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Why the so-called gospel of inclusion touted by some leaders today is really no gospel at all--just a new spin on an old heresy seeking to infect the church
On July 16, 1741, Jonathan Edwards stood before his congregation and preached a message titled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." People began to shake under the conviction of their sins. Some fell to the floor, crying out for mercy.

Before we scoff at the title or the content of that sermon, we need to examine its fruit. Edwards is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest minds America ever produced. That morning his church encountered God, and the Great Awakening began to sweep across New England.

It's quite different in most pulpits today. What was once a "creeping Universalism" is now blatantly out in the open. In an article titled "Why We Need Hell, Too" in the August 12, 2002, issue of Newsweek, Kenneth L. Woodward wrote: "Churchgoers take comfort: Hell has all but disappeared from modern Christian theology. But this comes at a price."

A heavy price indeed. While Universalism is certainly not the dominant position of evangelicals, serious teaching on heaven and hell has been silenced in most pulpits. Even if we don't endorse Universalism, this position often wins by default.

In the next few years, no pastor will escape having to deal with this pervasive issue. Obviously, this matter is of utmost importance for the future of world evangelization. Its gravity cannot be overstated--the ultimate destinies of people are at stake.

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The church's majority position has always been that there is an eternal heaven for those declared righteous by God through faith in Jesus Christ and an eternal judgment for those who do not know Him. Universalism--termed by some as a "gospel of inclusion"--has rightly been deemed heretical.

The consequence of our guilty silence on this subject has now come back to roost. Noted Universalists have thrown down the gauntlet by asserting it is the "biblical" position. I disagree, on an avalanche of scriptural evidence to the contrary, and am concerned with the deafening silence to this frontal theological challenge. It's time to take a stand--a stand that squares with the Bible and the church's historic position.


Universalism is sometimes called Universal Reconciliation. It takes a right premise (Jesus tasted death for every person) and reaches a wrong conclusion (therefore, everyone is saved).

Perhaps the best way to define this doctrine is to let Universalists speak for themselves. A 1963 publication of the World Council of Churches made this assertion: "Indeed, the world is already a redeemed world so that, whether men discern their true condition or not, and even if they deny it, they are still the heirs of God's redemption." If that were true, thousands would not have given their lives for missions, and Jesus would not have given His life for the world.

There are essentially two types of Universalism, with several shades of each type.

The first type asserts that all people are saved already. The second type teaches that all people will be saved.

In this second view, the unrepentant will suffer for their sins, but not eternally. Hell is seen as remedial, not punitive--a kind of Protestant purgatory. Hell becomes a time of purging, and God becomes something of a divine psychiatrist, helping the patient remove the blockages preventing a response to His love. But there is no biblical warrant for this view of a postmortem repentance. At best it is speculative theology.

A close cousin to this second view--currently very popular among many British evangelicals--is the doctrine of conditional immortality or annihilationism. In this view, people do not suffer eternal separation from God. They simply cease to exist.

Most annihilationists would deny they are Universalists. While technically it may not be Universalism, it is closely akin and also very similar to the skewed eschatology of some pseudo-Christian groups. Clearly the judgment Jesus spoke of was eternal in nature, just as the paradise He promised is also forever.

Annihilation simply does not have the weight of Scripture behind it. Two Greek words, apoleia and olethros, are used often in the New Testament and clearly reference eternal ruin totally devoid of God's presence, not extinction.

Paul warned of a day "when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thess. 1:7-8, NKJV). Take sober note of what he says next: "These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (v. 9). No amount of theological spin can make those words say anything else. In the original Greek, "everlasting destruction" means everlasting destruction!


The roots of Universalism go back to the Garden of Eden, when the serpent convinced Adam and Eve not to obey God's warning of death for disobedience. "'Has God indeed said ... ?'" the serpent asked (Gen. 3:1). Then, in defiance of God's assertion, he said, "'You will not surely die'" (v. 4). In the same way, Universalism touts: "Has God said there is eternal death if you reject His Word? You will not surely die."

