The Evangelical Universalist

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The Evangelical UniversalistThe Evangelical Universalist 
The biblical hope that God’s love will save us all

Gregory MacDonald
ISBN 9780281059881 (0281059888)
SPCK, 2008 (201pp)

Category: Doctrine and Theology
Author interviewed by: Phil Groom

Not surprisingly, this book has attracted a certain amount of controversy as evangelicals who thought they knew what they believed struggle to come to terms with a new — some would say impossible, but is anything impossible for God? — way of looking at things. Not a review, then, but an interview with the author, who kindly agreed to answer my questions over the ether… but not by webcam! So, without further ado:

Who is your target readership? Are you writing for academics, church leaders or laypeople?
I wrote, in the first place, for myself. I was not intending to get the work published but I simply wanted to think the issue through and get clear what I thought. A friend suggested offering it for publication but I originally wrote for an audience of one. It is a little on the academic side so I hope academics will find it of some use (and, from feedback I have received, they seem to) but non-academics will follow a fair bit of the discussion so long as they make the effort to concentrate (plenty of non-academics have contacted me to say how helpful they found it).

What do you mean by ‘Evangelical Universalist’?
I mean a Christ-centred, trinitarian, gospel-focused person with a high view of Scripture who also believes that God will eventually reconcile all people to himself through Christ.

Why Universalism rather than ‘Conditional Immortality’?
I believe in conditional immortality – but I also believe that God will eventually bring it about that all people meet the conditions and will thus be granted the gift of immortality.

If you mean, “Why universalism and not annihilationism?” then I would simply say that I think that God will save all people and that this might be tricky if he has annihilated some of them. In other words, my key reason for not being an annihilationist is that I am a universalist and I cannot be both. (That said, I suppose that it might be possible to make a case that God could reconstitute those he has annihilated at some future point – if one can overcome the well worn philosophical problems of temporal gaps and personal identity. If so then it may be possible to believe in literal annihilation and universalism.)

If you then ask, why be a universalist? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book. (See how I turned that into a teaser? Crafty, eh?).

Where on earth (or heaven or hell) did you get your ideas?
No one source. On the philosophy side Thomas Talbott and Eric Reitan were key. On the Bible it is a bit more eclectic. I drew on all sorts of sources and just put them together in a different way. One very influential source was N.T. Wright. He’d be mortified by that as he has argued several times at length against universalism. But his links between Adam, Israel and Christ were key in my thinking.

If everyone’s going to be saved anyway, why bother proclaiming the Gospel?
Because that is how they get saved – by accepting the gospel. I have an extended discussion on this in the last chapter of the book and there I say … you’ll have to read it (ah ha! that crafty teaser trick again!)

Why are you using a pseudonym? Is it because you’re not convinced by your own arguments? Or because you know how loving [ahem] Evangelicals really are?
It’s because I am John Piper! (That’s a joke by the way – don’t contact him and ask!)

I am convinced by most of my arguments (some of them need improving but I am hoping some more capable people might do that on my behalf – I am just one person and I don’t have much time these days to develop the case in better ways).

The reason is that I do not wish to undermine the work that God is doing in the churches through my other books. I suspect that if my identity was known then some of those who would be helped by those books would consider them guilty by association and not read them. I do not especially care about people hating me – I think I can live with that so long as I retain some friends – but I do not wish to undermine some messages that are more central to my ‘ministry’. So it is, if I read my motives aright, pragmatism in the service of the kingdom. On top of that, the little boy in me does rather enjoy the ‘game’ of being incognito. It adds spice to life.

Which other books have you written?
I could tell you… but then I’d have to kill you!
[That’s a joke too… I think! – Ed.]

The Evangelical Universalist - Wipf & Stock CoverThe Evangelical Universalist
First published in the USA by Cascade/Wipf & Stock, 2006
ISBN 9781597523653 (1597523658)

Phil Groom, May 2008

Phil Groom is this site’s Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He’s a regular contributor to Christian Marketplace magazine and is the manager of London School of Theology Books & Resources. Any opinions expressed here are personal and should not be taken as representing the views of London School of Theology or of any other group or organisation.

