The Evangelical Universalist: Take #2

The Evangelical Universalist

Earlier this year I featured an interview with Gregory MacDonald, pseudonymous author of The Evangelical Universalist: The biblical hope that God’s love will save us all (9780281059881, SPCK, 2008).

In my introduction to that interview I said that, given the struggle many evangelicals have when it comes to thinking outside the box, it’s hardly surprising that this book has attracted a certain amount of controversy and criticism. But the following review by Brian Kerr in this month’s Christian Marketplace, which gives the book a one star rating out of a possible five, struck me as a splendid example of how not to engage with a book:

If you ask me, the title of this book is an oxymoron and shows how the term ‘evangelical’, which means a Christian who believes in the supremacy of scripture, has been devalued. It is surely significant that MacDonald (not the author’s real name) begins with philosophy rather than scripture. It seems to me that he had reached a universalist conclusion before he even opened his Bible! The book illustrates that when one comes to the scriptures with one’s theological position already worked out, one will be able to find support for it there! It seems to me that MacDonald reads universalism into scripture rather than reading out what is there. MacDonald believes in redemption from hell, i.e. that people will have a chance to repent and believe after death, and that even the devil will ultimately be saved, and wants to convince his readers that his universalism is a legitimate evangelical option. He hasn’t convinced this reader! I couldn’t recommend this book to anyone.

“It seems to me,” says Kerr, “that he had reached a universalist conclusion before he even opened his Bible!” — which seems, unfortunately, to be the very approach that Kerr has taken to this book…

Taking umbrage at the title’s bringing together of two concepts that he finds mutually incompatible, rather than engage with the issues raised Kerr dismisses the entire book by reiterating this assessment:

The book illustrates that when one comes to the scriptures with one’s theological position already worked out, one will be able to find support for it there! It seems to me that MacDonald reads universalism into scripture rather than reading out what is there. 

Steady on, old chap: I think you’ve already said that! MacDonald’s arguments may fail to convince and his re-reading of scripture may or may not stand up to scrutiny, but the questions MacDonald seeks to draw to our attention deserve serious attention. Is it possible that evangelicals have misinterpreted scripture? Is it possible, as per the subtitle, that “God’s love will save us all”?

Kerr is not convinced and concludes that he “couldn’t recommend this book to anyone.” Why not? Are the arguments poorly constructed? Is the book badly written? Has MacDonald genuinely failed to engage with scripture? Does he offer us a selective reading that ignores difficult passages? Is he allowing woolly thinking to prejudice his conclusions, taking an ‘if only…’ approach that presupposes where it ends up? Has he abandoned any other supposedly essential tenets of evangelicalism? 

When you have a very tight word limit — as Christian Marketplace reviewers do — it’s impossible, of course, to address all the questions one might in a longer review. But in the case of this particular review, I suspect that the one star rating has more to do with the reviewer’s prejudices than with the merits or otherwise of the book.

If you, gentle reader, are a Christian bookseller trying to decide whether or not to stock this particular title, I invite you to read my interview with Gregory MacDonald before you make up your mind: given the tone of Kerr’s review, you may be in for a pleasant surprise…

20 thoughts on “The Evangelical Universalist: Take #2

  1. I don’t have much time at present to respond. However I would like to say in response to the suggestion that I dismissed MacDonald’s book before even opening it that I read the book from cover to cover before reviewing it.

  2. Thanks, Brian. I wasn’t suggesting that you hadn’t opened or read the book: rather, that you’d already made your mind up about it from the title before you read it — that’s certainly the impression I get from your review.

    You assert that Gregory’s use of the term ‘evangelical’ in the title indicates the devaluation of the word, which you define as meaning a Christian who believes in the supremacy of scripture. Yet the book’s subtitle underscores the very opposite, no devaluation at all: Gregory’s concern is with the biblical hope that God’s love will save us all. Is that an unreasonable hope? More to the point here, however, is it an unbiblical hope?

