Giving Texts Priority: Questions

On a flight recently I was reading a book about hell, and one of the chapters was devoted to examining the so-called “universalism” texts in Paul’s letters. Sometimes Paul says things like “As in Adam all die, so in Christ all are made alive.” The issue is how “all” that “all” is! What I observed is that the author focused on showing that the “all” didn’t really mean “all.” This, undoubtedly, is the traditional view in the church.

But it got me to pondering this question: Why do we use the judgment/hell texts to trump the “all” texts? Why don’t we use the “all” texts to trump the hell texts? This is a question about method today, and not a question about which one to believe. I’m curious what you think about the proper method: How do we know which group of texts has the priority? What criteria do we use to choose between the two?

Is it as easy to say “all” doesn’t mean all as it is to say “in the end salvation will conquer all” (after the judgment, after hell)? How do we decide?

So today I will give a list of the universalism/all texts and then a list of some judgment texts, and you can think through these and tell us what you think of the questions above.

Universalism Texts

John 12:32: And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Acts 3:21: Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.

Romans 5:18: Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.

Romans 11:32: For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

1 Cor 15:22-28: 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

2 Cor 5:19: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

Phil 2:9-11: 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

1 Tim 2:4: who [God] wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

Titus 2:11: For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.

Heb 2:9: But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

1 John 2:2: He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

2 Peter 3:9: The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

Judgment/Eternal Hell Passages

John 3:18: Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

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 them.

John 5:29: and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.

Acts 28:24-27:

24 Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe. 25 They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your ancestors when he said through Isaiah the prophet:

26 “‘Go to this people and say,
“You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”
27 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

Romans 2:5-12:

5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.

12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.

1 Cor 6:9-10: 9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

Hebrews 10:26-31: 26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. 28 Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

2 Peter 2:9-10:

9 if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. 10 This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority.

Bold and arrogant, they are not afraid to heap abuse on celestial beings…

Rev 20:10-15: 10 And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever. 11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Joe Canner

    I’m not prepared to say what the most appropriate approach is for establishing priority, but I think the reason why many traditional believers come to the conclusions they do on issues like this, as well as things like the role of women and homosexuality, is intellectual laziness dressed up as an application of Occam’s Razor. It is much easier to nuance “all” into “all who believe” or into “all”=hyperbole or into “all”=eligible, than to do the hard work of trying to understand who Jesus’ audience was, what points he was trying to make, and what are the different kinds of judgment described in Scripture.

    In other words, the “plain meaning of the text” is given priority over any meaning that requires study of the original language and context.

  • Andrew Wilson

    What a brilliant question, and what a superb way of expressing it. Thanks, Scot!

  • JohnM

    I don’t see a need for one text to “trump” another. The problem, where there is one, is likley that we superimpose our systems, or merely our wishes – our “the way it should be”, on the one text or the other. If, for example, I presupposed the claims of Calvinism I might wonder how to read the “universalism texts” in light of judgment texts and vice versa. If I flat rejected the idea of hell because I flat don’t like it (whatever reasons I cited)I wouldn’t know what to do with judgment texts and I might have to read universalism into other texts.

  • Peter

    Great list and great idea. I think that if we are to properly determine what these verses are saying, we must interpret them, not only in their context, but by the entire Bible.

  • Rick

    Joe #1-

    Cannot then the same be said who lean towards the “all” over the judgement passages? Why is the “all” seen as the plain meaning of the text by some, but not by others?

  • Kenton

    This is a question about method today, and not a question about which one to believe.

    It’s the modernity/post-modernity question: we don’t extract our beliefs from an objective method, we base our methods on what we believe. Once we realize that we have no objectivity, we have a chance at approaching the question with some degree of objectivity.

    Once I decided that the “all” texts “trumped” the “judgment” texts, I let my beliefs reframe the “judgment” texts to mean something other than ECT. (Exactly what the traditionalists do with the “all” texts.)

    Without going on too long, all I can say is after seeing it from both sides, allowing “all” to trump ECT makes better sense of the story.

  • phil_style

    I think the judgements sometimes do have logic behind them.

    Let’s take these two statements:
    1. Some cats will be destroyed
    2. All cats will one day enjoy eternal bliss

    Now, if we take 2 as the “priority” text, it forces us to “trump” text one, because no cat can be destroyed if all cats are to enjoy eternal bliss.

