While there are numerous nuances within universalism, the common denominator is that all people without exception will one day be saved and, put negatively, that no one will experience eternal punishment. Universalism has recently made inroads into evangelical circles, and even though it typically rests more on theological or philosophical grounds than sustained exegetical analysis, occasionally evangelical-leaning universalists will look to Scripture for support, including the apostle Paul. Specifically, Paul’s occasional use of universal language to describe the scope of salvation provides, it is argued, sufficient exegetical warrant for interpreting Paul as a universalist.[1]

For our purposes, Paul’s occasional use of universal-salvation language will provide an apt point of departure. We will briefly describe what these texts say and why they are so commonly cited in support of Paul as a universalist. Then we will critique the universalistic interpretation of these texts on the basis that they do not comport with either the texts’ immediate literary contexts or Paul’s broader soteriological framework.

Paul’s “universal” texts

Some of the main texts used to support universalism in Paul include:

  • “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). [2]
  • “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Rom. 11:32).
  • “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).
  • “[S]o that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11).
  • “[A]nd through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).
  • And many others: Rom 14:11; 2 Cor 5:14–21; Eph 1:10; 1 Tim 2:4

Romans 5:18 and 1 Corinthians 15:22 are similar in that both set Adam and Christ in contrast, for just as Adam through his sin brought about death and condemnation for all, so Jesus through his righteousness brought about life and righteousness for all. Universalists contend that the “all” in Adam are coextensive with the “all” in Christ, suggesting all humanity will ultimately be saved. Romans 11:32 likewise is interpreted to mean that just as “all” without exception were disobedient, so “all” without exception will ultimately receive mercy. Hence, universalists contend that it is not human disobedience and divine judgment but rather God’s mercy that is the last word for every person.

Philippians 2:10–11 and Colossians 1:20 are similar in emphasizing universal recognition of Jesus’ exalted status. Universalists argue that in Philippians 2:10–11 universal glad-hearted thanksgiving and adoration are described: universality is indicated from the phrase “in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” and the nature of the worship as voluntary and glad-hearted is clear from the bowing of the knees and the tongues’ common Christian confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Colossians 1:20 goes a step further: not only does Paul call the effect of Jesus’ crucifixion “reconciliation”—a word that elsewhere in Paul suggests friendship and a renewed relationship with God (e.g. Rom. 5:10–11; 2 Cor. 5:18–20; Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:22)—but Paul also suggests the scope of the reconciliation is “all things,” which, from the context in 1:16, is interpreted as coextensive with the entire created order. Some universalists argue, therefore, that all that was created will also be ultimately redeemed, including the devil himself.  For Paul there were only two types of people in the world: those who believed the gospel and belonged to Christ, and those who didn’t believe the gospel and belonged to Adam. Click To Tweet

The need to interpret in context

At first glance, these texts seem to support universalism in Paul’s thought. Nevertheless, upon further analysis, such readings do not comport with either their immediate literary contexts or, more broadly, Paul’s soteriological framework. Regarding the significance of literary context, we must remember the necessity to interpret a text within its literary context. None of these texts occur within a literary vacuum but are part and parcel of a larger argument in Paul’s letters.

For instance, it is true that Romans 5:18, in keeping with 5:12–19, sets up an Adam/Christ contrast using universal terms. This is actually to be expected, for Paul thought in terms of old and new “humanities.” But 5:17 clarifies the identity of the new humanity as “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness.” The verb “receive” (lambanō) emphasizes both the gift-character of Christ’s work for us and our need to respond to it in faith (cf. Gal. 3:2, 14). The “all” who experience life in 5:18 must be coextensive with those who receive it in 5:17, which presumably does not include everyone without exception since not everyone has faith in Christ (2 Thess. 3:2).

