Universalism is the idea that everyone goes to heaven. This idea is held by some Christians, based on statements in the Bible that God wants “all men to be saved” or that imply that Jesus came to save the “whole world” (1 Timothy 2:1-4; 1 John 2:2; etc.). But these statements are qualified by many other passages of Scripture. I will show that universalism is not a biblical doctrine.
First, let’s consider how the words “all,” “every,” and “whole” are used in the Bible. These words are not always all-encompassing. That is, they are not always to be considered in a wooden literal sense as in “every last one.” Sometimes these terms, just as we use them in modern English, are hyperbole. Consider these passages:
In Mark 9:23 Jesus said that “All things are possible for one who believes.” Are literally ALL things possible for the believer? I am confident that Jesus did not mean that just because I am a believer that I could be an Olympic athlete.
In Matthew 8:34 we see that, “All the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw Him, they begged him to leave their region.” It is doubtful that literally every last person, including women and children, left what they were doing and went out to see Jesus to complain. The point of the passage is that Jesus became a controversial figure and well known among many in the community.
In Mark 1:5 the text says that “all” the country of Judea and “all” Jerusalem were going out to John the Baptist to be baptized in the Jordan River, and confessing their sins. The meaning of this passage is certainly not literally “all,” but rather people came from every part of Judea to be baptized.
In Luke 2:1 it is written that “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Obviously, that means the Roman World and not the entire globe.
In 1 Peter 1:4:7, Peter said that “The end of all things is at hand.” Believers today mistakenly think Peter was speaking of the end of all things in the physical universe, which would be the literal meaning. But since the earth is still here, he must have meant something else. That something else was that the end of all COVENANTAL THINGS were at hand. The Jews did not have a concept of the end of the literal world. Rather, they thought in theological terms. Peter was reflecting the coming end of the visible fabric of Judaism—the great temple and with it the end of ritual animal sacrifices for sin—forever. Jesus had told them that this would happen in their generation (Luke 21:22, 32). This is reflected by all of the biblical writers. For example, the writer of Hebrews said, “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
In Revelation 1:7 we find the statement that “every eye will see Him” at his Parousia. Futurists take this statement literally, and read into it that every single person around the entire globe will see Jesus, aided by modern television. But this statement does not demand that every last person would see Jesus, but rather, the statement is a superlative one about the encompassing majesty of Jesus at his Parousia. There are several things that qualify the statement. Obviously, it is qualified by living persons, not dead persons. Second, it is qualified by “those who pierced Him” and “tribes of the earth” which limit the statement to the Jews of the first century. It is also qualified by other passages such as Matthew 26:64 in which tells the Jewish leaders that is THEY who will witness his coming in judgment. It is still further qualified by history. Josephus related that chariots were seen in the sky over Jerusalem in about AD 66, and stated “those who saw it. . . ”—implying that not all saw it. This event was reported by other ancient historians and satisfies the visibility requirement of Revelation 1:7.
In 1 Timothy 2:1-4 we find that God wants “all men to be saved.” However, this does not necessarily mean that all men will be saved. Given the numerous passages on election, obedience, free will, and limitations of those who are saved, this passage is best understood as “all types of people, Jews or Gentiles and whatever their station in life.”
In 1 John 2:2 we read that Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the “whole word.” Does this mean everyone goes to heaven? Of course not. This statement is qualified by other passages, including those written by John himself. In his gospel, John limits salvation to those who believe (John 3:16). So how are we to understand the “whole” world in 1 John? Again, think about the perspective of the first century Jews. They had previously understood that salvation was available only to other Jews, with whom God made his first covenant. But what was changing was that salvation was now available to the rest of the world—that is, the Gentiles. So salvation had become AVAILABLE for the whole world—to anyone who believed in Jesus.
In John 12:14 we find that Jesus will draw “all men to himself.” But such statements as these, which are used by those advocating universal salvation, are qualified by Scripture, as we shall see below.
Salvation is selective and specific. Let’s examine the selective nature of salvation. Salvation is specifically limited to:
- those who are the elect (Matthew 24:31; 2 Timothy 2:10, 19; Titus 1:1-3; 1 Peter 1:1-3), chosen since before the beginning of the world (Ephesians 1:3-12), and predestined for salvation (1 Thessalonians 5:9; 1 Peter 2:7-9)
- those who are chosen (Matthew 22:14; Colossians 3:12; 1 Thessalonians 1:4-10; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17; James 2:5; Revelation 17:14)
- those who are appointed to eternal life (Acts 13:48)
- those who heard the word of salvation and believed (John 5:24; Ephesians 1:13)
- those who believe (Luke 18:14; John 1:11-13; 3:16, 18; 36; 11:25-26; Romans 10:11; Acts 10:43; Romans 1:16; 3:22-26; 1 Timothy 1:16; Hebrews 3:19; 6:12; 11:1-40; 1 Peter 1:5; 2:6; 1 John 5:5; etc.)
