*The* Evangelical Universalist

You’ll recall a year and a half ago I did a series of posts on the first couple of chapters of Gregory MacDonald’s The Evangelical Universalist (1, 2, 3, 4, 4.1, 5, 6). Unfortunately, I lack blogging-through-books stamina and never got past the sixth post, which finished off his argument from logic for Christian universalism. I stalled before reaching MacDonald’s scriptural argument for Christian universalism and I haven’t read any further in the book since then. (I feel bad about this, as the author was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the topic by email.)

I fully intend on completing the book (reading and blogging) at some point. In the mean time, Graham just informed the blogosphere that Gregory MacDonald has started the Evangelical Universalist blog. Check it out!

It’s an interesting subject and not one that should be dismissed without consideration.

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. (Link)

18 thoughts on “*The* Evangelical Universalist

  1. Ian H.

    Good argument at the bottom, but there has to be a limit somewhere (I’m not saying it should exclude universalism). At what point do we say that not only is that an incorrect interpretation of Christianity, but that it is not, in fact, Christianity at all? Just askin’

  2. Marc

    It’s a good question and I think MacDonald would agree with it. His argument so far on the blog is that “evangelical” universalism (or perhaps Christian universalism) is in every other way creedal and “orthodox”. It would be difficult to say that it isn’t Christianity if such universalists (for there are different types) believe in such essentials as the deity of Christ and his resurrection, the Trinity, sin, Christ as the way, the truth and the life, etc., and also such things as evangelism and mission. In fact, they even believe in hell.

    It seems that what’s particularly unique about MacDonald’s position is that he doesn’t believe that death is a person’s last chance and that eventually all people will turn to Christ and call on him.

  3. Toni

    I guess the question comes down to whether universalism is heresy in the true sense – something which might prevent someone coming to salvation through Jesus.

    If we believe universalism is NOT true, then it IS genuine heresy – not that MacDonald might not have saving faith, but that his teaching would encourage others not to accept Jesus as Lord and be saved. Would I refuse to fellowship with him? Probably not. But if he wished to be part of a church for which I had responsibility then his participation would be on the public understanding that this was considered heretical and contrary to sound teaching.

    This may seem a rather strong, even harsh line to take, but this is not a trivial part of our faith.

  4. Marc

    But that’s the question: if everything else in his faith/theology/belief/action is the same, what kind of difference does this belief make, other than fill one with even greater hope and wonder?

  5. Toni

    We’ve been here before.

    Essentially this belief says that accepting Jesus in this life is not essential to be saved in a going to heaven or hell sense. If, based on that uttered belief, a single person decided that they don’t need to accept Jesus as lord in this life and therefore they reject Him then that has specifically caused someone to be condemned who would otherwise have been saved.

    Sure, this is “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” stuff, a little. But We’re not dealing with all those other beliefs (and that’s pure smokescreen BTW) but this one very specific and important one. Are you deliberately playing devils advocate or do you genuinely not see it?

  6. Marc

    To answer your last question: neither. I’m simply trying to engage in a discussion.

    Because in the universalism which MacDonald espouses Jesus Christ is still central to salvation. Now I don’t know all the ins and outs of his viewpoint in this respect, but Christ is still central. It’s my understanding the belief is that (for reasons he explains in the book) eventually all people will acknowledge Jesus as Lord (every knee will bow, etc.) and as such everyone will be saved. The belief is that while there is judgment and hell, eventually hell will be empty.

    Of course, no one would wish anyone to suffer in hell (whatever that might look like) for even a moment, even if ultimately this person will be saved.

    Of course, we (you and I) don’t have to keep discussing this. I just find it an very interesting (and, naturally, appealing) notion (though I haven’t embraced it myself) and don’t like simply writing it off because it hasn’t been the norm.

  7. Toni

    Thanks for explaining your standpoint, Marc.

    I remember when this discussion came up last year. After we started for a period of time I went through the bible turning over the various scriptures that related to salvation, judgement and eternal life. While there were passages that could be read to support the universalist viewpoint, there were too many that contradicted it. Since I believe the bible to be consistent in its viewpoint (provided we are viewing from the same viewpoint) then the alternative reading of those scriptures did not appear valid.

    As for conversation, it’s hard to see what can be gained in this instance. McDonald can explain his point of view quite eloquently, I’m sure. If what he says lines up with reality and you can see it for yourself then it’s a logical next step to take. However if, as I believe to be the case, you know his case is flawed and he is wrong, but you like the idea because it reduces suffering (not to mention a substantial amount of personal responsibility from each one of us) there is little to be gained from discussion. Sure it’s nice to kick things around with other people to see what fits, but I think you already know what is real.

