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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Monday, 7 September 2009

Can an Evangelical be a Universalist (Part 1)

2 or 3 years back Gregory MacDonald (i.e., me) posted some thoughts on the Generous Orthodoxy website. The question it addressed was not whether universalism was true but rather whether universalism was consistent with evangelical faith. It seems to me that in the same way that Calvinists and Arminians think each other mistaken but are prepared to view one another as bona fide 'evangelicals', so they ought to consider some versions of universalism to count as 'evangelical'. The article was a plea for consideration of the possibility that there might be such a thing as an evangelical universalist (even if such a view was considered wrong).

Can an Evangelical be a Universalist? Part 1
Gregory MacDonald


“Can an evangelical be a universalist?” In other words, could someone be an evangelical and also believe that one day all people will be saved? If I asked that question of almost any evangelical I know the answer would be a clear and unequivocal, “No!” It would be akin to asking whether a vegetarian could eat pork. Indeed, even those evangelicals who seem to fly close to the wind at times on this issue always seem very keen to make clear that they are “not endorsing universalism”. To admit to being a universalist is the theological equivalent of signing one’s death warrant. It is like putting one’s hand up and saying, “Hi. Guess what - I am a misguided person who has abandoned the faith and embraced heresy. Would you like to be my friend?” So it is with some fear and trepidation that I choose to turn my little fishy nose against the stream and head off in the opposite direction from the majority of my fellow evangeli-fish. I will suggest that the answer to my opening question is actually, “Yes! It is possible to be an evangelical universalist.” Oh, “and would you like to be my friend?”
I must start by emphasising that it is not just a coincidence that few evangelicals have historically embraced universalism. The fact of the matter is that traditionally evangelicals have had strong and sensible reasons for rejecting the belief. If I am going to persuade you that one can be an evangelical and a universalist we will need to consider those reasons and see if they do the trick of blasting universal salvation out of the water. So why have evangelicals found universalism so objectionable? There are several reasons amongst which we find the following:

Objection 1: it is sometimes felt that universalism undermines the seriousness of sin. Universalism suggests, so many evangelicals think, that we do not deserve hell. It suggests that sin is not serious and that God’s “job” is to forgive everyone. Perhaps it even suggests that we all deserve to be saved. The evangelical knows that this liberal anthropology is self-deceptive garbage.

Objection 2: Universalism, it is often said, rests on a woolly and unbiblical understanding of God’s love (God is too kind to hurt a fly) at the expense of God’s justice and wrath.

Objection 3: it is often thought to undermine the necessity of Christ and the cross for salvation. The universalist, it is said, thinks that God will save us through whatever route of salvation we choose, whether it be Christ or some other track. It is believed that for the universalist all ways lead to God as surely as all roads lead to Rome. But the evangelical knows that this pluralist view undermines the glorious uniqueness of Christ and the truth of the gospel.

Objection 4: universal salvation is often thought to undermine the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation. Even if the Christian universalist insists that all those who are saved are saved through Christ and his cross presumably the universalists are the ultimate inclusivists. They believe that God will save everyone through Christ whether they have heard of Christ or not and, if they have heard of Christ, whether they accepted him or rejected him. Yet, the evangelical knows that the gift of salvation comes to all who trust in Christ but not to those who spurn him.

Objection 5: a belief in universal salvation is usually felt to undermine evangelism and mission. If we believe that everyone will be saved whatever they do, then what motivation do we have to proclaim the gospel to them? Who is going to risk their health, their safety, their families or their lives to reach the lost if the lost will be saved whether we preach to them or not? Evangelism is at the heart of evangelicalism and to undermine it is to rip the heart from our faith.

Objection 6: the claim that all will be saved undermines Scripture. The Bible clearly teaches that there is a hell and that it will not be empty. To accept universalism is therefore to fly in the face of the clear teaching of God’s word – something the evangelical knows is folly.

Objection 7: Universal salvation is sometimes said not to be fair. Why do we put all this effort into living the Christian life when God will save us all, including all those evil people who enjoy a life of sin? It is not fair! We may as well have fun sinning now and then let God save us.

Objection 8: universalism is sometimes thought to undermine the Trinity. After all, are not most universalists Unitarians? The historic link between “modern” forms of universalism and this heresy does not bode well.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

You Devil's Advocate you, you've just blown universalism out of the water.

I hope you can refloat universalism in Part 2, to which I'm looking forward!

Rick Lannoye said...

Actually, if by "Evangelical," you were to mean "one who preaches the GOOD news," then ALL Evangelicals would be Universalists!

However, those who are today called Evangelicals are really just Fundamentalists who preach a message of BAD news. The reason is because they are focused only on a handful of passages that have made their way into the modern Bible which make God out to be a sort of Cosmic Nazi, and in so doing, can then dismiss the majority of the passages which contain Jesus' core teachings.

I've actually written an entire book on this topic--"Hell? No! Why You Can Be Certain There's No Such Place As Hell," (for anyone interested, you can get a free Ecopy of my book at my website: www.ricklannoye.com), but if I may, let me share one of the many points I make in it, that Jesus did not believe in Hell.

If one is willing to look, there's substantial evidence contained in the gospels to show that Jesus opposed the idea of Hell. For example, in Luke 9:51-56, is a story about his great disappointment with his disciples when they actually suggested imploring God to rain FIRE on a village just because they had rejected him. His response: "You don't know what spirit is inspiring this kind of talk!" Presumably, it was NOT the Holy Spirit. He went on, trying to explain how he had come to save, heal and relieve suffering, not be the CAUSE of it.

So it only stands to reason that this same Jesus, who was appalled at the very idea of burning a few people, for a few horrific minutes until they were dead, could never, ever burn BILLIONS of people for an ETERNITY!

True, there are a few statements that made their way into the gospels which place Hell on Jesus lips, but these adulterations came along many decades after his death, most likely due to the Church filling up with Greeks who imported their belief in Hades with them when they converted.

Robin Parry said...

Rick

I regret that I must take issue with you.

First, I am saddened by your caricature of evangelicals. It is an uncharitable understanding of where almost all evangelicals in history have positioned themselves. Evangelicals do, and always have, procaimed the bad news but only as a backdrop against which the good news is good news. The good news concerns salvation but salvation from what?

Second, I am surprised by your hermeneutic. You claim that Jesus did not preach Hell. You then find a text from which you infer that Jesus opposed Hell (but let's be clear that the text does not state this - the inference is your own). You then handle the counter evidence by dismissing it as 'later additions' added to the Jesus-story. But on what grounds do you decide that these teachings are later additions? It very much sounds like your basis for doing so is that you simply do not like what they say. This looks like you are merely fitting the evidence to fit a pre-decided theory.

It seems to me that any defence of universalism has to take Jesus' eschatological judgement passages as authoritative for Christian theology. Judgement is a strong theme in Jesus teaching in all 4 gospels and, I think, in all the historical traditions that underlie them. We cannot just wish it away.

What say ye?