The Evangelical Universalist 4

(…further adventures in The Evangelical Universalist, chapter 1…I just need to get this post out, I’ve reworked it too much as it is. Sorry for the length—two pages on a word processor doesn’t seem like much, but on a blog it’s a tome…)

MacDonald’s problem with compatibilist defense of the traditional doctrine of hell was that it asserts that God chooses not to save everyone even though he desires everyone to be saved and is capable of doing so. The libertarian view of freedom (definition), however, does not, in theory, allow for God’s interference.

I’ve been trying to get this post right for a couple of days now and in the process I’ve had to remind myself what MacDonald is doing in the chapter, because I kept thinking that he doesn’t prove anything in this chapter, which operates on a mostly theoretical level. MacDonald is not making a definitive argument for universalism, however. Instead, he takes the various philosophical defenses of hell and attempts to show that they cannot support the position that they try to defend, but that universalism is a better fit for each. The framework for each position, of course, is otherwise traditional Evangelical theology.

I think it’s important to remember at this point (and this is me talking here) that any theory of free will is only a theory—we don’t actually know how much free will (if any) we have. We can insist on as much free will as we like, but that won’t change the reality of it, whatever that may be.

Freewill Theism

Free will spoken of in theological terms is referred to as “Freewill Theism” by Gregory MacDonald. Freewill theists defend the traditional doctrine of hell by denying that God’s will is always done:

God’s will…is that all people freely (in a libertarian sense) choose to accept the salvation God offers in Christ. God does love and desire to save all. However, he will not force his salvation on people. He wants them to choose freely. Thus, God must respect the free choices of those who reject salvation and who, by default, choose hell. (The Evangelical Universalist, p. 23. This is, incidentally, the position I have maintained.)

The freewill theist, then, avoids the problem of a loving God not doing what he could do to save everyone, because our free will is an obstacle. (MacDonald doesn’t explain whether freewill theism posits that God chooses to respect our free will or that I has no choice but to respect it. This would, naturally, make a difference in this matter. Is God bested by our free will?)

The first question MacDonald asks of freewill theism is why we cherish—perhaps insist on—free will so much that would prefer someone suffer in hell because of his free will, rather than have God override this person’s free will in order to prevent this from happening. It would be acceptable for someone to override Johnny’s free will in order to prevent him from committing suicide, but we have a different feeling about God acting in this way on a cosmic scale. “Is freedom so sacrosanct?” wonders MacDonald.

Open Theism

The author touches on to two varieties of freewill theism. The first of these is called “Open Theism”, which argues that God does not know the future with complete accuracy, because human freedom is “unpredictable from antecedent conditions” (24). Therefore, when God created the universe he took a risk, because he could not be completely sure just what the outcome of his creation would be: some, all, or none of us might be saved.

Open Theism appears to eliminate the problem of God’s apparent choice to not save everyone—if he does know know for sure that any will be lost and does everything he can to save everyone, then we cannot take God to task for allowing some to suffer eternally. But it doesn’t take long to wonder why would a loving God take the risk of creating in the first place, if there is the possibility that even some would spend eternity in conscious torment.

“If, as many Christians think, the majority of the human race will be damned, then one could argue that God gambled with the eternal destinies of his creatures and, for the most part, lost! This is hardly a fitting way to think of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” (p. 25)

All MacDonald has done here is show that Open Theism does not adequately justify the traditional understanding of hell. It seems to me, however, that this view of freedom doesn’t work with universalism, either. (Of course, as MacDonald mentions later in the book, when we reach a stalemate, universalism is the preferrable choice. I can’t argue with that.)


The second variation of freewill theism is called Molonism. Molonism holds that there are three logical (as opposed to temporal) moments in God’s knowledge: his natural knowledge, his middle knowledge and his free knowledge. It is God’s middle knowledge that specifically concerns this discussion. MacDonald defines middle knowledge as “[God’s] knowof what any possible creature would freely choose in any possible circumstance in which it has made a free choice”. In other words, God knows all possible outcomes. Middle knowledge allows for the possibility of God creating a world in which everyone will freely choose salvation. If such a world is not logically possible, we run into the same problem as we did with Open Theism, namely, that a benevolent God would prefer a world with no people (or no world at all) over a world in which some (many? most?) will choose eternal, conscious torment in hell.

