Universalism has become the new orthodoxy for many Christian thinkers and groups.
Yet Scripture teaches the reality, certainty, and justice of hell as a state of eternal punishment for the wicked.
What of those who lack a living faith in Jesus as saviour from the punishment of hell? What about those who never had an opportunity to hear or to respond to the gospel? Here’s a summary of J.I. Packer’s discussion:-
Christians have given a variety of answers:-
Some maintain that all unbelievers go to hell.
Some find a place for ‘good pagans’ in God’s kingdom.
Some have urged the hope that all those who die in infancy will be saved.
Some (e.g. post-Vatican II Roman Catholics) hold that those who are ‘guiltlessly ignorant of Christ’s gospel’ may achieve eternal salvation by following God’s will as known by the dictates of conscience.
Some Arminians believe that grace sufficient for salvation is given to everyone, including those who do not hear the gospel.
Some Calvinists suggest that God regenerates some unevangelised adults, bringing them to repentance through general revelation alone.
Some, following Karl Barth, teach that just as in Christ crucified all humankind was condemned, so in Christ risen all are elected and justified.
(a) Pastorally, post-Christian pluralism and anti-Christian alternatives are knocking at the door. In the churches, thinking is confused. Outside the churches, the media, education, and literary establishments are resolutely secular, exercising a powerful conditioning against biblical Christianity.
(b) Theologically, Christianity faces challenges from Islam and the other great ethnic religions, all of which resent and reject Christianity’s claims to be the final truth from God for all humanity. The universal significance of Christ seems problematical. Some side-step the problem by asserting that Christianity and the world’s religions are fundamentally the same, and that sincere adherents of other faiths are in fact ‘anonymous Christians; but in fact the closer the examination, the more different they are found to be.
(c) Strategically, two views of mission are held. One, in line with patristic, Roman Catholic and 19th-century Protestant missionary movements, views the task as first to evangelise and plant churches, second to relieve need, and third to Christianise pagan cultures. The other approach, however, defines the mission as first to seek justice and peace in communities where these are lacking, second to engage in dialogue with non-Christian religions, and third to nurture Christians and extend the church.
Subordinating evangelism to social and political concern only makes sense if universalism is true.
Universalism is a comforting belief. For the universalist, hell is never the ultimate state. It is, at most, a stage on the journey home.
Universalists hold that God’s retributive justice is always a disciplinary expression of redeeming love. However,
(a) Universalism ignores the constant biblical stress on the decisiveness and finality of this life’s decisions for the determining of eternal destiny.
(b) Universalism contradicts Christ himself, who warned men to flee from hell at all costs, but must be assumed to have done so either from ignorance or deceit.
(c) Universalism makes an unanswerable problem for itself when it posits that God can bring a person to repentance in the life to come, when he could not, or would not, in the present life.
(d) Universalism offends the thoughtful Christian conscience when it invites one to forfeit opportunities afforded in this life because there will be more in the hereafter.
Light for all
But cannot God bring individuals to faith in him through the light of general revelation alone? Such might be suggested by Ac 10:35; 14:17. It might also be suggested by the accounts of Melchizedek, Jethro, Job, Abimelech, Baalam, Naaman, the sailors in Jonah’s boat, Cyrus and Nebuchadnezzar. Did not John describe the preincarnate Word as “the true light that enlightens every man”?
So, it is possible that God does call some to himself who have not known Christ but have worshiped according to the light that they had been given. But we have no warrant to expect this to be the case in any single instance where the gospel is known or understood. Our job is to spread the gospel, not to guess what might happen to those to whom it never comes.
Based on: J.I. Packer, “‘Good Pagans’ and God’s Kingdom,” in Collected Shorter Writings I, 161-168