The Evangelical Universalist 2

The first chapter of The Evangelical Universalist, entitled “A Hell of a Problem”, is mostly logic. Why get philosophical?

…Christian theology is guided by several key sources of wisdom: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Of these, the Protestant churches agree that Scripture is the most authoritative. These four sources, however, inter-relate in such complex ways that one cannot claim to “just read the Bible” without paying attention to tradition, reason, and experience. In an ideal world, the four sources would beautifully dovetail and lead to clear conclusions. However, it is a common experience for the Church to be faced with situations in which Scripture seems to conflict with one or more of the other sources. What do we do in such situations if we are committed to a divinely inspired Scripture? We first ask whether reason, tradition, or experience may not be misleading or mistaken. We then also consider whether we may have misunderstood Scripture, for even a commitment to an inspired Bible is not a commitment to inerrant interpretations. Reason can play a role in exposing misinterpretations of the Bible. It is this role that I want to draw attention to in this chapter. (The Evangelical Universalist, p. 9)

In this chapter MacDonald presents the two general problems he sees in the traditional doctrine of hell and then argues that there are logical problems inherent in the traditional defenses of that view.

First, the two general problems:

1. Infinite punishment for finite crimes.

MacDonald wonders what sin a finite human could possibly commit that would warrant an infinite amount of punishment. The “retributive theory of punishment”, the common basis for hell theology, argues that punishment is justified simply because the criminal deserves it—that is, not because it is rehabilitative or a deterrent from future sin. Central to retributive justice is the idea that the punishment must fit the crime. An infinite amount of punishment does not seem to fit a finite crime. “[T]he traditional doctrine [of hell] seems to require a theory of punishment that ends up undermining it” (p. 11).

St. Anselm tried to solve this problem by arguing that since God is infinitely great, any sin is infinitely grave and therefore deserves infinite punishment. Anselm’s position is difficult to swallow these days, as we no longer live in a feudalistic caste system (is that redundant?)—we no longer (in theory) punish according to the social status of the victim in relation to the social status of the perpetrator. As a result, Anselm’s position has been further developed to suggest that sin deserves infinite punishment since God is infinitely greater than humans in an ontological sense, much like we believe that a crime against a human is worse than a crime against an animal, because humans are ontologically greater than animals. Still, argues MacDonald, it “does not necessarily follow from the claim that God has infinite honor that any crime against him is infinitely bad” (p. 12).

An objection to Anselm’s argument which is more difficult to overcome is the fact that Anselm’s position appears to make all sins equally bad, which, MacDonald argues, is a position difficult to defend Biblically. Briefly, some have argued that while all sin results in hell, not all sin results in equal amounts of punishment while there, so that John may be punished 12 hours a day, whereas Michael receives 20 hours of punishment each day. MacDonald argues—and rightly so, I think—that when you are speaking in terms of an infinite damnation, how much punishment someone in hell receives over a period of time is moot. 12 hours of punishment daily for infinity is still, for all intents and purposes, an infinite amount of punishment (there are objections and counter-objections to this line of thought which I won’t get into here).

He briefly covers a few other approaches to the problem unequal sins, all of which appear to be either unbiblical or irrational in terms of who we believe God to be, but for the sake of my own brevity (too late!), I won’t cover those right now.

2. “The Problem of the Joy of the Redeemed”

By listing a series of premises and their logical conclusion, which I won’t do here either, MacDonald wonders how someone “in heaven” could be supremely happy without being deceived about fate of the unredeemed. How could those in heaven be supremely happy while knowing that some of their loved ones are experiencing eternal, conscious punishment?

Philosopher William Lane Craig has argued that there are two possible solutions to this problem:

“• God could wipe the memory of those [the redeemed] love, or

• the beautific vision may be so all consuming that [the redeemed] may simply never turn their thoughts to [their loved ones]” (16)

My initial response to the first solution was, if it is not unreasonable to think that God could simply wipe out any memories which may be connected to those in hell, why is it any less reasonable to think that God will save everyone in the end? Isn’t the solution for the traditional view more convoluted than the universalist position (e.g. God will tamper with select parts of people’s memories so that they don’t remember their damned loved ones vs. God will, in the end, save everyone).

