A Quote of Note—- Paul on Universalism

One of the texts most frequently used to prove Paul believed that in the end all human beings would be saved is of course the material in the Christ hymn in Phil. 2.5-11, particularly the line “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is the Lord….”   The problem with this conclusion is two fold.     1)  The partial quotation of Isaiah 45 provides a clue as to Paul’s thinking at this juncture since Isa. 45.24 refers not to universal salvation but rather says that “all who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame.”  2)  Phil.
1.28 has already referred to the destruction of those who oppose Christ.

Thus, while Paul could be referring to universal recognition at the eschaton that Jesus is Lord, this would hardly be different from the sort of universal recognition in America that Barack O’Bama is actually President, whether one wants that to be the case, or is happy that is the case, or is prepared to honor that fact or not.   Universal recognition of a fact does not imply endorsement of or a drawing on the benefits of the said fact.   To use another  example where fealty is given but praise may be withheld, a person may well not want to swear his allegiance to some particular President of  the U.S.A. but if, for example, he serves in the military, he will, one way or another have to serve the commander in chief whether he does so with a heavy heart or wholeheartedly. He cannot deny that the President is the President even if he is not best pleased about it.    So too, Paul is saying that the day is coming when all will recognize who is the true Lord of the universe, whether they are best pleased by this reality or embrace this reality or not.

  • http://www.nearemmaus.com Daniel Levy

    Hello, Dr. Witherington:

    Great thoughts on the Philippians 2:5-11 passage. I love your work on it. I’m thoroughly thrilled for your new Philippians commentary and to hear what you have to say in it.

    And since you’re the best book reviewer in the world, I wanted to throw in a request. Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God.” – If you ever get to that, it would be great!

    Hope to see you present at the SBL or ETS!


  • http://www.hongkongudy.com Karl Udy

    After all the kerfuffle over the president’s birth certificate, who’d have thought he was Irish after all?

  • http://jeremiahduomai.blogspot.com/ Jeremiah Duomai

    The explanation does make sense!

    Brother, if you could explain on ‘food offered to idols’ and whether believers could partake of it or not I would be very grateful. Many of us in India, including me, have relatives who are Hindus, and we continue to struggle with that again and again.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Jeremiah I have explained this at length in my Acts commentary. The prohibition in Acts 15, and implemented in 1 Cor. 8-10 refers to Gentiles not going to pagan temples and eating. The issue is food offered in the presence of idols as a form of worship. The issue is not menu, its venue and worship. As Paul says in 1 Cor. 10, whatever you find in the meat market you can eat without issues of conscience. It’s when meat is offered up to an idol as part of a banquet in a pagan temple that it is a no no.


    Ben W.

  • http://www.chadholtz.net Chad Holtz

    Hi Ben,
    Isn’t it important, however, that Paul does not quote that part of Isa?

    Another quote from Isaiah is, of course, Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4 where he quotes from Isaiah 61:1-2. However, Jesus curiously omits “and the day of vengeance of our God” from his mission. If we apply what you say about what Paul may be inferring from the Christ Hymn, should we not apply the same to Jesus in Luke?

    And yet, many would argue that it is quite significant that Jesus omitted what he did, making a powerful theological point. One that nearly got him killed that day.


  • http://www.chadholtz.net Chad Holtz

    I’d also point out that “being put to shame” for raging against God is a far cry different from eternal, conscious torment in hell or even annihilation. I would argue that “being put to shame” is perhaps the beginning of reconciliation. As Volf puts it, there can be no embrace without exclusion.

  • http://www.thinktheology.org Luke Geraty

    I’ve always thought that when the NT folks don’t fully quote some of these passages it was related to the two phases of Jesus parousia.

    And I’ve considered it different ways in which we understand the “already/not yet” of the Kingdom.

  • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

    Your argument, as outlined in your first paragraph, can be refuted in 1) by the fact that being “put to shame” is not mutually exclusive with “bowing the knee” (In fact, some will acknowledge Him in honor, and some will do so in shame), and 2) by challenging your assertion that 1:28 takes the opposers of Christ out of the Christ hymn equation by pointing out the fact that 2:10 makes pretty clear than no one is being left out of that equation.

