Ancient Errors, Modern Examples: Universalism

Fifty years ago, it took the world by storm. Recorded in 1971, John Lennon’s song “Imagine” became the anthem for a generation unmoored from self-restraint, morality and the fear of God.  And while the press heaped breathless accolades upon it (brilliant, timeless, idealistic, utopian, classic), it was 3 minutes and 3 seconds of reckless, godless fantasy:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky…

Lennon, who was brutally murdered in New York City in 1980, now knows better. The man who once sang “I don’t believe in the Bible…I don’t believe in Jesus…I just believe in me” is at this moment consciously existing in eternity, where ultimate realities are indisputable. In life, a person can imagine whatever they like, but afterwards, no one questions that an actual hell exists, and a real heaven too. They cannot be wished away.

So, then, what are we to make of those who say this?: “Well, yes, I do believe in heaven and hell, as the Bible describes them, but I don’t really believe in eternal punishment. It seems more ‘reasonable’ to imagine that a perfectly loving God would never endlessly punish the wicked. Hopefully, the love of Christ will ultimately win them over, and they will be saved, or in a worst-case scenario, they will simply be annihilated.”

This is both an ancient and a modern error, and one with serious spiritual consequences. Its general acceptance, even among evangelicals, is alarming. And so the questions arise: Will all those who die rejecting Christ be saved in the end? Will demons, and even Satan himself, be won over by the love of God and freed from their “forever and ever” torment (Rev 20:10)? Will hell be emptied some day, its “corrective” work done, and only heaven remain?

The origin of this theory, called “Universalism”, or “Universal Salvation”, is traced to Origen of Alexandria, a third-century theologian who expressed the hope that hell was remedial, burning away sin, thus allowing reconciliation with God at some point in eternity. For this, along with his denial of the equality of the Son within the Godhead, he was rightly anathematised by the Catholic Church.

In the 19th century, the popular but heretical writings of George McDonald promoted similar ideas. McDonald, who openly denied the Bible’s doctrine of substitutionary atonement (he did not believe that Christ took the place of sinners and bore the wrath of God for them), also believed that while hell was real, it was part of God’s plan to bend the will of man to himself, and that all would ultimately yield, producing a universal salvation. Regrettably, in the same era among so-called “brethren”, the publication of The Restitution of All Things by Andrew Jukes (writing on Acts 3:20-21) advanced the same error. In the end, he was scripturally excommunicated as a false teacher.

More recently, in 2011, Rob Bell cleverly recycled 2,000 years of universalism into a slick but treacherous book, Love Wins. In it, Bell, the onetime pastor of Mars Hill, a 40,000 member megachurch, denied that hell was literal, but is merely a metaphor for suffering in our present world. To him, preaching about eternal punishment is misguided and toxic, and antithetical to a message about God’s love. Further, he posited that it was “fitting and proper” to hope for universal salvation. Despite the protests of a few, many among the merely religious embraced it, making it a religious best-seller. The apostle Peter would have called it “destructive heresy” (2 Pet 2:1).

Beloved saints, this flies in the face of what the Bible teaches. How can we read of “unquenchable fire”, an “undying worm”, a “fixed gulf”, or of “abiding wrath” without accepting the doctrine of eternal punishment? Christ’s use of the word “eternal” is deeply instructive: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:46).1 Paul adds: “In hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began” (Titus 1:2), and again, “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess 1:9). So tightly are they linked that “we must either admit the endless misery of hell or give up the endless happiness of heaven.”2

Appeals to texts saying “I…will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32) and “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Phil 2:10) fail to make the case for a universal salvation. God’s generous gospel call to “whosoever” in no way foretells a general acceptance; there are few that are saved (Luke 13:23). And what God will ultimately compel, in homage to His Son, has no relation to the voluntary worship of those who genuinely love Him. Hell will bend the knee, but it will never bow its heart; the evil are still evil, and the filthy are still filthy (Rev 22:11).

In closing, let me offer a brief but solemn word to any who are wavering, who may say, “I know what the Bible says, but I still just cherish the hope that in the end, God will find a way to save everyone.” There is, it must be admitted, a sentimental appeal to this, but in the light of Scripture, it cannot stand. We are not asked to be comfortable; we are required to be accurate! Intentionally or not, this is what you are actually saying, “I hope God isn’t telling the truth. I hope the Bible isn’t literally describing the future. I hope Christ misspoke when He said, ‘The wrath of God remains on him’ (John 3:36).” But if you allow even one of those possibilities – a deceitful God, an untrustworthy Bible, or a fallible Christ – then in reality, you do not trust the God of the Bible and are in danger of the very judgment you are willing to question.

Biblically, hope is the secure conviction that God’s words are trustworthy, reliable and true. Neither subjective nor wishful, hope is an intelligent, Spirit-led confidence in God Himself (1 Pet 1:21). We can never fully grasp the breadth of His eternal purpose, but like Abraham, we reckon that God is able to “do what he had promised” (Rom 4:21). Appeals to “hopeful theology” do not sanction thoughts or expressions that are contrary to His Word.

By God’s grace, may we be preserved from these errors, and cling more closely, not to wishful thinking but to the Lord and His unchanging Word.


This article originally appeared in the Nov 2021 issue of Truth and Tidings magazine, used with permission.


  1. All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.
  2. Moses Stuart, Exegetical Essays on Several Words Relating to Future Punishment (Andover, MA: Codman, 1830), 62.