[Paleopsych] Keith DeRose: Universalism and the Bible

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Universalism and the Bible

[Mr. Mencken often stated that he was going to Hell. But this proves that 
we are all going to go to Heaven, whether we want to or not.]

    The Really Good News

    [1]Keith  DeRose

1. What is Universalism?
2. Some Universalist Passages
3. "All"
4. "Interpreting Scripture by Scripture"
5. Universalism and Exclusivism
6. Universalism and Strong Exclusivism
7. Two More Passages and a Dangerous Line of Thought
8. Universalism, Judgment and Punishment
9. Universalism and Eternal Punishment: A Collision?
10. "Eternal" in the New Testament
11. Conclusion

A. The Danger of False Belief on this Matter
B. Free Will and Universalism

<-- Updated 6/12/03

     1. What is Universalism?

    I should be clear at the outset about what I'll mean -- and won't mean
    -- by "universalism." As I'll use it, "universalism" refers to the
    position that eventually all human beings will be saved and will enjoy
    everlasting life with Christ. This is compatible with the view that
    God will punish many people after death, and many universalists accept
    that there will be divine retribution, although some may not. What
    universalism does commit one to is that such punishment won't last
    forever. Universalism is also incompatible with various views
    according to which some will be annihilated (after or without first
    receiving punishment). These views can agree with universalism in
    that, according to them, punishment isn't everlasting, but they
    diverge from universalism in that they believe some will be denied
    everlasting life. Some universalists intend their position to apply
    animals, and some to fallen angels or even to Satan himself, but in my
    hands, it will be intended to apply only to human beings. In short,
    then, it's the position that every human being will, eventually at
    least, make it to the party.

     2. Some Universalist Passages

    Contrary to what many would suppose, universalism, understood as
    above, receives strong scriptural support in the New Testament.
    Indeed, I judge the support strong enough that if I had to choose
    between universalism and anti-universalism as the "position of
    Scripture," I'd pick universalism as the fairly clear winner. But more
    on that later. For now, here's three passages which support

    I Corinthians 15:22. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall
    all be made alive.

    Comments. Note the "all." I guess there can be some question about
    what it means to be made alive in Christ. A cynic might suggest that
    some might be made alive in order to stand judgment and be tortured
    forever. But that's very strained, especially after one's read the
    surrounding context of this passage and has also discovered what's
    usually meant by such phrases. It's very clear, I think, that those
    who are "made alive" in Christ are, as it's often put, "saved." The
    question is, To whom will this happen? This passage's answer: All! A
    point of grammar, which holds for the Greek as well as our English
    translations: The grammatical function of "in Christ" here is not to
    modify or limit the "all." The passage doesn't say, "...so also shall
    all who are in Christ be made alive." If it said that, I wouldn't be
    so cheered by the passage. Rather, "in Christ" is an adverbial phrase
    that modifies the verb "shall be made" or perhaps the whole clause,
    "shall all be made alive." Thus, this passage says that all shall be
    made alive. How? In Christ. This last point -- that it's through
    Christ that all will be saved -- will be important in section 6,

    Colossians 1:20.^19For in him [Christ] all the fullness of God was
    pleased to dwell, ^20and through him to reconcile to himself all
    things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of
    his cross.

    Comments. Note again the "all." Show me someone burning in hell, and
    I'll show you someone who's not yet been reconciled to God. So, show
    me someone who's under divine punishment forever, or who is simply
    annihilated, and I'll show you someone who's never reconciled to God
    through Christ, and thus someone who gives the lie to this passage.

    Romans 5:18: ^18Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all
    men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for
    all men. ^19For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners,
    so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous.

    Comments. It's verse 18 that I'm mainly appealing to. For whom will
    Christ's act of righteousness lead to acquittal and life? Answer: "all
    men." (So at least we guys will be OK!) Show me someone who never
    enjoys acquittal and life, and I'll show someone for whom Christ's act
    of righteousness didn't lead to acquittal and life, and thus someone
    who gives the lie to this verse.

    Though I'm appealing mainly to v. 18, I've included v. 19 here as well
    partly because some may think it casts doubt on the universalist
    implications of 18, since in 19, it's only said that "many," (rather
    than "all") will be made righteous. But 19 doesn't really take away
    the pro-universalism power of 18. First, a point of logic: That many
    will be made righteous is perfectly compatible with all being made
    righteous. All dogs are mammals. True or false: Many dogs are mammals?
    True, of course. It may sound strange to say that many dogs are
    mammals, but it's true for all that: It's even stranger to deny that
    many dogs are mammals. "Many" and "all" don't logically exclude each
    other. But this point of logic is pretty barren. To say that many dogs
    are mammals, while it doesn't strictly imply that fewer than all dogs
    are mammals, it does suggest that fewer than all are -- which probably
    explains why saying that many dogs are mammals sounds so strange.
    ("Why did he say 'many' rather than 'all'? Wouldn't he have said 'all'
    if he thought they were all mammals?") Likewise, one could plausibly
    claim that while v. 19 doesn't strictly imply that fewer than all will
    be made righteous, it does strongly suggest this. Reply: But even the
    suggestion of fewer than all disappears when we look at the NIV's
    translation of v. 19. (Above is the RSV translation.) The NIV
    translates as follows:

    19For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were
    made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many
    will be made righteous.

    The key difference, for our present purposes, between the translations
    is between the RSV's "many" and the NIV's "the many." To say that the
    many will be made righteous, while it doesn't imply that all will be
    made righteous, neither does it imply, nor even suggest, that fewer
    than all will be. In fact, v. 19, translated the NIV's way, especially
    following on the heels of 18, seems to suggest, if anything, a
    positive answer to the question of whether all are covered, turning v.
    19 from something that counts a bit against a universalist reading of
    v. 18 to a verse which, if anything, reinforces the universalist
    implications of v. 18. My experts have informed me that the original
    Greek here is like the NIV, and unlike the RSV, in that there is not
    even a suggestion carried by 19 that fewer than all will be made
    righteous. It's no doubt in response to such considerations that the
    revision of the RSV, the NRSV, follows the NIV in using "the many"
    rather than "many." (But it was worth first presenting the RSV
    translation because many use English translations of the Bible, which,
    like the RSV, employ the inferior translation of this phrase.)

     3. "All"

    A key word in the above passages is "all". Here's one more
    universalist passage featuring that wonderful word:

    Romans 11:32: For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he
    may be merciful to all.

    For various reasons I won't go into here, though I think this is a
    good universalist passage, I don't think this passage is quite as
    strong as some of the passages we looked at in section 2. I bring it
    up because it's in response to this verse that I've found a
    commentator making a move I've heard many times in conversation. About
    this verse, the end of which he renders, "that he may have mercy upon
    all", F.F. Bruce writes: "That is, on all without distinction rather
    than all without exception" (The Letter of Paul to the Romans: An
    Introduction and Commentary, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press,
    1985; p. 211). Several people I've spoken with about our universalist
    passages had apparently been taught that "all" can mean "all without
    distinction" rather than "all without exception". What exactly is
    "all" supposed to mean when it carries the former ("without
    distinction") sense? Some seem to hold that it then means "some from
    each group", and where it's people that are involved, each group seems
    to mean each nation. For others, it means something a bit more: That
    every person, regardless of which group she's in, has a chance.

