This would appear to be a contradiction in terms, but not so says author Gregory Macdonald. The aim of Macdonald’s recent book titled The Evangelical Universalist is to demonstrate that “there is no inconsistency between being Evangelical and Universalist.” On the surface it appears that it would be impossible to reconcile evangelicalism (which emphasizes personal conversion by faith in Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible) and universalism (the belief that all persons will ultimately be saved from eternal separation from Creator God), but Macdonald cleverly navigates around this charge by stating that he is an exclusivist, meaning “I am inclined to think one has to have explicit faith in Christ to be saved. So God’s purpose of saving all is only achieved through the proclamation of the gospel and its reception with repentance and faith.” The problem, however, I find with this statement is that Macdonald presupposes that those in hell will repent and believe in Jesus with no clear justification for this view from Scripture (at least not in the interview. To be fair, he may deal with this view with a biblical text in his book). Hypothesizing that Macdonald is correct, that it is somehow possible, and in his view a certainty, that the dead in hell will repent and place their faith in Jesus, how does one reconcile such a notion with Revelation 14:9-11?

And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.

The problem here is clear. How is it that those who are in torment day and night, with no rest, who are worshipers (present active tense indicating on-going action) of the beast and its image, a clear indication of active defiance against the presence of holy angels and the Lamb (see v10), will then turn and place faith in Jesus through repentance, thus leading to their salvation? It is clear that the “smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever”. At some point, if Macdonald’s “hopeful dogmatic universalism” (which essentially means that Macdonald believes in universalism but is only hopeful because he isn’t 100% certain he is correct. As a side note, I would even argue that he isn’t dogmatic when his own confession is that he doesn’t believe orthodox Christians who hold to traditional views of hell and eternity should adopt universalism – to which I say – what is the point of the book then?), if his view is correct, the flames will one day be extinguished because all who go to hell because they did not believe in Jesus on earth, will one day believe in Jesus in hell, and there will no longer be any smoke of torment rising for all ages. While not a pleasant thing to think about, either Macdonald is grossly mistaken, or the Apostle John had something in his eye when he saw and recorded this vision in Revelation. I think the implications of this passage are clear. The scathing flames of hell will not turn the heart of unbelief in repentance towards God; they will ignite hatred and defiance towards their Holy Judge.

Furthermore, the Gospel according to Luke also offers us some insight to the impossibility that those in hell will ever repent for their treason against their Creator. In Luke 16:19-31, when teh rich man is in torment in hell, he calls out to Abraham, not seeking mercy for deliverance from his torment, but rather that Abraham would provide some comfort for his parched tongue (16:24). His anguish and torment is clear, but yet there are no signs of sorrow for sin. Abraham then tells the man that there is no possible way for anyone in hell to cross over the chasm fixed between them. The rich man then pleads with Abraham to send someone to tell his five brothers about hell so that they will believe and not follow the folly of their deceased relative. But Abraham’s words are telling about the heart of unbelief. He tells the man that his brothers have the opportunity to listen to Moses and the Prophets, and thus escape torment. But the rich man indicates that they will not believe the proclaimed message, but will listen if “someone goes to them from the dead, [then] they will repent”. Abraham responds, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” This passage does teach that those in hell will want relief from their suffering, but it does not indicate that they will seek reconcilliation with God.

A final observation about Macdonald’s interview is how Macdonald speaks about the difference universalism makes to him and his faith in God.

It fills me with hope for the future. It fills me with worship for God’s love, his providence, his wisdom, and his justice. It increases my view of the power of the cross, of the mercy and grace of God. It helps me make sense of God’s wrath and punishment. It helps me hold together God’s love and wrath in a more satisfactory way than I could previously. It helps me deal more satisfactorily with the problem of evil (the victims of injustice will really have th wrongs they have suffered righted instead of going from the frying pan to the fire), it means I have something to say to the Christian parent who has lost a child that had rejected the gospel. My view of sin has not been decreased but my view of grace has been increased – where sin abounds grace abounds all the more. I now believe that God will heal all the wounds of sin in his beautiful creation. Sin will not have the last word.

It certainly fills one with hope for the future if their is doubt of the substance of their faith in Jesus. I can’t really see how it makes sense of God’s justice at all though. Universalism provides almost no motivation for personal holiness. It certainly widens the scope of Jesus’ work on the cross as it now applies to all people at all times in all places because they will believe – either here on earth – or eventually after a season of suffering in hell. I have no idea how universalism adequately answers the problem of evil. Will the murdered holocaust victim feel any sense of vindication for an unrepentant Adolf Hitler who only repents after literally experiencing the torment of hell because of his unbelief, a redemption that clearly is coercively influenced by the pain of his current circumstance? Will this person be satsified in the way the Macdonald is? And is it really true that Macdonald does not now have a significantly temperate view of sin? In what ways does sin really matter if all are going to experience God’s salvation anyway? If God is going to redeem people, even through faith in Jesus, while in hell, what exactly is the point of Jesus’ suffering on the cross? Is it even necessary if God has chosen to produce repentance out of the suffering of hell?

Interesting article, and I hope it provokes some thoughts and discourse in your mind as well. I hope you will take time to read the interview.

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