March 12, 2024

Universalism and Hell

Barry Cooper
Universalism and Hell

Why do some people claim that hell will ultimately be unpopulated? Today, Barry Cooper contrasts this idea with the clear teaching of Jesus on who will inherit eternal life and who will not.


Imagine you’re standing in front of a minefield. You’re a wise individual, so you ask an important question of a person standing nearby: “What must I do to get across here safely?”

Now if that bystander is a universalist, their answer will be something like this: “You don’t need to do anything in particular to get across the minefield safely. Everyone gets across safely.”

That’s universalism. The idea that ultimately, everyone is saved, regardless of whether or not they have put their trust in Christ.

To quote theologian J.I. Packer, “A universalist is someone who believes that every human being whom God has created or will create will finally come to enjoy the everlasting salvation into which Christians enter here and now.”

Regardless of whether you’re Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant evangelical, all agree that universalism is outside the bounds of orthodox Christian teaching.

But despite that fact, it’s been around a long time.

Back in 1647, John Owen wrote an exhaustive book called The Death of Death in the Death of Christ to refute the idea of “universal redemption.” 

And even further back, in 553 at the Second Council of Constantinople, the church denounced as heretical the belief that all beings, even Satan himself, would eventually be saved.

This is because, scripturally speaking, universalism is a nonstarter. If we consider the teaching of Jesus to have any weight at all, we have to reckon with the fact that He spoke about hell more than any other person in Scripture, and He clearly taught that—despite the claims of universalism—there would be people who go there.

For example, in Matthew chapter 25, Jesus speaks of the final judgment. He says that He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. He warns that to those who have rejected Him, He will say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Jesus refers to this explicitly as “eternal punishment.”

Now, if all will be saved, as universalism claims, then Jesus is lying here—or at least He’s in error—about what will happen at the final judgment. Because according to universalists, there will be no separation of sheep from goats, and no eternal punishment either.

To unpack every reference that Jesus makes to hell would be difficult in the short time we have. But to give a few more sobering examples: in Mark chapter 9, Jesus refers to hell as “unquenchable fire”; in Matthew chapter 13, He speaks of it as a place where people gnash their teeth in anguish; and in Luke chapter 16, Jesus makes it clear that once there, hell is impossible to leave.

Now it’s important to recognize when thinking about all this that hell is a case of “having it our way.” Romans chapter 1 makes it clear that God’s judgment involves “giving people over” to what they want. When people repeatedly reject God and demand that they be left to do as they see fit, there comes a time where God “gives them over” to that. In that sense, hell is something freely chosen. And this is one reason why hell is everlasting. Because it is the place where people become, finally and forever, what they have always been intent on becoming.

The second reason that hell is everlasting is because sin against an infinite, eternal being—God Himself—requires an infinite, eternal punishment. Those who have not trusted Christ have not had their sins paid for, and so must pay this infinite, eternal debt of punishment themselves.

Why is universalism so dangerous?

One reason is that it gives false hope: it tells people to believe that hell, if it exists at all, will ultimately be unpopulated.

Another reason is that in undermining what Jesus says about hell, it also undermines what Jesus says about everything. On what grounds, for example, would we trust Jesus’ promises about eternal life if we believe Him to be untrustworthy on the subject of hell?

So why is universalism still taught in some quarters, especially when it has been repeatedly and biblically refuted?

Some support the concept of universalism because surely, God is love! But how do we know God is love? Supremely, we know God is love because of the life and teaching of Jesus. And yet it is that same Jesus who teaches most clearly and most often about the reality of hell.

Gloriously, however, Jesus also teaches clearly and often about salvation. Though salvation will not be universal as long as there are people who reject Christ, His appeal is universal. There is no one to whom His free offer of salvation does not apply. This is what passages like John chapter 3 verse 17 are getting at when they say:

God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Some, hearing that verse in isolation, might conclude that this means the whole world—and everyone in it—will be saved. But of course, the verse immediately before it rules out that conclusion. There is a condition attached to salvation:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

In other words, we must believe in Christ to have eternal life.

Remember the minefield. What must I do to get across here safely? The jailer in Acts chapter 16 asked a very similar question: “What must I do to be saved?”

And the answer, given by the Apostle Paul, was very straightforward: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”

Let me urge you not to be taken in by the false promise of universalism. If you haven’t done so already, believe in the Lord Jesus, and be saved.