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The Evangelical UniversalistDare we hope for this?

Universalism is the belief that, in the end, everybody will be saved. It's a view often associated with woolly, Bible-doubting liberalism. But now a Bible-believing evangelical is proposing, with conviction and vigour, that it is a valid option within an evangelical framework. The book is The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald (SPCK, 2008, ISBN 978-0-281-05988-1).

The author is a prominent evangelical biblical scholar writing under a pseudonym. He is lucid in his writing, charitable towards those with different views, and both honest and clear-sighted in his arguments. He tackles every possible objection to universalism, whether biblical, practical or philosophical.

He still believes in hell as a terrible place, but also holds that God's grace will provide an exit from it to all who, realising the folly of the choices made during their lifetime, cast themselves upon his mercy. He believes that all will, in fact, do so and all, through Christ, will in the end be saved. When you look into it, the common protestant idea that death seals a person's destiny once for all has little if any biblical support.

Don't be too quick to puff and blow your dismissal of universalism. I assure you that, once you have read this book, your puffing will inevitably have to subside. Whether you accept the writer’s proposals is, of course, up to you, but you may, like me, at least conclude that it's not completely way out. I offer you below, in view of the topic’s radical nature, a larger than usual number of quotations.

To subordinate divine love to divine justice so that God has to be just but does not have to love is odd for a Christian who confesses that God is love.  (p22)

If, as many Christians think, the majority of the human race will be damned, then one could argue that God gambled with the eternal destinies of his creatures and, for the most part, lost! This is hardly a fitting way to think of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  (p25)

We need to look again at these so-called universalist texts (Rom 5:18; 1 Cor 15:22; Col 1:20; Phil 2:11; Eph 1:10) and ask whether they may actually mean what they seem to mean when taken at face value.  (p35)

The universalist will happily concur that reconciliation is only for those who are in Christ through faith. There is no salvation outside of Christ, and one is included in Christ through faith. However, the universalist will also maintain that, in the end, everyone will be in Christ through faith.   (p47)

[Re Is 45:20-25] In this salvific context, Yahweh swears by himself an irrevocable oath that every knee will bow down before him and every tongue will confess him as God. That this is no forced subjection of defeated enemies is clear for the following reasons. First, we see that God has just called all the nations to turn to him and be saved, and it is in that context that the oath is taken. Second, the swearing of oaths in Yahweh’s name is something his own people do, not his defeated enemies. Third, those who confess Yahweh go on to say, “In the LORD alone are righteousness and strength," which sounds like the cry of praise from God's own people.  (p69)

It is commonplace to find scholars suggesting that “all” can sometimes mean “all without distinction” rather than “all without exception,” and thus “all people” can mean “all types of people" (i.e., Jew and Gentile) and does not necessarily mean “all individual people." However, the distinction between two uses of the word "all" is simply bogus. The word “all” only has one meaning in Greek, as in English, and that is “all without exception.”  (p82)

[Re Phil 2:5-12]  The terminology Paul uses is suggestive of salvation rather than forced submission. All creatures confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Elsewhere in Paul’s letters when he speaks of confessing Jesus as Lord it is always in a context of salvation. No one can say that "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3). If someone confesses with their mouth and believes in the heart that Jesus is Lord, then they will be saved (Rom 10:9). There are no examples in Paul of an involuntary confession of Christ's Lordship.  (p99)

For whom did Christ die? The Calvinist answer is that Christ did not die for all people but only for those whom God, before creation, predetermined to save. The New Testament is indeed clear that Christ died for the church (Eph 5:25), but we should not infer from that that he died only for the church. We might just as well infer from Paul’s claim that Christ died for him (Gal 2:20) that he died only for Paul. Christ did die for Paul, and he did die for the church. He also died for the whole world (John 1:29; Rom 5:18; 1 Cor 15:22; 2 Cor 5:14; Heb 2:9-10; 1 Tim 2:4-6; Tit 2:11; 1 John 2:2). God's saving, cross-shaped love excludes nobody. It wants all people to come to repentance and find salvation (2 Pet 3:9).  (p102)

In John's visionary geography there are only two places one can be located—within the city enclosed in its walls of salvation (Isa 60:18) or outside the city in the lake of fire. The gates of this New Jerusalem are never closed. Given that those in the city would have no reason to leave it to enter the lake of fire, why are the doors always open?  (p115)

We see the tree of life and read that “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2b). John had added “the nations" to Ezek 47:12 here and again brings out his own special emphasis. The nations of Revelation certainly need such healing, and the fact that it is promised after their condemnation in the Lake of Fire can only encourage a universalist reading of the whole book.  (p119)

In Mark 9:42-50 we read one of Jesus' stern warnings about avoiding the fires of Gehenna. It climaxes with the words, “...to be cast into the hell, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.' For (gar) everyone will be salted with fire." The words “for everyone will be salted with fire" are offered as an explication of the comments about Gehenna. The verse has long perplexed commentators, but it seems to indicate that the fires of Gehenna function as a place of purification. (p150)

Second Thessalonians 1:9 remains a problem text for universalists, but it is not so unambiguous and overwhelming that it seriously undermines the case for universalism... Every theological system has its problem texts; and, in this respect, universalism is no different from Calvinism, Arminianism, or any other  ism.  (p154)

God's actions towards humans are at all times just, holy, wise, loving, and merciful. Hell is a manifestation of divine justice, holiness, wisdom, love, and mercy. This is not too difficult to see if universalism is true, but it is very hard to see how one could understand hell in such terms if traditional doctrines of hell are correct. How could tormenting sinners forever and ever be seen as a loving action?  (p164)

For the universalist, hell is something to be avoided at all costs, just as Jesus warned us. To object by saying, "Well, if hell is not forever, it doesn't really matter if someone has a spell there," is like suggesting that because you will recover from the long and painful illness, it isn't worth taking precautions to avoid it. It is like telling an Old Testament prophet not to bother warning Israel to repent, because God will always restore them after the judgment anyway. The prophet would reply that it is better to avoid the judgment in the first place, and the prophet is surely correct.  (p166)

[Compare the above with my review of another book on this subject]

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