A Universalist’s Response to “Exposing Universalism” by James B. De Young
You may be among a growing number of people who have discovered numerous passages of Scripture which seem to clearly indicate that all will finally be restored back to God, resulting in Him being all in all at the consummation of the ages. Can such declarations be seen to harmonize with the New Testament teaching concerning a future judgment and hell? Many say no.
Some insist upon an interpretation of the hell passages which negates the restoration passages, while others insist upon the restoration passages without doing justice to the passages speaking of judgment and hell.
Obviously, if we believe that all Scripture is given by Inspiration of God we cannot simply pick and choose. Our doctrine of future judgment and hell must be understood in a way which complements, rather than negates, the truth of the final restoration of all.
After years of careful and prayerful study of the Scriptures on this subject I have come to the conclusion that all of Scripture can be seen to harmonize with the final restoration of all in a way not possible with the traditional doctrine which sees God’s plan for the ages as culminating in eternal torments for the majority.
I read every book I could find challenging my conclusions, such as “The Doctrine of Endless Punishment” by William G. T. Shedd and Francis Chan’s book, “Erasing Hell.” However, although they did well at exposing some errors held by less than conservative Universalists, they only danced around the numerous texts which declare a universal restoration, without offering any viable alternate interpretations. Most of the restoration texts they ignored altogether.
When I came upon James B. De Young’s 288-page book entitled, “Exposing Universalism” I couldn’t wait to read it to see if he would attempt to explain some of the restoration passages in the light of eternal torment. He made some creative attempts to reconcile some of them with eternal torment which I hadn’t heard from other authors, and we will be examining them in the course of this and the following sessions.
However, as with the other books written on the subject, I was disappointed to see that he categorizes all Universalists as Liberals or Progressives who deny the inspiration and authority of the Bible, the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ, the need for one to put their faith in Christ and be regenerated in order to be saved, among other things. To me this misrepresentation of Universalism is summarized when he says:
“Virtually all of the areas of systematic theology and biblical theology are distorted by universalism.” p.249
While sadly this may be true of those he is denouncing in his book, the only area of systematic theology which radically changed for me was eschatology as it pertains to the final culmination of God’s eternal plan for the ages. I was even able to retain the TULIP of Calvinism by simply changing the L for Limited Atonement to Limitless Atonement, which many modified Calvinists do anyway.
I use the five points of Calvinism in my book entitled, “The Universal Solution” to compare Universalism with Calvinism and Arminianism. I demonstrate that Universalism is the most biblical and least contradictory of the three theological schools.
De Young acknowledges, that during and after the Reformation, some of the Anabaptists and most Moravians were Universalists. Both groups were conservative brethren who based their beliefs solely upon their understanding of the Scriptures. They were often persecuted by the Reformers for rejecting traditional doctrines as unbiblical, such as infant baptism and the sacraments, insisting upon adhering to the Scriptures alone.
Even Saint Augustine, who popularized the doctrine of eternal torment, acknowledged that those who believed in the apokatastasis or the final restoration of all, did so based upon their understanding of the Scriptures. Augustine said:
“There are VERY MANY in our day who, though NOT DENYING THE HOLY SCRIPTURES, do not believe in endless torments.”
It would be admirable if the defenders of the traditional Augustinian doctrine of eternal torments would extend the same grace towards Conservative Universalists today.
It should be acknowledged that Rationalism and Relativism have caused many to depart from the high view of Scripture, as presented to us by Jesus and the Apostles, in every branch of Christianity and not only among the Universalists. The doctrinal deviations De Young opposes are not exclusive to the Universalists but are also promoted by many Annihilationists and Traditionalists.
I recently published a book entitled: “The Ways of God” (as seen through the eyes of a Conservative Restorationist). This book confronts some of the same deviations from Scripture addressed by De Young, while pointing out that it is not just a problem among Universalists but is rather a Church-wide problem which needs to be recognized and addressed.
