Whilst I greatly appreciate the integrity of Gregory and Kevin, I find myself somewhat disturbed by their advocacy of evangelical universalism. That disquiet does not so much concern the conclusions they reach (though I do disagree with them), nor with the arguments they put forth (though I find them wanting), but rather with this simple fact: as far as I can see both of them seem to be more concerned with defending universalism as an evangelical or orthodox doctrine, than they do with defending universalism per se. Gregory writes, “But I am not trying to persuade you to agree with us. I am simply wanting to pose this question - Are those beliefs incompatible with evangelical faith?”
My immediate response to this is WHY NOT? Why aren’t you trying to persuade me to agree with you? After all – and lets be blunt here – we’re talking about whether certain people I know and love are going to spend eternity with God, or whether they will suffer eternal torment or perhaps annihilation. It’s not as though we’re talking about flavours of ice cream! In other words, it seems to me that Gregory is more concerned with whether the particular view he holds can be counted as ‘evangelical’ than whether its true or not. And to me that is deeply problematic.
It may be somewhat odd for me to say this as the theologian at the Evangelical Alliance, but I don’t primarily care whether a particular doctrine can be counted as ‘evangelical’ or not. I care about whether it is true and for that we have to look to the Scriptures, and ask for God’s wisdom and guidance by the Spirit. It actually doesn’t matter that much whether universalism is compatible with Bebbington’s quadrilateral, or the 5th ecumenical council – it matters whether it is compatible with Scripture. This is not to say that such discussions of ecclesial orthodoxy have no place. Of course they do. But it is to say that whether a doctrine is ‘evangelical’ or not is entirely secondary to whether it is biblical or not. This is what both Gregory and Kevin seem to have overlooked.
And it is also here that both Gregory and Kevin fail to make their case. The dearth of Scriptural texts in their posts is itself telling. Whilst of course it is the case that we have many texts that appear to espouse a universalism (Rom 5:18, Col 1:20, Phil 2:11), we also have many that most clearly deny it (Mt 25:46, Luke 13:28, Rev 20:10-15). Assuming, then, that the Scriptures are not crassly contradicting themselves, we need to find some way of resolving this hermeneutical conundrum.
If we examine the main texts that appear to support universalism, we find little evidence that they actually do. So, in Romans 5, Paul appears to be saying that all people will receive life, yet it is clear that the verse serves as a summary of the previous section in which justification is clearly indicated as being appropriated through faith (Rom 5:1). Hence, the ‘all’ to which he refers is implicitly ‘all who’ve received Christ through faith’, not ‘all’ without qualification. Similarly, Phil 2:11 is often cited in support of universalism, but all that verse indicates is that all will one day acknowledge Christ as Lord. It says nothing about their eternal destiny. And when Col 1:20 says that “all things” will be reconciled to him, that does not preclude the possibility of some things being annihilated.
Gregory has made it clear that the kind of universalism he champions is what is technically known as restorative punishment (RP) i.e. that some people will be sent to hell, but that God will restore them from there to an eternity with him. RP is usually presented as the solution to the problem of reconciling the verses that suggest a universal salvation with those that suggest some form of post-mortem punishment. However, such a creative ‘solution’ is simply not required if the case for universalism has not even been made, and that is where I find myself. In addition, RP suffers from the huge problem of simply having no scriptural warrant. It is an invented solution to an imagined problem.
The point, though, is that if Gregory and Kevin want to make their case it needs to depend on a thorough reading of these Scriptures rather than just demonstrating its compatibility with ‘evangelicalism’.
No doubt, Gregory addresses these issues in his book, which I have not yet had time to finish. However, in placing the emphasis of this post on the doctrine’s evangelical orthodoxy, my fear is that Gregory is seeking approval from the evangelical community, more than he is seeking to be faithful to Scripture. And that is always a dangerous thing, for whenever we put scripture secondary to anything – including ecclesiastical blessing – we are in danger of distorting its meaning. So my plea to Gregory is please do try to persuade me, and if it turns out that you’re successful but that my new found belief is incompatible with ‘evangelicalism’ then so be it. The loss belongs to evangelicalism not to me as long as I’m faithful to Scripture.
Justin Thacker is head of theology at the Evangelical Alliance.
His regular comment on events of the week can be found at: www.eauk.org/fnt