Origen of Alexandria ascribed to Universalism, but Augustine vehemently opposed it. In his epic City of God Augustine wrote: "Our friends who long to get rid of eternal punishment should cease to argue against God and instead obey God's commands while there is still time." Although consistently rejected by the creedal councils, the teaching has periodically reappeared. Sometimes Universalism came to be seen as a corrective reaction to a strict Calvinism. And in the 19th century, it was taught as "the larger evangelism" or "the larger hope."

In Frontiers in Missionary Strategy, C. Peter Wagner suggests that the Universalism taught today is a new form of an old heresy: "The new Universalism has entered as the tired church's doctrine of salvation. It is no longer based on an overly optimistic view of man, as was the older Universalism; rather it is based on an overly generous view of grace."

This doctrine is obviously appealing. Will all people ultimately end up in heaven? We desperately want it to be so. Further, it can appear arrogant to preach judgment and intolerant to say that faith in Christ is the only avenue of salvation. But as ministers of Jesus Christ, we are not authorized to amend Scripture--we are only authorized to proclaim it.

Jesus spoke more often of hell than He did of heaven. He said, "'Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it'" (Matt. 7:13). The Bible describes hell as a place of darkness and a furnace of fire (see Matt. 8:12; 13:42), an everlasting burning for the punishment of sin (see Is. 33:14), a bottomless pit (see Rev. 20:1) and a place where rest is unknown (see Rev. 14:11).

This is not an easy issue. It's emotionally disturbing. God's love meant it to be that way. We are to be disturbed enough to act. There is strong biblical evidence that unbelieving persons will experience eternal conscious torment. Emotionally coming to grips with this could forever change our ministry priorities.

But preaching on judgment seems beneath the level of many of today's "positive" preachers. It's just not cool to tell unrepentant sinners they are in peril of being eternally lost. Let's be honest. Many churches are filled with people who can quickly rattle off their pastor's "five keys to prosperity" but would be hard-pressed to recite the Ten Commandments or explain the simple plan of salvation. We must ask the painful question: Are we preaching the whole counsel of God?

Those who warn of coming judgment must be tough-skinned. They will be labeled "bigoted." Yet they are motivated by love. Who is more compassionate toward a drowning man? The man on the shore who assures the sinking swimmer that he's already saved, or the man who jumps in, throws out a life saver and pleads with the drowning man to stop trying to save himself and grab hold of the one and only life saver?


So, what's at stake if we accede to Universalism? I offer the following four points:

1. Sound theology. The church is set on a slippery slide toward theological liberalism. Soon all confidence in Scripture is lost, and the uniqueness of the Christian gospel evaporates.

2. The gospel itself. In a lecture opposing Universalism, Roy Fish asks rhetorically: "What does a non-Christian gain by becoming a Christian? Nothing, it seems, that he didn't have before. But shall we then discount the testimony of Hindu or Muslim converts that their conversion was a literal passage from death to life?"

3. Evangelism and missions. We cannot hope to sustain healthy evangelism and missions if we forfeit the doctrine of eternal judgment for those apart from Christ. This is tantamount to carrying a great cause on a weak foundation; eventually, the cause will topple because of wobbly underpinnings.

A modified Universalist view suggests only those who have heard the gospel are accountable. But let's follow that to its logical conclusion. If those who haven't heard are not accountable, we should immediately rush every missionary home and stop every national pastor from reaching any farther. After all, what if those previously unaccountable were to hear the gospel and reject it? They would then be accountable.

The missionary would have done them a terrible disservice. Such reasoning would have to conclude that the kindest thing we could do for yet unreached humanity would be to stop preaching the gospel! It is little wonder that such reasoning dwarfs missionary advance.

Quoted in Evangelical Missions Quarterly, missionary statesman Robertson McQuilkin warns, "If there is any question about [man's lost condition], the heroic sacrifices of missionaries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will not be forthcoming in the twenty-first."

4. The loss of at least one generation. If we derail theologically, it could take another century to rebuild a solid biblical track underneath the church. If Universalism is finally proven "right" (and that's a huge if), nothing will have been lost by our continued urgency in winning people to faith in Christ. But if this doctrine is embraced, then everything will be forever lost--including people without Christ.


