Can Evangelicals be Universalists? (Derek Tidball)

Returning to universalism after a short break… the title of this post was that of Derek Tidball’s response to Robin Parry at last month’s Spurgeon’s conference. Derek was responding to Robin’s book rather than to his presentation. What follows is my rough transcript of Derek’s talk:

The response to the title question is not yes or no but ‘it depends on what you mean by universalism’. Robin Parry (RP) has proposed a particular form of universalism that other evangelicals have flirted with over the years. Robin’s claims are modest, tentative and generous rather than dogmatic. He is not claiming to disprove traditional interpretations or to prove his own.

There is a difficulty in persuading evangelicals to think deeply about issues and subtleties; evangelicals often like black-and-white.

The heart of RP’s argument:

  • RP advocates a particular form of universalism which endeavours to take the biblical teaching seriously: that hell is to be avoided at all costs, that sin is serious and judgement real
  • With eternal conscious torment (ECT) the punishment would be disproportionate to the offence; and how can believers rejoice in heaven while others suffer in hell?
  • RP argues that hell is a terrible but a temporary fate.

We need to place this argument in the context of current (western/liberal) views of justice as restorative rather than [merely] retributive and final.

RP: “Hell is the state in which God allows the painful reality of sin to hit home.”

RP places his argument within the paradigm/framework of Israel’s experience (of exile and restoration) – that you can drink of God’s wrath and then move beyond that into redemption.

Building blocks of the argument (and response):

1. Moral element – infinite retribution cannot be just.

But previous generations would see the downfall of the wicked as something to celebrate.

2. Philosophical/logical element – how can an all-powerful God will that all be saved yet be unable to achieve it?

[NB I haven’t recorded that Derek attempted to answer this point!]

3. Theological elements:

(a) Calvinists say God has to be just but not necessarily merciful – this is problematic for Christians who believe in the primacy of mercy (or the unity/simplicity of God)

Nonetheless, it’s not only Calvinists who believe in hell…

(b) If the powers that rebel against God were created by him and have to be ultimately destroyed by him, have they then defeated his purposes?

But not all that God has created has to last eternally; God creates over-abundance. [Editorial note – this argument doesn’t work at all for me because the argument of hell is surely that things do last eternally – in torment!]

(c) Love is compatible with punishment but not with everlasting punishment.

But of course many in Israel did perish in exile – not all were restored.

(d) Love and justice must be united because God is one.

But Robin’s way of resolving this is only way of doing it. Maybe it’s a mystery we just can’t understand and not to accept it is hubris. [NB editorial note again – this seems a particularly weak argument to me!]

“Though we are bound to think logically, we are bound to think precarious the forming of some connections which go beyond the biblical data.”

(4) Hermeneutical element – all our theology is done in particular contexts; one cannot ‘just’ read the Bible.

All literalists have to have a hermeneutic of interpretation – ‘scripture is inerrant but our interpretations of it are not’. Tradition, reason and experience all contribute to our hermeneutics and all go in different directions. RP believes that the hermeneutical dice is (or should be) loaded in favour of the universalist position.

Yugoslav Theologian Miroslav Volf writes very seriously in Free of Charge about wrath; his experience is very different from ours. He says that God is wrathful because of his love. 200,000 people were killed in war in his land, many villages destroyed and some people were brutalised beyond description; he cannot imagine God not being angry. We would have to rebel against a God who was not wrathful in the face of the world’s evil.

“Violence flourishes because the world believes that God will not wield the sword”. You can only believe in the non-violent God in a suburban home not in a blood-soaked war-torn situation. “God must make a final end of all violence.”

How will God make an end to violence?

5. Biblical element (arguments from the scriptural text)

Evangelicals ought to start with scripture rather than come to it later. Can universalist teaching be found in the New Testament (NT) in its teaching on salvation? Scripture rather than experience (or reason) needs to be our starting point.

The answer is that RP’s version of universalism is only found in the NT if some understandings of NT teaching are revised. (We have of course done this over roles of women etc). But the attempts to revise them in this case are not compelling.

Jesus speaks of hell more than anyone else – he speaks of the possibility of eternal (‘everlasting’) separation from God; he famously uses the image of Gehenna ‘where the worm never dies and the flame never goes out’ – a place of separation, rejection and destruction.

(NB ‘eternal’ in some contexts means ‘belonging to the new age’ rather than ‘forever’ – Matthew 25 uses it in this way. But in some cases it must mean unending (worm not dying). John Stott argues that whatever enters a fire does not have an everlasting existence but is consumed.

RP points out that the theology of Gehenna was not yet fully worked out in Jesus’ day, and some rabbis thought it was an escapable place/state.

