does right now.” There is a sense in which that’s true. Stretch it backward from before the foundation of the earth. That’s true. There are ways the Bible speaks along those lines. On the other hand, in all the passages where God’s love is contingent upon our obedience, that’s just not quite the way the language works. Do you see?

What has happened with universalists is to take one of these ways, God’s yearning, inviting ways of talking about God, and then absolutize it, and then all the rest of the biblical ways of talking about God are simply written off as if they’re not there. This is horrible exegesis. It’s not bowing to the Word of God.

Moreover, if the text says at some point or other God desires all will be saved, then you attach that to God’s sovereignty and say, “Therefore, eventually everybody will be saved because God is sovereign,” without asking how many ways there are in which the Bible talks also of different ways of speaking of his desires, his will.… In some cases the Bible speaks of his will in decorative terms. That is, what he wills he decrees, and it happens whether you like it or not.

In other times it’s speaking of God’s desire, and this too is because, on the one hand, God is sovereign and, on the other hand, he’s personal, and that’s why the Bible happily speaks of both ways. If you absolutize things merely to make the answers turn out the way you want them to, pretty soon you have a horribly diminished view of what the Bible says about God. There are other doctrines that are affected, but let me press on.

F. In our present time and place in history we feel pressure from the culture to find universalism attractive. There is so much pressure to reduce any truth content in religion and make it all a matter of subjective commitment. If you reduce truth content, then there are no hard edges. You have your opinion. I have my opinion, and this fits into the contemporary view of tolerance. To be really good is to be tolerant in the sense you never say anybody else is wrong.

There are huge pressures along the line in our culture to shape our theology that way, but if there is truth in Christianity.… Although, there is more than truth: There’s relationship. There’s faith. There’s trust. There’s hope. There’s aspiration. There’s affection. Yet if there is truth, that’s angular. That’s nonnegotiable. It’s the truth.

At that point the way tolerance ought to look is like this. The way tolerance has looked for centuries in the past is like this. It’s not a refusal to say somebody else is wrong; it’s an admission: “We see things differently all right. Somebody is right and somebody is wrong, but I don’t use the coercion of the state to crush you because you’re wrong.” That still remains tolerant.

The famous saying long attributed to Voltaire, although I’m not sure he ever said it, “I may detest what you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was connected to tolerance for a long period of time, but nowadays to say you detest what somebody else is saying is already a mark of intolerance. Do you see?

So there are pressures in our culture to reduce the truth content of Scripture and then simply dismiss people by saying they’re intolerant or narrow-minded or right wing or bigoted or whatever, without actually engaging the truth question at all. That is really sad and, on the long haul, horribly dangerous. Those are my first two points. The rest I’ll cover much more quickly.

3. Despite frequent claims to the contrary, universalism is a late distortion of Scripture.

In other words, a lot of people say universalism has always been part of the Christian tradition. An essay I warmly recommend to you is by Richard Bauckham, “Universalism: A Historical Survey.” You can find it on the web. It’s on the Gospel Coalition website.

One of the things Bauckham does is simply track out these claims that this has always been part of one stream of the Christian tradition. He points out very decisively, in fact, it really became part of Western Christianity in the nineteenth century. Before that it is virtually unknown. It is at no point in the mainstream.

If somebody says, “Yes, but what about Origen?” Yes, if by Christian tradition you mean everybody who has ever claimed the name of Christ, whether belonging to the mainstream of confessional truth through the ages, whether condemned as a heretic or not by anybody, but just somewhere connected with the Christian heritage, then obviously it’s a part of the Christian tradition.

So also is the denial of the deity of Christ. After all, the early church condemned Origen, considered him a false teacher on many fronts, and they condemned Arius, who taught Christ was not truly divine, on many fronts. We could say in this loose talking of the Christian tradition Jehovah’s Witnesses and their Christology are part of the Christian tradition. In the broadest sense I suppose you could talk that way, but then words are being used to manipulate us.

There is simply nowhere in the broad stream of genuine confessional Christianity that Arius has been applauded, and the same has to be said about Origen’s view of universalism. This is something that is not part of the wide track of the Christian tradition. If you want to see more specifically whether or not Luther can be claimed for universalism, I recommend to you warmly the blog by Carl Trueman on the Reformation 21 website. It’s very, very good indeed.

