Friday, March 25, 2011

Does everybody get his wings?

A village universalist has been making a nuisance of himself around the blogosphere, so I’ll comment on his case for universalism.

The most common objection people offer to this idea is that they cannot imagine God letting bad people into heaven.

Since that’s not my objection to universalism, that’s a red herring.

The first reason we have for believing that everyone is going to heaven are the promises made in the Bible.  For example, we’re told there would be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.  Well, Jesus was deemed the only truly righteous human ever to have lived (at least the only one who met God’s standard – that is, perfection).  Therefore, He is “the righteous” that gets resurrected and the rest of us are “the wicked.” 

That disregards Biblical usage. When the Bible distinguishes the righteous from the wicked in eschatological settings, it isn’t using “righteous” in that specialized sense. It doesn’t use “righteous” as a synonym for sinless.

We’re also told in the Bible that He’s the Savior of the world; and that He died not just for the sins of believers but for those of the whole world; and that as in Adam all die, in Christ shall all be made alive; and so on the promises go.

i) In Johannine usage, kosmos is qualitative, not quantitative. Cf. BDAG 562b; EDNT 2:312f.

ii) In context, 1 Cor 15:22 denotes the resurrection of the just (i.e. Christians), and not humanity in general. Cf. Ciampa & Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 763-64.

The second reason we have for believing that everyone is going to heaven is the nature of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  Assuming you know something of the life Jesus lived on earth, can you imagine Him consigning people to an eternity of fiery torment? 

i) Actually, I don’t have to imagine it. It’s already in the record. Jesus consigns the goats to eternal misery (Mt 25:41,46). Jesus is the fiery avenger (2 Thes 1:5-10). Jesus is the hanging judge (Rev 6). Jesus is the warrior-king (Rev 19).

ii) Since, moreover, I, unlike Mike, am a Trinitarian, I also think the Son of God was party to OT judgments like the flood and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. So that’s a typical precedent of worse to come.

Yes, there is judgment for sin in the earth and Jesus took pains to warn us of it graphically, but even the worst life on earth eventually comes to a merciful end.  It would be entirely inconsistent with Jesus’ nature to put us in a place where repentance was impossible.  Repenting is the thing He most wants us to do.

Of course, that’s not an argument. That begs the very question at issue.

The third reason we have for believing this truth is that God’s message of Jesus Christ is called good news.  It would not be good news if some of our fellow human beings had to spend eternity separated from us and punished mercilessly.  Don’t feel that way?  Then you’re not loving your brother as Jesus told us to.

i) The gospel isn’t meant to be good news for the impenitent. It’s only good news if you comply with the terms of the gospel.

ii) In NT usage, a “brother” is not synonymous with human beings generally. It’s not synonymous with unbelievers.

Lastly, according to the way the Bible describes the construction and reconstruction of the universe, there’s now nowhere else for folks to go but heaven.  The original universe had people dying and going below to a place called Sheol in Hebrew (called Hades in Greek).  This was the place to which all the dead went – good and bad. Even Jesus went there.  (After all, how could the dead be raised unless they were below to start with?)  So when Jesus was raised from the dead and ascended in to heaven, saying we would one day join Him there, well, that was stunningly good news that none of His disciples had ever expected.  They were thrilled with the notion of resurrection – to find out that they’d be raised not just to earth but all the way to heaven, where God lived – well, that was more than any of them would have asked for.  At the coming of the kingdom of God, and the consummation of that age, Sheol was done away and dead from that point began going up to heaven instead of down to Sheol.  Don’t think that happened?  Then you must believe everyone is still going below to Sheol when they die.  In that case, no one but Jesus would be in heaven at this point.  But don’t fear, the reconstruction of the spiritual side of the universe occurred on exactly the timetable that Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles said it would (Jesus Christ Has Already Come Again).  There is no more Sheol; there is only heaven for those who die.

A series of crippling errors:

i) How do we define sheol?

a) Bruce Waltke defines sheol as the “grave.” Cf. An Old Testament Theology, 965; The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15, 116.

If you prefer that definition, then “sheol” is just a synonym for “death.” To say decedent “goes to sheol” is just an idiomatic way of saying that everyone dies.

That doesn’t mean everyone goes to the same “place,” or that everyone shares the same ultimate destiny. It just means we all die. We share a common fate in the sense that we are mortal.

b) Philip Johnson defines “sheol” as the “netherworld.” Cf. Shades of Sheol, esp. chap. 3.

If you prefer that definition, then that amounts to the same thing as the grave. It’s the difference between a literal meaning (“the grave, death and burial”) and a figurative meaning (“the netherworld/underworld”).

To say every decedent passes into the netherworld is picture-language. A graphic metaphor for death and burial. Indeed, the imagery of the netherworld is drawn from ANE burial customs.

This is reinforced by the fact that “sheol” frequently occurs in poetic passages, where we’d expect figurative imagery. And even in narrative passages, the stock, idiomatic figures of speech carry over.

ii) Since the dead are discarnate spirits, they don’t literally go any place.

iii) Biblical cosmography is figurative. And even at that level, cosmographic descriptions of the final state preserve a final separation between the righteous and the wicked. The saints are inside the New Jerusalem while the damned are outside the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:22-27; 22:14-15). So there’s a separate “place” for both. A compartmentalized afterlife. 

iv) In Rev 20:10, “sheol” (Gr.=hades) is a personification or synonymous parallel with “death.” “Sheol” is cast into the lake of fire. However, the lake of fire remains. The lake of fire takes the place of sheol. The damned are punished in the lake of faire. Cf. C. Morgan & R. Peterson, eds. Hell Under Fire, 129ff.

v) Mike misconstrues his prooftexts. Eph 4:9 doesn’t teach the descent into hell during Holy Saturday. Rather, here are major the exegetical options:

a) A figurative description of the Incarnation. Cf. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, 294-96.

b) A figurative description of Jesus’ victory over sin at Calvary. Cf. Hoehner, Ephesians, 533-36.

b) A reference to a post-Easter appearance to evil spirits to signal their defeat and subjugation. Cf. Arnold, Ephesians, 252-54; Thielman, Ephesians, 268-72.

Likewise, 1 Pet 3:19-20 has reference to a post-Easter appearance to evil spirits to signify their defeat and subjugation. Cf. Jobes, 1 Peter, 242-45.

vi) “Raised from the dead” doesn’t mean raised from the netherworld. When Jesus was raised, his body was in the tomb, not the netherworld. Same thing with Lazarus (Jn 11), and the OT saints in Mt 27:52-53. What is “raised” is the body, not the soul.


  1. "It would not be good news if some of our fellow human beings had to spend eternity separated from us and punished mercilessly."

    Yep, this is the bad news for all mankind. "But God..." Eph. 2:4 is the good news.

    Nice post. Thanks.

    I like to ask universalists why did Jesus say, "You would better off never being born"?

    Have a great and grace filled weekend and Lord's day.