Saturday, October 11, 2008

Join the Conversations! New Web Discussion Group

A new online discussion forum called "The Evangelical Universalist" ( has recently been set up and is running very well. There are all sorts of diverse discussions going on over at the site. So if you are remotely interested in discussing issues surrounding universalism that is the place to be. Very recommended!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Will Hitler be Saved?

Will Hitler be saved? If I had money for every time this issue was raised I would be a rich person!

Let's be unambiguous here:

1. Hitler does not deserve to be saved so if he is saved it would have to be by grace alone.

2. Hitler does not deserve to be saved so if he is to be saved then it would have to be through Christ's mediatorial work

3. If Hitler is to be saved it will only be through deep, heart-felt repentance, through Spirit-inspired faith in Christ and through a renewed mind and a transformed life in the Spirit.

4. If Hitler is to be saved it will involve not merely reconciliation with God but also with his victims. And reconciliation will not be about saying, "Oh never mind! It didn't really matter!"

5. If this is to happen it has to happen in and through God. It is not humanly possible.

Will Hitler be saved? I think so. Where sin abounds grace abounds all the more.

What Christians would object to is the idea that God might treat Hitler as if what he did wasn't really that bad. It was that bad! It was unspeakably dreadful! But suppose that 1-5 above were the case. What Christian grounds are there for objecting to God's saving Hitler in those conditions? Isn't divine grace wide enough? Isn't the cross effective enough? Isn't the Spirit powerful enough?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Eulogy for a Non-Christian Friend

Denver wrote: "Gregory, at the funeral that you mentioned, did you express your universalist perspective when you gave the eulogy? If not, how did it affect your words? If so, what did you say? And, if you did, was that a surprise to your friend's family?"

Here is an edited version of what I said (with the personal stories and comments removed). I have changed my friend's name to 'Alan'.

This was a very personal eulogy and was not written for public consumption, but I offer up parts of it here if it might be helpful to some people. I feel somewhat uncomfortable about doing so but it shows one way in which universalism can inform such situations. I think that it enabled me to offer real hope without compromising the gospel.

How can you sum up the life of a person? Of someone so unique and so special? The texture of a human life is too subtle – too complicated. Words fail us. Even to try and capture what Alan meant to my family is an impossible task. So many memories, ... so many thoughts. We can feel paralysed. But speak we must. So I offer just a few reflections from my family in honour of Alan ...

[the main body of the eulogy was here]

Finally, I would like to offer two brief reflections speaking as a Christian. The first is that I have no idea why God would allow Alan to suffer as much as he did. For all the world, it looks cruel and pointless and I offer no excuses for God. The Bible is full of complaints and accusations against God and I simply wanted to say that blaming God is a biblical thing to do. One day we will understand God’s reasons for allowing this but for now, if we feel angry with God, that’s OK.

The second springs from the fact that for Christians this week is Holy Week. This week Christians celebrate a God who did not stand aloof from our suffering and pain but who became a human being – the man Jesus. And on the cross this human person – this God –entered into our experiences of suffering and death … and then he was resurrected.

In the story of Jesus Christians see the human story, our stories, writ small – death then resurrection. Darkness then light. Grief then joy. The resurrection means that that death is not the end of a story but a chapter in it. And all Christian hope in the face of death is based on Jesus’ resurrection. The God of the cross and resurrection is the one who will not let death have the last word; who will not allow it to separate people from him.

So I believe that this is not the end of Alan’s story. Alan was not a Christian himself – not yet anyway – but Jesus said that God is a shepherd who keeps on looking for his sheep ‘until he finds it’. And I believe that he will find Alan and that Alan’s future is one of resurrection and eternal life in a relationship with God.

I believe that Alan will be whole again and that God will bring to perfection all those distinctive character traits that are so distinctively him.

So Alan. There is a hole in the world without you. An Alan-shaped hole that can never be filled by anything else, because nothing else could be like you. There is an empty space now that feels like it should not be there. One day, friend, one day it will be filled again. Don’t think you’ve seen the last of us. And the next time we meet it will be in far better circumstances – ‘a new dawn, a new day’ (Nina Simone). But for now – ‘cheers’, ‘thanks’, and ‘goodbye’ . . . until next time.

Monday, August 25, 2008

NEWS: Possible Christian Universalist Forum

Gene Pineda and a few others will be will be opening a forum site dedicated to Christian Universalism. The website, when it goes live, will be.

Gene would like to here from any interested in guidlines for the Forum.

One suggested list for a 'doctrinal basis' for the discussion group was the following:
1) Jesus Christ is the only incarnation of God
2) The teaching of the Trinity according to the Nicene Creed accurately interprets the Christian Bible
3) Christ is the only way to salvation
4. "The original manuscripts of the Bible are the canonical written Word of God and all of the teachings in the Bible are true."
5) Christ commands His followers to fulfill the Great Commission
6) Christ will gloriously return to earth
7) Christ redeems people from hell

It may be that there are some problems with this list so now is the time to add your bit.

Gene writes, "If no one is interested than I simply will not purchase the forum. But if people would like to have a more dedicated community then I'll give it a go."

So - do register your thoughts

Monday, August 18, 2008

How Universalism Has Impacted my Life

Denver raised a good point. He wrote:

"Your autobiographical sketch in TEU stops at your 'conversion' to universalism. How have you changed since believing in universalism? How has your relationship with God changed (especially since before your shift you found yourself unable to worship God)? How has it affected your daily life?"

Here are a few reflections off the top of my head.

It has impacted my understanding of God and thus also my prayer life and worship life. The vision of God and his purposes that I now hold is inspiring and makes me want to worship. The final paragraph of the book sums it up for me:

In conclusion, let me ask you to hold in your mind traditional Christian visions of the future, in which many, perhaps the majority of humanity, are excluded from salvation forever. Alongside that hold the universalist vision, in which God achieves his loving purpose of redeeming the whole creation. Which vision has the strongest view of divine love? Which story has the most powerful narrative of God’s victory over evil? Which picture lifts the atoning efficacy of the cross of Christ to the greatest heights? Which perspective best emphasizes the triumph of grace over sin? Which view most inspires worship and love of God bringing him honor and glory? Which has the most satisfactory understanding of divine wrath? Which narrative inspires hope in the human spirit? To my mind the answer to all these questions is clear, and that is why I am a Christian universalist.

This God is amazing! Exciting! Awesome! I have a stronger sense of his love, his soverignty, his purity, his integrity, his fidelity, his power to save, his grace, and his mercy than I had before. And I do not have doxological crises on the Hell issue now (though, being honest, I still have them for other reasons periodically, e.g., why God commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites).

It has increased my joy for the future. I find that when situations look bleak I can draw hope that history is the the hands of this omnibenevolent, omnipotent God with these good and cosmic purposes. I have a much stronger sense of the final victory of God and this takes the edge of the sometimes tragic events in life.

Oddly, the reality and importance of Hell impresses itself upon me more now than it did before I was a universalist. Perhaps because ECT was so very terrible I tried not to think about it and tended to sideline it in my theology (and my experience of lots of Christians is that they do the same). But I am now freed up to accept Hell and I feel that the church needs to recover the place of divine judgement in our theology and praxis. Ironic, huh?

I have found it to be pastorally helpful. Recently someone close to my family died after a painful and protracted illness. He was a wonderful man but not a believer and I was asked by his family to speak at his funeral. Before becoming a universalist I confess that if I was honest I would have thought his chances of being saved were very slim indeed. Just possibly he found faith in his final moments. Just possibly God might let him through (because judgement is in God's hands and not ours). But let's be honest, he had not accepted the gospel and that is that. He's missed his chance. That kind of message is little consolation to a grieving family. But my universalism allowed me to hold out solid hope of resurrection and salvation for him without in any way compromising the imperative of embracing the gospel message.

