Tag Archives: universalism

The Evangelical Universalist 6

What MacDonald aims to do in The Evangelical Universalist is set up an overarching narrative of scripture to show how the universalist picture fits.  What he is doing is setting up a sytematic theology, which uses

theological grids, or stories, or doctrines that are taught clearly in some biblical texts and are broad enough to serve as organising categories for considering the teachings of other biblical texts (without doing violence to them).” (p. 39, emphasis his)

Setting up such a grid, says MacDonald, allows him to deal with a wide range of themes and texts while at the same time admitting (“without embarassment”) that some biblical authors are not universalists.  By way of example, he notes that the Christology of the Gospel of Mark is quite low, that the book of Mark would not have us believe that Jesus was the second person of the Trinity.  The Gospel of John, on the other hand, has a very high Christology, in which there is no doubt that John believed him Jesus to be divine.  Systematic theologians will argue that John’s Christology is broad enough to encompass the Gospel of Mark as well, even if Mark himself did not write from such a position.

MacDonald begins to set up his theological grid with a look at Colossians, particularly the “Christ hymn” in Colossians 1:15-20.  In a nutshell (even though that won’t do his argument justice), the parallel wording of v. 16 and v. 20 are of particular importance to MacDonald:

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. (v. 16, ESV — the author uses a different translation)

…and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.  (v. 20, ESV)

What is of particular interest for our subject matter

is that the [hymn] is quite unambiguous about the extent of the reconcilliation Christ has effected through his cross.  The “all things” that are reconciled in v. 20 are, without any doubt, the same “all things” that are created in v. 16.  In other words, every single created thing.  It is not “all without distinction” (i.e., some of every kind of thing) but “all without exception” (i.e. every single thing in creation). (p. 45)

I won’t get into all the counter-arguments and defenses right now, but I will mention the argument that vv. 21-23 make it clear that salvation is conditional on faith.  MacDonald “happily” shares this view, arguing that in the end all will be in Christ through faith.  From Paul’s perspective, Christ’s work has already been accomplished and yet “is only experienced as a reality by those in Christ by faith” (p. 51)—the Church is the “‘forerunner of a reconcilation that will be cosmic and universal in scope'” (p. 51.)

At this point, MacDonald puts forward a view of the Gospel and salvation remarkably similar to N.T. Wright’s vision I blogged about in March (N.T. Wright isn’t a universalist, but did I see this connection coming, or what?)

Gospel proclamation and living (“walking worthily of the Lord, wholly pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work” [Colossians] 1:10) are ways for the Church to bring about the goal of universal reconciliation.  The Church must live by the values of, and proclaim the coming of, the kingdom age in the present evil age as a sign to a hostile world.  Here is a vision of the people of God according to which the future reconciliation of creation is already (beginning to be) worked out and in which the members of the community need to live out, in the social relationships, the model of the future. (p. 51.)

In an appendix to the book, which I have not yet read, MacDonald argues that the book of Ephesians holds a similar theology.

This is a long post already and it hasn’t even touched half of what MacDonald had to say (so order the book already), but it hopefully gives you a brief overview of MacDonald’s argument.  His argument takes into account the whole book of Colossians, but the two verses I quoted are the focal point around which everything else revolves in his argument.

Chapter 3 will look at “Isreal & the nations in the Old Testament”.  Hopefully I won’t allow as much time to pass between this post and the next as I did between this post and the previous one.

The Evangelical Universalist 5

In Chapter 2 of The Evangelical Universalist, Gregory MacDonald begins his biblical argument for universalism. (I may return to Chapter 1 at some point, but will move on for now.) First, however, he must establish what is required for something to be considered “biblical”.

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Is Christ enough?

I’m having difficulty understanding the negative, sometimes venomous, response evangelicals give to the notion of universalism.  It seems to me that even the possibility of everyone being saved is a joyous notion, but it apparently leads some to doubt the sanity/faith/salvation of people who believe it, and it leads those on the receiving end to fear.  The author of The Evangelical Universalist wrote under a pseudonym for fear of being burned at the stake.  It was apparently staggering to evangelicals when John Stott supported the doctrine of annihilationism; imagine how his world would have been shaken had he shown an inclination towards universalism.