    But it's clear that "all", at least when used properly, never means
    anything like that. Suppose some slippery character is being
    investigated, and hands over to investigators several files relating
    to the case under consideration. The slippery character then says that
    he's handed over all the files about the case. It later turns out
    that, as the slippery character knew full well at the time of his
    statement, he's held on to over half of the files. Suppose his
    reaction to this revelation is: "Well, I handed over several files
    from each of the 10 major categories into which they fell. And I
    didn't just pick the least damaging files to hand over. Rather, I
    picked in a random fashion the files I would hand over from each
    category, so that each file, regardless of its category, and
    regardless of how damaging it was to my case, had a chance to be
    handed over. So, you see, I really did hand over all the files -- all
    without distinction, that is; not, of course, all without exception."
    This won't fly, precisely because "all" just can't mean anything like
    what the "all without distinction" crowd says it sometimes means. My
    reaction, at least, is not that this fellow was being deceitful merely
    in using one sense of "all" while it has another good sense. He's
    worse than that: There's no good sense of "all" that would make true
    his miserable lie. No, "all", when it's used properly, always means
    all without exception. Quite simply, "all" means all.

    But wait! When I say, quite properly, "All the beer is warm", I don't
    mean that all the beer in the whole universe is warm, but rather
    something like that all the beer in this room is warm, as is seen by
    the fact that I can continue the sentence by saying something that
    implies that there is cold beer elsewhere: "All the beer's warm, so
    let's go to the kitchen and get some cold beer." So how can it be
    suggested that "all" always means all?  (But how can it be that "all"
    could fail to mean all?)

    What's going on here is that the quantifier phrases of natural
    language ("all", "most", "some", etc.) are to be understood, on an
    occasion of use, relative to a contextually determined domain. Thus,
    when I say, "All the beer is warm", the contextually determined domain
    is the things in this room, so "All the beer", in context, means all
    the beer in this room. So there is some sense in which "all" doesn't
    always mean all: On some occasions of use, "all", or "all the F's"
    means all (or all the F's) within a limited domain. But, relative to
    that domain, "all" really does mean all (without exception): My
    sentence "All the beer is warm" turns out to be false if there is some
    cold beer that I failed to notice in the room.

    But when the domain is limited, there has to be some fairly clear clue
    as to what the limited domain is. When "all" is used in the New
    Testament, as in "For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of
    God," and similar passages, the "all", I take it, refers to all
    people. It could possibly refer to some restricted class of people,
    but that suggestion is to be rejected, b/c (a) there is no such
    restricted class that clearly presents itself (all the people in this
    room?), (b) it's incumbent on a speaker to make clear what the class
    is if he means for it to be specially restricted and no specially
    restricted class clearly presents itself given current conversational
    intents and purposes, and (c) the NT doesn't specify any such
    specially restricted class. So, "All have sinned" means that all
    people have sinned, as almost all would agree.

    But similarly for the "all"s of the universalist passages. No
    restricted class of people clearly presents itself, and the Biblical
    writers aren't so incompetent as to mean some specially restricted
    class of people that doesn't clearly present itself without specifying
    or somehow making it clear which class they mean.  Indeed, in I
    Corinthians 15:22 and Romans 5:18, each of the relevant "all"s occur
    in the very same sentence (and a fairly short sentence, to boot) as an
    occurrence of "all" that seems to refer to the whole human race (given
    that it's the whole human race that died/was condemned in Adam), so it
    would have been especially misleading or even incompetent for Paul to
    mean something less than the whole human race there, since that would
    involve switching the domains relative to which his claims should be
    interpreted without warning in the middle of a single sentence -- and
    a sentence that seems to be stressing the parallelism between its two
    clauses, for that matter.  So I see no reasonable alternative but to
    conclude that these "all"s refer to all people.

    Could they mean even more than that? Could they be including angels,
    including fallen angels, and maybe even Satan himself? My reason for
    not going out on that limb -- besides passages like Rev 20:10, which
    reports that the devil is "thrown into the lake of burning sulpher",
    where the beast and the false prophet (who's not clearly human) were
    previously thrown, and where "they will be tormented day and night for
    ever and ever" -- is that most of the universalist passages don't go
    that far. Some, like I Corinthians 15:22, write simply of "all", and,
    as I said, I think the most natural way to understand the scope of the
    "all" is as referring to all people. Indeed, it's difficult to
    construe that particular passage more broadly so as to include Satan,
    for there seems to be no good sense in which Satan died in Adam, and
    the passage reads: "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall
    all be made alive." And some of the universalist passages explicitly
    limit themselves to humans, like Romans 5:18, which says that Christ's
    act "leads to acquittal and life for all men."

    The only universalist passages that we've looked at in section 2 which
    seems to carry any suggestion of a broader scope is Colossians 1:20,
    the "reconciling all things" passage. (There are other passages in the
    Bible carrying similar suggestions -- see, for instance, Ephesians
    1:10.)  How to square that with Rev 20:10, I don't know, though I am
    in general far more cautious about my understanding of Revelation than
    of any other book in the Bible. In general, I find it unwise to take
    much of Revelation literally, and so, in questions of what will
    actually happen, tend to take fairly minimalist interpretations of the
    events John relates from his vision -- or at least not to be confident
    of anything beyond a minimalist reading. So, for instance, though John
    reports in 6:13 that "the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs
    drop from a fig tree" in the vision Christ gave him, I'd be
    disinclined to think that stars will literally fall to earth. That
    this is not to be taken literally is now confirmed by our current
    knowledge of the relative size of the earth and the stars (together
    with the fact that, in John's story, this event does not completely
    obliterate the earth; the story goes on), but even without such
    knowledge, based merely on the genre of that part of Revelation --
    John's reporting a vision he was given -- I would be disinclined to
    take such a passage as a literally correct description of what will
    actually happen in the future. How exactly to interpret such a passage
    as to what will really happen is a controversial matter. But I tend
    toward this minimalist reading: All that's meant about what will
    really happen -- or, at the very least, all that we can be reasonably
    certain is meant -- by this report of stars falling to earth is that
    very, very bad things will happen. Given the abundance of events
    reported in John's vision that must, I think, be read in such a
    minimalist way, I'm very cautious about taking very literally the
    report of Satan's doom in Revelation 20:7-10. Shall we now suddenly
    start taking these events as literal reports of what will actually
    happen? The minimalist reading here is that evil and deception will be
    decisively defeated. And, though I don't want to dogmatically declare
    that no more than this is meant to be a prediction of what will
    actually happen, I certainly don't see any grounds for being at all
    confident of anything beyond such a minimalist reading. So, I don't
    think a strong reading of the "reconciling all things" in Colossians
    1:20 must in any obvious or automatic way be shot out of the water by
    what's to be found in Revelation. In fact, given the nature of the two
    books, if anything, it's our understanding of Revelation that should
    be guided by the teachings of the likes of Colossians, rather than the
    other way around. Our understanding of the straight teaching of
    doctrine in an epistle certainly should not automatically give way to
    an interpretation of what in John's report of his vision is to be
    taken as a literally accurate description of what will actually
    happen. On top of all that, even if you do take Revelation 20:10 to be
    a literal description of what will actually happen, the phrase that
    gets translated here in popular English translations as "for ever and
    ever", needn't be translated as implying endless duration; in fact, if
    you insist on literalness, more literal translations render this
    phrase "unto the ages of the ages" or "for the eons of the eons."
    Literally, while this perhaps can, it certainly needn't, mean forever,
    though it does seem to indicate at least a very long time.

