The Evangelical Universalist 1

(Dixie implied that blogging through a book will scare away most of my readers.  I sure hope not.  If you’re not into theology, then skip these posts.)

Back in October, Graham at Leaving Münster posted a three-part interview with Gregory MacDonald (a pseudonym), author of The Evangelical Universalist (interview parts one, two and three). The interview intrigued me enough to order the book.

MacDonald, an otherwise conservative Evangelical Christian, will argue that there are Biblical grounds for a universalist position and that this position is “is not a major change to the tradition and that it actually enables us to hold key elements of the tradition together better than traditional doctrines of hell” (The Evangelical Universalist, p. 4). MacDonald describes himself as a “hopeful dogmatic universalist”—that is, he is dogmatic about universalism, but he recognizes that he is not infallible. MacDonald came to be a universalist slowly and with a great deal of resistance. He says,

“My ‘conversion’ to universalism was not sudden but very gradual and, at times, anxious. Such a departure from the mainstream view of the church is not something to be rushed into. I do not expect readers of this book to rush to embrace universalism—in some ways I would be concerned if they did.” (p. 4)

There are a variety of universalisms out there and they’re not all the same; the universalism MacDonald is proposing is “Christian Universalism”. He describes an imaginary Christian universalist to give the reader a concrete idea of what he means:

Anastasia is an evangelical Christian. She believes in the inspiration and authority of the Bible. She believes in all those crucial Christian doctrines such as Trinity, creation, sin, atonement, the return of Christ, salvation through Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone. In fact, on most things you’d be hard-pressed to tell her apart from any other evangelical. Contrary to what we may suspect, she even believes in the eschatological wrath of God—in hell. She differs most obviously in two unusual beliefs. First, she believes that one’s eternal destiny is not fixed at death and, consequently, that those in hell can repent and throw themselves upon the mercy of God in Christ and thus be saved. Second, she also believes that in the end everyone will do this. Now, not all Christian universalists would agree with Anastasia’s views here, but it is her kind of universalism that I primarily have in mind when I speak of universalism. (p. 6)

A couple of things to keep in mind as I blog through this book:

  1. MacDonald is humble and cautious about his position, which I think we should all be, at least when it comes to the issue of eternal damnation.
  2. This book is not about the existence of hell (MacDonald believes that there is a “hell” and a final judgment). Rather, the issue in question is whether the “unsaved” will suffer eternal, conscious punishment in hell. MacDonald does not think this subject is an essential or, if you will, “creedal” doctrine, but it is important enough to ponder.
  3. MacDonald and those he refers to in the book are theologians and philosophers and much smarter than I am. I don’t expect to be able to defend or critique anything said completely. I am merely throwing this stuff out there for interest’s sake. I haven’t read the whole book yet

I think it’s reasonable to expect all Christians to be at least hopeful universalists, even if one doesn’t believe in universalism. That is, we should very much want everyone to be saved and should grieved at the notion of anyone being lost. Every once in a while you hear someone speak about eternal torment in hell as if they find pleasure in other people’s discomfort, as if they delight in the fact that some (probably many) will be damned. This does not seem to me to be a Christian way of thinking. The Bible itself is very clear that God desires everyone to be saved (which will come up in chapter 1) and we should desire the same thing.

As I go through the book, some question I will keep asking myself are,

  1. What are the eschatological implications of the Christian doctrine that salvation is through Christ alone?
  2. Is it still an important doctrine if everyone is saved in the end?
  3. Does salvation through Christ alone require that I know and/or acknowledge that salvation is through Christ alone?
  4. Does grace lose its value if it is given (not just offered) to everyone?

16 thoughts on “The Evangelical Universalist 1

  1. Simon

    A few quick bytes in response to your last four questions since it’s way past my bedtime and I need to go there rather than expound:

    1. If salvation is *literally* through Christ alone, then there are a lot of people about to find themselves in a hand-basket. How much more likely do you think the scenario should be interpreted as leading a Christ-like life leads to salvation?