    Moreover, Philippians 2:5-11 is by no means Paul’s only or even his strongest assertion that everyone is going to heaven. Two such examples: Rom 5:19 and 1 Cor 15:22. Note particularly in Romans 5 that while the effect of Adam’s sin was universal, the effect of Christ’s righteous is claimed by Paul to be even more powerful. In any case, Paul thinks that grace’s reach is no less universal than sin’s.

  • Josh Mueller

    How about we take Isaiah 45 on its own terms? Isn’t the whole point of the passage that human rebellion will not have the last word but God’s salvific purposes? The fact that God is taking an oath here and that He explicitely won’t revoke it begs the question whether the human “no” towards God can ultimately prevail in the way we understand hell or annihilation.

    And if I may interject a systematic theological point as well:

    If the whole point of love is its non-coerciveness, what would a final universal confession really accomplish or prove when it is nothing but mere lip service without any correspending inner reality? I personally see no point, for example, for a death row candidate (we’re talking second death now) to speak the words: “I guess you are in charge after all and have the power to snuff out my conscious existence now!”

    I really can’t hear that in Isaiah’s prediction that people universally will not only be put to shame but also confess the Lord as their righteousness and strength.

  • http://none Denise

    these passes make it very clear that “all” will be saved for it says that even the city of Sodom will be brought back and they will see their wrong and Satan himself will also be changed.
    Justified: All are going to be forgiven Even Satan
    Ezeloe; 16:
    51 “Samaria did not commit half of your sins; but you have multiplied your abominations more than they, and have justified your sisters by all the abominations which you have done. 52 You who judged your sisters, bear your own shame also, because the sins which you committed were more abominable than theirs; they are more righteous than you. Yes, be disgraced also, and bear your own shame, because you justified your sisters.
    53 “When I bring back their captives, the captives of Sodom and her daughters, and the captives of Samaria and her daughters, then I will also bring back the captives of your captivity among them, 54 that you may bear your own shame and be disgraced by all that you did when you comforted them. 55 When your sisters, Sodom and her daughters, return to their former state, and Samaria and her daughters return to their former state, then you and your daughters will return to your former state. 56 For your sister Sodom was not a byword in your mouth in the days of your pride, 57 before your wickedness was uncovered. It was like the time of the reproach of the daughters of Syria[c] and all those around her, and of the daughters of the Philistines, who despise you everywhere. 58 You have paid for your lewdness and your abominations,” says the LORD. 59 For thus says the Lord GOD: “I will deal with you as you have done, who despised the oath by breaking the covenant.
    An Everlasting Covenant
    60 “Nevertheless I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you. 61 Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed, when you receive your older and your younger sisters; for I will give them to you for daughters, but not because of My covenant with you. 62 And I will establish My covenant with you. Then you shall know that I am the LORD, 63 that you may remember and be ashamed, and never open your mouth anymore because of your shame, when I provide you an atonement for all you have done,” says the Lord GOD.’”
    Romans 8: 18 For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
    19 For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.
    20 For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope,
    21 Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
    22 For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.
    23 And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.
    24 For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?
    25 But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.
    Romans 9: 16 So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.
    17 For the scripture saith unto Pharaoh, Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth.
    18 Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth.
    19 Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will?
    20 Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?
    21 Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?
    22 What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction:
    23 And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory,
    24 Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles?

  • http://jeremiahduomai.blogspot.com/ Jeremiah Duomai

    Thank you! I would, however, try get hold of your Acts commentary.

  • http://aerycksmusic.wordpress.com Eric Sawyer

    Nice to be on the same page. I’ve been sampling Dr. Carson’s commentary of John and this same passage came up pg. 117. I’ve bookmarked your blog and recommended it to my friends.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Hi Josh:
    I’m afraid your argument doesn’t work. No one is saying that the person bending the knee doesn’t actually recognize that Jesus is Lord. It’s not mere lip service. It is recognized as a reality. It’s just not a reality all embrace, affirm, or are thrilled about. And as for the context of Isaiah 45, the Servant songs in Is. 40-55 suggest the very opposite of universal salvation.

