Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Universalist Story is Not a Realistic Story (Annihilationism vs. Universalism)

This post can be read on its own, but it also is the second in a series on What’s Wrong with the Universalist Story. In the first post, I showed that the Universalist story goes wrong because it has the wrong ultimate goal. In this post, I seek to explain how and why the Universalist story in not realistic.

Redemption plays an important part in many of the stories we love. Take the Star Wars saga for example. Darth Vader is saved in the end and turns back to the light.  That resonates with us because redemption is a part of the true story, God’s story, that we are all a part of.  But what if not only Darth Vader, but the evil Emperor, and every storm trooper, and all the other bad guys, turned good at the end.  The movie would have flopped! It’s not realistic.

But is universal redemption not being realistic just our human opinion and feelings, or is there a Biblical basis for thinking that a story where every single person is redeemed in the end does not align with reality? The Bible confirms our intuition that not everyone will be redeemed.

The Bible shows that some people will rebel against God no matter how much revelation He gives them.

The Bible reveals that some will choose rebellion against God no matter what.  Here are some examples:

* In Moses’ day, the Israelites saw numerous amazing signs and wonders in Egypt and in the wilderness.  Huge, public miracles were a regular part of their lives.  But most of them still rebelled and died in the desert.

* When Jesus walked the earth, He did many astounding miracles in public. Dead coming back to life, blind people seeing, people crippled from birth dancing, and more, were all seen by many. He preached and practiced love and mercy.  Many repented and followed Him.  But others, seeing the same miracles, plotted to kill Jesus.

* In Revelation we read about the thousand year reign.  However you interpret it, in the vision John sees the devil is locked away during this thousand years.  Jesus reigns over the earth with justice and blessings for all.  Yet, even after a thousand years of this glorious reign of Christ, huge numbers of people choose to rebel against Jesus when the thousand years are up.

* More amazing still, Adam and Eve started off in a perfect paradise.  The devil could lie to them, but there is no evidence he could harm them.  They chose to listen to the serpent and disobey God.

* Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the devil started off as a good angel living in a perfect Heaven in the bright light of God’s truth and love.  Without any source of evil in his world, the devil chose to rebel.  He took many of the angels with him.

The point is simply this:  in the Bible’s grand story, we see time and time again that some of God’s creatures will choose to rebel against Him if they are allowed to.  This rebellion has brought massive suffering and loss to this current earth.  And if these people were allowed to live in the New Earth, there is no reason to believe they would not ruin it as well.

The Universalist responds to all this by suggesting that if they were given enough time, everyone would eventually repent and accept God’s grace. In this sense, Universalists are a bit like those who believe in unguided evolution.  They hope that a lot of time can make something happen that usually doesn’t happen. But based on biblical principles, we can see why more time, even eternal time, will not help the unrighteous come to God. In fact, more time only makes things worse.

The Bible teaches that over time sinners get worse, their minds become darker, and their hearts become harder.

The Universalist imagines a situation where God patiently continues working with the unrighteous for however long it takes for them to be saved.  Some Universalists specifically imagine this happening after the unrighteous have died and been consigned to the lake of fire.  But does the Bible indicate that God will put up with and contend with the unrighteous for however long it takes?  Actually, no.

NIV Genesis 6:3 Then the LORD said, "My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years."

Genesis chapter 5 reports people living for seven, eight, and even nine hundred years. God, in His perfect wisdom and righteousness, decided that was too long a time for Him to work with people, so He announced that our life spans would be reduced to a hundred and twenty years.  This does not fit very well with the Universalist narrative.

But why would God do that? I’m sure it’s not due to any defect or lack on God’s part.  I think a more likely explanation is that waiting longer than about 120 years for someone to respond to God in the right way is not effective.  God designed us so that the decisions we make not only change the environment around us, but also change our hearts and our minds.  This good design enables us to learn and grow in Christ when we are following God.  However, when people sin, their thinking becomes increasingly futile and their hearts become increasingly hard.

Romans 1:21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.
 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools

Those who do evil tend to get worse, not better, over time:

NIV 2 Timothy 3:12 In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,
13 while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.

It may very well be that God limited his efforts to win people to 120 years because by that point (and for many people, sooner) they have become so foolish, hardened, and deceived that there is no hope of their freely choosing to love Him.  They have become fools as described in Proverbs:

NIV Proverbs 1:7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.

NIV Proverbs 13:19 A longing fulfilled is sweet to the soul, but fools detest turning from evil.

NIV Proverbs 27:22 Though you grind a fool in a mortar, grinding them like grain with a pestle, you will not remove their folly from them.

