Throughout the Bible, when it talks about how God will deal with our sins, there are two big ideas that crop up: the first is that God is incredibly gracious, merciful and forgiving. The second is that He is absolutely holy and just. Exodus 34:6-7 puts them in the same sentence:
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty...”
After reading a passage like that, it's tremendously difficult to see how those ideas fit together. If He forgives iniquity, transgression and sin, how has He not cleared the guilty? This has given Christians a lot of headaches through the centuries, and resulted in a few different opinions.
In this blog, we're going to look at two views that have been popular in the church throughout history, then turn to what the Bible has to say.
Universalism: everyone will be saved, no matter what they believe now
Universalism is the name given to the idea that God's plan of redemption will eventually apply to everybody in the same way - it is universal.
There are different versions of universalism, but by far the most popular idea is one that we've received from a theologian named Origen (c. 184-253AD).
Origen believed that Hell would exist, but that it would be a place of temporary discipline and correction, and eventually all souls would return to God.
There are several variations of universalism but by definition they must assert that either Hell cannot last forever or that it will be empty. So what does the Bible say?
Universalists will generally argue for their view based firstly on the nature of
God as loving and merciful and secondly by looking at passages like:
- 1 Corinthians 15:28: "When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all."
- 2 Corinthians 5:19: "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them."
- Colossians 1:19-20: "For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross."
So how do we understand these passages? Firstly we need to read them in context and pay attention to what the surrounding verses tell us.
- 1 Corinthians 15:28 is in between verse 25 where all of Jesus' enemies will put under his feet, and verse 34 where Paul rebukes the Corinthians for not telling people about Jesus, to their shame.
- In the verse after 2 Corinthians 5:19, Paul says "We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God."
- Colossians 1:22-23 says we are reconciled "if indeed [we] continue in the faith". The Bible is clear on this: it is vital that we have a living, persevering faith in order to be reconciled to God.
That might explain why we think the arguments made by universalists don't stack up, but what do we believe?
Before I go any further, if you haven't already heard it, I would strongly recommend that you listen to this sermon as this is a weighty issue and you need to understand God's heart behind the warnings we're given. This short blog post can't hope to convey that, but we can at least lay out some of the arguments.
Firstly, we are never given any impression in scripture that we can repent after we die (nor is it clear that we would want to). Hebrews 9:27 says "it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment". In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus gives a parable about two men who die: a rich man and a man named Lazarus who begged for money outside the rich man's gates. Lazarus goes to be with Abraham in Paradise, but the rich man goes to Hades, and from there he has this conversation with Abraham.
He doesn't apologise for the sins he committed that put him in Hades. He suggests that his family wouldn't fail as he did if God performed a miracle for them (i.e. it's not really his fault), but Abraham explains that this simply isn't true. He begs for Abraham to send Lazarus to give him a drink, without a hint that he felt he had wronged Lazarus.
Abraham tells Lazarus "between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us" (verse 26).
Secondly, the Bible consistently describes Hell as eternal (see Isaiah 33:14, 66:24, Matthew 3:12, 18:8, 25:41-46, Mark 9:48, Luke 3:17, Luke 16:24, Revelation 14:11, 20:10). There are many different aspects of hell being communicated through these passages, but one point is unavoidable: Hell is eternal.
These are terrifying images, and they're meant to be. God wants us to know that He is absolutely good. A good judge is not one that ignores sins or plays them down but one that deals with them appropriately.
When God made us as his image-bearers, He made us to show creation what He is like. When we sin, we are renouncing the purpose for which we have been made and we're forsaking God for the sake of our temporary pleasure or convenience. God will not tolerate this.
In our culture, we find this aspect of God's nature hard to deal with, but that is largely a cultural coincidence. We happen to exist at a place and time where we think that hell is almost by definition primitive and evil, but that really is just cultural snobbery. Most people now and throughout history have taken for granted that our sins are serious and must be punished.
That, in fact, is vital for understanding the other view that we'll be looking at.
Purgatory: even if you are saved, you might still have to pay...
