According to the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Vol. XII, Pg. 96) there “were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria…, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa…) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (…Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked.” In the first few centuries following the ascension of Christ, the majority of Christianity, or at least Christian scholarship, taught Universal Reconciliation – leaving the view of Eternal Torment in the small minority!
If you wonder how the widespread acceptance of these two views could have changed so dramatically between then and now, note that the school at Rome was the major institution teaching Eternal Torment in the year 500 A.D. With the rise of the Catholic Church, many views which were widely accepted in the early church were replaced by those of the “Universal Church.” I don’t point out this fact as a smear against Catholicism, it may be that Eternal Torment is the most correct of the three extant views of Hell. However, this information may give some Evangelicals pause in their rejection of Universal Reconciliation were they to realize that most of them hold the view they do largely because the Roman Catholic position overwhelmed the early and more widely accepted view of Universal Reconciliation.
Now that the history lesson is over…
This view begins with the assumption that God wants nothing less than that all people should be saved. The Bible, taken at face value, appears to communicate such a desire on the part of the Father:
Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
1 Timothy 2:1-6
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.
Nearly all non-Calvinists believe that God would prefer that all people would turn to Jesus and be saved, yet believe that most will never come to such a saving faith. Most people will be lost to Hell, beyond the reach of Salvation. This belief, however, may be the result of a persistent bias for the Eternal Torment view. Not only does the Bible make apparent claims that God desires all men to be saved, but it seems to hint in places that everyone will eventually be saved.
Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him,
things in heaven and things on earth.
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
It is important to note the distinction between Universal Reconciliation and other forms of universalism. All non-evangelical universalists that I am aware of make claims that all people will be saved regardless of the path they choose to take to God. You want to be a Muslim? Great! You want to be a follower of Buddha? Fantastic! You want to be a atheist? God honors you too! Apparently, according to standard universalists, God is just too nice a guy to punish anyone for anything.
Not so, says Universal Reconciliation. While God may eventually save all men, all men, when they are saved, will be saved by faith in the work of Christ on the cross. In this view, Hell exists for those who die without Jesus, but Hell is not a place of eternal torment but a place of torment which is the final tool that God uses to break the hard-hearted down and bring them to repentance and acceptance of Christ.
In addition to the Biblical statements like those above, there are also concepts taught in the Bible which appear to support Universal Reconciliation.
All Christians agree that even Mao Zedong, or Joseph Stalin, would be saved if they experienced genuine repentance on their death beds. The Universal Reconciliationist asks, “What is it about death that makes it the cut-off point?” If God is willing to accept our repentance just minutes before we die, why wouldn’t he be willing to accept repentance just moments after we die? Does God really say, “You're too late; I wanted to forgive you five minutes ago but I don’t want to forgive you now?” Where is it taught in scripture that one can’t repent after death?
I can think of two passages, off the top of my head, that could be raised in response to this question. The first is the often partially quoted Hebrews 9:27 – “…it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” I have cited this particular verse myself to justify the belief that death cuts off repentance. However, as I look at it again, with a Universal Reconcilationist cap on, this verse says nothing of the kind. If eternal torment is true, and the judgment of God on each of us is final and Hell is eternal, then this passage would confirm that death is the apparent cut-off point for repentance. However, if these assumptions are not true and if Hell is a place of torment used by God to bring the lost to repentance then this verse tells us nothing about the final destination of the lost; only that they are judged; which we knew already. If the Universal Reconciliationist is correct, then this judgment is temporary until the judged turn to Christ. It seems to me that Hebrews 9:27 could be used to support the idea that death is the cut-off point for forgiveness, if one has already concluded that the Eternal Torment view is correct, but if one is attempting to make up his mind about which view to hold then this verse doesn’t help.
I would also point out that the purpose of this passage at the end of the ninth chapter of Hebrews was not written by the author to inform us about the ability of sinners to repent after death. This brief sentence is used within a larger explanation of why, under the Old Covenant, animals had to be sacrificed repeatedly, yet it was only necessary for Christ to die on the cross once. To use it, as I have in the past, to justify death as the cut-off point for forgiveness is to yank the verse somewhat out of context.
The second passage that could be raised against Universal Reconciliation is at the very end of John’s first epistle:
1 John 5:16-17
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.
I know that this passage is very confusing to many, and is somewhat controversial. To keep this short I simply say that, for very interesting reasons that I hope to cover in another post, I have come to believe that John is telling his readers that they should pray for those who are still living and trapped in their sin, but not to bother praying for the salvation of those who have died. If I am right about this passage, then this would seem to be strange advice to give if those who have died are still capable of repentance, as Universal Reconciliation suggests.
That said, I try to hard to be realistic and thoughtful about all the views I hold, and would be negligent if I did not repeat that this passage is very mysterious and controversial. It would be advisable to take any person’s interpretation of this passage with a grain of salt (including mine), recognizing that there is no clear answer available to us today as to what exactly the Apostle is referring to.
There is one more argument in favor of Universal Reconciliation that I haven’t touched on yet, and in my mind it is the most powerful of them all. If Christ truly desires that all men should be saved and He paid the price for all men, yet because of Satan’s interference the majority of humanity is lost forever – then who is the real loser and who is the real winner for all eternity? Satan may be cast into the Lake of Fire at the Judgment, but even then he would be able to rejoice that he took the vast majority of men, the pinnacle of God's creation, made in His image, with him into that place to be separated from God forever. God wanted them saved, but the work of the Devil destroyed them, which seems to go against the teaching of scripture.
1 John 3:8
Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,
Christians believe that in the day Christ returns he will raise everyone to judgment. Once judgment has been passed and the sheep have been separated from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), the creator of all things will remake heaven and earth (Revelation 21-22), restoring what was lost at the fall, reclaiming what the Devil had taken – restoring both Heaven and Earth to their original glory and more (God is not in the business of simply fixing broken things, but of making them better than they ever were before). If God will restore all things, if every knee shall bow and every tongue confess, if all things both in heaven and on earth will be reconciled to Him through the blood of Jesus, then mightn’t God save all men, who are His greatest creation, made in His image, through that blood as well?
I don’t know.
But it certainly seems that such a sweeping salvation, such an incredible, complete restoration of all things could be the ultimate and grand plan of the Almighty God.