It’s not that God has stopped loving them.  It’s just that they reach a point where they despise instruction, detest turning from evil, and resist all efforts to remove evil from them so strongly that they can no longer be saved.  Of course, God could override their wills, but if He wants them to love Him freely then that option is off the table.  The kindest thing He can do for them is to utterly destroy them.  Allowing them to live on in misery and darkness is unthinkable.

This would certainly explain why God assigned a mighty angel to guard the tree of life after expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.  Giving sinners many thousands of years of life, or worse, eternal life, would only result in greater misery.

In this post I have tried to explain why the Universalist idea that everyone could be saved if they were given a combination of the right evidence and enough time is unrealistic.  Being unrealistic is only one of many problems which plague the Universalist metanarrative.  A more fundamental problem is that the unsaved cannot repent in Hell, because in Hell they perish, die, are destroyed in body and soul, and are burned to ashes.  Lord willing, I’ll discuss this more in another post.

Hebrews 13:16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others . . .


  1. Excellent article!Also in Rom.1:28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. (God knows our heart, He knows if we love Him or not, if we love Him, we will only want to do those things that are pleasing to Him).

    1. Thanks for you encouragement, Dee. And yes, Romans 1:28 does add additional evidence that more time will not help those who have hardened their hearts against God after a certain point. This motivates all of us to feel an urgency to take risks, make sacrifices, and work hard to share God's love and truth with people before it is too late!

  2. I think you're going to find yourself in a pickle of incoherence with this kind of thinking. Everyone is totally stuck and totally hardened unless God steps in and removes the barrier of sin by his Grace. God is the author and finisher of all faith. God did this with you. God did this with me. God can do this with anyone. God's arm is never too short to rescue, the only barrier is sin, and God is always capable of removing that sin. No will is more stubborn than God is powerful and able.

    These yield very simple Biblical syllogisms and they don't "work" with what you're saying. All Biblical phrases about being cut off and sliced away are subordinate to the new eschatology that rides along with Christ's conquest of death itself. A very simple arithmetic exercise is to read Ezekiel 18:23-24 and the add Christ's conquest of death itself.

    It's important to avoid "Jonah's error." Jonah was awful, rebellious, and impotent to save himself. But he was redeemed by the Grace of God (reminder: You were awful, rebellious, and impotent to save yourself, but you were redeemed by the Grace of God). Jonah then adopted an entitled attitude that a number of other folks were awful, rebellious, impotent to save themselves... *and thus should be beyond redemption.* Jonah's amnesiatic self-righteousness made him conceited and vindictive, an attitude against which Romans chs. 11 and 12 were written.

    Romans 11:23

    "And if they [those who fell] do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again."

    Romans 14:10-11

    "As surely as I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will fully confess to God."

    1. Stan, I think that you are arguing for something like a Calvinistic Universalism. Is that right? (I'm honestly trying to see if I understand what you're saying.)

      One of the reasons I do not believe that the Bible teaches such a view is that Jesus told us that many will in fact end up experiencing destruction:

      Matthew 7: 13 "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.
      14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

    2. I advocate for purgatorial (near-)universalism, where only some will be saved from God's wrath (Romans 5:9) which is destructive and "lossy" (Luke 9:25) but destroys incisively as a salt-fire (Mark 9:48-50). This comports with the primarily purgatorial view of Gehenna held by the Pharisaic Jews, and is the kind of universalism we find among early Christians (that is, we find purgatorial hell belief in the patristics alongside, or in "friendly contest" with, as Augustine might say, beliefs in endless hell and obliterating hell). Under purgatorialism the "life" is not strict perpetuity, but rather the Messianic Age-Life of knowing God through Christ, defined euphemistically in John 17:3 (and used that way in 1 John). Meanwhile, perpetuity is a byproduct of the conquest of death itself (and the return of the Tree of Life). At this time I am not asserting these things but am merely describing them, forgive me if it comes across too assertive.

      (I have a strong view of sovereignty but that shouldn't be germane here -- there's no conflict between purgatorial universalism and any view of free will. I am not a Calvinist and find fault with some of their affirmations.)

    3. Stan, thanks for explaining your view. That clears things up.

      A major challenge for your view is that it requires defining words the Bible uses to mean things other than the normal, simple meaning of those words. Conditional Immortality and Annihilationism view "death" as meaning "death" in the simple way that people all over the world understand "death". Even children have seen dead bugs and dead animals. Thus, God's warning of death is illustrated all around us. We also believe "perish" means "perish", and we believe that images such as being burned to ashes may very well be 100% literal, or at the very least are an apt image for what will happen.

