Years ago for my first year theology class, I read Four Views On Hell. The alternatives offered were literal flames, metaphoric flames but eternal conscious torment, annihilationism, and a Catholic explanation of purgatory. I was convinced by Clark Pinnock’s idea of annihilationism or conditional immortality. It contends that we are only made immortal through God’s intervention, and the fate of those who reject God is extinction – not eternal punishment but non-existence.
It is a view that has some scriptural support, taking seriously the idea in the New Testament that without Christ we will perish, that death is the fate of those who have not found salvation. If not hopeful, it at least eased my conscience; the thought of an eternal torture chamber continuing on underneath the new creation is distressing.
An option not presented in Four Views of Hell, indeed an option that few evangelicals consider open to them is of hell as restorative punishment – or, to use a word evangelicals tend to be scared of – universalism.
A month or more ago I read an intriguing book called The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald. Gregory MacDonald is actually the pseudonym for an evangelical writer who works for a prominent evangelical publishing house, and didn’t want the rest of his work and his employers’ work dismissed by association. Gregory of Nyssa and George MacDonald are two noteworthy universalists. MacDonald kept a blog where he kept his readers guessing as to his identity for a couple of years, assuring them he was not Rick Warren or John Piper, before finally revealing his identity a few months ago.
I have wanted to write about it, but I feel myself unable to; I’m not sure of my conclusions about the book. So I have called on two of my friends to offer their contrasting views of it. Please direct all your concerns about their heterodoxy or whatever to them.
The Evangelical Universalist is a splendid book. It offers both a theological and biblical framework for understanding that the New Testament actually affords us hope for a universal reconciliation between humans and God.
For MacDonald, universalism is an implicit doctrine in the New Testament, ready to be teased out, in an analogous manner to the way the Trinity has been developed as a doctrine. In particular, Colossians ‘provides the contours of a grand theological narrative with a universalist ending. It is this basic theology that I suggest can form the framework within which the rest of the Bible can be appreciated.’ (p.7) MacDonald makes important the verses which proclaim that one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.
So when I claim that universalism is biblical, I do not mean that all biblical authors were universalists but that the universalist tendencies of some authors provide the big picture within which we can happily accommodate the teachings on hell of all the biblical writers. (p.40)
MacDonald obviously has a lot of work to do to go against the tide of centuries of interpretation of passages about hell and final judgement. He certainly believes in the reality of hell, and that is a terrible place we should do everything possible to avoid. But he argues that its function is not to punish forever but to bring people to repentance. (Yes that does sound a little like purgatory, doesn’t it?)
MacDonald believes that Bible clearly teaches that God desires that none shall perish but that all should have eternal life. He doesn’t agree with Arminian logic that people are able to, finally, resist the love and will of God. If God desires that all should have eternal life, then He shall bring it about.
Many free-will defences of hell make the importance of free-will so much that protecting it justifies anything, even eternal punishment for eternity. Many discussions of hell also insist that while God’s justice – his need to condemn sin – is immutable and absolute, his mercy has its limits – that in the end, God’s justice will win out over his mercy for lots of damned people.
MacDonald spends considerable time with the relevant Bible passages about hell and makes a case for how they can be interpreted consistently with (eventual) universal salvation. His proposal about the lake of fire in Revelation is perhaps the most intriguing. Who is it that is thrown into the lake of fire? The rebellious nations who have followed the Beast. Who is it that is welcomed into the New Jerusalem in the next chapter? All the nations! Why are the gates of the New Jerusalem open day and night? Who are they open for? What is outside the New Jerusalem? Well, the lake of fire, and the people leaving it.
Most evangelicals will find the idea of universal salvation utterly disturbing. Which says something of how perverted evangelicals are. One can’t help but sense that most evangelicals will be a little disappointed if everyone gets to join the party in the new heavens and new earth.
If evangelicals are only driven in their mission efforts by the heat of the flames of hell, then perhaps their good news isn’t good enough.
MacDonald makes the most sense in this whole book when he writes on p.3, ‘…universalism is so far off the ‘soundness’ radar that it does not even register! Universalism is so obviously false that it can be rejected with hardly a moment’s thought.’
It disturbs me, the plague of young ‘evangelicals’ who sound like liberals. The essence of liberalism is that whenever one encounters a biblical truth that one finds unpalatable, one reinterprets it in the light of other knowledge to make it palatable. Being evangelical means standing under the authority of the Bible.
You have to strain very hard to make the New Testament universalist, and MacDonald strains very hard indeed. Unclear passages, like the one in Colossians that he builds so much on need to be reinterpreted in the light of clear teaching of the rest of the Bible – which, in this case, we have so much of.