In “Exposing Universalism” De Young attempts to discredit Universalism by first appealing to Church history, then to logic and finally to the Scriptures. Since I primarily base my belief in universal restoration upon the Scriptures and only secondarily Church history and logic, in the next few sessions I will begin with the Scriptures and afterwards consider his arguments from Church history and from logic.
De Young’s response to restoration texts.
So how does De Young explain the passages which seem to teach a universal restoration? The theme verse from which Early Church Fathers like Clement, Origin, Gregory of Nyssa and others derived their name apokatastasis or “restoration” is Acts 3:19-21 which says:
“Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, 20 and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, 21 whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration (apokatástasis) of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began.” (Acts 3:19-21)
Here Peter speaks of coming times of refreshing and the times of the restoration of all, which commences at the Second Coming of Christ. The use of the plural “times” implies that it is a process of restoration, probably involving more than one age.
How does De Young respond to this verse? At first, I thought that he failed to make any comment on it in his book since he said nothing about it in the main text of the book. However, in a footnote he said concerning Acts 3:19-21:
“It probably refers to the restoration of all the conditions in which people live because of sin, not the restoration of every person to fellowship with God.” p.20 footnote 16
However, there are numerous reasons why this restoration should be understood as primarily referring to all people. In the first place, the Early Greek Church Fathers, who still spoke the original language, understood it as including all rational creatures. If the language of the text actually militated against it referring to people, their opponents would have been quick to point out their error.
The insertion of our English word “things” is misleading. The Greek language didn’t have a word equivalent to our word “things” and when the translators insert the word “things” it can be misleading since our word “things” refers to inanimate objects. This probably contributed to De Young’s conclusion that it refers to a “condition” rather than to the restoration of people. However, the Early Greek Fathers who thought and spoke in Greek understood it to be referring to people.
The second reason why I believe it is primarily referring to people is that the restoration of all which was spoken by the mouth of the prophets since the very beginning primarily speaks of mankind’s restoration. The one example Peter gives three verses later is the promise given to Abraham:
“And in your seed ALL THE FAMILIES OF THE EARTH shall be blessed.” (Acts 3:25)
If we reflect upon this verse, we can see that it implies the restoration of all. Every family of the earth would include all mankind since Adam and Eve until the consummation. If just one member of one family will be in eternal torments, could that family be said to be blessed?
Probably the first allusion to the final restoration of all goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden where God essentially promises Eve that her seed (Christ) would destroy the enemy and restore all as it was before the fall. But as Peter said, God has repeatedly spoken concerning the restoration of all. The following are just some examples:
“All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the Lord, and ALL THE FAMILIES of the nations shall worship before You.” (Psalm 22:27)
All the families of the whole world shall remember and turn to the Lord and will worship Him. This clearly speaks of a universal restoration of all people and not just the elect.
Some argue that when we see “all” and “world” in these passages on universal restoration, it is just hyperbolic speech and shouldn’t be taken literally. They cite examples of exaggerated speech in the Bible such as:
“Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, went out to him and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.” (Mark 1:5)
Obviously, Mark didn’t mean for us to understand by “all” that literally everyone was baptized by John in the Jordan, including the unrepentant, the infants and the bed-ridden. However, common sense tells us when one is speaking literally or hyperbolically. If I were to say: “All of San Francisco came to the meeting,” or “the whole world knows that she is the best singer,” we instantly know that it is exaggerated, hyperbolic speech used for greater impact.
On the other hand, if the captain of a sinking ship were to say to those aboard: “The ship is sinking, but don’t worry, you will all be saved,” could we still rationally say it is hyperbole? Will God someday reveal to us that His promises to save and restore all are deliberate exaggerations? Of course not! How could we even attribute such a deception to God?
Let’s look at another universal restoration passage:
“Say to God, ‘how awesome are Your works! Through the greatness of Your power your enemies shall submit themselves to You. 4 All the earth shall WORSHIP You and SING PRAISES to You; they shall sing praises to Your name.” (Psalm 66:3-4)
De Young insists that it will be a forced submission for many. But would those forced to submit against their will worship the Lord and sing praises to Him? And if their worship was obligated, would such worship be acceptable to God?