    As for the shaming language, ‘being put to shame’ is language used of sending someone to outer darkness, especially in an honor and shame culture.


  • Ivan

    Dear Ben:

    I can’t believe a great Bible scholar like you actually believes what you said. I simply ask: Is there a single soul (including yourself) who will eventually appear before the throne of God and won’t be ashamed of some of the things done in the flesh? I know that I will sincerely express shame for my failures that contibuted to the sufferings of Christ on the cross.

  • Ben Witherington

    Ivan that’s irrelevant. We are dealing with a technical phrase.

    The point is that the phrase ‘being put to shame’ is a technical phrase in a honor and shame culture for: 1) being publicly disgraced; 2) being cast out of a kingdom; 3) being punished. For example, the phrase can be used of crucifixion— the ultimate public shaming.


  • http://www.christians.org Douglas Beyer

    Thank you, Ben, for sound Biblical exposition and contemporary illustration both clearly expressed.

  • http://www.chadholtz.net Chad Holtz


    No thoughts on Jesus’ omission of in Luke 4? Should we assume his mission was to bring God’s vengeance for the same reasons we should assume Paul means to talk of shame?


  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Chad there are pregnant omissions like in Luke 4, but that is definitely not what is going on in Phil. 2, Obviously you can’t just assume the whole context of an OT allusion, but when the author has already cited the ideas found in that larger OT context, then it is a fair assumption it is in play. The case in Luke 4 is a clear omission because in fact Jesus goes on beyond the offending verse. Here, we do not have a case where a bit is cited, then a bit omitted, then more is cited. In addition to all this, Paul has used this Isaiah allusion elsewhere, and if you look at Rom. 9-11 you will discover lots of places where the larger context of the quote is in play. Let’s take one more example from Phil. 4.5—- ‘The Lord is near…’ followed by the exhortation to pray. This is an allusion to a Psalm which mentions the spatial nearness of God to those who pray. This allusion makes clear that Paul is not talking about nearness in time, but rather spatial nearness to pray-ers. More in the commentary.

  • Rick C.

    I think translations that have “that every knee should bow” best capture what both Isaiah and Philippians mean. Which is, (imo): The universal, past-tense command that all should or must submit to God. In other words, that Philippians 2 isn’t something that “will” happen in an eschatological future, but rather, is that which has been happening since God commanded all men to repent and confess “Jesus is Lord.”

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    The problem with that view Rick is the Greek! In a hina clause the translation of the aorist subjunctive is dependent on what has been said before that clause— Namely that God has already exalted… and given him a name in order that every knee shall bend…… The subjunctive in such a clause does not express a mere possibility or even an ‘ought’. It expresses a future eventuality. You could even translate it, ‘with the result that every knee will…’


  • Josh Mueller

    Thanks for explaining how this kind of shaming would have been understood as not salvific at all in this culture.

    I’m still not entirely convinced that even the themes of shame, destruction, outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth are nothing but an indication that the invitation given in Is. 45:22 will be rejected and consequently that the confession God swears to bring about is nothing more than a grudging admission.

    What this would mean is that Paul’s entire argumentation in Romans 9-11 regarding the fate of unbelieving Israel and God’s ability to save not just in spite but exactly THROUGH hardening and spiritual blindness (originating in God!) towards an ultimate salvation for the entire nation is applicable to Israel only.

    So my question remains: what role does the confession of rebels play in the bigger picture of God desiring for all mankind to be saved? And do you think that Zech.12:10 is a salvific realization of Israel regarding the pierced Messiah or not? Why should Israel experience this kind of repentance but not the Gentile nations? Why would God pour out the Spirit of grace and supplication on some but not the rest?

  • Rick C.

    Dr. Ben -

    I agree that many who “ought” to bow down and confess Jesus have done so. Many, but not all.

