James B. De Young. Exposing Universalism: A Comprehensive Guide to the Faulty Appeals Made by Universalists Paul Young, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Others Past and Present to Promote a New Kind of Christianity. Resource Publications (Imprint of Wipf and Stock), 2018. See here to purchase the book.
James B. De Young teaches New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary, which is in Portland, Oregon. In Exposing Universalism, De Young argues against universalism, the idea that all people, and even the devil and his demons, are saved or will be saved. De Young defends the concept of Eternal Conscious Torment in hell for those who reject Jesus Christ.
Here are some of my thoughts about the book:
A. I find a lot of universalists to be annoying. To add some caveats before I explain why, I can sympathize with them having problems with the concept of Eternal Conscious Torment for people who do not accept Christ as their personal Savior. I also acknowledge that some universalists are more nuanced and knowledgeable than others: Gregory MacDonald/Robin Parry comes to mind as a nuanced, knowledgeable universalist. And I should highlight that De Young’s problem with universalists is not merely (or even) that they are annoying; rather, he regards their beliefs as dangerous and soul-damning. For De Young, a lot is at stake in this debate.
That said, I find a lot of the popular universalists (the sorts you will find on social media) to be annoying. For one, they are so dogmatic about things that they know little about. I have seen more than one of them dogmatically declare that Jesus in Matthew 25:46 teaches that the wicked will suffer age-lasting correction, not everlasting punishment. Oh really? Are they absolutely certain of this? Are they saying that aionios never, ever means eternal or everlasting? It seems to be when it is used to describe God! And does kolasis always mean correction? There are times when it appears to mean punishment. Then there is the conspiracy-theory tone of some of their arguments. Some act as if eternal punishment entered the church as a result of Augustine’s pernicious influence, or the Latin translation of the Bible, even though there are early church fathers who appear to believe in everlasting punishment. But I have a little respect for the popular universalists who at least attempt to present exegetical or historical arguments, as flawed, as simplistic, and as grossly ignorant as those may be. Some simply bypass that altogether and say that “God is love.”
In any case, De Young engages these sorts of arguments, and he does so effectively. He acknowledges nuance, as when he admits that there are times when aionios means a long time rather than eternal. He makes a contextual case, however, that aionios means eternal when the subject is eternal punishment. He offers a rather convincing case that, in Romans and Colossians, people are alienated from God and are subject to wrath until they believe in Jesus Christ, showing that Christ’s death did not save them prior to that point; faith is essential for salvation. De Young refers to New Testament passages that seem to indicate that punishment is the ultimate outcome of the wicked, meaning there is no opportunity for them to repent after that (see, for example, II Peter 3:9), and he contends that passages about the unpardonable sin and apostasy undermine the possibility that everyone will be saved. He also refers to early patristic passages that say or imply that there is no opportunity to repent after death. Will any of this convince hard-core popular universalists? Probably not. You would make more progress talking to that wall over there! But, if you want a book that presents effective arguments against universalism, this is one to read.
B. That said, questions remain in my mind after reading De Young’s book. Here are some of them:
—-De Young appears to believe that there are exceptions to the requirement of placing one’s faith explicitly in Jesus Christ to be saved. People who have not heard the Gospel but respond in humble repentance to the light that they have are saved, as far as De Young are concerned. Does that contradict, or at least qualify, the Scriptural requirement that people believe in Christ to be saved? If there are exceptions to that rule, then can we dogmatically proclaim that there is absolutely no possibility that God will grant people opportunities to repent after death? There are times in Scripture when God makes a threat but relents on account of God’s mercy. This is not to suggest that we should be cavalier, but perhaps there is a sliver of hope for loved ones who die without having said the sinner’s prayer.
—-De Young would quote church fathers who appear to deny the possibility of post-mortem repentance. Yet, in refuting universalist scholars, he would refer authoritatively to scholars who say that those same church fathers embraced universalism. How can this be?
—-De Young states that universalism actually depicts God as cruel: God tortures sinners until they finally repent, as if God is twisting their arm. That is a valid point, but is Eternal Conscious Torment, without any hope at all, any better? Also, in the Hebrew Bible, it does appear that God afflicts Israel in an attempt to encourage her to repent.
