Can an evangelical be a universalist? (Part 2)

In the face of such serious considerations it is hardly surprising that evangelicals have steered clear of the belief that all people will be saved. However, in considering whether an evangelical can believe in universal salvation it is important to realise that universalism is actually a broad family of views and not a single belief. The criticisms above do apply to some forms of universalism but not necessarily to others. There is one version of universalism that I think has good claims to being compatible with evangelicalism so rather than explaining all the different versions of universalism on the market, many of which are highly questionable from an evangelical perspective, I wish to explain just this one (which I will refer to as “evangelical” universalism with the “” marks to leave it an open question for now just how evangelical it really is). We can then ask how the standard evangelical anti-universalist objections stand up against it. It is important, before we do so, to be very clear about what I am, and am not, arguing in this brief article. I am not arguing that evangelicals ought to be “evangelical” universalists nor am I arguing that “evangelical” universalism is true. I am simply arguing that if someone holds to this form of universalism they do not automatically put themselves outsides the bounds of what can legitimately be called evangelical. So please do not complain after reading this that I did not produce any convincing arguments in defence of universalism – you’ll have to read my book (The Evangelical Universalist, Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006/London: SPCK, 2008) for my attempt to do that.
So what do the “evangelical” universalists believe? Much the same as any other evangelical. They believe that God is triune and created the world ex nihilo; they believe that humans are created in this God’s image; they believe that human rebellion separates us from God and deserves punishment; they accept the final authority of the Scriptures for matters of Christian faith; they believe that the Father sent his one and only Son as a human being (who did not cease to be divine) to live as our representative, to reveal the Father and to atone for our sins through his death on the cross; they believe that through his resurrection eternal life is available to those who trust in Christ; they believe in salvation by grace (not merit), through faith in Christ (not works); they believe in the return of Christ and the coming day of judgment; they even believe in hell! Like any evangelicals they may disagree on issues - they may be Arminians or they may be Calvinists; they may be inclusivists or they may be exclusivists; they may accept penal substitution theories of atonement or they may not; they may accept retributive theories of punishment or they may not; they may accept the inerrancy of Scripture or they may not. However, on all the core evangelical doctrines (which are really just historical, orthodox Christian doctrines with some Protestant emphases) they will agree. At this point you may well be confused – exactly how are these “evangelical” universalists supposed to differ from the mainstream? In two respects
(a) they believe that death is not a point of no return. In other words, it is possible for those in hell to cast themselves upon God’s mercy (made available through Christ) and be saved.
(b) They believe that in the end everyone will do this and there will be no people left in hell.
Now not all Christian universalists accept this version of universalism but it is what I am proposing constitutes an “evangelical” version of universalism. Suppose someone holds to this belief – how will they react to the standard objections against universal salvation? (to be continued)


Anonymous said…
Side note here Robin,

"ex Nihilo" needs to be grouped with the other set of things that evangelicals may or may not believe.

When you consider that if you intensify the Hebrew word for create, "barak", you get a word meaning "cut down", as in cut down a tree, then it is much more likely that the original word meant to "mold or shape".

This would with those evangelicals who believe that Genesis describes a recreation.
Anonymous said…
Your points (a) and (b) are a very good summery of where so many of us stand, especially when kept beside the other truths of the Christian Faith. Looking forward to part 3.
Robin Parry said…

I'm open to persuasion but the argument that you give here won't do the work (in the first instance because getting at the meanings of words via etymology is a hazardous business).

In the end ex nihilo is not something that come off the surface of the text of Genesis. Genesis 1 is compatible with ex nihilo but does not clearly teach it. Nevertheless the drive towards ex nihilo grew as a theological attempt to do justice to the theology of the infinite God and a finite creation. To reject creatio ex nihilo would generate a lot of theological problems that would require attention.

I'd be happy to consider a rejection of ex nihilo as an evangelical option if the theological proposal was set out in such a way to avoid the pitfalls. For now I find the instincts that lead us to affirm ex nihilo as compelling.
Emerson Fast said…
Thanks for the insights Mr. Perry,

In light of it I have a few (slightly eristic) questions for you.

1. Is there a certain group that has a certain hold on what it means to be "evangelical"? I mean, the signers of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Innerancy-for instance- would relatively agree that one must hold to some form of "innerancy" doctrine to be "evangelical" (a material opinion, no doubt). No doubt men like Al Mohler, John Macarthur, Ligon Duncan or Steve Lawson would refuse to call a universalist (of the category you suggest) an "evangelical".

To be sure, we can easily call into question their right to define the boundary markers of authentic "evangelicalism", but then who has this right? Does it belong to those from the Barthian camp (most of whom would call themselves "evangelical" and would likely agree to fellowship with your category of universalism? Or to writers like N.T. Wright and Scot Mcknight, or perhaps Ben Witherington?

2. Is it not necessary to have some sort of centralized authority among a certain group of individuals (ie.the camps suggested above)for the determination of what true "evangelicalism" is?

If not, how would we avoid the timeless problem in the history of the church of using the same word to mean completely different things? A good example (for instance)would be the authors of the "New Perspective on Paul" (not suggesting that this is a fair categorical label) like Scot Mcknight or Wright citing Sola Scriptura in defense of their research, and making fun of Lutheran theologians for abandoning the principle in order to maintain their traditonal readings of Paul. And of course, the Lutherans might disagree with whether Wright or Dunn or Mcknight have even come close to using Sola Scriptura, relying so heavily on Rabbinic documents to shape their understanding of Paul.

I suspect this ambiguity can cross over quite easily in discussions of "evangelicalism" and universalism.

Robin Parry said…

A dilemma indeed. Evangelicalism has never had a central authority because evangelicalism has never been a denomination or an organization. It is a movement and, as such, has always had a certain fluidity.

So coming up with an agreed definition of evangelical will prove hard (to say the least).

I suppose one must look at those who have historically claimed the label 'evangelical' and ask how they used it. And we need to recognize all the historic diversity of evangelicalism.

We must also remember that evangelicalism is a living, dynamic tradition. So another question is this: Is such and such a development of evangelicalism consistent with the tradition or a department from it.

With regard to my own theology the question is in part, "Have evangelicals in the past been universalists?" In fact, some have, but precious few. The majority tradition has been opposed.

But we need to remember the living tradition aspect. For me the more critical question is whether universalism is consistent with the central core claims of historic evangelicalism. I would maintain that it is and that it is a faithful development of evangelical instincts.

I would also maintain that it grows out of reflection on the evangel itself.

But I don't think many evangelicals would want a central authority to legislate on such matters and even if such a body existed many evangelicals would refuse to resognize their authority

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