Does God forgive everyone, believers and unbelievers? Before reflecting on this question, it is important to state outright that Christian Universalism is an erroneous teaching. Christian Universalism states “that there is no such thing as eternal hell or annihilation because God has planned the universe to produce a positive outcome for all people of all times”.
While it is beyond the scope of this paper to examine every detail of Christian Universalism, it is sufficient to note that this Christian Universalism belief is opposed to the teaching of Scripture that there is a Lake of Fire. On the Day of Final Judgment, everyone will be judged “according to what they had done”. Anyone whose name is “not found written in the book of life” will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:12-15; cf. John 5:28-29). Christian Universalism has explained away the teaching of this passage by claiming that the Lake of Fire is just a purgatorial process. Thus, this belief of Universal Salvation is a heresy.
Does God harbour unforgiveness?
Since Universal Salvation is a heresy, does this mean God has not forgiven everyone especially the unbelievers? It is clear from Scripture that God has forgiven everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. In Colossians 2:12-14, Paul said that in Christ Jesus there is redemption, the forgiveness of sins (cf. Eph 1:7;, 4:32).When God made us alive with Christ, he has also forgiven “all our trespasses” (Col 2:13-14). There is no doubt that every believer is forgiven in Christ.
On the other hand, has God forgiven unbelievers? If God has not forgiven unbelievers, does God harbour unforgiveness in his heart? Is unforgiveness an attribute of God? On the cross, Jesus prayed to the Father asking him to forgive those who crucified him and mocked him (Luk 23:34-38). There was no unforgiveness in Jesus’ heart toward the unbelievers because he asked the Father to forgive them. Did the Father say “Yes” to Jesus’ request?
The author of 1st John provides the answer. In 1st John 2:1-2, the author said that Jesus Christ is “the propitiation for our sins”. Propitiation means sacrificing to atone for sins (BAGD). When the author said for “our sins”, he meant his readers and himself, who are believers, that their sins have been atoned for. If the author has stopped at “for our sins”, it would mean Jesus’s sacrificial death would be only for the sins of believers.
The author did not stop at “for our sins”. He added “and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world”. When the author reiterated “and not for ours only”, which means not only for believers, he is emphasizing that the propitiation of Jesus Christ was not just for believers. He contrasted “not for our only” with “but also for the sins of the whole world”, which includes unbelievers and those who have yet to believe. By making this contrast, he extended the effect of Christ’s propitiation to unbelievers. Therefore, through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross as a propitiation, God has willed to forgive everyone in the world. There is no unforgiveness in God’s nature.
Forgiven but Not Reconciled
Since God has willed to forgive everyone, does this mean that everyone will be saved? Definitely, No. While God has forgiven everyone, not everyone has accepted his forgiveness and be reconciled with him. On the cross, after Jesus has asked the Father to forgive his enemies and those who mocked him, he was not reconciled with them except for one person.
One of the two criminals who was crucified with him railed at him saying “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” The other criminal rebuked the first criminal saying “for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong”. After saying this, the second criminal said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luk 23:40-42). By doing this, the second criminal puts his faith Jesus and the Father while the first criminal, although being forgiven, did not trust in Jesus.
Since the second criminal trusted Jesus and the Father, Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luk 23:43). The second criminal now lives at the side of Jesus forever whereas the first criminal died in his sins. Therefore, although God has forgiven the whole world, not everyone in the world is reconciled with him.
The Ministry of Reconciliation
Now God is in the ministry of reconciliation. Through Christ’s propitiation for the whole world, the door of reconciliation is now open. In 2nd Corinthians 5:18-19, Paul reveals that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them”. God does not count their trespasses because Christ has already been sacrificed for their sins. This is the message that God has given to those who have already been reconciled to him so that they may bring this message of reconciliation to the world.
While the door of reconciliation is open, reconciliation is only possible when two partly agreed on the condition of reconciliation. God has set the condition that everyone who seeks reconciliation with him has to believe that God raised from the dead Jesus Christ, “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom 4:23-25).