    Thus, though I don't find nearly as much scriptural support for a more
    thorough-going universalism that includes even Satan (Origen, one of
    the early universalists, held to such a more thorough-going
    universalism) as I do for the more modest form of universalism I'm
    here defending, and though I don't find enough support to advocate
    such a more thorough-going position here, at the same time, I
    certainly do think the more robust universalism is worthy of serious

     4. "Interpreting Scripture by Scripture"

    I believe the above pro-universalist passages, and, as you've seen,
    take them quite literally. (I should note here that there are several
    other universalist passages I didn't utilize above. The above, though,
    I think, give you a good idea of the type of passages that can be
    marshaled in favor of universalism.)  I wouldn't say that they
    constitute an overwhelmingly strong case for universalism (see
    sections 5-6 below, for a view -- exclusivism -- the support for which
    I am willing to call overwhelming), but it is pretty strong, and
    stronger than any case I've seen for anti-universalism.

    But some would urge me to interpret these passages in the light of
    other scripture. (Many of these people seem never to even recognize
    the possibility of interpreting the other scripture in light of these
    universalist passages.) I must admit I have some difficulty in
    construing myself as "interpreting" these passages. I do place
    interpretations on some passages in the Bible: When I glean a
    particular message for us from one of Jesus' parables, for instance,
    that's an interpretation. But am I "interpreting" these passages in a
    pro-universalist way? Calling this "interpretation" seems strained to
    me. I often quote the above passages, not just to support, but
    actually to express my universalism, and such quoting seems only in a
    strained sense a case of interpreting. (Once, when someone asked me
    whether I thought anyone would be denied everlasting life, I replied,
    "I believe that as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be
    made alive." My questioner, not realizing I was quoting Scripture,
    accused me of taking an unbiblical position!)

    Still, if there are passages which teach that universalism is false
    with anything close to the force that the above passages carry in
    favor of universalism, we're going to have to consider re-adjusting
    our understanding of the above passages. Maybe they really don't mean
    what they seem to. And, indeed, most who write against universalism,
    when they urge an understanding of the above passages which strips
    them of their universalist implications, do so largely on the grounds
    that other passages of the New Testament teach even more clearly that
    universalism is false. Indeed, many write as if the Biblical case
    against universalism is overwhelming. But this confidence is badly
    misplaced. As we'll see in sections 5, 6 and 8, below, it's mainly due
    to a confusion of universalism itself with certain unbiblical versions
    of universalism.

     5. Universalism and Exclusivism

    Many of the passages that are typically utilized to attack
    universalism teach exclusivism -- which here refers to the doctrine
    that it's only (exclusively) through the saving work of Christ that
    any can be saved. I agree that exclusivism is clearly taught in the
    New Testament, so I won't bother to cite the supporting passages. But
    the universalist needn't deny exclusivism. The biblical universalist
    will accept exclusivism; she'll just disagree with the
    non-universalist about the scope of who will be saved by Christ's
    saving work -- the universalist exclusivist holding that, eventually
    at least, through Christ, all shall be made alive. And now that I've
    echoed I Corinthians 15:22, it's worth noting how this verse, as well
    as the other passages discussed in section 2, highlights the
    compatibility of universalism with exclusivism, since this
    universalist passage insists that is in Christ that all shall be made

     6. Universalism and Strong Exclusivism

    But perhaps we should distinguish between two types of exclusivism.
    Let's label as strong exclusivism the position that adds to
    exclusivism the further claim that, in order to be a recipient of the
    salvation Christ makes possible, one must in some way explicitly
    accept Christ and/or the salvation he offers. (Different versions of
    strong exclusivism with differ as to the exact nature of this
    requirement of explicit acceptance.) Weak exclusivism, then, will be
    the position that combines the exclusivist thesis that Christ's saving
    work is necessary for the salvation of any person -- so that were it
    not for Christ, none could be saved -- with the position that one
    needn't explicitly accept or acknowledge Christ in order to receive
    the salvation his saving work makes possible.

    The scriptural basis for exclusivism is overwhelming, I believe; the
    support for strong exclusivism is not nearly so conclusive. It's not
    that there's any strong basis for weak exclusivism. It's rather that
    the scriptural basis for deciding between the two versions of
    exclusivism is not nearly so great as that supporting exclusivism
    itself. Still, the suggestions of strong exclusivism found in the New
    Testament are strong enough that, for complicated reasons I won't here
    go into, though I'm far from certain about the matter, I tend to lean
    toward strong exclusivism.

    And some might think that strong exclusivism is incompatible with
    universalism, so that whatever evidence there is for strong
    exclusivism will also be evidence against universalism. For strong
    exclusivism, combined with the observation that some resist Christ all
    the way to their dying moment, can seem to spell the doom of the
    universalist position.

    But only if death is the end of one's chances to be saved by
    explicitly accepting Christ. And I haven't seen anything close to a
    strong Biblical case for the position that death is the end of one's
    chances for salvation. (We'll look at the typical argument mounted for
    the doctrine of no further chances a few paragraphs below). Many, in
    fact, content themselves with arguing that the scriptures typically
    used to support the position that some will get further chances after
    death are far from conclusive.

    What passages are these? Well, many friends of the doctrine of further
    chances cite I Peter 3:19-20 and I Peter 4:6 as supporting their

    (Note: The NIV scandalously translates the beginning of I Peter 4:6 as
    "For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are
    now dead," confessing in a study note to the NIV Study Bible -- users
    of NIV's other than the NIV Study Bible don't get this warning -- that
    "the word 'now' does not occur in the Greek," and explaining that the
    reason they've added it is that, for reasons coming from another part
    of the Bible, not even in the book of I Peter, they believe that there
    are no further chances after death. Now, the case they give in that
    note for the doctrine of no further chances is hopelessly weak. (We'll
    encounter it below.) But put that aside for the moment. The more
    pressing point here is that this practice of doctoring a translation
    to protect the theological positions that the translators happen to
    hold on controversial issues is deplorable. The much more responsible
    NRSV, true to its general character, more reliably translates this
    passage as, "For this is the reason the gospel was proclaimed even to
    the dead." This better translation leaves the matter of whether "the
    dead" refers to people who were dead when they were preached to or
    rather to those who were dead at the time of the writing of I Peter
    about as open as it is in the original Greek. The NIV translators, on
    the other hand, for no respectable reason, add a word to close down
    the reading, left open in the Greek, that doesn't best serve their own
    theological purposes, though it seems the more natural of the two

    Now, the issue of how to understand these passages from I Peter is as
    difficult as it is controversial. I won't get into it here, except to
    register my opinion that it isn't wise to lean on these passages;
    they're far too inconclusive to inspire any reasonable confidence in
    the doctrine of further chances after death.

    But the case typically mounted in favor of the opposing doctrine of no
    further chances after death is at least as inconclusive. The only
    passage cited in favor of this dubious doctrine of no further chances
    in the notorious NIV Study Bible note to I Peter 4:6 is Hebrews 9:27,
    which reads: "Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to
    face judgment," with the sentence being completed in v. 28. But the
    universalist who believes in further chances needn't deny that people
    die once. I'm such a universalist, and I don't deny that, nor do I see
    any reason why I should have to. And, as I noted in section 1 and as
    we'll see in section 8, the universalist, including the universalist
    who believes in further chances, needn't deny that after that death
    one will face judgment. So there isn't anything in Hebrews 9:27 that
    should even begin to produce any discomfort in the universalist who
    believes in further chances.

