evangelical universalism?

Here is a book review that I published in the current issue of the Calvin Theological Journal (November, 2008).  I do not think that it is available online, and I suspect that most of you don’t subscribe to CTJ.  But since you may be interested in the subject, I thought that I would post it here.  I recommend this book for the best evangelical argument yet for universalism, though as you can see from my review, I don’t think that the author, whoever it is, makes a compelling case.

The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald.  Eugene, OR:  Cascade Books, 2006.  Pp. 201.  $19.20 paperback.


            Gregory MacDonald is a pseudonym (a nod to the universalist George MacDonald?) for an evangelical professor who may fear that using his real name would jeopardize his standing in the evangelical world and possibly endanger his employment.  He concedes that most of church tradition (4, 10) and even many biblical writers did not believe in universalism (40), yet he attempts to persuade readers that his distinct view of universalism comports well with other Christian doctrines (175-76).  He says that he is “a hopeful dogmatic universalist,” meaning that while his view argues that every last person will be saved, he is not “100% certain that it is correct” (4). 

            MacDonald’s universalism is motivated by the usual problems:  how could he worship a God who permits people to suffer forever in hell? (1); why would divine justice require everlasting punishment? (11-15); and would not the existence of hell detract from the joy of the redeemed? (15-18).  But though his motivation is typical, MacDonald’s universalism is unique.  He essentially views hell as a type of purgatory, “a purifying fire with an exit” (100).  He argues that hell is “an awful but temporary fate from which all can, and ultimately will, be saved (7, emphasis his).  Expressing his view through a fictional character named Anastasia, MacDonald believes “that one’s eternal destiny is not fixed at death and, consequently, that those in hell can repent and throw themselves upon the mercy of God in Christ and thus be saved.  Second, she also believes that in the end everyone will do this” (6, emphasis his). 

Everyone includes Satan himself, for “Colossians 1:15-22 seems to speak very clearly of the ultimate reconciliation of all created things, and this must include the devil” (130, emphasis his).  MacDonald offers two ways to rescue Satan from everlasting torment in hell:  either Satan is “a personification of evil” rather than “a personal being,” in which case a real person does not suffer when Satan the “symbol” is cast into hell; or if Satan is a real person, “one could maintain that the devil will be punished forever, but that Lucifer will ultimately be saved.”  Like the old man of flesh that is destroyed in Christ, so the devil must die to make way for Lucifer to be “reborn as a redeemed angel” (130-31).

The strength of this book is how MacDonald marshals Scripture to show how one might plausibly read Scripture to support universalism.  He gathers the standard texts and arguments:  the universalistic emphasis in Colossians 1:15-20, Israel’s call to be a priestly light for the nations, and Jesus’ task as the one who fulfills Israel’s mission.  MacDonald acknowledges that many of his “individual observations are fairly commonplace in recent biblical studies,” but scholars have missed “the universalistic implications when these observations are put together” (54).  Beyond this boilerplate presentation, MacDonald is most interesting when he addresses the passages on hell in the Book of Revelation.  He provocatively places Rev. 14:9-11 and 20:10-15 into their larger contexts, arguing that Rev. 15:2-4 and 21:23-27 supply universalistic postscripts to each passage.  He concedes that many sinners will go to hell, but he denies that any will remain there.  For instance, he asserts that the reason the gates of the New Jerusalem remain open (Rev. 21:25) is so those on the outside may repent and enter the city (109-15). 

            MacDonald believes that his purgatorial view of hell is the best way to reconcile biblical texts that speaks of God’s wrath and hell with other passages that emphasize God’s love and the restoration of all things.  Hell is real, just not forever.  Despite this advantage of his view, there are problems.  MacDonald inadvertently concedes that his belief that “the Devil and his angels would be saved,” antecedently expressed in Origen, was rightly resisted by the church as “unchristian” (174).  And he struggles to explain Jesus’ frequent warnings about hell.  MacDonald argues that Jesus likely believed that hell was only temporary but he did not inform his listeners because such “clarification would have undermined the rhetorical force of his message.”  Since Jesus’ point was to warn sinners to avoid hell, adding a “p.s., it’ll work out OK in the end” would have been “counter-productive” (149).  Does MacDonald really think that Jesus was this cynical? 

