The Evangelical Universalist 3

(The first chapter of The Evangelical Universalist continues…)

The traditional doctrines of hell are grounded in a variety of views of human free will. After discussing the general problems with the traditional doctrine of hell, MacDonald moves on to discuss these various views. There are essentially two understandings of free will: libertarianism and compatibilism (well, there’s also the Arminian position, which MacDonald doesn’t cover, other than in a brief footnote), which he defines as follows:

…the libertarian maintains that for a person to act freely the following two conditions must be met:

  1. the action is one the person wants to perform;
  2. the person could choose to perform or not to perform the action (i.e., the agent is not causally determined to perform the action).

The compatibilist will accept 1 and deny 2. (The Evangelical Universalist, p. 18)

If I understand the author correctly, from a compatibilist point of view, Johnny Public wants to do X, but it is inevitable that he will do so; he will not do Y instead. And by “causally determined”, I assume MacDonald means that Johnny Public’s circumstances and environment and everything leading up to that moment essentially prohibit him from performing the opposite action. I don’t quite understand it, but then I don’t quite understand Calvinism, which is a compatibilist position, either.

First, the Calvinist/compatibilist view of freedom. Logically, argues MacDonald, the this position results in Calvinist Universalism or simply away from Calvinism. His argument, which in turn relies on the compatibilists own arguments, looks like this:

1. God, being omnipotent, could cause all people to freely accept Christ.

2. God, being omniscient, would know how to cause all people to freely accept Christ.

3. God, being omnibenevolent, would want to cause all people to freely accept Christ.

4. [Therefore] God will cause all people to freely accept Christ.

5. [Therefore] All people will freely accept Christ. (p. 19)

From a purely logical point of view, it’s a compelling argument. In fact, says MacDonald, a Calvinist would deny conclusion 5 by denying premise 3. Calvinism, according to MacDonald (don’t ask me about Calvinism), asserts that God loves only the elect and it is them he will save. But this raises questions about God’s love: the Bible teaches that it is in God’s nature to love his creatures; that Christ died for all people; and that God desires to save all. How can we then argue that God only wants to save some? Furthermore,

[i]n light of the biblical emphasis on the supreme value of love, it seems plausible to think that a being that loves all is greater than a being who loves some but not others. (p. 20)

Once again, if we’re concerned about a Biblical basis for things, the Calvinist position that God does not want everyone to be saved is difficult to defend, Biblically and logically.

The thrust of MacDonald’s argument against the Calvinist defense of hell is that it presents a God who could save everyone, but does not do so in order to “demonstrate the glory of his justice” (p. 22). MacDonald argues that God could demonstrate this even while saving everyone. His position is best summarized with the following:

…it is unclear why the “grace not works” aspect of salvation requires any to be damned. Surely we could all be recipients of such grace without it becoming less gracious. We could also all realize that we are saved by grace apart from works without anyone being eternally damned. (p. 20)

(Next: the libertarian view of freedom)

6 thoughts on “The Evangelical Universalist 3

  1. jim

    As we know (at least most would agree) the five propostions MacDonald presents are true and supported by scripture. I agree it is very compelling, I would say (acknowledging I’m an ameteur in the discipline of logic) air tight. But, we’ve been taught/shown from scripture that there is a hell where people will end up for eternity. We have two choices. Reject one or more of these propostions (as with Calvinists) or ask, “Are we understanding the “hell” texts right?”. Which I expect MacDonald will deal with. Looking forward to that.

    “MacDonald argues that God could demonstrate this (the glory of his justice) even while saving everyone.” Absolutely! In fact what is glorious about eternal punishment? I find that hard to accept that eternal punishment glorifies God. I have been told that in this case in I need to simply submit to Bible’s (church’s) teaching on hell. This brings me back to the above question, “Are we understanding the “hell” texts right?”.

    “If I understand the author correctly, from a compatibilist point of view, Johnny Public wants to do X, but it is inevitable that he will do so; he will not do Y instead. And by “causally determined”, I assume MacDonald means that Johnny Public’s circumstances and environment and everything leading up to that moment essentially prohibit him from performing the opposite action.” I think this makes complete sense from a Calvinist perspective. I still struggle to dovetail casuality and free will in my mind.

    Looking at it from an Arminian perspective, each person has a free will and therefor even against the tide of circumstances and environment (cause) can choose God or not. This is problematic because it makes consignment to hell for the multitude, who are esentially people that are less fortunate to have the benefit of the best circumstances and environment that would cause them to choose God and prohibit rejection of God, extremely unfair and unjust.

    Richard Beck uses the metaphor of a race to highlight the unfairness of this. In the race the finish line is the entrance to eternity. But the race is unfair because:
    1. We see that Moral Luck means that we all have different “starting lines” that provide advantage or disadvantage in the Race.
    2. We don’t all have the same amount of time to run the race.
    3.As we run the race we each carry varying volitional loads. That is, responding to Christ will vary in effort depending upon a host of contingent factors that create a volitional burden you must carry to “cross the finish line” in good moral standing. For example, one child is raised by loving Christian parents and had an amazing church experience growing up. This person’s volitional load is very “light.” That is, responding to Christ is very “easy,” volitionally speaking, for this person. But imagine another person who had a preacher for a father and this father sexually abused him/her. Further, the church he/she experienced was hypocritical and hateful. This person has a “heavy” volitional load. That is, responding to Christ is going to be much harder (if not impossible) for this person.

