Tuesday, June 9, 2015

What's the deal with "The Evangelical Universalist"?

First some clarifications: evangelical universalism (EU) differs from universalism by stating that Jesus is the only way to God. However, it accepts that one day all people will one day come to accept Christ. The evangelical universalist does not deny hell but believes that all who are in hell will eventually come to know Christ.

Gregory MacDonald (pseudonym--the author's real name is Robin Parry) writes to defend this (unpopular) position to Evangelicals. MacDonald rightly sees that the problem of hell binds together many theological difficulties. However, he also believes that by abandoning the eternality of hell we can clear up many of these theological difficulties.

In my mind, if you are going to buy into EU you have to make your case in three distinct areas: 1) exegetical issues (arising from looking at the text) 2) philosophical issues and 3) historical theology (or has this view been accepted). So how does MacDonald do?

Let me start by saying that I think the eternal suffering of man in hell is an extremely disturbing and difficult doctrine. So I am fully empathetic to what MacDonald is wanting to do in this work. I also think that MacDonald covers most (if not all) of the objections that could be posited against this position in the second edition. I was impressed by the amount of material covered in a relatively short work. MacDonald is also an excellent writer in theology. He writes in a clear way. In my mind, he is one of the best examples of how theology should be written.

MacDonald's strongest arguments against the traditional view of hell (TVOH) and for EU are his philosophical arguments. MacDonald, in my mind, makes the convincing case that eternal suffering in hell would be inferior to a universalist position. I cannot imagine a Christian who does not find, on some level, the idea of universalism appealing. The biggest objection that can be raised is that universalism does not deal harshly enough with sin against a holy God. MacDonald argues, however, that even if we do sin against God (even against an infinite God) an infinite punishment would not be just. Further, he argues that it is not even a just position. The whole discussion is fairly nuanced but I thought he raised some excellent objections. He also notes that while not many throughout church history have held to EU, many like Origin (who was NOT condemned for his universalist position), Barth and others have held to the position. It is not unheard of--even if it was the minority position.

So that leads us to the exegetical issues--the most important issue of all. It is here that he takes an interesting position. MacDonald, in order to have his position acceptable among evangelicals, only needs to show that his argument is warranted (even if not persuasive) from the Bible. His technique is interesting (though not surprising). He starts in Colossians and argues that we can see in Paul a universalist tendency. From there, he argues that biblical theology supports a univeralist reading. He follows this up with a retelling of the OT narrative and NT narrative (read: biblical theology).

He recognizes that the largest challenges against his position are going to come from Revelation, so he spends an entire chapter on that issue (for the record, I don't find his interpretation of those texts convincing). He then addresses the passages that seem to talk about hell in the teachings of Jesus. He notes that authors such as Perriman have noted that all of the mentions of hell and heaven are actually not referring to future eschatology but events that were fulfilled during the early church. Thankfully, MacDonald doesn't simply assume Perriman is right and spends time exegeting the key texts.

Probably the biggest problem I have with MacDonald's position comes when he starts trying to exegete the texts. By starting in Colossians, he then reads the rest of the Bible through that lens. The problem with attempting to provide a full biblical theology is that you can end up making the Bible say what you want and I couldn't shake the feeling that that was what I was encountering reading MacDonald's work.

So I will grant that MacDonald's work is plausible at points but I don't think it actually falls in line with the whole Bible. More disturbing (and probably damning to his own position) is the fact that he openly admits that his position was not likely held by all the biblical authors and some may have disagreed with him while at the same time holding to the basic trajectory of universalism.

But this won't do. What MacDonald has essentially created now is a canon within a canon. It also causes the reader to begin reading author biblically inspired authors skeptically. I'm not digging that. I think it puts a strain on conventional hermeneutics.

I also want to propose one more troubling aspect of EU--that of daily holiness and hatred of sin. While I don't think that avoidance of eternal suffering in hell is a good reason to pursue holiness alone (I think you need to pursue holiness out of love of God), the Puritans used it as one of the motivations. If my suffering is temporary in hell, why should I listen to the call of Gospel holiness now? To avoid hell? Why not just suffer a bit but enjoy my sin for as long as possible? I agree that this thinking is foreign to the Gospel and that love should be an ultimate motivator.

But realistically, will this doctrine make you hate sin more? Will it make you pursue holiness with reckless abandon? I'm not sure it does. I grant that this argument is more existential and personal in nature and I could very well be proven wrong. However, I just cannot foresee this doctrine producing the holiness that God requires. I'm just not sure I am buying into the idea that if we accept EU then we are not changing any major doctrines, like MacDonald insists. I'm just not there.

The historical evidence just isn't there for me either. Most of the major church fathers (who I trust, mostly) rejected the position as unbiblical. It wasn't until the past few hundred years that this position has gained traction. That is problematic to me. 

So I am left unpersuaded. However, I liked the book and it was highly readable. It is challenging (in the best way) and congenial. If nothing else, MacDonald gives us an example of how theology (especially polarizing theology) should be done.

*Thanks to Cascade Publishing for providing a free review copy of the book in exchange for a fair review.*

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