If God is love, why does He not save everyone? In other words, if God loves human beings, why does He not allow everyone entry into Heaven? In this paper, I will discuss the belief that God does just that.
This belief, known as universalism, has a long and checkered history in Christian theology. I will begin by providing an overview of universalism. I will then suggest that universalism and the biblical teaching on salvation are irreconcilable. Finally, I will attempt to show that universalism renders free will irrelevant.
The first six hundred years of Christianity saw as many as four different schools of thought that sought to advance the theory of universalism. Despite their differences, each school had a common underlying philosophy: everyone will eventually be saved.
Therefore, universalism can be defined as the belief that it is impossible for a loving God to save only a portion of humankind and doom the rest to eternal punishment. Therefore, universalists insist that damnation – and punishment – is only for a limited period during which the soul is to be purified and prepared for eternity in the presence of God.
As a logical consequence of this theory, Hell takes on a very different understanding for universalists than it does for other Christians. Since there is no eternal damnation in the universalist theology, Hell becomes a kind of purgatory in which sins are expiated so that, eventually, everyone will be saved. The Origenists (followers of Origen of Alexandria) claimed that “the punishment of devils and wicked men is temporary and will eventually cease, that is to say, that devils or the ungodly will be completely restored to their original state.” There is some dispute within universalism as to whether “devils” includes Satan.
While universalism has always been a minority belief in Christianity, it became prevalent enough that the Church was compelled to act. In 543, the Synod of Constantinople was convened to address the question of universal salvation. Ultimately, the Church condemned the teachings of universalism, yet, its proponents (e.g., Origen) were not anathematized.
In order to understand why the Church condemned universalism and why it is antithetical to Catholicism, we must examine the biblical teaching on salvation as well as free will.
Universalism And The Gospel
The Catholic Church’s rejection that everyone will eventually be saved is in line with the teachings of Christ. Indeed, it is quite difficult to reconcile universalism and what the Bible teaches regarding who will be saved. Christ makes several statements that contradict a universalist theology.
For example, in Matthew 25:46, Jesus states, “They [the unsaved] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” According to this verse, the punishment of the unsaved is just as eternal as the life of the righteous. Some believe that those in Hell will eventually cease to exist, but the Lord Himself confirms that it will last forever. Matthew 25:41 also describes Hell as “eternal fire” and “unquenchable fire.”
From the biblical record, it is possible to draw two inferences. First, not everyone will be saved. This point is made emphatically in Matthew 7:21. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven.”
The second point is that damnation is eternal. This can be a difficult belief to accept. Why should the punishment in Hell be eternal? The answer appears to lie in the fact that repentance is not possible after death. Said differently, the state of the immortal soul is fixed once it is separated from the body.
The fact that salvation relies upon repentance presents another problem for universalism: free will. To that, I turn next.
Universalism And Free Will
Free will is often an abstract concept that has been the subject of much debate and controversy within philosophy. For the purpose of this paper, I will define free will as the capacity of an agent to act unobstructed by external influences.
What does the human capacity for free will have to do with universalism? Quite a bit, as it turns out.
It is the Catholic view – and the biblical teaching – that we are saved by Grace. Yet God’s Grace is a gift that must be accepted by human beings. That is to say that we must freely assent to the gift of salvation. It is the teaching of the Catholic Church that the acceptance of the gift of salvation is evidenced by faith in God and works designed to bring about God’s Kingdom.
I will briefly suggest two verses that support the Catholic teaching that salvation is predicated upon a composite of faith and works. As evidence that faith is necessary for salvation, Jesus says to the sinful woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (See Luke 7:50).
Yet it is clear that works are also necessary. James 2:17 states, “Faith of itself, if it does not have work, is dead.” In verse 24, James says, “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” And later: “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (2:26).
The point that I wish to make is that we are required to cooperate with God to effect our salvation. We can choose to do so, or we can reject God’s Grace. Regardless, it is clear that our free will is a necessary component of salvation.
If this is indeed the case, if free will is a necessary condition for salvation, then it seems impossible that everyone will be saved. One need not spend much time observing the history of mankind to see that God’s Grace is often rejected. Therefore, it appears that the existence of free will also militates against the universalist position.
In this paper, I have endeavored to show that despite the attractiveness of its claim that all are saved, universalism contradicts both the biblical teaching on salvation and the human capacity for free will.
Ultimately, Jesus’ own teaching and the human capacity for free will suggest that the gate to Heaven is indeed narrow.