The mystery of universal salvation
If you already know, without an atom of doubt—that God is Love, and that all will be restored to him, you might as well skip this page. But if the teaching of hell has left you believing that some will be eternally separated from love, you need to be sure. Read on.
god is love
This is the Good News taught by Yeshua of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ. God is the Father, not just the Source of all that is, but the loving Source of all that is. Or as St. John even more succinctly put it, God is love. (1 John 4:8, 16) Not “loving.” Not “full of love,” but simply is love, period. Because God is universal love, the early church often held the idea of universal salvation. But unfortunately, the Good News often becomes “mixed news” in modern church pews. The distorted version of Christianity taught to many is a subtle dualism, with an eternal heaven and eternal hell, eternal bliss and eternal torture, an eternal God saving the few, and an eternal devil snaring the many. This teaching is terribly mistaken, yet widely accepted—even demanded—in many branches of Christianity.
There is the idea that God is love, but will also torment all who “do not accept Jesus” (itself a gross misunderstanding of the gospel) forever. The resulting image is not only monstrous, but an impossible contradiction. It’s inconceivable to imagine any person causing the pain of another forever. Maybe a a day perhaps. Maybe a few years, if I’m exceptionally evil. But who among us would torture even Hitler forever? If he were tortured ten years for every person who died in World War II, that’s 530,000,000 years. And as some would gladly remind you, that’s not even a second as far as forever is concerned.
No one other than a psychopath could torment anyone endlessly. No father could punish his children endlessly. But some say that the One who is Infinite Love does it forever. Something is wrong!
We have been told that:
- the punishment for finite crimes is infinite punishment.
- the One who is infinite Love has finite patience-but patience is a quality of love! (1 Cor. 13;4)
- the One of infinite might has a plan that finite man can thwart.
The threat of eternal torture is like a gun pointed to a person’s head. It turns a loving invitation into spiritual rape. A further problem is that an eternal punishment is pointless, since it does not rehabilitate or heal. Shall we accept this picture at face value, contrary to our own knowledge of love, contrary to our own experience of God’s nature, and contrary to innumerable promises of Scripture, or, shall we delve deeper, to get at the essential truths of what the Bible calls judgment and salvation?
Nothing in the Bible suggests that punishment after death is irrevocable except for the drama of some images and the entrenched mistranslation of some words and passages. The word in the Greek NT most often translated as “forever” or “eternal” is aion which means an age, and the adjectival form, aionian, means age-long. This is the source of the English word eon. The corresponding Hebrew term is olam, “age” or “world.” Both these terms indicate conditions with an indefinite, but not an infinite, duration.
Eternal and forever are unfortunate mistranslations for age and world, both of which end, as God is the Creator and Sustainer of both.
The fire is God’s Presence:
The angel of Yahweh appeared to him in the shape of a flame of fire.—Ex. 3.2
Yahweh went before them…in the form of a pillar of fire to give them light.—Ex. 13.21
Where could I go to escape your spirit?
Where could I flee from your presence?
If I climb the heavens, you are there,
There too, if I lie in Sheol.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.—Lk. 3.16
Something appeared to them that seed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them.—Acts 2.3
Our God is a consuming fire.— Heb.12.29
… the fire will test the quality of each man’s work…If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.—1 Cor. 3.13b…15
The work of Christ:
The Son of Man must be lifted up, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert…—Jn. 3.14
When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.—Jn. 12.32
The Father sent his Son as Savior of the world. 1 Jn. 4.14
My food is to do the will of the one who sent me, and to complete his work.—Jn. 4.34
If anyone hears my wordsand does not keep them faithfully it is not I who shall condemn him, since I have come not to condemn the world, but to save the world.—Jn. 12.47
As one man’s fall brought condemnation on everyone, so the good act of one man brings everyone life and makes them justified. As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.—Rm. 5.18-19
When it says , “he ascended,” what can it mean if not that he descended right down to the lower regions of the earth? The one who rose higher than the heavens to fill all things is none other than the one who descended.— Eph. 4.9-10
he went and preached to the spirits in prison…—1 Pet. 3.19b
he gave himself as a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.—1Tim 2.6
If anyone sins, we have our advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, who is just; He is the sacrifice that takes our sins away, and not only ours, but the whole world’s.— 1 Jn. 2.2
Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.— Lk. 23.34
The work of the Spirit.
