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.