Why should we reject Universalism? Here are seven reasons:

1. It dishonors the cross and the gospel. To confer an "anonymous Christian" status on those who openly deny Christ's atoning death and His lordship is patently dishonoring to the suffering of Jesus and to the clear demands of the gospel.

2. It disregards the overwhelming evidence of Scripture. Jesus taught that the unbelieving person is "condemned already" and that "the wrath of God abides on him" (see John 3:18,36). Paul made an airtight case for the lostness of humanity in the first chapters of Romans. According to the apostle, even the remotest of peoples are "without excuse" because of the light of conscience and nature. Yet only the light of the world, Jesus Christ, can bring them salvation.

3. It diminishes God's holy wrath against sin. God's character is not on trial. Somewhere deep in our hearts, we intuitively know there must be a day of reckoning with a loving, holy God. Universalism denies man freedom of choice. If we deny ultimate responsibility for our actions, we deny both the character of God and an essential part of human personality.

4. It dismantles the historic teaching of the church. To the testimony of the Scriptures and countless Christian martyrs, the historic creeds of the church add their affirmation of a real heaven and a real hell. Most denominations' statements of faith include a clear rejection of Universalism. Historically, evangelicals have rejected it simply because it doesn't line up with the biblical revelation. It is based far more on deductive rationalism than the clear teaching of Scripture.

5. It dilutes the uniqueness of the Christian message. The uniqueness of Jesus is at the very core of our message and mission. Who is Jesus? What will you do with Him? This is the great divide. Under Universalism, any road sincerely taken will get you to heaven. But Jesus taught that He was the only way to enter into a relationship with God.

6. It deadens the urgency of evangelism. Urgency is lost, because Universalism assumes people either don't need to be saved or will end up saved anyway. We believe the gospel is good news only if it arrives in time. But for the Universalist, the gospel can arrive any time, if indeed it needs to arrive at all. Let's not kid ourselves--if evangelism dies, souls will be eternally lost, and thousands of churches will die, too.

7. It dulls the imperative of missions. One of the clearest verses against Universalism is the Great Commission itself. Jesus explicitly mandated that we proclaim the gospel to every person, and then warned that those who do not believe "will be condemned" (see Mark 16:15-16).

Missions rests on several givens--assumptions on which our passion for the Great Commission is built. One of the most basic of these assumptions is that people without Jesus Christ are lost. In One Race, One Gospel, One Task, Vol. I, Billy Graham wrote: "The various shades of Universalism prevalent throughout the church have done more to blunt evangelism and take the heart out of the missionary movement than anything else. I believe that men outside of Jesus Christ are lost."

Universalists argue that those who have not responded to the gospel are nonetheless "implicit Christians." They even suggest this should actually increase our motivation for missions! But as John Piper writes in the second edition of Let the Nations Be Glad!: The Supremacy of God in Missions, this just doesn't ring true. "On the contrary," he says, "common sense presses another truth on us: The more likely it is that people can be saved without missions, the less urgency there is for missions."

We go with the gospel, with all the built-in hazards of missions, precisely because Jesus commands us to go, and He tells us to go because those who die without Him are eternally lost.

Of course, the greatest threat of Universalism is to the person outside of Christ. I encourage you to blow the dust off a hymnal and re-read the words of Fanny Crosby's "Rescue the Perishing."


Our legacy will not be in what falsehoods we denounced but in what truths we upheld. So while we reject Universalism, what are we for?

1. Respect for all peoples and religions. As The Amsterdam Declaration affirms, in preaching the gospel "we must do so with love and humility, shunning all arrogance, hostility and disrespect ... because all persons are made in the image of God, we must advocate religious liberty and human rights for all. We pledge ourselves to treat those of other religions with respect and faithfully and humbly serve the nation in which God has placed us, while affirming that Christ is the one and only Savior of the world."

2. Biblical tolerance. Biblical tolerance grants each person the right to worship according to the dictates of his conscience. We recognize that only the Holy Spirit can convict people of their need of Christ, and only He does the work of regeneration. What passes today for tolerance is often merely a lack of conviction.