            MacDonald’s largest problem is theological, for he contends that humanity’s main problem is epistemological rather than ethical.  He asserts that people “freely reject the gospel as a result of being ignorant, misinformed, or deceived” (28).  No one ever makes “a fully informed decision to reject the gospel,” for such a decision is so “self-destructive and irrational…that it is hard to consider the choice free in any true sense” (29).  Indeed, MacDonald argues that no fully informed person ever freely rejects Christ.  He believes that hell supplies the necessary information so that people who land there quickly repent of their sin and submit to God.  Unlike Augustine, who taught that God must change sinners’ hearts, MacDonald argues that God only needs to inform their minds.  He writes:  “I understand hell to be a post-mortem situation in which God brings home to us the terrible consequences of sin, and this makes sense for someone who has lived a sinful life and needs such an education” (162). 

            Although I found MacDonald’s argument unconvincing, I recommend this book as the best try yet to tease an evangelical universalism from Scripture (this small review cannot do justice to its many biblical, philosophical, and pastoral points).  MacDonald probably will not persuade most readers to adopt his view, but he may convince many that there is room for universalists within the big tent of evangelicalism.  We will know whether he succeeds if he uses his real name next time.



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20 responses to “evangelical universalism?”

  1. Mike,
    Thanks for posting this review, sounds like an interesting book though I suspect I’d end up agreeing with you that it was not fully convincing.

    I’ve personally tried to make Universalism work theologically a number of times, but to no avail, it simply does not seem to plausibly do justice to the text.

    As much as I would love to be a universalist, or even an annihilationist (which seems just on the edge of feasible, but not quite there), I have no interest in basing those conclusions on anything but the Scriptures, and I do not believe the Scriptures really get me there so it’s not going to happen.

    I guess I’ll go with the Barthian stance of “I don’t think that universalism is true, but I hope it is”.

  2. mikewittmer


    I think that Barth was stronger on universalism than your quote suggests (is that a direct quote from him?). One of his students once called him an “incipient universalist,” which sounds about right. Barth all but said that everyone is saved in the end, and probably would have said that if he wasn’t so afraid of natural theology (didn’t want to put God in a box by saying what he would do). So while he could not say for sure, Barth suggested that all indications point toward God surprising us by saving everyone in the end.

    I think that universalists have to ignore too many biblical texts to make their system work. As someone said recently (I forget who), try reading Acts from a universalist perspective. It stretches credulity to make it fit.

    I conclude that I “wish” that universalism is true, and I won’t be angry with God if it turns out to be so, though I won’t say that I “hope” for it. This is a stronger term that I will reserve for the promises of Scripture. Since God hasn’t told me that he will empty hell, I won’t say that I hope for it. But I do wish it.

  3. I give the author credit for the attempt, though I too (at least through your review), see the arguments as not all they could be.

    It seems to me that these arguments are perhaps a “stepping stone” of sorts, as we in the post-modern world attempt to find a hermeneutic of judgement that can effectively engage the culture.

    It seems that the “Emergent” movement does not want to talk about hell, and so it is good to see someone “wrestling with the angel” as it were, and trying to find answers to these questions.


  4. Jonathan Shelley

    My concern with this particular brand of universalism is why hell is even needed. Doesn’t it seem that once a person stands in judgment before a holy and glorious God that that person would immediately repent and ask for forgiveness and reconciliation? That certainly seems to be the biblical response (for example, Isaiah, Paul, or even Job). It seems as though they want to take sin seriously, but not too seriously. I think an appropriate understanding of the penal substitution view of the atonement is the best theological defense against universalism (granted, Scripture trumps theology every time), as even an unbalanced Christus Victor view can sometimes slide towards universalism. I think Mike’s discussion of the various atonement theories and his balance of the penal substitution and CV views in DSB is an excellent example, although somewhat flawed, of how unifying the PS and CV views can respect the seriousness of sin while striking a balance between man’s depravity and God’s grace.

  5. mikewittmer

    Somewhat flawed? Now you have to elaborate!

  6. So now Dr. Wittmer is taking after Kierkegaard in publishing an article under a pseudonym and then publishing a rebuttal. Dude…

  7. mikewittmer


    The pseudonym is the author of the book I reviewed. I used my own name in Calvin’s journal. Did I not say that clearly?

