In any discussion of Christian universalism, sooner or later someone is bound to mention Paul’s words about Christ saving everyone. Some of the passages are Romans 5:18-19 and 1 Corinthians 15:21f. One could add Paul’s words about Christ being the Saviour of all men (in 1 Timothy 4:10) and of Him appearing on earth bringing salvation to all (in Titus 2:11). One might broaden the exegetical field by referring to the Johannine report of John the Baptizer’s proclamation that Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the whole world (in John 1:29), but such broadening would require a book dealing with all these passages, not a short blog post. (Those wishing to read such a book may find it here.)
Since this is a short blog post, we will only deal with St. Paul’s words in Romans 5:18-19. In this passage, Paul writes, “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” Let us examine the passage closely.
In any exegesis worth the name, a passage must first be placed in his total context, both its broader context (in this case, the overall thought and theology of St. Paul) as well as the immediate context (in this case, all of Romans 5). If this is not done, the exegesis is not complete, and is more than likely to reflect the thought and preferences of the reader, not the original author. As the old aphorism says, “A text without a context is a pretext”. So let us first look at the broader context of this brief two-verse citation and the overall concerns of St. Paul.
Many people zoom in on such verses as part of their concern to justify universalism’s conviction that eventually everyone will be saved. They read St. Paul as if he had just finished having lunch with David Bentley Hart or perhaps Origen or St. Isaac of Nineveh. In fact, however, Paul wrote this not fresh from a conversation with a universalist, but with a non-Christian Jew, and his debate throughout Romans constituted a debate with such a Jew (or at least with such a Jew listening in). This is clear from the four chapters preceding his words in Romans 5. His Jewish debating partner objected to a number of things in Paul’s Christian message.
For example, one Jewish objection centered upon the Christian view that one needed faith in Jesus to be saved, and felt that if an unbelieving/ non-Christian Jew was rejected by God for his rejection of Jesus, God would be unfaithful to His promise to save Israel, since (according to the common Jewish slogan) “all Israel has a share in the world to come”. Note: the issue for the Jew here is not God’s love for all mankind, but His covenant with Israel. The Jew had no problem with God condemning the Gentiles, but he felt that God would not condemn anyone who was a Jew. Israel had to have a special place in God’s dealings with the world, a kind of diplomatic immunity from condemnation. Paul’s assertion that Gentiles had the same access and privileges as Jews did seem to abrogate this fundamental bit of Jewish eschatology.
In answer to this, Paul began his epistle to the Romans with a bold assertion that Jews had no such special immunity and that both Jews and Gentiles were all in the same spiritual boat, afflicted with the same spiritual disease, and offered the same spiritual cure—which cure was available through faith in Christ. The Jews possessed the benefit of possessing the Scriptures (Romans 3:1-2), but that did not mean God would not judge them for their sins (Romans 3:5). Thus, the one divine cure and path to salvation was offered to everyone in the whole world, regardless of whether or not they were circumcised and in a covenant with God. Abraham was the father not just of the Jews, but of all who shared his faith in God (Romans 4:16). Abraham believed that God could bring life out of death (i.e. the deadness of Sarah’s womb and of his own body, which through advanced age was as good as dead; Romans 4:17-19), and in the same way, Christians believed that God had brought life out of death—i.e. raising Christ from the dead. Thus we share the justification and forgiveness known by Abraham since we believe in Jesus who was delivered to death because of our sins and was raised because of our justification (Romans 4:23-25).
We see then that Paul’s words in Romans 5 come at the end of this long argument with his Jewish debater. Thus the “therefore” [Greek oun] with which Romans 5:1 begins. (One here remembers another exegetical aphorism: “Whenever you see a ‘thus’ or a ‘wherefore’, always look to see what it’s there for”.) St. Paul’s assertion in Romans 5 is that therefore, given this previous argument contained in chapters 1-4, Christians, having been justified by faith in Jesus, have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, whether or not they have been circumcised. Note: faith is assumed as the condition for peace with God and justification. A traditional Jew would say that circumcision/ Jewishness was required for justification with God and salvation, but Paul denies this, and asserts that only faith in Jesus is required. In other words, Gentiles can be saved as well as Jews, and circumcision is not required.
In support of this, he goes on to contrast the cause of the cure with the cause of the disease. Death (i.e. physical death, as in 1 Corinthians 15:22, which occurs as part of a discussion on the resurrection of the flesh) came to all through the one sin of Adam, and in the same way, life came to all through the one act of Christ dying and rising. Gentiles as well as Jews died, sharing the same disease. But—and this is Paul’s point—the gift of life through Christ is not like the transgression of Adam. It is more bountiful, for death for all men came because of a single transgression, but Christ gave life to all even after they had committed many transgressions (Romans 5:15-16). Paul mentions this to show how impossible it would be to limit life and salvation to Israel, for if life was only available for Israel, then the cure would be less effective than the disease, and God’s grace would be less bountiful than our sins. Clearly then the Gentiles must be included in the cure.
Thus when one places Romans 5:18-19 within its immediate context, one sees that Paul means that all the world, including Gentiles, are offered life and that Christ died and rose to save them as well as the Jews. That does not mean that all the Gentiles will eventually be saved. We have already seen from Romans 5:1 that such salvation and peace with God depends upon having faith. Paul is not dealing with the modern question, “Will everyone in fact be saved?”, but with the very Jewish question, “Is salvation offered to everyone, including the Gentiles?” The issue is the generosity and grace of God in offering salvation to all, not our response in accepting it. It is clear that Paul thinks that everyone will not be saved, and that the Jews who rejected Jesus as a heretic and a blasphemer will be condemned. That is why he said that he would be willing even to lose his own salvation if this could somehow save them (Romans 9:3). This heartfelt cry of pain would make no sense if in fact the Jews who rejected Christ would be saved anyway.
At the end of the day, we must let Paul speak as he wished, and recognize that he did so from within a Second Temple Jewish context. His concerns and emotional responses were not those of us in the twenty-first century, with our post-Christian squeamishness about damnation. We must read Paul in his context, and let him teach us. If we find him distasteful or his teaching about hell morally repugnant, a humble heart will realize that the problem lies with us, not with Paul.