I don’t think the doctrine of hell is important enough to stake one’s salvation on it.  I do, however, think it’s important enough that we cannot be nonchalant about it.  At the very least, the notion of eternal conscious punishment in hell deserves some hard questions.  It’s not something we can glibly accept; it’s too horrible.

An issue that continues to come to mind as I think about hell and salvation is whether Christ’s work on the cross (however you explain it) was enough to deal with everyone’s sin.  I can’t imagine anyone saying that it wasn’t sufficient, because even the traditionalist would agree that if every person repented (in the traditional sense) they would all be saved by Christ’s work on the cross and be spared eternal damnation.  His work was enough because salvation is available to everyone, it’s just a question of who receives it.

If this is indeed the case, if Christ’s death and resurrection was enough to deal with everyone’s sin, then what, exactly, is the point of the “…but…”?

Imagine a group of friends out to dinner at an expensive restaurant.  After the meal, when the friends go to pay for their food, they are surprised and delighted to discover that a stranger has paid all of their bills.  In fact, he has paid the bills for everyone in the restaurant and everyone who ever has and ever will eat at that restaurant.  But there’s a catch, which the restaurant’s owner reveals: before each person’s bill is paid, that person must first find out who this stranger is and then he or she must ask him nicely and thank him profusely for the gift. If they refuse to do so, they will have to pay their bills again, despite the fact that they have already been paid (the owner will become a very rich man!).  It’s not the greatest analogy in the history of analogies (and it was better in the first draft, but I decided to get technical), but you can see what I’m getting at.  Christ’s work was sufficient for all…but…first you have to identify who did the work and then you have to ask for his help nicely.

This leads into a sneaking suspicion I’ve had for some time: that the notion of “salvation through faith”, at least as we flout it, has a distinctly “work-ish” smell about it.  What I mean is, we evangelicals are big on these wonderful words of the apostle Paul: “salvation is by grace, through faith, and not by works, so that none can boast”. What this often turns into, however, is “it is your faith that saves you”, that there is nothing you can do to earn God’s salvation…except believe.  It seems that the more we dwell on “faith versus works” the blurrier the difference becomes.  Faith as a goal is still a way to attain salvation, or can be unwittingly treated that way.  That faith saves is not orthodox Christianity.  Orthodox Christianity says that it is Christ who saves us—the role our faith plays in that is not entirely clear.

INterestingly, the Christian universalist view would provide for a salvation given (rather than attained) purely by the grace of God through the work of Christ, with nothing we’ve done (mentally, physically, socially, intellectually, etc.) affecting it.

Of course some of you are thinking that this inevitably leads to anarchy and hedonism—after all, if we all get there eventually, why not live it up now?   There are many reasons, other than getting into heaven/staying out of hell, for being holy, seeking righteousness, doing justly and loving mercy, not least of which is that Jesus lived it and commanded it.  (But this has been discussed elsewhere, so I won’t do it again here.)

The Evangelical Universalist 4.1: A note on appeals to mystery

Gregory MacDonald makes a note about “appeals to mystery”:

It may be that the traditionalist will appeal to mystery at this point.  He may grant that he cannot see any way in which traditional punishment in hell can be defended but still maintain that it is just and good.  “God, after all, is beyond our ken, and we should not presume to be able to understand everything about him.  The fact of the matter,” he may say, “is that Scripture teaches everlasting hell, and so we must accept it.  The things that have been revealed belong to us and to our children but the hidden things belong to the LORD and we must rest content with that.”  I do have some sympathy with this position, but it is surely a last resort.  The secret things may well belong to the Lord, but that which has been revealed can be known to be true; and it is on the basis of those revealed things that I have argued for universalism and against everlasting hell.  The premises in my arguments all rely on traditional Christian claims about God, and it is those very claims that seem to conflict with traditional views of hell and yet fit so well with universalism.  I would suggest that these arguments ought, at the very least, to make us wonder if we have not misunderstood certain biblical teachings on hell.  Only if we are absolutely certain that have not done so would we appeal to mystery.  I hope to show in the rest of this book that we have indeed misunderstood the implications of the Bible’s teachings on this subject.  (The Evangelical Universalist, p. 33)