    I am neither defending nor rejecting Gregory’s conclusions: but I am interested in giving him a fair hearing, and your review simply doesn’t do that. It dismisses the book with three repetitions of the assertion that Gregory has imposed his own ideas onto the biblical text rather than allowed the biblical text to inform his thinking. Trouble is, we all do that to a greater or lesser extent: we all approach scripture with our own presuppositions about what the Bible is and about how it should be read or interpreted — so if we’re going to use that as the basis for rejecting someone else’s reading of scripture we need to look very carefully at our own. Specks and planks in the eye come to mind… (and yes, I’m guilty too).

    You’ve read the book from cover to cover: excellent! In which case you know full well that Gregory holds a high view of scripture. There is no point at which he sets out to reject the Bible: we are not dealing with someone who simply doesn’t like what he finds in the Bible and throws it out, but with someone who takes scripture every bit as seriously as you do yourself.

    If you’ll forgive my paraphrasing… it is surely significant that you begin with your definition of evangelical rather than scripture. It seems to me that you had reached a non-universalist conclusion before you even opened MacDonald’s book. Your review illustrates that when one comes to a book with one’s theological position already worked out, one will be able to find support for it there… or dismiss the book as unconvincing and not worth reading without really saying why…

    That’s not what I call a fair hearing, Brian: but of course, I could be wrong; and when you do have time to respond at length I’d love to hear more from you: thank you.

  3. Phil, thanks for your response. When I have more time I’ll reply at greater length. Suffice for now to say that, having read MacDonald’s book in its entirety, I do not think that he correctly handles the word of truth (see 2 Tim.2:15). I’m aware that I could be guilty of the same thing too.

  4. Phil, have you read the book yourself and, if so, what is your assessment of it?

    When you compare “Macdonald”‘s book with my book review, you are not comparing like with like. After reading the Bible, “Macdonald” wrote a book 214 pages long arguing that universalism is a possible interpretation of the Bible (and for him the best possible interpretation of the Bible!). After reading “Macdonald”‘s book I wrote a 150 word review of it. In addition to this obvious difference, “Macdonald” is attempting to make a Biblical case for his hope that God’s love will save us all. I am not attempting to make a Biblical case against universalism; I am simply reviewing “MacDonald”‘s book (to state the obvious)! If I were trying to make a Biblical case against universalism (which in my opinion would be rather easier than making a Biblical case for universalism!) then it would be treasonable to expect me to start with the Bible and not with Philosophy or some other discipline or a definition of the term evangelical. Another important difference has to do with the difference between the Bible and other books. Christians generally believe the Bible to be God-breathed (2 Tim.3:16). I don’t suppose “MacDonald” would make any such claims for his book! It follows therefore that the way one approaches and handles the Scriptures should be different from the way one approaches and handles other literature.

    That “MacDonald” claims to be evangelical does not make him evangelical. He may believe the Bible to be authoritative but so do others who would not consider themselves evangelicals. Catholics for instance believe in the authority of scripture but also in the authority of tradition and the magisterium of the Church. Which brings me back to my definition of what an evangelical is, namely a Christian who believes in the supreme authority of Scripture. From my reading of “MacDonald”, I doubt that he holds as high a view of Scripture as you suggest.

    I suppose I could have made some positive comments about the book. It is written well and “MacDonald” argues his case simply.

    Universalism is a very appealing idea but unfortunately it just isn’t Biblical.

    Biblically, too much is made to rest on a few scriptures e.g. Colossians 1:20. I don’t think that this verse can bear the weight that “MacDonald” places on it. It’s a verse I have read numerous times but never once did I conclude that it should be interpreted as teaching that everyone will ultimately be saved. I can see, however, how verses like Phil.2:9-11 could be understood to support universalism though I favour a non-universalist interpretation.

    Key to “MacDonald”‘s argument is the view that people will have a chance to repent and believe after death. However, the only Biblical support for this view that he puts forward is an obscure verse (Mark 9:49) which talks about everyone being salted with fire.

    If “MacDonald” is right, then the majority of Christians throughout the majority of history have misinterpreted their Bibles. I concede that this is possible, but I ask, “Is is likely?”

    If hell is only a temporary state, as “MacDonald” suggests, why is this never explicitly stated in Scripture?

