DOES GOD FORGIVE EVERYONE?
Today many people are attracted to the idea that since God loves all people, he will forgive all people. They reason that love is the only attribute at work in God’s dealings with humans. If there are other attributes of God, they are eclipsed by his love. Is this true? Does God forgive everyone? If we ask the question: “Can God forgive anyone,” that’s a different question. The answer to this is an obvious yes, and I discuss this in detail in another article. But in this article the question is “Does God automatically forgive everyone, regardless of their behavior or faith?”
Scripture declares that God is love. We like this. So much so that many of us feel this is all we need to know about God. However, the English word “love” has morphed over the years and can now mean many things: deep affection, endearment toward a place or thing, romantic love, or even just plain sex. The perception of who God is will vary depending on a person’s concept of love.
Love and Punishment
In the minds of many, love excludes punishment of any sort. They believe that if God is loving, then he cannot punish for wrongdoing, and if there is a final judgment, then God will just forgive everyone. Conversely, others believe that if God does punish people for their sins, then he cannot be loving. It is either love or justice, one or the other, not both. Those who know the Bible understand God to be both loving and just but may conclude that he cannot be both at the same time.
There’s a trend within some churches to teach that a loving God could never sentence anyone to a final punishment. They view the final judgment not being final at all, believing God will give everyone opportunities to be saved even after they die. In this belief the final judgment is only for the purpose of refining and purifying the evil from all people, not for irreversibly punishing evil people.
But what about God’s love for everyone?
Some cite 1 Corinthians 13:8 in support the view that God forgives everyone: “Love never fails.” Their reasoning is: God is all powerful, and he is also love. So then his love will always bring about a good result, including forgiving and bringing all people to salvation. But when we read this verse in its context, we see the intended meaning: that although prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will cease, love will never cease. Because God is love, and he is also eternal, then love itself must also be eternal. It does not mean that God’s love will in all cases reconcile people to himself. We can easily see that in our daily lives, our love doesn’t always reconcile those we love back to ourselves.
Isn’t God the Savior of all?
Another verse that people will quote to bolster this idea is 1 Timothy 2:3-4: “God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved…” Doesn’t this prove that God will forgive everyone? As their argument goes, because God wants all people to be saved, then all people will be saved.
But even though God desires for all to be saved, he doesn’t force his desire upon us. Because Christ died for all, God’s attitude toward all is one of forgiveness, as he offers this gift to everyone. But people are not forgiven by God until they accept his gift. Salvation comes to each individual through their repentance and faith in Christ. It’s not automatic— at birth, during life, or at any future time.
People also cite 1 Timothy 4:10 “…God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.” Their interpretation of this is that God will in fact save all, since he is the Savior of all. However, this verse does not mean that all people will be saved. It means that Christ is the Savior provided by God to the whole world. He is the Savior to whom we need to look for deliverance. There is no other provision for our salvation. Christ’s sacrifice paid the price for all sins, and his death was sufficient to cover the sins of the whole world. This is referred to in the Bible as the atonement.
Although salvation is offered to all, most people will unfortunately not accept his offer, now or in the future.
The true nature of love
A relationship between two must be mutual for love to accomplish its goal. If either one rejects the other, then there is no love relationship.
How many stories can we tell of a man who loves a woman, but the woman does not love the man. He may try many ways to win her, but if she does not love him, she will not respond to him in love. The man must ultimately respect her free will and release her from his heart. If in desperation he uses extreme measures to force his love, it ceases to be love. Love that is forced upon someone is not love. Love must be accepted as a gift for love’s blessings to be enjoyed. In the same way, God doesn’t force his love on us; he respects our decision to either accept or reject him.
Forgiveness and repentance
The fact is that humans have been alienated from God because of their sin and rebellion. Our relationship with him has been broken and needs to be restored. This is our most important need. God wants us to reconcile with him and has provided a way for that to happen. God’s forgiveness restores that relationship.
Countless passages in Scripture declare the truth that for a person to be forgiven by God, they must repent. Repentance doesn’t mean that a person never sins again; it means they acknowledge their sin, ask God for forgiveness in prayer, and turn to God in trust and love. A person must realize that they need forgiveness and come to God asking for forgiveness.
C.S. Lewis wrote the following about the unrepentant sinner:
The demand that God forgive such a man while he remains what he is, is based on a confusion between condoning the forgiving. To condone an evil is simply to ignore it, to treat it as if it were good. But forgiveness needs to be accepted as well as offered if it is to be complete: and a man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness. (C.S. Lewis, The problem of Pain, Chapter 8, Hell)
So, God only forgives those who repent. Even if he did forgive an unrepentant person, it wouldn’t result in reconciliation.
In reading the Bible, we must conclude that God does indeed love all. We can go up to anyone regardless of who they are or how bad they are and tell them with absolute confidence that God loves them. For this reason, we say that God’s love is unconditional. But God doesn’t save us by his love. He saves us by his grace and mercy. And his mercy is conditional on our repentance and faith.
God’s love and justice
God in his love desires a relationship with us; he offers it but does not demand we receive it. In other relevant Bible passages, we find that the Lord is also revealed as both a God of love and justice. And since he is unchanging, his attributes don’t vary with time or circumstances. One verse that shows both attributes is found in Exodus:
“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.” (Exodus 34:6-7)
From this we learn that God doesn’t show love at the expense of justice, nor does he execute justice at the cost of his love.
Also, the final Day of Judgment will be a day of sadness, because God will have to punish those that he loved. Those that used their time on earth for evil and showed no concern for others or for God, who had a lifetime of opportunity to respond to God’s love but did not, will perish. From other passages we learn that this means God will completely and irreversibly end their lives. You can read more about this in my book Final Judgment and the Goodness of God.
Arriving at right conclusions
Does God forgive everyone? No, because he doesn’t force a love relationship on anyone. Forgiveness isn’t earned, but it’s not automatic either. God forgives those who want to be reconciled with him, and who desire his forgiveness.
It’s important to use sound interpretation methods when reading the Bible. We can easily miss the way if we take individual verses out of their proper context. We must come to a balanced view based on what the whole Bible teaches and compare Scripture with Scripture, not just look at individual verses in isolation. By doing this we take a wider view of the Scripture and come to a fuller understanding of God’s Word. It is also easy to come to wrong conclusions, if we give some words and passages the most literal meaning possible and take others in an excessively broad or metaphorical sense.
My book Interpreting and Applying the Bible gives a gook quick look at the main Bible interpretation principles and methods.