No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.—1 Cor. 12.3
All beings… should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father.— -Phil. 2.9-11
In love there can be no fear, but fear is driven out by perfect love: because to fear is to expect punishment, and anyone who is afraid is still imperfect in love.— 1 Jn 4.18
The goal of Creation:
What we suffer in this life can never be compared to the glory, as yet unrevealed, which is waiting for us. The whole creation is eagerly waiting for God to reveal his sons … From the beginning till now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth…—Rom. 8.18-19,22
The final accomplishment
But Christ has in fact been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep. Death came through one man and in the same way the resurrection of the dead has come through one man. Just as all men die in Adam, so all men will be brought to life in Christ; but all of them in their proper order. Christ as the first-fruits and then, after the coming of Christ, those who belong to him. After that will come the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, having done away with every sovereignty, authority and power. For he must be king until he has put all his enemies under feet and the last of the enemies to be destroyed is death, for everything is to be put under his feet. Though when it is said that everything is subjected, this clearly cannot include the One who subjected everything to him. And when everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subject in his turn to the One who subjected all things to him. so that God may be all in all.—1 Cor. 15.20-28
God has imprisoned all men in their disobedience only to show mercy to all mankind.—Rm. 11.32
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord.—Ps. 22.27 NIV
Yahweh Sabaoth will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines…On this mountain he will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples, and the shroud enwrapping all nations he will destroy Death for ever. The Lord Yahweh will wipe away the tears from every cheek…—Is. 25.6-8a
We have put our trust in the living God and he is the savior of the whole human race but particularly of all believers.—1 Tim. 4.10
His purpose…that he would bring everything together under Christ, as head, everything in the heavens and everything on earth.—Eph. 1.10-11
He is the image of the unseen God and he is the first-born of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible, Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties, Powers-all things were created through him and for him…. God wanted all perfection to be found in him and all things to be reconciled through him and for him, everything in heaven, and everything on earth, when he made peace by his death on the cross.—Col. 1.18-20
If it is certain that through one man’s fall so many died, it is even more certain that divine grace, coming through the one man, Jesus Christ, came to so many as an abundant free gift…. If it is certain that death reigned over everyone as the consequence of one man’s fall, it is even more certain that one man, Jesus Christ, will cause everyone to reign in life who receives the free gift that he does not deserve, of being made righteous. Again, as one man’s fall brought condemnation on everyone, so the good act of one man brings everyone life and makes them justified. …however great the number of sins committed, grace was even greater;—Rm. 5.15,18,21a
And all mankind shall see the salvation of God.— Lk 3.6
God’s “eternity” is not even described in the Bible, except as he relates to humanity, in time. For true eternity is not infinite time, but the complete absence of time. Time is part of creation, but God transcends time. God is in time, as he is in all things in Creation, but he is over time. God is not “eternal;” rather he is eternity. To God, there is nothing but Now, as there is no space but Here. Hence, Jesus, speaking of his eternal God-spirit, said “before Abraham was, I am,” not “I was before Abraham.” Eternity and Infinity are part of the essence of God. Everything else, including time itself, is a finite creation. which will be restored to him as God becomes “all in all.” (1 Cor. 15.28)
Jesus sometimes spoke about the final harvest, and the chaff being “burned”. The implication is destruction, in some passages, the word destruction is actually used. Jesus sounds here like his cousin, John the Baptist, preaching dire consequences for fruitlessness which again, is not bearing the fruit of love. Some groups interpret this destruction as eternal destruction, that “burning” means burning up, the annihilation of the soul, “eternal” death. Separation from the Creator by being un-created. A closely related interpretation is “conditional immortality”, that death is the natural destination for all. In this view, all die as dead as doornails, and only “the saved” are raised again to life. But this interpretation not only negates the very concept of man as being “the image of God,” with an immortal soul, but it still presents an infinite punishment for finite errors. Its only essential difference from the eternal torture view, is there is no suffering or regret in this judgment, (which makes it rather pointless.) God is supposed to simply write off an overwhelming majority of his children.