  8. I agree that I wish universalism were true. I don’t believe that any Christian would want any person, much less our loved ones, to spend an eternity in hell. The next best thing to universalism for those not joined to Christ, in my opinion, is annihilationism. And for those who embrace universalism because they don’t believe in a literal hell (or want to believe in a literal hell), I would think that they would embrace annihilationism because it is a more biblically cogent and defensible idea. At leat this way, they don’t have to worry about a perceived (wrongly, I might add) incompatibility between a loving God who will redeem and restore His created order and an eternal “punishment” in a literal hell.

    Personally, I believe that Philip E. Hughes makes a strong and compelling argument for annihilationism in his wonderful book, “The True Image: The Origin and Destiny of Man in Christ” (I briefly reviewed this chapter on my site). I’m not completely convinced in my own mind that this is what the Bible teaches…yet; but I’ve decided that I have no problem if someone holds this view as long as he does so biblically as opposed to emotionally.

    My own view of “hell” is that while it may be an eternal agony that includes literal fire, the point, I believe, is the agony of eternal separation from God. At the judgement, I believe that the unbeliever will then know fully who he/she was created to be as “image-bearer” and the relationships that he/she was created to experience–wiith God, first, as Father and then with other image-beares and the cosmos itself. And the eternal agony that he/she will experience in “hell”, I believe, is the agony of knowing, but never being able to experience these relationships. I believe that separation from God and their fellow “brothers” and “sisters” and never being able to fulfill their created function and design as image-bearers will be the agony that causes hell’s inhabitants such pain and anguish. Even if there is a literal fire in hell, in my opinion, the agony of eternal burning is practically inconsequential to the knowledge of and yet inability to experience God as Father.

    Sorry about the book-length “comment”, but the topic of hell has been raised often lately in my circle and it’s a fascinating and important biblical concept to discuss.

    I encourage anyone who hasn’t read Philip E. Hughes’ book to pick up a copy at their earliest convenience. Even if you get to chapter 37 and end up disagreeing with him on annihilationism, the rest of the book before 37 and after is a feast for the Child of God.

    Thanks Mike. And I promise shorter “comments” in the future!


  9. Jonathan Shelley

    Zach – hilarious!

    Mike, if I read chapter 6 correctly, your basic position on the atonement is the Christus Victor viewed shored up with penal substitution. You raise two major concerns about PS, which is why you relagate to a subsidiary position. The first is that PS is soft on sin. However, I think Anselm makes it abundantly clear in Cur Deus Homo that sin is an offense against God so grave and serious that we cannot even comprehend how devestating it is. As Barth points out, it is only once we have been saved through Christ that we can understand the depths of our depravity. Second, you argue that PS does not address the immediate affect of sin on a large enough scale (this is actually your first two objections rolled into one). However, I think that if you take seriously Anselm’s statement of the impact of sin you realize the cosmic implications of the atonement. Sin has corrupted all of creation, and the atonement extends beyond the elect to the rest of the creation, ensuring us a place in the New Jerusalem.

    I think the appropriate crititque of PS is, as Leon Morris stated, it does not draw a strong enough correlation between the sinner and Christ. This is where a ransom theory, such as CV, comes in. However, we are not being ransomed from Satan – we are being ransomed from God’s wrath and judgment. Anselm discusses this at some length in CDH, arguing that Satan is under God’s judgment the same as we are. We cannot belong to Satan because, even in our sinfulness, we can only ever belong to God. We are his creatures, made in his image. I think Barth puts it best in his discussion on the Judge judged in our place. Christ pays the penalty that we could never pay, which frees us from the bondage of sin so that we can enjoy fellowship with God.

    I apologize for the brevity. I was actually starting to write a paper on your atonement theory for ETS, but stopped when I received the call for papers. If you’d like to discuss further, let me know.

  10. To Jonathan Shelley,

    I second Mike’s response asking you to elaborate on the Penal Substitution(PS)/Christus Victor (CV) discussion in DSB. I’m taking from your comment that you are in basic agreement with Mike’s view of the “both/and” embrace of PS and CV, but in your mind the case for that balance could be better developed? I ask because this view of the atonement is somewhat of a recent concept in my own theological experiance; fuelled in part by Bruce Ware’s disscussion of the extent of the atonement (found at http://www.powerofchange.org/blog/docs/ware_atonement.pdf) as well as Mike’s discussion in DSB.


  11. mikewittmer


    Thanks for clarifying–and I’m honored to be the topic of your aborted paper (though I may not share my bed again to allow you to read it!). I inserted endnote 34 in chapter 6 to address this very question–see if that helps any.