As I was reading this chapter I was thinking something along these lines.  Saying that “God is beyond our understanding” is certainly true, but it is not a satisfactory defense of the traditional doctrine of hell.  It sounds pious, but it seems to me to be an ill-informed approach to this doctrine with potentially eternal consequences.  If mystery is the only basis we have for our doctrine of hell, we really don’t have a reason to believe it, do we?  One could just as easily argue that God, in his mystery, will save everyone.  None of that proves anything.

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.)

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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)

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.

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?

Christian Universalism

Christian universalism is the belief that Jesus’ work will ultimately save everyone, including those who don’t believe in him. In my experience, the biggest objection Christians have to this is the Great Commission:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)

Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. (Mark 16:15)

…that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations… (Luke 24:47)

The argument goes something like this: if all will be saved, why is Jesus telling us to go out and make disciples/spread the Gospel? Clearly it was Jesus’ wish that we go out and save souls. With a “going to heaven when I die/salvation from eternal damnation to hell” view of the Gospel this question makes complete sense.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, but Gregory MacDonald’s book, The Evangelical Universalist, argues that in the end Jesus does save everyone. However, the author also appears (though I haven’t read the book yet) to believe in a literal hell as well as the need for evangelism (he considers himself Evangelical). How can this be?

I had a bit of an epiphany yesterday in this regard. It may, in fact, be what MacDonald will argue in his book as well. If, as I suggest in a previous post, the Gospel is much broader than “my ticket to heaven”; if the Gospel is not only about the forgiveness of sins, but also about God restoring creation, justice, truth, beauty and spirituality; if Jesus has invited us to participate in the Kingdom of God here and now; then MacDonald’s position could make sense.

The purpose of all three versions of the Great Commission is not, by all appearances, “saving souls” in the “saving from hell” or “becoming religious” sense of the term. Matthew’s gospel says “go and make disciples”—that is, teach others to live in the Kingdom way, as followers of Christ; Mark says “proclaim the Gospel”, which, as we’ve seen, may well be a much broader term than many of us have previously envisioned; Luke quotes Jesus as saying, “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed”—repentance, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is not just “being sorry for your sins”, it is turning away from our current allegiances and way of living (which gives it a similar meaning as “discipleship”).

Within this broader understanding of the Gospel, it is plausible for Jesus to tell his disciples to evangelize even if salvation is ultimately universal as there is still Kingdom work and living to do here on earth. The Kingdom of God is at hand, proclaimed Jesus, it is now: live the Kingdom way and teach others to do so as well.

This may seem heretical to some of my readers. I don’t hold this view at this point, so don’t lynch me (by removing my from your RSS reader)—I am just thinking out loud. But I am, as Brian McLaren (I think) called it, a hopeful universalist. I’m not sure why Christians (particularly Evangelicals) are so hostile to the notion of Christian universalism. In this frameworkd, Christ is still “the way, the truth and the life” (but saves all). Isn’t that a beautiful notion? It may, of course, conflict with the justice of God and a whole host of other theological points, but it’ll be an interesting subject to read and think on.

I’m looking forward to getting back into MacDonald’s book. I had already read the first two chapters but was distracted by other books several months ago and have not read it since. As I say, MacDonald calls himself an Evangelical, and he approaches the notion of universalism from within the historical Christian views of salvation and hell (i.e. Calvinism, Armenianism, etc) and from a Biblical perspective. I’ve failed at every other attempt at blogging through a book, but I’ll give it another go with The Evangelical Universalist (once I’ve finished reading it).