    2. If everyone is saved in the end, I’m of the opinion that sort of makes it the MOST important doctrine.

    3. If you are given to think that salvation is through Christ alone, what of the fates of the billions of people who hold no truck with anything he ever had to say? Is an innately good man doomed for lack of knowledge of Christ?

    4. If you consider that grace is offered to everyone, I’d counter with thinking of how many people consciously or subconsciously spurn that offer countless times. Think not so much of diluting grace by offering it up freely, but of the difficulty of the individual to accept it.

  2. Marc

    1. Good question. One might argue that’s a “works” salvation rather than “faith alone”, but I think there is more nuance to the Catholic/Protestant division than evangelicals realize.

    Incidentally, MacDonald will argue that a lot of people may find themselves in a hand-basket, but not permanently. This is where question #3 comes in.

    2. Good point.

    3. That’s what I’m asking. Can you “know” Christ through action while not “knowing” him in a personal sense?

    4. Another good question. This will come up later in the book, I think. I think MacDonald will argue that ultimately grace will be irresistible or simply the obvious choice for everyone.

  3. jim

    Hey Marc, I’m glad you are going to walk us through this book. I think that Simon is right about the importance of this discussion/doctrine. The conservative traditionalist reaction and resistance to it verifies that it is understood by all to be important. If it wasn’t then why the caution to proceed slowly and thoughtfully?

    I have been slowly and thoughtfully working through this myself for the last while. I have found MacDonald’s claim “that it actually enables us to hold key elements of the tradition together better than traditional doctrines of hell” to be true for me. An example for me is the classic issue of Calvinism versus Arminianism. Neither theological perspective is without its problems… nor is Universalism. But thus far I would have to say that Universalism is, much to my surprise, more coherent over all, yet not without its problems. Thomas Talbott introduced this briefly in this interesting read…here

    You pose some good questions. Here are my initial thoughts on them…

    1. What are the eschatological implications of the Christian doctrine that salvation is through Christ alone?

    The way I’m reading Christian Universalism is that, yes, salvation is through Christ alone. Death came through Adam alone(for all), salvation came through Christ alone(for all). Partialism says that salavation is through Christ and my choice. So, actually, universalism is more emphatic about “in Christ alone”.

    2. Is it still an important doctrine if everyone is saved in the end?

    If it is true then it is as some have said “The Greatest Story Ever Told!” It truly is the Good News. I have been wondering what would happen to this world if we were declaring this? Would it be a truly powerful, life changing, and world changing Gospel? The Gospel I have presented in the past has not seemed to have the life changing punch that it is expected to. It’s often had an opposite effect… i.e. the God who would burn them in hell forever if they don’t “become a Christian” is rejected.

    3. Does salvation through Christ alone require that I know and/or acknowledge that salvation is through Christ alone?

    If it is truly through Christ alone then no. By my choice I may existentially experience it now or not. BTW, wanting people to existentially experience peace with God now and thus change their lives, their communities, the world (Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven) becomes the motivation of the evangelist.

    4. Does grace lose its value if it is given (not just offered) to everyone?

    What has more value, power and glory?
    Grace – period
    Grace – if

  4. Johanna

    I love this discussion! I will definitely read through your posts on the book, so please don’t quit. You save me the trouble of reading it that way. 🙂

    I’ve been thinking about this all for the past year or so, and I’m still not sure of any of my conclusions…they seem too heretical.

    Something I’ve been realizing is that Christianity shouldn’t only be about after we die, whether or not we can get into heaven. It’s about living in the Kingdom of Heaven now, here, on earth. Living for Heaven, living for death, seems a little counter-intuitive to me, and it seems counter to the teachings of Christ. If he really thought that getting into Heaven was the point, he would’ve told us to convert the masses instead of feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Because really, as long as they’re getting into heaven once they’re dead, does it matter if they’re comfortable while alive?

    Most of the people I talk to about this have the biggest issue with Grace. They say it’s a slap in God’s face to refuse his free gift. I feel like that makes God too petty, too anthropomorphic. He is bigger than we can fathom, and why can’t his grace be so challenging to us? Why can’t his Love be so great that he loves those who “slap him in the face”? I think that makes the sacrifice of Jesus even more astounding and amazing, it makes his grace even more profound. His capacity to forgive again, and again, and again, and again should humble me completely…after all, if God’s Love has a limit, why can’t mine?