    What I don’t see in Isaiah or Philippians is anything about “post-mortem worship by the wicked (or their conversion).”

    As you mentioned before, Paul alludes to Isaiah 45 in Romans. He saw Isaiah 45 being “fulfilled” at his time (and as it continues on today, I would add). I see Philippians 2 in the same way, as hav8ing been fulfilled and being fulfilled.

    I don’t know Greek (just some). The aorist tenses of the verbs “bow” and “confess” at least indicate these are things people can do. And eventually DID do after Jesus came (and since).

    I guess my problem with the belief that all people “will” confess Jesus is Lord (post-mortem) is that the biblical authors never talked about that specific possibility (they didn’t teach anyone can do anything after they die).

    To confess “Jesus is Lord’ is to submit to and live for him. On Judgment Day the wicked won’t be able to do this. Their lives will have been wasted.

  • Rick C.

    Isaiah 45 (NKJV)
    23 I have sworn by Myself; The word has gone out of My mouth [in] righteousness, And shall not return, That to Me every knee shall bow, Every tongue shall take an oath. 24 He shall say, ‘Surely in the LORD I have righteousness and strength. To Him [men] shall come, And all shall be ashamed Who are incensed against Him. 25 In the LORD all the descendants of Israel Shall be justified, and shall glory.’ ”

    “All” who “bow” and “take an oath (confess)” are the descendants of God’s Israel (all of the believing Jewish remnant, and all of the believing-included Gentiles, Romans 9-11).

    I added Isaiah for context, and to show why I believe Philippians 2 is historical (that confessing and submitting to Jesus is fulfilled only within history).

    Maybe the Greek indicates that on Judgment Day everyone who ever lived will confess “Jesus is Lord” and worship Him? I don’t know Greek well enough to say.

    But in terms of comparing Scripture with Scripture, I don’t think Paul intended this meaning. I’m not seeing it, anyway.

  • http://www.benwitherington.com ben witherington

    Hi Rick: This explanation will not do, since Paul in Romans 11 says specifically that when the Redeemer comes back from heavenly Zion he will turn away the impiety of Jacob (i.e. Israel) and all Israel will be saved, which at a minimum means many Jews will honor Christ at his return, who do not do so now. Paul often talks in this sort of eschatological way about the future recognition of Christ.



  • Frank

    Good points Ben. I don’t think it is a difficult concept, particularly if you consider Paul’s writings in context and compare epistles to one another. 2nd Thessalonians, chapter 1, is a particular challenge for Universalism.

  • Rick C.

    Dr. Ben -

    Thank you for your reply. I can see we come from different eschatological camps — (as I believe “all Israel will be saved” are all members of The Church, and that Jesus, the Redeemer-Messiah, *has* called captive Israel back to God. I think this was what Paul was “saying” in Romans 9-11, etc., etc.).

    However, I don’t want to debate about eschatology, and you’re right! I need to get better at Greek!

  • Rob

    Once again a clergyman proves it. If it isn’t bad news, then it ain’t the Good News!

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Rob:

    If you mean me, then of course you are not quite right, since I am a NT scholar.


  • Randy Eliason

    Appreciate your blog and this post in particular. I appreciated your review of “Love Wins”. In my reading relating to the controversy surrounding Bell’s book I discovered that Bell’s church’s website recommends “The Inescapable Love of God” by Thomas Talbott. Talbott is a forceful proponent of universal salvation, taking up that position in a debate with other scholars published under the title “Universal Salvation: The Current Debate.” After reading Talbott & Bell, I am not the least surprised to find Bell recommending Talbott. That Bell is persuaded of Talbott’s view of universal salvation is without question. I am very disappointed that Bell has not been honest enough – in my reading/ listening at least – to acknowledge the influence of Talbott on his theology & his agreement with Talbott. I would love to read a full review by you of either “The Inescapable Love of God” or “Universal Salvation: The Current Debate”. Thanks for your willingness to take suggestions for your blog :)

  • http://www.rottentomatoes.com/celebrity/ed_lauter/ hotshot bald cop

    Wonderful thoughts