    After reading his book, I’m left with the feeling that “MacDonald” could make a convincing case that black was white! It takes great ingenuity to show that when the Bible speaks of those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel being punished with everlasting destruction (2 Thess.1:8-10), what it actually means is that everyone will ultimately be saved! “MacDonald” is obviously intelligent, though I personally think he could put his intelligence to better use!

    Hell (and the doctrine of hell) is diturbing) but, as a Bible-believing Christian, I find “MacDonald”‘s denial of eternal punishment more disturbing still.

    On page 7, “MacDonald” asks, “What tests must a universalist theology pass to count as biblical?” To which I answer, “He must show that it can be read out of Scripture and that it doesn’t have to be read in”. “MacDonald” all but admits (on pages 135 and 140) that he is not doing exegesis. I would suggest therefore that he’s doing eisegesis (reading into scripture what isn’t there rather than reading out what is).

    His interpretation of 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 is particularly weak while his suggestion that 2 Thess.1:9 (quoted above) “is not so
    unambiguous and overwhelming that it seriously undermines the case for Universalism” (p.134) is, if you ask me, simply a brushing aside of a verse which clearly states the non-universalist position.

    I derived no pleasure from reading this book (although in general I greatly enjoy reading). I do not consider it to be helpful.

  5. Brian

    Thanks for the review … I think. I must confess that I was a little surprised by it. I guess that I’d be right in thinking that it is one of those issues that you have a strong view on already and I suppose that my book went in a different direction and was, as a consequence, found wanting. Oh well.

    I just felt that it was a shame that, or so it seemed to me, as if like the whole book was dismissed as bad on the ground that its conclusion was different from your own. But even if the conclusion is wrong was there no helpful biblical and theological material? Was it badly written? Was the case poorly made? The fact that you think that I could prove that black is white (see above) suggests to me that you did find my arguments at least a little convincing. That is reassuring. It is a shame that the review did not reflect some more balance in this regard.

    You were disturbed by my use of philosophy. Well, OK. However, the use of reason is an ancient and orthodox tool in the practise of theological reflection. And the book did make very clear that the weight of authority lies with the Bible. Surely you have no problem with this. Right?

    I just do not see the problem with using reason in our theology (so long as we do so in submission to divine revelation) and yet my use of philosophy was the only substantive objection you made against the argument in the book (granted space was limited).

    You worried that I reached a universalist conclusion before I opened the Bible. That is, of course, not the case. It was only after years of reflecting on the Bible that I became a universalist. The point of chapter 1 is simply that biblically informed rational reflection shows the trad view of Hell to be highly probematic. This, in turn, warrants a reconsideration of the Bible. That is all. Is that so probematic?

    You claim that I am not really an evangelical. Of course, the fact that I claim to be an evangelical does not make me one. However, I fit the definition that you give above (I believe that the Bible is inpired and the main authority for Christian faith) so I guess that I really am one!

    I am not trying to convert you to what I think. I just wonder why you claim that my view is not evangelical when it clearly fits your own definition of evangelical

    I also wonder if I detect a pastoral worry behind your comments. Namely, that my view is dangerous. If so I would also be interested to hear why you think it potentially harmful.

    in the Lord


  6. “Gregory”

    Thanks for your response. I’m glad to be able to correspond with you.

    At the outset let me say that when I question whether you are an evangelical, I do not mean to question whether you are a Christian or not. Perhaps you have repented of your sin and have put your trust in Christ for salvation. Maybe you have been born of the Spirit. If so, then you are my brother-in-Christ. I have no wish to make any judgement as to where you stand in relation to God. That is between you and Him. What does concern me, however, is your approach to Scripture which, I would suggest, is the defining mark of an evangelical.

    If you are an evangelical, let me ask you why you start your book with philosophy rather than Scripture? Could it be because you know that the biblical case for universalism barely has a leg to stand on? In view of the weakness of the biblical case, do you feel the need to bolster your case from the start with arguments from philosophy? You are right in saying that human reason should be “in submission to divine revelation”. Let me ask you then, in your handling of this subject, did you submit your mind to God’s Word? It seems to me that your objection to the doctrine of an eternal hell is not primarily that it is unbiblical but that, to your mind, it is unreasonable. You say that “biblically informed rational reflection shows the trad view to be highly problematic. This, in turn, warrants a reconsideration of the Bible.” In other words, when there is a conflict between human reason and Scripture it is the latter which must be reconsidered. The former cannot be at fault! You may believe in the authority of Scripture, but from my reading of your book, it seems that you believe in the supreme authority of human reason! Rather than approaching Scripture as you have done, I would suggest, that, when there is a conflict between Scripture and human reason, the evangelical approach would be to question the views which we have reached on rational grounds (assuming of course that our interpretation of Scripture is substantially correct, as I believe it is in this case. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it!”) Evangelicals believe that, however unreasonable or objectionable we may consider it, God’s Word is true. We may not like the fact, for example, that the Scriptures teach that we are sinners and that we need to repent, but this is what the Scriptures teach and therefore we must submit our minds to them. Similarly, we may consider the Scriptural teaching on eternal punishment unreasonable, but it is also what the Scriptures teach (see e.g. 2 Thess.1;8-10 to refer to just one of many Scriptures that could be referred to) and thus it is something we should submit ourselves to. It is not our place to judge God’s Word. Rather it is God’s Word which judges us (Heb.4:12. Compare James 4:11). “Let God be true and every man a liar” (Romans 3:4). In other words, let God’s Word hold supreme authority and treat all human philosophy with a healthy skepticism!

    Yours in Christ,

  7. Perhaps I’m misreading you, Brian, but the impression I get from what you’ve said there is that you believe, irrespective of whether or not the Bible makes sense, we’re somehow required to believe it: the “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it” approach, treating the Bible rather like Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. That, I think, is not so much evangelicalism as fundamentalism, one extreme end of the evangelical spectrum.

    But in any case, the Bible isn’t that kind of book. The Bible is a record of humanity’s (one small sector of humanity, to be precise) wrestling with God, wrestling with its concept of God, trying to make sense of life in an increasingly senseless world. I know there are people who like to believe that the Bible is infallible and inerrant and all that sort of stuff, and I’m sure it would solve a lot of problems if God had simply dictated a Manual for Life from Heaven in the way that the Qur’an was supposedly given to Mohammed. But that’s not how the Bible came to us: it comes to us through people, ordinary people, people like you and me… and, yes, through some quite extraordinary people too!

    In other words, the Bible is just as much human philosophy as any other book: it’s not either/or; it’s both/and. The difference, however, is that the biblical writers submitted their minds — indeed, not just their minds but their entire lives — to the living Spirit of God.

    So it should be, surely, with our approach to scripture: we read it listening to the voice of God’s Spirit in our hearts — and God’s Spirit transforms it in our reading, in living relationship, into something dynamic and powerful. As Paul, paradoxically, writes, “The letter kills but the Spirit gives life.”

    All readings of scripture require interpretation: there is no such thing as an uninterpreted reading, even if we had the original manuscripts and were reading them in the original languages. Whichever way we read scripture, our interpretation can only ever be provisional; which is why I believe that when someone like Gregory comes along and offers us a fresh perspective, we should listen.

    We may not agree. We may find the ideas suggested difficult to take on board. We may find our long cherished ideas challenged, our beliefs shaken, our world turned upsidedown… but isn’t that exactly what happened when Jesus came along, bringing a new, revolutionary concept of God and of God’s ways of working into the world?

    Seems to me we can’t nail the truth down: just when we think we have, on the third day it comes back to life and challenges us again…

  8. Phil,

    I’m a little surprised that you have responded rather than “Gregory”. May I ask you just what your relationship is to “Gregory”?

    If believing in the truthfulness and reliability of the Scriptures makes me a fundamentalist, I must plead guilty to the charge, though I do not, in fact, consider myself to be a fundamentalist, which I would define as someone who adopts an overly literal approach to scripture. Where the Scriptures can be understood literally, then generally this is how they should be interpreted. However, there are parts of Scripture which are clearly metaphorical and these should not be interpreted literally. To give just one example, even the most fundamentalist fundamentalist wouldn’t argue on the basis of Psalm 91:4 that God has feathers! In relation to the subject which we are discussing, I favour a literal interpretation of Paul’s letters e.g. 2 Thess.1:8-10 while I do not think that the book of Revelation, which is full of symbolism, should be approached in the same way. Hence in my view, we should base our views on eschatology (end times) on passages like 2 Thess.2 rather than passages like Revelation 20. But I’m deviating a little from the subject.