It has not impacted my evangelism in the sense that I do not present universalism to people when I explain the gospel. I do not have any formula for how I present the gospel (like the 4 spiritual laws) but I still address the sin issue and, when the situation is right, I speak of Hell and judgement. I do not tell people that Hell is not the end (though, if it was appropriate in a specific situation I would do so). Like Jesus and the prophets I would want the utter seriousness of the coming judgement to impact people and I would urge them to avoid it. The number of those saved in the end (i.e., all) is not part of the gospel message itself and some people might use it as an excuse not to take the warnings seriously. I am open to mentioning it but only in the right circumstances. So if you heard me explaining the gospel you may well not realize that I was a universalist.



Wednesday, August 6, 2008

N. T. Wright on Hell and Universalism

I thought that you might be interested in this insightful critique of Tom Wright's theology of Hell.

Feel free to join the discussion. I hold Tom Wright in high regard so I'd be interested to know his response.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Universalism and Heresy in Sergius Bulgakov

I recently read an interesting article called "Universal Salvation in the Eschatology of Sergius Bulgakov" by Paul L. Gavrilyuk (JTS 57.1, April 2006). Bulgakov was an influential 20th C Orthodox priest and thinker. Here is an extract (and a footnote).

"As it is to be expected from an Eastern Orthodox priest and theologian, patristic tradition was a springboard for Bulgakov’s own theological deliberations. He observes in The Bride of the Lamb that in pondering the final destiny of humankind patristic tradition followed two distinct trajectories: one associated with the universalist ideas of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, the other espoused by the opponents of the doctrine of universal salvation. It should be noted that Bulgakov’s knowledge of the relevant patristic material was largely based upon the dissertation of M. F. Oksiiuk, Eschatology of St Gregory of Nyssa (1914), which provided a comprehensive survey of patristic views on eschatology up to the time of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553).

Bulgakov recognized that the claim that all, including the fallen angels, would ultimately be saved represented a minority opinion, suspect of heresy on the grounds of its association with Origen. At the same time the Russian theologian emphasized that the Church had not issued any dogmatic definition on the subject of the final outcome of the last judgment and the eternity of hell beyond what was stated in the Nicene creed. According to Bulgakov, in the absence of a conciliar definition, consensus patrum, even if it could be presumed to exist on this issue, was not enough to settle a dogmatic dispute. In an important article ‘Dogma and Dogmatics’ (1937), written concurrently with The Bride of the Lamb, Bulgakov argued that only the doctrine of the trinity enshrined in the creed and the doctrine of the incarnation stated in the definitions of the seven ecumenical councils enjoyed the status of the dogma binding upon all members of the Orthodox Church. He relegated all other doctrinal questions, such as the veneration of the Mother of God and of the saints, sacramental theology, pneumatology, atonement theories, and eschatology, to the sphere of theologoumena, that is, of more or less authoritative patristic opinions. Bulgakov stressed that in the area of eschatology in particular no ecumenical council had ever condemned Gregory of Nyssa’s version of universalism. It is a matter of historical fact that in the Eastern Orthodox tradition the doctrine of eternal damnation did not achieve the level of explicit articulation that it later found in the Roman Catholic conciliar definitions and Protestant confessions."

A version of the Origenist doctrine of apocatastasis was condemned by the local council of Constantinople in 543. Whether the bishops of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553) anathematized this aspect of Origen’s theology explicitly is a murky question. Up to the late nineteenth century it was widely assumed that this ecumenical council did condemn universalism. See J. Daniélou, ‘L’apocatastase chez Saint Grégoire de Nysse’, Recherches de science religieuse 30 (1940), 328-47; Brian Daley, The Hope of the Early Church (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 190; J. Sachs, ‘Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology’, Theological Studies 54 (1993), 620-1.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Evangelical Universalist Struck Dumb!

Dear Bloggerites,

Sorry that I have not been blogging recently. The simple fact is that I have something of a problem - Namely that I cannot think of anything to blog about.

Why is this? Well, by its very nature this is a single-issue blog dealing only with matters to do with universalism. I decided at the start not to repeat material from the book and therein lies my problem. You see most of my thoughts about universalism are already published in the book. If I am not going to repeat those then what am I to talk about? I don't actually have a lot left to say about universalism.

My fear is that I will just end up space-filling and not writing anything of value.

So I have decided that, unless I have a sudden rush of new thoughts on universalism (which is not likely as I do not have any time to do any new research), I will leave this blog open for another month for people to discuss and then I shall delete it.

Anyone is most welcome to contact me by email if they wish to chat about universalist issues.


Gregory MacDonald

Monday, July 21, 2008

Steve Hays Responds

It may interest some people that Steve Hays has responded to my four part response to him. In the interests of fairness you may wish to read it.

In summary: he still disagrees with me and still things I am a bad and dangerous person.
Oh dear. Never mind.

I have already said that I will not be responding to it (not because I cannot but because I judge it to be fruitless). Readers must judge for themselves the merits of our respective arguments.

It simply remains to thank Steve for all the hours he has put into reading my book, and responding to it. It is an honor to be taken seriously, even if only in order to be 'refuted'.

I also thank Steve for making the book more widely known and inadvertantly communicating that its arguments warrant serious consideration. I hope that others follow his lead in reading and considering the case for universalism. Perhaps he has increased the sales a little. :-)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Trinity and why it is a big issue

Bobby asked me a really good question - Why do I think that the Trinity is such a big issue?

It was never my intention that this blog should be a forum for discussing such a topic but, given the fact that Unitarians have had an historic link with universalism, I guess it was inevitable.

To start, I think that it is important to point out that all the Christian thinkers who thrashed out the doctrine of the Trinity from 2nd to 5th centuries did not think that they were 'inventing' new truths or adding to revelation. They were simply seeking to find ways of doing justice to the divine self-revelation testified to in Scripture. They wanted to preserve the fine balances required to appreciate the God revealed in Christ. Indeed, for them the debate was never about abstract and irrelevant theological talk - though it may look that way to us at first glance - it was always about the God of the gospel.

I personally take the Christian tradition very seriously and in my view the fact that the ecumenical creeds have governed Christian belief in all three major streams of the Church for centuries gives them prima facie authority. As Christians we'd need very strong reasons to reject them. So I am not starting from a neutral place in this discussion.

Is the idea biblical? Some people never tire of pointing out that the word "Trinity" does not occur in the Bible. But that is simply irrelevant. If the concept is the best way of doing justice to biblical revelation then the Trinity is biblical even if the word is a later label used for convenience.

Where to start? I simply intend to make a few, simple and provisional remarks as the topic is VAST!

All the early Christians were good monotheistic Jews. For them there was one God and to worship any other deity was to commit the primal sin of idolatry. But here's the funny thing: As far as we can tell from the extant evidence the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus offered to their Messiah the worship due to God alone and they did not think that in so doing they were compromising their monotheism. (Richard Bauckham's book God Crucified and Larry Hurtado's book Lord Jesus Christ explore this issue at length).

Worship of Christ goes back to the earliest levels of the tradition that we can access. Given the robust monotheism of those who worshipped Jesus this is an extraordinary fact that needs accounting for. How could solid monotheistic Jews worship Jesus in good conscience?

In early Christian worship and theology Jesus was approached as the one though whom God made all created things (e.g., Jn 1:3; Col 1:16); the one who sits upon the very same throne as God (e.g. Rev 22:3); the one who receives the worship of God (e.g., Phil 2:10-11, note the allusion to Isa 45:23); as one who bears God's own name (Phil 2:9); as one who is even called "God"on occasion (e.g., Jn 20:28; Heb 1:8). Old Testament texts about YHWH are applied to Jesus (e.g., Isa 45:23 in Phil 2:10-11 or Ps 45:6-7 in Heb 1:8). Jesus' human body is the divine temple in which the very glory of God dwells (Jn 1:14). And so on and so forth. If Jesus did not participate in the identity of the one God of Israel then all this was idolatry.