    However, if we take text 1 to be priority there is a way to add “interpretive” texture to statement 2 so that it reads: “All remaining, undestroyed cats will enjoy eternal bliss”. The prioritisation (plain reading)of text one, allows for text two still to have descriptive value. However, the prioritisation of statement 2, means that it is much harder to preserve statement 1.

    The logic of the above is what forces the plain v “interpreted” readings.

  • CC

    Thank you for the post,

    Since we are focusing on “all” passages. I would point out that a favorite verse of Evangelicals is Romans 3:23 which says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It seems that Evangelicals are quite comfortable reading this “all” as a universal collective (all of humanity, whether Jew or Gentile). Given this premise, I think that offering some qualification for the “all” in Romans 11:32 is inconsistent: “For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”

  • Jason Lee

    I don’t want to distract from the discussion, but this to me seem a related and obvious question: How do the discussions on this blog about pervasive interpretive pluralism make sense of the multivocality of the Bible concerning hell and salvation?

  • Joe Canner

    Rick #5: True, but those who see the plain meaning in the “all” texts still have to explain the hell and eternal judgment texts, which is a lot harder than the other way around. The degree of difficulty probably explains why one approach is more popular than the other.

  • Scott G

    I would say that the reason one would utilize some texts to interpret other, or more so privilege certain texts, is tradition. In Protestantism we seem to de-emphasize tradition’s role in interpretation. I guess a more precise way to say this is to say that I believe the judgement texts because the church has believed those texts and put emphasis on them. That may not be sufficient enough for some but in this world of uncertainty where confession is the only type of truth we can point towards, it is good enough for me.

  • Daniel J. Fick

    Joe (1),

    I think that is an unfair statement regarding traditionalist beliefs, or at least one that could be reciprocated to those holding the non-traditional belief.

  • Randy Boswell

    This is a great question and I think the typical response is that people tend to weight the judgment texts much more heavily due to the tradition of eternal concious torment following Augustine. What is important is for us to go behind Augustine, prior to Augustine historically and understand that it wasn’t always the case. Eschaotlogical views were much more varied before the time of Augustine and this should at least give us pause as we examine either set of texts.

    What should give us ultimate pause and direct us in interpreting either set of texts is our understanding of the character of God. This is a highly neglected piece of the narrative when “all” and especially judgment/hell texts are examined. Instead of understanding these latter texts in light of God’s character as scripturally narrated in the entirety of the canon, the tendency is to unduly weight the texts on eternal judgment in relation to God’s character. Subsequently, a neglect or minimization\diminishment of the other attributes of God, especially that of love, is enacted.

  • Brian

    What a thought provoking question! Thank you, Scot! As for me, I try to use the way/life/teachings of Jesus as the “trumper”. Of course, that doesn’t make it any easier with this subject, since he talks about both judgement and grace quite a bit!

    I guess the words that stick with me are when Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I want this to be my prayer, too.

    My deep hope is that somehow, someway, Jesus will save and restore us all.

  • Mark Farmer

    And there is the prior question of why we should need to decide between the two sets of texts. We only need to decide if we are viewing the Bible as a “constitution” (as Brian McLaren puts it) which must give the final word on every question. But if we see the Bible as a God-inspired ongoing (and difficult) effort to understand God and his ways, we can acknowledge the contributions of each set of texts (not to mention the nuances within each) and then continue the effort in our generation.
    In other words, if the Bible is God-given, and God has given us a dialogue instead of a univocal teaching, we should receive that dialogue as a gift and recognize that its very nature tells us something important about God and what he is interested in.

  • Amos Paul

    I, first of all, agree that it’s logically easier to accept a nuanced version of ‘all’ in conjunction with distinction than it is to accept a nuanced version of ‘distinction’ when accepting all being equally reconciled.

    *However*, I think the main reason that we tend towards distinction first is that the OT is literally filled with the idea of Justice–people getting what they deserve–and the NT is filled with a sense of immediacy. John the Baptist told people that the time was at hand to repent. Jesus wants us to grasp the Kingdom now. Paul and the Hebrews writer want us to keep running the race, don’t give up, the time is now.

    I think that the *tone* across the NT lends itself to reading an important distinction between grasping relationship with God and fighting for that right now–versus putting it off until later because “It’ll all work out eventually.”

    But personally, I have no problem accepting that literally everyone has been Justified by God’s powerful grace while, at the same time, accepting some distinction. That is, at least, my own interpretation of Mark 3:28-29.

    “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

    I think that the person of the Holy Spirit literally *is* our active relationship with God. It is goodness individualized and known to each and every human, as I believe that God *is* reconciling all to Him.

