An author writing under the pseudonym of Gregory MacDonald has penned a book entitled The Evangelical Universalist (SPCK 2008).
The first question I’d ask myself is, why the pseudonym? It’s not as if he’s in imminent danger of being burnt alive at the stake.
Is he afraid of losing his job if he goes public? But he’d only lose his job if he holds a job in which he’s expected to affirm the traditional doctrine of hell. So I have assume he’s holding down his current job under false pretenses. Why else would he conceal his true identity?
Shouldn’t he come clean about his beliefs? If he was hired under the assumption that he affirmed the traditional doctrine of hell, and changed his mind after he got the job, he should inform his employer.
I’ve already read and reviewed three major books defending universalism. I also got into a lengthy debate with Tom Talbott and Jason Pratt on the subject. My debate with Pratt was interrupted by other duties, and I never got around to resuming that particular exchange.
So, why am I writing about yet another book defending universalism? Well, for one thing, MacDonald managed to garner some striking endorsements.
The endorsement by Talbott is predicable enough, both because Talbott is a fellow universalist, and because he’s quoted extensively and favorably by the author. Also, the recommendation of a theology prof. from George Fox University is less than earth-shattering.
However, Joel Green and Andrew Lincoln are major names in NT scholarship. Mind you, they don’t say he convinced them. Indeed, Green says otherwise. But they’re very laudatory.
He also snagged a glowing blurb from Oliver Crisp, who was, at least up until now, a rising star among Reformed philosophers.
So, that’s quite a build-up. It definitely raises your expectations. Of course, high expectations can be hazardous.
When I turn to the actual content of the book, I’m a bit puzzled by why the reviews think this work marks such a significant advance in the case for “Evangelical” universalism.
In defusing prooftexts for everlasting punishment, he borrows some moves from standard annihilationist literature. His prooftexts for universal salvation parallel Arminian prooftexts for universal atonement. So there’s a deja-vu quality to his treatment.
Let me say at the outset that whether or not you’re impressed with a book like this depends in no small measure on whether you’re predisposed to agree with the author. How much preexisting room do you have in your belief-system to accommodate his claims?
An Arminian has more room than a Calvinist. An annihilationist has more room than a Calvinist—just as an Anglican is more inclined to Catholicism than a Baptist.
I’m a Calvinist. And I’ve been doing apologetics for several years now, so my beliefs are battle-hardened. There’s no opening in my belief-system for him to exploit. No crack in the wall.
This is not a choice between open-mined and closed-minded beliefs. If Lincoln or Green is more sympathetic to his thesis than me, it’s not because they’re more open-minded than me, but because they come to the book with their own theological precommitments which predispose them in favor of his arguments.
I don’t plan to comment on every chapter of the book. There’s a repetitious quality to books defending universalism. A predictable set of well-worn arguments. I’m only commenting on this book since it will probably be touted as the standard defense of universalism.
Reviewers will remind us at nauseating intervals that this is a “challenging,” “thought-provoking” book. That thoughtful Christians can’t afford to ignore it. That we must be prepared to “wrestle,” “grapple,” and “come to terms” with his argument. To think “long and hard” about it as we “tackle” his arguments. Well, let’s see about that.
“Have you ever felt that soul-sickening feeling when you know you cannot worship God with sincerity any longer” (1)?
Can’t say I have.
“Have you ever experienced the painful knowledge that the noble words of praise coming from your lips are hollow” (1)?
If he’s alluding to Wesleyan hymns which contain Arminian errors, I simply make allowance for the fact that hymns are fallible.
“I can recall one Sunday morning when I had to stop singing for I was no longer sure whether I believed that God deserved worship. For a believer, that is a moment of despair. Ever since I had been a Christian, I had never waved in my conviction that God loved people, but on that Sunday I didn’t know if I could believe that anymore. I was having a doxological crisis—wanting to believe that God was worthy of worship but unable to do so. The crisis was brought on by my reflections on hell” (1).
What he apparently means by this is the following: God doesn’t love anyone unless he loves everyone; God doesn’t love everyone unless he saves everyone; unless God saves everyone, God is unworthy of our worship.