And yet the early Christians were very clear that Jesus' identification with YHWH was not such that Jesus was identical with his Father in heaven. God (the Father) created all things through his Word (1 Cor 8:6 - which, incidentally, is a Christian expansion of the Jewish shema from Deut 6:4); the throne in heaven is "the throne of God and of the Lamb" (Rev 22:3); and when Jesus prayed to his Father in heaven he was not talking to himself.

So in the very earliest Christian responses to God in the light of the Christ-event we find a tension. Jesus shares in the identity of Israel's one God and yet is not identical with the Father. Trinitarian theology is the attempt to clarify this tension and to guard it again those who would deny the deity of Christ (Arianism) and those who would say that Jesus and the Father are the same 'Person' in different disguises (Modalism). It also guards against a whole range of other unbalancing theologies. The aim is not to explain God or to put God in a box and understand him. God is mysterious - and this assertion is not an attempt to dodge hard philosophical issues but a simple admission that God's bigger than our little brains. The aim of the systematic formulations of Trinitarian theology is to protect certain fundamental Christian claims about God and the gospel from being lost. It is to preserve the delecate balances of the divine self-revelation.

A similar process took place with the Holy Spirit after the controversies over the person of Christ had died down. Perhaps people might like to pick that up in conversations (this blog does not wish to outstay its welcome).

But it is not just a matter about how to interpret certain texts. Issues surrounding the deity of Christ had theological import.

All of the Father's interaction with the universe - from creation through to new creation - is mediated through the Son and in the Spirit. If Son and Spirit are creatures (even highly exalted creatures) then God has no direct contact with his universe at all. God disappears off into the distance leaving us to engage with super-beings (the Son and the Spirit) instead. But Trinitarian theology, by insisting that Son and Spirit participate in the identity of the one God, puts God right at the heart of all creative and redemptive action. When Christ is saving us from sin God is saving us from sin. When Christ is with us God is with us. When the Spirit draws us through Christ to the Father God is drawing us through God to God. It's God all the way down.

Of course, please do not think I underplay the humanity of Christ - it is simply that this post is not on that issue. Christ is able to fully save us because he is divine but he is able to save us because he is fully human and can represent humanity.

Universalism does not require Trinitarian theology (it does not even require theistic theology). Christian universalism, I think, does. I know that in saying this I will anger a whole load of blog readers. Oh well. I'm getting used to upsetting people.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Trinitarian Universalist Prayer

Here is a prayer if you feel happy praying it:

Holy Father, you created all things through your powerful Word and your life-giving Spirit.
All that exists is from you and through you and for you and to you. You are the origin and destiny of this beautiful world.
Your creation is good and in your love, sovereign God, you will perfect that which you have made.
We are so grateful that the future of the world ultimately rests in your hands and not ours.

Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, we give you praise that through you the Father was reconciling the world to himself. In you there is healing, life, restoration, salvation, new creation.
Lord Jesus - our representative before heaven's throne - your life, your death, your resurrection and your ascension are our salvation.

Spirit of Life, we thank you that you entice all creation towards its destiny in Christ. You are the power of resurrection and of new creation. You are leading our world to Jesus and, through him, back to the Father.

Triune Lord - we have been created and are redeemed by the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit. We hope for the restoration of all things to God, through God and in God. Ancient of Days, from start to finish it is all about you.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Gregory MacDonald Really is Bad, part 4 (he lacks a grasp of theological basics)

Steve continues:

As a universalist, you fail to appreciate either divine mercy or divine justice. You lack a basic grasp of law or gospel.

Oh? I am not sure how to reply to this one so I thought I would very quickly sketch how I understand those terms currently. Obviously the words have specific nuances in specific biblical contexts but as a starting point here are my broad brush-stroke definitions:

Divine mercy is God giving us what we do not deserve and witholding what we do deserve (i.e., punishment).

Divine justice is quite a wide category in the Bible that covers both God's action to punish sin and to save his people.

Law is (usually) the divine Torah given to Moses. It reflects the character of the holy God who gave it. (I confess not to having yet sorted out my views on the place of the Torah in the Christian life but I incline in the Calvinist direction on that issue. The NT texts are so complex that my little brain gets confused).

Gospel is the message about how God has acted in Christ's life, death, resurrection and ascension to redeem Israel and the world. It calls for trust in and allegiance to this Messiah, recognition of his Lordship, and repentance.

Of course, there is far more to all of these categories than the above but this should put you in the right ball park for understanding my views. I imagine that Steve would not disagree with what I have said above (though he may wish to add some more). So whence the disagreement?I think that it is rooted in my understanding of God's unity/integrity. Let me explain:

A doctrine of the unity/integrity of God's attributes: God is a unity in perfect harmony with himself. Consequently God's justice must be compatible with his love. All God's actions are loving and just. His love is a just love. His justice is a loving justice. So I claim that all God's acts of just punishment of sinners - including Hell - must be compatible with his love. And God's merciful treatment of his people - inclusing forgiveness and salvation - must be compatible with his justice.

I suspect that this is where Steve and I disagree. It seems to me that any doctrine of Hell that is incompatible with God's love for the ones punished falls foul of the theology of divine integrity. I imagine that Steve solves that problem by arguing that God does not love those in Hell (except in the weaker sense of having shown them common grace in this life). But my problem with this move is that it is, to my mind, fundamentally problematic (see my post on "Calvinism, the Trinity, and God's Universal Love").

So that's where I am at. If it reflects my faiure to understand these fundamental categories then I apologize.

There ends my self-defence.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Gregory MacDonald Really is Bad, part 3 (he's only orthodox by chance)

Steve continues

It’s just a coincidence that you’re theism happens to be as nominally orthodox as it turns out to be. The Trinity doesn’t conflict with universalism, so you just so happen to affirm the Trinity.Your universalism is heretical, and where your remaining theology is orthodox, it’s orthodox by chance. Like being accidentally innocent of murder because the gun misfired.

Ouch! On non-universalist theological issues I am only orthodox "by chance" and thus only "nominally orthodox" (on universalist issues I am simply a heretic). I think that Steve's point is that he believes that my deepest convictions about God are idolatrous and where my surface beliefs appear to be orthodox this is simply a matter of convenience (because they do not contradict my deeper, universalist convictions). As a result they are not expressions of genuine faith but mere nominal faith.

I must confess to being somewhat surprised that Steve, who does not know me at all, feels so confident in his analysis of my inner life as to be able to make such claims. I hope that if he knew me personally then he would come to see that he is quite mistaken. One day he will know me personally and we'll have heartfelt fellowship. For now I can only made claims which he may simply not believe. However, for the record, here goes ...

The revelation of God as triune - Father, Son and Spirit - is far more fundamental to my faith than universalism was, is, or ever will be. It is the heart of my Christianity and I would surrender universalist theology any day before surrendering trinitarian theology. It is not something I believe by accident or as a mater of convenience, and it is not nominal.

I hope that helps.

However, I am make no apology for being thrilled that the beautiful, glorious God and Father of our Lord Jesus is the one who is reconciling the whole world to himself through Christ and in the Spirit. Universalism is compatible with orthodox trinitarian faith - deal with it!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Gregory MacDonald Really is Bad, part 2 (he trivializes evil)

Steve continues his critique of me as follows:
You say I’ve leveled an exceptionally serious charge against
you. But there are no exceptionally serious charges in universalism.
Universalism trivializes every evil. If universalism is true, I could flay you
alive with a penknife, say three Hail Marys after I die, or do 1000 hours of
postmortem community service, then head for heaven. In universalism, all is
forgiven since all are forgiven.