- those on whom God has mercy (Romans 9:18)
- those whom God calls to himself (Acts 2:39; Romans 1:5-6; 8:30; Hebrews 9:15; Revelation 17:14)
- those to whom it is granted by God (2 Peter 1:3-4)
- those who are known by Jesus (Matthew 7:23)
- those for whom a place has been prepared (Matthew 20:23; Mark 10:40)
- those to whom the truth is revealed (Luke 10:21-24)
- those who receive Him (John 1:12; Revelation 3:20-21)
- those who are born again (John 3:4-8; 1 Peter 1:3)
- those to whom Jesus gives life (John 5:21)
- those whose eyes have not been blinded by God (John 12:39-40) or their minds hardened (2 Corinthians 3:14-18)
- those who do not reject salvation (Hebrews 2:3) or harden their hearts (Hebrews 3:7-15)
- those who were given to Jesus (John 17:2, 6, 9, 10, 24)
- those who call on the name of the Lord (Acts 2:21; Romans10:13)
- those who received the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11)
- those who persevere in the faith (Matthew 10:22; Romans 11:17-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-2; Colossians 1:21-23; 2 Timothy 2:12; Hebrews 3:14)
- those whose names are in the “book of life” (Philippians 4:3; Revelation 13:8-9; 17:8; 20:15)
- those who are not deluded and thus condemned (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12)
- those who confess Jesus (Romans 10:9; 1 John 4:15)
- those who have the Son (1 John 5:10-12)
- those who do not deny Christ and are thus not designated for condemnation (Jude 4,5)
- those who are faithful (Revelation 2:10; 17:14)
- those who repent (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30-31; 1 John 1:9)
- those who love God (Deuteronomy 7:9; Romans 8:28; James 2:5)
- those who love others (1 Corinthians 13:2-3; Galatians 5:6; 1 John 4:12, 20, 21)
- those who enter through the narrow way (Matthew 7:12-14)
- those who do not deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of truth (Hebrews 10:26-27)
- those who have not rejected God the Father (Romans 1:18-32), God the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-29), or God the Son (John 3:36; John 8:24)
- those who are obedient (Deuteronomy 7:9; 9:16-18; Nehemiah 1:5; Psalm 25:10; 103; 11-19; Ezekiel 18; Matthew 5:19-20; 6:19-21; 7:16-27; 10:38; 12:36-37; 12:50; 13:36-43; 16:25-27; 18:23-35; 25:31-46; Mark 8:34-35; Luke 6:46-49; 10:25-37; 11:28; John 5:29; 8:51; 14:21-24; 15:1-6, 10, 14; Acts 5:32; Romans 1:18; 2:1-16; 6:1-23; 8:13; 14:17-18; 1 Corinthians 3:13-15; 6:9-11; 7:19; 9:24-27; Galatians 5:19-21; 6:7-9; Ephesians 5:3-14; Philippians 2:12-18; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9; 2:10; 1 Timothy 4:16; 2 Timothy 2:21-22; Titus 1:16; Hebrews 3:6-18; 10:36; 12:14-17; James 1:12-15; 2:17-26; 1 Peter 1:22; 2:1-2; 1 Peter 4:17-19; 2 Peter 1:10-11; 1 John 1:6-7; 1 John 2:29; 3:16-24; 5:2-3; Jude 1:7; Revelation 2:2-11; 3:8-12; 21:5-9, 27; 22:14-19)
- Not even everyone who calls Jesus “Lord” enters the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21; James 2:19).
- Jesus said He would give his life for "many." Many does not equal all (Mark 10:45).
- A certain type of sin is unforgivable (Mark 3:28-29). Theologians teach that the unforgivable sin is a willful and continual rejection of God.
- Resurrection to damnation cannot be universalism (Daniel 12:2; Matthew 18:9; John 5:28-29; Jude 7; etc.).
- Everlasting destruction cannot be universalism (2 Thessalonians 1:8-10).
- Eternal fire for those cursed cannot be universalism (Matthew 25:41).
- The wrath of God against unrighteousness cannot be universalism (Romans 1:18).
- The fiery lake of burning sulfur cannot be universalism (Revelation 21:8).
- Resisting or betraying Jesus is said to lead to a curse worse than if he had never been born (Mark 14:21). Such a curse cannot be universalism.
- The “road to destruction” cannot be universalism (Matthew 7:13-14).
Finally, God is a god of love (John 3:16; 1 John 4:8; etc.). But God hates sin and indeed throughout the Bible we see that God is also a god of wrath (Psalm 2:4-6, 5:4-6, 7:11, 11:5, 89:46, 90:7-11; Proverbs 6:16-19, 12:22, Ezekiel 36:16-21; Hosea 5:10, 9:15; Nahum 1:2-6; Zephaniah 3:6-8; Malachi 1:3; Matthew 21:40-45, 23:29-39; John 3:36; Romans 1:18, 9:22-24; 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12; Hebrews 10:30-31). He is not simply a grandfatherly figure in the sky that gives out candy. While some may hope for a different God than the God of the Bible, God’s nature is one of justice. We must infer that for God to forgive, without repentance and faith before God Almighty, the heinous crimes of Hitler or ISIS, or serial rapists, or child molesters—is contrary to God’s nature—and indeed, contrary to common sense.
While universalists may be perfectly sincere in their belief, I believe they are not considering the whole counsel of God. To ignore the holy and wrathful side of God is, indeed, inventing a God to suit oneself, which is idolatry. God has provided a plan of salvation as an expression of his mercy. That plan is available to all those who accept Christ as their personal savior.
by Charles S. Meek
See also our Faith Facts article What about People Who Never Heard of Christ.