—-At times, De Young seems to depict hell as God giving unbelievers what they want: separation from God. They sent themselves to hell, and God respects their choice. Yet, De Young occasionally depicts hell as a place of physical pain, the sort of place no one would want to go. On the issue of choice, De Young sometimes sounds like a Calvinist, but sometimes he sounds like one who believes that sinners in this life can actually choose to repent and only have themselves to blame if they do not. In addition, while De Young stresses free will, he appears to deny that people have free will once they are in heaven or hell. The wicked cannot repent in hell, and the righteous in heaven cannot relapse into sin. Otherwise, he asks, how can we rest assured that people in heaven will not rebel and start a fresh cycle of sin?
—-De Young briefly refers to the view of Edersheim that the schools of Shammai and Hillel in the first century believed in eternal punishment, that rabbinic Judaism relaxed this view in the second century, and that it returned to eternal punishment in the third century. There may be some truth to this conception of Judaism, as there are Second Temple references to eternal punishment. But there is more to the story when it comes to Shammai and Hillel. According to Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:3, Shammai believed that there was an intermediate group (neither righteous nor wicked) who would cry out to God in Gehenna and receive deliverance; Hillel stressed God’s mercy. Whether this negatively impacts De Young’s argument is not readily apparent, however, since Shammai states that the wicked receive eternal punishment, and he appears to interpret eternity there as eternity, nothing temporary. Still, he does regard Gehenna as a temporary experience for a lot of people.
—-De Young contends that hell appears in the Hebrew Bible, and he argues against the idea that the Hebrew Bible lacks a rigorous concept of the afterlife; De Young also briefly engages the idea that the Jews got the idea of hell from the Zoroastrians. If the Hebrew Bible is relevant, though, then certain texts deserve some consideration (not that De Young did not present a robust case with what he did address). There is Isaiah 28:24-29, which may be implying that God does not thresh without end but has a productive purpose for threshing. Would a God with that character torment people in hell without end? There is Ezekiel 16, which predicts the ultimate restoration of Sodom, a city that Jude 1:7 discusses in reference to eternal fire. There are also cases in which eternal punishment is temporary, as is the case with Judah and Jerusalem, which eventually are restored (see Isaiah 33:14; Jeremiah 18:15-16; 23:39-40). On that last point, De Young briefly argues that the temporal destruction in the Hebrew Bible is a type of the eternal punishment in hell in the New Testament, and he points to other examples of types in the Bible. This argument deserves consideration.
—-A lot of times, De Young seems to suggest that, if universalism is true, then nobody has anything to worry about. Why would the rich man in Hades want his brothers to be warned, if hell were a place of merely temporary punishment (Luke 16:20-31)? Why would God be delaying the destruction of the world to give people a chance to repent rather than perish, if everyone will receive an opportunity to repent in the afterlife or the new heavens and new earth (II Peter 3:9)? But even temporary torment in hell is not enjoyable.
C. De Young recognizes that there are different kinds of universalists. He offers an informative history of universalism in America and the various beliefs that emerged within that. Some universalists believe that there will be a post-mortem, albeit temporary, punishment for non-believers, whereas others deny this. Some universalists believe that the death of Christ was necessary to reconcile people to God, which implies that people deserve hell, even if, through God’s mercy, they will not go there. Others deny that people even deserve hell, as they question the justice of it. While De Young acknowledges such nuance, there are times when he seems to lump universalists together, as if they are monolithic. It may even be the case that universalists are more diverse than De Young thinks. One can be a universalist and support the institution of the church or be a political conservative. One can be a universalist and witness to others about the importance of faith in Christ.
D. There are occasions in which De Young’s arguments are interesting, yet rather brief and elliptical, as when he asks why there even is a heaven if universalism is true. There were also times when De Young offered a thought-provoking insight that I had not considered before, as when he sought to reconcile annihilationism and Eternal Conscious Torment by saying that hell will be forgotten by the saints in heaven, and when he said that people in hell will still be committing sins.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.