Universalism is the teaching that all people will be saved and that everyone will go to heaven. There are several types of universalism, but “Christian” universalists argue that all people will experience salvation because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, even if they do not believe.
According to universalists, eternal punishment is a false doctrine. In addition to their inclusive view of salvation, universalists are often associated with Unitarianism, which denies the deity of Jesus Christ.
Based on the tenants of universalism, there are many problems with this teaching. Jesus did die for the sins of the world, but each person must receive the gift of salvation by trusting in Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Furthermore, Scripture teaches the reality of the eternal punishment of unbelievers. Consequences also stem from a universalist belief system, which is why it would affect a person’s view of evangelism, discipleship, and missionary work.
Based on their doctrine, there is no legitimate basis for telling others the gospel and making disciples if they are going to be saved already. Hence, universalism downplays Christ’s sacrifice and His words in commanding His followers to make disciples of all nations.
Universalism Is Not Unlimited Atonement
Before discussing the specific arguments of universalists, we need to consider one specific point for clarity. Some theologians have accused proponents of unlimited atonement of being universalists. However, unlimited atonement is different from universalism.
Unlimited or general atonement is the teaching that Jesus died to save all people. Standing in contrast to limited or particular atonement, unlimited atonement argues against the idea that Jesus died only for some people. Scripture affirms that Jesus died for the world and to pay the price for everyone’s sins.
However, proponents of unlimited atonement affirm that people must place their trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection for salvation. People are not “automatically” saved by default. Believing in the gift of salvation is required.
People who identify as “Christian” universalists argue that God desires all people to be reconciled to Himself.
In emphasizing God’s love and mercy, universalists typically diminish His justice and holiness. They see all people as God’s children and that He will eventually bring everyone into a relationship with Himself for eternity.
One of the main verses they use to support this belief is Acts 3:21, which says, “Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”
In this verse and others, such as Matthew 17:11, universalists argue that all things are restored in Jesus, including the salvation of every person. The traditional, ancient view of universalism also argues that angels and demons participate in this universal salvation.
One of the defining marks of universalists is that they argue against eternal punishment. They claim that the Bible has been mistranslated to favor a view of eternal suffering in hell and the lake of fire.
According to universalists, the Greek word “aion” does not refer to eternity or forever. Instead, they would argue that “aion” refers to a specific span of time or age.
Any Bible verses that mention hell or the lake of fire, they claim, refer to a temporary place of purification. Some universalists deny the existence of these places altogether.
Universalism is also known, although not as widely, by its Greek name as apocatastasis. Although many people might think the idea of universalism is fairly new, it has an old origin.
As the Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church says, “It was condemned in the first anathema against Origenism, probably put out by the Council of Constantinople in 543” (E. A. Livingstone, Oxford University).
Men like Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa taught apocatastasis, but the church denounced it. Modern universalists claim that this doctrine was not well-accepted because of the Catholic monopoly and use of the Latin Vulgate Bible.
What the Bible Says
While the teaching of universalism may appeal to many people because of the promise that everyone will experience salvation eventually, there are many biblical problems with this doctrine. Jesus did come to die for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2; John 4:42; Hebrew 2:9).
However, the Bible is clear that people must place their faith in Christ’s death and resurrection to receive salvation (Romans 10:9-11).
John 3:17 says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
If all people were eventually going to be saved, then Christ would not have commanded His followers to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20).
Scripture teaches that people who trust in Jesus will spend eternity with Him (John 3:16), but those who deny Him will die in their sins and spend an eternity separated from God (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9).
God takes sin seriously since the wrong things that humans do are an offense against His holiness and justice (Romans 3:23). Sin separates people from the Lord, physically and spiritually (Isaiah 59:2).
Not only does sin lead to death, but it leads to eternal death (Romans 6:23). Just as Satan will experience everlasting punishment, individuals who deny Jesus will also live forever in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:10,15).
While the Bible is clear about the reality of hell and eternal punishment, the Lord and His followers do not delight in the eternal punishment of unbelievers (Ezekiel 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9). Hence, He has lovingly offered the gift of salvation to all who believe.
He has also entrusted us with the message of the gospel to reach the lost, an urgent task. We cannot force anyone to trust in Jesus and receive eternal life, but we are responsible for telling others the wonderful news of salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Scripture is clear that “there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
What Does ‘Aion’ Mean?
The Greek word transliterated as “aion” has different meanings depending on the context of the verse.
As New Testament Greek scholar, Bill Mounce notes in the definition on his website, “αἰών” (aion) can mean “a period of time of significant character; life; an era; an age,” as well as “illimitable duration, eternity.” Some verses do indicate a span of time, such as 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, 3:18, and Galatians 1:4.
Despite the claims of universalists, there are many instances in Scripture that they cannot attribute to a limited age. For instance, in Matthew 25:46, Jesus says, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (emphasis mine).
In both instances of “eternal” a variation of “aion” is used — “aiōnion.” In the context of this verse, universalists could not consistently claim that the punishment is temporary while the life of believers is eternal.
The same word is used and obviously means eternal, everlasting, and ongoing. Other Bible verses that discuss hell and the lake of fire are also referring to everlasting punishment, such as the eternal torment of Satan, the Antichrist, and the False Prophet (Revelation 20:10).
Why Does This Matter?
Universalism is a growing, popular belief system since it claims that everyone will eventually experience salvation. While there are different variations of universalism, its teachings stem back to the teachings of Origen.
The church condemned apocatastasis (the Greek word for the doctrine), but it found a resurgence in the 18th century and has since influenced both liberal and evangelical theology. Believers need to understand the unbiblical basis of universalism and the doctrine’s ramifications.
If we believe that Jesus died for our sins on the cross and that He was raised to life on the third day to bring us salvation, then we cannot sit passively by and allow people to believe that the condition of their souls is okay.
Scripture teaches that sin leads to death, including eternal punishment. Unless people place their faith in Jesus and receive His offer of grace, then they will die in their sins without hope for eternity, forever separated by God. Our purpose as believers is to make Christ known among a lost and hurting world.
For further reading:
What Do Christians Need to Know about Soteriology?
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/NicoElNino
Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. She holds a BA in Ministry, a MA in Ministry, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing to develop her writing craft. As someone who is passionate about the Bible and faith in Jesus, her mission is to help others learn about Christ and glorify Him in her writing. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.