    In brief, my position is not “Christus Victor shored up with penal substitution.” I certainly don’t think that PS is subordinate in that way. The point I’m trying to make in chapter 6 is why God’s wrath must be satisfied, and the answer seems to be that only in this way can God defeat sin, death, and Satan (or CV). So I see PS as a means to a larger end, but something that is essential and central to the gospel (for we couldn’t be saved without it), not something that is added to “shore up” a weakness in my real view. Also, I don’t believe that PS itself has weaknesses, but that evangelicals who focus on it alone, at the exclusion of CV, have fallen into the shortsighted extremes that I mention in chapter 6.

  12. Didn’t Origen “originate” this hopeful universalist argument?

  13. Jonathan Shelley


    Let’s just skip to the end of the discussion where I admit I’m wrong and you’re right. We both know that’s where this will end anyways. I will add, though, that having re-read chapter six in light of your response, I still have the impression that you find PS too limited and relagate it to a secondary tier in your atonement theory. I’d be happy to send you an email with a more detailed and specific critique. Oh, and my quip about CV shored up with PS was an attempt to put a clever twist on your phasing on page 88.

    Bill, I think the key to any atonement theory – and this is the driving point behind Mike’s discussion in chapter six – is a proper doctrine of sin. What is sin and how does it impact the individual, the entire human race, and all of God’s Creation? Once you define sin, it’s easier to understand how God responds to our sinfulness. If you have a low view of sin, you tend to fall into the moral influence group. If you have a robust understanding of depravity, then some form of PS or CV is necessary to overcome sin. I think Mike is right on when he reminds us of the cosmic impact of sin, particularly in tying sin and death together on page 91. I only wish he could have devoted more space to developing this thought and really hammering home the extent and significance of our sinfulness. I think we as a society have gone soft on sin. Where Mike and I part company is on the role of Satan in all this – I think Mike gives Satan too much credit. That being said, Mike and I end up in the same place – you need both penal substitution and a ransom theory to have a full perspective on the atonement. In my opinion (and I think/hope Mike would agree) the atonement includes both expiation, which is best explained in penal substitution, and propitiation, which is best explained in the ransom theory. I hope this helps you in your theological development.

  14. Yooper

    I really get a kick how we with our finite minds think we can stick it to God and His Word. We haven’t a clue what it is like to know all things, to be the Creator of all things. We are prideful and prone to twist the Word of God to say what we think sounds good. Our thinking and vision is limited to say the least. Despite our best efforts, the Word of God will remain true and cannot be broken. Why not make peace with God and His Word?

    It appears that such attempts are not naive, but rather bordering on blatant apostasy. A visit to a “christian” bookstore will find these books everywhere. Why not include Jehovah Witness, Mormon… authors? The destination is the same place.

  15. mikewittmer


    You’re cheating–you say you are going to cut to the end where I’m right and then you don’t!

    At risk of sounding defensive (which I don’t mean to be, I enjoy and encourage these discussions), I do cover the extent of sin in chapter 4, which is why I don’t rehash it in chapter 6. I also don’t mean to give Satan too much credit–see endnote 34 where I address this issue–but I want to do justice to texts such as Col. 2:15, Heb. 2:14-15, and 1 John 3:8. Jesus came to defeat the devil, so in some sense we must have been in bondage to him.

    I am curious why you say that propitiation is best explained by Christus victor. I think that both are explained by penal substitution, but if forced to put one in the Christus victor column, I would choose expiation. Thoughts?

  16. Jonathan Shelley

    Mike, were you eavesdropping on my conversation with Bill? I thought the things I posted on the web were private!

    If I remember correctly, expiation is atonement and propitiation is reconciliation. I think penal substitution has a really strong argument for atoning for our sins, but it doesn’t address reconciliation satisfactorily. I think a ransom theory emphasizes reconciliation more because it stresses Jesus’ identification with sinners more than penal substitution. To put it another way, I think penal substitution answers how our sins are forgiven and ransom theory explains how that forgiveness affects me.

    If it helps any, remember that I didn’t take sys 2 with you.

  17. Mike

    and so the debate rages on…

    We as believers in Christ are constantly divided instead of being made complete in the same mind and the same judgment as Paul exhorted the Corinthians to be. Universalism, Annihilationism, and the like all result from the same fatal mistake…

    Man in his arrogance refuses to take God at his literal Word and twists the Word of God into something more palatable to him.

    Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? – 1 Corinthians 1:20

    Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God For it is written, “He is THE ONE WHO CATCHES THE WISE IN THEIR CRAFTINESS”; and again, “THE LORD KNOWS THE REASONINGS of the wise, THAT THEY ARE USELESS.” – 1 Corinthians 3:18-20

    Every promise and prophecy of God that has already been fulfilled has been fulfilled literally. So shall it always be.

    The Body of Christ has never been more clouded and divided in this Age of Grace. This too was foretold.

    For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. 2 Timothy 4:3-4

    Come quickly Lord Jesus!

  18. mikewittmer


    Do you really think that penal substitution does not emphasize enough Jesus’ identification with us? Isn’t that pretty much the point behind PS? Forget your ETS paper on me, I’m going to conserve your blogposts and read one on you!

  19. Jonathan Shelley


    Sadly, I don’t think I am a significant enough theologian to warrant a paper at ETS. Besides, how would it reflect on you that you have to correct your own student on this? It’s a good thing GRTS can’t recall my diploma (I already checked with Peter on that).

    The way I understand penal substitution in the Anselmian tradition the emphasis is on Christ’s divinity as the sufficient sacrifice to atone for our sins. Sure, he is united to us in his humanity, but I don’t think that is the primary focus of the theory. In my read of penal substitution, the focus is on appeasing God’s wrath and fulfilling his justice and how only the perfect sacrifice of the Son is sufficient to atone for all of the sins of humanity. I think, however, that Anselm’s emphasis on sufficiency pushes us towards a doctrine of justification by the overabundance of Christ’s merit, which seems to me to be a tenuous basis for propititation. I think that the ransom theory, which emphasizes our release from bondage/captivity, has a better focus on reconciliation. It is our bondage to sin that separates us from God. Christ frees us from that bondage and restores Creation to a right relationship with God. It is possible – and it happens all too often – for a debt to be paid without affecting reconciliation. This is true in my own life. Christ does more than just pay the debt of sin on our behalf. He restores us as well. I just don’t think penal substitution makes that as clear and as powerful as it could. If you push penal substitution to intensify the relationship between Christ and humanity, as Barth did, I think you necessarily end up in universalism, as Barth did.

    Boy, it’s a good thing I didn’t take any systematic courses with you. I probably would have failed!

  20. Jonathan Shelley


    You asked me how I deal with verses like Col 2:15, Heb 2:14-15, and 1 John 3:8. Having chewed on those verses for a while, I still come back to Anselm’s idea that Satan is a jailer who is himself in prison. I think if you interpret these verses in light of Job 1:12 and 2:6, the conclusion is that Satan cannot move against us unless it is God’s will. Even in his sinfulness, Satan is still under God’s will, as we all are. I think there are sufficient examples in the Old Testament of God using sinful people as instruments of his wrath against Israel to establish that God could use Satan to punish sinful humanity even though Satan is under the same wrath. That is why I reject the idea of a cosmic battle between God and Satan – how can Satan battle God? Reject God? Yes. Rebel against God? Yes. Deceive others into sin? Yes. But in the end, Satan is still God’s creature, and his actions, sinful though they may be, still fulfill the eternal decree of the Sovereign Lord. I think what we see in verses such as Col 2:15 is not so much Satan being taken as a prisoner of war as it is a picture of Satan’s ability to punish us for our sins being taken away. Christ bore the punishment in full on the Cross, satisfying God’s wrath. Therefore, Satan no longer has permission to punish us for our sins. Satan is like the bully in detention who torments the other kids in there with him, or like the head of a prison gang who beats up on other prisoners. He doesn’t have any direct authority over us. The ransom was paid to God. I think the idea that God had to pay a ransom to Satan undermines God’s sovereignty. Perhaps, as you suggest, I am stressing God’s transcendence at the expense of his immanence. But as I continue to contemplate God and study his Word, I am continually overwhelmed with how great he is and how truly insignificant I am.

    Again, I apologize for the brevity of my comments. There is so much more that needs to be said. The atonement is the heart of Christianity, so every tweak that we make to our doctrine of atonement has implications across the theological spectrum. That being said, I think so long as our doctrine of the atonement includes that we were created good in God’s image, fell into sin, that Christ alone has redeemed us from our sin, and we eagerly await the consummation when all things will be made new, the “how” question seems almost moot.

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