“All nations whom You have made shall come and WORSHIP before You, O Lord, and shall glorify Your name.” (Psalm 86:9)
Could the saying, “all nations whom You have made” possibly exclude billions who will be burning in hell-fire forever cursing Him throughout all eternity? Or will they be forced to worship Him before finally being cast into the Lake of Fire? Could forced worship be seen as “glorifying His name?” This reminds me of Philippians where it says that everyone shall bow before Him:
“at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:10-11)
Here, as in Psalms 86, we see that absolutely everyone whom God has made will one day worship Him “to the glory of God the Father.” How could God receive glory from forced worship?
Another Psalm where all are seen to be restored is Psalm 145:
“Jehovah is gracious, and merciful; slow to anger, and of great loving-kindness. 9 Jehovah is good to all; and his tender mercies are over all his works. 10 All thy works SHALL GIVE THANKS UNTO THEE, O Jehovah; and thy saints shall bless thee.” (Ps 145:8-10 ASV)
Don’t the expressions, “all” and “all thy works” include all of humanity and indeed all of creation?
Some say that His enemies will be obligated to bow the knee to Him against their will. Will they also be obligated to give thanks to Him before He casts them into an unending lake of literal fire? What do the Scriptures say concerning His enemies?
“Through the greatness of Your power your enemies shall submit themselves to You. 4 All the earth shall WORSHIP You and SING PRAISES to You…. (Psalm 66:3-4)
Can you imagine a scene where God forces His enemies on their knees and commands them to worship Him and sing praises to Him? Clearly His enemies will worship and praise Him because He conquered them with His love – not by an exercise of brute force. These declarations are not compatible with the eternal dualism of the Traditional doctrine of an eternal hell.
“And in this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of choice pieces, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of well-refined wines on the lees. 7 And He will destroy on this mountain the surface of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations. 8 He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces…” (Isa 25:6-8)
Does this not clearly prophecy of the final restoration of all, when the veil blinding the eyes of all peoples will have been removed – when death – both the first death and the second death, are swallowed up forever and there are no more tears? How can this be explained in the light of the Traditional doctrine of hell where the majority of mankind, according to them, will be weeping and gnashing their teeth forever and ever?
When God wants to emphasize something in a very emphatic way, He swears by Himself. God has sworn by Himself that sooner or later all will look to Him and be saved:
“Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. 23 I have sworn by Myself; The word has gone out of My mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, that to Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath. 24 He shall say, ‘Surely in the Lord I have righteousness and strength.’ To Him men shall come, and all shall be ashamed who are incensed against Him.” (Isa 45:22-24)
Here we see the Lord calling upon all to look to Him and be saved. Then He swears by Himself that eventually every knee will bow confessing that in Him they have righteousness and strength. This is not in violation of anyone’s will. Rather, when the veil which is spread over all the nations is removed, His enemies will be ashamed and in repentance they will return to Him, saying: “Surely in the Lord I have righteousness and strength.” We see in Philippians 2:10,11 that even those in heaven and under the earth will confess Jesus as Lord in due time.
At this point it is common to hear someone retort, “do you mean to say that even someone like Adolf Hitler will eventually repent and be saved? What about Sodom and Gomorrah who were destroyed with eternal fire for their immorality?” Well, what do the Scriptures say about the future of Sodom? Ezekiel 16 says:
“However, I will restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters and of Samaria and her daughters, and your (Judah’s) fortunes along with them, 54 so that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all you have done in giving them comfort. 55 And your sisters, Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to what they were before; and you and your daughters will return to what you were before…. Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you. 61 Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you receive your sisters, both those who are older than you (Sodom and her daughters) and those who are younger (Samaria and her daughters). I will give them to you as daughters, but not on the basis of my covenant with you.” (Ezek 16:53-55; 60,61 NIV Parenthesis mine)
Here, shortly before Jerusalem was sieged and Judah taken into captivity to Babylon, God is promising them that after having judged them He will finally restore them along with the other ten tribes of Israel (Samaria and her daughters) who had been scattered among the nations because of their abominations, and He will also restore Sodom and her daughters (i.e. Gomorrah and the other four cities) as they were before. Then Judah will be ashamed because her sins were even greater than those of Sodom and Samaria.