There are many people who refused to accept this condition for one reason or another. Some said this condition is too easy. Others said you must pay for yourself. Still others said that this illogical. Regardless of human reasonings, God has set this condition as the basis for reconciliation, even though Christ’s propitiation is for the whole world. The human race has either to accept the condition or walk away. God does not leave any space for negotiation of the condition.
Since people refused to accept God’s condition for reconciliation, even though in God’s heart he has already forgiven them, they would not enjoy the benefits of God’s forgiveness. They would have to answer for their sins on the Day of Judgment. If their names are not written in the book of life, they would be thrown into the Lake of fire (Rev 20:12-15). However, as long as they are still alive on earth, reconciliation with God is still open, just like the second criminal who was reconciled with Jesus before he died on the cross (Luk 23:42-43).
Implications for Christian Living
There are several implications. The obvious one is that those who have been reconciled with God have been given the ministry and message of reconciliation. Every local gathering of God’s reconciled people is to perpetual the ministry and message of reconciliation until Christ returns (2Co 5:18-21). This will not be the focus of this article.
Unforgiveness is a sin
What is less obvious is the implications for human relationship in particular how Christians should relate with others such family members or friends, both believers and unbelievers. In Matthew 6:14-15, Jesus exhorts his disciples to forgive others. He warns that if they did not forgive others, “neither will your Father forgive your trespasses”. This last statement does not mean that there is unforgiveness in God. Instead it warns the disciples that they are either living in the sin of unforgiveness or that there is actually no reconciliation between the Father and the unforgiving disciple.
In the former instance, the unforgiving disciple is grieving the Spirit of God inside him. Since he did not repent from unforgiveness, he does not enjoy the benefits of being forgiven by the Father (cf. Eph 4:30-31). The solution is for unforgiving disciple to repent and forgive just as the Father forgives (Eph 4:32). In the latter instance, there is a more frightening possibility. The unforgiving disciple is actually not a disciple despite of what he claimed to be or what others’ commendation. This unforgiving person has not accepted the Father’s forgiveness.
What is Forgiveness?
Since there is no unforgiveness in God’s character, anyone who lives with him is expected to forgive as God forgives (Mat 18:23-35). What is forgiveness? From God’s perspective, his forgiveness means he no longer desires to punish the sinners for their sins (Luk 6:35-36). He hopes that the sinners may accept his forgiveness (cf. Rom 4:7-8). He no longer desires sinners to repay because God has already paid for our sins through the painful propitiation of Jesus Christ (Psa 103:8-10). He no longer desires to hurt the sinners but he desires to bless by turning them from their wickedness (cf. Acts 3:26).
Similarly, our forgiveness means there is no longer a desire to punish or hurt those who offended us. There is no longer a desire to make the offenders paid for our hurts, even though we still feel the hurt. Instead, like God, we prayerfully hope for the offenders to repent and change.
Forgiveness without Reconciliation
Meanwhile, like our Father, forgiveness is not reconciliation. If the offenders have not changed or are unwilling to change their hurtful ways, there is no need for reconciliation. This is especially hard when those who hurt us are our family members or close friends. If the offenders continue to abuse us psychologically or physically, reconciliation is impossible even though we forgive them just like God forgives us. Therefore, in many situations, to walk away with forgiveness without reconciliation is the best course of action.
At the same time, we need to be open like God to wait for reconciliation when the offenders agreed with us that they need to change their hurtful behaviours. While we wait for reconciliation, God calls us to forgive and not to strike back. He also calls us to love our enemies, who are not reconciled with us, by doing good to them (Luk 6:35; Rom 12:20). This is imitating God, who loves the whole world even though the world is his enemy (cf. Rom 5:10).
There is no unforgiveness in God’s character. From his heart, God has already forgiven all, believers and unbelievers, through the propitiation of Christ Jesus. Only believers experienced God’s forgiveness because they accepted his condition for reconciliation. Those who refused to accept his condition will not experience his forgiveness but will answer for their own sins. This is the Good News for the whole world and for our relationship with God and others.