  5. Darren

    Just so that I don’t find myself confused through much of this discussion, what is the biblical basis for this idea?

    For the record, I agree with much of what’s been said already: as Christian’s we should be very concerned about the “lost”, we should be living the kingdom NOW, and worry less about when we die, etc. However, I’m not sure about the main thrust (or what I percieve as the main thrust) of this discussion, the idea that those who are “damned” can, after some decision point (e.g. judgement), change thier minds, and become redeemed. This is a rather new concept to me. What is the basis in scripture for this? I’m REALLY hoping someone will respond to this…

  6. Ian H.

    I’m also hoping to see a Biblical basis to this. While looking at God being “slapped in the face” by the refusal to accept grace may be anthropomorphizing God, couldn’t the same be said for God being nice and saving everyone in the end?

    In all my eschatological studies (limited) and discussions (wide-ranging), I’ve never heard someone with a convincing scriptural argument for universalism. I wait in anticipation.

  7. jim

    Hi Darren, I think you are percieving the main thrust. I’ll play the universalist advocate and offer this noting that universalists wouldn’t universally agree with it (not trying to be punny). Christ has redeemed us. Salvation is in Christ alone, not Christ plus my decision. Jesus did, it is finished, in Christ all shall live. So, we don’t become redeemed by our decision, rather we existentially enter it… that’s salvation, hallelujah now I see it, Jesus redeemed me/us. Everyone will eventually in either this life (prefered) or in the next realize this. “Every knee will bow, every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord”.

    This brings a question to mind… is salvation, being born again, etc, etc, a decision or a realization? We often speak of it as a realization, ephipany, seeing, revelation, etc.

    Also as far as biblical basis goes it will be interesting to see how MacDonald handles the texts. If you are interested one good resource for philosophical, theological, scriptural support for Universalism is here

  8. Marc

    Well, I’m glad there is actually interest in this topic. I guess this means I’ll have to be more meticulous.

    REMEMBER: I am just blogging through the book. I’m not defending the position, as I’m just learning about it myself.

    Darren & Ian:

    Hold your horses; this is just the introductory post—I haven’t even blogged the first chapter of the book. He will get to Biblical arguments for his position eventually. If I had that information already, I wouldn’t bother with the book.

    I can already see that this is going to be a touchy subject. There’s probably good reason for MacDonald writing under a pseudonym.

  9. Marc

    Jim: MacDonald (so far) actually draws quite heavily on Thomas Talbott’s work. How did you come across Talbott? (Or have you already bought this book, since I took so long to get to it? 😉 )

  10. jim

    No, as of yet I haven’t readd MacDonald’s book. I’m not terribly familiar with Talbott at this point. A post on Experimental Theology (here) is how I was introduced to him. I’ve done a little browsing on his site (here)and hoping to do some more.

  11. Darren

    I’ll look forward to the details, but am thus far not convinced, or even moved to think I might be convinced. Note the one skeptically raised eyebrow.

    I can see the argument of “Through Christ alone” but everything I read suggests to me that there is an acceptance required. I read about “separating the sheep from the goats,” but nothing about genetically altering the goats so that they become sheep (if I may push an analogy too far…). I believe “every knee will bow, every tongue confess…” but I think that can be done from hell, although with a lot more pain and suffering. Although, I am convinced that WHATEVER happens in the end I, and everyone else, will be completely convinced that it is correct and fair, no argument.

  12. Andrew

    As others have pointed out, if salvation through Christ alone requires knowledge and intellectual assent of that doctrine, then it no longer is salvation through Christ alone, but rather turns salvation into a gnostic affair — some of us are lucky enough to be ‘in the know’ and others, well, not so much, and will pay an eternity for their ignorance. I think it was CS Lewis who pointed out that salvation may only be through Christ, but there may be a million ways to Christ…

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