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Free Will, Salvation and Universalism
Hell is entirely avoidable, but it is also entirely real
Hell is real, and no one would ever want to go there if they knew how awful it really is. I think believers understand this, but this knowledge often leads to another question: How could a loving God send people to hell, the ultimate place of suffering and torment? I get asked this question pretty regularly. If you are a believer, you have probably been asked this question. All of us need to be ready with an answer when the question comes up.
The Consequences of Free Will
God has given the incredible gift of free will to every human who has ever been on earth. Nevertheless, that gift comes with responsibilities for us to use it according to God’s design, and there are consequences when we don’t. When God extended free will to Adam and Eve, He informed them that He was putting a tree in the Garden of Eden from which they could not eat. They could freely eat from every other tree, but one was off-limits. With their free will, they could choose obedience and blessings or disobedience and curses. As you know, they chose the latter. They consciously rebelled against God and His command. That rebellion is what we call “sin.” Adam and Eve were without excuse because God had warned them of the consequences.
You may be thinking, Well, Jimmy, I think people are good enough, and everyone should get to go to heaven.
I understand this impulse. Some believers want this to be true. They are advocates for a theological concept called Christian universalism, which suggests that all humans will ultimately be restored into a right relationship with God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
But think a little further about the implications of this belief. Are you saying there should be no difference between a loving parent and a child abuser? A murderer and a medical doctor? A thief and a diligent worker? A drunkard and an Olympic athlete? An atheist and a missionary? A cynic and a believer? Hitler and Abraham? The apostle Peter and Judas? Osama bin Laden and SEAL Team 6? Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth? Or Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Ku Klux Klan?
Now, if any of those people chose to follow Jesus, their sins are covered by His righteousness. But without Jesus, there are huge differences. If there is no difference, and everyone finally gets saved in the end, then our world is one of chaos and meaninglessness. God has given us the gift of free will, but it comes with consequences for misusing it. He gave that same free will to Adam and Eve. He told them they would die, but they disobeyed Him anyway. We are still dealing with the consequences.
You can’t have free will without the potential of consequences for your choices. If there are no consequence, then we have no meaning and no justice.
What the Bible Says
You might say, “Well, Jimmy, I’m all for universalism. I want everyone to be saved.” That’s fine. You can want that, and I can appreciate that you love people. But the real question is, does God want that? He loves people, and He’s provided a way to avoid hell. Even if someone thinks universalism is a great concept, it’s a moot point, because the Bible teaches God will not finally save everyone, because not everyone will choose God.
I am going to go with the Bible’s version of reality: All roads do not lead to the same destination. And free will means we can freely choose the path of destruction. Consequences are real, and they mean something.
At the dawn of Creation, our loving God extended this precious gift of free will. He desires for us to use it to love and obey Him—that’s why there was only one bad tree in the Garden of Eden and thousands, if not tens of thousands, of good trees that included no prohibition. God did not stack the deck against the first humans. The cards were in their favor. They had only one choice that they could make against God, but that is precisely the one they made. They experienced the consequences, and we are still suffering with them. Even after such a fateful choice, God didn’t take free will away from the human race. I have it, and so do you.
Nevertheless, He also didn’t remove the consequences that come from using that will to disobey Him. I have done it, and so have you. All of us have chosen to rebel against God, so our sins only compound the consequences.
Only One Way
There is only one way to heaven and only one responsible way to exercise our free will: choose Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
God created the first two humans to love and obey Him. That was His initial design for humanity. If they had followed His command, then they would have lived with Him forever in His perfect garden. They didn’t, and so they were banished. But before God ever removed Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, He had already established a plan to rescue them. He told Eve that one day her descendant would overcome Satan and restore humanity to its rightful place (Genesis 3:15).
At first, God chose a man named Abraham. From Abraham, God made His people, Israel, and from Israel, God chose Mary to be the virgin mother to His very own Son, Jesus. Jesus lived the perfect sinless life. He taught truth, performed miracles, cast out demons, and told people the Good News about God’s rescue plan to save all humanity. As a reward for Jesus’ good works, humans put Him on trial, mocked Him, and executed Him in shame. Even so, God intervened and raised Jesus from the dead.
Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, all humanity is now invited to receive the gift of salvation and eternal life. Every person is given the free will to choose Him as Savior and Lord, call on Him as the Mediator between them and God the Father, and trust Him to present them to God as blameless and righteous. Every human has the promise of heaven if they will only believe and receive Jesus. The ultimate sin that will lead to the ultimate penalty is to refuse the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Hell is entirely avoidable, but it is also entirely real. Without God’s grace, hell is inevitable. God doesn’t send anyone to hell unless they choose to go there themselves by rejecting Him.
God always wanted a relationship with humanity. Adam and Eve used their free will to spoil His initial design for people, so God sent His Son to restore and redeem them. Because He knows everything God knew they were going to sin. He didn’t create them to sin, want them to sin, or tempt them to sin, but He prepared to deal with their sin “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). God was completely aware that they would use their free will to sin against Him. Even so, He was already laying out His rescue plan. It was a plan that would cost God the most precious possession He will ever have, His own Son.
Opened from the Inside
So before you decide universalism is a great idea, I regret to inform you: there will not be another plan. At its best, universalism is a sentimental idea that is really misplaced compassion. At its worst, it makes a mockery of the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross. If we embrace universalism, we do so in error, and we risk other people not hearing about the only way God has established to save us and keep us out of hell.
The apostle John quotes Jesus in the book of Revelation:
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”—Revelation 3:20
Jesus is the perfect gentlemen when it comes to salvation. He stands outside the door and knocks, but He won’t kick down the door. He has the ability to break in, but that’s not in His character. Jesus wants us to choose Him of our own free will. You see, He values His relationship with us, and He wants it to be one of mutual love rather than coercion. So He knocks on the door of every single person’s heart, but those doors must be opened from the inside.
Many people wonder why a loving God would ever send anyone to hell. However, I have a question in response: Why would any sane and reasonable person reject and refuse the grace of such a loving God? He is incredibly loving, and He died on the cross so no one would have to go to hell. Why would anyone turn away from that?
When someone asks, “Why would a loving God send someone to hell?” they are essentially saying, “I refuse to accept a higher moral authority than myself, nor will I take responsibility for the consequences of my choice.”
As for me, I choose not to rebel against God. I have thrown open the door and welcomed Him in with thankfulness and joy. I am totally and completely giving the Lord control of my life. I know He created me, died for me, and gave me new life. I cannot repay Him, but I will gladly serve Him for all eternity. And I believe that because of His grace, I will experience the pleasures of heaven forever.