Similarly, the “all” who are made alive in 1 Corinthians 15:22 most likely refers to all believers, not all people without exception. Recently Andrew Wilson has shown that, with regard to the resurrection to eternal life, the context of 1 Corinthians 15:22 concerns only the future resurrection of believers and does not consider the fate of unbelievers.[3] That believers are in mind is confirmed by how Paul describes them in the immediate context: they are “those also who have fallen asleep in Christ” (15:18)—a euphemism for Christians who have died (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13–16)—and “those who belong to Christ” (15:23). To be sure, the fate of unbelievers is considered in the following verses, but it is put in terms of destruction and subjection to Christ (15:24–27), not resurrection to eternal life.

The interpretation of Romans 11:32 also is clarified by analyzing its immediate literary context. This verse concludes Paul’s salvation-historical question in Romans 9–11 regarding the salvation of Israel. While there are numerous points of disagreement regarding the precise identity of “all Israel” in 11:26 and the term “fullness” (Rom 11:12, 25), the context strongly suggests that the question isn’t the salvation of every human being without exception, but rather the salvation of people groups: Jews and Gentiles.

It is unlikely, for instance, that Paul expected every Israelite without exception to be saved—a view that would appear to run roughshod over the reason for Paul’s “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” for ethnic Israelites (9:2; cf. 10:1), as well as his teaching on election that redefines “true Israel” (cf. 9:6–13; 11:1–1).  Hence, it is more likely both instances of the term “all” in 11:32 must refer to Jews and Gentiles as “all people groups” (cf. 11:30–31).

Finally, regarding Philippians 2:10–11 and Colossians 1:20, the context also clarifies the nature of the universal recognition of Jesus’ exalted status. Elsewhere in Philippians, Paul teaches that those oppose the gospel will be destroyed (1:28; 3:19), so it is difficult to see how he could teach universal salvation in 2:10–11. Furthermore, 2:10–11 alludes to Isaiah 45:22–25, in which God’s people are saved from the ends of the earth, and God’s enemies are put to shame. Hence, while it is possible that the confession of Jesus as Lord in Philippians 2:11 is glad-hearted and voluntary, in view of Isaiah 45:23 such would have to be restricted to all of God’s people, but would not include God’s enemies.

Alternatively, as many Philippians commentators suggest, one could interpret the accent of 2:10–11 as on universal subservience to Jesus in his exalted state, regardless of whether such subservience is glad-hearted and voluntary. In either case, it is difficult to see universal salvation as the point of 2:10–11. Similarly, in the context of Colossians 1:20, Paul asserts Jesus’ triumph over the principalities and powers, which likely includes demonic beings (cf. Col 2:15). The reconciliation of all things in 1:20, therefore, could indicate Jesus’ pacification and subjugation of these hostile powers.

Alternatively, if we wanted to maintain friendship with God as a core semantic component to the term “reconciliation,” the structure of 1:15–20 could provide the interpretive key: in 1:15–17 Jesus is described as the Creator of all things old, whereas in 1:18–20 he is described as the Creator of all things new. If so, this would explain why universal language is utilized in both sections of the text, for all created things, whether things in the old creation (1:15–17) or things in the new (1:18–20), owe their existence to Jesus the Creator.

In this view, the “all things” in 1:20 has the new creation as its referent, and is not necessarily coextensive with the “all things” in the old creation. The universal-salvation interpretation of these texts therefore does not pay sufficient attention to the immediate literary context.

The need to interpret within Paul’s soteriological framework

A right reading of these texts must also take into consideration Paul’s broader soteriological framework. For Paul, the plight of humanity was human sin, affected by Adam’s transgression (Rom. 5:12–19). All humanity is “under sin” (Rom. 3:9) and justly deserves God’s wrath. Despite this plight, God’s grace and love abounded. The cross of Christ demonstrated God’s remarkable love for his enemies, for Christ died for sinners (Rom. 5:6–8).

