Addressing Objections: The Context Question
One criticism of the concept of salvation for all people is that the Bible verses being used to support the concept are taken out of context. It is important to carefully examine whether this claim is true or not as it significantly impacts the claims that have been made thus far.
I agree that context is extremely important to interpretation, so it was one of the first things that I began investigating in my research of this topic. I have found that the context of the passages that teach that all people will be saved further support the concept, rather than the reverse, as is claimed by opponents. But now, let’s look at this criticism from those who hold to the doctrine of eternal punishment to see their argument.
I was told by a pastor friend that the best book (in his opinion) defending the traditional doctrine of hell is Hell Under Fire, so we will look at the arguments of J.I. Packer against universalism (as set forth in this book) next.
“In most versions of universalist theory, it is common ground that biblical teaching is from God and is to be taken as true and trustworthy; interpretation and application are singled out as the areas of dispute. Now the proper key principles here are, and always will be, that interpretation must be context-specific, author-specific, and focus-specific. That means, first, that passages must be exegeted in terms of the thought-flow of which they are part and not have their meaning extrapolated beyond the manifest perspectives, limits, and boundaries of that thought-flow; otherwise, we will be reading into them what cannot truly be read out of them. (2) It also means that writers must not be assumed to contradict themselves, but must be respected as knowing their own minds; thus, what they write in one place must be treated as cohering with what they write elsewhere. And it means, finally, that in seeking the writer’s meaning, we must never lose sight of the immediate point he is making, the persuasive strategy of which that point is part, and the effect that he shows himself wanting to produce on his readers.” (Packer J. I. " Chapter 8: Universalism: Will Everyone Ultimately Be Saved?")
J.I. Packer makes some good points about the necessity of understanding context and the author’s intent in writing a passage. He also makes a good point that biblical authors do not contradict themselves.
But then he does a curious thing. He continues to write and merely insinuates that those who believe that God will save all people are violating these principles, without giving any compelling evidence or examples of them doing so. Now, if you are going to argue that someone is taking Bible verses out of context, shouldn’t you explain why you think this to be the case? Yet, somehow, he doesn’t find this necessary. Instead of addressing the supposed contextual issues in the “universalist” argument, he lists a series of verses that supposedly teach about eternal hell (which we’ve already debunked).
Now we’re going to examine the really disturbing part of Mr. Packer’s argument. Remember that he insinuates that those who believe in salvation for everyone are taking verses out of context. With that in mind, carefully examine the following excerpt.
Every aspect of salvation is the fruit of God’s free, sovereign, holy, Christ-exalting love.
Twice John declares that God is agap’ (1 John 4:8, 16). The logic of the phrase is parallel to that of “God is light” (1 John 1:5) and “our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29; cf. 12:18; also 6:8; 10:27). “Is” in each of these texts points to the consistent expression of a particular characteristic in God’s behavior toward human beings. Here the characteristic is love, agap’. John does not mean that God’s character consists of, and his activity expresses, only agap’ to the exclusion of all else, but that all his acts in relation to those who become, and are, Christians (“us,” 1 John 4:9-10) are acts of agap’, one way or another, whatever other aspects of his character they show forth as well.
John continues by saying that God’s supreme demonstration of this agap’ was sending his Son to be the propitiatory (wrath-quenching) sacrifice for our sins (cf. 2:2) , and to become the sustaining source of our new life as God’s supernaturally born children. The particularizing nuance in all this is well caught in some words from James Montgomery’s hymn, “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed”:
The tide of time shall never
His covenant remove;
His Name shall stand forever—
That Name to us is Love.
It is what God is to Christians specifically that John is highlighting here.
(Packer J. I. " Chapter 8: Universalism: Will Everyone Ultimately Be Saved?")
The parts of the passage that I have shown in bold is what we will focus on primarily to see how Dr. Packer himself takes verses out of context. Notice that he is saying that the verses in 1 John (1 John 4:9-10 and 1 John 2:2 which he references as cf.2.2) only apply to Christians. Do you see this? Make sure you do, because it is important that you understand the claim that is being made.
As a matter of first importance, notice that Dr. Packer paraphrases 1 John 2:2, saying that God sent “ his Son to be the propitiatory (wrath-quenching) sacrifice for our sins (cf. 2:2).” Remember again, he is using this passage as part of his argument that John is referring to “Christians specifically.”
Now let’s look at what 1 John 2:2 actually says.
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
Notice (and by the way, this should absolutely floor you), that Dr. Packer paraphrases 1 John 2:2 but cuts off the last half of the verse that clearly says that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for the whole world, NOT only for us who are Christians. How on earth does he justify claiming that the love being discussed in 1 John only applies to “Christians specifically”? For someone who is attacking others for taking verses out of context, this move seems quite hypocritical. 1 John 2:2 is only one sentence and he does not even finish this one sentence in his argument to give the proper context of the verse! Why not? My only guess is that it would be inconvenient to his argument to include the rest of the verse, since it says exactly the opposite of what he is arguing!
So now that we’ve seen the way in which a prominent defender of the hell doctrine applies “context,” let’s examine the actual context of 1 John to see if we are justified in interpreting 1 John 2:2 as evidence that Christ is the atoning sacrifice “for the sins of the whole world.”
I would recommend to you that you read all of 1 John to have a full understanding of the context. You should do that now. Go on, read it. Read it for yourself, using your own God-given brain, without any biased commentaries to aid (or hinder) your understanding. Are you done? If so, let’s continue.
