Several years ago, Rob Bell created waves with his book Love Wins, which suggested that God might ultimately save every human being who has ever lived. Once considered a significant voice in evangelicalism, Bell’s apparent embrace of universalism cemented his position in the mind of many as a heretic.
I am not a universalist. It seems to me that Scripture must be radically reinterpreted, and several unbiblical assumptions embraced, to adopt a Christian universalist position. But we should recognise that Bell hardly invented this theology.
In his book All You Want to Know about Hell, Steve Gregg appeals to the early centuries after Christ to show that, fairly early on, orthodox Christianity was divided between three quite distinct views of hell. Christian universalism was a position embraced by the second century church father Origen. While others strongly disagreed with his theology, he remained a respected teacher within orthodox Christianity. He was not widely regarded as a heretic.
Origen did not believe that everyone will be saved regardless of their religion. He believed in conscious torment for unrepentant sinners after death but taught that God would continue to give sinners in hell opportunity to hear the gospel. Eventually, he taught, everybody would believe the gospel and be welcomed into God’s eternal kingdom. To him, salvation was by Christ alone, but not necessarily in this life alone.
The theology of Christian universalism rises and falls with this assumption about post-mortem opportunity. And therein, I believe, lies its weakness. Since the New Testament seems to affirm quite strongly that there is no opportunity to repent after death, universalism does not appear to be a tenable theology.
In the closing section of his second letter (3:14–18), Peter hints at the finality of opportunity for repentance at death. Having addressed the theme of judgement, he writes, “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation” (v. 15). If you have ever wondered why the Lord is patient with sinners, not immediately judging rampant wickedness, it is because he is committed to giving opportunity for repentance. But the implication is that the Lord’s patience lasts in this life only. For every sinner, death marks the end of divine patience. At death, the Lord will have been sufficiently patient, and all that awaits is final judgement with its eternal consequences for sin.
If this is true, there are at least two important implications for us in this life.
First, in light of the Lord’s finite patience, today is the day to believe the gospel. Your eternal fate is sealed the day of your death. You will have no opportunity to hear or believe the gospel after you have died. While you breathe, the Lord patiently extends opportunity to repent. When you die, all opportunity to believe the gospel and receive Christ will be forever removed. Embrace Christ today, before it is too late.
Second, in light of the Lord’s finite patience, now is the time to share Christ’s love with unbelievers. While they live, God is showing patience to your unbelieving loved ones and neighbours. But his patience will not last forever. Death is coming, and no one will be given opportunity to receive Christ beyond the grave. This life is all the opportunity anyone has to believe. This life is all the opportunity any of us has to share the gospel with those we care about. Will you do that today?
As you reflect on 2 Peter 3:14–18 this morning, thank God, if you are a Christian, for his patience, which led to your salvation. Ask God, if you are not a Christian, to save you from your sins through Christ. Ask God for the boldness you need to share Christ’s love with your neighbours while his patience lasts.