    Wonder how this would bounce off Randall?

  8. graham

    ‘As for conversation, it’s hard to see what can be gained in this instance.’

    Maybe you’d change your mind?

  9. Marc

    I’d say that if the Gospel is equivalent to getting into heaven/staying out of hell and nothing more, then there would be little to be gained from this—perhaps there would even be things to be lost

    If, however, the Gospel is about not only salvation but, more than that, about the fact that Jesus is risen and is Lord (and therefore no earthly power is) and that the Kingdom of God is breaking into the world and that God is setting things right, redeeming all of creation, and that we as followers of Christ—as the church, the body of Christ—are called to be a part of bringing that Kingdom to life and action right now in the present…well then this line of thinking (of Christian universalist) would not prevent us from pursuing what one might call “evangelical” responsibilities.

    If THAT is the Gospel, then even a Christian universalist would want to go about making disciples of all nations (or even just one’s friends and neighbours).

    Is keeping people out of hell the only motivation we have to tell people about Jesus? It certainly needn’t be.

  10. Don Hendricks

    If there were several good scriptural and theological reasons to reconsider our orthodox view, then the heresy box needs to be widened. At least a dozen serious books have been written to defend this understanding. For me, these books answered so many of the historic tensions between arminian and calvinist views, not to mention giving a consistent meaning to God ‘s perfect and powerful love. This is Paul’s mystery, reconciliation of all.

    Don

  11. Marc

    It should be noted again that MacDonald’s universalism *does not* do away with hell or punishment therein. What it *does* do away with is *eternal* punishment in hell.

    I was thinking on the drive home about our different POV, Toni. Since day 1, I think, you’ve been asking, “Why play with ideas you know aren’t true?” To which I’ve been responding, “Because it’s fun,” or “Because we might be wrong.”

    This blog has never been a personal statement of faith (“Here I stand”), but has been a working out of the ideas and theories that I run into as I read and an engagement with ideas which might be contrary to my own (“Could this be? How about this?”).

  12. Marc

    But I should add that your comments are always welcome and would be missed were you ever to quit contributing. I would worry if I stopped seeing your name pop up in this space. You are part of this little Eagle & Child community, Toni, in spite of our differences (as superficial, I think, as they may sometimes be). 🙂

  13. Linea

    I think we have to keep asking the questions. Our minds need some kind of answers and so we work through the issues till we come to an understanding we can accept or understand, that we may very well be wrong. I have to be able to ask my questions. Its how I work things through. I generally come around to a pretty orthodox stance but I need to know where I have gotten it from.

    So thanks for raising this.

  14. Andrew

    Universalism in various forms has been around from the early days of the Church, so to dismiss it as nothing but heresy is too glib. The creeds don’t speak of the issue at all – it’s not traditionally been a requirement of orthodoxy. Question on, Marc, even if only for the fun of it.

  15. Don Hendricks

    Once I realized that the purpose of God was to restore all of Adams fallen race, and that God the Father was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their sins against them, the most wonderful thing that began to occur deep within my own being was a love for humanity and a moment by moment enjoyment of the Kingdom of God. It no longer is about comparing proof texts but about the finished work of Christ making all things new. Its about Christ drawing all men (into) himself on the cross. Yes, there will be judgement for everyone, yes your morals and decisions matter, but its finally about correction not eternal punishment.

    Don

  16. Ian H.

    Don, I may have missed your contribution last time we discussed this on Marc’s blog, but what do you make of passages like the parable of the 10 virgins… certainly reads like punishment to me. That’s one of the passages that convinced me that the “Left Behind” series’ eschatology is flawed.

  17. Don Hendricks

    Ian,
    For me, my openess to reconciliation of all followed a five year study of eschatology, and the help I recieved from covenant or fulfilled eschatology enabled me to see that Jesus was being Isreals Messiah and Judge, and most of the passages in the gospels refer to the Gehenna judgment coming upon that generation. Unraveling the hell words, and opening up the eon or ionian words put those passages in their historic perspective. Its a big subject, but as Marc said, worth reconsidering. As a life long student of theology, I crossed the line three years ago and argue from God’s complete victory over sin and the restoration of all things.
    I join many happy and rested believers from this vantage point.

    Don

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