    4. This isn't really a major challenge because the eschatological senses of terms were not treated as straightforward under Pharisaic Judaism. Annihilation only appears obvious if it is taken for granted that these terms 'ought' to be taken in a straightforward way, and this is a heuristic assumption, nothing more. The impasses between purgatorialism and annihilationism boil down to heuristics and methodology that each camp brings to the table, and there's no "objective referee" saying one set of heuristics/methodology is 'better' than the other.

  3. ...Mark, you said, "A major challenge for your view is that it requires defining words the Bible uses to mean things other than the normal, simple meaning of those words. "

    What simple meaning? Simple ENGLISH meanings?

    Mark, if the bible were inspired and penned in 21st century English, you might have a valid point here, but this is not a challenge for anyone who goes to the Hebrew and Greek to better understood the INSPIRED and thus INTENDED meaning. How do we know what was intended? First, we should study how Scripture entirely as it gives witness to itself in the use of a word of phrase and this often contradicts what modern theology tells us, second, we can see how the contemporary usage of a word was used at the time these documents were written to best determine the actual meaning.

    As Stan points out, your conflict with a patriarchal Universalist understanding is an interpretive difference, it is NOT a matter of "believing what is written".

    Also, being "perished" is the same Greek word used for LOST and DESTROYED in the Greek....these are all conditions are ones of being alienated from Christ in the mind/heart (Col 1:21 / Eph 4:8) (dying in sin means to die NOT KNOWING GOD)'s missing out on "everlasting life" which is strictly, "not knowing" God- Jhn 17:3).

    This is important and it matters, but it's not eternal doom....Eternal life is not "living forever", meaning not having it does not mean the opposite...mortal death is hardly an eternal impediment to God, who has the keys to hell (Hades) and death, who destroyed the work of the devil on the cross and won't honor it existing as a permanent stain on His creation...I submit to you, brother, that Jesus won't use them lock the gates from the inside, but bust them wide them....if we look at the witness of Jesus, especially Jesus on the cross who DIED for the ungodly, there can be no other outcome that would give God more glory.

    I hope you will consider this Mark; God bless you.

    1. Brett wrote:
      //Mark, if the bible were inspired and penned in 21st century English, you might have a valid point here, but this is not a challenge for anyone who goes to the Hebrew and Greek to better understood the INSPIRED and thus INTENDED meaning. //

      We are blessed with excellent English translations of the Bible. An English speaking Christian can study any of the major translations (NIV, ESV, CSB, etc.) and learn God’s truth and be encouraged by His promises and inspired by Bible stories. They can be confident in these translations, although this does not mean such translations are perfect. It is dangerous to imply that Christians that do not have the ability to study the Bible in Greek and are seriously hindered in knowing God’s truth (you don’t quite say this, but you’re comment might be read this way). Nevertheless, you are of course correct that the Bible was originally inspired and written in Hebrew and Greek.

      There is indeed an added benefit in being able to study the Bible’s meaning in the original languages. I’m thankful that I’ve had opportunity to take some courses in Greek and Hebrew and have years of experience using the Greek (and sometimes Hebrew) to add depth and clarity to my Bible study. I’ve also studied how to define words from other languages (I had a whole course in this) and had years of experience in thinking about these issues as I worked in a bilingual setting for 14 years and am blessed to be fluent in two modern languages.

      As I’ve studied the topic of the final fate of the unrighteous in depth, looking at data from the original languages has confirmed and strengthened my conviction that annihilationism is the correct view. As I studied, I found that “perish” is indeed a good translation, and so is “death”, and so is “burning them to ashes”, and so on with many words and phrases which teach annihilationism.

    2. Brett wrote:
      //Also, being "perished" is the same Greek word used for LOST and DESTROYED in the Greek....these are all conditions are ones of being alienated from Christ in the mind/heart (Col 1:21 / Eph 4:8) (dying in sin means to die NOT KNOWING GOD)'s missing out on "everlasting life" which is strictly, "not knowing" God- Jhn 17:3).//

      Like most words, the Greek word for “perished” (apollumi) has a range of meaning. The meaning can indeed include something being “lost”, like a coin, or “ruined”, like a wineskin. But when applied to PEOPLE by FAR the most common meaning of “apollumi” is indeed “to perish” (passively) or to kill (actively). Apollumi is also one of the Greek words used specifically to refer to the complete destruction of both soul and body, which is precisely what I mean by annihilation. I have explained all this in another post here:

    3. Brett wrote, //Eternal life is not “living forever”//

      “Eternal life” certainly does mean to live forever. That’s the basic, plain meaning of the words. Other meaning comes by association with the fact that we know that eternal life occurs in God’s presence in the New Heavens and New Earth. So we rightly think of “eternal life” as “sinless, painless, joy filled, glorious life with God and Jesus”, but that goes beyond the basic meaning of the words and is based on other truths and other words beyond "eternal life".