Purgatory is, according to the Roman Catholic tradition, a state where people are purified of their sins after they die. This view doesn't deny an eternal hell for those who have died without faith in Jesus. Rather, it's part of the believer's 'journey' towards heaven.
The amount of time spent in purgatory is based on the severity of the sins committed, whether they were confessed and whether indulgences had been issued - an indulgence being a gift that the church can offer to reduce someone's time in purgatory.
Historically, there were several periods when indulgences were sold by travelling fund-raisers working for the church, and this grieved many Christians as it was seen as a form of exploitation. A particularly keen seller named Johann Tetzel even coined advertising jingles for it:
"As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,
the soul from purgatory springs"
Ultimately, this was what spurred Martin Luther to write the 95 theses and (somewhat unwittingly at first) launch the Protestant Reformation. Luther's teaching prompted the Council of Trent (1545-1563AD), at which the Catholic Church prohibited the selling of indulgences, though they are still offered for good works and at various celebrations. It was also at this Council that the doctrine of purgatory became official church doctrine - before this time it was disputed within the church, though broadly accepted.
Where does this idea come from?
We've already established that the Bible views our sins as severe and that God's justice requires that they be dealt with, but the doctrine of purgatory is quite specific.
The argument mostly arose from the Catholic Church's evolving view of the importance of confession. James 5:16 says "confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed." The word translated 'healed' can be translated as 'made whole' or 'saved', and it came to be seen as a part of salvation, to be taken by a member of the clergy. That in turn led many theologians to ponder over what would happen regarding a genuine believer's sins that hadn't been confessed before death, and ultimately led to conclusions that they must be dealt with in the afterlife.
We would certainly agree with James that it is good and wise to "confess [our] sins in order to be healed". This is one of the key components in our mutual discipleship, and it's one of the main ways that we fight sin, by bringing it to light with friends who can pray for us, challenge us and encourage us but confession is not, in itself, part of our justification.
But it's important to recognise that James says that we should confess in order to be healed because we already know we will be forgiven when we sin (vv 15-16: "...if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another..."). The point isn't that the confession causes our forgiveness, but that our forgiveness grounds our confession. Jesus has forgiven us and we are free of our sin, therefore we can seek healing and freedom through confession to "one another" (verse 16).
The one key text used to defend purgatory specifically (rather than confession, as above) is 1 Corinthians 3:15: "If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire." They say that this experience of suffering loss, of being saved as through fire, is describing a time when we will have to make up for shortcomings in purgatory, but still be saved.
We should note, this fire is burning up work, not people, and the fire is applied equally to everyone's works, whether they suffer loss or not. Paul is addressing the church being divided by "jealousy and strife" (verse 3), where people are forming factions and some of the motivation for the works being performed is for that cause, rather than in faith to Jesus. Paul tells them that their works will be judged and uses the image of fire to explain it. The fire clears all the rubbish away to reveal what will last forever. The ones who suffer loss here are the ones who realise how much they wasted their efforts on works like straw instead of gold and jewels.
Jesus can say to the thief on the cross "today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43), Paul could say "to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). Whenever Jesus talks of our death, the separation is always between judgment or celebration. There is not a single text in the Bible that would lead me to believe in a third state.
I mentioned at the start the difficulty of balancing out the mercy of God and the goodness of God, and how difficult it can be to see how they fit together, but the place where it becomes clearest is at the cross.
When Paul was writing his letter to the Romans, one of the big problems he had to deal with in expressing the goodness of God is that He keeps saving people! God had been saving people long before Jesus came, and people were struggling to understand how He could do so and remain good and just, but Jesus died on the cross "to show his righteousness, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" Romans 3:26
Going back to Exodus 34:6-7, we see how gloriously it's been fulfilled. When Jesus died, He took the punishment for our sins. When God sees his children in Christ by faith, He is "abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" towards them, "forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin", but "by no means [will He simply] clear the guilty".
Universalism cannot cope with God's sheer goodness, righteousness and justice and Purgatory cannot cope with God's sheer grace, forgiveness and love, but the cross is where we can see all of God's perfections come together.