One of the key turning points for me in my shift toward a more universalist view of salvation (the complete, universal reconciliation of all people to God), was a brief section in Moltmann’s The Coming of God.
The section is titled: “The Dispute About the Bible: Pro and Contra Universalism.”
He lists (and very briefly discusses) several Bible verses that appear to support universalism, and other verses which appear to affirm a “double judgment” (eternal, everlasting punishment on the one hand, and eternal life on the other). The list is not intended to be exhaustive on either side. But it does give a strong representation of the scriptural testimony for both arguments. Moltmann also acknowledges that were you to do a serious study of the texts for this purpose, you’d have to dive into the deeper contexts and their historical settings.
On the side of universal salvation, he lists:
Ephesians 1:10: “ as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
Colossians 1:20: “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
Philippians 2:10-11: “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
1 Corinthians 15:22: “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ”
1 Corinthians 15:28: “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.”
Romans 5:18: “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”
1 Corinthians 15:22: “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”
Romans 11:32: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”
And we should also add these two verses, which I discussed in a recent post (but which are omitted in Moltmann’s summary):
1 Timothy 2:1-4
2 Peter 3:9
On the side of exclusivity, or eternal judgment/eternal life, he lists:
Matthew 7:13: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”
Matthew 12:32: “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
Matthew 25:46: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.””
Mark 16:16: “he one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”
Mark 9:45: “And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell”
Mark 9:48: “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”
Luke 16:23: “In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.”
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
John 3:36: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.”
Phil. 3:19: “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things”
1 Cor. 1:18: “ For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
II Cor. 2:15: “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing”
Moltmann concludes his “pros/cons” by acknowledging something very important:
Universal salvation and a double outcome of judgment are therefore both well attested biblically. So the decision for the one or the other cannot be made on the ground of ‘scripture’. If one presupposes that scripture does not contradict itself, because the word of God to which it testifies is inerrant, one can then try to resolve the contradiction in the sense of the one side or the other. (241)
For those who do wish to resolve the contradiction one way or another, it’s worth nothing a few things:
(1) Consider how strong is the impulse in the Pauline letters towards universal salvation and complete reconciliation of all things, which surely would also include all people. In my experience and observation, evangelical Christians love Paul (more than the gospels, even!), but many of them wouldn’t dare take him very straightforwardly in these reconciliation-of-all-creation passages.
(2) Consider how deeply our notion of hell (and the assumption that hell is eternal, conscious punishment) comes from the gospels and particularly from Jesus’ mention of hell/Gehenna/Hades.
But did Jesus have in mind, by using these images, the same thing that much traditional, Christian teaching has in mind by those images? (i.e. hell as a place of everlasting, conscious punishment, with no hope of repentance and reconciliation, for those are so damned?)
Robin Parry (aka George McDonald), in The Evangelical Universalist, has a good summary of that state of NT scholarship on the question, much of which argues that Jesus’ teachings on hell/Gehenna is not about an eternal, metaphysical abode of the wicked:
It ought to be noted that a debate has arisen within recent Gospels scholarship about whether Jesus actually spoke of punishment in the afterlife at all. N.T. Wright has argued that the apocalyptic language of the Gospels has been misunderstood by generations of Christian readers. Such language did not refer to the end of the space-time universe, as is commonly thought, but was a powerful way of speaking of cataclysmic events of divine judgment and vindication within history. According to Wright all the passages that warn of the fires of Gehenna speak not of any post-mortem punishment but of the pre-mortem events of AD 70 when Jerusalem was destroyed. (141).
For his part, Parry thinks there may indeed be a hell as a form of afterlife for the wicked, but argues that hell will not be eternal; there is an exit door and universal reconciliation will happen. Hell will be unoccupied one day.
It’s also worth noting that the basis for judgment in Jesus teaching (his warnings about hell/Gehenna/Hades) is not something like, “did you trust in Christ for the forgiveness of sins?” but rather, did you believe in, obey, and follow the teachings of Jesus–much of the burden of which is to sacrificially serve and love the “least of these.” So, for those conservative evangelicals and others who take Jesus’ judgment passages as constructing a theological metaphysics of eternal destiny, they might also need to own up to the tension that should be placed on their entire theology of salvation–a theology of salvation which rests largely on that metaphysics of heaven/hell as eternal, residing places for two classes of people: the unrepentant wicked and the redeemed.. To put it more bluntly, the criterion of salvation or judgment in those passages (and that’s a key qualifier) is not “justification by faith in Christ alone,” but rather, active and life-altering obedience.
If you conclude that the judgment passages outweigh the universalist passages, and if you need to retain the doctrine of double judgment on the basis of a literal, “straightforward” reading of Scripture, the old adage follows: be careful what you wish for!