Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Evangelical Universalist?

Mark Casserley of SPCK forwarded me the announcement of the publication of the following volume: The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald (this is a pseudonym based on Gregory [as in 'of Nyssa'] and MacDonald [as in 'George']). The book addresses several questions: Can an orthodox Christian, committed to the historic faith of the Church and the authority of the Bible, be a universalist? Is it possible to believe that salvation is found only by grace, through faith in Christ, and yet to maintain that in the end all people will be saved? Can one believe passionately in mission if one does not think that anyone will be lost forever? Could universalism be consistent with the teachings of the Bible? The author's answer of course is "yes". You can find discussions of it at blogs associated with Maggi Dawn, Chris Tilling, and Jason Clark. No doubt this will prompt much discussion and debate. Imagine me saying in my Yoda voice: "Beginning it is of the Universalist wars."
I have three comments:

1. As for myself, I'm pretty much an exclusivist but with inclusivist leanings on some areas (see Jason Clark's blog for definitions).

2. I'm not a universalist. I side with Dale C. Allison: "I do not know what befell Mother Theresa of Calcutta when she died, nor what has become of Joseph Stalin. But the same thing cannot have come upon both. If there is any moral rhyme or reason in the universe, all human beings cannot be equally well off as soon as they breathe their last and wake again" ("The Problem of Gehenna," in Resurrecting Jesus [London: T&T Clark, 2005], 99).

3. As a comical point, I must include the infamous Dr. Peter Williams' reply to Mark Casserly's email:

Dear Mr Casserley,
Thank you for the information. I hope that SPCK will also be paying for body guards and for safe housing for 'Gregory'. It is very important to keep him safe from all those evangelicals who might take the law into their own hands...
Best wishes,

(Used by permission).


James Pate said...

On the Dale Allison quote:

The thing is that there are conservative Christians who believe that both Mother Theresa and Stalin will be in hell because they're not absolutely perfect and aren't covered by the blood of Christ. Should evangelicals act as if works matter, and then act as if they don't? Well, I guess they'd have to do so to qualify as evangelicals, but this is just a problem that I have.

Sven said...

Thanks for posting on this book Michael.

I'm not sure we can say anything with any real certainty about specific individuals and their eternal fate so the rest of this comment is really just speculation, but in the wider scheme of things I don't see a fundamental problem if both Mother Theresa and Stalin ended up sharing in the new creation.

Partly this is because of the grace of God, but also because of the justice of God.

I think perhaps in the evangelical tradition we have an overemphasis on the retributive aspect of divine justice, but the justice our divine judge, the one who "came to seek and save that which was lost" surely also means an element of reconciliation in the final scheme of things?

That is to say that God's justice is not so one-sided as to simply punish the perpetrators, but also to vindicate the victims. But then what of those of us who are both victims and perpetrators of sin? What does God's justice mean then?

Is it permissible to think that in a new creation where death and sin are destroyed, the offenders and victims are reconciled in love rather than eternally separated from one another?

There's no way in which I think we can answer these questions that wouldn't ultimately be just speculation, but they are interesting points.

Similarly there is a real risk of folly in over-rationalising an image-laden text like Revelation, but there is a fascinating detail that is almost lost at the end of the book when it mentions that although the wicked are outside the heavenly city in eternal darkness, the door of the city "is never shut."

It's interesting point, but it would be interesting to read your thoughts on the book in due course.

Dunc and Als said...

As someone about to step onto a plane to go to the mission field (tomorrow actually Michael, for your prayers), I think I could go if the sole goal was to bring glory to Christ by people recognising that he is of greater worth than anything in this life (i.e. the motivation for mission doesn't have to be that we need to go otherwise there is no hope for those who have never heard [which is not quite the same as universalism, I am aware]).
However, I like the way one of my colleagues put it [talking post Christ and post close of the canon to be really specific], "if there is any hope for the salvation of those who have never heard of Christ, then we have no grounds for any confidence from the Scriptures and so should not operate as if there were."
In other words, I do not want to close the door on God choosing in his great mercy and grace those whom we do not expect (perhaps because they do not fit our theological framework). As Abraham said, "Will not the judge of all the earth do right?" However, in dealing with the whole of Scripture I believe that the only hope for all people is that they intentionally/consciously receive the grace and mercy offered in Christ.
I guess that makes me an exclusivist with a mild inclusivist leaning a small way.
Thanks for the continued thoughtful discussions Michael.

James Crossley said...

"As for myself, I'm pretty much an exclusivist but with inclusivist leanings on some areas"

Am I saved or damned? (And, ahem, apologies for disagreeing like that on the Antioch thing)