John 3:16 ‘God so loved the world…’ but then v.36 – ‘those who do not believe are condemned already… whoever disobeys the Son will not see life but must endure God’s wrath.’ There’s no whiff or hint here that it’s a temporary state that people will recover from – it appears to be the full stop.

In Paul’s writings, two strands of teaching jostle with  each other:

i) That there are two sorts of people and two destinations to which they are going.
Here, God is the judge who separates (Rom 1:16-17 etc). ‘Those who are perishing’ vs ‘those who are being saved’. 2 Thess 1:9 et seq – distinguishes between the afflicted believers and those afflicting them who are disobedient to the gospel and who will ‘suffer the punishment of eternal destruction separated from the presence of God…’ (RP acknowledges that this remains a problem text for Evangelical Universalists). You can dismiss Paul as a child of his time but you can’t make the text say something it doesn’t. (NB this is early Paul.)

ii) God is not only the judge who separates but the King who unites.
Four key universalist texts:
1 Cor 15:26-28 – God being all in all as Christ brings everything to subjection…
Phil 2:10-11 – ‘every knee will bow and every tongue confess…’
Col 1:20 – ‘God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things’
Eph 1:10 – God’s plan to gather up all things…

It’s an attractive vision that at the end of time no-one will be left outside. But do these verses really suggest universal salvation or do they in fact indicate the reverse?

  • 1 Cor 15 – ‘the last enemy to be destroyed is death’ so the context is the subjection and destruction of enemies
  • Phil 2 echoes Isaiah 45:23 – an appeal for all nations to turn to God, but not all will respond?
  • Col 1:20 – why all ‘things’ not all ‘people’ reconciled? It may not be saying that all people will be saved but that Christ has triumphed over the principalities. ‘Reconciled’ can be used to mean ‘reconciled to the situation’ – put up with it, come to terms with it.
  • Eph 1:10 is not about how many will be saved but about the ultimate unity of all creation in Christ.

What questions are these texts actually addressing? (Is it really the universalist question?)

Paul’s use of ‘all’ – e.g. 1 Cor 15:22 and Romans 5:17-19 ‘ for as all die in Adam all will be made alive in Christ’. But the next verse defines it – ‘those who belong to Christ’.

Rom 5:18 – ‘life for all’ – all can be interpreted in different ways here, and to argue for universalism here would be in the teeth of earlier verses.

1 Tim 4:10 ‘The living God who is the saviour of all people, especially those who believe’. But ‘especially’ may not be the best translation – it could be rendered ‘namely’ (a legitimate if not common translation). By this reading, Christ is potentially the saviour of all but only ultimately the saviour of those who believe. The emphasis on obedience and faith is there in the pastoral letters, and interpreting this verse universalistically goes against the grain.

Heb 9:27 – ‘die once and then the judgement’. There’s no biblical warrant of a second chance after death – and why would people change in hell? (story of Rich Man and Lazarus)

1 John 2:2 – ‘takes away the sins of the world’ – but ‘whoever does not have the Son does not have life’

Revelation 14-15, 20-21 – the overall sweep does not suggest that those who have experienced hell will ultimately be welcomed in. You can join up the dots this way but it’s not the most obvious biblical way.


Universalism is an argument from silence, a theology of the gaps – trying to build a bridge between justice and love, but there are other ways to do it. RP’s proposal would involve three resurrections (another one after the Second Death). Perhaps RP’s argument actually leads more naturally to annihilation (John Stott and John Wenham).

The Triumph of God can be explained in terms of the destruction of evil as will as the salvation of all. Universalists are clutching at straws. We shouldn’t be speculating about things we’re not sure about. Evangelicals should take seriously the teaching of eternal judgement and not be embarrassed by it.

NB I’d just like to say again that these are all Derek Tidball’s thoughts, not my own! I felt that he made some interesting points and raised some valid concerns, but overall I was far more convinced by Robin Parry’s talk. Having now read some of Robin’s book, I also feel that Derek had misunderstood some of Robin’s arguments and that the book actually answers many of the points Derek raises.

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 Bible, Conference notes, Evangelicalism, Hell, Salvation, Universalism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Can Evangelicals be Universalists? (Derek Tidball)

  1. johnm55 says:

    Fred Clark – the Slacktivist answers to my mind quite a few of Derrick Tidball’s points quite effectively in this post about the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s book. I was going to try and stick a quote in but it is probably best read in full.
    Ultimately though if you want to promote eternal damnation you elevate certain proof texts above others and interpret them in a certain way, and vice versa if you want to promote universalism.


  2. Pingback: Interview with British Theologian Rev. Dr. Derek Tidball | Gralefrit Theology

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