I have yet to find this passage of Scripture even mentioned in a book opposing Universalism. I quote from the New International Version because the King James Version inserted “when I” instead of “I will” at the beginning of verses 53 and 55 in order to remove its fulfillment from the realm of certainty. Most recent translations, however, correct this apparently deliberate alteration of the text.
Ezekiel was clearly referring to the restoration of the actual people destroyed in Sodom in the days of Lot since there were no survivors to continue their name. If the restoration of all includes even Sodom, then who could possibly be excluded? Those before the flood? If they are excluded, then why did Jesus go and preach to them?
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water… 4:6 For this reason the gospel was preached (euaggelizo) also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.” (1Peter 3:18-20; 4:6)
Here we see that Jesus went and preached the gospel to those who were dead and imprisoned for their former disobedience in order that they might live to God even though they had been previously judged according to the flesh. And who were these who had formerly been disobedient? Those who had corrupted themselves to such a degree that God had to destroy them in the flood, much as He did with Sodom.
And how does De Young respond to this? He says the following:
“The text of 1 Peter 3:18-4:6 better means that Christ went by the Spirit to those now in prison, in hell, in the days of Noah and preached to the wicked then in the preaching of Noah. There was not a subsequent preaching. Even if there were a preaching by Jesus between his death and resurrection, it is more likely that it was a proclamation of triumph, not an invitation to believe the gospel.” p.221
De Young says that, instead of Peter saying that Jesus went and preached to those who were dead and imprisoned in hades after His victory over death and hades, he meant to say that Jesus had already preached through Noah to the people who were destroyed in the flood some 2,000 years earlier while they were still alive.
This is the same answer I gave as a young pastor when asked to explain this passage, but It is obviously not the straightforward meaning of the text. Both verbs “preached” in 3:19 and 4:6 are in the aorist indicative form which indicates that the preaching was a one-time event rather than Noah’s 120 years of continuous preaching. Nevertheless, such a forced interpretation is necessary in order for them to be able to deny the promised restoration of all – including even those who perished in the flood. Also, we see that the gospel was not preached to the living before the flood but rather to those who are dead, in order that they might live unto God in the spirit even though they had been previously judged in the flesh.
The most logical meaning of the passage is that after His death He went and preached the gospel (Gr. euaggelizo 4:6) to those who were disobedient to the preaching of Noah, and as a result were destroyed in the flood and were imprisoned in hades. After Christ’s victory He took possession of the keys of hades and death according to Revelation 1:18. Through His shed blood He now had the authority to free Satan’s captives and so He went and preached the good news to them, so that even though they had been judged in the flesh they might live to God in the spirit.
Although De Young seeks to discount the testimony of the Early Greek Church Fathers, this was the belief of many at that time. For example, Athanasius Bishop of Alexandria, who lived between 296 and 373 A.D. said:
“While the devil thought to kill one, he is deprived of all, cast out of Hades and sitting by the gates, sees all the fettered beings led forth by the courage of the Savior.”
Gregory Nazianzen, (AD 330- AD 390) wrote:
“Until He loosed by His blood all who groan under Tartarean chains.”
And again, he says:
“Today salvation has been brought to the universe to whatsoever is visible and whatsoever is invisible…the gates of Hades are thrown open.”
While it is the subject of another session, those like De Young who defend the Traditional doctrine of eternal torment, typically seek to minimize, discredit or suppress the clear testimony of prominent Early Greek Church Fathers as well as the testimony of the most respected Church historians such as Eusebius, Johann Gieseler and Philip Schaff.
In the next session we will continue our critique of De Young’s rebuttals to the texts which we understand to be speaking of a universal restoration. It is certainly not my intention to demean him in any way or single him out. The only reason I selected his book “Exposing Universalism” as the topic for these sessions is because It is the most thoughtful attempt to refute Universalism I have seen so far. Actually, I agree with him on many points which don’t directly apply to Biblical Universalism.