Yikes! Best not to think too hard about the hypothetical case study! Eeeek! I don't think I will sleep well tonight!!!!

What is the charge here? That universalism trivializes every evil. But why on earth suppose that this is the case? Of course, in Steve's caricature of my view it is. There I commit my evil act and then just go through the motions to get my "Get out of Jail" card. That trivializes evil. But that is not my view.

My view is that there is no forgiveness except through the atoning death of Christ and heart-felt repentance and faith on the part of the sinner. This forgiveness comes at the cost of Christ's death on the cross. There is no trivializing of evil in that. The sinner is ashamed at what they have done and repudiates it. There is no sense in which their evil "doesn't really matter."

So unless Steve is prepared to say that if God forgives a repentant sinner then God has trivialized their evil I really do not see how his criticism can get off the ground.

I do not trivialize sin. I simply believe that where sin abounds grace abounds all the more.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Gregory MacDonald really is Bad, pt 1 (a bleeding-heart, limousine liberal, idolator)


Steve Hays has, as you may know, accused me of idolatry. I replied briefly to his accusation and Steve has now responded to my defence (see link).
So here is my last ditch attempt (in 4 parts) to defend myself. After that I go silent. You must decide for yourselves. Steve writes:
True, you then spend chaps. 2-6 trying to make an exegetical
case for universalism. However, these come with a tacit disclaimer. Given what
you said in chap. 1
[GM - he is referring to two passages in which I
describe my struggles over Hell - see link to read them], you will only believe in the self-revelation of God in Scripture
on condition that Scripture teach universalism. Your faith in Biblical theism is
contingent on universalism. That’s the escape clause in your contract. So, you
subordinate the authority of Scripture to your extrascriptural preconception of
divine worthiness.
Do I subordinate divine revelation to my own pre-conceived ideas about what God ought to be like? Do I think that my human reason trumps divine revelation? That's Steve's legitimate worry. The answer is 'No' (unless I am far more self-deceived than I imagine).

I think that it is clear in the book that I present the philosophical arguments not to settle the issue of whether universalism is true or false but to show that traditional interpretations of biblical teaching on Hell are deeply problematic and that this should prompt us to ask ourselves whether we have misunderstood the Bible.

But there is nothing unusual about that way of thinking theologically. It is no different from claiming that empirical evidence that the earth is not stationary and is not the centre of the solar system should cause us to rethink biblical texts which seem to suggest otherwise. I imagine that Steve himself interprets the Bible in the light of some insights from Copernicus and Galileo. Nobody would suggest that by doing this he is subordinating revelation to reason.

Furthermore, I state unambiguously that, "Scripture must retain its place as the primary locus of authority in any hermeneutical spiral of understanding; so if such a review
of the Bible does not plausibly yield a universalist interpretation, then we must return to the philosophy and try to see how we can make sense of the everlasting damnation of the lost"
(p. 41).
So I hope that it should be clear that Steve has misunderstood my position. If I was convinced that universalism was unbiblical I would stop being a universalist. I have no interest whatsoever in making up theological ideas to make me feel better. I want to know the sober truth. I happen to be fairly convinced that universalism is the sober truth.
And, yes, that’s the very definition of idolatry. You begin,
not with revelation, but with your preconception of God. If the Bible happens to
agree with your preconception, then that’s a bonus point for Scripture—but if
the Bible teaches everlasting punishment, then you jettison Biblical theism. So
you most definitely assert the primacy of your extrascriptural preconception.
[GM - see above] For you, the Bible is expendable.
You were able to reinterpret Scripture consistent with your preconception. But
had you been unable to do so, then—by your own admission—you would no longer be
a Christian.
I said nothing of the sort, nor would I have because it is not true. (However, I am pleased that Steve thinks I did manage to show that the Bible can be read in a way that is consistent with universalism. :-) I am interested that at no point does he engage with any of my five chapters of biblical arguments. Even if, as Steve thinks, my motivation for reading the Bible in a new way was questionable that need not mean that my biblical arguments are no good. Those arguments still deserve to be taken seriously. I do not think that they are all equally strong but overall I think my case has merit.)
Actually, I wouldn’t dignify it with the label of “reason.”
It’s simply emotion. The bathos of the bleeding-heart, limousine liberal. It’s a
secularized Christian conscience. You’re very compassionate behind your tinted
A bleeding-heart, limousine liberal? Ouch! In brief, just two points:

1. My philosophical arguments are surely not so bad that they cannot even be dignified with the label "reason". I have had feedback from several professional Christian philosophers and all of them were positive about the philosophical case (even if they disagreed with my final conclusions). Steve does not agree with my arguments but his reaction here perhaps errs on the side of being an over-emotional as opposed to a rational one. :-)

2. Emotion has a very important place in theological and ethical rationality so I make no apology for caring about those in Hell. I am just sorry that Steve is able to consider the whole matter from a non-emotional perspective.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Judas Tree by Ruth Etchells

This is a lovely poem I came across some years ago. I am not entirely sure how to respond to it. On the one hand I want to say, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" On the other I want to ask, "Does it take seriously the very dire warnings that Jesus made that it would be better for Judas had he never been born?" Now I do not think that such language rules out Judas' eventual salvation but I worry that the poem somewhat undercuts it. Or does it? The image of Judas forever hanging on a tree of his own despair is indeed very dark. What do you think?

Any reflections on Judas and salvation just post 'em up! But for now - the poem. How do you respond to it?

In Hell there grew a Judas Tree
Where Judas hanged and died
Because he could not bear to see
His master crucified
Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
For ever haning on the tree
Grown from his own despair
So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms
"It was for this I came" he said
"And not to do you harm
My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept
Though one betrayed and one denied
Some fled and others slept
In three days' time I must return
To make the others glad
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had
My tree will grow in place of yours
Its roots lie here as well
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell"
So when we all condemned him
As of every traitor worst
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first

D. Ruth Etchells

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Gregory MacDonald worships a false god

Dear Blog Readers,

Here is the first very critical review of my book (to be precise it is a review of chapter 1 and a part of chapter 7). It is by a Christian brother called Steve Hays. I have to warn you that is is VERY long and will take about 45 minutes to read properly

It is certainly worth a look. It seems that I am 'an idolater' who has worshipped a false god since even before I became a universalist. Oh dear.

For those who are interested I felt that the arguments ranged from good to worthy-of-taking-seriously-but-mistaken to poor. However, I have no intention of replying to the arguments in the review. Not because I cannot but beause I do not have enough time and it would be a wasted effort. As the author himself confesses,

I’m a Calvinist. And I’ve been doing apologetics for several years now, so my beliefs are battle-hardened. There’s no opening in my belief-system for him to exploit. No crack in the wall.

As they say, 'know thyself'. Reading the review I judge that Steve does indeed know himself and that consequently discussion is futile.

Nevertheless the review is recommended reading because I think that it may actually serve to expose the nature of the theology that Steve defends. Perhaps it illustrates better than any argument I could mount how one's view of God will impact one's attitude towards other human beings and the way that one treats them. Steve's review did not, to my mind, reflect so much love for the world as a deep dislike of humanity. Maybe I am not being fair here so you'd better read it yourselves and make your own minds up. I felt sad for Steve as I read it (though he would not want my pity). I do pray God's blessing on him.



Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Is Hell a Torture Cell?

