Will everyone be saved? That depends who you ask. For most Christians, the answer is no. Some people will be lost and miss out on the joys of heaven. This has always been the most popular Christian view, and continues to be so.
In almost every age, however, there have been some who hoped for the salvation of all. These folks challenge us to take a closer look at Scripture, church tradition, and our own experiences to see if a belief in universal salvation is warranted.
It’s important to note up front that God desires all to be saved. This is a central biblical teaching that appears in many places (Deut 30:15-20, Ezek 18:32, Matt 18:14, 1 Tim 2:3-4, 2 Peter 3:8-9, etc); and it seems implausible that a loving God could hope for anything less.
It also seems clear to me that God’s main mission in this world is to reconcile all things.
This is stated beautifully in Saint Paul’s letter to the Colossians, where we are told that “through him (Christ) God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col 1:20).
Similarly, Jesus says that “the glory that you (God) have given me I have given them (humanity), so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (John 17:22-23).
God envisions a world of oneness – not a dualistic world where some enjoy eternal bliss while others suffer.
In an earlier blog series, I argued against the idea of everlasting conscious torment (ECT) on biblical and judicial grounds; but there’s another reason not to believe in an eternal hell – it doesn’t fit with God’s vision of oneness.
An eternal hell would be a constant reminder that God’s plan has failed. The biblical teaching that God desires oneness (and has the power to effect it) can’t be reconciled with the eternal existence of evil or suffering.
To be sure, there are Scriptures that speak in dualistic terms – even in the teachings of Jesus. At the end of this age, we are told, the righteous will shine in God’s kingdom while the wicked are thrown into a fiery furnace (Matt 13:40-43, 13:49-50). Some will enter God’s house, while others will be thrown out (Luke 13:22-30). The sheep will enter eternal life, while the goats will depart into eternal “punishment” (Matt 25:31-46).
Examples such as these could easily be multiplied, but they all imply the same thing – some will be a part of God’s realm in the age to come, and others will not. Taken at face value, these Scriptures seem to contradict the vision of oneness described earlier.
But perhaps we’re looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps these dualistic images don’t have the finality we usually assume they do.
When asked who could be saved, Jesus told His disciples that “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). Would Jesus say this if He knew that some would be eternally lost?
Similarly, how could the God portrayed in the book of Revelation say “I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5) while simultaneously casting a bunch of people into the lake of fire (Rev 20:7-15, 21:8)?
It seems to me this contradiction can only be resolved if we see the lake of fire as a purifying process, rather than destruction or eternal torment.
That this is exactly what the author meant can be confirmed by looking at the Greek words used. John says that the wicked will be “tormented with fire and brimstone” (Rev 14:9, 21:8); but this isn’t the best translation.
The word translated as “torment” is the Greek basanizo, which literally means “to test,” in the sense of testing the purity of precious metals. The word translated as “brimstone” is the Greek theion, which is a type of incense believed to purify people and ward off disease.
In other words, the “lake of fire” in the book of Revelation is a fire that purifies, not one that destroys people or subjects them to everlasting torture. And though this process may last for several ages (“unto the aions of the aions”), it ultimately leads to reconciliation with God and all creation.
This line of thought applies to many other “hellish” Scriptures as well.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus warns that many will find themselves unable to enter the kingdom of God, and says “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out” (Luke 13:28).
Jesus concludes this passage by saying “Some who are last will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:30), suggesting that some may not make it to heaven on their first try.
It seems to me that this is the sense in which most of the “hell” passages should be read. Scripture seems to be saying that everyone goes directly into God’s presence when they die, but not everyone stays there. Some are told to “depart from me” (Matt 7:23, 25:41), and are sent back into this world for further purification.
This process of rebirth (also called samsara or purgatory) is a painful one, and can be described equally well as fire (Matt 7:20, 13:42, 13:50, 25:41) or “outer darkness” (Matt 22:13, 25:30).
Those who have been in the direct presence of God will certainly not be happy about having to leave and go back to a life of trials – hence the language of “weeping and gnashing of teeth!”
Not all of the “hell” texts can be read this way. Some seem to speak quite clearly of final destruction or loss.
Jesus Himself tells us to fear the one “who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna” (Matt 10:28), and warns of the possibility of ending up in a place “where the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched” (Mark 9:48).
In spite of this, however, Jesus doesn’t hesitate to say that God can save everyone (Matt 19:26), and tells us that “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31).
These hints of universal salvation are amplified by a series of texts from Paul (Rom 5:18, 1 Cor 15:20-28, Philip 2:9-11, Col 1:20, 1 Tim 4:10) which extend salvation to all.
Could it be that everyone will eventually be reconciled to God? The book of Acts suggests just that when it says that Jesus must remain in heaven “until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3:21).
So it seems there are good biblical reasons to believe in universal salvation – even if there are also verses that warn us of possible destruction. At the very least, we have reason to hope for the salvation of all. We can’t say for sure that anyone will be eternally lost.
Probably the biggest objection to universal salvation is that it seems to undercut free will. If people are truly free, it’s argued, then it’s possible to reject God’s grace – and some may do this eternally.
This argument strikes me as both biblical and reasonable, but it has one fatal flaw – it places a limit on divine sovereignty that’s hard to reconcile with the all-knowing, omnipresent God of Scripture.
While I don’t believe God has predestined people for salvation in an absolute sense, I am nonetheless convinced that God has complete foreknowledge of all things. God is not bound by time as mortals are, but experiences all of human history in an ever-present Now.
If God has such foreknowledge, it begs the question, why would God create people that He knows will be eternally lost?
Most human parents would be crushed if they thought they would be eternally estranged from their children; and yet, people continue to have children, often by choice.
We do so because we don’t know the future, and thus have hope. I can’t think of anyone who would voluntarily have children if they knew their kids would reject them eternally.
But according to both Scripture and church tradition, God is infinite in both love and knowledge. If anyone is bound to reject God, God knows all about it; and yet She continues to create more people. Perhaps God knows something that we don’t!
Much of our problem is that we’re trapped in time and can’t see how everything will end. Thus the question of universal or limited salvation is not something we can answer definitively.
From our perspective in time, hell is always a possibility; we always have the option of rejecting God’s love and remaining fixed in that rejection. But from God’s perspective, everything is already one.
Since God is eternal and omnipresent, no one is ever really separated from Him/Her; but from our perspective it can seem like we are. Whether this will be remedied for every single person I can’t really say.
I strongly suspect, however, that all will be saved – even if it takes several lifetimes. If God is truly perfect in power and love, we can hope for no less.