This is an even more compelling reason why this interpretation is lacking. Something happened on the cross. Something that shifts everything which came before into a new light. Jesus forgave us.
Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.—Lk. 23.34
Forgiveness was pronounced—and it wasn’t forgiveness for the “believers.” Any “age-long destruction” must allow for change and salvation, since forgiveness has been proclaimed. Some may object that after the resurrection, the true nature of Jesus is known, therefore, his forgiveness doesn’t apply to us. But from the standpoint of Divinity, how can any person know what they are doing? We make decisions based on limited information, with limited perspectives, influenced by genes, biochemistry, memories, regrets, hopes, manipulation, dreams, delusions, and fears. Consider this: did you really know what you were doing when you accepted Jesus? How can anyone know what they are really doing in rejecting him, or more accurately, what they perceive to be him? We don’t. Forgiveness has been proclaimed.
a mystical understanding of the judgment
So why are all these images in the Bible? Scripture rarely presents theological arguments. Instead, it speaks to particular situations in the language and metaphors appropriate for that situation. The judgment passages show there are consequences to not following the message of love. Indeed there are, just as loving has its own consequences. There is a “burning” that one suffers as a result of resisting the divine will, which simply stated is to love. But burning within is a universal symbol of love. Love is often symbolized by fire. God is even called “fire” in the Bible. (Ex. 3.21, Heb. 12.29)
Imagine God as a huge fire—a fire of love, and you are a small flame in that fire, burning with love as God burns with love. The huge fire doesn’t burn you, it cannot burn you, because you yourself are fire. For you, fire is room temperature, it is your environment, your home. This is heaven. You can experience it now. You have probably experienced it to some degree already.
Now imagine a different scenario, that you are cold. If love is fire, you are an ice cube. You are frozen, cold to God, yourself, your fellow men. How will the fire of love feel to you? It burns! The holy fire of love now burns you, being hundreds of degrees warmer than you. It threatens to overwhelm you, you seek to distance yourself from fire for your survival. But there is no escape. The divine Presence is everywhere, an omnipresent law, and there is nowhere where unlovingness does not create suffering, whether one can disguise the pain or not. This is hell. You can experience it now. You have probably experienced it to some degree already.
However, suppose that instead of trying to flee the ever-present fire, you decide to embrace the fire and allow yourself to be transformed into fire, will it still burn you? Of course not. Both punishment and reward are simply the consequences of moving in either the toward-God or the away-from-God directions. Move toward God, move toward Love, become fire, and burning stops; move away from God, away from Love, become cool, and burning increases. We can see that the Judgment is simply the way things are, since God is love. To love is to be spiritually present with God, to burn with divine love, and enjoy divine Presence. To be unloving is to be spiritually absent from God, hurt by the omnipresent demands of love, and deprived of the benefits of Presence. It is never called the “last judgment,” but “the last day.” It’s not a punishing verdict, but an eternal principle. The law of love is irrevocable. But as self-inflicted pain, it is age-long aionian. Nothing implies that that there is no longer choice, nor change, nor movement of the soul.
eternal life: the restoration of all things to god
There is far more to the good news than the fact that we can always come back to God. Many scriptures indicate that we all will come back to God, and this is the overwhelming vision of Christian mystics. The words all and every are used dozens of times to indicate the scope of God’s salvation. Apokatastasis (universal restoration) was mentioned in the second sermon of the apostles, “He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything.” (Acts 3.21)
This is God’s love affair with the world. God is a most ardent and persuasive lover. He warns us of how we will bring pain upon ourselves if we turn from his Love, but he is always there for our return. Yes, many Scripture passages about the judgment warn of the condemnation that afflicts those rejecting this Love. But the message remains: “Come to me.” The promise of universal restoration is that we will return somehow, even the worst of us. An invitation eternally extended cannot be eternally rejected. The pain of our own resistance will move us to come back, to the only place where there is peace—this Love which is the only thing that really is. Every moment is an invitation. How long can one stave the sheer exhaustion of resisting what is nothing more than than love itself? Literally dozens of passages of Scripture say that salvation will be universal. All mankind, even all creation, will be saved. The hills shall jump for joy, the trees clap their hands, the lion and lamb lie down together. The rocks and stones will sing praises.