MacDonald proposes two objections to Craig’s initial solution:

  1. Is it possible to wipe out swaths of a person’s memory—leaving massive gaps—without deceiving them in the process, say, by filling in the gaps with different memories?
  2. The memory wipe seems rather cruel. Would anyone want to be ignorant of the fate of a loved one, no matter how cruel that fate may be?

As for the beautific vision, MacDonald argues that it would make the redeemed more aware of the fate of their loved ones, rather than less. In the end, MacDonald rejects Craig’s solutions because they do not fit the Biblical picture of a God who loves even his enemies.

10 thoughts on “The Evangelical Universalist 2

  1. Andrew

    Is creation truly restored to its pre-fall glory if hell exists forever? Wouldn’t it be an eternal reminder of failure on God’s part?

  2. Linea

    I would think it would be more of an eternal reminder of failure on humankind’s part of the results of our free choices.

    I can’t see God forcing humans to exist alongside him if they continue to choose not to acknowledge him. Will our joy in his presence be diminished by our sadness over those who did not make the choices we did and perhaps continue to choose their own way?

    Our joy at the birth of a new child is not diminished by the thousands of children born at the same instant who die, is it? Perhaps it should be, but it seems to me that we celebrate our joys in the midst of our sadnesses and it is partly our experiences with sadness that makes the joy that much sweeter.

    But what do I know? No amount of theology will change the way God is and in my experience God doles out grace in unlimited quantities. I lean more to that attribute demonstrated in Christ. Whatever God does in the end, I trust it to be good.

    That may make me a bit of a universalist but I can live with that.

  3. Marc

    You make good points, Linea.

    I’m fairly sure that MacDonald’s argument will eventually boil down to the notion of “irresistible grace” rather than God “forcing” people to exist alongside him. The difference is minute, I suppose, but there is a nuance there that makes the difference.

  4. Marc


    Presumably he cannot. But I think you’re asking the wrong question. The question this book is ultimately asking is “Was Christ’s work on the cross sufficient for everyone? If not, what good was Christ’s work? If so, is it possible for God to ultimately extend that grace to everyone?”

    God cannot stand sin—that’s not in question here. Can God “remove” sin without a person repenting? I don’t know. What I think MacDonald will ultimately argue is that in the end everyone will repent (and they will have the chance to do so after death).

  5. graham

    Hi Marc,

    In response to your response to Linea, Gregory doesn’t really adopt the notion of irresistible grace. It’s more a case of thinking that God has all eternity and infinite wisdom to reveal his love and purge our sins.

  6. jim

    “That may make me a bit of a universalist but I can live with that.” I like that Linea, I can live with that ?.

    So far MacDonald is making a lot of sense. A question regarding Craigs initial solution… What about God’s memory? Will he have to wipe out of his own memory the objects of his love that are in eternal torment? I used to respond to this with something like God (in his love) is far above us and while we can’t fathom it, it is possible for him to not be disturbed by the knowledge of people suffering in eternal torment. But I can’t see that anymore, I’m made in God’s image and that explaination just doesn’t fit.

    • the beautific vision may be so all consuming that [the redeemed] may simply never turn their thoughts to [their loved ones]”
    I read an excerpt of a book Marten Zender wrote that I’ll link here so you can read it if you like. I should warn you that Marten Zender is very outspoken and uses sarcasm to drive hard points. It’s what came to mind when I read Craig’s second solution, so check it out if you like. The page has 5 excerpts from one of his books; I’m referring to the second one.

  7. Marc

    Good question about God’s memory, Jim. MacDonald doesn’t mention it, but you might be on to something.

    Andrew: re: your first comment:

    MacDonald actually mentions that in the book (in a roundabout way). It’s one of the arguments I skipped. He refers to one of the defenses of the “different levels of punishment” theory of hell, which argues, in short, that people will only be punished in hell commensurate to their sin, but that they will continue to sin (out of anger or hate?) when they are in hell, thus heaping on continuous punishment. MacDonald has a problem with this position because, as you say, it implies that sin is not wiped from the face of the earth. Biblically, sin will no longer be.

    (I’ll have to look that section of the book up to confirm this)

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