From Origen of Alexandria to David Bentley Hart, some within the church at various points in its history have argued for “Christian universalism”—the belief that Jesus Christ ultimately will save all people without exception.
This view has gained increasing traction in the postmodern West, no doubt partly due to our increasing religious pluralism. While most arguments for “universal salvation” focus on philosophy and systematic theology, there have been some attempts to argue for universalism using biblical exegesis.
I would like to address four of Christian universalism’s key biblical texts and argue these texts can be understood in a non-universalist light, thus bringing them into coherence with the rest of the scriptural witness on eternal judgment.
In Philippians 2, Paul makes a statement about Jesus’ identity, concluding with these words: “ … so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow … and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (NASB, emphasis mine).
The universalist reading of this text comes naturally. The image of every person bowing before Jesus and confessing him as Lord would seem to indicate universalism, especially since we typically associate bowing and confessing before Jesus with salvation.
But this association is not absolute. Bowing before Jesus and confessing his true identity do not necessarily imply salvation. Consider Mark 3:11, which says: “Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they would fall down before him and shout, ‘You are the Son of God!’” These unclean spirits responded as vanquished foes, not faithful believers.
Moreover, in Philippians 2:10-11 Paul is referencing Isaiah 45:23-24, which is clear that “some of those who bend the knee and confess the greatness of the Lord are opponents who will now be put to shame,” Frank Thielman writes in the NIV Application Commentary on Philippians.
When Jesus returns, there will be many who bow before him and confess him as Lord out of love. But there also will be those who bow and confess out of defeat. Everyone eventually will bow before Christ and confess him as Lord, but whether one will do so as triumphant friend or vanquished foe depends on repentance and faith in this life (Revelation 19:11-16).
Concluding another statement about Jesus’ identity, Paul says: “For it was the Father’s good pleasure … through him to reconcile all things to himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross … whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Colossians 1:19-20, emphasis mine).
Again, the universalist reading makes sense at first. Through Christ, God will reconcile all things to himself. Not some things. Not most things. All things (See also Ephesians 1:10).
However, we must note a few details. First, in the verses immediately following, Paul makes clear that finally being “present[ed] … before [God] holy and blameless and beyond reproach” is contingent upon “continu[ing] in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not mov[ing] away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard” (Colossians 1:21-23).
Second, Paul later connects Jesus’ death on the cross to the defeat of hostile spiritual powers, not their salvation (2:14-15).
Third, Douglas Moo notes in the Pillar New Testament Commentary that Paul’s use of the Greek word usually translated “to reconcile” could mean “the establishment of peace” by God bringing “his entire rebellious creation back under the rule of his sovereign power,” and not the restoration of friendly relations between former foes.
1 Corinthians 15:20-28
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (15:22). This is the key “universalist” text in a passage that could be taken to teach universal salvation. Again, we run into the seemingly universalist language of “all.”
Pastor and New Testament scholar Andrew J. Wilson has written an excellent article critiquing universalist readings of this passage. He notes the context of 15:20-23 indicates Paul is speaking specifically about all believers, not all humans. For example, Paul specifically refers to “those who are Christ’s” in verse 23.
Moreover, Wilson points out Isaiah 25 is the background text for Paul’s claims in this passage, and Isaiah 25 “makes it clear that some people will not experience the defeat of death, the divine feast, and the wiping away of tears, but rather ruination, judgment, and humiliation.”
If there is any text in the New Testament likely to teach universal salvation, it is this one: “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.”
Paul speaks here of the relationship between Adam and Christ. Just as Adam’s sin affects every human being without exception, so also does Christ’s death on the cross appear to affect every human being without exception. One leads to condemnation and death, the other to justification and life.
If this passage does indeed teach universalism, it stands in stark tension with much of the rest of the New Testament. But it also stands in stark tension with Paul’s other letters and even with other parts of Romans.
Is there a solution? Possibly. In the immediately preceding verse Paul says that “those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (5:17). How does one “receive” these things? Only through faith in Jesus Christ. See Paul’s argument in Romans 1-4.
This clarification is subtle but vitally important. Paul’s repeated contrasts between Adam and Christ in 5:15-21 mostly are stated in sweeping, broad terms. But in this one contrast in verse 17, Paul offers a subtle clarification. In his volume on Romans 1-8 in the Word Biblical Commentary, James Dunn suggests that in 5:18, Paul “has sacrificed precision of language for rhetorical effect.” I am inclined to agree.
Does the New Testament teach universal salvation? I hope I have demonstrated effectively it most likely does not.
Joshua Sharp is a Master of Divinity student and graduate assistant in the Office of Ministry Connections at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. The views expressed are those solely of the author.