“And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:46
The crucial issue for missions and world evangelism in this decade is the question of final destiny. Never in the history of the church has the teaching of Jesus Christ on this subject been questioned so widely by those who profess allegiance to his authority. To the extent these views prevail, to that extent motivation for missions diminishes. I speak on this theme periodically, but it is so critical I feel I must address the issue again and build on that foundation.
What does Jesus say about the final destiny of human beings? Read Matthew 25:31-34, 41, 46. The historic view of the church is that all who have not trusted Jesus Christ for salvation will go into eternal, conscious punishment. There are problems with this concept. Is not eternal pain a disproportionate punishment for sin lasting no more than a few decades at most? Like giving life imprisonment for parking in a handicapped parking space. Is it fair, let alone loving, to send Socrates to hell when he never even heard of Christ? It’s like giving the death penalty to a mother who gave her child the wrong medicine, in error.
In response to these basic questions about the justice and love of God, many proposals have been made contrary to the traditional view, but let us focus on the three major theories.
Universalism. There are verses in Scripture that sound like all will ultimately be saved: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” (Rom 5.18) There are a few others, but the vast majority of Scripture texts that speak of final destiny, assign some to life and some to death. So it is a hermeneutical problem- which set of texts do you explain in the light of the other?
The first principle is to look at the context. Context is king! Consider Romans 5:18. Now, look at verses 15, 19, and then at chapters 1,2,3. For example: Romans 1:32 after the “God gave them up’s” and 2:12. There are not many texts that could be made to imply universal salvation and virtually all of them have contexts similar to this.
The second principle of interpretation that bears on this is to seek the unity of the Scripture, interpret any passage in the light of all Bible teaching on the subject, giving weight to the clear and pervasive. The teaching of both Old and New Testaments on the destiny of humankind is overwhelming and clear that there are two destinies. The small number of passages that seem to diverge from this should be understood in that light.
It is impossible to reconcile the vast majority of texts to the concept of universal salvation and it is quite easy to reconcile the handful of universalist-sounding texts to those which speak of judgment and final separation from God. In fact, the biblical case is so weak for universalism that very few- if any- who hold it also hold a high view of Scripture.
Limited Universalism. The idea is that salvation is universal and will be received by all unless a person opts out, deliberately rejects Jesus Christ.
The primary text for this position is John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (NIV). I’m not aware of other passages to which an appeal may be made, so the case for this is very weak. Even the same chapter repeatedly says that salvation comes only to those who have faith in Jesus Christ.
There is also a philosophical problem with this position – if people are lost only upon rejection of Jesus Christ, to proclaim him is not good news but bad news. As long as you don’t know about him you’re safe, but if you hear about him you will be lost if you reject him. Better to bury the gospel than to proclaim it.
Suppose a person responds sincerely with obedience to this universal light? This view holds that God will receive him because he is already redeemed and has not chosen to reject the light he has been given. A cluster of verses which suggest that salvation depends on one’s own effort is used to support the position.
In Matthew 25 Jesus seems to divide the sheep and the goats on the basis of behavior. Peter, after meeting Cornelius, concluded, “I now perceive that whoever fears God and has done good works is acceptable to God.” Thus, it is held that salvation is granted in response to sincere good behavior, a positive response to the light one has.
This position must be held against the overwhelming New Testament teaching that salvation is not attainable by good behavior, that it is granted only to those who have faith in Jesus Christ. Once again, the minority teaching of Scripture must be reconciled to the majority teaching, not the other way around, if Scripture is to be held as the final authority.
But what if a person does accept the light of creation and innate moral conviction? God’s response is not salvation, but more light. Scripture is clear that rejection of light brings greater darkness and acceptance of light brings greater light. As in the case of Cornelius, when one responds positively to the light he has, God takes the initiative and gets greater light to him.
And whatever the ultimate, complete truth, should we not follow his example and not affirm what he did not? If we discover that some have been saved through some extraordinary means not revealed in Scripture we can rejoice then, but not hold out that hope now based on speculation. It would be criminal to do so.
God is brokenhearted over the lost, so must we be. I dread to speak on this subject. I hate even to think of it. If revelation were not so clear and the consequences so terrible I would banish it from my mind. Weep with Jesus and follow him to your own Calvary for a lost world.