by Steven Nemes
Will everyone be saved, or will some be lost forever? If some are lost forever, will they be punished unendingly in hell or will they eventually be annihilated and pass out of existence? I don’t know the answer to these questions. I think there are good arguments in favor of each of the three major positions in Christian eschatology—viz., traditionalism, conditionalism, and universalism—and so I abstain, in quasi-Pyrrhonian fashion, from committing myself to one view or another. Nevertheless, I do think I can give a good enough argument in favor of adopting a particular attitude towards the possibility of universal salvation which is in principle consistent with either a traditionalist or conditionalist interpretation of the relevant “hell texts” in the New (and Old) Testament. More specifically, I think that universal salvation can be (perhaps ought to be) the object of Christian hope, desire, and prayer, but it cannot be the object of Christian teaching, preaching, or knowledge. I think Christians ought to hope, desire, and pray for the salvation of all human persons, but they should not teach or preach that everyone will be saved, nor can they claim to know that this will be so. Moreover, I think that such an attitude towards the possibility of universal salvation is compatible with either a traditionalist or conditionalist interpretation of the classic “hell texts” because I think the function of those texts is not so much to predict with accuracy the final destination of some number of human beings, but rather to motivate repentance and evangelical outreach on the basis of the real, existent, but avoidable danger of damnation.
Put another way, universal salvation remains an epistemic possibility, even if all the relevant biblical passages describing the final destiny of sinners are interpreted along traditionalist or conditionalist lines. I know this (or at least I claim this) because there are various instances in Scripture in which God unconditionally declares the future destruction of some sinners, leaving no room for ambiguity or hope of salvation, and yet this does not happen. On the contrary, it is arguable that God uses such unconditional, “hopeless” language precisely for the purpose of avoiding the very scenario of punishment and destruction which He predicts.
Let me give a few examples. When the Hebrews worship the golden calf, the Lord tells Moses: “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation” (Exod. 32:10). Moses intercedes, however, as a result of which the Lord “changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (v. 14). Now, as a classical theist, I do not think that the immutable, impassible, omniscient God really changed His mind or that Moses managed to convince God to do something other than what He already had been planning to do. On the contrary, I think that God spoke that way with Moses precisely to bring it about that Moses would intercede for the Hebrews and so that he could be a channel of God’s mercy. Indeed, viewed in this light, it becomes all the more significant that God seems to try to discourage any intercession on Moses’s part (“let me alone”)—He forbids Moses to do precisely that which He intends to get him to do. This opens up an impressive interpretive option: God warns of destruction and punishment, even forbidding intercession on behalf of the sinner, precisely to bring it about that the intercession is all the more passionate and, as a result, all the more effective.
Or consider what God tells Ezekiel: “Though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if they turn from their sin and do what is lawful and right … they shall surely live, they shall not die” (Ezek. 33:14-15). The message to the sinner is straightforward and doesn’t leave any room for doubt: you shall surely die. Yet, if the sinner, in response to this unhappy disclosure of the future, turns from her wickedness and repents, then she will not die. Of course, the sinner is not told this herself. It would seem rather counterproductive to make this condition known to the sinner, because it undoes the force of the “surely” in “you shall surely die.” It leaves her with the option of repenting later, rather than effecting desperate repentance here and now, as the unconditional “surely” manages to do. And God is perfectly happy to be proven wrong in His categorical predictions about the future, if it means that a sinner has turned from death to life and from evil to righteousness (v. 11). I want to stress the discrepancy between what God says and what actually happens: God says that the sinner will surely die, leaving no room for doubt or interpretation; but if the sinner repents, then God’s description of the future is falsified, and precisely this seems to have been the point all along.
This also happens in the story with Jonah. The message which God gave Jonah to share with the Ninevites was relatively straightforward and clear, as far as doomsday oracles go: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jon. 3:4). There was intended no implicit “escape clause” in Jonah’s message, as is clear from the uncertainty and trepidation in the king’s decree: “Who knows? God may relent and change His mind” (v. 9). And yet, because the people repent, God does not destroy them — they escape the future from which there was (seemed) no possibility of escape! The narration of Jonah says that “God changed His mind” when He saw how the people repented (v. 10), but again, I do not think that this is literally what happened. God is omniscient; He knew what the Ninevites were going to do in response to Jonah’s message. He is immutable and impassible; the prayers or repentance of any sinner cannot actually change His disposition towards her or make Him act otherwise than He already was going to act from eternity. Rather, I think the more plausible understanding of the event is that God knew that the Ninevites would repent if Jonah preached to them by unconditionally announcing their imminent destruction (rather than explicitly making it conditional upon some acts of repentance on their part), and so that is what He decided should happen. God is not bothered by the fact that what He says does not come true; what is important to Him is not the death of the sinner (even if this preserves the truth of His words), but that he should turn and live (Ezek. 33:11).
