In Chapter 2 of The Evangelical Universalist, Gregory MacDonald begins his biblical argument for universalism. (I may return to Chapter 1 at some point, but will move on for now.) First, however, he must establish what is required for something to be considered “biblical”.
WHAT IS BIBLICAL?
He lists two basic criteria for something to considered “biblical”:
(a) It has positive support from scripture. This could be the case if:
- It is explicitly taught. There are several texts that seem to do this (e.g., Rom 5:18; 1 Cor 15:22; Col 1:20; Phil 2:11)…
- It can be reasonably inferred from what is explicitly taught…It ought to be noted that this inference of universalism can be perfectly proper even if the biblical authors themselves never made it. It has long been recognized by evangelicals that a teaching can claim to be biblical if it can be legitimately inferred from other teachings that are direcly taught in the texts.
- It is consistent with the biblical meta-narrative. Most of the debates for and against universalism in the past have been proof-text debates…The Bible is the single story of God’s creating and then redeeming his world, and any claim that universalism (or traditionalism) is biblical must show how it fits in with the broader picture of Scipture and makes sense of the broader themes.
(b) It does not conflict with what is explicitly taught in the Bible…It is here that many think universalism can be sunk without a trace…if universalism is to have a claim to being biblical, it must indeed be able to present a plausible interpretation of [the hell texts]. The question is then, “Does any of the Bible’s teaching on hell substantially contradict universalism?” The answer is affirmative if and only if the Bible teaches that hell lasts forever. (The Evangelical Universalist, pp. 36-7)
What do you think? These seem like reasonable criteria to me.
THE PROBLEM OF CONTRADICTION
MacDonald then goes on to say that almost all important Christian beliefs have texts that seem to undermine them, but we are content to continue to hold to these beliefs in spite of them. We do not “suspend all belief untill all the detailed problems are resolved.” (p. 37) MacDonald says that it should be no different for the universalist.
The nuance of theology is shown in an observation by Thomas Talbott, who gives three propositions:
1. It is God’s redemptive purpose for the world (and therefore his will) to reconcile all sinners to himself.
2. It is within God’s power to achieve his redemptive purpose for the world.
3. Some sinners will never be reconciled to God, and God will therefore either consign them to a place of eternal punishment, from which there will be no hope of escape, or put them out of existence all together. (p. 38)
Several biblical texts can be found which appear support each of the three propositions. The problem, however, is that the three propositions cannot all be believed at once. How, then, can the Bible teach all three?
THE SOLUTION (WE ARE ALL IN THE SAME BOAT)
The solution, argues MacDonald, is to reinterpret one set of texts supporting one of the three propositions. The question is, which one? Evangelicals have traditionally taken proposition 3 as a given, so they reject the first or second proposition (depending on whether they are Calvinists or Arminians) and reinterpret the related texts. Universalists propose a rejection of proposition 3, therefore needing to reinterpret the hell texts. MacDonald’s point with all this is that, when it comes to being “biblical”, universalists
are in a situation no different from Calvinists or Arminians…Every reflective Christian who takes a stand with respect to our three propositions must reject a proposition for which there is at least some prima facie biblical support. (p. 39; link, obviously, mine)
The reasons for choosing one position over the other are, I imagine, varied. Presumably, the degree of difficulty in reinterpreting the texts is a major factor. Personal bias would be another. If this is a purely subjective choice, I can’t help but wonder if accepting propositions 1 and 2 and rejecting the 3rd is a natural choice. I would even go so far as to say that propositions 1 and 2 are more important than proposition 3, but that in itself is a largely subjective notion.