    (from Experimental Theology… here)

    So, “hell” is a hell of a problem… again, “Are we understanding the “hell” texts right?”

  2. Marc

    Thanks, Jim. That’s pretty much how MacDonald sums up Arminianism. It’s a libertarian view of freedom, which will be covered in the next post. The nuance is more one of God’s foreknowledge than an issue of free will. What sets Arminianism apart from Open Theism (another libertarian view) is that while God knows the future in its entirety, he chooses (in spite of what not to interfere with our free will. Open Theism, on the other hand, argues that God’s foreknowledge is limited.

    But we’ll get into this with the next post, I think.

  3. Toni

    I have been following these posts somewhat, mostly because of the poster, rather than the content – I presume you’re blogging this as a way of thinking things through Marc? Are are you buying it as you post it, and these are your thoughts, using the book to frame them?

    To me, the whole question is rather like the Sadducees question to Jesus ‘whose wife will she be?’. I am wrestling with a useful way to put into words what I feel to be true. The idea that all may be eventually saved doesn’t match illustrations Jesus gave, such as the wheat an Tares, Sheep and Goats. Also the framing of the discussion (the 5 Calvinist views) seem to be trying to re-organise reality to fit a specific view point that the argument for universalism may then be shown to fit.

    To suggest that God could arrange circumstances in this this life so that everyone might accept Him makes the supposition that free will is the same as just like being made to sign a confession in order to escape the torturer. What kind of circumstances would some have to experience before they would accept Him and how much would He have to mess with their heads first before they did?

    As for free will and predestination, I can absolutely state that you were going to have a son called Luke because I can see that you did have him. IF God is outside of time then He can see the beginning and the end. Any free-will decision that we perfectly freely chose to make was absolutely going to happen because God was able to see what the decision was. This is important, because many see free-will and predestination as contradictory concepts when they are in fact completely integrated facets of reality, entirely dependent on ones viewpoint in history.

    Taking a previous point from your last post (no. 2) on this, the idea that there was no tears in heaven because everyone is eventually saved makes no sense either. If it takes time for some people to eventually acknowledge Jesus then many people are going to have friends and loved ones hanging around having an unpleasant time until they finally come to that point. The whole argument for that falls to bits really unless everyone is judged but no-one is actually condemned. And that just doesn’t match up with so many things that it’s not even worth discussing.

    A hint about the quality of thought behind this book was the comment about the fall being God’s mistake. {shrug} I guess it’s good to think through things, but this doesn’t seem a fruitful way to spend time. It would be more entertaining to estimate the sex of great a’tuin.

  4. Marc

    Hi Toni,

    I am blogging this mostly to think things through. I haven’t finished the book yet, so I haven’t “bought into” his position. Most of what I’ve done so far is simply report what the author is saying, without much comment.

    I’m not averse to the possibility of being convinced. If I was, I should probably just put the book away right now. The philosophical questions he has asked so far are compelling; some of them are questions I have asked myself.

    I grew up in a church tradition that often (implicitly, at any rate) treats hell rather nonchalantly; we Christians, of course, are safe, so it isn’t such a big deal to worry about. Some people seem to almost take pleasure in the fact that “those sinners will burn in hell” (but we’re going to heaven! nya nya). That doesn’t seem at all like a Biblical take on the issue. So I was particularly intrigued by the fact that the author continues to live out his faith in an evangelical theological framework in spite of his universalist belief. He argues that universalism better fits the theological tradition (without reorganizing the whole business) and I’m interested to hear what he has to say. I’m not about to reject what he has to say before I’ve actual heard him say it.

    “the framing of the discussion (the 5 Calvinist views) seem to be trying to re-organise reality to fit a specific view point that the argument for universalism may then be shown to fit.”

    What “reality” are you referring to? What MacDonald is doing is taking the Calvinist defense of hell (on its own terms) arguing that its own logic necessitates a universalist position.

    RE: FREE WILL & PREDESTINATION: MacDonald’s issue isn’t with reconciling the two. His problem is with the compatibilist/Calvinist position as a defense of the traditional doctrine of hell. No matter how you cut the free will issue, it never seems to satisfy the underlying problem of a God who, by all traditional theological positions, could apparently do something to save everyone, but does not.

    “A hint about the quality of thought behind this book was the comment about the fall being God’s mistake.”

    I’m not familiar with the comment that the Fall was God’s fault. When was that made?

    I’d say that’s an unfair and uninformed judgment of the book, given that I haven’t even finished blogging the first chapter.

    As for this being a “fruitful” enterprise, to each his own, I guess. I’m enjoying this very much, if only because it’s making me think through things, shaking me up, waking me up, challenging me on things I have simply assumed to be true because I was told they were true.

    (I’d respond to the other parts of your comment, but I didn’t quite understand them, and I’m really tired at the moment, making me prone to crankiness and misunderstanding. 😉 )

  5. Andrew

    Some Christians have it all figured out – others don’t. Reading books that shake up one’s understanding of faith is a good thing, even (or especially?) if it leads to uncomfortable conclusions.

    I expect the “Fall as God’s Fault” comment may be referring to my comment in your second post on this book, in which I asked the question, ‘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?’

    I’m not making a categorical statement of Truth here, simply poking around. I think it’s a fair question – if hell is eternal (in a sense of never-ending) then sin and death and fear and ugliness will be continually in God’s mind or presence which seems to fly in the face of the Christian hope for a full reconciliation and restoration between God and God’s creation.

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