Gospel Guidebook: Getting and Keeping It Right  

Is Universalism Compatible with "Eternal Punishment" in Matthew 25:46?

The Plain Truth of 1 Timothy 4:9-11

In 1 Timothy 4:9-11 we read the following: "9 This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation. 10 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. 11 These things command and teach."

1 Timothy 4:10 teaches the salvation of all, also known as Universal Reconciliation. This is a very plain verse, but because of theological bias against Universalism, most of the modern church interprets this verse by adding words to the Scripture. For example, a common interpretation is to say that this verse means "God made all men savable" or "God is the potential Savior of all men." However, that is not what the verse says. The verse clearly says that God is the Savior of all men.

Some people have noticed the problems with the "potential Savior" interpretation and have attempted to get around this by saying that "Savior" refers to "Preserver." In other words, "God is the Preserver of all men." However, this interpretation doesn't really fit well with the previous use of the word "Savior" in 1 Timothy 1:1 and 2:3. In 1 Timothy 2:3-6 we read, "3 For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; 4 Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; 6 Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time." From this, it seems quite clear that "Savior" means "Savior," not "Preserver." But for the sake of argument, let's temporarily grant that "Savior" means "Preserver" in verse 4:10. The "Preserver" exists to the benefit of all men, "especially" of those who believe. Believers may get a double, triple, or infinitely better portion of this "Preserver," but they still receive the exact same "Preserver" as all other men. So, my question is simply this: "How exactly is He their 'Preserver' in the afterlife?" If the majority of men are destined to be endlessly tormented, it seems to me that this "Preserver" might rather be called a "Preserver of torment." But the Apostle Paul is using the word "Preserver" in a positive sense that also extends to "believers," so it is impossible that he had such an idea in mind. And the extent of "preservation" cannot be limited to this life only, otherwise, believers who often have their lives cut short due to martyrdom and persecution would certainly be receiving the shorter end of the stick, just as the Apostle Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15:19 where we read, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable" and Romans 8:36 where we read, "As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter." In light of this, it should be obvious that "Savior" cannot be limited to "Preserver."

The Apostle Paul was careful and explicit with his words in verse 10. Notice how he prefaces it by saying "This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation." He wants you to accept these words "as is" without adding anything to them. If he wanted to say "God, who made all men savable" or "God, who is the potential Savior of all," he could have just said it. Also notice that he goes on to supplement verse 10 by saying "These things command and teach." He is commanding us to teach that "God is the Savior of all men."

So, how exactly is God the Savior of all men if He doesn't in fact save all men? This is a question I would like answered by opponents of Universalism, because if He doesn't actually save all men, then He can't be called their Savior. It is that simple. I will be giving a few comments on the "eternal punishment" of Matthew 25:46 shortly, but for the moment, I would like the reader to see that there is no escaping the clarity of the Apostle Paul's teaching in 1 Timothy 4:9-11. God is the Savior of all men for the simple fact that He actually saves them, whether it be in this life or the next. He has already accomplished everything required to save them through Christ's cross. Why should we doubt that He'll finish the job? Why should we limit faith to this life only. F. W. Farrar cites Martin Luther in his book Mercy and Judgment as saying: "LUTHER, T 1546.— "God forbid that I should limit the time for acquiring faith to the present life. In the depths of the divine mercy there may be opportunity to win it in the future state." —Letter to Hansen von Rechenberg, 1523. (Luther's Briefe, ii. 454.)

Let's now take a closer look at verse 10. In the Gospel Guidebook, I wrote the following:

When we are admonished to "do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10), nobody has a problem understanding that "all men" literally means all people. But when we are told that "[God] is the Savior of all men, specially of those that believe" (1 Timothy 4:10), then many people have a problem. All of a sudden, "all men" doesn't literally mean all people, and the word "specially" doesn't refer to the distinguished position of believers among all men who have a Savior. Instead, "all men" means "some men" and "specially" means "but only actually." God is reduced to the potential Savior of all men, and all men simply become savable. These things ought not to be!

