In early 2014, I posted a detailed article explaining my belief in the ultimate reconciliation of all mankind to God in the fullness of time. I continue to believe in the principles laid out in that article, and you can read it by clicking the “Ultimate Reconciliation” link on the blog’s menu. However, over the past year, I have had a change in attitude toward the subject, which I want to discuss here.
The concept of everybody being saved in the fullness of time used to be a central aspect to my faith and understanding of the Gospel message. However, many proponents of this message get accused of taking Scriptures out of context. As I described in my recent post on interpretive methodology with the Bible, I often feel that “context” is intertwined with personal interpretation, so I didn’t worry too much about the “out of context” accusations. However, over the past year I have come to think that, regarding the doctrine of the salvation of all, the “out of context” accusations have some valid points that we should acknowledge.
First, I will be honest and acknowledge that there is no particular passage of Scripture which sequentially lays out the concepts of afterlife judgment for unbelievers followed by salvation. Furthermore, many of the Scriptures which speak of salvation, with all humanity in scope, do not necessarily have the future in view.
For example, Romans 5:18-19 depicts the justification for all mankind through Christ’s obedience as an antitype of the condemnation upon all through Adam’s disobedience:
“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. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous (NRSV).”
However, the context of Romans 5 does not speak of the future, and I admit that it feels like a bit of a stretch to say that Paul wrote that passage to depict everybody being saved eventually.
So, what are we to make of this? Well, the prominent Evangelical reasoning today is that, even though justification is “for” everyone, those who do not choose to receive it in this life will still be lost forever. However, this reasoning assumes a degree of free will, and a limitation on God’s sovereignty, that I personally do not believe to be Biblical (see this post for more discussion on the matter). Furthermore, I do not know of any passage in the Bible that specifically describes Christ’s finished work as an offer of forgiveness for humans to accept or reject.
There are some Christians who follow a Calvinistic school of thought, and their explanation for Rom. 5:18-19 and related passages is that, God has not chosen everybody to be saved. Traditional Calvinism teaches that Jesus only died for those who were predestined to salvation, and that everyone for whom Christ died will be saved and brought into a new humanity, but that does not encompass every individual person who has ever lived.
However, this concept of a limited atonement is not directly described in the Bible, and it seems to conflict with passages such as 1st John 2:2, which says that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. Calvinists espousing limited atonement say that the “whole world” does not mean every individual, but rather, people from all types (Jews, Gentiles, rich, poor, etc.). I suppose this is a reasonable way to address the issue, but it still seems like a “strained” interpretation. It’s just a bit difficult for me to conclude that John wrote that passage with this interpretation in mind.
So, getting back to Romans 5:18-19,
“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. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
I feel that, to interpret this passage to mean that Christ’s finished work does not, in itself, have the power to save all mankind, requires us to import concepts that are difficult to support Biblically. Granted, this passage is not talking about something God is going to do in the future. But I view the passage as saying that Christ’s obedience actually has the power to save people by turning humanity from antagonism toward God to righteousness. Another way to look at it is that, Christ’s death and resurrection secured our salvation. Our time to enter into this deliverance and transformation was when we believed the Gospel.
Following what I consider to be the natural reading of Rom. 5:18 and related passages (such as 1 Cor. 15:22-28 and Col. 1:19-21), I believe that the most natural inference to be drawn is that, everyone will be saved eventually. It seems that any attempts to deny that outcome involve heavy theologizing and the introduction of “problematic” concepts. But if it is realized that the Scriptures which speak of “eternal punishment” have semantic complications, I do not see a need to go through all of that theologizing to avoid the inference of everybody being saved in the fullness of time.
Thus, while I cannot absolutely rule out the possibility that there could be another outcome, I consider the eventual salvation of all to be the most reasonable inference from the relevant Scriptures.