I agree with McDonald’s self-diagnosis. He couldn’t worship God with sincerity. Up until then, he was worshiping a false God.
In fact, he still is. All he’s done since then is to shore up his false preconception of God. He’s an idolater.
The question at issue is whether God is worthy of worship unless he saves every sinner.
Let’s think about that for a moment. Suppose I commit mutiny. And suppose I have no good reason. Maybe it’s sheer greed. I don’t rebel against Capt. Bligh. In fact, I rebel because the captain is a man of honor. He’s crimping my style. I want to rape and pillage at will.
My fellow sailors and I decide to become pirates. The captain and first mate are decent men who oppose our evil schemes, so we murder them and commandeer the ship. Eventually, we’re captured and sentenced to death.
Yet I receive a pardon. Why? My father did the king a favor, and so the king returns the favor.
But I refuse the pardon. Unless the king extends the royal pardon to all my mutinous cohorts, then he’s not worthy of my respect.
The ironic thing about men like MacDonald who badmouth hell is that they always manage to badmouth hell in such a way as to justify the very thing they reprobate. Their attitude is such a damnable attitude to begin with. It’s not God who’s unworthy of their worship, but they who proves themselves to be unworthy of a worthy and worshipful God.
“I began my Christian life by affirming with a vengeance the mainstream tradition of the Church that hell was eternal conscious torment” (1).
Throughout this book, McDonald will use the word “torment.” This, of course, conjures up the image of hell as an everlasting torture chamber.
In my opinion, this owes more to literary tradition, augmented by a cinematic tradition, than to the exegesis of Scripture. So his entire book is burning a straw man.
“After a few years, a friend of mine managed to wean me onto a version of hell-as-annihilation...Not long after that John Stott ‘came out’ as a tentative annihilationist, giving considerable credibility to our position—a position that is now thankfully considered as a legitimate ‘evangelical option’ by many” (1-2).
Why should a universalist regard annihilationism as a legitimate option? Moreover, is Christianity a Turkish Bazaar in which we go from booth to booth—dickering over the various “options,” or is Christianity a revealed religion?
“My crisis began some years later whilst I was reading a superb book the philosopher William Lane Craig...defending a philosophical position known as ‘middle knowledge’ (or Molinism)...this is a tremendously appealing view, because it enables the Christian to hold together the biblical themes of predestination and free will” (2).
Is freewill a biblical theme?
“However, as I read the book a question crossed my mind: ‘If God can allow us freedom and still ensure that he gets his will done, why is it that he allows anyone to go to hell?’ If William Craig is right, I reasoned, God could saved everyone without violating our free will!...” (2).
Christian libertarians have, indeed, backed themselves into a corner on this issue. Why didn’t God simply instantiate a possible world with only heavenbound agents? Some possible worlds have both heavenbound and hellbound agents, other possible worlds have only hellbound agents, while still other possible worlds have only heavenbound agents. For that matter, some possible worlds are unfallen worlds.
While the totality of agents involves a mix of sinful and sinless agents, hellbound and heavenbound agents, why didn’t God instantiate the subset of heavenbound agents? Why not limit his selection to the free agents who only do good?
(Admittedly, Plantinga tries to solve the problem by positing transworld depravity. But it’s implausible to first attribute libertarian freedom to human agents, then insist that there’s no possible world free of sin. It’s an odd sort of libertarianism that commits you to an inevitable outcome.)
However, you can relieve a contradiction in more than one direction. It’s not as if univeralism is the only game in town.
“The problem Craig’s book raised for me was that the main argument I had used to defend hell, at least when not going through a Calvinist phase, was that God had given humans free will, and if people choose to reject the gospel, then God would not compel them to accept it. Craig’s book began to remove that argument from my armory, leaving me defenseless” (2).
Notice how apologetics is driving MacDonald’s theology. Our main argument for hell should be divine revelation. What do we really know about the afterlife apart from revelation? At best, philosophical arguments and parapsychological evidence might give us some reason to believe in the survival of the soul. But when it comes to the detailed content of the afterlife, how would anything short of revelation fill the gap?
