So as mentioned in the previous post this was the overall title of an excellent one-day conference at Spurgeon’s College on 3 February. I’m going to try and write up my notes from some of the day’s talks, so here’s the first one.
What follows then is basically Robin Parry’s thoughts rather than mine, though occasionally translated clumsily into my wording…
Evangelical Universalism: an oxymoron?
Opening presentation by Robin Parry, author of The Evangelical Universalist (under the pseudonym Gregory MacDonald)
Robin: I’m not going to argue that universalism is true (it is!), but simply that it’s compatible with universalism. (For the full arguments in favour of its truth, read the book.)
Universalists say that God will save all people. Christian Universalists say that God will save all people through Christ.
Historically, almost all evangelicals have denied this: e.g. the Evangelical Alliance book ‘The Nature of Hell’ (an ACUTE report) rejects universalism. The Young Life mission organization affirms eternal conscious torment. (However, the latest UCCF doctrinal statement does perhaps unintentionally leave members free to accept Robin’s position!)
Evangelical opposition to universalism is contingent and not an entailment of evangelical commitment.
What is Evangelical Universalism (EU)?
Evangelical Universalists (EUs) affirms orthodox Christian faith (as found in the historic creeds) and hold a high view of Scripture. They also hold two distinct beliefs EU1 and EU2:
- EU1: In the end, God will reconcile all people to himself through Christ’s atoning work
- EU2: The belief that EU1 is a biblical view
Robin also adds two adjustments which not all EUs accept:
- People can be redeemed from hell
- In the end, everyone will be redeemed from hell
Why think that universalism is un-evangelical?
Most people think that the Bible contradicts universalism.
However, there are (apparently) universalist Biblical texts, which can be interpreted in different ways. It’s possible to interpret them in a universalist way and still be an evangelical. We can think that people misinterpret parts of the Bible (e.g. over female leadership, or view of end times) and still seem them as evangelical. EUs genuinely believe that their view is biblical, so they’re trying to be evangelical.
If something about what universalists believe goes against something at the heart of evangelicalism, then it can’t be evangelical – so does universalism deny any key evangelical belief or praxis? The following are the main charges levelled against it:
1. Universalism undermines the seriousness of sin
“It doesn’t matter what we do because God will save us all anyway.”
This is a parody of Christian Universalism. EU has a strong view of human sin, but affirms that God, his cross and his grace, are stronger and bigger than human sin. Depravity can actually be an argument for universalism (‘pessimistic universalism’) – the Christian looks at himself and thinks ‘if God can save me, he can save anyone‘.
EU has a high view of grace (‘where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more’). Most evangelicals have either too narrow a view of grace (Calvinism) or too weak a view of grace (Arminianism).
2. Universalism undermines divine justice and wrath
“Universalists sentimentalise God’s love, ignoring his justice and wrath.” (God’s too nice to damn anyone.)
We have to understand divine love in terms of the biblical story, the story of Israel (in which there is restoration after judgement and exile). EUs seek to have a biblical, Christ-shaped understanding of God’s love. EU does not ignore or deny divine justice nor divine wrath and punishment. Rather it seeks to have a united view of God’s nature – that all his acts are acts of love and of justice. Some classic evangelicalism divides God’s acts into either love or justice. So EU has a more theologically satisfying understanding of the divine nature and holy love. Traditional evangelicals have underestimated nature of claim that God in his very nature is love (and trad. Calvinism is incompatible with the view that God in his very nature is love!).
3. Universalism undermines hell
“The hell of universalists ‘ain’t a bad place to be'”
NB the same objection is made against annihilationists (such as Edward Fudge)
If hell is only fearful if it’s maximally horrible, then this objection stands – but this is a ridiculous position! For EU, hell is still very bad and to be avoided – like a horrible disease from which you will eventually recover. The Old Testament prophets knew there would be restoration after God’s judgement but they still warned everyone against it!
The Eternal Conscious Torment vision of hell is riddled with problems so EU’s failure to affirm it is perhaps a strength – e.g. can a finite creature ever do anything so bad as to merit infinite torment; why make a death beyond which there is no hope of salvation, etc.
4. Universalism undermines Christ’s role in salvation
“Universalists say that ‘all roads lead to God’ – Christ is therefore not the only way to God”
But actually EUs do not say this! They maintain that Christ is the only way to the Father and that salvation is only through union with Christ. EUs are not pluralists; they can be either inclusivists (salvation is through Christ alone but it’s possible to be saved by Christ without having explicit faith in Christ) or exclusivists (salvation is only through explicit faith in Christ). EU is answering a different question – who or how many will be saved? (everyone). (NB Robin is an ‘open-minded exclusivist’ and believes you can come to an explicit faith in Christ after death).
