The 'Evangelical Universalist' Will Get You Thinking...

A book review of 'The Evangelical Universalist,' by Gregory MacDonald, published in the UK by SPCK in 2008. Originally published in the United States by Wipf and Stock in 2006. Review is of the 2009 paperback form of 200 pages. ISBN 978-0-281-05988-1.

Let me state right now that I believe that all evangelicals, especially preachers and church leaders should read this book very carefully... you will also find much in this book which will 'shake up' your theological assumptions and cause you to look again at Scriptures you thought that you knew, but maybe did not know as well as you thought.

A few years ago I 'came out' as a supporter of Evangelical Inclusivism believing that all of us evangelicals who have serious scriptural misgivings about much of evangelicalism's support for exclusivism really should be prepared to 'nail our colours to the mast' - come what may.

The latter position, of course, is the classical Calvinist approach, although not entirely confined to that. It states that only those who were called by God during the Old Testament era, such as Abraham and Moses, and all Elect Christians since the time of Christ can be saved. Those who were believers before the coming of Christ are included in the efficacy of His sacrifice; there is salvation in no other name but that of Christ. Outside of these groups, there is no salvation. All those who live and die without accepting Christ will go to Hell whether or not they ever had the opportunity to hear about Him. This theological position is also sometimes called 'Restrictivism' - according to this approach to the Scriptures the great majority of Mankind will certainly not be saved. In the classic Calvinist form, God is not bound to save any but only chooses to save His 'elect' - this is the teaching of 'limited atonement.' The rest of humankind are entirely cut off from His grace; yet they remain without excuse and fully deserving of eternal torment and punishment.

Increasingly I came to see that such an extreme position is unscriptural which led to me writing my 2002 article, An Evangelical Inclusivist Defends Evangelical Inclusivism. This is a broader and, to my mind, a much more biblical position to adopt on the redemption of men and women. It recognizes that the hard-line Hyper-Calvinistic position did not take numerous Scriptures into account and ends up in being a representation of a God who is hardly a God of love. So I obviously did not move to this new position of inclusivism without thinking things through very carefully both theologically and philosophically, yet I was able to retain my broad support for Calvinism, I hasten to add: four point Calvinism - not five point! There is no doubt in my mind that 'limited atonement' is just not scriptural; the New Testament is clear that the sacrifice of Christ is available for the entire world - not for just a small group - as in five-point hyper-Calvinism.

So obviously this is an area of some interest to me. Bearing the foregoing in mind, I read Gregory MacDonald's The Evangelical Universalist with much interest and anticipation. Lamentably, this is not the writer's actual name which quickly gives me a slight problem. To use a pseudonym is not really to 'tie your colours to the mast,' although, I am sure, the writer had good reasons to use this approach. I always like to know something of a writer's past, where he has come from, the views he has held, his previous theological reflections - here, however, one cannot do that. So, in considering this book, I felt very disadvantaged by knowing absolutely nothing of it's author, nor is anything really given away within the text. Is this the work of a student? (it seems not) Is this the work of an experienced pastor? Is this the work of a retired pastor? All I was able to glean from the text is the writer does not appear to come from a reformed/Calvinist background. On page 111 of my paperback version (within chapter five), the writer does appear to let slip that he supports a literal millenium, but obviously refuses to construct any of his arguments on that concept (very wisely, in my opinion).

The writer goes much further than myself. He maintains that none will be lost and that all will finally be saved. That, I would submit, is bold indeed. I myself believe that the great majority of men and women will finally be saved and I have solid scriptural authority for stating that position, finding it somewhat amazing that traditional Christian theology has carelessly 'read over' so many reassuring Scriptures on this topic. MacDonald, then, goes much further than this, venturing into an area of far less scriptural support therefore relying quite heavily on philosophy, on 'shape' and on logic. He is very clear and fair about this and his humble approach in which he admits that he could be wrong in the various details is very attractive. His approach, though, clearly first set out as being an emotional one (as he reveals in his Introduction), with the theology coming later. I cannot truthfully say that emotion had no part in my own approach to 'evangelical inclusivism,' but my initial and primary concern was the Scriptures which established evangelical theology simply had no place for, nor understanding of. One day I thought: Why are we simply ignoring so many of these Scriptures?

Let me state right now that I believe that all evangelicals, especially preachers and church leaders should read this book very carefully. You will almost certainly find that you don't agree with all of it but you will also find much in this book which will 'shake up' your theological assumptions and cause you to look again at Scriptures you thought that you knew, but maybe did not know as well as you thought! Always deeply respectful of Scripture, MacDonald's challenge to all of us should be taken seriously.

There are several forms of 'Universalism' and the writer is utterly clear (clarity being a major point of the book), which form he supports. Rejecting conditional immortality and annihilationism (wisely in my view), he believes that many will indeed actually go to Hell which he agrees is an utterly fearful place, but he sees the function of Hell in being training and restorative in nature with all inhabitants of the dreadful place eventually having a final opportunity for salvation. In other words, for MacDonald, Hell is not the final end for the wicked. Now, for many, that will sound strange and yet the logical and scriptural support for such a view is wider than one might intially think. While always being aware that the writer is treading very difficult ground, I nevertheless formed an admiration for the eminently fair and reasonable way in which he does so. When reading, I quickly thought of a Scripture which might - I repeat might - support this writer's view of a Hell which is not permanent (though, as far as I can recall, he himself never quotes it):

'...his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Corinthians 3:13-15).

But there would be a problem with using this because this appears to be speaking of Christians who (presumably) will never be subject to the fires of Hell so presumably Paul is using metaphorical language. If this group of verses were clearly speaking of the world, then they might lend strong support for a Hell which would severely 'try' the quality of one's life and work but which - at the end of the day - one could walk away from having learned great lessons.

One of the writer's strongest arguments for his point of view is presented on page 14:

"God creates a situation in hell in which sin is not merely punished for eternity but actually perpetuated for eternity. But why would God wish to create a situation in which many of his creatures rebel against him forever? Hell does not have to be that way. For instance, God could make those in hell fully aware of the weight of their crimes and the righteousness of his judgment. Such sinners would suffer but would recognize that they fully deserve the punishment they are receiving and would not rage against God."

Here the writer highlights one of the major philosophical problems with the traditional view of Hell. He suggests (and I agree) that the complete victory of Christ is simply not compatible with the ongoing existence of a Hell of mega size in which the majority of the human race remain in continual bitterness against God for eternity. I myself have made the same point that that would hardly amount to a complete victory over evil, nor to a sutuation in which 'every knee shall bow to Christ'! My own solution to this problem has been to say that many - the overwhelming majority - will receive bounteous mercy on the Day of Judgment and will not go to Hell, that the Day of Judgment will not be too late for true repentance. Yet I still maintain that some - the incorrigibly evil - will go to Hell. MacDonald's solution to this dreadful philosophical problem with the traditional view of Hell is to suggest that Hell is for teaching some very harsh lessons but with a final doorway into redemption still available. Without question, he does show some good argument and evidence for his point of view.

I especially appreciate the writer's fourth chapter, Christ, Israel, and the Nations in the New Testament, in which he demonstrates in quite a conclusive fashion with many and sometimes intriguing scriptural references how God's intention has always been to restore all of humanity to God rather than to just content Himself with saving a tiny group, a la five-point Calvinism. This, perhaps, is the book's real highpoint.

I am also pleased that - like I myself have done on several occasions - the writer draws attention to the universalistic aspect of certain verses in the Book of Revelation. I have many times challenged exclusivists on certain of these verses but never received a satisfactory reply. For, after the Church becomes the Heavenly Jerusalem, there apparently remain "nations" in need of the saving grace of Christ. Who are these people? This does not quite fit in with the usual theological approaches so the subject is simply ignored by most evangelicals, but it should not be. Our writer devotes the entirety of his chapter five to this consideration alone and much of it is excellent and deeply thought-provoking material. But the writer always shows humility in recognizing that some of what he writes is speculative and may be open to other interpretations.

Most readers will find much to admire in MacDonald's style yet not every point which he brings out is sure-footed and some points - probably too many - are highly questionable but - for sure - this book will get people thinking.

I have mainly spoken positively about this book but now here are a few of my own particular problems with it.

The writer quotes very widely but, although he makes plain his desire to receive the support of evangelicals, certain of his sources are not evangelical Bible-believing writers at all and a few others are probably only evangelical writers by the very skin of their collective teeths! N.T. Wright, for instance, is rather widely quoted. Originally unquestionably an evangelical, many - including myself - have called Wright's evangelical credentials into question since his wholehearted support for the NPP ('New perspective on Paul') movement, which has brought the Protestant conception of Justification by Faith so seriously (but, in my opinion, most erroneously) into question. More on that for those interested here.

Another problem and for some this could almost seem beside the point (but I don't think that it is), is that the writer obviously supports the highly dubious breaking up of the Book of Isaiah into three separate books (see the various footnotes in chapter three: 'Israel and the Nations in the Old Testament'). The so-called 'higher Bible critics' who first embarked on this cause were not Bible-believers but heavy Bible sceptics. Most evangelical scholars continue to reject this highly sceptical approach, seeing the very obvious unity throughout that book. This becomes a question of the authority of Holy Scripture: Do we believe the record of Scripture to be a record of high integrity? Or do we believe that charlatans and liars were involved? Here again, many evangelicals will be disappointed. Mostly, the writer comes across as being commited to a high view of Scripture and if he produces another edition of this book, his approach here might be something for him to reconsider. Readers may wish to consult my article The "Higher Criticism" of Isaiah.

So I agree with the writer of 'The Evangelical Universalist' that the traditional 5-point Calvinist view on Hell and Salvation has many, many problems. For me, however, 'Evangelical Inclusivism' is a far better and more biblically-sound road ahead than to go to the extreme position of Universalism. I appreciate where the writer is coming from and, in making his case, some excellent points are made, although certain other points seem to be a 'force-fit' in which the most logical explanations are rejected. In venturing into the scripturally rarefied atmosphere of Universalism, the writer is taking risks yet he insists that his concerns are mainly philosophical and scriptural rather than being any concern for modern western religious pluralism-based trends; I accept his word on this. Maybe God will indeed save every single person who has ever been born, after many of them go through a period of punishment in Hell - we may all hope for that, but for me, the overall weight of Scripture tends to support a view which is inclusivist rather than universalist.
Robin A. Brace, January, 9th 2010.