Volume 4 - Issue 2

‘Shall you not surely die?’

By Edwin A. Blum

In the book of Genesis, the penalty for sin is stated as death. God Himself announces, ‘you shall surely die’ (2:17). But the serpent tells the woman, ‘You shall not surely die’ (3:4). In the progressive revelation in the Bible, there has been widespread agreement that the death involved in the penalty for sin is both physical and spiritual. The spiritual death is the separation and alienation from God which sin causes. The physical death is not immediate, but it is the inevitable result of sin. The physical death is not nearly so significant as the spiritual death, but it is an important objective, visible divine object lesson for men. It teaches men in the physical realm what happens in the corresponding and connecting spiritual realm.

Jesus in His revelation of the Father’s will warns men of the consequences of sin and announces that He is the solution to the great problem of human sin. He has come to bring life and union with the Father. The message of the gospel is that by His Death, Burial and Resurrection, He provides forgiveness of sin, justification before the divine law, propitiation of the wrath of God, and reconciliation with the Father. Yet the benefits of His work are not automatically conferred on all men, for the great stress of the New Testament is that men must hear the gospel and must believe it.

The last book of the Bible warns that the rejection of the way to life leads to a ‘second death’ (Rev. 2:11, 20:11–15, 21:5–8). The terrible destiny of those who rebel against God or the unbelievers is the ‘second death’ or ‘the lake of fire’ (20:14). In popular language, it is often called ‘going to hell’. Dante in his Divine Comedy, reports a sign at the top of the gate at the entrance to hell: ‘Leave every hope, ye who enter’.1 In some circles, it is becoming increasingly popular to deny the teaching of eternal punishment of sin and to adopt some form of universalism.

This article will argue that the God of love will punish the unbeliever with eternal separation from Himself. The other articles in this issue must do the work necessary to show that the teaching of the church has been consistent in affirming the eternal lostness of the ungodly. They must also carry the weight to demonstrate that all compromise solutions (purgatory, limbo, annihilationism, conditional immortality, second chance views, ultimate restorationism, agnosticism, etc.) are wrong exegetically and theologically. The assignment for this article is to deal with the problem of universalism from the viewpoint of apologetics.

Apologetics deals with the defense of Christianity. However there is considerable difference among Christians on the task and method of the discipline. For some it is a philosophical skill and practice. For others it is a kind of Systematic Theology. Barth once said, ‘Apologetics takes unbelief too seriously and it does not take faith seriously enough.’ Along the same line, Ned Stonehouse remarked that an exposition of the truth cannot fail to be a defense of the truth at the same time. The relevance of this position to the current set of articles needs to be explored a bit. If the exegetical, historical and systematic articles demonstrate clearly that Christ taught eternal punishment of some and that the teaching of the Scriptures is plainly against universalism, then what is the need of apologetics? But what if the Scriptures are not clear on this issue? (a position which I do not hold). Could apologetics make clear what the Scripture does not? Should Christians take a position on so crucial an issue if the text is not specific? I think that the proper answer is no in both cases.

Perhaps apologetics could provide additional support for the doctrines of the Bible. But if the Scriptures are clear, do we need any other support? Is not the very seeking of additional support a betrayal of the Christian’s confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture? Some Christians would so argue. For myself, apologetics, among other things, seeks to engage in argumentation with issues and questions which the Scripture does not explicitly cover. Yet, apologetics should not remove itself too far from Scripture. The Christian is called to give a defense of his faith which is ultimately grounded in Jesus Christ and His Word and not primarily in a philosophical discourse removed from Scripture. So with these presuppositions, we proceed to examine some of the issues often raised by universalists.

How do universalists defend their views? Nels Ferre strongly advocates the position.2 His defense rests on: (1) the sovereign love of God witnessed to by the Cross and Resurrection; (2) the logic of the Bible—‘who will have all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:3–4) and ‘With God nothing shall be impossible’ (Luke 1:37); and (3) ‘the New Testament itself, the existential source-book (not the literal textbook) of Christian doctrine, contains three teachings on the subject’.3 He gives the three as ‘eternal damnation’ … in some passages, ‘annihilation is also there’ and ‘God’s final victory is also stated’. Only the last view is fully and finally consistent with God as agape, according to Ferre, and the other positions are in the Bible ‘because preaching is existential’.4

In reply to the views of Ferre, we would make the following apologetic. The idea that the New Testament contains three contradictory views of man’s final destiny is open to several criticisms. The dominant exegesis of the NT does not agree with this idea. The historical analysis of Jewish opinion on the subject at the time of the NT era does not support the notion. The adoption of a view which admits three contradictory teachings in Scripture goes against the church’s historical position that the Scripture is authoritative in all its parts. It also means that any kind of Systematic Theology is almost impossible because synthesis is part of the essence of systematics.