    However, accepting the idea that names/identifiers are only important because of the meaning they indicate, rather than the words themselves, I think that blaspheming the Holy Spirit is *choosing*, dynamically and spiritually, to deny the justifying, sanctifying, divine relationship with God that Holy Spirit embodies. God’s powerful grace has forgiven and justified you even in your sin, but there is still the contingency within each of us to spiritually *accept* this reconciliation or choose to blaspheme that relationship over the course of our lives.

  • John W Frye

    I agree with Daniel (#12) that Joe (#1) offers an unfair assessment regarding those who ‘nuance’ all. One example, in Mark 1:5 we read πασα η ιουδαια χωρα και οι ιεροσολυμιται παντες which clearly is hyperbolic: “all the region of Judea and all in Jerusalem”. Now if “all” can be used but not *literally* mean “all,” then some tension is taken out of trying to reconcile or prioritize the texts that Scot cited.

  • Bob Brague

    I think an even better question than what trumps what regarding universalism vs. judgment/eternal hell is to ponder I Timothy 4:9-10 (“This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.”) and ask what is meant by “especially”….

  • Richard

    How do we know which group of texts has the priority? What criteria do we use to choose between the two?

    I give priority to the “All” passages because the narrative makes more sense that way (a narrative of New Creation as opposed to sorting into Heaven and Hell bins). I think it fits better with the OT passages of restoration as well.

    Is it as easy to say “all” doesn’t mean all as it is to say “in the end salvation will conquer all” (after the judgment, after hell)? How do we decide?

    I think it is harder to say “salvation will conquer all” because of our hard-heartedness. We tend, like the workers in the vineyard, to hold that if equal pay is given for unequal work, we’re being wronged by it. I think, and this might sound too fundamentalist for some, that we vastly underestimate the enslaving power of sin. What has pushed me toward the hope for Universal Reconciliation is the recognition that there are many well-intentioned Christians in the West that do not obey and follow Christ. If I take Jesus’ words seriously about the fruit of our lives, I’m forced to conclude (at least in a double-outcome perspective) that many of the Western Christians over the last 500 years will not enjoy eternity in Christ’s presence, regardless of what they’ve prayed over the years.

  • DRT

    I believe that we have to hold them all(!), in tension with each other. This is a case where there is quite clear, and repeated evidence for things that are, on the surface quite contradictory. I believe it points to something that is difficult for us to conceive and we probably will not know until we see it.

    From a layperson…

  • jason

    I’m with Mark Farmer (#15) – the very question assumes the univocality of the text, hence the need to harmonize in some fashion the sets of texts.

  • Amos Paul


    Keep in mind that Universal redemption for everyone into the life of the new creation vs. Eternal Heaven & Hell is a false dichotomy. There’s a greater range for views in there. I, personally, believe like many Catholics–that if *some* idea referred to as ‘Hell’ (I take it to mean fading from being as one rejects the goodness of reality that is God) does not exist, then free will can’t exist in any meaninful way. That doesn’t guaruntee, of course, that anyone actually ends up taking this route! 😉

  • DRT

    Jason Lee#9 said “How do the discussions on this blog about pervasive interpretive pluralism make sense of the multivocality of the Bible concerning hell and salvation?”

    I agree. The multivocality points to something beyond the either/or. I immediately am thinking about the “god gave them over to themselves” type of passages too.

  • Richard

    @ 17

    I don’t Joe used “many” in a universal sense in that first comment


    Jokes aside, part of the issue is digging into the Greek and Hebrew. Just as you found an instance of “all” not being “universal,” others have found examples of “eternal” not meaning “forever without end.” Perhaps this is why the early church didn’t establish a ruling on eschatology the way they did on Christology – there were good cases to made for both from the Scriptures.

    @ 18

    Thank you. In addition, the language of “first fruits” used to describe Christians and also 1 John 2:2 – “He is the atoning sacrifice four our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (or John 1:29 for that matter). Also to deal with are the universal judgment passages like Jesus’ words in Mark 9:49 – “Everyone will be salted with fire”

  • Sherman Nobles

    A couple of years ago when I first started a study of Universal Reconciliation, I was very surprised to find that the more I studied the All passages in thier literary context, the more all seemed to mean all. I started the study assuming that the universalist’s appeal to these passages would prove to be not solid, nothing more than a sand castle. But the more I studied these passages, the more I found them to be compelling support for universal reconciliation. The more I subjected these passages to pressure, the more solid they appeared.

