How can Universalism and Free Will Coexist? (Q&A)
A few months ago I received a very insightful question about how universalism and free will can coexist. It was in response to this podcast episode. Here's the question in full:
Jordan, I’ve found your podcast quite interesting. My friends and I have had many conversations on some of these topics. I go to a fundamental bible teaching church, and we hold to fairly traditional teaching on hell and most other doctrine. The idea of universal salvation of all mankind is quite interesting to me and makes a lot of sense. I find it to be consistent with a lot of passages scripture but it really seems to all swing on the interpretation of the the Greek word for eternal that’s used to describe hell in the NT in a few places. It also seems to assume that man does not have a free will to choose God or not. The question I had for you was related to the topic of free will. Our church pretty much avoids the whole Calvinism vs Arminian debate. But a lot of the teaching does relate to more Arminian side of the debate. Pastor seems to emphasize that we will choose where we will spend eternity! On occasion the word free will is thrown around. The question I had for you is do you think the idea of man having a free will is unbiblical? There seems to be a consistent teaching in the Bible of people hardening their hearts and rejecting God. Could not God remain sovereign but still give freedom us to choose him or reject him? If the ball is in our court wouldn’t it make sense for their to be and eternal separation from the God that we have reject by our own choice? Do you have any thoughts on this topic?
Thanks for the question! There's a lot here, and I'd like to go through it paragraph-by-paragraph.
An Open Mind
First off, I want to congratulate you for what you say right off the bat!
Jordan, I’ve found your podcast quite interesting. My friends and I have had many conversations on some of these topics. I go to a fundamental bible teaching church, and we hold to fairly traditional teaching on hell and most other doctrine.
Specifically, I want to commend your bravery and your patience. Not many people who go to more conservative churches are brave enough to begin asking these questions, so I'm very proud of you for that!
On the other hand, many who begin to question their church's teachings tend to become disgruntled toward the church. So I applaud your patience as well. Not many people are able to hold together bravely thinking on their own and patiently sticking with those who disagree.
Is Universalism Biblical?
Second, I appreciate your ability to see the Biblical warrant for universalism. You said:
The idea of universal salvation of all mankind is quite interesting to me and makes a lot of sense. I find it to be consistent with a lot of passages scripture.
For those reading who disagree, I want to point out texts that seem to, based off a straight forward reading of the text, teach universalism. Now if you're opposed to universalism, your initial reaction might be to explain other ways the passages could be interpreted. But that's irrelevant. The point I'm making is that there are plenty of texts that would suggest all people shall at the end of history be united to God.
"For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15:22). How many people shall Christ make alive? The same exact number of people who are dead in Adam.
"Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men" (Romans 5:18). How many people were impacted by Adam's sin? All humanity. And how many were saved through Jesus' one act of righteousness? All humanity.
"For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross" (Colossians 1:19-20). The vision of this text is absolutely everything reconciled to God.
A Problem Word?
However, in spite of this evidence, you do raise a question of sorts about the word eternal:
But it really seems to all swing on the interpretation of the the Greek word for eternal that’s used to describe hell in the NT in a few places.
The word you're referring to is aion and its adjective form aionios. Quite simply put, the word can have two meanings. It can refer to an "age," or it can refer to "forever." It's debated which meaning is primary, but it seems very clear it refers to both in Scripture.
As one example of a text that clearly doesn't refer to "forever" is Romans 16:25. It says "Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages." How long was the secret kept? It's the same Greek word often translated "eternal." But the secret hasn't been kept forever! Clearly that "age" of secrecy has come to an end.
So there is no reason to assume that there must be an unending place of punishment just based off the word eternal. It very well can mean "an age" or "a period of time." In fact, it must mean that, because we already know from the above texts that all shall be reunited to God! So of course the punishment can't be eternal.
A Tough Text?
Oftentimes a single passage is brought up to counter the previous point. Matthew 25:46 says:
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
The argument is this: if the life is eternal in the sense of being unending, then so must the punishment.
First of all, notice how eerily similar this argument is to the argument from 1 Corinthians 15:22. There the argument is: "If all die in Adam, then we must honor the parallelism, and admit that all shall also be saved in Christ." But most people who try to make the parallelism argument from Matthew 25:46 aren't consistent in how they read the universalist passages.
That doesn't prove anything, but it's worth noting.
But in fact, I do think this passage has a parallelism. But I think that neither use of the word "eternal" refers to "forever." I think it's better translated "And these will go away into an age of punishment, but the righteous into the age of life." That's at least a consistent way to interpret the text, and it honors the parallelism. So at the very least, it's a plausible interpretation.
(Note: saying that the word doesn't mean forever doesn't mean that it isn't forever. It just means that it isn't saying anything about it one way or the other. It just isn't the point. The point, in my view, of what Jesus is saying is that some will go into an age of punishment, and some will go into an age of life. Some, when they die, will awake to pain. Others, when they die, will awake to pure, joyous life.)
What is punishment?
But there is another factor, here. And that's the issue of the word punishment. In Greek there are two words for punishment: timoreo and kolazo. The former is closer to the idea of retributive justice: someone is receiving some kind of pain because they ought to receive it to satisfy justice. Kolazo, on the other hand, refers to corrective punishment. This distinction was well-known in the ancient world.
