Is Universalism an Evangelical option?

Robin Parry speaking at Spurgeon's College

Robin Parry speaking at Spurgeon's College

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:

  1. People can be redeemed from hell
  2. 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.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Conference notes, Evangelicalism, Hell, Salvation, Universalism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Is Universalism an Evangelical option?

  1. Jenny Rayner says:

    To think I could have avoided taking all those notes, and just waited to print this out! Well done Harvey – I can verify its authenticity from my notes!

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  2. Terry says:

    I’m impressed that your notes are so thorough!

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    • harveyedser says:

      I have my own patent form of shorthand called ‘illegible scrawl + guesswork’. So long as I write the notes up fairly soon afterwards it normally seems to work reasonably well…

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  3. Nicolas says:

    Whua! I’m impressed too; it’s a great summery, and very helpful. Thank you!

    On a rather silly note, your Apocastasis should be “Apocatastasis”. But it is a tricky word. On a slightly more serious note, how do we pronounce this?

    The first time I tried to work it out for myself, I came up with APo-CATa-STAsis. Like JW Wenham, I don’t slavishly use the accents as the emphasis. In fact I think I’ve read that the accent was probably originally used for tone and not stress???

    But following the accent as a stress indicator (which Americans always seem to do), then it comes out as apo-ca-TAS-ta-sis. If my memory is right, this was how Robin and one of the other speakers pronounced it.

    So to my question: is this apo-ca-TAS-ta-sis the traditional pronunciation within Patristics and the History of Christian Doctrine? Can any one help!

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    • harveyedser says:

      Oops, sorry – I thought I’d probably got the word wrong, but have to admit it’s not one I’d come across before. I think you’re right that Robin pronounced it Apo-ca-TAS-ta-sis. Wikipedia offers the following: “Apocatastasis (pronounced /æpoʊkəˈtæstəsɨs/; from Greek: ἀποκατάστασις) also anglicized as apokatastasis, meaning either reconstitution or restitution[1] or restoration to the original or primordial condition.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apocatastasis. I’m not entirely sure how to decipher their phonetics, but it looks to me that they agree with Robin. 🙂

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      • Tim Rayner says:

        … However you missed the opportunity to point out that in pointing out your error he published one of his own.

        sum·mer·y   
        [ˈsʌməri]
        –adjective
        of, like, or appropriate for summer: summery weather; a summery dress.

        sum·ma·ry   
        [ˈsʌməri]
        noun, plural -ries, adjective
        –noun
        1.
        a comprehensive and usually brief abstract, recapitulation, or compendium of previously stated facts or statements.
        –adjective
        2.
        brief and comprehensive; concise.
        3.
        direct and prompt; unceremoniously fast: to treat someone with summary dispatch.
        4.
        (of legal proceedings, jurisdiction, etc.) conducted without, or exempt from, the various steps and delays of a formal trial.

        An easy mistake to make as they are pronounced the same.

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  4. Terry says:

    Thing is, I can’t pronounce it that way, so I always say it as apo-CATa-STAsis…

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  5. Nicolas says:

    Tim Rayner !
    LOL !! — thanks for the “summary” correction ( #3.
    direct and prompt; unceremoniously fast: to treat someone with summary dispatch).

    I’m so humbled that I stand — nay, sit — corrected!

    However, I trust that Harvey is right — that I will still be redeemed despite my deeply errant spelling.

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  6. Alex Smith says:

    Thanks for the summary, although I wish I could’ve been there even more now! 🙂

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  7. Howard Cole says:

    Harvey dear bro’, As usual I am attracted by the writer (who is an extremely good egg!) and perturbed by the doctrine. In Matthew 25:41, Jesus prophesies sorrowfully that some will choose to ignore the needs of His end-time people, and justice will condemn them to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (NB God did not prepare it for men; but Jesus is saying that folk who choose the devil as their father, as in John 8:44, end up with him). I can no more see them coming into glory from there as I can the devil and his angels (does EU believe Satan will be saved?). I co-feel with you that this doctrine is heart-rending; but so is the dreadfulness of sin and the power of evil. I cannot cope with Calvary; it really was devastating – mercy and truth kissed each other in the body of our dear Lord – and It seems to me that EU wants mercy so much that it loses the appalling truth. Be blessed, Howard

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    • Hi Howard, thanks as always for taking the time to read and comment! I’ve been on holiday for a couple of weeks, hence delay in responding.

      The interesting thing with ‘EU’ is that he is actually coming from a more extreme Reformed theology in which God is utterly sovereign, and therefore ultimately must get what he wills – which (according to 1 Tim 2:4) is for all to be saved. So for him, it is inconceivable that in the very end anyone will not be saved, because that would deny God his will. (He does however believe that many will have to experience hell first, but for him hell is not literally eternal or hopeless.) I don’t fully agree with his position because I don’t think that God necessarily does always get what he wants – I have a different understanding of sovereignty. So I’m a hopeful rather than a dogmatic universalist.

      Bless you,
      Harvey

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      • Howard Cole says:

        Yes but (oh dear; why is the world so full of’ yes buts’?) the dear Lord is not ‘sovereign’ in that way, because he is limited by his own nature. I understand (= I haven’t actually done it myself !) that you can read through the Bible and find 35 things that are not possible for God; eg he cannot tell a lie, he cannot be be unjust. Isaiah says judgement is his ‘strange work’; he hates it but it is consistent with his own just nature; in fact it was the reason for Calvary – where “justice & mercy kissed each other”. Amazing verse that…….