Imagine if a certain rich man with endless amounts of wealth made the following statement: "I provide for my whole family, especially my immediate family." Could there by any doubt as to the meaning of his statement? Certainly, the meaning is that he takes care of his parents, siblings, and relatives, but in addition, he especially takes care of his wife and children. His whole family is important to him, but his wife and children are of utmost importance. Likewise, all men are important to God and He will save them all eventually, but those who believe in this life are of utmost importance to Him and he has special plans for them.

As another example, imagine a father who says, "I love all my children, especially my first born son." Who would dare to say that he doesn't love his children? He does love them all, but his first born son has a special place in his heart. Likewise, "those that believe" have a special place in God's heart. James explains it this way: "Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures" (James 1:18). God has much fruit. Let that be known. But He has special plans for the firstfruits, i.e., "those that believe."

What about Eternal Punishment in Matthew 25:46?

One of my common rules to Bible study is to interpret difficult passages through the lens of easy passages. 1 Timothy 4:10 is a pretty easy verse to understand. At the same time, most people also think a verse like Matthew 25:46 is also easy to understand. What misunderstanding could there be about "eternal punishment"? It seems plain enough. Or is it?

Without going into detail here about the various interpretations of the parable of the sheep and goats, I will make a few comments about Matthew 25:46. For starters, "eternal" is an adjective, not an adverb. The meaning is not necessarily "eternally punishing." It could possibly mean "punishment in eternity." There are both quantitative and qualitative considerations here. For example, we could be dealing with "temporal punishment in eternity that has everlasting consequences." For instance, those saved in eternity may forever have an inferior social position compared to those saved during this life. I am just speculating, but needless to say, this apparently plain statement "eternal punishment" leaves a lot of room for interpretation. This just isn't the case with 1 Timothy 4:10, as shown above.

Along these same lines, I believe Christopher Marshall summarized the issue well in footnote 123 on page 186 of his book Beyond Retribution:

The word "eternal" is used in both a qualitative and a quantitive sense in the Bible. It is sometimes urged that if eternal life in Matthew 25:46 is everlasting in duration, so too must be eternal punishment. But "eternal" in both phrases may simply designate that the realities in question pertain to the future age. Furthermore, inasmuch as life, by definition, is an ongoing state, "eternal life" includes the idea of everlasting existence. But punishment is a process rather than a state, and elsewhere when "eternal" describes an act or process, it is the consequences rather than the process that are everlasting (e.g., Heb. 6:2, "eternal judgment"; Heb. 9:12, "eternal redemption"; Mark 3:29, "eternal sin"; 2 Thess. 1:9, "eternal destruction"; Jude 7, "eternal fire"). Eternal punishment is therefore something that is ultimate in significance and everlasting in effect, not in duration.

In addition, those who undergo this "eternal punishment" are the same people who go away into the "eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41). We are also told that Sodom suffered "the vengeance of eternal fire" in Jude 1:7. So, in both instances we are dealing with "eternal fire." However, in the case of Sodom, we are also told in Ezekiel 16:53-61 that Sodom is destined to be restored to its former estate and become a daughter of Judah. In this case, the "eternal fire" effects a happy end for Sodom. So, I just can't help but think that this will also be the case for those in Matthew 25:46.

In light of the above brief analysis, I think it is wiser to interpret Matthew 25:46 through the lens of 1 Timothy 4:10, rather than the other way around. 1 Timothy 4:10 is the plainer statement and it should have priority.

People have a bad habit of preferring bad news over good news. That may sound strange, but Jesus himself spoke of it in John 3:19 when He said, "men loved darkness rather than light." Sadly, I just can't help but feel that many Christians are also preferring darkness rather than light when it comes to the eternal destiny of the lost. I hope this short article provides some needed light, for "we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe."