The Evangelical Universalist, Gregory MacDonald. Eugene: Cascade Books, Second Edition, 2012.
Summary: This book provides the biblical, philosophical and theological arguments for why the view that all will finally be saved is consistent with evangelical theology and also includes additional appendices responding to issues raised since the book’s first edition.
One of the most difficult challenges to the Christian faith is the existence of hell, which often calls into question how a loving God could permit eternal punishment. More than this, I know few people who relish the thought of anyone they know, less any human being, being consigned to hell for eternity, whatever one’s idea of hell might be. Gregory MacDonald argues that this is in fact inconsistent with the Christian idea of God’s redemptive purposes and acts as revealed in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. MacDonald would argue for salvation through Christ alone by grace alone as well as real judgment for the unrepentant, and thus would claim that his position is in fact “evangelical.”
First for a few pieces of housekeeping. One is that Gregory MacDonald is a pen name for Robin A. Parry, an editor at Wipf and Stock Publishers. For the sake of this review I will use the name under which the book is published and refer you to the author’s explanation for the use of this name. Second, I should say upfront that I differ with the author in that I would affirm the eternal condemnation of the unrepentant, and continue to hold this view after reading MacDonald’s argument. That said, I would number MacDonald among the more articulate and thoughtful exponents of this view.
MacDonald begins with the “problem” of hell and the logical inconsistency of an all-powerful, and all-loving God who has effected a cosmic redemption in Christ of all things, and yet those who do not believe in Christ are eternally damned. He would contend that final universal salvation of all in Christ is the best resolution of this problem. He contends that this may be biblically argued to be the case if it has positive support from scriptures and does not conflict with the explicit teaching of scripture.
Turning from logic to scripture, he observes God’s treatment of Israel and the nations in the Old Testament and Christ, Israel, and the nations in the New Testament to show that the metanarrative of scripture is consonant with a vision of universal final salvation. In particular, he gives weight to the “all” passages including Romans 5:12-21, I Corinthians 15:22, Colossians 1:20, and Philippians 2:5-11, arguing that “all” means “all without exception” rather than “all without distinction”.
He turns to Revelation, which has some of the most clear descriptions of hell and observes that judgment texts are followed by salvation texts in such a way that he would argue that hell is a real, but temporary judgment followed by the final salvation of all. Lastly, he considers the gospel texts dealing with hell, some of which he observes remain problematic for his view. He writes:
“Clearly my interpretation is underdetermined by the texts, so I cannot claim that it is obviously the only way to interpret that matter. I am not so much exegeting the texts as trying to draw out the logic of New Testament theology as I understand it and its implications for those texts. In the process I may be offering ways of reading the texts that go beyond what their authors had in mind. When that is the case, I am seeking to remain true to what they did have in mind, even if I feel compelled by the wider canon of Scripture to say more.” (p. 140)
MacDonald then concludes his argument by arguing the advantages of Christian universalism: (a) it makes the problem of evil less difficult, (b) it enables us to hold together important Christian teachings that pull apart with a traditional view of hell, (c) it adds an inspirational dimension to our ecclesiology, worship, and mission, and (d) it has significant pastoral benefits.
The book closes with a series of appendices detailing responses to his critics, his thoughts on the contribution of Rob Bell’s Love Wins to the discussion, and his engagement with Calvinist ideas of election and moral formation. Most of these have been added to the second edition of the book.
What I appreciated about the book was both the serious attempt to argue a biblical and evangelical case for universalism that sought to be God honoring and evinced a personal humility on the part of the writer. At the same time, I found myself unpersuaded, and it seems appropriate to articulate some of the reasons why I found this so:
- The insistence on logical consistency is a recurring theme of heterodoxy in Christianity, in which orthodoxy often involves holding apparently contradictory truths in tension, such as is the case with the incarnation, the Trinity, divine sovereignty and human free will, and more. That we see both a wideness of God’s mercy and judgment against unrepentant wickedness should not surprise us.
- I found the case he made from scripture an inferential one that went from some statements of apparent universalism to saying what other passages speaking of apparently eternal judgment must really mean. The block quote above is a telling admission of how this approach glosses over texts that are at variance with the inference of universalism, and a kind of a rejection of the evangelical hermeneutic of interpreting scripture by scripture.
- His argument that everlasting judgment being a failure of God’s purposes begs the question of “why hell at all?” Can’t it be argued on his terms that God’s inability to save all within their lifetime on earth is itself a similar failure? And how is it a victory of God for people to believe to escape the protracted consequences of sin in MacDonald’s version of temporary hell?
- I also wonder whether he gives sufficient credence to the hardening of the human heart and the effects of deliberate unrepentance. C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce explores the scenario of the possibility of post-mortem salvation and the hardened refusal of many to accept this.
Yet MacDonald opens a conversation that is important to be had. In truth, many in pastoral counsel to the grieving seem to imply some form of post-mortem salvation for some and others in apologetics cede the possibility of some form of post-mortem salvation for those who have never heard the message of Christ in their lives. How might we intimate the possibility of salvation for some and not allow the ultimate salvation of all?
I still think at the end of the day that the safer course is that of Deuteronomy 29:29:
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”
Among the things revealed are the truths of how we might have abounding and everlasting life in Christ, the commission of God’s people to proclaim this truth to the nations, and the warnings of judgment for those who neglect and refuse this truth. While God will do as he wills, I don’t feel at liberty to go beyond the things revealed, even if doing so would relieve certain tensions. Truthfully, I’ve enough on my hands to live faithfully according to what I do know.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”