Book Review: The Evangelical Universalist

Gregory MacDonald. The Evangelical Universalist (Second Edition). Eugene: Cascade, 2012.*

In 2006, then editor for Paternoster, now with Wipf & Stock, Robin Parry published the first edition of The Evangelical Universalist (hereafter simply TEU) under the pseudonym Gregory MacDonald (combining Gregory of Nyssa and George MacDonald, both notable theologians who were universalists). The goal was to present a case for universalism which was compatible with evangelical commitments to the Gospel and biblical authority. In the preface to the second edition, Parry describes the reasoning behind the pseudonym, and the reasoning behind coming clean that he was the author of this volume. At the time (and to a signficant extent still now, a decade later) being a universalist was taboo in evangelical circles. Perhaps in the so-called “liberal mainline”, but certainly no conservative evangelical Christian who accepts the authority of Scripture could hold this position… right? Parry did not want to raise questions or criticisms for his employer, but, after a few years of blogging under the pseudonym, and interacting with various individuals, he did “come out” in 2009, and in 2012, Wipf & Stock/Cascade published the second edition, with a new preface by Parry, a forward by Oliver Crisp of Fuller Theological Seminary, as well as a few new appendices addressing concerns arising since the first edition, including a response to those who challenged his criticisms of Calvinism, a response to the Rob Bell Love Wins controversy, and a study guide for groups wishing to interact with the book together.

It should be noted (as I did in my response to his chapter in Four Views on Hell) that Parry is a good friend of Rethinking Hell, having appeared on our podcast twice, and speaking at the second Rethinking Hell Conference in 2015. Even though we disagree with his conclusions, we embrace him as a brother and fine interlocutor, and welcome him as an authentic, and yes, even specifically evangelical Christian. Parry is clear throughout TEU that the universalism he is advocating is a specifically Christian, Gospel focused, and historically orthodox form of universalism. He is speaking not of a “wishy-washy” pluralism (6) that says “all roads lead to God”, but the firm hope- he calls himself a “non-dogmatic dogmatic universalist” (4)- that Christ’s victory over sin and death will be total, and God’s desire that all be saved (see 1 Tim. 2:4, 2 Pet. 3:9) will ultimately be achieved through the redemptive power of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and he affirms the passages indicating punishment, but reads them as penultimate, and corrective punishments, without ever dismissing the severity of sin and its consequences or downplaying the significance of these punishment texts.

Parry tracks a trajectory from Genesis-Revelation which, he argues, speaks of God’s good creation falling into sin, and God’s response is restore and heal, with the goal of all things which are from him and for him coming to him (Rom. 11:36)- the Gospel metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. He argues this movement is paradigmatic throughout Scripture in the scenes of falling into Egyptian slavery and exodus, exile and return, and ultimately in Jesus’ death and resurrection. All things, he argues, have a telos, a final destination or end in God. His main texts for this are Romans 5:12-20 & 11:28-36, Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 1:15-20, which, if read from a certain vantage, could be read to imply universal reconciliation.

The weakness comes in Parry’s handling of the counter-texts (though of course a proof-texting war is hardly a good way to have this conversation). For instance, he claims that the only text in Paul which can, based on a surface reading be said to support the argument that “the damnation of sinners is irreversible” is 2 Thess. 1:5-9 (151). The problem here is that Paul on several occassions does indicate an irreversible, final destruction of some people. In Philippians 3:18-19 for instance Paul laments that many remain enemies of the cross, and that “their end (telos) is destruction (apoleain)”. The language of telos here indicates finality and permanence to this destruction; they meet their end in this destruction, not in God. As much as we may cringe at the notion of judgement resulting in permanent and final destruction with no hope for the life of the age to come, to suggest Paul is saying otherwise requires some exegetical creativity. This notion of total and irreversible destruction is less explicit elsewhere, but certainly seems to be present in 2 Thess. 1:5-9 which Parry notes, but his argument against permanent destruction in that text is unconvincing. We see additional evidence of destruction with no sign of salvation beyond in Paul’s writing in 1 Cor. 1:18, Gal. 6:8, Rom. 2:12 & 6:23, and outside Paul at Psalm 37, Matt. 7:13-14 & 10:28, 2 Pet. 3:7 just to cite a few examples.