This doesn’t mean that a revealed truth can’t be defended on rational grounds. But MacDonald is making that secondary exercise the primary reason we should either accept or reject a revealed truth. The divine authority of revelation itself doesn’t figure in his calculations.
“The problem was that over a period of months I had become convinced that God could save everyone if he wanted to, and yet I also believed that the Bible taught that he would not. But, I reasoned, if he loved them, surely he would save them; and thus my doxological crisis grew. Perhaps the Calvinists were right—God could save everyone if he wanted to, but he does not want to. He loves the elect with saving love but not so the reprobate” (3).
Which relieves the tension.
“He may love me, but does he love my mother? I was no longer sure. Could I love a God who could rescue everyone but chose not to? I could and did go through the motions, but my heart was not in it. And that was what happened—I sang and prayed; but it felt hollow and so I stopped. I no longer loved God, because he seemed diminished” (3).
Several issues here:
i) Should we only sing and pray when we feel like it? If anything, it’s when we don’t feel like it that we need to sing and pray all the more. The walk of faith has its dry seasons. It isn’t strewn with lilacs and butterflies.
ii) The emotional dimension of the issue is undeniable. And I’ll have more to say about that as we progress. At the same time, this all depends on what example you choose. It’s easy to come up with tearjerkers that make universalism very winsome. But one can come up with counterexamples, no less realistic.
Take the battered-woman syndrome. No matter how often the husband or boyfriend beats her to a pulp, she can’t bring herself to leave him. She’s emotionally dependent on him. She’s hopelessly in love with her abuser.
In the eschatology of wife-beaterism, a battered-woman can’t imagine the prospect of eternity without her abusive husband or boyfriend, so she constructs a heaven for wife-beaters. In heaven, the wife-beater will continue to get drunk and slap her around—cuz heaven wouldn’t be heaven without him. If God didn’t save her abusive boyfriend, he wouldn’t be worthy of worship.
Should we reformulate our eschatology to accommodate the psychology of the battered woman? If she can’t face the prospect of life without her abusive boyfriend, should we remodel heaven to include abusive boyfriends?
iii) This may well be a deal-breaker for the universalist. They would rather spend eternity in hell with their friends than spend eternity in heaven with a God who didn’t save their friends. Mind you, their friends won’t be very friendly in hell.
“According to the traditional doctrine, hell is everlasting, conscious torment” (11).
i) I’m less concerned with the traditional doctrine or traditional formulation that with the Scriptural doctrine.
ii) Apropos (i), I wouldn’t define hell as everlasting, conscious *torment*. Rather, I’d define it as everlasting, conscious *punishment*.
It isn’t necessary to define the punishment as *torment*. It isn’t necessary to specify or narrow down the nature of the punishment, as if “torment” is synonymous with retribution, which is obviously not the case. The retributive theory of punishment does not entail “torment.” Torment may or may not be punitive, but punishment isn’t inherently tortuous, and retributive justice doesn’t necessitate “torment.” This is a straw man argument.
Now, it’s possible that the damned torment each other, which would be a case of poetic justice rather than retributive justice. And to say the damned torment each other is not equivalent to saying that God torments the damned.
I’d add that you don’t have to be tormented to be miserable. Or suffer. To constantly cast the opposing position in terms of “torment” is prejudicial.
“What possible crime is a finite human capable of committing that would be justly punished in this way? Many find the idea absurd, because it is hard to see how even the most hideous crimes humans commit could be balanced by the traditional eternal punishment. The upshot of this is that the traditional doctrine seems to require a theory of punishment that ends up undermining it” (11).
i) Where’s the argument? He poses a rhetorical question, which begs the question. He then asserts that many find the idea absurd—which doesn’t give us a reason to agree with them.
ii) He then objects to the idea of infinite demerit. But this represents a popular confusion. The fact that something is of endless duration doesn’t make it infinite. That would make it a potential infinite rather than an actual infinite. And a potential infinite is an actual finite.
iii) The damned do not experience infinite punishment. They only experience finite punishment. They are punished moment by moment. Of what is conscious punishment conscious? The present. While—to some degree—we remember the past, and while—to some degree, we anticipate the future—we are directly aware of the present. Each instant of the specious present.
