The title for this (hopefully short) blog post comes from Jesus’ conversation after the rich young ruler has sadly walked away, though my use of it has little to do with being rich and everything to do with following Jesus:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” ~ Matthew 19:23-25 (see also Mark 10:24-26 and Luke 18:24-26, where the reading is essentially identical. Someone got off by a verse when numbering Matthew 19.)
I wish that I could believe in universal salvation. I would like to. I would like to hope that people who have committed even the most heinous of crimes and sins might have a chance to view the glory of God, turn their hearts, bow to His sovereignty, and be saved forever, reconciled to Him eternally.
I would like to.
Universalism as a doctrine answers the question “Who then can be saved?” with “Everyone!” but goes a bit farther to say that everyone, eventually, will be saved. I disagree with this teaching.
While it is clear from 2 Peter 3:9 that God’s desire is for all to be saved, it is also clear that His desire is for all to come to repentance. Repentance is what was taught by every good leader and prophet of Israel right up to and including Jesus. It is predicated upon faith in God’s goodness and a willingness to be a part of it. It’s leaving behind what self wants and doing/saying/being what God wants. God gave people choice, beginning in the garden east of Eden, and has shown His respect for that power of choice ever since — including His permission to let consequences befall the one who makes a choice and all those whom it affects, and His promise to punish those who choose evil and reward those who choose good (Matthew 25:31-46; Revelation 20:11-15). This is pretty basic stuff, really. You’d have to re-wire scripture pretty thoroughly, start to finish, to make it say something else.
At the same time, scripture also describes God as having freedom of choice Himself. He is sovereign. He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” (Exodus 33:19. Also quoted by Paul in Romans 9:15.) Yet He is also described as One who “does not show favoritism, but accepts from every nation those who fear Him and do right.” (Acts 10:34-35) It’s really difficult for us to be both impartial and selective. How can He be both? He’s God, and as Jesus explains in that discourse quoted above, everything is possible with God.
God is able to rule and judge equitably. (Psalm 9:8; 67:4; 75:2; 96:10; 98:9, etc.) He is able to do that because He is both just and merciful, righteous and gracious, a balance that is difficult-to-impossible for you or me, but simply His divine nature. (Psalm 116:5; Romans 11:22)
And He expects us to imitate the good He has shown us:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. ~ Micah 6:8
That’s really difficult to get our heads, hearts, souls and arms around, even though we may love Him with all of them just as He desires. So there are all sorts of doctrines besides Universalism about salvation: Calvinism (usually called “Reformed Thought” these days), Arminianism, teachings of the churches of Christ … they’re all out there. It’s soteriological soup.
To the very best of my understanding, here’s what scripture says:
We make choices.
He makes a choice.
Everyone can be saved … everyone who chooses good; everyone who chooses God.
So let me just reiterate that we can trust God to make a good choice, a fair choice, a just choice, a merciful choice. All of that may be beyond us — though we are called to imitate Him in making our choices — but all of that is not beyond Him.
Once again, right after the conversation as it was related above:
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” ~ Matthew 19:26
Salvation that’s beyond our capability calls for our choice to live the life of the One who is capable and chose to give up His life for us, to satisfy His own just and merciful nature.
The fact that scripture describes God — in the person of Jesus, the Christ — judging mankind, to me, is the single most persuasive argument that mankind must be judged; that those who are wicked by choice and impenitent about it have no place in the eternal life of peace with God; and that the life to come would be essentially no different from our lives now if evil was not destroyed in an ending to this life … except that the selfishness and hatred and greed and oppression and harm and rape and torture and attempts at murder would simply continue forever.