5. Universalism undermines the importance of faith in Christ
“Christ will save us all so it doesn’t matter whether we believe in him or not”
If you’re an exclusivist EU then faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. If you’re an inclusivist EU then faith in Christ is relativised – but this is a problem with inclusivism not with universalism. And though it’s relativised that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.
6. Universalism undermines evangelism
“Why proclaim the gospel to people if they will be saved anyway?”
J.I. Packer thinks that universalism is dangerous and guaranteed to blight souls because it distracts them from mission. However, Packer is a Calvinist and they face an exactly analogous problem – if all people God has elected will be saved then why bother with evangelism? Calvinists (rightly in this case!) reply that the proclamation of the gospel is the means by which God saves people. Universalists say the same.
NB you can be a Calvinist or Arminian universalist, and Arminian universalists do have a fear of hell as a motivation for evangelism. But fear of hell is not the only motivation for gospel proclamation – there is also the joy of participation in God’s amazing message/work of reconciliation. The church is meant to be a prophetic micro-model of what God will do to the whole of creation – embodying the message of reconciliation (not just preaching it).
When you believe in Eternal Conscious Torment it’s so awful that it’s paralysing – Amy Carmichael’s vision of people walking over a cliff and perishing, and God saying to her ‘it’s your fault’ is crippling rather than motivating (or it leads to a nervous breakdown).
Yes, universalism can be used to undermine mission and evangelism, but it needn’t and shouldn’t be.
7. Universalism undermines the doctrine of the Trinity
“Universalism is often linked with Unitarianism – one heresy often leads to another”
But the link here is partial. Trinitarian universalism long pre-dates Unitarian universalism, and it’s historically contingent – nothing about universalism entails Unitarianism.
8. Universalism was declared ‘anathema’ by the church
“Universalism was declared heresy by an ecumenical church council, so universalists are unorthodox”
The Council was in 553 AD and included 15 anathemas against Origen as an appendix, including one against his universalism. But what was anathematised was not universalism per se, but a specific version of it – ‘Origenism’ – a view not actually held by Origen but by some of his later and more extreme followers. Origen believed in ‘Apocatastasis’ – the restoration of souls at the end. What was anathematised was its (later) added association with pantheism, along with a version of Origen’s Christology. Gregory of Nyssa was also a universalist but he was honoured by the councils.
9. Historically evangelicalism has rejected universalism
This is true (almost). However, this rejection is contingent and not necessary, so this is not decisive. Evangelicalism is a living tradition with capacity for healthy development. So the question is whether a proposed amendment arises from a denial of or from a reflection on aspects of the tradition. Does EU deny any central evangelical beliefs?
EU arises from evangelical convictions – the saving will of God, the redeeming power of Christ’s atonement, the efficacious work of the Spirit, and the belief that in the end God wins.
Elhanan Winchester (1751-97)
A Baptist revivalist preacher and abolitionist campaigner who eventually (slowly and reluctantly) came to believe in ‘Universal restoration’, based on the Bible. He founded a Universalist Baptist Church in Philadelphia and in London. He remained evangelical in his theology – indeed, a raving fundamentalist in most ways!
Evangelical Universalism grows from common evangelical convictions
Arminians (A) believe that God loves all people, wants to save all people and sent Christ to die for the sins of all people. Calvinists (C) believe God will achieve all his purposes in creation. Universalists (alone) believe both of these! So combining A and C entails universalism. Alternatively must evangelicals believe that God either can’t save everyone or doesn’t want to?
Evangelical Universalism grows from the evangel
Our eschatology must be grounded in God’s revelation in Christ:
- At Calvary we see hell, which turns out to be neither annihilation nor eternal torment. (And Christ suffered the punishment in his human not his divine nature so we can’t make the argument that he was able to suffer eternal/infinite punishment on the cross).
- In the resurrection we see the new creation. In the resurrection of the Second Adam (Christ), all humanity has already been saved. The eschaton – the end of the story – is already revealed in Christ (this is why Robin is not just a ‘hopeful’ universalist).
Evangelical Universalism and Bebbington’s Quadrilateral
EU is compatible with Bebbington’s Quadrilateral, which defines the four key axes/aspects of evangelicalism as Biblicism, Crucicentrism, Activism and Conversionism.
EU is credal orthodoxy, Christocentric, trinitarian, missional and Biblically rooted.
In conclusion then, there is absolutely no reason to see Evangelical Universalism as an oxymoron.