Here is a very initial thought:

In answering this question it is helpful to know what torture actually is? Let's say for simplicity that torture involves
- the deliberate infliction
- of extreme forms of mental or physical pain
- in order to achieve some goal.
The goal itself may be legitimate (e.g., the extraction of critical information from a suspected terrorist) but the means is considered not to be.

Is Hell a torture cell? Well let's see

Does it involve extreme forms of mental or physical pain? It appears so - a painless Hell seems unlike any Hell I have heard of.

Is the pain used to achieve a goal? So it seems. And what is God's goal in sending people to Hell?
(a) to punish people because they deserve it?
(b) to purify them?
(c) to reform behaviour?
(d) to educate people on the true reality of sin?

Perhaps all of those things and more - must God have only one purpose? And these purposes are all good ones but, of course, that is not normally considered a legitimate defence for torture.

So God is using extreme pain to achieve a good goal. Does this not make God a torturer?

That depends. If God deliberately inflicts the pain from the outside of the person with the intention of achieving a good goal then the answer may be "Yes". Of course, even in this case, there is a big disanology with torture as normally understood. The pain is intended - in (b)-(d) above, at any rate - for the good of the person suffering it and for no other end. God is seeking the ultimate blessing of the one in Hell. The torturer is not doing that. Even so we might still remain very uneasy with God's extreme method.

But Hell need not be understood in that way. Hell could be understood not as the infliction of pain by God but as a condition in which God allows a person to experience the inherent consequences of their sin. Sin is a corrosive element in human life and God shields us in this age from its full impact. Hell could be seen as a place where God stops shielding us and allows the corrsive power of sin to take its course. This would be a very horrible experience that could serve goals (a) to (d) above but in this case it does not seem that God is torturing us at all. He allows the pains of Hell and uses them to achieve his goals but he does not inflict them. He is not torturing us but leaving us to experience the consequences of our own actions.

Such are my hasty initital thoughts. I am not sure about them yet but you're welcome to do with them as you wish.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Is God a torturer?

Is the God who sends people to Hell a divine torturer? That is a very difficult question to answer but the more pressing question for me is this:

Is the God of the evangelical universalism that I defend a torturer?

Why think that he would be? Well, one might suppose that he is tormenting people with dreadful agonies until they choose to accept him. In other words, he torturing them into getting saved. He stands over those he is punishing saying, 'Love me and all your pain will stop!'

Am I proposing a deity specializing in well intentioned but indefensible human rights violations?

I have some thoughts about that but for now I thought I would simply pose the problem to get reflections on it from guests. What do you think?

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Calvinism, the Trinity and God's Universal Love

It has been argued by some Calvinists that the assertion "God is love" can be true even if there are people that God does not love. That sounds very odd so allow me to explain the thinking.

The statement "God is love" is rightly taken as referring to God's essential, necessary being. Within the Godhead there is mutual divine love between the Persons of the Trinity - the Father loves the Son and the Spirit, the Son loves the Father and the Spirit, the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. Thus "God is love" is a truth even if God does not create a universe containing beings for him to love.

But some in the Reformed tradition go further. They argue that if God freely chooses to create the world (and he did not have to create this world or indeed any world) then God is totally free to decide whether or not he loves everything or anything in that world without his choice impacting the truth of the claim that "God is love". Why? Because the truth of the claim that "God is love" depends on the love within the Trinity and so God's decision whether or not to love his creatures has no bearing on that truth whatsoever! Consequently it would be true that "God is love" even if God chose to hate every single creature that he created!

This line of reasoning opens the way for some Calvinists to feel reasonable when maintaining both (a) that "God is love" and (b) that God loves only some people with a robust, redeeming love (he only loves the rest with a lesser, non-redeeming love shown in common grace). It is true, we are told, that "God is love" even though God chooses to send some people to eternal, conscious torment when he could just as easily have saved them from Hell.

Here is what I think about that: It is both completely right and completerly wrong - and in that order.

It is completely correct in maintaining that God's love is an essential divine characteristic because it is grounded in the mutual love of the Persons within the Godhead. It is consequently completely correct to claim that the assertion that "God is love" is true even if nothing at all existed apart from God. So far so good.

It is completely wrong, so I think, to assert that God's essential nature of love would not be compromised if God failed to love his creatures. That would be to maintain that the following two propositions were fully compatible

1. God is essentially loving (in other words, it is God's nature to love)
2. God does not love some of the creatures that he has made.

But at face value that seems a very odd claim indeed. It seems much more 'obvious' to me that

if God is essentially loving then

3. if only God exists then God will love himself
4. if God has created a universe then God will love himself and the creatures that he has created

If God creates a universe yet only loves himself and not his creatures could we say that it is God's nature to love? That love is essential to God? Could we maintain with integrity that "God is love"? When pondering that question remember that the phrase "God is love" comes from 1 John and in that letter it is not God's self-love that is in view but his love for creation.

As an aside, I do not hear many Calvinists arguing that for God to be essentially truthful all that is required is that he is truthful within the Trinity but that he can lie through his teeth when speaking to his creatures. If God is essentially truthful then he does not lie to anyone. Well, the same goes (or so I maintain) with his love.

I would be interested to know what Calvinists made of my continued suspicion that propositions 1 and 2 above really are incoherent and that, consequently, traditional Calvinism really does have a serious problem holding on to the central Christian conviction that "God is love".

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

At last! A critical review! Two cheers for Evangelicals Now!

For a long time I have been a little frustrated that the only responses to my book have been positive. Of course, that is nice in one way but part of the reason for it was that the people who would not be sympathetic to my cause did not bother to read the book in the first place. Thus it was welcome news when Rebecca at SPCK emailed me the latest review from a British newpaper called Evangelicals Now. EN represents the conservative-Reformed (though not the ultra-super-mega-conservative-Reformed) end of British evangelicalism. It is a good paper. I was pleased that they printed quite a sizeable review by a pastor from near Bristol called Phil Heaps.

Of course, EN would not print a review of the book that was not critical so I expected the reviewer to argue that I was mistaken and also to suggest that most people avoid the book (after all, if they read it they may be in danger of being persuaded by me!). But let me say the following things. Credit goes to Heaps and EN for the following

1. reviewing such a contentious book in the first place rather than sweeping it under the carpet. Heaps said, "the issues it raises are important."

2. my view was not caricatured but was, on the whole, presented accurately and in a sufficiently nuanced way. Heaps said, "its arguments should be addressed not dismissed or caricatured."

3. for having the courage to make some positive comments. I was pleased that "the style is clear, irenic, and persuasive," and "in terms of exegesis the book is (unsurprisingly!) strong in dealing with the 'universalist texts' ..." and that it was the "best case presentation" of universalism (I am not agreeing with that claim but I am pleased he was generous enough to be positive).

4. for not claiming that I am not a real evangelical (although he does conclude that most Bible-believers will remain convinced that "evangelical universalist" is a contradiction in terms).

Heaps also offered some criticisms.

(1) I am disturbingly naive about the irrationality of sin (response: I disagree - I just believe in the power of the Spirit to overcome such irrationality).

(2) I underplay the biblical notion that God's goodness consists in his hatred of evil and that God is glorified in his punishment of sin (response: I disagree. I affirm both of those things but neither provides an obstacle to universalism and neither can serve as a justification for eternal hell without undermining God's love. See the book for the argument).

(3) I do not accept that God may have good reasons not to save everyone, e.g., as enduring testimony to his holiness and the consequences of sin (response: In the book I consider suggested reasons God may have to leave some in Hell forever - including those identified here - and argue that they are inadequate. I will not reiterate the arguments but I will say that simply noting that I do not accept such reasons hardly constitutes a response to my view).

(4) I assume that God's victory implies universalism but forget that God must define what his victory means. (response: yes, God must define what ultimate divine victory means. I try to argue [I do not simply assume] that it entails universalism. My arguments may fail to convince all but that is another matter).