4. Biblical texts.

Let me come to a number of frequently cited biblical texts that are sometimes thought to defend and justify universalism. This cannot possibly be an exhaustive list, but a handful won’t hurt. Let’s begin with 2 Corinthians, chapter 5, verse 18. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.” Here you have the whole world reconciled to God, don’t you?

Yet in the context the word world is not being used for “everybody without exception,” but something like “everybody without distinction,” Jews and Gentiles alike. God’s saving grace is cast very, very broadly indeed. It pulls in men and women from many, many places. Meanwhile, a little earlier in the chapter, it’s very clear because we know the anger of the Lord, the righteousness of the Lord, we proclaim the truth because only by this truth will people be saved.

Again, in Romans, chapter 5, verse 18, we read, “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all.” So it is argued if all are condemned, and transparently all are, and now all are justified, then surely those two uses of all refer to the same locus of people.

Therefore, if all are condemned equally, all must finally be justified and saved. Again, I beg of you to look at the broader context. Don’t just pull a text out of the context. My daddy used to teach me a text without a context is a pretext for a proof text. You just have to see what the argument is.

In the argument in the passage, what you’re dealing with is two humanities, the humanity in Adam where all are lost and the humanity in Christ where all are saved. In both cases all fall under that rubric. Did you see? The whole context is building this contrast between two different humanities, not saying the all in both instances includes exactly the same circle of individuals. Again, it’s not very accurate interpretation of Scripture.

Here’s another one. This one is frequently cited as well. In John, chapter 12, we read verses 31 to 33. After a voice from heaven has spoken and Jesus says this voice was for the benefit of the hearers, “ ‘Now is the time for judgment; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.”

Does this mean his love finally draws all people, both in this life and in the life to come? If you take the passage out of context, I suppose you could draw that as an inference. Again, look at the passage. What precipitates this discussion? What happens in the context of John 12 is at some point in Jesus’ ministry some Gentiles try to get to him.

Jesus at this point has been preaching to Jews, to the sons of Abraham. That’s the locus of his ministry. Now the Gentiles come to him, and he knows somehow, presumably as a signal from his own heavenly Father, this is precipitating now the cross. The next stage is the cross. That is because the Gentiles cannot really approach him now as Jews do within the framework of the covenant history, but they are going to approach him only on the basis of the cross.

In that framework he says, “The time has come. The hour is here. I will draw all to myself.” What he means again clearly in the context is not Jews alone. There is a new covenant that is being established, and it will draw in Jews and Gentiles, all human beings from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation, as the Apocalypse puts it. There will be one new humanity in Christ, as Ephesians puts it.

The reason I mention those three verses in particular is because they are touted as verses that could be taken to defend universalism. In the latest review in Christianity Today on this particular book, all are cited as if they could genuinely be taken as a biblical justification for universalism.

Again, that old essay by Richard Bauckham is worth thinking about again. He not only says universalism is not really known anywhere in the mainstream of the Christian heritage until the nineteenth century, he also says the exegetical arguments that have been used to defend universalism have all been trumped. People shouldn’t use them anymore. They’ve all been shown not to work, and to trot out these verses as if they are somehow decisive in favor of universalism really, sadly, is simply not listening very well to the Word of God.

More explicitly, Rob Bell on the Prodigal Son says the parable of the prodigal son gives us, as it were, two stories. One story is by the Prodigal himself. He squandered his fortune. He doesn’t deserve to take up a place in the father’s house. He doesn’t deserve to be called God’s son. That’s the Prodigal’s story, but the father’s story is the father himself would never stop loving his son and would welcome him back.

The point of the parable is to stop believing the son’s story and start accepting the father’s story. Our sins under this view are, to quote his words, “simply irrelevant.” I strongly recommend, as an alternative reading of the Prodigal Son, that you read Tim Keller’s book, The Prodigal God, which casts the entire thing in a slightly different way.

In any case, what is so remarkable about the son’s return is, although he is accepted by the father, he is returning with repentance and brokenness, and you cannot really understand that parable in any case unless you see the older son is equally condemned by his self-righteousness and his feeling of his own adequacy. The text says much about the prodigality of God’s love. It does not say so much about who finally will be saved. There are other examples, but I’ll just give one more; I have a long list here.

Several authors quote Revelation 21:25, where the gates of the New Jerusalem are never shut day or night. If they’re never shut day and night, surely that means some people could get in even from hell. Do you see? That means it’s going to be really difficult to understand Revelation, chapter 20, verse 15, where people are cast into the lake of fire.