    So I started a study of the judgment and hell passages assuming them to be rock solid in support of ECT. But the more I studied them in their context and original languages, the more I found them to be like sand. What I assumed was rock solid, when pressured proved to be nothing but a sand castle.

    Thus for me, it wasn’t a matter of one passage taking priority over another, it was a matter of the evidence compelling me to change my beliefs. So it was studying what scripture says concerning Hell (or actually doesn’t say concerning Hell) that freed me to accept in faith that Jesus really is the savior of all humanity, in deed not just in title, that ultimately every knee shall bow in worship and every tongue shall proclaim allegiance to God, and that all of creation will be reconciled to God.

  • John W Frye

    It is lexically valid that “all” does not mean every human being who has ever lived or will live. The universalist leaning group has to come to grips with this lexically valid information that “all” can mean “not all.” If there are exegetical and theological reasons to interpret “all” in a conditioned (limited) way, then that is hermeneutically valid.

  • Steve Sherwood

    That is exactly the question Robin Parry (a.k.a Gregory MacDonald) asks in The Evangelical Universalist. Scot, I’d love to see you do a series on that book. I read it as the Love Wins firestorm was breaking out and found it to be a much more thoroughly argued book than Bell’s. It would be great to hear what folks from a broad spectrum of theological backgrounds make of his arguments.

  • Richard

    @ 25

    Excellent point in your opening paragraph. Its interesting that for some all means “all universal” when it comes to the effect of sin but not for the effect of grace/salvation when they same word is used of both in the exact same sentence.

  • Jayflm

    An excellent question, indeed! But it is not the only major dividing line in this topic. The interpretive conflict that I first noted about the time of my first college Greek class years ago was between what appeared to me to be clear biblical statements that ‘death’, ‘perishing’ and ‘destruction’ awaited the unrepentant, and the wide embrace by most of Christianity of a doctrine of Everlasting Conscious Torment based on the more opaque passages about Gehenna, the lake of fire and eternal punishment.

    In negotiating the two divides – the one you have articulated and the one I observe above – I am moved by the sheer number and relative clarity of the ‘judgment’ passages to conclude that the passages which seem to speak of universal redemption must be referring to the potential reach of salvation, if all would respond. All will not, therefore, not all will experience the life to come.

    Then, the relative number and clarity of the ‘perishing’ passages lead me to conclude that the ultimate end of those who do not respond to the gospel, or whatever light they have, will be annihilation. God will judge – perhaps He will punish according to evil works – and finally they will be destroyed.

  • Beakerj

    Thanks for this Scot, these are EXACTLY the kind of questions that I struggle with – the plurality of views & what it is in the text that leads us to prefer one potential interpretation over another.I learn so much from these kind of posts that I hope will one day lead me to be able to say, with confidence, exactly what I think the Bible means when it says God is good. None of this is theoretical for me.

  • Richard

    @ 26

    The lexicon cuts both ways though brother. The words we translate often as “eternal” or “forever” don’t always mean “without end.” There’s a definite case to be made it occasionally being temporal depending on the subject its attributed to, especially in classical Greek texts. An example is Jonah 2:6 where the author uses [olam] to describe his 3 days and nights in the “fish.”

  • Paul A.

    I also echo the question of whether it’s necessary for one set to “trump” another. With the exception of the Revelation passage, there’s nothing in the “judgment” texts that implies everlasting punishment. A God who punishes some but ultimately saves all is consistent with both the “all” and the “judgment” passages.

    As for why we’ve developed this dichotomy despite it seemingly being unnecessary, I think it comes from misunderstanding of the ancient context of the word “eternal.”

  • John W Frye

    Richard @ #31,
    I agree with you about ‘eternal’, but the term at hand is “all.”

  • Jeff Stewart

    I think the most outstanding lesson I learned from Klyne Snodgrass (besides “The Now and the Not Yet”) was the matter of “Creative Biblical Tension.” The passages above demonstrate that.

    One of the latest lessons that I have come across, is Jesus subtle implication of “reversalism” – where we see those who expect to be “in” to discover that they may just be out; and those we expect to be “out” may just wind up “in.”

  • MikeK

    Moltmann proposed that the “all” is “everyone-everything” being gathered up in Christ.

    I’ve not had to the opportunity to consider how or why he came to that conclusion. But, it now occurs to me that the questions you’re posing are the ones he answered first, and then he made his proposal.