(5) I fail to grapple with the concept of death as "that state in which there is no opportunity to choose, or repent" (response: well, he is right that I do not accept that definition of death but it is a rather question-begging definition. It is a view deeply rooted in the Christian tradition but not so clearly in the Bible itself. I do try to launch an indirect biblical argument against it - indeed much of the book constitutes precisely that. I guess it depends what Heaps means by "grapple with").

(6) I claim too much for the power of reason. (reply: Perhaps I do but to be fair
(a) my philosophical arguments are grounded on biblical premises and not, as Heaps indicates, "unbelieving philosophy",
(b) I do claim that if Scripture indicates otherwise then we have to go back to the drawing board on the philosophy front so I do not allow 'reason' to trump 'revelation' as he suggests.
(c) perhaps I do allow reason to influence the shape of my theology but in so doing I am simply doing what all good Christian theologians have always done and Calvinists, such as Heaps appears to be, are most certainly no exception.

(7) I am exegetically "very weak" on the Hell texts (response: maybe on some. I do need to do more there but I did think that the exegetical handling of the Revelation texts was pretty reasonable and the suggestion that it was "very weak" is perhaps somewhat harsh).

(8) I do not grapple with the prominent pattern found in texts that seem to indicate the final fate of humanity end with a division between lost and saved (response: I thought I had tried to grapple with precisely that. In the end it depends on how one theologically exegets these texts in the light of the whole of the biblical revelation. I may come to a different conclusion than Heaps but is it true that I do not grapple with the issue? Hmmmmm. Perhaps it is a metter of perspective).

So it is two cheers for EN on being willing to enter the skirmish (but not quite three cheers). Blessings on their good work and on my brother Phil Heaps.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Universalism and the Salvation of Satan

Must a universalist believe that Satan will be saved?

Not necessarily. A universalist could believe that God will save all humans but perhaps not fallen angels. We could call that 'human universalism'.

But it has been pointed out that the logic of the arguments that I employ in chapter 1 of my book would entail a more radical conclusion - that God will redeem all fallen creatures, both human and angelic. Let's call this 'radical universalism'. So the question then becomes, "Does Gregory MacDonald believe that Satan will be saved?"

I confess to being agnostic on the issue. Agnostic not because the logic of my arguments is not clear but because I am not sure what to think about the Devil.

Is the Devil a personal being? Suppose that he is (perhaps he is a fallen angel, although Scripture never spells out his origins). If Satan was once a good spiritual person who was later corrupted then the logic of my position is indeed that God could and would redeem him. There are two problems with this and both are big.
1. Scripture indicates otherwise (Rev 20)
2. the Christian tradition is clear that Satan will not be redeemed (indeed, contrary to popular opinion, not even Origen claimed that Satan would be saved).
The only way that I can think to get out of this bind is to suggest that Lucifer (the good being created by God) will be saved but that Satan (the name for Lucifer-as-corrupted) will be destroyed. This is analogous to the way that God destroys our old natures in Christ and makes us new creations. If anyone is in Christ - new creation! Old things have passed away and all things have become new. Satan is dead. Long live Lucifer. But, I freely confess, this is very speculative and it is not what I actually believe.

Suppose then that Satan is not actually a personal being at all. Suppose that he is a personification of evil or, more plausibly, some kind of epiphenomena supervening on human evil (individual and social). I am thinking along the lines of Walter Wink here. On this view of Satan then even a radical universalist such as myself would insist that Satan cannot be saved. Indeed, quite the opposite! Satan must be purged from the created order in order for there to be radical, cosmic redemption.

If you have thoughts on this difficult topic please do post a comment.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Universalism, Reconciliation and Trivializing Horrors

Here is a serious question. Universalists believe (rightly in my view) that God will not only reconcile all people to himself but also all people to each other.

The serious issue is this: some crimes, such as the holocaust, are so absolutely horrendous that we need to be careful not to end up trivializing them by glibly declaring that God will reconcile the offender and the victims, period!

We need to say more. We need to recognize that the final reconciliation between humans does not occur by way of ignoring or downplaying the gravity of the sin or the torment inflicted. We need to make sure that our accounts do not have God riding roughshod over the wills of the victims. But we also need to affirm that whilst with humans this forgiveness may be impossible, with God all things are possible.
So - if you have thoughts on how to due justice to this issue please do offer your reflections.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Universalist Theology of Worship

For the universalist our Christian worship in the present age is a prophetic anticipation of the universal worship in the age to come.
One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:8-9). But not yet. Right now the world is divided between those who worship God through Christ and those who do not. But when we declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his glorious light we anticipate that final day.

You might think that your Sunday morning worship is a insignificant, mundane thing. It is not. It is a prophetic act of resistance to the idolatry of the age. It is an act of hope, straining against the night, yearning for the day when all will love him.

Few have expressed this universalist theology of worship better than Matt Redman in his song, "There's a louder shout to come"
(NOTE: Redman is not a universalist but the theology in this song is both universalist and profound!)

There is a louder shout to come, there is a sweeter song to hear;
All the nations with one voice, all the people with one fear.
Bowing down before Your throne, every tribe and tongue we'll be;
All the nations with one voice, all the people with one King.
And what a song we'll sing upon that day.

O what a song we'll sing and O what a tune we'll bear;
You deserve an anthem of the highest praise.
O what a joy will rise and O what a sound we'll make.
You deserve an anthem of the highest praise.

Now we see a part of this, one day we shall see in full
All the nations with one voice, all the people with one love.
No one else will share Your praise, nothing else can take Your place;
All the nations with one voice, all the people with one Lord.
And what a song we'll sing upon that day.

Even now upon the earth there's a glimpse of all to come;
Many people with one voice, harmony of many tongues.
We will all confess your name, You will be our only praise;
All the nations with one voice, all the people with one God;
And what a song we'll sing upon that day.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Should we form universalist congregations?

NO! To be honest the whole idea makes me shudder with horror. In the list of things that are essential for a good church, teaching universalism is WAY down on the list. Indeed, a church that formed itself to be a 'universalist' congregation makes me imagine that it would spend a lot of its time preaching about universalism and so on (forgive me if I am wrong). God spare us from that!

I want to be part of a church that is trinitarian, Christ-centred, Spirit-filled, missional and loves people. If they also happen to teach universalism (in appropriate contexts - see my post on Origen) then great. Indeed, I would like it that they did. But if they taught eternal conscious torment then I'd rather be with them than a church that was all about universalism.

Don't get me wrong. I really do think that universalism is true (and I rejoice in it!) and I'd be very happy to be part of a chuch that was evangelical universalist so long as the universalism was simmering away in its background. It is simply that I think we need to put universalism in its place. It is good news. It is important but it is not fundamental to healthy and obedient Christian living. Indeed some of the best churches I know believe in eternal conscious torment. Bless them Lord!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Origen's pastoraly wise universalism

I recently read an interesting article by Tom Greggs on Origen's universalism ("Exclusivist or Universalist? Origen the 'Wise Steward of the Word' (CommRom. V.1.7) and the Issue of Genre." International Journal of Systematic Theology 9.3, 2007, 315-27). The issue was how to interpret the fact that sometimes Origen sometimes comes out and teaches universalism (a well established point that needs no defending here) but at other times seems to be very exclusivist. For instance:

"Outside this house, that is, outside the Church, no one is saved. If anyone goes outside, he is responsible for his own death" (HomJosh. III.5).

Does Origen's left hand not know what his right hand is doing? According to Greggs the key is found in Origen's idea that

"Paul [in 1 Cor 15:33f] is thus acting as a wise steward of the word. And when he comes to the passages in which he has to speak about God's goodness, he expresses these things in a somewhat concealed and obscure way for the sake of certain lazy people lest, perchance, as we have said, 'they despise the riches of his goodness and patience and forbearance and store up for themselves wrath on the day of wrath" (CommRom. V.1.7).