Author’s Blog: The Evangelical Universalist
Discussions Elsewhere: Chrisendom | Generous Orthodoxy Thinktank | Jason Clark | An Oxymoron?

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12 thoughts on “The Evangelical Universalist

  1. Very interesting. I was aware of this book but had not picked up on the fact that the author was writing under a pseudonym. Judging by his John Piper comment (which made me laugh out loud when I read it!) he sounds likely to be from the more conservative end of the evangelical spectrum.

    It certainly reminds me of the help I got personally from reading Stott, Wenham, Fudge,etc. when the conditional immortality debate kicked off. As far as I am concerned this debate needs to be kept well alive, so I hope this book gets more exposure. I had better order one in!

  2. Yes, I found Fudge and Wenham helpful too.

    For my own part, I wouldn’t claim to be a universalist… it’s a wonderful dream, certainly, but I suspect that in the end that’s all it will prove to be. Reconciliation between Hitler and 6,000,000 Jews? Reconciliation between Robert Mugabe and so many he’s brutalised? So many others we could mention, and this is what we’re talking about here. I’m not saying it’s impossible… I just can’t, with any sense of integrity, bring myself to believe it. But as Woody Allen (at least, I think it was him) said, eternity’s a long time, especially towards the end…

    Conditional immortality, yes; and I think we need to be clear that conditional immortality — eternal life in Christ — is a completely different concept to annihilationism. Annihilation implies destroying something that would not have otherwise ceased to exist. Seems to me that human beings, apart from Christ, are ephemeral at best: God does not annihilate; he simply does not impute immortality to those who refuse his gift. Perhaps they linger, like old supermarket carrier bags in a landfill site… isn’t that the imagery of Gehenna? But when they’re gone, they’re gone, like the special offers in those supermarkets…

    (I wouldn’t claim to be an evangelical either, by the way, but that’s another story)

  3. Given God’s foreknowledge, He would not create even one of His children destined for annihilation or eternal torment. His essence being love, which never fails, would not be compatible with such action.
    1Ti 4:10— “In fact this is why we work hard and struggle, because we have set our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of believers.”

    Especially = malista which obviously does not mean exclusively. Shall we just accept the spirit of God saying that He is the Savior of all people and not come up with some bias suggesting that He is only a potential Savior?


  4. I have to say that I am not surprised at this book. With the recent attacks on almost all the important protestant doctrines (Sola Fide, Penal Substitution etc) this is just a natural next step.

    What also did not surprise me is the name of N.T. Wright being mentioned again. Now, Wright is owed a debt by the evangelical community because of his superb and strong defense of the historicity of Christ and of the Resurrection.

    What is troubling about Wright is his support for the new perspectives on Paul. In His book “What St Paul Really Said” (which I just purchased from Phil’s fine shop) he attacks the historical protestant doctrine of Sola Fide by almost completely redefining the gospel.

    I’ll not go into a review of the book here as the point I wish to make is that the name N.T. Wright seems to appear on many of the recent attacks on many of the historical doctrines that define evangelicalism. One particular book of note that received a lovely supporting comment from Wright inside the front cover is Steve Chalke’s “The Lost Message of Jesus” which is yet another attack on what is perhaps one of the most important doctrines of Christianity.

    This book is but the latest in the line of recent repeats of heresies that have popped up at various points in history. I have no desire to attack the anonymous author of a book I have not read (Perhaps Phil would let me borrow one for review 😉 but I fear the title gives away the contents.

    Don makes an interesting point.
    “Shall we just accept the spirit of God saying that He is the Savior of all people and not come up with some bias suggesting that He is only a potential Savior?”

    This notion of a potential savior is typical semi-pelagian soteriology, and I agree that is it faulty. Christ is no potential savior, He is the efficacious savior of His church.