    The other passage that's commonly cited in favor of the doctrine of no
    further chances is Luke 16:26. This is a bit stronger than the Hebrews
    passage. But that's not saying much, and there's very little, if any,
    ammunition to be found here for the doctrine of no further chances.
    This passage occurs in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and,
    as such, appeals to it suffer from all the limitations inherent in
    attempts to extract theological doctrines from the details of
    parables, especially when the doctrines in question are not the main
    point of the parable. In this parable, the rich man, now dead and
    suffering in hell, asks Father Abraham to "send Lazarus to dip the tip
    of his finger in water and cool my tongue" (v. 24). v. 26 is the
    second part of Abraham's explanation for why this request won't be
    granted; it reads, "And besides all this, between us and you a great
    chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you
    cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us." But again, the
    universalist needn't deny that there will be punishment, only that
    such punishment will last forever. And there's no reason at all for
    her to have to hold that, while the punishment is still going on,
    those suffering from it can end it at will any time they want, and
    cross freely from hell to heaven, nor that those in heaven (in this
    parable, Lazarus is "at Abraham's side") will be allowed to visit
    hell. So even if we made the mistake of trying to extract from the
    details of this parable a position on the issue of whether there will
    be further chances, there still wouldn't be much cause for taking this
    passage as supporting the doctrine of no further chances with any
    force at all. For as long as the universalist who believes in further
    chances sensibly allows for the possibility that, while punishment is
    occurring, those suffering from it can't just end it any time they
    want, she can make perfectly good sense of the words this parable puts
    into the mouth of Father Abraham. After all, if a road has been
    covered with deep enough snow drifts, we'll tell someone who must
    drive on that stretch of road to get to where we are, "You cannot
    cross over from there to us." We'll say this quite properly and
    truthfully, even if we know full well that the road will be cleared in
    a few days, or that, in a great enough emergency, a helicopter could
    be used to get across to us even today, if, say, we're at a hospital.
    [But doesn't that show that there is a sense, then, in which they can
    cross over to us? Yes, there's a perfectly good sense in which they
    can, and a perfectly good sense in which they cannot. For enlightening
    and accessible explanations of the meaning of "can" and related words,
    I recommend Angelica Kratzer's "What 'Must' and 'Can' Must and Can
    Mean" (Linguistics and Philosophy 1 (1977): pp. 337-355) and example 6
    ("Relative Modality") of David Lewis's "Scorekeeping in a Language
    Game" (Journal of Philosophical Logic 8 (1979): pp. 339-359.]

    So to hold that this passage establishes, not only that those
    suffering from punishment can't just end it any time they want, but
    that it can never, not even by the saving power of Christ, happen that
    they're released from this punishment, is surely a very desperate

    In fact, I think no other doctrine can even compete with "no further
    chances" in terms of the following three factors.  No doctrine even
    comes close to a) being so strongly believed by so many evangelicals
    despite b) being so utterly disastrous in its consequences and c)
    having so little by way of Scriptural support.

    Still, as I admitted earlier, the case for the opposing doctrine of
    further chances, based on the I Peter passages, is also inconclusive.
    But I never intended to use the I Peter passages as part of my
    positive support for universalism. My universalism is founded on
    passages like the ones we looked at in section 2. I find them far more
    forceful in their support for universalism than anything I've ever
    seen adduced in support of anti-universalism. But some will disagree,
    and claim that a powerful case for anti-universalism can be mounted
    from strong exclusivism, together with the very plausible observation
    that some never accept Christ in this life. I have merely been
    pointing out that that line of thought supports anti-universalism only
    insofar as the doctrine of no further chances can be established. And,
    as we've seen, that's not very far at all. Certainly nothing even
    approaching the power of the universalist passages. If, on top of all
    that, there actually were -- against my own best judgment about the
    matter -- some significant positive support for the doctrine of
    further chances to be gleaned from the I Peter passages, that would be
    argumentative over-kill.

    Do I, then, believe in further chances after death? Yes, but not
    because of anything to be found in I Peter. My belief in further
    chances is rather grounded in my beliefs that (a) there are fairly
    strong grounds for universalism provided by the likes of the passages
    in section 2, (b) there are fairly strong grounds for strong
    exclusivism in passages we haven't looked at here, (c) the only way
    (at least the only way that I can see) to reconcile universalism with
    strong exclusivism is if there are further chances, and (d) there's
    next to nothing in the way of good reasons for denying that there are
    further chances. Thus, though there's perhaps not much of a direct
    case that can be made for further chances from the likes of the I
    Peter passages, in light of (d), the indirect case for further chances
    provided by (a)-(c) proves decisive. I stress, then, that my belief in
    universalism is not based on my belief in further chances; rather,
    it's the other way around.

     7. Two More Passages and a Dangerous Line of Thought

    Since we're on the topic of further chances, let me here, in a brief
    digression from the main line of argument, introduce two more passages
    which together have some universalist tendencies in a way that
    involves the doctrine of further chances. I present them not primarily
    because of the added support they might provide for universalism, but
    because they'll help to illustrate a dangerous line of thought which
    explains much of the resistance I had to the doctrine of further
    chances. Insofar as others resist the doctrine of further chances for
    the same reason I used to, they may wish to check this dangerous line
    of thought. Consider, then:

    Romans 10:9. If you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and
    believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be

    This raises the question: Who will so confess and so believe? This is
    one of those questions, at least with respect to the confession part,
    that gets answered in the Bible, for, as we read in Philippians 2:11
    and elsewhere, every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord. Maybe
    some of these confessors will fail to believe in their heart that God
    raised Jesus from the dead, and thereby fail to be saved. But I always
    imagined this confession taking place at a time when it had become
    painfully obvious that the whole Jesus story was true -- perhaps at
    judgment -- so I've never really thought that these confessors weren't

    To be honest, the real reason I never thought of the Philippians
    passage as having universalist implications in conjunction with the
    Romans passage is that I thought that such a confession would be "too
    late" and so wouldn't count. Why did I think that? Romans 10:9
    includes no fine print to the effect that the confession must take
    place prior to death to be effective, and, as we've seen, there's next
    to no good Scriptural reason to deny further chances. Well, there are
    many reasons one might think this confession is too late, but,
    unfortunately, in my case, the line of thought was roughly as follows:
    Of course they'll confess then. It'll be so obvious that Jesus is Lord
    at that point. There's no merit to confessing at that point.

    Yikes! I had always been taught, and had always thought I believed,
    that salvation came through God's grace alone, and not at all through
    the merit of the one being saved. One just had to accept this grace,
    by confessing, etc. But the above line of thought shows that the
    tendency to understand rewards in term of merit was so strong in me
    that I had taken the confession and acceptance part of the above story
    and turned them into matters of merit -- to the point that I wouldn't
    let them count if they didn't strike me as sufficiently meritorious.
    This is surely a dangerous line of thought.

    Three reactions: First, we don't know enough about the circumstances
    under which such confessions will take place to judge their merit.
    But, second, should that matter? And, third, just how wonderfully
    meritorious was my confession and acceptance?

    Insofar as any others find themselves engaging in the dangerous line
    of thought I was subject to, they may wish to re-think the role of
    merit in salvation, and how that relates to the doctrine of further
    chances. But perhaps I was unique in thinking along those lines, and
    this whole, thankfully short, digression was for nothing.

     8. Universalism, Judgment and Punishment

    Many of the passages that are typically utilized in attacks on
    universalism teach that, after death, God will judge people and punish
    many of them. Indeed, many who write as if the case against
    universalism is overwhelming list scores of such passages -- which
    looks very impressive -- in their long lists of what they claim are
    anti-universalist scriptures.