    Does that lend itself to a view that Moltmann reads the Bible univocally?

  • Rodney

    I’m a little surprised by this question. The approach anticipates the result, i.e., here are a collections of texts (ripped from their context) that have similar words. Now, what do we make of this? Plurality of possibilities.

    Usually, Scot, you spend much time working from context–which of course is crucial to interpretation. And, especially when it comes to Paul, we must figure out how these verses worked in Paul’s overall argument. If we don’t get his argument, we miss the point.

    Maybe I’m missing something because I’m not a careful follower of of this blog.

  • Alan R

    Paul @32, say more about “eternal” being the driving force behind this dichotomy. The word only appears in a handful of the texts, and in the majority of them it modifies “life” rather than “punishment.”

  • Joe Canner

    Sorry I wasn’t available to respond earlier…

    Daniel #12: You are probably right; my comment is born out of frustration with the traditionalists I grew up with and currently fellowship with. No doubt there are non-traditionalists who are lazy as well. I wonder, however, how much so-called “tradition” (especially since the Reformation) developed because of attempts to simplify theology so that the plain meaning was the approved meaning, regardless of whether it is the correct meaning.

    John #17: Fair comment; my comment was perhaps overly critical, for the reasons given above. For example, it frustrates me that there are folks (present company excluded) who refuse to consider similar arguments regarding a worldwide flood (i.e., “all” the world does not always mean “all”).

  • Ronnie

    I see this all the time. After presenting a traditionalist with a handful of straightforward passages that clearly seem to teach the ultimate destruction of the impenitent, he will predictably run to Revelation 20:10, set up camp there, and then attempt to nuance every other passage in light of that symbolic, apocalyptic vision.

    It’s funny, because in any other context these same people would rightly point out the impropriety of using the imagery of apocalyptic visions to overturn the the clear meaning of other straightforward, didactic passages. Common sense rules of exegesis often seem to go out the window when people start defending traditional doctrines.

  • Ted

    It reminds me of hearing Dr Robin Parry speak earlier this year (author of Evangelical Universalist). He said that when he held the traditional view, he assumed that ‘all’ texts must not mean what they seem to on the surface. He said that since becoming a universalist, it seems ‘blindingly obvious’ that the ‘all’ texts point to universalism.

    I would also say that group think and fear comes into play. People fear the rejection (even loss of livelihood, if pastors or professors) by their community that will result from publicly embracing universalism, so it’s safer to read the Bible in an exclusivist way. It’s ironic as people say universalists are taking the easy path; in fact, admitting universalism takes a lot of courage and is costly (ask Chad Holtz).

  • PaulE

    I think it’s sheer volume that tends to act as “trump” in my interpretation.

    For example, 2 Peter 2 dwells a long time on the judgment and destruction reserved for false prophets – pretty much the whole chapter. Chapter 3 is nearly all a warning about coming destruction as well. 3:17 captures the sentiments of the letter: you are forewarned so don’t let yourselves be led into destruction. Verse 9 in the same chapter just isn’t strong enough to undermine the central premise of the letter.

    Two thoughts that I am still processing:

    – Romans 11:11 may be more interesting in this discussion than 11:32.
    – 1 Cor. 10:1-12 may provide a basis for harmonization.

  • D. Foster

    I think we should be wary of taking words like “all” and “none” at face value because it is a natural human tendency to generalize and hyperbolize–ESPECIALLY in the ancient world, including within the New Testament.

    That being the case, I think a strong case can be made that any statements which tends away from generalizing and toward greater specificity and delineation should be treated with greater weight than grand, sweeping statements.

    I say this, by the way, as someone who is not decided on the issue of Hell. My concern over this issue is hermeneutic moreso than theological.


  • JohnG

    I want to look at one of the “universalism” texts, that of 1 Cor. 15:22-28, and specifically verses 22 & 23. Verse 22, taken by itself, suggests universalism: “in Adam all die…in Christ all will be made alive.” But then verse 23, expanding, I believe, on the phrase “all will be made alive”, says that there is first Christ, the firstfruits, and then “those who belong to him.” What does it mean to “belong to Christ”? If there are those who belong to Christ, are there also some who do not belong to him? If Paul meant “Christ and those who belong to him” as the “all” of verse 22, can we not then conclude that the “all” is not a “universal” all? Am I missing something?