The cross was the mechanism by which God redeemed people from the penalty and power of sin, for it propitiated God’s wrath, thus demonstrating God’s judging and saving righteousness (Rom. 3:21–26). The cross, therefore, was grounded in God’s grace, and precisely because of this gift-character of salvation, it was to be received through faith in Christ, and all human effort was to be rejected as the basis for one’s righteousness before God.  Paul reminded the Thessalonians that when Christ returns God would make things right by meting out retribution to persecutors and all those like them. Click To Tweet

Because of this soteriological framework, for Paul there were only two types of people in the world: those who believed the gospel and belonged to Christ, and those who didn’t believe the gospel and belonged to Adam. Paul consistently held forth the promises of salvation to those who believe (e.g. Rom. 10:4–17; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8; 1 Tim. 4:10), and he never gave the impression that there was hope for salvation apart from faith in Christ (e.g. 2 Thess. 2:10–12). Indeed, Paul explicitly says those who do not belong to Christ will not experience eschatological salvation. They will not “inherit the kingdom” (1 Cor. 6:9–10; Gal. 5:19–21) — an inheritance that includes being raised to eternal life (1 Cor. 15:50).

Rather, as “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3), they are under a curse (1 Cor. 16:22; Gal. 1:8–9; 3:10) and will experience God’s wrath on the eschatological “day of wrath” (Rom. 2:5; cf. Rom. 9:22–23; Eph. 5:6). Their “end” (telos) is describe in terms of ultimate ruin, which is contrasted with eternal life (Rom. 6:21–22) and citizenship in heaven (Phil. 3:19–21). For them, Christ’s return will mean sudden and swift destruction (1 Thess. 5:2–3), and their final condemnation will be retributive and just, for it will be “according to their works” (cf. Rom. 2:1–11; 3:8; 14:10–12; 2 Cor. 11:15; Col. 3:25; 2 Tim. 4:14). Unlike Christians who grieve in hope, unbelievers have no hope of resurrection to life and thus grieve accordingly (1 Thess. 4:13).

Especially clear on the question of eternal condemnation is 2 Thessalonians 1:9. In 2 Thessalonians 1:5–10 Paul comforted the Thessalonians of the justice of God against the backdrop of their persecution. He reminded them that when Christ returns God would make things right by meting out retribution to the persecutors and all those like them, whose ultimate fate would be “eternal destruction” (olethron aiо̄nion, 1:9).

The adjective “eternal” (aiо̄nion) derives from the noun aiо̄n, which can refer to the duration of an “age” and thus can describe a temporal as opposed to an eternal reality (e.g. Matt. 12:32). Nevertheless, perhaps because of its close association with the life of the “age to come,” most often in the New Testament the adjective refers to that which never ends (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:1; Gal. 6:8; Heb. 9:12; 2 Pet. 1:11).[4] And even if the term refers to the duration of an age in 1:9, the age in question is assuredly the “age to come,” which in Pauline eschatology is unending. Hence, universalism inescapably flounders on this text, for God’s just judgment of unbelievers entails unending destruction.[5]

Paul was no universalist

In conclusion, the texts often used to support Paul as a universalist do not sufficiently take into account the literary context in which those texts appear. Further, universalism simply does not fit into Paul’s broader soteriological framework. Consistently, Paul admits of no hope for people who fail to believe the gospel. Never does Paul give the sense that unbelievers will have any post-mortem chances to believe in Christ; rather, their experience of God’s eschatological judgment will be final, unending, and irrevocable.

 


Endnotes

[1] See, for instance, M. Eugene Boring, “The Language of Universal Salvation in Paul,” Journal of Biblical Literature 105 (1986): 269-92.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are from the English Standard Version.

[3] Andrew Wilson, “The Strongest Argument for Universalism in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 59 (2016): 807-08.

[4] See the entry for aiо̄nios in Walter Bauer, Frederick William Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilber Gingrich, A Greek- English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 33.

[5] For an excellent discussion of this text and the meaning of the term “destruction” (olethron) in 1:10, see Douglas J. Moo, “Paul on Hell,” in Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, eds. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 103-08.

Image credit: David Najar, Bright Beginning