    Many of the passages typically cited in this connection are the
    endings of parables in which the unprepared or otherwise naughty are
    cast off to weep and wail and gnash their teeth. (It's usually in
    Matthew's presentation of parables that such an ending is included.)
    To get eternal punishment from such a parable is quite a leap. Some
    read many of these passages as Jesus predicting the suffering incurred
    during the destruction of Jerusalem. It was apparently a big issue in
    the Jewish community around the time of the writing of the book of
    Matthew whether this truly horrible and gruesome event was due to the
    Christians following a false Messiah (as some non-Christians claimed)
    or rather because the non-Christian Jews had failed to recognize the
    hour of their visitation (as some Christians held). Parables in which
    those not prepared for the coming of the Christ-figure are thrown out
    to weep and wail, etc., can easily be read as coming down on the
    Christian side of this debate. But even if one dismisses such an
    interpretation (though it's difficult to see the grounds for such a
    dismissal), one should begin to appreciate the tenuousness of drawing
    a particular theological conclusion from such a parable.

    But the above is a secondary point, especially since many of the
    passages which teach that there will be punishment are not from
    parables. The main point to be made is that, as I pointed out already
    in section 1, universalism as I understand it -- and, more
    importantly, as it's supported by the universalist passages like those
    in section 2 -- is perfectly consistent with the belief that there
    will be judgment for all and punishment for some. So, unless the
    universalist goes overboard and claims that there will be no
    punishment at all -- an extension of universalism not licensed by the
    passages of section 2 -- these passages teaching that there will be
    punishment won't even begin to hurt her position. So, like the
    anti-universalist argument from exclusivism and the argument from
    strong exclusivism, this anti-universalist argument, now from
    punishment, has no force against the universalism that's supported by
    the universalist passages, but only against the unwarranted extensions
    of universalism that some unwise universalists might make.

     9. Universalism and Eternal Punishment: A Collision?

    But among the many passages that teach that there will be punishment,
    a few (a very few, it turns out, but see also Matthew 25:46) specify
    (or seem to specify) that the punishment will be "eternal." By far,
    the strongest of these passages is:

    II Thessalonians 1:9. They shall suffer punishment of eternal
    destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the
    glory of his might.

    Here, finally, we have something which really has the potential to cut
    against universalism. (Matthew 25:46 is weakened by the fact that it's
    part of a parable. In fact, many who cite this parable as a good
    source as to the duration of punishment don't take seriously its
    teaching as to the grounds of the distinction between those who are
    rewarded and those who are punished. It's quite clearly said that
    those who are rewarded are rewarded for their good actions and those
    who are punished are punished for a lack of such good actions (see
    verses 34-36 and 41-43, paying careful attention to the word "for" or
    "because" (depending on your translation) in each). But most who cite
    this parable as a good source on the duration of the punishment don't
    accept salvation by works -- perhaps because it's taught in a parable,
    all the details of which needn't be taken to reflect the actual world?
    At any rate, if you are inclined nevertheless to give this feature of
    the parable great weight as an indication of the duration of actual
    punishment, the below discussion of the meaning of "eternal" will
    apply to this Matthew passage as well.)

    Now, as I've noted, there are only a few passages that specify that
    punishment will be (at least for some) eternal. And the universalist
    passages are quite strong, tempting one to "interpret" these eternal
    punishment passages away. But this II Thessalonians passage looks very
    clear; I used to call it the "killer text". It looks like it collides
    with the universalist passages. For a long time, I feared that just
    such a collision occurs here in Scripture. I tried to "interpret" the
    universalist passages away, and then to do the same to this eternal
    punishment passage. But all such "interpretations" seemed very
    strained -- they seemed more like denials, or at least revisions, of
    what was said in the relevant passages being "interpreted."

     10. "Eternal" in the New Testament

    This is not the only issue on which I feared the various parts of the
    Bible collide with one another. Fortunately, here, as I'm finding is
    generally the case, this is only an apparent collision. In this case,
    the appearance of a collision is produced by a problem arising with
    our English Bibles' translation of "eternal".

    The Greek adjective (and its cognates) that our English Bibles
    translate as "eternal" or "everlasting" (and their cognates),
    literally means "age-enduring" or "pertaining to an age", and can be
    used in such a way that it does not imply endless duration. This opens
    up a way around our collision: If the "eternal" in the "eternal"
    punishment passages is understood as not implying an endless duration,
    there's no conflict between these passages and the universalist

    What makes this a very comfortable, and not a strained or desperate,
    way around the collision is that, not only can the Greek word mean
    something that doesn't imply endless duration, but it often does get
    used with such a meaning -- often in the Bible itself, and even in the
    Pauline corpus. Consider Romans 16:25-26, which, as our translations
    have it, speaks of "the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but
    is now disclosed." Here, the Greek that gets translated as "for long
    ages" includes the very Greek work that is translated as "eternal" or
    "everlasting" elsewhere, including the "eternal" punishment passages.
    But in this Romans passage, Paul seems not to mean "eternal" by this
    word, for he immediately goes on to say the secret "is now disclosed",
    so of course it wasn't kept secret eternally. That's why our
    translations don't translate it as "eternally" here.

    [For more on this Greek term, as well as on the Greek term used here
    for "punishment," which, apparently, was usually used for remedial
    punishment(!), see the final section ("Punishment in the Coming Age,"
    pp. 89-92) of Thomas Talbott's "Three Pictures of God in Western
    Theology," Faith and Philosophy 12 (1995): pp. 79-94). More extensive
    commentary on this matter of translation, which is also more
    convenient for those with access to the internet, because the good
    folks at the Tentmaker site have made it available on line, is Rev.
    John Wesley's Hanson's treatise on [16]THE GREEK WORD AIÓN --
    AIÓNIOS.  Talbott now has a book, The Inescapable Love of God, which
    incorporates much of his earlier prouniversalism work; for information
    and for some parts that are available on-line, click [17]here.]

    Incidentally, I've heard it argued by some who emphasize the
    parallelism in Matthew 25:46 between the fate of the damned and of the
    saved -- "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the
    righteous to eternal life" -- that if you deny that punishment lasts
    forever, then you must also deny that the "eternal" life of the saved
    is unending. But, of course, that doesn't follow. Where the Greek word
    that gets translated as "eternal" doesn't imply endless duration, it
    also doesn't mean anything that implies less than endless duration. It
    can mean "in the age to come," or "for long ages," or, perhaps, if
    another of Talbott's suggestions is right, it can mean something like
    "having its source in the eternal God"; at any rate, all of these are
    neutral with respect to the question of whether what's called
    "eternal" will last forever. So taking such a reading of "eternal"
    here does not imply that the "eternal" life of the saved will come to
    end; the most that can be gotten out of the parallelism of Matthew
    25:46 is that we can't confidently base our belief that the "eternal"
    life of the saved will last forever on that passage. Hopefully,
    though, we have bases for that belief other than that detail of this
    parable! (For much more on this passage in Matthew, see the section
    entitled "THE PRINCIPAL PROOF-TEXT" (which contains several numbered
    subsections) of the Hanson treatise, to which there's a link above.
    For Greek words which do teach endless duration and which do get
    applied to the blessed life of the saved, but which are not applied to
    punishment, see the section of Hanson entitled "WORDS TEACHING ENDLESS

    That Paul himself uses the relevant Greek term in such a way that it
    doesn't imply endless duration makes the possibility that he's using
    it the same way in the "eternal punishment" passages a very live
    possibility. By comparison, all the attempts to get around the
    universalist implications of the likes of the passages we saw in
    section 2 that I've encountered seem very strained, even desperate.
    (Example: "Here where it says that God through Christ will reconcile
    all things to himself, it really means (not what is says but rather?),
    at least as it's applied to people, that God, through Christ, will
    give all an opportunity to be reconciled to him, and where it says
    that in Christ all shall be made alive, what it really means (is not
    what it says but rather?) that in Christ all will be given an
    opportunity to be made alive, or that all will be made alive to the
    possibility of salvation.") At the very least, those who think it's
    clear that the strongest scriptural case on the question of
    universalism goes against the view, and that it's therefore clear that
    it's the apparently universalist passages which must be interpreted
    away, have a lot of explaining to do.

