The issue of universal salvation has been brought to the fore of theological discussions in the Church and even into the public discourse. This is no doubt due to the controversy surrounding the release of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins.
Some Christians believe (or at least are open to believing) that all people will eventually be saved. They go so as far as to say that this is not merely a hope that all will be saved but hold that this is what the Bible actually teaches. This view is based in part on a few places that speak of the restoration or reconciliation of “all things” (cf. e.g. Matt 17:11; Mark 9:12; Acts 3:21; Col 1:20–22).
However, the question is often raised, If “all things” will ultimately be reconciled to God does that then mean that even Satan will be reconciled to God?
I have heard well-meaning Christians who affirm at least some form of Christian universalism say in response to this question that we cannot be sure. Some universalists do not believe that the reconciliation of all things includes Satan. This is difficult for them to maintain because then the “restoration of all things” that they emphatically insist means “all” does not in some way include Satan. Other universalists believe that universal reconciliation does include Satan; that he will eventually be reconciled to God. Others claim skepticism in the matter, simply maintaining, “We don’t know.”
What is interesting is that those who are open to a Christian universal salvation also affirm the future reality of the reconciliation of all things described as the merging of heaven and earth in the last chapters of the Bible. They like to point out verses like Revelation 21:1–2 where it reads,
“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Rev 21:1–2 TNIV).
This, they say, is the “end of the story”, the ultimate reality into which we must live. The certainty of the imminent merger of heaven and earth is what we work for in the here and now. Their confidence of this union of heaven and earth comports well with the universal restoration that they hope for and are convinced the scriptures teach. Yet these are the same people who either support, or are agnostic about, whether Satan will be reconciled to God.
However, my question is:
How can they affirm Revelation 21 as a future reality and not affirm the future reality of the few verses immediately prior to that?
In other words, why should we be so confident of Revelation 21 yet be so uncertain about Revelation 20?
Immediately before John’s vision of a “new heaven and a new earth” in Revelation 21 comes the description of the complete defeat of Satan in Revelation 20:
“Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. …
7 And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8 and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. 9 And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev 20:1–3, 7–10 ESV).
While there is much debate about the nature and scope of this “thousand years,” this should not distract from the force of the passage as a whole, and that is the ultimate, final, and eternal defeat of Satan. Indeed, this is the last mention of Satan in all of scripture. Despite fanciful attempts to the contrary, the period of time depicted here truly conveys forever. The inspired biblical writer uses the phrase “day and night” in addition to the phrase “forever and ever” (or lit. “into the ages of the ages”) to make this point (Rev 20:10). There is no question that the cumulative force of all these words demonstrates that Satan, the ancient enemy of God and all his purposes, will be defeated and destroyed into all eternity.
Let’s also keep in mind who it is we are discussing here. John seems to go out of his way in Rev 20:2 to make absolutely certain who is in view and uses nearly every name in the book: “dragon”, “ancient serpent”, and “devil”, in addition to “Satan”. This is the same evil beast who is:
- “the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9)
- “a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44)
- “has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him” (John 8:44)
- “a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44)
- “the enemy” (Matt. 13:28, 39)
- “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4)
- “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11)
- “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (Eph. 2:2)
- “the tempter” (Matt. 4:3; 1 Thess. 3:5)
- “the one who has the power of death” (Heb 2:14)
- “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8)
This same Satan is “the god of this world” who has “blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4). This is the very being who “has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:8). The very “reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
Even Origen, the father of universal reconciliation himself, denied that Satan would be reconciled to God: “…they [his opponents] say that I assert that the father of the wickedness and perdition of those who shall be cast out of the kingdom of God, that is, the devil, will be saved; a thing which no man even though he had taken leave of his senses and was manifestly insane could say” (NPNF2-03, pp. 423, 512). All of this coupled with the fact that there is not one shred of evidence that suggests that Satan will ever be reconciled to God.
The reality of these verses in Revelation 20 is a wonderful promise of the unqualified victory of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus took on flesh and blood, and that by dying in our place “he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14). We must trust that the depiction of the assured demolition of this sworn enemy of our great God and Creator is as definitive as the picture of the new heaven and new earth. Indeed, without Satan’s subjugation many of the promises of Revelation 21 could not truly be possible.
Any faithful reading of the last three chapters of Revelation has to take seriously the certain promise of not only the new heaven and the new earth, where “the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev 21:3), but also the reality of Satan’s unmitigated defeat. It is truly perplexing how some could place so much stock in the picture of Revelation 21 and completely miss the importance of the immediate context. One would hope that Christians, universalists or otherwise, who strongly affirm the reality of Revelation 21–22 would also affirm the future reality of Satan’s final and ultimate defeat in Revelation 20.
CORRECTION: I listed the incorrect page number for the Origen quote in an earlier version of this post. I had mistakenly listed the reference as “NPNF2-03, pp. 765–66.” The page numbers above have been corrected.