1 Corinthians 6:9 and the Doctrine of Universalism
One of the verses that is often cited as a proof-text against universalism—the doctrine that all individuals will ultimately come to have a faith in Jesus that results in their salvific reconciliation with God—is 1 Corinthians 6:9. “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Cor. 6:9).
On its face, the verse might be taken to contradict universalism. If universalism asserts that all people shall be saved (i.e., inherit the kingdom of God), and 1 Cor. 6:9 states that some people shall not inherit the kingdom of God, then universalism clearly cannot be reconciled with Paul.
In this post, I am going to argue that 1 Cor. 6:9 is actually completely compatible with universalism. Universalism resoundingly affirms with Paul “that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Universalism Compatible with 1 Cor. 6:9
In one sense, 1 Cor. 6:9 is actually quite easy to reconcile with universalism. The kingdom of God is by definition for the just—that is, those who are justified; therefore, unjust persons by definition won’t inherit the kingdom of God. It is in this sense little more than a tautology. Universalism doesn’t teach that unjust people inherit the kingdom of God; universalism teaches that God desires to wash all persons such that they are no longer unjust (1 Timothy 2:4) and is ultimately successful in achieving that desire. “Love never fails,” after all (1 Cor. 13:8).
However, in spite of this, I am in this post going to offer several biblical reflections on universalism, suggesting that it is more biblical than we might first think.
There is Hope After Death: 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6
I do not think it can be denied that in the Bible there is hope after death, even for the wicked. 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6 seem to insist that when Christ died, he actually “preached the gospel to dead men” (1 Pet. 4:6). If it is true that the gospel can be preached to the dead at all, then it is difficult to avoid the apparently necessary conclusion that death does not mark the end of God’s ability to wash the unjust.
There is Hope After the Last Judgment: Revelation 21:5; 22:14
Biblically speaking, I believe that there is even hope after the last judgment. On the throne, the same person who says that the wicked will have their place in the second death says that he is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:8, 5). Would it make sense that God would make all things new, except for the damned?
Furthermore, Rev. 22:14 blesses those who “wash their robes.” Shall we imagine that God, who “devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast” (2 Samuel 14:14), whose mercy is said to endure forever, who promises a “restoration of all things” (apocastasis; Acts 3:22); shall we imagine that this God’s restoration not include even the most persistently wicked in his restorative kindness, particularly considering that it was said, “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13)? Would denying such a grace not render meaningless the beautiful Pauline statement, that “where sin reigned, grace abounded all the more?” (Rom. 5:20). Shall it be said of anyone, “Where grace reigned, sin abounded all the more?” No. Indeed, I do not think that such an outcome is possible. Rather, it was said by Paul, “But where sin reigned, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20; emphasis mine)!
These are several brief meditations that to me warrant further investigation into Paul’s concept of the kingdom of God. We will explore them below.
The Kingdom of God in Paul
To give the quintessential exposition of Paul’s view of the kingdom of God as a future advent, “Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father…” (1 Cor. 15:24). For Paul, the kingdom of the Messiah has not yet been given to God; they are presently separate domains (Ephesians 5:5). The central Pauline eschatological hope is for the day when the kingdom of the Messiah is ready for delivery to the Father. On that day, “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).
One thing that comes to my mind that would prevent me from taking the logic of “the unjust can’t inherit the kingdom; there are people who are unjust, so they won’t inherit the kingdom” too far is 1 Cor. 15:50. 1 Cor. 15:50 says, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” But of course, as 1 Cor. 15:51 explains, we are all “flesh and blood.” Does this mean that none of us will inherit the kingdom of God? Of course not. Paul says that “we will all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51). Is it possible, that the very same people who in 1 Cor. 6:9-10 are unjust “will all be changed” between now and the arrival of the consummated kingdom of God?