The idea that certain teachings are in the Scriptures for their existential relevance and are not to be taken in a ‘literal’ or normal language way leads to all kinds of difficulties. If God is the Source of the Scriptures, how can he ethically originate teachings which are in fact not true? How can the ‘ultimate triumph teaching’ (universalism) be taken seriously? If the first two views are non-literal, then perhaps the third is also non-literal. The idea of scaring people with notions that God knows to be untrue even if it results in a good end is unworthy of God (cf. Rom. 3:8 on the condemnation of the philosophy of ‘Let us do evil that good may come’).

The universalist appeal to a text like 1 Timothy 2:3, 4 ‘who will have all men to be saved’ must be referred to the New Testament scholars for detailed exegesis. However, the following observations are pertinent: (1) the Greek word thelo (‘will’) is commonly translated ‘wish’ or ‘desire’. (2) Theologians often make a distinction between God’s desire and God’s decree. (3) The book of 1 Timothy clearly teaches that some will depart from the faith (4:1–3) with no indication of their restoration. (4) The statement occurs as an encouragement to pray. So the passage strongly urges prayer because God is gracious and merciful, and His desire is for all men to cease their sin and rebellion and turn to Jesus as Saviour. The character of God is such that He takes no delight in the death of the wicked. As Ezekiel prophesied, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of anyone—it is the Lord Yahweh who speaks. Repent and live!’ (Jerusalem Bible, Ezek. 18:32, cf. 18:1–32).

The major argument of the universalists is from the love of God. Since God is love, it is argued that this love cannot be eternally frustrated. Ultimately, this love will win out by God’s sovereignty. As John Hick states it, ‘It seems morally impossible that the infinite resourcefulness in unlimited time should be eternally frustrated, and the creature reject its own good presented to it in an endless range of ways.5 Or again, ‘For if there are finally wasted lives and finally unredeemed sufferings, either God is not perfect in love, or He is not sovereign in rule over His creation.’6

There are a number of ways in which Christians have argued against the particular stress on sovereign love in universalism. A Calvinist might reply on the basis of the teaching of particular love. For example, the Scriptures reveal a special love which God grants. In the case of the nation Israel, it was chosen in love by God while other nations were destroyed (Deut. 7:1–8). Arminians have often argued that God in His sovereignty has permitted real free will, and thus it is possible for a creature to irrationally choose against the Creator. Barth stressed the freedom of God’s love so that to say God must in love save all is to deny His freedom.

The strongest arguments against the sovereign love stress in universalism are a criticism of the universalist’s definitions of sovereign love in God. The typical universalist definition of God’s love is too anthropocentric. It assumes God’s love is greater and fuller in the salvation of all men.7 But the Triune God has within Himself a perfect love which is not added to in the relations He has with His creatures. The argument of the universalist assumes an increase in the perfection of God’s love if all mankind is saved. But if God is love, the perfection of His love in universalist thought comes only in creation and redemption. In this way of thought, God’s perfection in His being is bound up with His creation and thus His aseity or absolute independence is compromised. This kind of a god bound to his creation can only be a sophisticated idol of the human mind.

Along with the fallacy of an anthropocentric definition of God’s love is the related fallacy which ‘assumes that men are autonomous beings who stand “out there” with some integrity of their own and to whom God may or may not direct his love’.8 But since men are creatures and are not autonomous, their value, meaning and integrity stem only from God. Without Him and apart from Him, they are nothing. The idea that God could be ‘eternally frustrated’ by the lack of response from ‘nothing’ is impossible.

Against universalism it can also be pointed out that of the creation with which we are familiar, salvation is extended to humans (some) but not apparently to animals nor angels. With animals, it could be argued that they do not have a ‘soul’ or a spirit, that they do not sin and thus no salvation is needed. But in the case of angels, sin is revealed (Rev. 12:7–9; John 8:44) and no salvation is indicated. Logically, universalists should argue that the fallen angels and Satan will be saved by the sovereign love of God. This again goes clearly against the revelation in Scripture. If the Scripture on so basic an issue can be set aside, then where can the universalist find his source for his teaching on the love of God? The gift of salvation to believers is in principle no different than the gift of salvation to mankind and not angels. Both involve a particularism.