Any guess as to which word is used in Matthew 25:46? It's the word kolazo. The punishment which some of us will awake to post-death is not a punishment intended to destroy or annihilate. The ultimate purpose of it isn't even to cause us pain or satisfy justice. Its ultimate purpose is to correct, heal, and instruct us.
So if that's the case, then it strongly suggests that the word for "eternal" would better be translated as "age." The whole purpose of the punishment is correction, so unless God utterly fails at correcting us, then why would it last forever?
Universalism and Free Will
Alright, so much for the preliminary issues! Now onto your main question:
It [universalism] also seems to assume that man does not have a free will to choose God or not. The question I had for you was related to the topic of free will. Our church pretty much avoids the whole Calvinism vs Arminian debate. But a lot of the teaching does relate to more Arminian side of the debate. Pastor seems to emphasize that we will choose where we will spend eternity! On occasion the word free will is thrown around. The question I had for you is do you think the idea of man having a free will is unbiblical? There seems to be a consistent teaching in the Bible of people hardening their hearts and rejecting God. Could not God remain sovereign but still give freedom us to choose him or reject him? If the ball is in our court wouldn’t it make sense for their to be and eternal separation from the God that we have reject by our own choice? Do you have any thoughts on this topic?
You raise several key questions! Essentially, the concerns boil down to two issues:
1. Do we have free will?
2. If we do have free will, how can universalism be true?
Let's answer each of these in order.
Do We Have Free Will?
Yes! This is one of the clearest issues of philosophy to me. We definitely have free will. We could make this really complex if we wanted to. But for me, a really simple question is this:
Was I ever able to make a different choice than the one I made?
If the answer is "yes," then we have free will. And this is consistent with the Bible: 1 Corinthians 10:13 says "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."
Just think of how crazy it would be if we didn't have free will! We would never be able to hold anyone responsible for their actions. If someone murdered someone, but they didn't have the ability to choose not to, then how can we hold them responsible for their actions?
Are there limits to free will?
But this doesn't mean we can do anything! For example, I just now chose to type the word "the." And I believe I could have chosen to write a different word instead. I have that ability.
But did I have the ability to choose to fly over the freeway instead of driving this morning? No! Of course not. You might think it's silly I even asked. But the crucial thing to learn here is why I wasn't able to. I wasn't able to, because my human nature constrained me. I am only able to choose within the limits of my nature. I can't choose to do anything that goes directly against my nature.
But it's even more than that! Consider another example. Can I choose whether I will drink coffee or water next? Yes. Can I choose whether I will drink coffee or poison next? Well, yes, I can in a sense. But here's the thing: given the choices I've made so far in my life, I am positive that I would be unable to do that. Why? Because our choices are not only constrained by our nature, but they are constrained by what we see as good for ourselves.
There is no part of me that sees drinking poison as good. I am 100% sure that it is bad for me. And my belief is that nobody can choose something that they are 100% sure is bad for them. Why not? Because, at the end of the day, our wills aren't just random. We make the choices we make because we want to be happy, we want what's good.
It's our lack of knowledge and bad habits that prevent us from always choosing well. But we are always at least trying to do what is good for ourselves. Even the person who commits suicide is trying to do good for themselves so they can avoid the pain they're experiencing.
How can Universalism and Free Will Coexist?
So now, finally, I can answer the main question. How can universalism be true if we have free will?
The key is to remember what I just explained. Our wills are constrained by our nature and what we see as good for us.
Think of it this way. Imagine a stick figure, and he has two choices in front of him. He knows one is good for him and the other is bad for him, but he doesn't know which is which. This little stick man knows that he is aiming for "The Good," which in his mind is way off into the distance. That's his target, his north star, what he's constantly seeking for.
But as he branches off and makes choices, he slowly learns over time what choices truly are good and which choices truly are bad. So he adjusts. He reorients his ship (to mix metaphors) back to what he now perceives to be true north, and he keeps sailing. He keeps aiming for what's good, even though he doesn't travel there in a straight line.
According to Scripture, that "north star," the "Good" we shoot for, is God. We were made for God. In other words, human nature was hardwired to know, love, and enjoy union with God. It's what we're for. It's what's good for us. It's how we experience fullest joy. As Romans 11:36 says, "For from him and through him and to him are all things." We are oriented to God as our greatest good.
So in light of this understanding of humanity and free will, I think a picture emerges. We have free will, which at a minimum means we can sometimes choose to do other than what we did. And this will is always pointed at God, even if in a confused and often sloppy manner. None of us move directly toward God. In fact, many of us spend our entire earthly existence moving further and further away from God.
The hope of the afterlife, however, is that we will eventually come to our senses. We will eventually run out of room to run from God. This is based off the firm conviction that whereas God is infinite, evil is not. Although God's goodness and love never end, the places where that love don't touch do end.
So practically, what will this look like? It means Joe will die. He will not wake up in the bliss of union with God. He will be very far from him. And yet Joe, being stubborn, will keep trying to find The Good in places other than God. Maybe this search will last ages and ages. But eventually, he will run out of places to search. He has tried every single other way to find goodness and love apart from the source of it all, and he has finally given up. And so at last, he turns toward God, and begins the painful process of repentance.