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        • Yes, of course God’s sovereignty doesn’t mean that he can do anything – he clearly can’t (or at least won’t) do anything that contravenes his nature and character, nor can he do that which is conceptually impossible. And I’d furthermore say that his sovereignty is subject to his love, or at least that it encompasses his love – so although he is in ultimate charge, he is not controlling, and nor does he impose his will by force except perhaps when he has no other option.

          But none of this means that he can’t or won’t save all lost sinners – on that point we have no conclusive evidence either way. Saving everyone contravenes no fundamental principle of his character except perhaps that of allowing us free choice. Yet he has apparently saved people in ways that arguably contravened their will or their wishes – Paul the apostle for example, and C.S. Lewis (and of course if the Calvinists are right, our will and wishes play no role in the matter!). I’ll say again that if he can save me, he can save anyone, and may well do so.

          There is a universalist voice within scripture, and within the church fathers and throughout church history through figures like Gregory of Nyssa, Origen and C.S. Lewis’s hero George MacDonald. It is a muted rather than a strident voice, and it does seem to go against the grain of much of our usual interpretation of the Bible. But it is there, and must be allowed to speak alongside the other voices. And as other commenters have pointed out, we need to be careful in translating words like ‘eternal’ and ‘everlasting’ for God’s punishment, where the Greek words have rather different nuances to our English versions.

          So I’m a cautiously hopeful universalist rather than a confidently dogmatic one. I believe there are good grounds for hope, but not for complacency. And ultimately it’s in God’s hands.

          Re ‘judgement’, I have a rather different take on this concept from you, but that’s probably for another time!

          Bless you as always 🙂

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  8. Nicolas says:

    ἀποκατάστασις Revisited

    In a one hour on-line lecture by Edward Fudge, he says it just as I did at the beginning, and as Terry does. So maybe we’re right after all: apo-KATa-STA-sis. See several comments above.

    More important, though, is the right meaning of “aionios” (eternal) which is the adjective of “aion” (an age).

    In connection to Howard’s Mat 25 reference, I think it is so important not to confuse “eternal” with “everlasting”. The correct translation is “eternal” telling us “what kind”, and not “everlasting” telling us “how long”. So in neither case (eternal punishment / eternal life) are we being given length-of-time information. Rather, we’re being given quality-of-heaven information. It’s the punishment and the life of the Age (aion) to Come. John 17:3 shows that quality nuance well.

    William Barclay was right to point out that the Platonic aionios (outside of time altogether) also lends to this kind of meaning, and fits seamlessly with it: aionios as “of the age to come” and as outside of time in this age.

    It embarrasses me how we Christians mix and swap the words eternal and everlasting as if they were complete synonyms. In a philosophy class, I think we’d loose points for such a mistake!

    Anyway, my plea is to keep these two words separate and distinct. Most modern translations are now using “eternal” for aionios anyway (apart from the NIV’s appalling “everlasting” at 2 Thes 1:9) so let’s stay with that and keep the meaning clear. In this way we can avoid thinking of Mat 25:46 (and 2 Thes 1:9) as God’s final solution!

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  9. Giles says:

    I am concerned by those universalists who think free will is unimportant. Free will is the pre condition of morality. If I put a gun to your head and force you to give to Oxfam you can’t be praised. If, in the course of an epileptic fit, you punch me on the nose you can’t be blamed. I know there are some who say we can’t be entitled to praise for our deeds anyway, only to blame for our misdeeds. Yet we know Jesus says to some “Well done thou good and faithful servant”. In any case (contra Calvin), blame also requires free will. But it’s not necessary to deny free will, it was the key to Origen’s universalism. Indestructible free will + infinite time + immortality of the soul + perseverance of the saints (at some point we lock ourselves into salvation, at least until the Apocatastasis) = 100% certainty of universal salvation. Over any period of time it’s less than 100% (preserving libertarian free will) but over eternity (which is not a period of time but a way of saying “you can always add more time”) it’s 100%. You’ve just got to do the math, to coin a phrase.

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    • I’m with you on the need for free will. I’m a hopeful universalist, not a dogmatic universalist like (say) Robin Parry. I believe that all can be saved and hope that in the end all will be saved. But I can’t go quite as far as the 100% certainty – perhaps because I’m not a mathematician. 😉

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      • Howard Cole says:

        Whatto O TEL, Thanks for sending this. Agree wholeheartedly with your comment. Origen was fond of arguments that wandered off into infinite speculation. I read a book by the last Archbish of Canterbury where he said he was both fond of, and perturbed by, Origen for the same reason. Be blessed, Howard

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        • Greetings Howard! Great to hear from you as always. I think I’d echo the Archbish both in his fondness and his perturbation. I very much hope that none will in the end be able to resist God’s love in Christ, but I think we have to leave open the option that they might. It seems to me that Scripture also leaves the question open, with some passages leading one way, some the other. The weight of teaching and tradition is against universalism, but I’m always hopeful that heaven will surprise us… 🙂

          Bless you,
          Harvey (aka TEL)

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