Further, it can be argued that the purpose of God is not limited or bound to soteriology in Scripture. The purpose of God in relation to mankind is also revelational to other creatures. Texts such as Ephesians 3:10 indicate through the church the manifold wisdom of God is being made known ‘to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’. In the just punishment of sin in angels and men, God’s wrath and power are also being revealed. The notion of an eternally frustrated God is far from the Biblical revelation. Instead, our minds are staggered by the cosmic dimensions of the issues which are involved. With a modern understanding of the vastness of the universe, our conception of the greatness of God and the colossal implications of the Incarnation should likewise be expanded.

Less speculative and more pointed against universalism is the criticism that sin, history and human decision do not receive their biblical emphasis. T. F. Torrance claims that universalism ‘commits the dogmatic fallacy of systematising the illogical’.9 Sin has a mysterious irrational quality to it. Thus to Torrance, for a universalist to ‘solve’ by reason the contradiction introduced by sin and to dogmatically assert universalism, reveals a foolish wisdom of the world which needs the humility of the Cross.10 More to the point is that in universalism sin loses its exceeding sinfulness. Men are so affected by sin that we all trivialize it. Too often sin is seen as ignorance or the result of human finitude. The enormity of sin can only be partially grasped in the light of the colossal Sovereign who framed the universe by His will. Yet in the mystery of iniquity, men and angels have set themselves to do their will and not His. The contradiction caused by sin is solved only in the Incarnation of the Son of God who suffers the agony of the Cross and is made sin in the place of the sinner. Universalism trivializes sin by effectively denying that sin deserves punishment. If sin deserves infinite punishment, then no sinner has a claim to salvation based on sovereign love. If sin does not deserve infinite punishment, the biblical revelation of the Death of the Son of God is trivialized. What was the necessity of the Cross?

Human time and history lose much of their significance in universalism. In the biblical revelation, a man’s life and decisions are crucial for destiny. In universalism, there is always more time and another era for personal decision. In Christianity, ‘Now is the acceptable time, behold now is the day of salvation’ (2 Cor. 6:2). The saying of Jesus concerning Judas, ‘It would have been good for that man if he had not been born’ (Matt. 26:24) is grounded on the biblical understanding of the significance of a man’s decision in time and history. The choice of good or evil loses its cutting edge when the results are ultimately a good destiny in either case. How does morality fare in a universalist system? Certainly one could probably find universalists who live more attractive lives than some believers in eternal punishment. However, the logic of the position that all will be saved without regard to faith or life reduces the value of both.

The classic doctrine of justification by faith in universalism is no longer the article by which the church stands or falls. The biblical stress on the nature and necessity of faith in Jesus is bypassed. About ninety times in his Gospel, John exhorts men to believe in Jesus in order to come to life (John 20:30–31). Universalists often claim that they believe in preaching the gospel, but is the motive for evangelism and world missions still present and strong? What is the significance of the future Judgment if all will be saved? (cf. Acts 17:30–34).

The considerations argued above seek to show that the issues involved in the conflict with universalism are not peripheral but central to the Christian faith. The major apologetic against universalism must be that it is unbiblical and therefore unchristian. Its major defense (‘sovereign love’) comes not from exegesis of biblical texts but from an idea of love which has a humanistic orientation. A minor apologetic seeks to show that attempted theodicy by universalists creates far more problems than it solves. Finally, if the universalist position would turn out in the end to be correct, no lasting damage would have been done. But if the issues are as Jesus and the Christian church have proclaimed, the momentous nature of the decision concerning Christ’s sacrifice is apparent. The choice is then—life or death.

1 Canto III: 1–9.

2 See his book, The Christian Understanding of God or his summary in ‘Universalism: Pro and Con’, Christianity Today, March 1st, 1963, p. 540.

3 Christianity Today, March 1st, 1963, p. 540.

4 Ibid.

5 John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (London: Collins/Fontana), 1975, p. 380.

6 Ibid., p. 376.

7 Cf. the helpful analysis of Joseph Dabney Bettis, ‘A Critique of the Doctrine of Universal Salvation’ in Religious Studies 6: 329–344.

8 Bettis, p. 336.

9 T. F. Torrance, ‘Universalism or Election?’ Scottish Journal of Theology (2: 310–318) p. 313.

10 Ibid., p. 314.

Edwin A. Blum

Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, Texas