He also attacks the idea that hell is a vicious cycle. The damned are sinners. They continue to sin. So God continues to punish them.
He raises a couple of objections to this argument: “this view seems incompatible with a biblical theology according to which in the coming age God destroys sin from his creation” (14).
But that objection merely begs the question in favor of universalism. On the traditional view, God doesn’t eradicate sin from every square inch of his creation. Rather, he quarantines the damned in the penal colony of hell.
MacDonald is smuggling an assumption of universalistic eschatology into his critique of hell. But that grants the very question at issue.
ii) More to the point, guilt has no decay rate or expiration date. If you’re guilty of wrongdoing, you’re not half as guilty five years later. The passage of time is irrelevant to your culpability. You’ll be just as guilty a billion years from now as you were the hour you did it. In Scripture, it’s redemption, and not the lapse of time, that atones for sin.
“Why would God wish to create a situation in which many of his creatures rebel against him forever? Hell didn’t have to be that way” (14).
That’s not a bad question to ask. And we’ll get around to the answer in due course. But in the meantime, we could pose a parallel question for the universalist: Why would God wish to create a situation in which many of his creatures rebel in the first place?
How does universalism justify the Fall? Why must they go through hell to get to heaven?
Remember, MacDonald is a libertarian. He believes that God can save everyone without infringing on their freewill.
But in that event, God doesn’t actually need to save anyone. Salvation presupposes sin. God only needs to save everyone if everyone is lost—apart from salvation.
But why, on libertarian grounds, should we grant the operating assumption? Why didn’t God populate the world with the subset of free agents who never sinned? Think of how much pain and suffering that would avert—both in this life and the next (assuming postmortem salvation via a hellish Purgatory).
Hell didn’t have to be that way. Neither did life on earth.
He also discusses the suggestion that “Hell is everlasting; but, from the perspective of the damned, it is not that bad a place to be” (14).
It depends on how this is formulated. Hell is where sinners sin to their heart’s content—or discontent. They sin without restraint. They give free rein to their evil impulses.
I don’t see how God is wronging a wrongdoer by giving him what he wants. If he makes himself miserable in the process, that’s poetic justice. If he wrongs another wrongdoer, that’s poetic justice.
Even in this life we see men and women who dedicate their every waking moment to the pursuit of an utterly vapid, godless existence. Tallulah Bankhead comes to mind.
MacDonald then presents a syllogism with some of the following premises: “Supremely worthwhile happiness cannot...exist if there are people we know of but do not love” (15).
Yes, well, I see no Scriptural or intuitive ground for thinking that supremely worthwhile love cannot exist unless I love Attila the Hun. All MacDonald is doing here is to beg the question in favor of universalism.
“I can only know the fate of those I love and remain happy if their fate is ultimately a blessed one” (16).
But what about the fate of those I don’t love? Attila the Hun is not one of my loved ones.
“Therefore, the redeemed can only have supremly worthwhile happiness if ultimately no one they love is damned eternally” (16).
MacDonald is try to bundle two different arguments into one:
i) I can’t be happy in heaven if one (or more) of my loved ones is in hell.
ii) I can’t be happy in heaven if anyone is in hell.
But (ii) doesn’t follow from (i). I don’t feel the same way about Attila the Hun that I feel about my father or mother grandmother or best friend.
The emotional appeal of universalism is actually quite provincial. It’s limited to *my* loved ones. Selective universalism.
Now, everyone is related to someone else. Attila may have had a devoted daughter who was grief-stricken at his death. That doesn’t mean that I mourn for his death (or damnation). His death is no loss to me.
Frankly, it’s none of my business. He had his life and I have mine. I’m responsible for what I do with my life.
Of course, this doesn’t prevent me from caring about other people who are not my loved ones. But there’s no logical or psychological connection between ordinary compassion and the counterintuitive claim that I couldn’t or should be happy in heaven in the knowledge that Genghis Khan Joseph Mengele or Vlad the Impaler will spend eternity in hell.
And let’s remember that once you get to hell, all common grace is gone. In hell, everyone is just as evil as Genghis Khan or Joseph Mengele or Vlad the Impaler. Indeed, even worse.