Greggs argues that

"Origen suggests here that St Paul is acting as 'a wise steward of the word' to conceal and obscure the goodness of God in the universalist passages which have preceded 1 Cor 15:33 in order that the weaker are not tempted to fall back into sin" (Greggs, 321).

In other words - Origen, like Paul himself, is a pastoral theologian and biblical exegete. There are contexts in which bringing out the full glory of universalist hope is appropriate and contexts in which it is not (lest it elicit the wholly inappropriate response, "If I am going to be saved whatever I do then I think I'll keep on sinning!").

We can learn wisdom from Origen here. I worry that some Christian universalists are so dazzled by the vision of final ultimate reconciliation (and it is easy to understand why they are) that they are not always wise in their deployment of the notion. They feel that we must tell the world that they will all be saved and do our best to tone down Hell. I disagree. Sometimes, like the OT prophets or like Jesus himself, we need to warn of the coming warth without making mention of restoration after destruction. Sometimes we need to speak of both wrath and restoration, and sometimes simply comfort the broken with the good news of restoration. May God's Spirit grant us to wisdom to know how to speak in the specific situations we face.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Is the UK more open to universalism than the USA?

OK - here is a weird thing. My book seems to be getting more attention in the UK that the USA (that is an observation not a complaint). Weirder still is the fact that this has been the case since the beginning when only a US edition was available. So what's the score here? Are Brits more open to universalism than Americans and if so why? Here's my guess - they are suckers! (That was a joke!)
Feel free to comment with your reflections on this puzzle.

Spring Harvest and Universalism

Here is a genuine surprise! Spring Harvest, the main Christian festival in the UK, explored the topic of eschatology this year. And the study guide (which all delegates receive) handles the topic of Hell in such a way that eternal conscious torment, annihilation, and evangelical universalist views of Hell are set out as equally evangelical options!!!

I must confess to being somewhat astonished that universalism has been treated not only as something less than heresy but as a view to serious ponder, albeit a minority report.

So - it is thumbs up to Spring Harvest for having the courage to tolerate evangelical universalism! It will be interesting to see what the fall out of that decision is.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A small rant

Here is my small rant for the day: So far the only hostile criticisms I have received for the book are from people who have not read it. I simply don't understand that. I would never have the audacity to criticize a book (in public anyway :-)) for its questionable content when I had simply guessed at what I imagined the content was.
Of course, I am not in the least surprised but it is rather frustrating because in almost every case these people guess wrong. I am accused of holding heresy x, y, or z when in actual fact I affirm neither x, nor y, nor z. I cry, 'Not guilty, M'lord!' but, of course, these people are not interested in what I actually say but in what they think I say. After all, it is easier to refute the straw Gregory.
So I am looking forward (and I have been waiting for getting on two years so far) for someone to read the book and THEN tell me why I am so dangerous. It will happen but I just say, 'Bring on the day!'
On the other hand, I am encouraged that the feedback I have had from those who have actually read the book is very positive. It seems that I may not actually be a heretic after all. That's nice!

Gregory MacDonald on UK radio show

Yes it's true! UK's Premier Radio very bravely did a 90 minute show on Christian universalism. You can hear the show on the following link (the date is 15th March)
I did an interview which was split up and used throughout the show. Of course, they had to disguise my voice so it is not always easy to know what I am actually saying - not even I recognize myself - but it was all good fun.
The show also has a debate (spread throughout the show) between Calvinist Daniel Strange and Universalist Eric Stetson. Both of them were very good.

Responses to evangelical objections to the orthodoxy of universalism

In the face of such serious considerations (see previous blog) it is hardly surprising that evangelicals have steered clear of the belief that all people will be saved. However, in considering whether an evangelical can believe in universal salvation it is important to realise that universalism is actually a broad family of views and not a single belief. The criticisms above do apply to some forms of universalism but not necessarily to others. There is one version of universalism that I think has good claims to being compatible with evangelicalism so rather than explaining all the different versions of universalism on the market, many of which are highly questionable from an evangelical perspective, I wish to explain just this one (which I will refer to as “evangelical” universalism with the “” marks to leave it an open question for now just how evangelical it really is). We can then ask how the standard evangelical anti-universalist objections stand up against it. It is important, before we do so, to be very clear about what I am, and am not, arguing in this brief article. I am not arguing that evangelicals ought to be “evangelical” universalists nor am I arguing that “evangelical” universalism is true. I am simply arguing that if someone holds to this form of universalism they do not automatically put themselves outsides the bounds of what can legitimately be called evangelical. So please do not complain after reading this that I did not produce any convincing arguments in defence of universalism – you’ll have to read my book (The Evangelical Universalist, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006) for my attempt to do that.
So what do the “evangelical” universalists believe? Much the same as any other evangelical. They believe that God is triune and created the world ex nihilo; they believe that humans are created in this God’s image; they believe that human rebellion separates us from God and deserves punishment; they accept the final authority of the Scriptures for matters of Christian faith; they believe that the Father sent his one and only Son as a human being (who did not cease to be divine) to live as our representative, to reveal the Father and to atone for our sins through his death on the cross; they believe that through his resurrection eternal life is available to those who trust in Christ; they believe in salvation by grace (not merit), through faith in Christ (not works); they believe in the return of Christ and the coming day of judgment; they even believe in hell! Like any evangelicals they may disagree on issues - they may be Arminians or they may be Calvinists; they may be inclusivists or they may be exclusivists;[1] they may accept penal substitution theories of atonement or they may not; they may accept retributive theories of punishment or they may not; they may accept the inerrancy of Scripture or they may not. However, on all the core evangelical doctrines (which are really just historical, orthodox Christian doctrines with some Protestant emphases) they will agree. At this point you may well be confused – exactly how are these “evangelical” universalists supposed to differ from the mainstream? In two respects

(a) they believe that death is not a point of no return. In other words, it is possible for those in hell to cast themselves upon God’s mercy (made available through Christ) and be saved.

(b) They believe that in the end everyone will do this and there will be no people left in hell.

Now not all Christian universalists accept this version of universalism but it is what I am proposing constitutes an “evangelical” version of universalism. Suppose someone holds to this belief – how will they react to the standard objections against universal salvation?

Objection 1: “evangelical” universalists have a very strong view of the seriousness of sin and they believe that hell is merited. They do not think that anyone deserves to be saved so this criticism simply misses the mark. Indeed, I would say that it is not because they have a low view of sin that they are universalists but because they have a high view of grace. In the words of Paul, “Where sin abounds grace abounds all the more.”

Objection 2: “Evangelical” universalists arguably have a very biblical and robust notion of divine love (or so I argue in my book). They do not need to imagine that God is a soft touch who would not dream of punishing anyone. Their understanding of divine love seeks to be shaped by its revelation in Christ. And they have a strong view of divine justice. Indeed, they think that every divine action is a manifestation of what P.T. Forsythe called, “holy love.” It is not that some divine acts are loving (like saving people) whilst others are just (like sending people to hell). Rather all God’s deeds are loving and just. Whatever hell is we must not suppose that it is the action of justice as opposed to love. It is, they think, an act of severe mercy – of “holy love.”

Objection 3: obviously “evangelical” universalism insists on the uniqueness of Christ and the necessity of the cross-resurrection for salvation so this objection slides away.

Objection 4: clearly “evangelical” universalism, at least in its exclusivist versions, insists on the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation (and in its inclusivist versions has no more problems than any other version of evangelical inclusivism). Hence this objection falls away.