Tolerance is a virtue only if a person believes something strongly and yet respects the rights of others to disagree. While I am completely convinced that Jesus is the sole hope of salvation, this does not give me carte blanche to disrespect the beliefs of others. On the contrary, my total confidence in the gospel frees me to interact with courtesy and respect toward all people, no matter what they believe.

3. The right to proclaim the gospel and evangelize unbelievers. Anti-conversion laws are springing up in many countries, and hostility toward Christians is growing. Ours is the position of The Millennial Manifesto: "We reject all forms of coercive proselytism and manipulative pressure, but uphold the right of persons to become followers of Jesus in response to the conviction of the Holy Spirit."

4. Compassionate ministry toward all people. None of this appeal against Universalism supports a lurid, sadistic preaching on hell. We must preach the truth with humility and tears. Preaching the awful possibility of hell must always be accompanied by the proclamation of redemption through Jesus Christ.

If people are lost without Christ (and they are), and if faith in Christ is the only way to salvation (and it is), what could possibly be a higher priority than getting the gospel as far as we can as fast as we can? Peter says we are to "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15, NIV). The most benevolent, humanitarian activity possible is sharing the gospel.

What a serious accounting must await us if we believe in eternal judgment for those without faith in Christ--and yet do nothing. I would not want to stand before the Lord as a confessing Universalist or a complacent evangelical. Larry Stockstill calls us to a higher vision: "If there are indeed billions of unsaved individuals destined for eternal separation from God, our lives become bigger and more significant than utility bills and relational problems."

Let's live bigger lives.

Arming Your Congregation to Combat Heresy

The best way a pastor can prepare his or her congregation to confront the heresy of Universalism is to teach what the Bible really says about heaven and hell.

The "gospel of inclusion" ideology--which is actually just a mask for Universalism--teaches that everyone will be saved, whether or not they personally receive Jesus Christ as their Savior. But overwhelming biblical evidence dismantles the fallacy of this belief.

It is important to respond to this aberrant teaching since it is a deceptive mix of truth with error. The following 10 points may be used as a teaching guide on what the Bible really says.

1. Jesus made both repentance and faith prerequisites for forgiveness. "'Unless you repent you will all likewise perish'" (Luke 13:3, NKJV). " 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel'" (Mark 1:15).

2. The "water of life" is offered to all, but not all receive it or even desire it. "Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely" (Rev. 22:17).

3. Scripture teaches that there will be a judgment after death. "And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment" (Heb. 9:27).

4. Those who have not had a true conversion will experience a judgment for sin that the Bible describes as "the second death." "'But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death'" (Rev. 21:8).

5. Jesus spoke often of a terrible place of judgment for those outside His kingdom rule. "'The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth'" (Matt. 13:41-42).

6. Scripture teaches that there is unending, eternal judgment for those who do not know God and who do not respond in faith to the gospel. "The Lord Jesus [will be] revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (2 Thess. 1:7-9).

7. Jesus emphatically taught that a spiritual birth is essential to entering the kingdom of heaven. "'Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God'" (John 3:3).

8. Jesus gave no indication that there are many roads to God. Rather, He forcefully stated that He was the one and only way. "'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me'" (John 14:6).

9. According to Jesus, only those who receive Him and believe in Him are children of God. "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name" (John 1:12).

10. Rather than teaching that those without faith in Christ are already saved, the Bible teaches that they are already under judgment. Faith in Christ brings us out of condemnation and into right relationship with God. "'He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God'" (John 3:18).

Editor's Note: In addition to this article package for Ministries Today, David Shibley has written an article titled "24 Reasons Why I Believe in Hell," which appears in the April 2003 issue of our sister publication, Charisma magazine. The above points are an excerpt from this feature.
David Shibley is founder and president of Global Advance, a ministry that provides training and resources for thousands of pastoral leaders around the world. He hosts the nationally syndicated radio program, WorldWatch With David Shibley, and is author of 14 books, including the highly acclaimed missions classic A Force in the Earth and The Missions Addiction, both published by Charisma House. Log on to

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