    Soli Deo Gloria

  5. That there is a hell, a place of eternal death and corruption, where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched is taught clearly in Scripture, from the very lips of Jesus (Mark 9:43-48, relying on Isaiah 66:24).

    Moreover, Paul clearly states that those who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ will be punished with “everlasting destruction” (ολεθρον αιωνιον) in 2 Thessalonians 1:9.

    While we must preach the gospel without regard to how many God chooses to save, we may be touched in our empathy for our fellow sinners and spurred on to spread the gospel, by the fact that those who do not repent and believe will perish forever and by our knowledge that the means to their salvation is the preached Gospel of Christ.


  6. Additionally, I find it quite troubling that the author of this book has remained anonymous. This is a little like Socinian behavior where Fausto Sozzini would rarely say what he believed and instead lay seeds of doubt.

    I find it a little worrying that somebody who says they are Christs is apparently doing what appears to me to be living a lie. Secretly publishing books with doctrines they do not want to be associated with.

    Soli Deo Gloria

  7. To John Duncan:
    Liberals think I am a raving fundamentalist and raving fundamentalists think I am a Liberal. I see myself as relatively conservative.

    To Phil:
    What can I say without it sounding trivial? Of course, I think that with humans this is impossible but with God all things are possible. But to flesh that out I would need to reflect a lot more on the nature of reconciliation and the truly horrendous nature of the crimes you have in mind. Chris Marshall’s book, Beyond Retribution has a very helpful discussion on reconciliation. I think I may begin my reflections there. But I would say that God would not achieve such reconciliation by ignoring or trivializing the offences committed nor by by-passing the victims. But in the end my view of God’s redeeming power is such that I do think we will see the kinds of reconciliation that our human minds understandably balk at.

    to Leigh Porter:
    Perhaps you should be surprised at the influence of N.T. Wright because Wright has tried at length (and, in my view, failed) to refute universalism on several occasions. I will reply to the rest of your comments when you have read the book and are not simply judging it by the title. 🙂 I don’t imagine you’ll agree with me but you may become more sympathetic. Even the prince of Calvinists, Oliver Crisp, liked the book (even though he is one of those I criticize). Try it.

    With regard to the pseudonym. You have something of a point although ‘living a lie’ is rather strong. The real me never claims to believe anything that either denies or entails a denial of universalism. In other words, I do not lie … I just hold my tongue on occasion.

    The reasons for the pseudonym are explained in the interview. I regret that it is necessary but sadly there are some people in the world who would start throwing out babies with bathwater if it was widely known that I was a universalist. I don’t mind that, as far as my own reputation goes, but I do think that I have some important things from God to say (not universalist stuff) and I do not wish those messages undermined.

    It will all come out in the medium term anyway and I am afraid that you will be disappointed. You will say, “Oh! We thought he was someone famous and significant! It is only some dude we have never heard of! Yawn.”

    to Turretin Fan:
    I discuss those texts in the book.

    (Comments sent by email; posted on Gregory’s behalf by Phil Groom)

  8. Gregory,

    Thank you for replying on here. I will indeed buy the book and have a read when the essays are done 😉

    OK, so perhaps living a lie was a little strong, but this is a blog.. I do see your point and sympathise that you’d want to avoid a Chalkegate. However, I would remind my brother (hey, perhaps you are my sister!) in Christ of Romans 8:28 and of the many people who have suffered in the name of truth. Yes, your ministry may suffer along with you but, if it is the truth, then the God of truth will be with you. This is of course far harder to live out in reality than it is to type it from my nice chair!

    As far as wright is concerned then I do know of his refutation of universalism. However, I find that his new-perspectives views undermine his refutation somewhat, especially with his views on Sola Fide and his arguments about what Paul really said when he was refuting the Judiaisers.

    When I have read your book, I’ll pass on some comments to Phil to send to you, if that’s OK with you both.

    What I would find funny is if, when it does all come out, it’s during a lecture you’re giving at LST 😉

    Phil, thanks for being the go-between! Do you have any of these books in stock?

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