Objection 5: “evangelical” universalists are committed to evangelism and mission more broadly construed. They desire that people enter into salvation through faith in Christ. In its Arminian version “evangelical” universalists also believe that without mission there are many who will go to hell who would not have done so otherwise thus preaching to stop people going to hell is still a motivation for evangelism. They also believe that there are many biblical motivations for mission and evangelism apart from the belief (a belief that they think mistaken) that those who die as unbelievers are damned to hell forever without hope of redemption. So whilst this objection has some teeth they are not sharp ones.

Objection 6: This really is the objection that most evangelicals think sinks universalism without a trace with so called “evangelical” universalism included. There is no way that I can possibly address all the complex issues here. For that I must refer you to my book in which I argue at length that there is a strong biblical case for universal salvation, perhaps stronger than most evangelicals have ever realised. In this context my point is merely that the “evangelical” universalist thinks that she has sought to do justice to the whole of Scripture and thinks that the Bible is compatible with her universalism. As those who seek to be true to evangelical traditions what more can we do? Obviously there are many discussions to be had on this topic and I can see the hands in the class raised even as I type. My question is simply that if we have a fellow evangelical believer who thinks in all honesty that Scripture is consistent with his universalism then, if that universalism is not a threat to any creedal beliefs or central gospel affirmations, can we exclude him from the fold? Can he not be treated simply as an evangelical who we think is mistaken about the possibility of redemption from hell? Can he not be treated with the same tolerance Arminians and Calvinists have for each other? This need not mean that we avoid arguing about the topic but simply that we see it as an argument taking place within evangelicalism.

Objection 7: Whilst I have heard some evangelicals make this “it’s not fair” objection it does seem to be a betrayal of the evangelical conviction in the gospel of grace. There is much one can say in response but it seems so clearly off the mark I shall not waste ink on it.

Objection 8: Clearly, “evangelical” universalism does not deny the Trinity. Indeed, “evangelical” universalists regard Unitarianism as a fundamental betrayal of the gospel and the biblical revelation of God.

So I ask, “Could ‘evangelical’ universalism possibly amount to a genuine evangelical universalism? Could it possibly be allowed as a legitimate evangelical option?” If not, on what basis is this denial made?
There are positive reasons for including this version of universalism within the fold even if as the black sheep of the family who needs careful watching.
First, it is based on gospel instincts and evangelicals are gospel people. The Father sent the Son to save all people (something many, though not all, evangelicals believe). The Son represented all humanity before God, and died for everyone. In Christ-our-representative all humanity dies and is resurrected to new life. Universal salvation is, in one sense, an accomplished fact in Christ. Of course, one needs to respond by the Spirit’s power to the gospel to participate in what God has already accomplished in Christ, but the fact remains that there are good biblical reasons to see the logic of the gospel (the evangel) as one with a universal reach. This form of universalism is gospel-affirming and mission-affirming and thus has some claim to belonging in the evangelical fold.
Second, it has biblical foundations. In my book I argue that it is not merely certain proofs texts that can be used to support universalism (e.g., Romans 5:18-21; Colossians 1:18-20; Philippians 2:9-11) but the logic of the entire biblical metanarrative from creation to new creation. Obviously that is a case that will need to be argued out elsewhere – especially in the interpretation of the hell passages (see my book) - but the form of universalism we are considering here has aspirations, at very least, to be thoroughly biblical. This instinct to seek to listen to the whole canonical witness is deeply evangelical and constitutes another reason to see the small number of “evangelical” universalists as players on the same team.
In conclusion, whilst I do not imagine that I will have persuaded anyone of the truth of “evangelical” universalism, indeed I have not sought to do so, I do hope that at very least the answer to my original question is not so obviously, “No!” and may even be, “Maybe” or just possibly even, “Yes!”

[1] Exclusivists believe that one can only be saved through Christ if one has explicit faith in Christ.

Reaons why people think evangelicals cannot be universalists

“Can an evangelical be a universalist?” In other words, could someone be an evangelical and also believe that one day all people will be saved? If I asked that question of almost any evangelical I know the answer would be a clear and unequivocal, “No!” It would be akin to asking whether a vegetarian could eat pork. Indeed, even those evangelicals who seem to fly close to the wind at times on this issue always seem very keen to make clear that they are “not endorsing universalism”. To admit to being a universalist is the theological equivalent of signing one’s death warrant. It is like putting one’s hand up and saying, “Hi. Guess what - I am a misguided person who has abandoned the faith and embraced heresy. Would you like to be my friend?” So it is with some fear and trepidation that I choose to turn my little fishy nose against the stream and head off in the opposite direction from the majority of my fellow evangeli-fish. I will suggest that the answer to my opening question is actually, “Yes! It is possible to be an evangelical universalist.” Oh, “and would you like to be my friend?”
I must start by emphasising that it is not just a coincidence that few evangelicals have historically embraced universalism. The fact of the matter is that traditionally evangelicals have had strong and sensible reasons for rejecting the belief. If I am going to persuade you that one can be an evangelical and a universalist we will need to consider those reasons and see if they do the trick of blasting universal salvation out of the water. So why have evangelicals found universalism so objectionable? There are several reasons amongst which we find the following:

Objection 1: it is sometimes felt that universalism undermines the seriousness of sin. Universalism suggests, so many evangelicals think, that we do not deserve hell. It suggests that sin is not serious and that God’s “job” is to forgive everyone. Perhaps it even suggests that we all deserve to be saved. The evangelical knows that this liberal anthropology is self-deceptive garbage.

Objection 2: Universalism, it is often said, rests on a woolly and unbiblical understanding of God’s love (God is too kind to hurt a fly) at the expense of God’s justice and wrath.

Objection 3: it is often thought to undermine the necessity of Christ and the cross for salvation. The universalist, it is said, thinks that God will save us through whatever route of salvation we choose, whether it be Christ or some other track. It is believed that for the universalist all ways lead to God as surely as all roads lead to Rome. But the evangelical knows that this pluralist view undermines the glorious uniqueness of Christ and the truth of the gospel.

Objection 4: universal salvation is often thought to undermine the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation. Even if the Christian universalist insists that all those who are saved are saved through Christ and his cross presumably the universalists are the ultimate inclusivists.[1] They believe that God will save everyone through Christ whether they have heard of Christ or not and, if they have heard of Christ, whether they accepted him or rejected him. Yet, the evangelical knows that the gift of salvation comes to all who trust in Christ but not to those who spurn him.

Objection 5: a belief in universal salvation is usually felt to undermine evangelism and mission. If we believe that everyone will be saved whatever they do, then what motivation do we have to proclaim the gospel to them? Who is going to risk their health, their safety, their families or their lives to reach the lost if the lost will be saved whether we preach to them or not? Evangelism is at the heart of evangelicalism and to undermine it is to rip the heart from our faith.

Objection 6: the claim that all will be saved undermines Scripture. The Bible clearly teaches that there is a hell and that it will not be empty. To accept universalism is therefore to fly in the face of the clear teaching of God’s word – something the evangelical knows is folly.

Objection 7: Universal salvation is sometimes said not to be fair. Why do we put all this effort into living the Christian life when God will save us all, including all those evil people who enjoy a life of sin? It is not fair! We may as well have fun sinning now and then let God save us.

Objection 8: universalism is sometimes thought to undermine the Trinity. After all, are not most universalists Unitarians? The historic link between “modern” forms of universalism and this heresy does not bode well.

So - should this lead us to conclude that evangelicals cannot be universalists? In my next I will respond to these objections and argue that, contrary to popular belief, an evangelical can indeed be a universalist.

[1] Inclusivists think that it is possible to be saved through Christ without having explicit faith in Christ. Inclusivists are not usually universalists.