    I do not believe that faith is contrary to reason. However, there are certainly times when faith transcends reason. This should not surprise us as our faith is in a God who is transcendent. Hence belief in the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ and in the Trinity, while not irrational certainly goes beyond what is rational. If God were small enough for us to understand, he wouldn’t be God. If there is a God, then He is supernatural and we shouldn’t react with unbelief when He does supernatural things! As Paul said, “Why should any of you think it incredible that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:8). If we believe in God then we already believe in the supernatural. Is it such a stretch to believe in miracles such as the virgin birth or the resurrection of Christ? But, once again, I’m getting away from the subject!

    When I refer to the Bible as God’s Word, I am not thereby denying that it is also man’s word e.g. that the letters to the Thessalonians were written by the apostle Paul. However, I do believe that, in spite of the fact that the authors of Scripture were human, the Scriptures are God-breathed (2 Tim.3:16) and are therefore true and reliable.

    I accept your point that all readings of Scripture require interpretation. However, this does not mean that all interpretations of Scripture are equally valid! There are rules governing interpretation (hermeneutics). The most basic of these rules have to do with interpreting Scripture according to its literary and historical context (exegesis). When attempting to understand a particular passage of Scripture we must ask, “What did it mean there and then?” before we ask “what does it mean here and now?” When looking at Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians we should ask, for example, “What would the first century Christians in Thessalonica have understood these letters to mean when they first received them?” Another important hermeneutical principle has to do with the tenor of Scripture or, if you prefer, the big picture. If the general thrust of Scripture suggests that those who reject Christ will be eternally punished, we mustn’t allow a few verses, which can be construed to teach the opposite, to determine our views on the matter.

    Yes, Jesus came along and brought a new, revolutionary concept of God and of God’s ways of working in the world. It is worth remembering, however, that this same Jesus spoke of eternal punishment (Matt.25:46). And that he did so in the same context as he speaks of eternal life, suggesting that both are equally eternal.

    Yours in Christ,

  9. Thanks Brian – simply to reply to your first point, I responded above because this is an open forum, not a private conversation; and for the avoidance of doubt, I am not Gregory, if that’s what you were asking…

  10. Brian

    Just to refer to 1Thes 1:8 – 10. Of course, this passage does not mention either hell (whether hades or gehenna) or eternal punishment. The word for ‘everlasting’ could be understood to mean that the punshment (the olethros – destruction or ruin) will not be reprieved. As such, an argument for Annihilationism can be made just as strongly. It does not necessarily mean that the actual act of punishment goes on for ever.

  11. casaubon,

    Thanks for your comment. We would be agreed therefore, presumably, that these verses (2 Thess.1:8-10) pose a serious problem for universalists. I am not an Annihilationist myself, but I have less problem with Annihilationism than I have with universalism.

  12. Hi Brian. Yes I would agree with that. This is what prevents me from adopting universalism. However,I don’t see this as a great heresy – there are other verses that do suggest that the final eternal existence of the cosmos is much bigger than a systematic theology would be able to express.

    I would take an Annihalationist position myself, as I cannot find a scripture that suggests eternal conscious punishment.

  13. casaubon,

    Thanks again for your comments. You don’t see universalism as a great heresy. Would I be right therefore in concluding that you do see it as a heresy? (I have tried to avoid the term “heresy” becuase of its connotations. It seems to me that it is a term which has been misused historically e.g. as when during the inquisition those who disagreed with the Catholic church were branded as heretics and perhaps suffered torture and death as a consequence. Of course Protestant churches were also guilty of persecuting those they considered heretics. In those times heresy seems to have been defined as any belief, even one which is thoroughly biblical, which deviates from what the Church, whether Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed or Anglican, teaches!)