I think MacDonald scores some valid points against Craig on 16-17. But that’s not an argument against hell. That’s just a criticism of certain rational arguments for hell. But the doctrine of hell is ultimately based on the witness of Scripture. Of God speaking to us in Scripture.
“God could stop me loving those I love at present. He could make my heart callous so that I am not tormented by their pains” (17).
One of MacDonald’s problems is a failure to distinguish between virtuous love and vicious love. Not all forms of love are virtuous. Some forms of love are sinful.
Take an adulterous couple. They love each other. Yet their love is sinful.
And they may take it a step further. Because they’re in love, they want to spend all their time together. But the spouse gets in the way. They have to conceal their affair.
So they hatch a plot to murder the inconvenient spouse. This is all done in the name of love. And the love is genuine. Passionate. All-consuming.
Suppose I were a juror at their murder trial. Would I be a “callous” juror because didn’t buy the plea that love excuses all? Would I be callous if I vote to convict them of murder?
To the contrary, I’d be callous to the murder victim if I acquitted the adulterous, murderous couple in the name of “love.”
Should we restructure heaven to create a heaven for adulterous lovers who can’t bear the thought of eternal separation from their beloved? Should we eternify adultery in the name of love?
What about the doting, ambitious mother of a cheerleader who hires a contract killer to murder a rival cheerleader so that her own daughter can become the prom queen. Her mother does it out of love. Maternal love. She loves her daughter. She’ll literally do anything for her daughter. Anything to advance her career. And that’s the problem. Love like that is immoral.
“But would the God who love his enemies (Mt 5:43-48) perform such heart-hardening surgery” (17).
Does God love his enemies? All his enemies? He loves some of his enemies—but does he love all of them? There are many passages of Scripture in which God treats his enemies in a way that seems less than loving—to say the least.
What about Mt 5:43-48?
i) Mt 5:45 doesn’t say that God loves his enemies. The passage does draw a broad analogy between the way in which God deals with his enemies, and the way in which we are to deal with our enemies. But it doesn’t turn that into a one-to-one correspondence.
ii) And when it speaks of love, this has reference, in context, to actions rather than attitudes.
iii) But, more to the point, what God actually does for his enemies in 5:45 is limited to the provision of natural resources. That’s hardly a prooftext for universal salvation. And, in fact, that doesn’t prevent God from raining down judgment on at least some of his enemies—both in this life and the life to come (e.g. Mt 10:15; 24:39; 25:41,46).
iv) Finally, why does God treat some of the wicked better than they deserve? Is it for their benefit? According to the parable of the wheat and the tares, God does it for the benefit of the wheat, not the tares.
In this age, the lives of the elect and the reprobate are intertwined. It’s not possible to judge one without harming the other (Mt 13:29). Only at the end of the age will it be possible weed the world (v30).
“If God himself does not rejoice in the death of the wicked...” (Ezk 33:11).
i) In context, this is talking about death, not damnation.
ii) Apropos (i), does MacDonald think that God can’t prevent the wicked from dying? If he takes no “pleasure” in their death, why does he allow them to die when it’s within his power to save them from the Grim Reaper? God himself is responsible for the fact that sin is a capital offense.
iii) It’s easy to come up with passages of Scripture in which God seems to be fairly enthusiastic about his judicial role (e.g. Ps 2:4-5; Is 30:27-30).
iv) In context, this isn’t talking about the wicked in general, but the Babylonian exiles. Members of the covenant community.
“...or in the pain he sometimes had to inflict (Lam 3:31-33), how could his people” (18)?
God doesn’t inflict pain for the sake of pain. The purpose is either remedial (for the elect), or retributive (for the reprobate).
He then has a section on Calvinism. “It seems to entail a denial of the claim that God’s nature is to love his creatures (as 1 Jn 4:8,16b seems to teach)” (19).
“That Christ died for all people (as 1 Jn 2:2 seems to teach)” (19).
If 1 Jn 2:2 is a prooftext for universal atonement (or universal salvation), then is 1 Jn 5:19 a prooftext for universal possession? Is every human being a demoniac?