     11. Conclusion.

    If I'm right that Romans 11:32 is a universalist passage, it's the
    thought of universalism that inspires what directly follows that verse
    -- Paul's wonderful doxology of Romans 11:33-36, the penultimate line
    of which takes on added significance in a universalist context:

    O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
    For who has known the mind of the Lord?
    Or who has been his counselor?
    Or who has given a gift to him
    to receive a gift in return?
    For from him and through him and to him are all things.
    To him be the glory forever. Amen.

    Universalism is far from a mere doctrine of barren theology; many,
    like Paul, find great joy in the belief. Part of the joy some find is
    in the thought that not only they, but their fellow humans, will,
    eventually at least, experience everlasting life with Christ. But,
    like Paul, you may find the joy is focused rather on God, and on how
    wondrous and complete a victory will be won by the God "who desires
    everyone to be saved" (I Timothy 2:4). And, on the other side, the
    non-universalist picture may come to look strangely dim, not
    exclusively because of the awful fate that awaits some of your fellows
    on this picture, but because God is deprived of such a complete
    victory, and, in winning only a partial victory, his desire that
    everyone be saved will ultimately be frustrated.

    For myself, it's hard to even imagine going back to my earlier way of
    thinking about God, according to which it's only the case that:

    God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he might have mercy
    on some of them

    For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall some be made alive

    For in Christ, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and
    through him to reconcile to himself some things, whether on earth or
    in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross

    Then, as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one
    man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for some men.


    [18]About the image

    Last modified 24 January 1999
    [19]Keith DeRose

    Please note: This web page has generated a tremendous amount of
    e-correspondence.  I'm very pleased that it has caused some to
    consider the important issues addressed, and am especially gratified
    that it has caused some to think so carefully about the issues that
    they have crafted very thoughtful responses.  You are welcome to write
    me about these ideas, but please understand that I simply cannot
    respond to all the communications -- even all the thoughtful
    communications -- that I receive, and please don't take it personally
    if I do not respond.  Often, it will just be that you contacted me at
    a particularly busy time.  And even in the best of times, I can
    respond only to a very small percentage of the messages I receive.


    All of the above remains basically unchanged in content since I wrote
    it for an adult Bible study in early 1998.  (The only changes, I
    believe, are a couple of references and links to other web sites that
    I added to section 10 later.)  Since I posted the above on the
    internet in the Winter of 98-99, I have received a lot of feedback on
    it.  Some of the e-mail I have received has raised substantive
    points.  Below I briefly address two of the areas that I have been
    very frequently asked about.  The first area concerns the danger of
    believing and promoting universalism, and the second concerns
    philosophical issues that arise in reconciling universalism with free
    will.  So in neither case do the concerns very directly involve the
    Biblical case for or against universalism.  Thus, addressing them
    moves us beyond the topic of my original post.  Nevertheless, since
    these are two of the areas of concern that have been most often raised
    about the above, it is worth addressing them here.

    A.  The Danger of False Belief on this Matter

    Many have e-mailed to warn me of the dangers of believing and
    promoting universalism.  Two closely related dangers have been
    stressed.  Some focus on how important Christians will think it is to
    spread the gospel if they accept universalism, and warn that belief in
    universalism would undercut evangelism.  Others focus on the potential
    detrimental effect of promoting universalism on potential Christians
    themselves, supposing many will think something along the lines of,
    "Well, I'll be OK anyway, so why bother to accept Christ?"

    I do not think that belief in universalism should have the above
    effects.  Here it is important to note that universalism -- at least
    the position I've been referring to by the term -- does not imply that
    it is unimportant whether one accepts Christ in this life, or sooner
    rather than later.  All that universalism per se rules out here is the
    "infinitely big stick": that one will be eternally barred from heaven
    (and perhaps consigned to hell) if one fails to accept Christ in this
    life.  As I've stressed, universalism itself does not rule out that
    there will be punishment for some after death.  Indeed, it does not
    rule out that there will be a lot of punishment for some.  So it's not
    only consistent with the existence of sticks, but with very big --
    indeed, immensely huge -- sticks, though of course universalists will
    disagree amongst themselves about the nature and size of whatever
    sticks there are.  Universalism does rule out the infinitely big
    stick.  But it would indeed be very sad if Christians believed that
    there is strong reason or motivation for accepting Christ in this life
    only if one faces an infinitely big stick if one fails to do so.
    Universalism also guarantees that all humans will eventually attain
    the tremendous carrot.  But does the fact that things will eventually
    be OK for someone remove the motivation -- for herself and for others
    -- to improve her lot in the meantime?   Those who believe they are
    going to heaven, whether they're universalists or not, believe
    everything will eventually be OK for them, but few lose all interest
    in their well-being in the meantime.  And those who believe that
    certain other people (say, loved ones) are destined for heaven don't
    lose interest in promoting their well-being in the meantime.  Why,
    then, should accepting that everyone will eventually be OK sap all
    motivation for promoting their well-being in the meantime --
    especially since it's at least consistent with universalism that that
    "meantime" can be a very long time?

    It's also worth pointing out that though the universalist believes all
    will attain heaven, it's consistent with universalism that what one's
    heavenly existence is like may depend on one's earthly life.  Thus the
    universalist may hold (though perhaps some will not) that how one
    lives one's earthly life -- perhaps crucially including whether one
    accepts Christ in this life -- will have eternal significance, even if
    it doesn't determine whether one (eventually at least) attains heaven.

    But even if I'm right that belief in universalism should not have the
    bad effects described above, I don't doubt that belief in universalism
    will have such bad effects, at least on some.  After all, some people
    claim that belief in universalism would have such a bad effect on
    themselves, and I'd be a fool to suppose I can judge better than them
    what the effect of the belief would be on them.

    But those who press the potential dangers of belief in universalism
    seem to neglect the corresponding potential dangers of their own
    position.  Indeed, many who press the concern about the detrimental
    effects of accepting universalism go on to explicitly state that there
    is no danger on the other side as part of their case for resisting the
    promotion of universalism.

    But they are wrong.  There are dangers on the other side.  I have
    received many e-mails from those who have related that the doctrine of
    eternal hell was the biggest stumbling block to their accepting
    Christianity, and many others said that believing that doctrine
    interfered greatly with their ability to love God.  Now, one doesn't
    have to accept universalism to avoid the doctrine of eternal hell --
    one can accept some view on which those who don't make it to heaven
    are (eventually or right away) annihilated.  But, for many,
    universalism is the view that rings most true, and the version of
    Christianity they'd be most likely to accept.

    Suppose for a minute that universalism is correct, and suppose that
    these people are right to think that there is no way that God would
    allow some people to be forever excluded.  In that case, promoting the
    false view that God will allow such exclusion is doing great harm.
    Indeed, many universalists, myself included, believe that
    non-universalism is one of the most harmful falsehoods ever promoted
    in the Christian church.

