The Evangelical Universalist 4.1: A note on appeals to mystery

Gregory MacDonald makes a note about “appeals to mystery”:

It may be that the traditionalist will appeal to mystery at this point.  He may grant that he cannot see any way in which traditional punishment in hell can be defended but still maintain that it is just and good.  “God, after all, is beyond our ken, and we should not presume to be able to understand everything about him.  The fact of the matter,” he may say, “is that Scripture teaches everlasting hell, and so we must accept it.  The things that have been revealed belong to us and to our children but the hidden things belong to the LORD and we must rest content with that.”  I do have some sympathy with this position, but it is surely a last resort.  The secret things may well belong to the Lord, but that which has been revealed can be known to be true; and it is on the basis of those revealed things that I have argued for universalism and against everlasting hell.  The premises in my arguments all rely on traditional Christian claims about God, and it is those very claims that seem to conflict with traditional views of hell and yet fit so well with universalism.  I would suggest that these arguments ought, at the very least, to make us wonder if we have not misunderstood certain biblical teachings on hell.  Only if we are absolutely certain that have not done so would we appeal to mystery.  I hope to show in the rest of this book that we have indeed misunderstood the implications of the Bible’s teachings on this subject.  (The Evangelical Universalist, p. 33)

As I was reading this chapter I was thinking something along these lines.  Saying that “God is beyond our understanding” is certainly true, but it is not a satisfactory defense of the traditional doctrine of hell.  It sounds pious, but it seems to me to be an ill-informed approach to this doctrine with potentially eternal consequences.  If mystery is the only basis we have for our doctrine of hell, we really don’t have a reason to believe it, do we?  One could just as easily argue that God, in his mystery, will save everyone.  None of that proves anything.

2 thoughts on “The Evangelical Universalist 4.1: A note on appeals to mystery

  1. Simon

    “One could just as easily argue that God, in his mystery, will save everyone. None of that proves anything.”

    When you say this, Marc, that none of what you’ve read in this book – or are likely to read – will prove much of anything either. This is certainly NOT a condemnation or criticism of the book or your reading of it. Rather, MacDonald is staking a claim to a certain position and substantiating it with cogent arguments and discussion. Like your sentence I quoted above, none of this proves anything other than to know what MacDonald thinks and why. Perhaps it would drive a person to agree with him or compose a counter-argument.

    I think this is more just a general comment about my thought that even a serious treatise on something as intangible as religion can never be more than a well-defended and well-argued opinion. Which, really, is a large part of the fun of these sorts of discussions.

  2. jim

    I agree Marc, the appeal to mystery doesn’t prove anything and as MacDonald says it should be a last resort. It can be a seemingly pious and ill-informed approach. And in some cases I think it is used as an “opt-out” of the discussion when it gets to uncomfortable. I can understand that, it is a touchy issue because peoples worldviews and belief systems rest on it. (I’ve been through it myself in various ways)

    But, as MacDonald says, “The premises in my arguments all rely on traditional Christian claims about God, and it is those very claims that seem to conflict with traditional views of hell and yet fit so well with universalism.”… and he says this should at least cause us to question our reading/interpretation of the “hell” passages (and allow our belief system to be questioned I would add). This he will do, as you have pointed out, and then perhaps the mystery (or at least a compelling amount of it) will disappear. Unless, of course we’ve got our hands over our ears the whole time going, la la la la… MacDonald doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Sorry if that sounded a little strong but I mean to say that we shouldn’t approach this (or anything for that matter) with that kind of immaturity (it may also be a sign of insecurity and consequent fear which is unfortunate and not necessary)… which BTW I see that you are not doing Marc.

    Good post, important point!

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