Moreover, the symbolism of the gates open day and night in the context is not talking about whether or not people can still get in there postmortem. In the ancient world the gates were shut at night as defense against outside attackers, against dangers, against predators, against marauders, and so on.

To have the gates open day and night is not talking about how many people are finally going to get saved. It’s saying in the new heaven and the new earth there are no dangers anymore. There aren’t any marauders out there to come and get us. That’s what it’s signifying. Once again, the conclusion is controlling, I’m afraid, the exegesis.

5. Handling of the atonement.

I have to say this. To my mind it’s the most painful part of this business. The handling of the atonement itself in most discussions of universalists is deeply manipulative. I say it with respect. I say it with brokenness, but it is blasphemous. You just have to say it. You simply cannot talk about the cross in such slighting, denunciatory, cheapening, belittling ways.

“He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities.” “He was made sin for us, he who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” “God set him forth to be the propitiation for our sins, that God might be just and the One who justifies the ungodly.” “He bore our sins in his own body on the tree.”

It will not do to say, “Yes, but there are only three or four instances where the word propitiation is used,” because the doctrine of substitutionary penal atonement does not turn on one word. Behind the various words used is the massive structure of the Old Testament. That’s one of the reasons why this topic is tied into this conference, because in the Old Testament …

Begin, for example, with the Passover. You could begin a lot earlier than that, but begin with Passover. What is the Passover about? Because of the God-ordained sprinkling of the blood of the lamb on the two doorposts and the lintel, God, through his angel of destruction, passes over. That is celebrated year after year until we hear the apostle Paul saying Christ, our Passover, has been crucified for us. He has been sacrificed for us.

That is, because of Christ the wrath of God has passed over us. He has taken what should have come to us. Think of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, where the high priest once a year takes the blood of bull and goat and goes behind the veil and presents it before God, sprinkling it on the ark of the covenant. This, to turn aside the judgment of God, both for his own sins and for the sins of the people year after year, was understood. That was taught.

Hebrews picks up the theme and says, “Don’t you understand the ultimate Yom Kippur has happened in the cross? Don’t you see that?” You don’t have to use the word propitiation to talk about penal substitutionary atonement. Please, if you are amongst the universalists and you think those of us who see things a little differently are wrong, we don’t mind if you say pretty demeaning things about us, but I beg of you, do not say demeaning things about the cross.

Moreover, to talk, as many people do, about models of the atonement is corrupting just a wee bit. I know what is meant. There is a sense in which this language can be used. The Bible speaks of what the cross achieves along a number of different axes. That’s correct. One model of the atonement is penal substitution. Another model of the atonement is moral. It’s a model of something or other.

There’s the Christus Victor theme in which Christ overcomes the enemy. He overcomes death, darkness, and the like. There are other models as well. When people start talking of the models of the atonement, very frequently what they begin to do after a while is say, “Since there are these different models of the atonement in church history and in the Bible itself, pick your model, whatever it is. It doesn’t matter. Just pick your model.” That’s not the right way to approach models.

Rather, the right way to approach models is to say something like, “If these are taught by Scripture, how do we integrate them?” not, “How do we turn them aside and pick one?” You do not have the right to take the various ways the Bible speaks of the cross and then choose only one and mock the rest. Jesus says a great deal about hell. The book of Revelation describes hell in graphic terms. When we’re done, you might well read Revelation 14. Then more powerful yet, consider these words from Revelation 20.

“Fire came down from heaven and devoured the beast. The devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them.

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne. The books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and everyone was judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.”

It is not for nothing that in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus we are told there is a great gulf fixed between heaven and hell so none can pass from the one to the other. Hell is not filled with people who want to get out. They don’t want to be there, but I don’t think there’s a scrap of biblical suggestion that people in hell repent.

The rich man in hell does not repent. In fact, he still is abusing Lazarus by the form of his speech. He still is correcting Abraham’s theology. He still thinks he’s at the center of the universe. He wants some relief for his friends back home, but at the end of the day, there is not a sense of repentance.

You must not think of hell as a place where people are saying, “Oh, now I get it. Your love has finally conquered. Please forgive me. I’d like another chance.” It’s filled with people, rather, who for all eternity are so self-focused they cannot even there stop trying to be God for themselves, an endless cycle of sin and rebellion and curse, world without end. We know the only solution to this. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those are the stakes at issue, brothers and sisters.