The reader has almost certainly been present at a funeral where the deceased was “preached into heaven.” Everyone in attendance knows that the deceased lived a life of sin to the end and rarely set foot inside a church building. Everyone knows he never even referred to himself as a Christian. Yet every word the officiant speaks gives the impression that the soul of the deceased will rest in heaven throughout eternity. And if the common modern practice is in play of allowing anyone present to speak, things will get even worse: “That hand that was always holding a beer is going to have to get used to holding a harp,” or “She’s going to show heaven how to party.”
Evidently, the common belief is that everyone—or, at least, almost everyone—has heaven as his soul’s destination after death. This is expressed in different ways, as in the hypothetical funeral service previously noted, or as in the common refrain, “We’re all going to the same place, we’re just taking different roads.”
A Barna poll found that 40 percent of Americans agree with the following two statements: “All people will experience the same outcome after death, regardless of their religious beliefs,” and “All people are eventually saved or accepted by God, no matter what they do, because he loves all people he has created.”
Certain religious groups have formed around the concept of universalism, the notion that every human being will at some point be saved and make heaven his final home. This notion also persists among those who belong to no such sect. From whence did this idea arise? Does the Bible teach this concept?
What is Hell?
The Bible clearly teaches that there is a place called hell. God’s word describes it in the most terrifying terms—it is a “furnace of fire” where “there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 13:42). Among its population will be found the dregs of human history, as well as Satan himself (Rev. 20:10; 21:8). Those who dwell there will dwell in anguish, sorrow, and regret, and they will do so throughout all eternity: “Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:44, 46, 48). This is clearly a place no one will ever wish to be—but this is also clearly a place in which some will be.
Jesus spoke of a future Judgment Day in which He will judge all nations (Matt. 25:31-46). While He will grant some entrance into heaven, others will be denied: “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). While this terrifying place may be prepared for the devil and his angels, let the reader observe that not only the devil and his angels will be cast into this everlasting fire. Some among the “all nations”—that is, human beings—will be sent there.
The Bible speaks frequently of salvation. Man needs salvation (Mark 16:15-16; Luke 19:10). Jesus died to purchase salvation (Matt. 26:28; Col. 1:14; Rev. 1:6). But what is this salvation from? It is salvation from sin and from its most significant consequence, an eternity in hell. To deny that lost human beings will go to hell is to deny, or at least minimize, man’s dire need of salvation.
The reality of hell refutes the notion that all mankind is destined for heaven.
Can a Loving God Condemn People to Hell?
The sticking point for many universalists is reconciling the love of God with a God who would condemn men—men who are made in His own image (Gen. 1:26-27), even said to be His “offspring” (Acts 17:28-29)—to eternity in hell. God is certainly a loving God.
Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Godhead, clearly demonstrated His love: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Not only did Christ lay down His life, but He willingly died a most agonizing death (Psa. 22:14-17; Matt. 26:39; John 12:31-32). And not only did He suffer this for those who were already His friends: “When we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Rom. 5:10).
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved (John 3:16-17).
But again, why did God do this? He did so in order that human beings might escape the eternity in hell that they would otherwise receive. And, make no mistake about it, those who fail to be saved will still be cast into hell on the Judgment Day.
God is love, but love does not exclude justice. As surely as God is a loving God, God is a just God. Abraham asked of the Lord, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). The question was rhetorical—of course God, the Judge of all the earth will do right. “Doth God pervert judgment? or doth the Almighty pervert justice?” (Job 8:3). No, He will not—He will do what is right. And what is right is to punish iniquity.
Human beings fail to appreciate the awfulness of sin. But every sin is a repudiation of the One in whose image the offender was created. Sin against God is an eternal offense and demands an eternal penalty.
Scripture urges mankind, “Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God” (Rom. 11:22). God is perfectly good in every way, even personifying love (1 John 4:8). But as a good, just Judge, He will judge severe offenses with severity.
Jesus Answers the Question Plainly
The question under discussion was asked of Jesus Himself:
Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them, Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able (Luke 13:23-24).
When the Jewish querist asked whether few would be saved, he was approaching it with a Jewish perspective. The Jews had somehow generally come to believe that their national heritage essentially guaranteed God’s acceptance of them (cf. Matt. 3:9; John 8:33). Jesus often addressed this misconception. He told Nicodemus, who was the teacher par excellence of the Jews, that he and all others needed to be “born of water and of the Spirit”; that is, baptized in accordance with the Gospel, in order to enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:5, cf. John 3:10; Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5). Even this would not guarantee final salvation: “For ye have need of patience [better ‘endurance’], that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise” (Heb. 10:36).
Jesus’ answer to his Jewish querist resounds in perfect harmony with the rest of New Testament teaching—salvation’s point of entry is a “strait gate”; that is, a narrow, confined gate difficult enough to enter that it will cause many to seek another place to enter or to abandon their efforts altogether. This is why Jesus urged His hearers to “strive”—Greek agonizomai, from which we get “agonize”—to enter into salvation’s strait gate. Jesus placed the “many” as attempting to enter but failing, and only few as succeeding. This is not even to mention those who make no effort whatsoever to enter. But Jesus insists that only those who strive to enter will be saved.
True, Jesus may not have answered the question directly with a simple “yes” or “no.” But He answered the question far more emphatically than He could have done with a simple “yes” or “no.” Yes, only few people will be saved. No, not every person will go to heaven.
What Is Universal
Some come under the false impression that salvation is universal because much of what is said about salvation is expressed in universal terms. This is seen in the aforementioned John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” But neither this nor any other passage affirms that salvation will be universally received. What, then, is universal?
First of all, God’s love is universal. “God loved the world”—this excludes no one. There is no one outside the scope of His love. God loathes sin itself, and sinners simply cannot abide in the presence of a holy God (Hab. 1:13; Rev. 21:27). But God loves mankind, and wants all to be spared from their self-inflicted destruction of sin.
The power of Christ’s blood is universal. Contrary to the Calvinistic doctrine of “limited atonement,” Jesus Christ “tasted death for every man” (Heb. 2:9). No sin is too grievous, and no sinner has totaled too tall a tally of transgressions, that Christ’s blood cannot cleanse the soul defiled thereby (Heb. 9:13-14).
The invitation to obey the Gospel is universal. Toward the close of each of the Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), one finds what is sometimes called the “Great Commission.” Jesus charged His apostles, and ultimately His church, to “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:15-16). All are to be urged to believe and be baptized, and those who do will be saved. “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17).
God “will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). But only those who come to the knowledge of the truth—and the obedience of the truth (Rom. 6:17-18; 1 Pet. 1:22)—will be saved.
The Bible nowhere teaches that every person who dies goes to heaven. This concept arose from somewhere else. For some, it may be their own inability to reconcile the “goodness and severity of God.” God’s love and goodness should not lead us to deny the reality of hell or the fact that many will be lost. Rather, the love and goodness of God should lead us to faith in His Son, repentance from sin, and lives of obedience to His Gospel (Rom. 2:4).
Barna Group. “What Americans Believe About Universalism and Pluralism.” https://www.barna.com/research/what-americans-believe-about-universalism-and-pluralism/. Accessed April 29, 2022.