    There is danger on both sides.  Either way, if one is wrong, one may
    be doing harm to people by advocating one's false view.  Indeed,
    either way, even if one is right, one can do some harm to others by
    advocating the truth one believes.  (Even if universalism is true, my
    promoting that truth may cause some to lose their faith, and may
    thereby harm them.  Likewise, if universalism is false, those who
    declare it false may thereby harm some people.)  One possible response
    to these dangers, whichever side one is on, would be to remain silent
    on the issue.  Another response is to present one's thinking on the
    issue for others' consideration.  That is the path I have chosen -- as
    have those who write to oppose me.  If I have caused you think about
    the issue, to study the Bible (especially important here is reading
    not just the passages for and against universalism that have been
    presented, but also the material that surrounds them and gives them
    their context), and to prayerfully consider the issue, then I am
    happy, even if I haven't convinced you of my position.

    B.  Free Will and Universalism

    Many who have e-mailed me have been concerned about free will.
    Doesn't one have to freely accept Christ in order to be saved?  This
    is an extension of strong exclusivism. Strong exclusivism, as I have
    used it above, says that in order to be saved, one must somehow
    explicitly accept Christ.  Now, we're adding to this that the
    accepting must be free.  Let's call this new position fervent
    exclusivism.  If we accept fervent exclusivism, how can we say that
    universalism is true?

    I don't know of any serious scriptural support for fervent exclusivism
    itself.  Still, it's worth taking seriously and thinking about,
    because it is, for those who think human freedom is very important,
    the natural extension of strong exclusivism, for which there is in my
    view significant scriptural support.  If you think that one must
    accept Christ to be saved, and if you think that human freedom is
    important, you're likely to think that the free acceptance of Christ
    is very valuable and important -- perhaps important enough that one's
    ultimate destiny might ride on it.

    So, for those who are attracted to this fervent variety of
    exclusivism: First note that even fervent exclusivism is compatible
    with universalism.  The first of these says that to be saved one must
    freely accept Christ.  The second says that, eventually at least, all
    will be saved.  It's easy to see how these can both be true: If all
    will eventually freely accept Christ.

    But even if it is possible for both positions to be true, is it all
    plausible to suppose they will be?  Supposing there is nothing barring
    further chances -- that the free accepting may take place after death
    (see sections 6 and 7 above) -- I don't see why not.  After all, there
    is an omnipotent and infinitely resourceful God, whom we know "desires
    everyone to be saved" (I Timothy 2:4), and has as much time as He
    needs to bring everyone around.  I certainly wouldn't want to bet
    against Him!  We know that some in this life have been only been
    moving further and further away from accepting Christ.  And some
    people can be very obstinate.  And some have become incredibly evil in
    this life.  But, on the other hand, even in this short life, we all
    know of instances in which people having all three of these problems
    to a great degree who were brought around and were saved.  So, again,
    I see no grounds for pessimism that an infinitely resourceful God, who
    is able to take as much time as He needs, will be able to win over
    everyone eventually.

    (If you think that the most dramatic turn-arounds in this life have
    involved an infringement on the freedom of the people involved, but
    agree that they were saved nonetheless, then you you are not a fervent
    exclusivist, and you should have no objections to such non-free
    savings taking place after death.  I am here addressing only fervent

    But some seem to have a different worry -- not that fervent
    exclusivism is incompatible with universalism, but that, if fervent
    exclusivism is true, then nobody, not even God, can know (or at least
    know for certain) that all will be saved, since nobody can know what
    people will freely do.  So, even if universalism will turn to be true,
    we cannot know that now, and God would not have revealed that to us
    already.  According to this worry, fervent exclusivism doesn't show
    that universalism won't be true, but it does undermine the position
    that universalism is revealed in the scriptures.

    This new worry, then, is based on the assumption that free will is
    incompatible with foreknowledge: that it is impossible, even for God,
    to know (or at least to know for certain) ahead of time what someone
    will freely do.  Note that God can still be omniscient despite not
    knowing what we will freely do.  Omniscience is a matter of knowing
    all truths.  And if you deny that God knows what creatures will freely
    do, you're likely to also believe that there aren't now any truths to
    be known about what creatures will freely do in the future.  God's
    "failure" to know what you will freely do then would count against his
    omniscience no more than does his "failure" to know that 2+2 = 796: In
    neither case is the proposition in question (now) true and so in
    neither case is it the kind of proposition that can (now) be known.
    But while the assumption that freedom is incompatible with
    foreknowledge doesn't undermine God's omniscience, it is highly
    debatable.  In fact, my sense is that most theists reject this
    assumption.  Indeed, traditionally, many theists have supposed that
    free action is not only compatible with foreknowledge, but also with
    divine determinism: That one can be free even if God's decrees
    causally determine you do the action in question.  How can one be free
    if divine decrees, issued long before one is born, causally determine
    what one does?  I don't know.  That position -- compatibilism about
    freedom and determinism -- has always seemed very implausible to me.
    But even among those who join me in rejecting compatibilism about
    freedom and determinism, many (and I think most) accept the
    compatibility of freedom and foreknowledge.

    If you believe that God knows ahead of time who will freely accept him
    in this life, then you must not really be an incompatibilist about
    freedom and foreknowledge, and you should have no objection to
    supposing that God can know ahead of time who will freely accept Him
    in the life to come.  Thus, this objection will have carry no weight
    with you.

    If, on the other hand, you hold that foreknowledge is incompatible
    with freedom, and thus hold that God does not know what people will
    freely do even in this life, then you should be aware that you are
    holding a minority opinion (at least among Christians, but I think
    also among philosophers, both Christian or non-Christian), and if you
    use this incompatibilism -- let's call incompatibilism regarding
    freedom and foreknowledge zealous incompatibilism, to distinguish it
    from the milder view that freedom is incompatible with
    pre-determination --, together with fervent exclusivism, in objecting
    to the universalist stance, then you should be aware that your
    argument is resting on an assumption that is highly debatable, to put
    it rather mildly.  So it certainly isn't anything of a "killer"
    objection to the universalist stance.  As far as assessing the
    strength of the objection to universalism that can be obtained by
    these worries about freedom goes, that's the important point: There is
    no strong objection here, since the objection is based on such a
    controversial position -- indeed, on two highly debatable positions:
    fervent exclusivism and zealous incompatibilism.

    Nevertheless, I myself am somewhat attracted toward these
    controversial views.  For those of you who join me in finding these
    positions appealing, despite their zealous/fervent nature, here are a
    couple of options for how to put zealous incompatibilism together with
    fervent exclusivism (or at least something close to it), and
    universalism (or at least something close to it) into a coherent
    package of views.  A way to think about these two options is that one
    (perhaps) compromises a bit on universalism, the other on fervent

    1.  Holding very firmly to both zealous incompatibilism (freedom is
    incompatible with foreknowledge) and fervent exclusivism (in order to
    be saved, one must freely accept Christ), one can hold that, while it
    may not be absolutely certain, it is OVERWHELMINGLY probable that all
    will eventually accept Christ and be saved, and the probability that
    any will resist forever is VANISHINGLY small.  After all, God will be
    on the case, and will have as much time as He needs.  While it is true
    that some are heading in the completely wrong direction, and give no
    sign that, left to their own devices, they will do anything but
    accelerate their progress in that wrong direction, they will not be
    left to their own devices.  There are actual instances in this life of
    breathtakingly dramatic turn-arounds, and God does intervene to bring
    people around in this life (without violating their freedom, according
    to the fervent exclusivist).  So once we jettison that disastrous and
    quite unsupported view that death is the end of one's chances, there's
    no reason to doubt that such divine activities will continue in the
    life to come, nor that they will (eventually, at least) be successful
    in yielding free acceptance.
        If one takes this option, I think one can still be counted as a
    universalist.  After all, you believe it is overwhelmingly probable
    that all will be saved, and in contested theological matters, we can't
    expect to reach beyond that level of certainty anyway.  (Indeed, due
    to the usual causes -- human fallibility on such tough questions --
    we're not even going to get up to that level of certainty, nor even
    close to it, on this or any other tough matter, anyway.)  But this
    does seem to compromise on universalism a bit, because one is not only
    admitting that one could (of course!) be wrong about the matter in
    question, but also that according to the position one holds (however
    firmly or tentatively), there is some (VANISHINGLY small, but still
    existent) objective chance that not all will be saved.  Not even God
    knows absolutely for certain that all will be saved.
        And this gives rise to a sticky question about whether God would
    have revealed that all will be saved if He was not absolutely certain
    that this would be so.  It's easy to feel uncomfortable about saying
    that's what God did -- even if He was amazingly close to being
    absolutely certain that what we was revealing to us is true.