In Johannine usage, kosmos is generally qualitative rather than quantitative. If refers to the kind of people we are. The kosmos represents the fallen world order, at enmity with God.
“And that God desires to save all (as 2 Pet 3:9, 1 Tim 2:4, and Ezk 33:11 seem to teach)” (20).
i) 2 Pet 3:9 doesn’t denote all human beings. As Bauckham points out, “God’s patience with his own people delaying the final judgment to give them the opportunity of repentance, provides at least a partial answer to the problem of eschatological delay…The author remains close to his Jewish source, for in Jewish though it was usually for the sake of the repentance of his own people that God delayed judgment,” Jude, 2 Peter, 312-13.
ii) 1 Tim 2:4 doesn’t denote all human beings. As Towner points out, “The purpose of the reference to ‘all people,’ which continues the theme of the universality in this passage, is sometimes misconstrued. The reference is made mainly with the Pauline mission to the Gentiles in mind (v7). But the reason behind Paul’s justification of this universal mission is almost certainly the false teaching, with its Torah-centered approach to life that included either an exclusivist bent or a downplaying of the Gentile mission…Paul’s focus is on building a people of God who incorporate all people regardless of ethnic, social, or economic backgrounds,” The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 177-78.
As Schreiner points out, “It may be that they [the false teachers] were consumed with genealogies because they restricted salvation along certain ethnic lines (1 Tim 1:4)…When Paul says that God desires all to be saved (1 Tim 2:4), and that Christ was the ransom for all (1 Tim 2:6), he may be responding to some who excluded Gentiles from salvation for genealogical reasons…Titus 2:11 should be interpreted along similar lines…Paul counters Jewish teachers (Tit 1:10,14-15; 3:9) who construct genealogies to exclude some from salvation,” Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, 184-85.
Ezk 33:11 doesn’t denote all human beings. In context, it has reference to the exilic community.
“In light of the biblical emphasis on the supreme value of love, it seems plausible to think that a being that loves all is greater than a being who loves some but not others” (20).
i) But the Bible doesn’t prioritize the divine attributes in this fashion. It doesn’t say that God’s love takes precedence over his justice or holiness or wisdom, &c.
ii) Moreover, the attribute of love doesn’t imply the love of everything. If I love goodness, I hate evil. If I love virtue, I hate vice. So MacDonald’s argument undercuts his univeralism.
“Thus, it seems plausible, from a Christian perspective, to see the Calvinist solution to the problem of hell as requiring a diminished view of God’s greatness, and a diminished view of God’s greatness is the last thing a Calvinist wants to do” (20).
This argument is cute rather than acute. For it equivocates on how we define God’s greatness. Obviously a Calvinist doesn’t define it the same way as a univeralist, so MacDonald is merely begging the question—something he does on a regular basis.
“A God who loves all seems more worthy of worship than a God who does not” (20).
A God who loves Satan doesn’t seem more worshipful to me than a God who damns Satan.
In fact, you can tell a lot about a person by who or what he loves. If I went into someone’s home and saw a swastika over the fireplace, that one thing would reveal a lot about the homeowner—and the revelation wouldn’t be flattering.
What does it mean to love both the Nazi and the Jew? Aren’t there situations in which you have to choose? What if a Nazi prison guard is about to execute a Jewish child, and you’re in a position to prevent it by killing the Nazi. What’s the loving thing to do? Who lives and who dies? Whom do you save?
Like so many critics of Calvinism, MacDonald never appreciated just how counterintuitive and even scandalous is the love of God for sinners. That God loves anyone who’s wicked is not something we should take for granted. Not something that seems to come naturally to God. Just the opposite.
“The Calvinist may say that by saving some and not others God is making clear that salvation is of grace and thus undeserved. God did not have to save anyone. That he chooses some is wonderful. That he does not choose all is not unjust” (20).
“In reply, let me note, first, that it is unclear why the ‘grace not works’ aspect of salvation requires any be damned” (20).
i) It doesn’t. But notice how MacDonald is inverting the issue from whether God is required to save anyone to whether he is required to damn anyone. Even if God is not required to damn anyone (which is a straw man argument), this doesn’t mean he’s required to save anyone, much less that he’s required to save everyone.
ii) And notice another bait-and-switch. He originally framed the issue in terms of God making clear the gratuity of grace by saving some rather than all. He then switches to the question of whether salvation by grace alone requires God to damn anyone. But that’s a different question. And that doesn’t negate the other question.