  • Paul Johnston

    Has anybody ever attempted to reconcile all arguments and contradictions advanced in Scripture? Establishing some kind of coherence and order? My experience with most evangelical blogs, television and perhaps 10 worship experiences have been quite different. There is a supposition advanced. Scriture is “cherry picked” to affirm supposition. Supposition is not merely offered as a homily; a commentary, it is offered as the “Word of God”.

  • Paul A.

    Alan, #37, I would argue it’s not the number of uses but the context, and specifically the context of its use in Matthew 25, when Jesus tells those he condemns: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

    The fact that “eternal” is paired with “fire,” and that it is spoken by Jesus, carries enormous weight in the popular/literalist imagination, I think.

  • MatthewS

    Specific or particular passages clarify and/or limit broader more general ones. For example: The sun rises every morning in the east. But some mornings are overcast. And the sun is actually in the southeast in the winter.

    One of the questions of method in my mind is to ask which passage is limiting, clarifying, or in some way modifying the other.

    The above is stating the obvious but games are often won or lost at the fundamentals. Two issues that complicate things are that it’s not always obvious which one is which (the general and the modifying) and second, some passages seem to exist more in tension with each other rather than one being over the other.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I have not studied these intensely, so I use a relatively simple, perhaps too simple, approach, that is very different from Derek (#42).

    For me the primary issue of hell is that of Lewis’ “Great Divorce,” some so resist the Spirit that they choose to exclude themselves from the presence of God.

    Regarding Scripture, because I find that the “hell” passages are almost all linked to several different geographically or mythicly specific places: Gehenna, sheol, etc. in several different time periods, I have read them as as scattered references to those places and what life there would “be like.” Therefore I find little trouble with the “All…” passages.
    I do find Derek’s caution helpful.

    Randy Gabrielse

  • Paul D

    The “all” and “judgment” texts agree on this:

    1 Corinthians 15:26 “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

    Revelation 20:14 “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.”

    We have reached the limits of language to express the mystery of judgment and eternal life.

  • George W. Sarris

    Thank you for addressing the issue in such an even-handed and honest way. It’s been very interesting and encouraging to read the comments, as well.

    You touched on a key factor in the discussion that should not be overlooked. The question really revolves around the nature and duration of after-death judgment and punishment – ie. what happens “after the judgment, after hell?”- not on the existence of hell.

    Those who look to the “all” passages as normative do not deny judgment or even intense judgment after death. Rather, it is understood that the purpose of that judgment is remedial – ie. to bring one to the point of acknowledging one’s need for God’s grace in Christ – and that it is temporary. It will end at some point.

    That was clearly the belief of the ancient universalists ( Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and co-founder and vice president of the Philadelphia Bible Society who believed that God would ultimately restore all of creation to its intended perfection, stated that clearly in his autobiography, “My conviction of the truth of this doctrine was derived from reading the works of Stonehouse, Seigvolk, White, Chauncey and Winchester, and afterwards from an attentive perusal of the Scriptures. I always admitted with each of those authors future punishment, and of long duration.”

  • Peter G.

    If I may add one more example to John Frye’s, Matthew 2:3 tells us that “all Israel” was troubled with Herod at the arrival of the Magi. I’m unconvinced that Matthew is trying to tell us about the emotional condition of every Israelite.

    And though it doesn’t necessarily settle anything BDAG does have a category for “everything belonging, in kind, to the class designated by the noun, every kind of, all sorts of.” A good example here might be Titus 2:11 where the preceding context suggests that Paul is thinking of all sorts of people (note the “us” in v. 12).

    At a minimum this should end the casual reaction that traditionalists can only make their case by closing their eyes to the plain-as-day evidence of the so-called universal texts.

    I’m reminded of Bruce Metzger’s quip that the text doesn’t mean what it says, it means what it means.

  • Sherman Nobles

    Following up on my previous post, #24. In studying the passages on judgment and punishment, I am continually amazed at how much is read into them, and assumed from them that they do not actually affirm. For example.

    John 3:18: Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

    Note that the “condemnation” spoken of does not imply ECT. Also note that this passage can be translated in the present tense, indicating that as long as someone remains in unbelief, the remain living under condemnation. The passage was meant to encourage people to repent and recieve the forgiveness of God and not live under condemnation.

    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 them.

    Similar thoughts as above concerning 3:18.

    John 5:29: and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.