    2.  So, here's another possibility.  God could pick some time in the
    distant future -- a time far enough off that it is overwhelmingly
    probable that all will have freely accepted salvation by then, given
    the (non-freedom-violating) means of persuasion God intends to employ
    -- and resolve to at that time compel acceptance of any hold-outs that
    are then left.  These would then be saved by their acceptance, though
    their acceptance might not be as valuable, given that it was not
    free.  Thus, God can be absolutely certain, and can therefore
    responsibly reveal to us, that all will be saved.  (There are many
    variations of this story that you might think up and think about for
    yourself.  For instance: God could pick different times for different
    individuals, etc.  Of course, any such story will be highly
    speculative, and so one probably shouldn't invest any confidence in
    any such tale.  Still, these can be helpful stories in that they show
    various ways that certain combinations of views can be made true, and
    thus can show the views themselves to be compatible, even if one can't
    be certain of the details of just how it will be worked out.  In this
    case, these stories illustrate ways that zealous incompatibilism and
    universalism -- and even foreknown universalism -- can both be true
    even while the value and importance of human freedom is respected to a
    great degree.)
        Now, this position does give up on fervent exclusivism (though not
    on strong exclusivism or exclusivism simpliciter), since it holds that
    one can be saved even if one does not freely accept Christ.
    Nevertheless, it does go a fair way toward accommodating the
    motivation behind fervent exclusivism -- the importance of human
    freedom -- in that it has God adopting a plan by which He goes to
    tremendous lengths to attain free acceptance from every person.  And
    those who hold this view can still maintain that it is far better and
    more valuable for a person to freely accept than for this acceptance
    to be coerced in a freedom-negating way.  But it does deny that one
    must freely accept in order to be saved, and thus it does deny fervent
    exclusivism.  Still, it's worth considering, for it gives those who
    might otherwise insist on fervent exclusivism a compromise position
    which doesn't simply write free acceptance off as unimportant.  This
    potential compromise position is especially valuable if I'm right
    about how one would likely come to be a fervent exclusivist in the
    first place: That there's no substantial scriptural support for
    fervent exclusivism itself, but that fervent exclusivism is the likely
    result of combining strong exclusivism (for which there is significant
    support) with a belief one might have that human freedom is
    important.  Since the compromise position respects the importance of
    human freedom, it is likely to be an attractive compromise.
        [Some fine print about a very tricky matter I just skated over
    above: It is worth noting that this view does depend on God's being
    able to foreknow with complete certainty what He Himself will do.
    Many who hold that God cannot foreknow what we will freely do seem to
    suppose that He can know what He Himself will do.  This gets too
    complicated for me to go into in detail here.  But whatever else you
    believe, if you think that God cannot know with complete certainty
    what He Himself will do, then, so long as you think that God will
    always have the power to make us miserable (which His omnipotence
    seems to assure), then you will be stuck with thinking that God cannot
    know with certainty that we won't be miserable at some later time.
    Thus, even those who hold that God cannot foreknow with complete
    certainty what we will freely do are very strongly motivated to hold
    that He can foreknow what He Himself will do.  This can be because
    God's freedom is in important ways different from ours.  In any case,
    when I speak of "zealous incompatibilism," I mean the position that
    God's certain foreknowledge is incompatible with human freedom.]

    The above options are sketched out as potentially helpful guides for
    those who are attracted to certain combinations of views involving
    freedom, foreknowledge, and salvation.  It's important to reemphasize
    in closing the important point reached several paragraphs above: that
    there is no strong objection to universalism that can be squeezed out
    of these thoughts -- at least not in any way that I can see.


    Recommended Books on Universalism:

    [20]The Inescapable Love of God, by Thomas Talbott
    [21]If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person, by Philip Gulley
    and James Mulholland.  Though I found this book quite valuable, I do
    disagree strongly with parts of it.  Most of my strong disagreement is
    with the material in Chapter 5.  Most relevant to the concerns of this
    web page, Gulley & Mulholland seem to reject the position I've been
    calling "exclusivism" -- the view that it is only through Christ that
    people are saved.  They seem to think that the denial of exclusivism
    follows directly from universalism [see pp. 124-5] and in any case
    give no other reason I can see for their denial.  As I've been at
    great pains to stress here, universalism can co-exist with what I'm
    here calling exclusivism, and even with strong exclusivism -- and
    perhaps even with fervent exclusivism.  Perhaps G&M would agree that
    universalism is compatible with exclusivism.  Perhaps their claim
    would be that while universalism is compatible both with exclusivism
    and with non-exclusivism, it fits in better with non-exclusivism.
    They write [they adopted the literary device of writing in the first
    person singular, though there are two of them]: "When I became
    convinced God would save every person, I tried to hold on to
    traditional Christian formulas -- the trinity, the incarnation, and
    atonement theology.  I wanted to pour this new wine into old
    wineskins.  I quickly learned why Jesus recommended against this: the
    old wineskins always burst.  Just as fermenting wine causes old
    leather to rend and tear, my expanding view of God strained the
    credibility of my childhood theology" (pp. 125-6).  Perhaps
    exclusivism, too, is part of that old wineskin that G&M now find not
    to fit in well with the new wine of universalism -- maybe they even
    intended to include exclusivism in the quoted passage, as part of the
    "atonement theology" of their childhood.   If so, my experience has
    been completely different.  The Christian theology I grew up with
    seems quite similar to what G&M were taught.  But I had always found
    it puzzling, given the relevant elements of this theology, why some
    would not be saved.  If salvation is won through Christ's sacrifice,
    and is then God's free gift to us, why would this gift be given only
    to some?  Of course, there were answers that were typically given to
    this question, but with one exception they struck me as implausible.
    (The one reason that seemed plausible was that only some accept the
    gift, but that raised the question, at least in many cases, some of
    which made the question quite urgent, of why the offer wouldn't be
    made under more favorable circumstances.)  When I accepted
    universalim, I found it to fit in better with the relevant elements of
    the theology of my childhood than did the denial of universalism.  So
    far from being new wine that strained and burst an old wineskin,
    universalism seemed to me like something that made a lot of previously
    puzzling elements of my childhood theology finally come together and
    make sense.


    1. http://pantheon.yale.edu/%7Ekd47
   16. http://www.tentmaker.org/books/Aion_lim.html
   17. http://tomtalbott.freeyellow.com/./index.html
   18. http://pantheon.yale.edu/%7Ekd47/about-the-end.htm
   19. http://pantheon.yale.edu/%7Ekd47
   20. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1581128312/qid=1058409463/sr=8-1/ref=sr_8_1/102-1631670-6917757?v=glance&s=books&n=507846
   21. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/006251704X/qid%3D1058409593/sr%3D11-1/ref%3Dsr%5F11%5F1/102-1631670-6917757

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