Now, if on these occasions God made use of an unconditional prediction of destruction and punishment precisely in order to prevent such a thing from coming about—whether through the intercession of a righteous person, or else through the repentance of those so threatened —then it is obviously possible for Him to be doing this in the New Testament threats about hell, also. But what does “possible” mean in this context? I am talking about epistemic possibility, not metaphysical possibility. I believe there is already a fact of the matter as to whether all will be saved or not; I don’t think it is metaphysically indeterminate. But I also think that there is no way to know the truth of the matter about this question, because it is always epistemically possible that the Bible’s threats about hell and damnation are providentially ordered by God to preventing the very threats from coming true—whether through the repentance of sinners, or the intercession of the righteous who worry about the fate of others, or (most likely) because of a combination of these factors.
The Bible teaches us to make “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings … for everyone” (hyper pantōn anthropōn, on behalf of all human beings) because “God our Savior … desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:1, 4). I remain unconvinced by John Calvin’s proposed interpretation, according to which St. Paul means to say that God wants all sorts of people saved—“kings and all who are in high positions” (v. 2)—even if He does not strictly speaking want every person to be saved. I think this is a theologically motivated interpretation of a text which is otherwise sufficiently transparent in itself. God wants pantes anthrōpoi to be saved, which quite clearly means every human being or all human persons. And because He wants that all be saved, He also enjoins us through His apostle Paul to pray for the salvation of every human being, on the basis of the salvific intervention of “Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all (hyper pantōn)” (vv. 5-6). Beyond this, Christ teaches us to pray in a very specific way: namely, with a kind of child-like confidence that we will receive the thing we asked for from God. “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” (Matt. 21:22; Mark 11:24). “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matt. 7:7). “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:13-14). His disciples took up this same attitude: John says that “if we ask him anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him” (1 John 5:14-15); and James says we should ask for wisdom “in faith, never doubting” (Jas. 1:6). Thus, if Christ teaches us to pray with such confidence—not presumption!—and if Paul teaches us to pray for the salvation of all, then it seems to me eminently biblical and justified to pray with confidence for the salvation of all human beings. We should pray for this end with the same kind of confidence and faith and even “expectation” that we would have when praying for a family member or close friend who is sick or in need of help. (Maybe we should pray with even greater confidence, since the Bible commands us to pray for the salvation of all!) And indeed, this is what we are doing —for all sinners are nevertheless part of the human family, and we are “close friends” insofar as we all share the same human nature, with all its weaknesses.
Someone might raise an objection at this point: “If the threat of eternal damnation does not literally come true in the case of any creature at all, then won’t the threats have been empty? Has God simply been lying this whole time?” In response, I suppose I could make a few points. First, I do not think there is any point in holding out hope for the salvation of demons or the devil. Paul, in any case, commands us to pray for all human beings, never for the demons or for Satan. So, the question is whether or not God’s threats of damnation will have proven empty if no human beings are damned. Second, I don’t think the threats will have been empty, so long as the possibility of damnation was a real one—i.e., so long as some persons would have been damned forever, had they never repented or had no one ever prayed for them, etc. (This remains a real possibility; that is why the threats and predictions are made in the first place. So, the epistemic possibility of damnation cannot be excluded, regardless of whether this damnation is interpreted along traditionalist or conditionalist lines. This is why I do not accept a kind of dogmatic universalism, in addition to rejecting dogmatic traditionalism or conditionalism.) Third, I think the following argument, even if it may seem sophistic, can dispel any worries about God’s having lied about hell and damnation:
(i) God cannot lie (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18).
(ii) Yet, God makes categorical declarations about the future destruction and punishment of some sinners which nevertheless go unfulfilled; indeed, He probably makes such statements with the express purpose of falsifying them through their very terrible nature.
(iii) Therefore, to make such statements with such an intention does not constitute lying.
If someone objects to this argument, I don’t know what else to say in its defense except that the premises are true and the conclusion follows from their conjunction.
Universal salvation therefore remains an appropriate object of Christian hope, desire, and prayer, regardless of whether or not the relevant “hell texts” are interpreted along traditionalist or conditionalist lines. Indeed, universal salvation remains an epistemic possibility even if all distinctly universalist interpretations of the “hell texts” are hopelessly mistaken. This epistemic possibility—to my mind, anyway—rules out any dogmatic confidence in traditionalism or conditionalism. At the same time, however, I think that dogmatic universalism is also excluded. Instead, I prefer not to make any judgment whatsoever on what will be, limiting myself to the way in which I orient myself to the eschatological outcome. The argument thus far has been very brief and quick, of course, and much more would need to be said to make it maximally convincing. I have already done this work in my Heythrop Journal article “Praying Confidently for the Salvation of All.”
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Steven Nemes is in the middle of a PhD in Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He writes philosophical theology and attempts to utilize a fusion of analytic, phenomenological, and Thomistic insights in his work, in addition to teaching an online bioethics course at Grand Canyon University. He really enjoys the jazz guitar stylings of Pat Metheny Group.