Responding to Universalists
Universalists claim that there are numerous passages throughout the Bible that teach us that God will save all men without exception. One of the most popular ones is 1 Timothy 4:10, which in the KJV reads, “For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.”
Does this verse teach that those who die without faith in Christ are also saved from eternal torment in hell? Not at all. Notice that the verse does not say that God is the “Savior of all men, including those that believe.” The text makes a distinction between the believer and the unbeliever by using the word “specially” (especially). It is translated from the Greek word malista. The Strong’s dictionary defines malista as “most (in the greatest degree) or particularly; chiefly most of all.” The use of this word tells us that God saves all men in some ways, but God saves believers “in the greatest degree.” Thankfully, Scripture teaches us how God is the Savior of all men, especially those that believe.
The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field. Matthew 13:23-30 reads,
“But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? From whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.”
In this parable the tares represent those who will never believe in Christ. The tares deserve to be rooted up immediately, but in doing so some of the wheat (those who will ultimately have faith in Christ) might be rooted up as well. The tares are saved for the sake of saving the wheat. When Adam sinned God could have simply destroyed His creation altogether, but He didn’t. “Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.” God allows all men to be temporarily spared while He works out His plan of salvation on those who will believe. God is the Savior of all men because all men enjoy the benefits of His salvation in some way. “Let them both grow together until the harvest time.” This is a common theme throughout Scripture. Here are some:
- “For [God] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45).
- “The LORD [is] good to all: and his tender mercies [are] over all his works” (Psalm 145:9).
- “Neither is [God] worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things” (Acts 17:25).
- “Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways … and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:16-17).
God is especially the Savior of those who believe because God saves believers from their sins and from eternal torment. “Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.” The unrepentant are not saved from their sins or eternal torment. This is also a common theme throughout Scripture. Here are some passages:
- “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame [and] everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).
- “He will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12).
- “And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:29).
Scripture teaches that God saves all men in a physical and temporal sense. Scripture teaches that God especially saves believers because He saves them spiritually and eternally. While God does give physical life and blessings to all men, God only gives salvation and everlasting life to believers. This is the conclusion that I come to when I let Scripture interpret 1 Timothy 4:10, and I do not see any evidence to suggest that “Savior of all men” conflicts with the teaching of eternal torment. We must interpret Scripture with Scripture whenever possible. I would challenge the Universalist to show where Scripture teaches that God saves all men spiritually and eternally. I would challenge the Universalist to show where Scripture teaches that the same person who is tormented in hell will also receive everlasting life.
Here is another point. We cannot always assume that phrases like “all men” or “the whole world” refer to all men without exception. Jesus told His disciples, “and ye shall be hated by all because of my name” (Luke 21:17). We know that not every single person in the whole world has hated the disciples. We also know that John did not baptize every single person who lived in Judea and Jerusalem when the Scriptures tell us, “And there went out unto him all the land of Judæa, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5,emphasis added).
“And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for [the sins of] the whole world” (1 John 2:2). The phrase “the whole world” refers to believers scattered across the whole world. “And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad” (John 11:51-52). “And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9). Jesus was not a propitiation for every person in the whole world, but for every believer throughout the whole world. In this case “the whole world” does not refer to all men without exception, but all men without distinction – this means Jews and Gentiles, men and women, free and slave, etc.
We know that John did not believe that every single person would be saved because he wrote, “If any man worship the beast and his image … the same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God … and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night” (Revelation 14:9-11, see also 20:10-15). Some might say that there is no contradiction here at all if hell is temporary (to say that John did believe that all will be saved, but that some will temporarily go to hell first). But this still doesn’t make sense. When the Bible talks about propitiation, it is referring to the removal of God’s wrath by providing a substitute. The sacrificial system in the Old Testament is a shadow of the work of the cross. The sacrificial lamb (the substitute) is Jesus Christ (John 1:36, 1 Acts 8:32, Peter 1:19, Revelation 5:6, etc). Christ did not cancel God’s wrath, but absorbed it. God punished Christ for our sins. Therefore, propitiated sins cannot be punished (punishment has already been given to the substitute). This means that those who will be in hell will be there because Christ is not a propitiation for there sins.
In summary, 1 Timothy 4:10 does not teach that absolutely all people will be saved when it refers to God as the “Saviour of all men.” Rather, those who are eternally saved from sin wages are said to be the “those that believe” in this same verse.