    Again note that condemnation does not imply ECT. Also note that this affirms that judgment is based on what we do, how we actually live. It doesn’t say anything about faith. We shall all be judged according to how we live, what we do with what God brings into our lives. By taking this passage and other passages that connect judgment with works and saying that ultimately judgment is not based on works but on faith, it nullifies the power of this passage to call believers to repentance because “it doesn’t apply to us because we believe.” And it nullifies the power of this passage to call unbelievers to repentance because they see that it’s based on works and not on faith which is commonly claimed.

    Well, I could and have gone through each passage and found similar problems with the traditional perspective, imo. There are so very many passages where ECT is read into the passage, even mistranslated into the passage.

    Even Revelation’s lake of fire is misunderstood, I believe. Have you noticed that before the LoF the kings and nations are anti-Christ, but after the LoF all the kings and nations are worshipping God and paying Him homage?

    Like I said, for me it was not choosing one set of scriptures over another, but it was through studying scripture on the judgment and punishment of sin and finding God’s love and positive purpose in such woven throughout that freed me to accept in faith that all means all in the many passages that affirm the salvation of all.

  • Craig Wright

    I fully agree with Sherman (#51). I was going to write the same thing, but he beat me to it.

    As far as “all”, there are obvious places in the NT where it does not mean everyone, as several writers have pointed out, but the quotes from Paul where he compares those in Adam and those in Christ, there is a symmetry that forces the meaning of “all” for both situations.

    The Lake of Fire is an interesting situation, where you have death and Hades thrown in the lake along with those whose names are not written in the book. I have never heard anyone preach on that, but that is the passage that got me to begin questioning the traditional view of Hell.

  • Sherman Nobles

    I suppose though “IF” both sets of passages were equally compelling, the one group in support of all being saved, and the other in support of the certainty of damnation, ECT, for some/most of humanity, and I HAD to choose between the two, I would likely now choose to believe all are saved. Why?

    The Character of God as revealed in Scripture.
    1) Scripture affirms that God loves everyone and love never fails.
    2) Scripture affirms that God is just and I simply no longer see how anyone can rectify the concept of punishing someone endlessly for sins committed in this short life.
    3) Scripture affirms that God is merciful. And even I have enough mercy to put out of his misery a dog that has rabbies IF I could not heal him. If God is merciful and if our sin is incurable then the merciful thing to do would be to put us out of our misery.

    The Character of God as I’ve experienced Him.
    1) He save me he can save anyone.
    2) He chose me and I really had no choice but to choose Him. There was no other rational option; everything else was foolish.
    3) He revealed His love for me and I was like a moth drawn to a flame. No real choice, my desperate need compelled me.

    etc. etc. etc.

  • DRT

    Sherman #53 says “Even Revelation’s lake of fire is misunderstood, I believe. Have you noticed that before the LoF the kings and nations are anti-Christ, but after the LoF all the kings and nations are worshipping God and paying Him homage?”

    Absolutely. After we watch that happen we will chose God! He will be all in all by his wrath.

  • DRT

    Would a more appropriate question be, not which one trumps which, but when do we openly say, It is Not Clear (the eight ball could do it!)

  • Susan N.

    This post and the questions posed about interpretation (and why we do what we do with particular isolated verses/passages of scripture) remind me of a book that an acquaintance loaned me in response to my expressed perplexity at the (over)use of the word “grace” among evangelicals to the extent that the meaning had become extremely unclear (to me at least).

    The book was titled ‘A Journey in Grace’ by Richard P. Belcher. For me, reading that book was a turning point. Formerly, I had been focused on defining my identity as a Christian based on a particular, systematic set of beliefs (theology). The unintended benefit of reading that book was a new awareness of the hazards of systematic theology!

    Example after example was cited to justify a specific global interpretation of scripture; how if rightly understood, the whole (systematic) meaning would be crystal clear. One familiar citation that stands out in my memory is John 3:16. In short, the case was made that the text reads “whole” world. But really, it means only the elect.

    Very disturbing…

    We seek to find meaning in the events of our lives, through our religious traditions, and the Word of God, so that we can know God more. But why? So that we can love and serve Him more fully. I don’t think that, in our zeal to know and serve God more fully, we should either fail to love our “neighbor” or, worse, to do them harm — materially or spiritually. This pertains to life now, not a future heaven or hell, eternal reward or punishment.

    Has anyone here seen Roger Olson’s latest post on the relevance (or not) of hell to the Gospel? I could cry, I’m so thankful for voices like his (and Scot’s here on Jesus Creed).

    The generous and gracious tone I read in these two evangelical scholars gives me hope on so many levels, and encourages me to be this kind of Christian. Less certain, maybe? Willing to ask questions? More loving, kind, forgiving, and compassionate, for sure.

