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.