More Biblical Thoughts on Universalism
I do not think that we can discredit such a possibility. And I would be very hesitant to insist on the basis of 1 Cor. 6:9-10 alone that there is no hope for those who die in sin as unjust people. This is especially true light of the revealed character of the Christians God. Of God, it is said, “all things are possible” (Mark 10:27); “his love endures forever” (Psalm 136, repeated many times elsewhere); “his anger is for a moment and his favor is for a lifetime” (Ps. 30:5); “if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Ps. 139:8); and the ever famous “God is love” (1 John 4:8). On the basis of these texts at least, I propose that there is reason to doubt that Paul’s comments are intended to eradicate hope for the dead unjust. It seems more likely to me that Paul is trying to deal pastorally with the rampant immorality in his Corinthian church. It would not be very pastoral to say, “Don’t worry about this guy sleeping with his mom, or about all the people messing around with the prostitutes. They are all going to be saved anyways!” It would not be pastoral of Paul to say that, even if it is true. Remember that in another of Paul’s letters, he criticizes those who ask, “Why not do evil that good may come?” (Romans 3:8).
Baptizing the Unjust with Fire and the Holy Spirit
So what is Paul trying to say, if he is not trying to say that those who die as unjust people will not inherit the kingdom of God? I think he’s trying to say something like what he says in Rom. 14:17, where he says that “the kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking but about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The application of the kingdom of God can never be, “Phew, I was worried that our actions would actually matter. I was worried that I would actually have to make a personal effort in this whole sanctification thing! Good thing God is going to save everyone anyways, that there’s “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!”” The application of the kingdom of God is rather always, “Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).
To the doctrine of universalism, that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God means that God in the Messiah will—must, on the grounds of his personal character—continue to cleanse and to wash those who are unjust until they become just, that as just folk who are “washed,” those who were once “unjust” may inherit the kingdom. It was Paul who quoted Hosea saying that the one who was called “not beloved” will later by God be called “beloved.” He even said that those who were once called “not my people” by God become called “children of the living God!” (Romans 9:25-26). Paul is in truth in the right: “…the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God.” God will not have it that anyone without a wedding garment shall enter into the wedding (Matthew 22:12-13). He will dress the prodigals in the best robes—fit indeed for the nuptials of a King! (Luke 15:22).
It is this severe teaching—of God’s eternal “no” to the wicked—that I believe forms the backdrop of John the Baptizer’s eschatological sayings. “The chaff [i.e., the unjust] he [Christ] will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). God cannot accept unjust people “as they are,” but will burn them—that is, will salt them with fire (Mk. 9:49) and baptize them with the Holy Spirit—until the evil that they once were is consumed and the good that is left—even if as insignificant as ashes!—is traded for beauty (Isaiah 61:3) and made with the equally inorganic stones to cry out in praise of the God for whom “nothing is impossible” (Lk. 19:40, Mk. 10:27)!
Conclusion: 1 Corinthians 6:9 and the Doctrine of Universalism
In 1 Corinthians 6, I believe that what Paul proclaims is no less than the doctrine of universal hope. The saying that “…the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God” is not a terror for the unjust but a hope! It is hope that God’s eternal “yes” to the sinner is an eternal “no” to their sin. It is the hope that the love that never fails (1 Cor. 13:8) and believes and hopes “all things” (1 Cor. 13:7) believes for the unbeliever. The proclamation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is the promise of God’s eternal kingdom of goodness, justice, and joy, and not a terror. Its only true application can be one not of fear of punishment (1 Jn. 4:18), but of perfect love for the fire that does not consume, put purifies. “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid!” (Rom. 6:1-2).
Paul once wrote elsewhere that God has kindness and severity (Rom. 11:22). I suppose that it is because that to be severe is kind, and that to be kind is severe.
Having explored one of Paul’s own most severe statements, I propose that it is a deeply pastoral reminder to us that the application of the universal hope of the kingdom of God is to live now as we shall be made to be then. The unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9), but shall be “changed” (1 Cor. 15:51) and shall be “washed” (1 Cor. 6:11) “by the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). The Son must reign until he has put all enemies in subjection under his feet (1 Cor. 15:25). But after the enemies are put in subjection to the Son, the Son himself becomes subject to the Father (1 Cor. 15:28). The enemies are subjected to the Son, and the Son is subjected to the Father, that God may be all in all. This is, to me, the doctrine of universalism.
“But where sin reigned, grace abounded all the more… What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid!” (Romans 5:20, 6:1-2)