Timothy Keller preaches in New York City. He shares the story of a young man who visited his church office. The man was an Ivy League MBA, successful in the financial world, and had lived in three countries. Though raised in a family with a loose connection to church, he had very little understanding of the Christian faith. But he had recently developed a great spiritual interest. He had attended the church where Keller preaches and he told Keller he was almost ready to embrace the Christian faith. But there was one final obstacle: ‘You’ve said that if we do not believe in Christ we are lost and condemned. I’m sorry, I just cannot buy that. I work with some fine people who are Muslim, Jewish, or agnostic. I cannot believe they are going to hell just because they don’t believe in Jesus.’”
In this four-part series, we’ve talked about many challenges to the traditional teaching about hell. But this morning we get to the most challenging issue. What many struggle most with regarding hell is this: there are fine people in our lives who don’t follow Jesus and it’s hard to believe they are going to hell just because they don’t follow Jesus. Some of us have children who don’t follow Jesus. Some of us have friends at work and classmates in school who don’t follow Jesus. Some of us have wonderful neighbors who don’t follow Jesus. And it’s so hard to believe they might all actually be in hell just because they don’t follow Jesus. In other words, one of the most difficult objections to hell is this: hell is overcrowded. If everyone who doesn’t follow Jesus is going to wind up in hell, then hell is going to be way overcrowded. It’s just not right that so many people mind wind up in hell.
One way in which people have tried to address this dilemma is by proposing something called “universalism.” Many resolve this problem with hell through universalism. The word “universalism” refers to the scope of God’s grace. One of the most important questions we can ask is this: how large is God’s grace? What’s the seating capacity of God’s grace? How many people will God’s grace ultimately save? There are generally three answers to this question. I’m going to use three different-sized chairs to illustrate.
- Some argue that God’s grace has a very small seating capacity. It’s like this small chair. Only a very few people can sit on this chair. This view is called “minoritarian.” It means that only a small minority of the human race will be saved.
- Others argue that God’s grace has a much larger seating capacity. It’s like this mid-sized chair. More people can sit on it. This view is called is called “majoritarian.” It means that a majority of people will eventually be saved.
- But others argue that, in the end, all will be saved. It’s like this large-sized chair. Every living person can sit on it. This view is called “universalism.” It means that all people will be saved. Every person in the universe will ultimately be saved. God’s grace is so big that every person will be saved by it.
This is ultimately the view which Rob Bell takes in his book Love Wins. He writes, “no one can resist God’s pursuit forever, because God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts.” In light of the reality, severity, and eternality of hell, there is something within us that wants to believe that in the end, no one can resist God’s pursuit forever and that ultimately, in this life or in the next life, God’s love will melt even the hardest of hearts. We want to believe that God’s grace is universal in its impact—God will save all.
Madeleine L’Engle, the best-selling novelist, puts it like this: “No matter how many eons it takes, [God] will not rest until all of creation, including Satan, is reconciled to him, until there is no creature who cannot return his look of love with a joyful response of love…” In response to this hell that is not fabricated and that is unrelenting, we want to believe that in the end, no creature will be able to resist God’s look of love. Universalism says that whether before death or after death God will save everyone.
And, at first glance, there appears to be justification for this belief. People often point to passages which suggest that God will save all:
- “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32 ESV)
- “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” (Rom. 5:18 ESV)
- “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:22 ESV).
- “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11 ESV).
- “3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:3-4 ESV)
- “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9 ESV)
- “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Tit. 2:11 ESV)
- “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Heb. 2:9 ESV)
- “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 Jn. 2:2 ESV)
On the surface, it may appear that the Bible is saying that, in the end, all will be saved. Yet this is not what these passages teach. I’ll point out three things they do teach. First, these texts teach that God wants all people to be saved. God doesn’t want a small minority to be saved. He doesn’t want a majority to be saved. He wants everyone in the universe to be saved. If these chairs could represent what God wants, the largest chair is the correct chair. God wants all people to be saved.
But if these chairs represent who will actually be saved, the largest chair is not correct. God wants all to be saved. But not all will be saved. We have to choose salvation. And not all will. We’ll explore this more in a moment.
Second, the passages teach that God has made it possible for all people to be saved. God’s grace is not like the Titanic which didn’t have sufficient life boats and thus could not truly save all the passengers. What God did through Jesus is completely sufficient to save all people. If these chairs could represent the effectiveness of what happened on the cross, only the largest chair would do. Because on the cross God made it possible for all people in the universe to be saved.