One thing that jumps out to me as centrally thematic to 1 John is love. He talks about it specifically in nearly every chapter, encouraging us to love God, love others, abide in God’s love, and so on. He also encourages us to avoid sin, especially referencing a lack of love as a primary sin to be avoided.
John is writing to believers, and in this context he says “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 1:1-2). It is abundantly clear from the verse that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. This is a clear, straightforward reading of the text for what it actually says.
Now someone who feels that they must defend the doctrine of eternal punishment has to do some bizarre intellectual backflips (as we’ve already seen) to re-interpret this clear passage. Why? The reason is simple: if you start out with the premise that the doctrine of hell is true, you have to attempt to reason away the clear meaning of this passage. There are several ways in which this can be attempted, but they are all intellectually dishonest.
First, one might attempt to argue that the phrase “the whole world” doesn’t mean what it says. But this argument is nonsense. In the Greek, the word for whole is olou (ὅλου) which means whole or complete, according the the NASB lexicon. We’ve also already seen that the word translated world is kosmou (κόσμου), which refers to the world, the world’s inhabitants, or even the universe. The fact that John felt it necessary to somewhat redundantly tell us that he is referring to the “whole world” suggests that he may have had an inkling that people would inappropriately attempt to minimize the message of salvation. No, he tells us, I really am talking about the entire world and everyone in it.
Second, one might attempt to argue that Christ’s atoning sacrifice doesn’t count unless we are believers. Besides obviously contradicting what 1 John 2:2 says, this line of reasoning also minimizes Christ’s work on the cross and makes Christ’s atoning sacrifice a work that we accomplish. But we know that the work of atonement for sin belongs to Christ alone, and is not dependent on our works. Consider Ephesians 2:1-9:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath . But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Notice that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. Now, some will argue that this means that only those who have faith in Christ presently will be saved. But if we think reasonably, we can put this objection to rest. Remember that Paul was writing to believers in the church of Ephesus in the first century, saying that they “have been saved” (past tense). Does this mean that those who will come to faith in Christ in the future (such as ourselves), won’t be saved by faith? No, the fact that Paul is using the past tense and speaking to specific believers does not preclude us from applying this verse to ourselves, who came to faith much later than Paul’s original audience.
Now consider the fact that the Bible clearly teaches that everyone will come to faith in Christ.
“Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth;
For I am God, and there is no other.
“I have sworn by Myself,
The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness
And will not turn back,
That to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance .
“They will say of Me, ‘Only in the Lord are righteousness and strength. ’
For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The Greek word used in Ephesians for faith is pisteōs (πίστεως), which connotes “faith, belief, trust, confidence; fidelity, faithfulness” according to Strong’s concordance. Isn’t it apparent that God’s word is saying that all people will come to faith in Christ when we “swear allegiance,” “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” bow before him in reverence, and say “only in the Lord are righteousness and strength?” These statements all clearly show deep faith and trust in God. And, unless we radically reinterpret Scripture to fit our preconceived notions about hell, we must admit that these expressions of faith will be done by everyone. So, the fact that Ephesians tells us that we who already believe have been saved by faith, in no way limits God’s ability to save others through faith in the future, even if this has to be done after death and judgment. In fact, we are told specifically that this will happen as all people will swear allegiance to God, with Jesus Christ acting as the atoning sacrifice that makes this possible.
Now let’s address another interesting example in Dr. Packer’s article that claims that God’s love as described in 1 John is applied only “to Christians specifically.” He also mentions 1 John 4:9-10 in his argument. Let’s look at this section of scripture as well, but take in a bit more of the surrounding verses, for context. Remember, once again, that Packer is arguing that the love and atoning sacrifice being described is only applicable to “us” as Christians.
1 John 4:7-16
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
Notice that John is telling us to love one another, using the rationale that God showed His love for us by sending “his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Now, Packer stops here and says that the “us” being referred to can only be Christians. But if we actually take the verse in context, we see that just a few short verses later, John once again makes it clear that Jesus is the “Savior of the world.” He also makes it clear that those of us who know God “have seen and testify” to the fact that He is indeed the “Savior of the world.”
It is quite bizarre to argue that “universalists” are taking verses out of context using 1 John. This is especially true when you use several verses from 1 John out of context yourself, and claim that they mean something completely different from what they are saying, as central to your argument. The only justification for such tactics is that the person using them takes the doctrine of hell as a foundational premise, and reasons that Jesus can’t be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world or the Savior of the world because those clear biblical truths don’t make sense with the doctrine of hell. There is a reason for that, but it isn’t what the hell theorist claims. Rather, the word of God is accurate, and the theologian who re-interprets it to accommodate the hell doctrine is wrong.
Keep in mind that 1 John never mentions hell or eternal punishment. Not once. Reading it through a hell-tinted filter therefore violates J.I. Packer’s own exegetical rules, as quoted earlier in this chapter. Reading it for what it clearly says, however, leaves us with an understanding of God’s love that leads us to love one another and praise Him for His magnificent plan to save the world through Christ.
So now that you’ve seen the context of 1 John and how it is interpreted by someone who believes in the salvation of all people as well as someone who believes in eternal hell, I have some questions to ask you:
Which interpretation is more honest and true to the Scriptures? Which one is more respectful of context and which one manipulates the context?
In the next chapter, we will examine more of the biblical passages that teach the salvation of all people to determine if they are indeed taken out of context, or disingenuously maligned. I think that you’ll agree that there is no reason to doubt their clearly stated meanings by the time we are done.
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Packer, J. I., “Universalism: Will Everyone Ultimately Be Saved?” Hell under fire modern scholarship reinvents eternal punishment , Morgan, Christopher W., et al. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2004. E-book