by Dr. J. I. Packer
From Chapters One and Five of the book J.I. Packer Answers Questions For Today with Wendy Murray Zoba, Wheaton: Tyndale, 2001, pp. 15, 45-46, 75-77, 79-80.
The problem of individual human destiny has always pressed hard upon thoughtful Christians who take the Bible seriously, for Scripture affirms these three things:
(1) The reality of hell as a state of eternal, destructive punishment, in which God’s judgment for sin is directly experienced;
(2) The certainty of hell for all who choose it by rejecting Jesus Christ and his offer of eternal life; and
(3) The justice of hell as an appropriate divine judgment upon humanity for our lawless and cruel deeds.
It was, to be sure, hell-deserving sinners whom Jesus came to save. All who put their trust in him may know themselves forgiven, justified, and accepted forever—and thus delivered from the wrath to come. But what of those who lack this living faith—those who are hypocrites in the church; or “good pagans” who lived before Christ’s birth; or those who, through no fault of their own, never heard the Christian message, or who met it only in an incomplete and distorted form? Or what of those who lived in places where Christianity was a capital offense, or who suffered from ethno-nationalistic or sociocultural conditioning against the faith, or who were so resentful of Christians for hurting them in some way that they were never emotionally free for serious thoughts about Christian truth? Are they all necessarily lost?
The universalistic idea that all people will eventually be saved by grace is a comforting belief. It relieves anxiety about the destiny of pagans, atheists, devotees of non-Christian religions, victims of post-Christian secularity—the millions of adults who never hear the gospel and millions of children who die before they can understand it. All sensitive Christians would like to embrace universalism. It would get us off a very painful hook.
However, no biblical passage unambiguously asserts universal final salvation, and some speak very explicitly about the lost ness of the lost. Universalism is a theological speculation that discounts the meaning of these New Testament passages in favor of what Universalists claim to be thrust of New Testament thinking: that is, that God’s retributive justice toward humanity is always a disciplinary expression of love that ultimately wins them salvation.
It would be nice to believe that, but Scripture nowhere suggests it when speaking of judgment, and the counterarguments seem overwhelmingly cogent. Universalism ignores the constant biblical stress on the decisiveness and finality of this life’s decisions for determining eternal destiny.
“God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil…but glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does good…For God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:6-11). This is Paul affirming God’s justice according to the classic definition of justice, as giving everyone his or her due. All Scripture speaks this way.
Universalism condemns Christ himself, who warned people to flee hell at all costs. If it were true that all humanity will ultimately be saved from hell, he would have to have been either incompetent (ignorant that all were going to be saved) or immoral (knowing, but concealing it, so as to bluff people into the kingdom through fear).
The Universalist idea of sovereign grace saving all non-believers after death raises new problems.
If God has the ability to bring all to faith eventually, why would he not do it in this life in every case where the gospel is known?
If it is beyond God’s power to convert all who know the gospel here, on what grounds can we be sure that he will be able to do it hereafter?
The Universalist’s doctrine of God cannot be made fully coherent.
Universalism, therefore, as a theory about destiny, will not work. This life’s decisions must be deemed to be decisive. And thus, proclaiming the gospel to our fallen, guilty, and hell-bent fellows must be the first service we owe them in light of their first and basic need.
“I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks…to preach the gospel,” wrote Paul. “For ‘every one who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then can they call on the one…of whom they have not heard?…Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom. 1:14-15; 10:13-14, 17; see Joel 2:32).
Isn’t Telling People About Hellfire Passé?
There has been a strong reaction in Christian circles against imaginative presentations of hell, the endless fire and all of that. But people do need to know that lostness is a fact.
My concept of hell owes much to C.S. Lewis, whose key thought is that what you have chosen to be in this world comes back at you as your eternal destiny; if you’ve chosen to put up the shutters against God’s grace rather than receive it, that’s how you will spend eternity. Hell is to exist in a state apart from God, where all of the good things in this world no longer remain for you. All that remains is to be shut up in yourself, realizing what you have missed and lost through saying no to God.