But if these chairs represent who will actually be saved, the largest chair is not correct. God wants all to be saved. He’s made it possible for all to be saved. But not all will be saved. We have to choose salvation. And not all will.
Third, these passages teach that God has invited all people to be saved. Through Jesus and all who follow him, and through his Scriptures, God has extended an invitation for all to be saved. And that invitation has gone out to all people, regardless of race, income, gender or education. If these chairs represent who is invited to be saved, only the largest chair will do. Because God invites all to be saved.
But if these chairs represent who will actually be saved, the largest chair will not do. God wants all to be saved. He’s made it possible for all to be saved. He’s invited all to be saved. That’s what these texts teach. But not all will be saved. We have to choose salvation. And not all will.
I want to explore this further. Let’s get rid of these other chairs and just focus on the big chair. Let’s imagine that this chair represents heaven. If you’re in this chair, you’re going to heaven. If you’re not in this chair, you’re going to hell. So how do we get to the chair? We need to speak here with great humility. We are not God. Only God will ultimately determine who’s in the chair. But we can say one thing for certain—the Bible teaches that Jesus alone is the source of salvation. Jesus alone is the way to the chair. This chair is big enough for all people. But only Jesus knows the way to the chair.
This is the point Paul makes in Colossians. Listen to Paul’s words in chapter two: 6 Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. 8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (Col. 2:6-10 ESV)
Paul’s message in this letter is that Jesus, and only Jesus, is Lord. So he begins by reminding the Colossians that they “received Christ Jesus [as] Lord.” Paul’s pointing back to their baptism. He’s reminding them what they confessed in those waters. Someone asked, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Lord?” And they confessed, “Yes, I do.” Paul then identifies two “philosophies”—we would call them “religions” or “faiths”—that are competing with Christianity in Colossae. These are faiths that would argue there is another way to the chair. You don’t have to go through Jesus alone to get to the chair. One, which operates “according to human tradition,” is Judaism. Paul’s critiquing the empty traditions of Judaism. The other, which operates “according to the elemental spirits of the world,” is the popular pagan religion of the day. Most in that day believed in a large number of gods and goddesses who ruled over peoples and places. And Paul calls both of these faiths these “empty” and “deceitful.” They are not the way to heaven. They do not lead to the chair. Only Jesus, Paul says, is “the fullness of deity.” Only Jesus, Paul says, “is the head of all rule and authority.” Jesus is the only source of salvation.
Paul makes the same point in chapter one: 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:15-20 ESV). Jesus is the image of God. Jesus is the creator of all. Jesus holds all things together. The fullness of God dwells in Jesus. And through Jesus, and only through Jesus, does God reconcile all things to himself. Through Jesus, and only through Jesus, is there peace with God through the blood of the cross. Jesus is the only source of salvation. You cannot follow Buddha to the chair. You cannot follow Allah to the chair. Jesus is the only source of salvation. God wants all to be saved. He has made it possible for all to be saved. He’s invited all to be saved. But only Jesus is the source of salvation. You must go through him to get to that chair.
Some object to this because it seems too intolerant and too exclusive. But here’s the truth: There’s no faith more inclusive than Christianity. I think we’ve already seen this in the passages above. God wants all to be saved. He has made it possible for all to be saved. And he’s invited all to be saved. How could you get any more inclusive than that?
But even God’s insistence that only Jesus is the way to the chair is an example of his inclusive nature. Timothy Keller writes, “Nothing is more characteristic of the contemporary mind-set than the statement: “I think Christ is fine, but I also believe a devout Muslim or Buddhist or even a good atheist will certainly find God.” A slightly different version is: “I don’t think God would send a person who lives a good life to hell just for holding the wrong belief.” This view is generally seen as inclusive. The universal religion of humankind is: We develop a good record and give it to God, and then he owes us. The gospel is: God develops a good record and gives it to us, and then we owe him (Rom. 1:17). In short, to say a good person can find God is to say good behavior is the way to God. In essence this view says, “Good people can find God, but bad people cannot.” But what happens to us moral failures? We are excluded. You see, you can believe that people are saved by goodness or you can believe that people are saved by God’s grace, but you cannot believe both at once… So both gospel and the secularist’s approach are exclusive, but the gospel’s is the more inclusive exclusivity. It says joyfully, “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been at the gates of hell. You can be welcomed and embraced fully and instantly through Christ.”
