Objection 1: “evangelical” universalists have a very strong view of the seriousness of sin and they believe that hell is merited. They do not think that anyone deserves to be saved so this criticism simply misses the mark. Indeed, I would say that it is not because they have a low view of sin that they are universalists but because they have a high view of grace. In the words of Paul, “Where sin abounds grace abounds all the more.”
Objection 2: “Evangelical” universalists arguably have a very biblical and robust notion of divine love (or so I argue in my book). They do not need to imagine that God is a soft touch who would not dream of punishing anyone. Their understanding of divine love seeks to be shaped by its revelation in Christ. And they have a strong view of divine justice. Indeed, they think that every divine action is a manifestation of what P.T. Forsythe called, “holy love.” It is not that some divine acts are loving (like saving people) whilst others are just (like sending people to hell). Rather all God’s deeds are loving and just. Whatever hell is we must not suppose that it is the action of justice as opposed to love. It is, they think, an act of severe mercy – of “holy love.”
Objection 3: obviously “evangelical” universalism insists on the uniqueness of Christ and the necessity of the cross-resurrection for salvation so this objection slides away.
Objection 4: clearly “evangelical” universalism, at least in its exclusivist versions, insists on the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation (and in its inclusivist versions has no more problems than any other version of evangelical inclusivism). Hence this objection falls away.
Objection 5: “evangelical” universalists are committed to evangelism and mission more broadly construed. They desire that people enter into salvation through faith in Christ. In its Arminian version “evangelical” universalists also believe that without mission there are many who will go to hell who would not have done so otherwise thus preaching to stop people going to hell is still a motivation for evangelism. They also believe that there are many biblical motivations for mission and evangelism apart from the belief (a belief that they think mistaken) that those who die as unbelievers are damned to hell forever without hope of redemption. So whilst this objection has some teeth they are not sharp ones.
Objection 6: This really is the objection that most evangelicals think sinks universalism without a trace with so called “evangelical” universalism included. There is no way that I can possibly address all the complex issues here. For that I must refer you to my book in which I argue at length that there is a strong biblical case for universal salvation, perhaps stronger than most evangelicals have ever realised. In this context my point is merely that the “evangelical” universalist thinks that she has sought to do justice to the whole of Scripture and thinks that the Bible is compatible with her universalism. As those who seek to be true to evangelical traditions what more can we do? Obviously there are many discussions to be had on this topic and I can see the hands in the class raised even as I type. My question is simply that if we have a fellow evangelical believer who thinks in all honesty that Scripture is consistent with his universalism then, if that universalism is not a threat to any creedal beliefs or central gospel affirmations, can we exclude him from the fold? Can he not be treated simply as an evangelical who we think is mistaken about the possibility of redemption from hell? Can he not be treated with the same tolerance Arminians and Calvinists have for each other? This need not mean that we avoid arguing about the topic but simply that we see it as an argument taking place within evangelicalism.
Objection 7: Whilst I have heard some evangelicals make this “it’s not fair” objection it does seem to be a betrayal of the evangelical conviction in the gospel of grace. There is much one can say in response but it seems so clearly off the mark I shall not waste ink on it.
Objection 8: Clearly, “evangelical” universalism does not deny the Trinity. Indeed, “evangelical” universalists regard Unitarianism as an indirect danger to the gospel and the biblical revelation of God (whilst recognizing that this is not the intention of Unitarians). (Here I simply remind readers that the doctrine of the Trinity took shape in the way that it did precisely to preserve the gospel witnessed to in Scripture).
So I ask, “Could ‘evangelical’ universalism possibly amount to a genuine evangelical universalism? Could it possibly be allowed as a legitimate evangelical option?” If not, on what basis is this denial made?
There are positive reasons for including this version of universalism within the fold even if as the black sheep of the family who needs careful watching.
First, it is based on gospel instincts and evangelicals are gospel people. The Father sent the Son to save all people (something many, though not all, evangelicals believe). The Son represented all humanity before God, and died for everyone. In Christ-our-representative all humanity dies and is resurrected to new life. Universal salvation is, in one sense, an accomplished fact in Christ. Of course, one needs to respond by the Spirit’s power to the gospel to participate in what God has already accomplished in Christ, but the fact remains that there are good biblical reasons to see the logic of the gospel (the evangel) as one with a universal reach. This form of universalism is gospel-affirming and mission-affirming and thus has some claim to belonging in the evangelical fold.
Second, it has biblical foundations. In my book I argue that it is not merely certain proofs texts that can be used to support universalism (e.g., Romans 5:18-21; Colossians 1:18-20; Philippians 2:9-11) but the logic of the entire biblical metanarrative from creation to new creation. Obviously that is a case that will need to be argued out elsewhere – especially in the interpretation of the hell passages (see my book) - but the form of universalism we are considering here has aspirations, at very least, to be thoroughly biblical. This instinct to seek to listen to the whole canonical witness is deeply evangelical and constitutes another reason to see the small number of “evangelical” universalists as players on the same team.
In conclusion, whilst I do not imagine that I will have persuaded anyone of the truth of “evangelical” universalism, indeed I have not sought to do so, I do hope that at very least the answer to my original question is not so obviously, “No!” and may even be, “Maybe” or just possibly even, “Yes!”
- Robin Parry
- 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).