Even if it isn’t necessary for God to damn anyone for salvation to *be* gracious, it might be necessary for God to damn some to *demonstrate* (“make clear”) that salvation is gracious.
“Surely we could all be recipients of such grace without it becoming less gracious” (20).
That depends. One thing that makes saving grace gratuitous is that it’s merciful. And mercy is not obligatory. Mercy is not automatic. Mercy is not a uniform property. Mercy is optional—discretionary.
“We could also all realize that we are saved by grace apart from works without anyone being eternally damned” (20).
i) Even if that were true, God is still entitled to withhold his mercy. The wicked don’t deserve forgiveness. They deserve retribution.
ii) MacDonald may say in the abstract that we could all realize the gratuity of grace even if no one were damned, but it’s quite clear, as a practical matter, that MacDonald doesn’t realize that at all. There are fundamental elements of law and gospel that have never penetrated into his theology. At the end of the day, he thinks that God wouldn’t be good unless God saves every evildoer. That betrays a perverse and subversive notion of divine goodness.
“Second, the scenario seems frighteningly close to the following analogy: imagine a man whose sons suffer from a disease that makes them constantly disobey him (original sin)” (20).
i) MacDonald is treating original sin as if it were an extenuating or even exculpatory circumstance. That original sin puts us in a state of diminished responsibility—or even excuses our conduct (like the temporary insanity defense). But Scripture never treats original sin as a mitigating factor. If anything, original sin is an aggravating factor.
Of course, we could get into a debate over whether or not this is fair, but it shouldn’t be necessary, in an intramural debate between professing believers, to defend revealed truths.
ii) Does MacDonald believe in original sin? If so, he must think it’s just. Otherwise, God would wrong us by afflicting us with original sin. If not, then why does he introduce the subject?
Indeed, there’s something ironic about sinners who rail against the debilitating effects of original sin. Evidently, the noetic effects of sin haven’t kept them from railing against the noetic effects of sin. So that’s one effect it doesn’t have. They’re sufficiently conscious of their condition to complain about it. So either they’re better off than they thought they were, or else they’re self-deluded.
iii) In addition, a human father/son relationship is not identical with a Creator/creature relationship. God and I are not two of a kind.
In general, fathers are supposed to protect their children. Yet even at a human level, different men have different social roles. A judge doesn’t have the same role as a father. And God is (to some) as well as a father (to others).
For that matter, there are moral restraints on parental love. Consider a rich, powerful father who pulls every string so that his son can commit various crimes with impunity. That kind of love is evil.
“One day, as a result of this, the sons fall through the ice on the pond their father had warned them not to walk on. They begin to drown. They have brought their fate upon themselves. Being afflicted with the disease, they are too stupid to even respond to their father’s calls to grasp the safety ring he ahs thrown in (the gospel). The man has the solution: a ray gun he has will cure his sons of their disobedience and enable them to grasp the ring (irresistible grace). He could, thus, save both; but, to make the point that he does not have to, he only saves one...We would think that if the father could save both and loved both then he would save both” (20).
i) Ironically, his illustration proves the very thing he’s trying to disprove. MacDonald treats sin as if it were a stroke of bad luck—like leukemia. No one blames you for getting leukemia. And if we could cure you, we would. But sin isn’t a synonym for misfortune. Because he doesn’t understand sin, he doesn’t understand mercy or justice or grace.
ii) As a rule, a human father has an obligation to look out for his children. And if he had a grown child who was retarded, that obligation would remain.
iii) However, MacDonald is treating original sin as a disease rather than a culpable condition. His vignette is persuasive to the extent that you buy into his assumptions, and—of course—his vignette is tailor-made to illustrate his tendentious assumptions. But it’s easy to come up with vignettes that trigger a very different intuitive response.
A pedophile kidnaps a child and locks him in the basement. The father of the child breaks into the home, confronts the pedophile, shoots him, then rescues his five-year-old son.