(At this point MacDonald spends several pages discussing the notion that no person could make a fully informed choice to reject the Gospel, but I won’t cover that right now.)

MacDonald’s position on the libertarian defense of hell is, I think, summed up in this paragraph:

…even if we wanted to uphold the random element in libertarian choice at all costs (and it is not remotely clear why we should), it is still possible for God, for all intents and purposes, to gaurantee that all would be saved, so long as God always leaves the doors open for the lost to turn and be saved. (p. 31)

5 thoughts on “The Evangelical Universalist 4

  1. Ian H.

    The problem with denying the free will approach here is that we have instances in the Bible where God’s will was thwarted, even though He has infinite power and (from my understanding) complete foreknowledge.

    Sin’s existence in the world would be such a breach of God’s will… unless we want to believe that God wanted sin in the world from the beginning, we are forced to conclude that God doesn’t always get what He wants, even though He could force the issue.

    Moses stops God from destroying the Israelite people in the desert, Abraham convinces God not to destroy all of Sodom and Gomorrah.

    There are numerous examples from Scripture where God allows someone’s free will to override His divine will. While Jonah eventually goes to Nineveh, it is not because God forces him to, but rather because his will becomes aligned with God’s. I’ve heard it said that God is a gentleman because He will respect your choice, regardless of the fact that it costs Him personally.

    When you have passages like the parable of the sheep and the goats (“‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'” and “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”)and the parable of the ten virgins (the bridegroom tells the ones who are not ready for his return that he doesn’t even know them) which are the words of Christ himself, it becomes clearer to me that there are some who will perish.

    As to the joy of the redeemed (your second post on the book), is it not possible that those who have accepted Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf will be satisfied with the righteousness of eternal justice? I’m not clear on this, but it seems like we will have a fuller understanding of the balance of justice when we see clearly.

    And, not to pick nits or anything, but it’s “obstacle”, not “obstical”. 🙂

  2. Marc

    Ha! “Obstical” didn’t seem right to me last night either, but I was tired and wanted to get this post done. How embarassing. Thanks, Ian. More later…

  3. Marc

    Hi Ian,

    Just some quick thoughts over the lunch hour.

    You ask some good questions. I’ve asked them myself and might mention them in the next post.

    “Moses stops God from destroying the Israelite people in the desert, Abraham convinces God not to destroy all of Sodom and Gomorrah.”

    True, but one could argue that this is God’s will being changed rather than it not getting done. As you say, God was “convinced” by Moses and Abraham, rather than his will thwarted by them or other circumstances.

    “While Jonah eventually goes to Nineveh, it is not because God forces him to, but rather because his will becomes aligned with God’s. I’ve heard it said that God is a gentleman because He will respect your choice, regardless of the fact that it costs Him personally.”

    By definition, it seems to me that this is an example of compatibilist freedom. Jonah didn’t rebel and, though everything else remained equal, simply have a change of heart. As the story goes, God actually intervenes and motivates Jonah to repent. I might say Jonah’s choice was “causally determined”.

    “the righteousness of eternal justice”

    Perhaps. It seems to me, however, that MacDonald questions whether justice is done when there is infinite punishment for finite sins.

    I’m sure MacDonald will address Jesus’ words in the next chapters as he moves on to the Biblical aspect of his argument.

  4. Marc


    Another quick thought before supper.

    “which are the words of Christ himself, it becomes clearer to me that there are some who will perish.”

    If Jesus’ words were all we had on this subject, it would be very difficult to question from a biblical standpoint. However, there are other parts of the Bible that hint at other possibilities. He’ll get into this in the next chapter, but MacDonald lists a couple of “universalist texts”. Here are a couple of them:

    Romans 5:18: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.”

    1 Cor. 15:22: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”

    There are several more, but these are the strongest ones. What do we do with texts such as these (I haven’t studied them myself)? Traditionalists will reject the universalist implications of these texts at first sight, simply because universalism isn’t an option for them. But they don’t, as far as I know, provide a satisfactory non-universalist explanation for them either. And how do they work with Christ’s words?

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