This is what is after the age-long judgment, which is nothing other than the wooing of the universe. St. Peter says Jesus preaches to the “spirits in prison;” St. Paul says that all will be brought to life in Christ. Then God will destroy death, and that everything will become subject to he, and “God will be all in all.” (1Cor. 15.21-28) All has come from God. All will be restored to God. Great mystics have seen that as God is the Ultimate Reality, he will become the only reality. God will be all in all. This doesn’t mean that consciousness ceases, that we are absorbed into unconscious non-existence, but that we will “become God,” that is,all barriers will be stripped away, and he will permeate and transform every part of Creation. It is the very purpose of the Universe, the meaning of life. If you haven’t yet, read the references in the sidebar now.
does salvation mean “knowing jesus?”
No. The teaching that Jesus is the only path to salvation, contradicts the teachings of Jesus himself. In the three earlier Synoptic gospels, Jesus never suggests “believing in him” is the criterion for salvation. In fact, Jesus warns that it is not those who call him “Lord,” who will enter heaven, but those who do the will of the Father. (Mt. 7.21) In the Judgment scene in Mt. 25.31-46, (far and away the most detailed description of judgment in the Bible), Jesus says that those who do good works, creating a better world for the “least of his brothers,” actually do it for him whether they know it or not, and will be blessed with his Presence, while those who do not will suffer “burning” in the age-long fire which we’ve already discussed. Throughout these first three gospels, Jesus doesn’t even seem to care if anyone “knows” him or has “a personal relationship” with him! He cares instead that people embrace his teaching—Good News—that the Kingdom of heaven is here, that God is “Father,” that in embracing selfless love, we lose our false self, but gain the whole world.
On the other hand, the later gospel of John presents Jesus as the “Cosmic Christ,” who is one with the Father, and called “Word”, “Light”, “Water of Life”, and “the Way.” The emphasis has shifted from the teaching to the Teacher, in light of his embodiment of the love of God. This Love is called Christ. When Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except by me,” (Jn 14:6) he is speaking of his nature as the love of God made visible. It is only by being filled with Divine Love that we can “come to the Father.” By whatever name it is given by followers of whatever religion or no religion, it is the same, and it is “the narrow gate” through which all must come. The human identity of its bearer is not what’s important; the essential thing is following his example in loving unconditionally, becoming Christ. As he said: This is my commandment, love one another as I have loved you. (Jn.15.12)
Many passages in the apostles’ writings at first glance suggest that belief in Jesus is essential. But the Bible never records the apostles using a threat of “damnation” for not accepting the Gospel. Paul’s voice speaks especially strongly about universal salvation. Yet Paul also presents Jesus as the “necessary sacrifice” for sin, implying belief in him is mandatory. The reason for this is found in his letters, where he repeatedly explains his dual mission of presenting the Good News to both the Jews and the Gentiles, and adjusting his message to his audiences, “becoming all things to all men.” (1 Cor. 9.19-23). His Jewish audiences demanded to know how sacrifice fits into this message, and so, Paul presents Jesus as the only sacrifice needed, the fulfillment of the Law. To Gentiles, he presents the cosmic Christ, “the love of God made visible,” (Rm. 8.39) reconciling all things in heaven and earth to the Father through selfless love. (Eph. 1.10-11).
I’m not concerned with dealing with every difficult passage in Scripture here-others do this better than I (see box). Yet ultimately, it is not the Scripture we rely on for knowing God is love, and saves all. It is God/Love only, and knowing that One directly.
Doubt everything on this site before you doubt love.
Doubt the Bible before you doubt love.
Doubt yourself before you doubt love.
Doubt all that you believe to be God, before you doubt love.
Never doubt love.
God is love.
If you need more Biblical evidence, please check out these sites:
- Martin Zender
- J Preston Eby: The Savior of the World series
- Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church in Its First Five Centuries (Amazon)
- Universalism: The Prevailing Doctrine(Online version)
- Universalism and the Bible
- The Hell Page (what-the-hell-is-hell.com)
- Christian Universalism Articles
- Heretics (This is an episode of “This American Life” telling the story of how Pentecostal bishop Carlton Pearson came to believe that God is love.)
Added July 14, 1999