    Up to this point I have also avoided getting on to the issue of the implications of embracing universalism as I consider this to be secondary to the question of whether universalism is biblical. However, if I was pressed I’d have to say that I do consider universalism to be a dangerous teaching. If there is no eternal hell (or even annihilation) for those who reject Christ, to be avoided, then evangelism, if it takes place at all, must almost inevitably lose much of its urgency. If I have a choice on a cold wet evening between staying in and watching football (or whatever) on TV and going out to try to reach someone with the gospel, I think I would be more likely just to stay in by the fire if I believed hell to be just temporary. And why should the person with whom I share the Christian message forego the “pleasures of sin” (Heb.11:25) during this life if they can repent shortly after death and escape hell by doing so?

    Yours in Christ,

  14. That’s an interesting perspective, Brian, and if salvation and damnation are about what happens after death then I guess it makes sense; and yes, I recognise that there is a strong tradition of presenting the Gospel in those terms.

    But to me — and I think to an increasing number of people — those terms are largely irrelevant. The way I see it (and the way I think the biblical writers saw it for the most part) salvation is less about the hereafter than it is about the here and now. Salvation isn’t about rescuing people from some distant post-mortem consequences that we really have no way of knowing anything about: it’s about how we live now, in relation to one another and in relation to our world.

    I for one do not believe in the immortality of the soul; nor, I’d argue, do most of the biblical writers, although we do see the idea creeping in here and there. But I do believe that in Christ, our lives are enhanced; that Christ has “the words of eternal life” which bring us into a new way of living in relationship with God, and consequently in relationship with those around us.

    Hell and heaven are both here and now. In Christ, I choose heaven over hell; I choose love over hate; I choose life over death.

    That to me is salvation; and it’s a tough call, a tough journey. But one that’s worth it.

  15. Thanks Phil for your comments. Let me see if I’ve understood you correctly. Are you saying that you don’t believe in immortality / an afterlife at all? That this life is all there is? If so, then your views are at odds with “Gregory’s” universalistic views, casaubon’s annihilationist views and my belief in an eternal heaven and hell. Your comments make me think of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (v.19). But maybe I’ve misunderstood you.

  16. Sorry, Brian, I guess I did leave that wide open. I believe that eternal life is available in Christ; and apart from Christ, only eternal death: nothing at all. “Conditional immortality” is the term that’s been coined – you’ve no doubt come across it. Subtly different to annihilationism, which assumes that there is something transcendent to annihilate; I don’t make that assumption. I see human beings as highly evolved animals: we have a god-consciousness; if we pursue that god-consciousness — or rather, perhaps, allow that god-consciousness to pursue us, then we too shall become like Christ…

    Our hope for this life extends beyond this life; but this life is where that hope is shaped and formed; and what we shall be is hid with Christ in God

  17. Thanks Phil for clarifying that. Yes, I’ve come across conditional immortality though I thought it was just another term for annihilationism. It’s not so much immortality that you don’t believe in; it’s the soul. Is that right?

    You say that “Salvation isn’t about rescuing people from some distant post-mortem consequences that we really have no way of knowing anything about: it’s about how we live now, in relation to one another and in relation to our world.” I would say that salvation is not just about what happens after death. Salvation is not firstly from hell (or annihilation or conditional mortality); it is from sin. Insofar as we are saved (set free) from our sin, we can be confident that we will be saved from hell (or annihilation or conditional mortality). There are 3 tenses to salvation: we have been saved (set free from the penalty/guilt of sin), we are being saved (set free from the power of sin) and ultimately we will be saved (set free from even the presence of sin). So salvation is certainly about the here and now as well as the hereafter. We take hold of the salvation that God offers us by turning from our sin and trusting in Christ, which will affect, as you say, “how we live now, in relation to one another and in relation to our world.”

    Concerning the immortality of the soul, I would say that the Christian hope is not that we will have a disembodied existence but rather that our bodies will be resurrected (or that we will be given a new “spiritual body” (1 Cor.15:44)).

    You say that “Hell and heaven are both here and now.” I would say that they both begin in the here and now but that they are eternal.

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