Monday, March 19, 2012

Evangelical Universalism – A Theological House of Cards

Gregory MacDonald, a former traditional evangelical Christian, proposes in The Evangelical Universalist that “Christian Universalism” is not a major change to his previous beliefs but in fact holds key elements of the traditional view together better than traditional doctrines of hell.  He begins by outlining the following common beliefs:  the inspiration and authority of the Bible, Trinity, creation, sin, atonement, the return of Christ, salvation through Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone and the eschatological wrath of God-in hell.  Unlike traditionalists, MacDonald also believes:
1.        One’s eternal destiny is not fixed at death.
2.       Those in hell can repent and throw themselves upon the mercy of God in Christ and thus be saved.
3.       In the end everyone will do this.

MacDonald presents both philosophical and scriptural arguments for universalism.  He is an engaging writer however I remain unconvinced.  His philosophical stance is often one-sided and has several logical disconnects.  His scriptural support relies on complex connections between passages, knowledge of original languages offering possible alternate definitions of key terms and awareness of the cultural realities of the time.  He states that one cannot simply “read the Bible” and understand it without this type of external information.  While this sort of knowledge can enhance our understanding of Scripture, I strongly reject the notion that the essential salvation message, of which consequences are an inherent part, is not fully available to those who don’t possess this additional information.  Regarding MacDonald’s broader ideas, following are his key assumptions and points along with my responses:

He limits his debate to the traditional doctrine of hell as eternal conscious punishment.
Limiting his debate to one view of hell while two established doctrines exist, renders his arguments woefully incomplete.  Annihilationism receives only passing mentions despite MacDonald identifying himself as a former annihilationist.  This reader believes the doctrine of annihilationism effectively addresses the vast majority of MacDonald’s arguments – both philosophical and scriptural (for more detail on this doctrine see blog entry ).

Universalism is not an “essential” belief but rather another “option” for Christians
This is blatantly one sided.  If universalism is true, believing that one’s eternity is fixed at death is harmless – the biggest “danger” is making a decision sooner than necessary.  If on the other hand, death is the deadline for accepting Jesus, a belief in universalism may well result in missing this crucial date and suffering eternal separation from God.  Clearly this is an “essential” belief.    

Free will decisions are dependent on full information and rationality.
MacDonald holds that no fully informed, rational being would choose hell as an alternative to salvation.  Again, this holds if hell is eternal conscious punishment.  Annihilationism effectively counters this – we often see people making decisions in favor of death over life.  Furthermore, the Bible states that those making this choice are fully informed (Romans 1:19-20, 32).  Secondly, MacDonald’s view also includes the ultimate redemption of Satan.  Is Satan also ignorant of the nature of hell?

Evangelism is still critical because hell is to be avoided “at all costs.”
Here’s where MacDonald’s philosophical argument really crumbles under its own assumptions.  If indeed hell is to be avoided at all costs, it will be so avoided.  In other words, if no fully informed, rational person will choose hell, then the moment this knowledge is realized all people will make a decision to accept salvation – no one will go to hell, period.  If on the other hand, despite this knowledge people will still choose to go to hell for a period of time then in fact, hell is not to be avoided at all costs.  These assumptions cannot co-exist – either no one goes to hell or hell is much milder than MacDonald assumes.   The logical conclusion of MacDonald’s argument is that a person who has a penchant for sinful behavior can maximize his “pleasure” by indulging in sin in this life and accepting salvation after death but before punishment.  In this sense, universalism completely undermines evangelism.

If God doesn’t achieve His “will” in saving all it is not a complete victory.
Another one-sided argument.  Does God achieve victory if He seeks a free will relationship with us but designs us in such a way that we are incapable of resisting His love?  Either scenario represents a “defeat”.  So the question becomes which is the more important goal for God?  Additionally, we know from the Bible that God does not force His will (Matt. 6:10).

Jesus and Paul omitted mention of Universalism to avoid diluting the urgency of accepting salvation.
Why would this urgency be any different today?  If Jesus strategically wanted to keep us in the dark regarding the ultimate salvation of everyone, why would He be making this knowledge available at all?  Additionally, the notion that Jesus would be so willfully misleading in His message flies squarely in the face of His repeated statements that He came to testify to the truth (John 18:37) – and was in fact, Himself the truth (John 14:6).

The sheer complexity of MacDonald’s scriptural case prohibits a comprehensive response, do however want to address verses he cites as seeming to explicitly teach universalism:

Rom 5:18:  Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteousness act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life.
 The word “gift” suggests something that can either be received or rejected.

 1 Cor. 15:22:  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.
He seems to be viewing the “all” in the second phrase as equal to the “all” in the first.  The second phrase can also be viewed as, of those who accept Christ, all will be made alive.

Col. 1:20:  and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.
In explaining this verse, MacDonald uses the word “redemption” as a synonym for “reconcile”, it is no such thing.  Reconciliation suggests different outcomes for different people.  MacDonald rejects this view of reconciliation on the grounds that the verse goes on to speak of “peace” between God and all things and this peace cannot exist if people are suffering eternal conscious torment.  Again annihilationism addresses this, if those at war with God no longer exist, there will indeed be peace.

Phil 2:11:  and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The demons also know and tremble (James 2:19).  More specifically demons confess verbally that Jesus is Lord but without asking for forgiveness or redemption (Mark 5:6-13).  The act of verbally acknowledging Jesus' Lordship always glorifyies God, but does not in and of itself result in salvation of the speaker.

MacDonald has devoted extensive thought and research to the presentation and defense of Christian Universalism.  However, neither his philosophical nor scriptural arguments stand up well to scrutiny.  Jesus spoke plainly about both salvation and consequences - He made this truth readily available to all.

Your comments are welcome.  Thanks for reading.

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.  John 8:32