Let me unpack that. Keller is saying that most people believe that the most generous and inclusive way to think about the chair to heaven is to think that any good person can sit in the chair. The way to the chair is to live a good life. No matter your religion, if you live a good life, you’re in the chair. But here’s the problem with that—what about those of us who don’t live a good life? I can’t speak for you, but I can confess about myself—there’s a lot, an awful lot, about me that is not good. There’s a lot in my life that is pure evil. That means that I don’t have a shot at this chair. Only the people who live a good life have a shot. The rest of us are left out. That doesn’t seem very inclusive at all.
But here’s what God’s done. God’s said, “You know what, goodness is not going to carry the day. Grace is. So here’s how this is going to work—anyone, good or bad, can sit in this chair. Anyone—moral or immoral—can sit in this chair. I don’t care what your gender is, what your race is, or what your income is. And I especially don’t care what your moral record is. I don’t care if you’re a prostitute or the President. If you want to, you can sit in this chair.” I want everyone right now to raise your hand. You can sit in this chair. And God finishes, “The only thing I ask is, you let Jesus lead you here. He alone has made it possible for you to sit here.”
Still, some object to this. They say, “That sounds good. But it still means there’s a lot of people in hell. God should have done more to get people into that chair. God could do more to get people into that chair. If it’s all hinged on Jesus, it doesn’t seem like God has made a big enough effort to get as many people as possible onto that chair.”
In response, let me tell a story by Brennan Manning. While growing up, his best friend was Ray. The two of them did everything together: bought a car together as teenagers, double-dated together, and went to school together. They even enlisted in the Army together, went to boot camp together and fought on the frontlines together. In fact, one night while sitting in a foxhole, Brennan was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn while Ray listened. Suddenly a live grenade came into the foxhole. Ray looked at Brennan, smiled, and threw himself on the live grenade. It exploded, killing Ray, but Brennan’s life was spared. When Brennan became a priest he was instructed to take on the name of a saint. He thought of his friend, Ray Brennan. So he took on the name “Brennan.” Years later he went to visit Ray’s mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late one night having tea when Brennan asked her, “Do you think Ray loved me?” Mrs. Brennan got up off the couch, shook her finger in front of Brennan’s face and shouted, “What more could he have done for you?” Brennan said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, Does God really love me? And Jesus’ mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, “What more could he have done for you?”
Some may think that God’s intolerant for making salvation dependent upon Jesus. But what more could God have done to create a way for all people to have heaven rather than hell? What greater price could God have paid? What greater sacrifice could God have given? If that’s not the action of a God who loves all and wants all to be saved, I can’t imagine what more it would take. We don’t have to make God sound more loving by pretending that God’s going to save everyone whether or not Jesus is in their picture. If we want to make God sound loving, Jesus is the only picture we need. The cross shows how desperate God is to make sure that we, and every person, does not spend eternity in hell. There is nothing more God could have done to fill that chair. And you can bet that the God who went to such great lengths on the cross will go to similar lengths to give every person on this planet every possible chance to respond to that cross.
Let me bring this home. There are still many unanswered questions which I’ve not touched on in this series or in this sermon. But the most important question is the one I want to end this series with. Here’s the question: are you in this chair? God wants you here. He’s made it possible for you to be here. He’s invited you here. And frankly, there’s nothing more God could have done pave your way here. But you’ve got to go through Jesus. Are you in this chair this morning? You may feel that you were once in this chair but you got up and walked away. If that’s the case, the invitation is still open. The pathway is still clear. You can come back. Just confess your faults and repent and return to this chair. You may feel you’ve never truly accepted the invitation to sit here. You can do that today. But simply coming and confessing that you believe in Jesus and want him to lead you here, you can sit in this chair. We’ll baptize you into Christ and the most important question of your life will be answered.
 Timothy Keller in Christopher Morgan & Robert Peterson, editors; Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven? (Zondervan, 2011Timothy Keller, Is Hell for Real, Kindle Location, 1098.
 Bell, Kindle location 1269-1270.
 Morgan & Peterson, Kindle location 869-871.
 Morgan & Peterson, 1030-1041.
 Morgan & Peterson, Kindle location 1169-1174
 Adapted from James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God (IVP, 2009), 142.