The texts Parry provides are less convincing than he suggests. Although Parry tries to argue that Paul’s qualifier in Romans 5:17- in which Paul argues that the life through grace and righteousness from Christ is for those who “obtain” or “take” (lambano, usually translated as “receive” is an active participle)- should be read in “a passive sense” (80), this runs completely counter to the grammatical sense Paul uses here. The use of the participle form of lambano in the active voice is indicative of active agency on the part of human beings, meaning to take hold of or attain. Paul does insist that endurance in faith is a prerequisite for the age to come. Colossians 1:15-20 runs into the same problem, since the reconciliation of all things mentioned there is then dramatically qualified in v. 23: “if you continue (present active) in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.”(NIV) Philippians 2 is derived from Isaiah 45:23, which when read in context is rather exclusive, since it first flows from the imperative “turn” in 45:22, and is restricted to Israel made righteous in v. 25. So the face value reading doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Perhaps Parry’s strongest biblical argument is from Romans 11. In Romans 9-11 Paul famously laments over the question of why Israel has not enthusiastically embrace the Jewish Messiah Jesus. He ultimately concludes that some have been bound in disobedience so that the Gentiles might receive, and be ingrafted, and eventually God will, through making the Israelites jealous and repentant, bring about the salvation of all Israel. Paul concludes “God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all… for from him and through him and to him are all things.” In other words, God’s plan includes bringing the exalted low, so that he might bring salvation to all. While this may seem to be the thrust of Paul’s argument, when read in light of other passages from Paul, one can’t help but conclude that Paul does not actually mean this to be read as the salvation of all people. In the case of Romans 11 it is probably better to read the all as referring to Israel and Gentiles without distinction, rather than every human without exception.

Of course, it must be noted that Parry, and many who share his view, do not hold these things absolutely, but conclude that Scripture provides more than enough evidence to hope that God can, and will save all. I think the exegesis he brings comes up short. Where Parry’s real strength lies is the first chapter, “A Hell of a Problem”, in which he lays out the tensions which exist in biblical exegesis and systematic theologies. He notes that a) Scripture says God desires the salvation of all, and that b) God is sovereign and omnipotent, and so concluding that some, perhaps even the majority of humanity will not be reconciled presents us the very real problem of either admitting either 1) God’s desires are eternally thwarted by humanity’s refusal to co-operate; that is, God does get what he wants, or 2) the need to do logical gymnastics to justify things. He notes a Calvinist will seek to safeguard God’s greatness and sovereignty and so will argue that God has elected some to salvation and others are predestined to perdition, and God gets exactly what he wants. But this won’t do, because God is omnibenevolent, God is love (1 John 4:8) and Scripture tells us God does desire the salvation of all. Free will theists (Arminians, Wesleyans, and others) will argue that one must choose to be saved; to co-operate with God’s redemptive work. Thus God has provided the means of salvation for all, and pleads with all to come, but will not violate mankind’s free will, and humanity, by rejecting God is able to ensure God does not achieve his ultimate goal. This too will not suffice, argues Parry, since it means that human beings can override the will/desire of God. Parry has scored an important point here, and I can’t help but agree on this one (with the caveat that his presentation of Calvinism and Free Will Theism are necessarily oversimplified), that it does create a significant problem for our systematic theologies. The problem though is that Scripture is not a systematic theology text book, and the more we try to force these things into a logical set of categories, the more damage we do the meaning of the text. Noting the damage done to the text by these attempts at a theological system does not prove universalism to be the biblical testimony.

The Scriptures, as far as I can see, cannot be read to say all will be saved without doing injustice to many, many texts. I think the biblical evidence for conditional immortality is incredibly compelling, though not without legitimate questions for those of us who profess this understanding of final punishment. Parry has raised very good questions, questions evangelicals need to wrestle with. He has pushed the conversation along, and his presentation warrants our respect and our engagement in the future. As I have said in other places, I find the case for universalism to be more compelling than the case for eternal conscious torment, but the Scriptural data leaves me affirming conditional immortality. That may raise some question marks for certain systematic theology questions, but the exegetical case is simply too strong.

*Wipf & Stock/Cascade Books provided a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to our good friends at Wipf & Stock.

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