In Jean Paul Sartre’s play about hell, No Exit, four people find themselves in a room they can’t leave, and they can’t get away from one another. What Sartre presents is the ongoing, endless destruction of each person by the others. Though Sartre was n atheist, his nightmare vision of this process makes substantial sense to me as image of hell—one aspect of it, anyway. The unending realization of God’s displeasure and rejection has to be in reality in hell, too.
Can Someone Who Has Died Be Converted After Physical Death?
Hebrews 9:27 says, “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” When the writer of Hebrews speaks of dying “once,” he uses a word that means “once for all”; not once as distinct from two or more times. By happening once, the event changes things permanently so that the possibility of it happening again is removed. That is what the word means when it is applied in verses 26 and 28 to Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the Cross.
The unrepeatable reality of physical death leads directly to reaping what we sowed in this world. This is what Jesus taught in his story of the callous rich man and Lazarus the beggar (Luke 16:19-31), and when he spoke of dying in one’s sin as something supremely dreadful (John 8:21-23). And this is what Paul taught when he affirmed that, on judgment day, all will receive a destiny corresponding to their works. The New Testament is solid in viewing death and judgment this way.
Modern theologians are not all solid here. Some of them expect that some who did not embrace Christ in this life may yet do so savingly in the life to come. Some link with this idea that a God of grace owes everyone a clear presentation of the gospel in terms they understand, which is certainly more than many receive in this life. Others, like the Universalists presume all humans will finally enjoy God in heaven, and therefore that God must and will continue to exert loving pressure, one way or another, till all have been drawn to Christ. The late Nels Ferre described hell as having “a school and a door” in it—when those in hell come to their senses about Christ, they may leave, so that place ends up empty. But this is non-scriptural speculation and reflects an inadequate grasp of what turning to Christ involves.
How a newly-dead person’s perceptions differ from what they were before death is more than we have been told. But Scripture says nothing of prevenient grace triggering postmortem conversions. That being so, we should conclude that the unbeliever’s lack of desire for Christ and the Father and heaven before death remains unchanged after death. For God to extend the offer of salvation beyond the moment of death, even for thirty seconds, would be pointless. Nothing would come of it.
What Does It Mean To Choose Jesus?
The phrase “choose Jesus” might suggest it is like choosing the preferred dish form a menu—a choice where you opt for what strikes you as the best of the bunch, knowing that if your first choice is not available, as second is always possible. But coming savingly to Christ is not like that. When it occurs, there is a sense of inevitability about it, springing from three sources.
First, there is the pressure of the gospel truth that feels too certain to be denied;
Second, there is the sense of God’s presence forcing one to face the reality of Jesus Christ; and
Third, there is the realization that without him, one is lost.
This sense is generated by God’s action of making the first move, what we call prevenient grace (meaning the prompting of the Holy Spirit). There is no commitment to Christ-no “choice for Jesus,” if one prefers to say it that way—apart from this convicting divine action.
The act of the heart in choosing Jesus Christ is not always performed in a single moment, nor is it always performed calmly and clearheadedly. At the surface level there are often crosscurrents of reluctance. C.S. Lewis, dissecting his own conversion story, wrote of “the steady, unrelenting approach of him whom I so earnestly desired most to meet.” He scoffed at the idea that anyone who is not a believer, no matter how religiously inclined, really seeks the real God and the real, living Christ, with their dominating, dictatorial demands for discipleship. (“You might as well speak of the mouse’s search fro the cat”) But in every real conversion, prevenient grace ensures a real change of heart through the irresistible Calvary love of Christ. Then you not only acknowledge the Savior’s reality, but you speak to him and embrace him and hand yourself over to him, not just because you know you should, but because you want to.
Isaac Watts put it into verse this way:
My dear almighty Lord,
My Conqueror and King,
Thy scepter and Thy sword,
Thy reigning grace I sing:
Thine is the power; behold, I sit
In willing bonds before Thy feet.