    I don’t know if I answered any of the explicit questions posed, but this is my honest, heartfelt response to the content of the post.

  • Rick C.

    I’m resonating with the few posters who have basically said that we may (if not WILL) miss the original (actual) meanings of “selected trump texts” if we try to shoehorn them into systems (systematic theology); pitting them one against the other, while essentially ignoring each “selection’s” real context and true intended meaning.

    N.T. Wright once explained that prooftexting methodology approaches the Bible as if it were puzzle. That those who come to the Bible like this see it as a collection of miniature pieces data, from which bits are to be extracted, willy-nilly, here & there, and fit or lined-up into a system of beliefs (citing the Westminster Confession as an example). He went on to say that this methodology misses the real narrative of the whole of Scripture. I agree, and feel that many who do this “prooftexting the puzzle” at least seem to be *blind* to Scripture’s large narrative.

    As Susan N. said, it is very freeing to come out from this way of seeing the Bible! (and I’m continually having to work hard at it)! — what with my “born again evangelical” background….Thanks.

  • Rick C.

    Errata – Wright said…”as if it [the Bible] were a puzzle.”

  • Rick C.

    More Errata (sorry!) — Wright “explained that prooftexting methodology approaches the Bible as if it were a puzzle”

    This “prooftexting the puzzle” methodology comes from an NTW lecture “So What?” (delivered at Yale in ’99, I think). Interested parties can find it here (about halfway down the page, just before Wright Speaking Engagements). EXCELLENT STUFF for exegetes, imo!

  • Rick C.

    Ooops – (More Errata should have read & I’m going to get some coffee!!!) — “That those who come to the Bible like this see it as a collection of miniature pieces of data”

  • Tim

    I think of people tend towards the hell verses because it’s not easy to consider yourself as bad a sinner as others. It is easy to sit in judgement of others and it is easy to say that I follow Christ therefore I am entitled to the prize of heaven, while others are not and those verses make those easier thoughts. It’s hard to admit your a sinner against god. That god loved everyone, even people considered the scum of society as much as you. It’s hard to admit that is only by the sheer grace of good alone doesn’t anyone get to spend eternity with him. So we shy away from
    the all inclusive verses and take comfort in the ones that speak of hell for others.

  • JohnM

    Tim #61 – How many evangelicals who believe in the reality of hell have you actually talked to? You’re speculating at best. Denial of their own personal sinfulness and ANYONES entitlement to Heaven couldn’t be more opposite of what those evanagelicals who speak of eternal hell actually profess.

  • Sherman Nobles

    JohnM #62, evangelicals do recognize their own sinfulness and that salvation is by grace. It is interesting though that most who believe in Hell, believe in Hell for “others”, not for themselves, trusting in God’s grace for themselves but not for others.

  • Sherman Nobles

    It’s also interesting that when one looks at the passages on judgment, most, if not all are based on works, how we actually live, not on grace or faith, Mt. 24 passages for example. By taking these passages and interpreting them to speak about those who are saved vs. not, and believing that salvation is based on faith not works, then these passages are interpreted to not apply to Christians. And unbelievers don’t care what they say. So their power to call anyone, believer or unbeliever to repentance and a holy life are nullified.

    I find that most passages on judgment are addressed to believers, those who consider themselves to be children of God, God’s elect chose people. These passages are meant to call us to holy living, to warn us believers of the destruction and death of sin. Whether we believe, trust in Christ or not, IF we give our lives over to sin then we’ll suffer the consequences of those sins in this life and potentially even the life-to-come. Do not be fooled, what a man sows, so shall he reap!

    I’ve recently been again studying the real-life context of the passages where Jesus warns of being cast into Hinnom Valley (Gehenna). These passages were spoken to the children of God, some even specifically to the disciples, a warning of sin’s consequences for them/us believers. Historically Hinnom Valley was where the Jews, the elect and chosen of God, had given in to their idolatry so much that they were even sacrificing their own children to their idols. To put an end to this evil and to bring His children to repentance, God brought about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jews going into captivity. Their physical condition eventually came to mirror their spiritual condition. So sin eventually led to their being so spiritually bound that they even sacrificed their own children and all that they loved and cherished was destroyed and they were ultimately sent into bondage so as to stop their evil and bring them to repentance.

    I find that hope of redemption is the thread of hope woven throughout the tapestry of God’s fearsome judgment of sin.