The father could save both of them. If the pedophile received medical care, he would recover. But the father let him to bleed to death. The father doesn’t trust the system of justice to do the right thing. This is a repeat offender. And, in any case, the father is happy to see the man die. He didn’t intend to kill him. He shot him in self-defense. But he didn’t intend to spare him either. He doesn’t love the pedophile. He loves his five-year-old son. And because he loves his son, he hates the man who abducted his son.
“Is God the Father like that? Even if they deserve what they get, how could a loving father let them die when it is in his power to help” (20)?
i) It comes down to storytelling. Who’s a better storyteller. And it all depends on who the characters are. If you want to make a case for universalism, you tell a familial tearjerker about a loving father or mother or son.
But there are stories to illustrate any position you please. We shouldn’t begin with stories. We should begin with the truth.
It isn’t my obligation to be loving to everyone. Here’s another story. Suppose a suicide bomber enters an elementary school. Suppose a policeman has a clear shot. Should the policeman try to talk him out of killing all those children? Or should he shoot him in the head? Should he put hundreds of children at risk for sake of maybe, just maybe, convincing the suicide bomber to reconsider his murderous intentions? I don’t think so. Do you?
We should let some people die. In fact, we should help some people die. We should help a suicide bomber die before he has a chance to take anyone else with him.
ii) Moreover, if MacDonald is going to press the paternal analogy, then there are lots of things a human father would do for his child that God fails to do for his.
If you knew that a natural disaster was going to strike a populated area in a few days, wouldn’t you warn the inhabitants? But God doesn’t do that. How does a universalist explain the discrepancy?
If you knew that your daughter would be sexually assaulted today when she went somewhere, wouldn’t you warn her not to go there? Indeed, wouldn’t you forcibly restrain her from going there? But God doesn’t do that. How does a universalist explain the discrepancy?
It’s child’s play to compile a long list of things that God allows to happen which a human father would do something to avert. Consider all the girls sold into child prostitution. Would you turn your young daughter over to the sex trade? Look at all the orphaned street kids in Rio de Janeiro. If you were omnipotent, what would you do about that situation?
To put it bluntly, if you were God, and you were a universalist, is this the sort of world that you would design?
Of course, a universalist will say this is offset by the eschatological payoff. But, of course, that compensation is only necessary given all the pain and suffering here below. It doesn’t begin to explain, on universalistic grounds, why all that pain and suffering is necessary in the first place.
“There is a specific problem for the Calvinist connected to the psychological possibility of worship: Talbott again: ‘I cannot both love my daughter as myself and love (or worship wholeheartedly) a God whom I believe to have done less than he could to save her from a life of misery and torment. For necessarily, if I truly love my daughter, then I will disapprove of any God whom I believe to have done less than his best for her, less than I would have done if I should have the power; and necessarily, if I disapprove of God, then I do not truly love him” (21n28).
i) As a biographical admission, I don’t take issue with this claim. There are, indeed, people like MacDonald and Talbott who, if given a choice, would choose family over God.
Talbott words this as if he were daring God to either save both of them or damn both of them. That’s an empty threat, for God has nothing to lose. God can get along very nicely without Talbott’s company. Talbott’s salvation or damnation has no affect on God’s beatitude. God doesn’t need us. He doesn’t love the elect because he needs them. His love is truly disinterested. And there’s something refreshing about that.
ii) This is a coercive appeal rather than a principled argument. Indeed, it’s quite cynical. This is not about my love for all of humanity. Rather, it’s like standoff in which kidnappers do a hostage release in exchange for a prisoner release. We don’t release the prisoners because we love them and wish them well. We release the prisoners because that’s the only way to secure the release of our kidnapped friends and family members.
Talbott puts a gun to the head of your loved one and says: If you want you kid brother sprung from hell, then Vlad the Impaler is part of the bargain. It’s a twofer.
iii) This draws attention to a fundamental tension in MacDonald’s argument for universalism. For he’s attempting to combine two different lines of argument. One is an appeal to his universalistic prooftexts. The other is a sentimental appeal to our natural desire to see our loved ones saved. But these tug in opposing directions.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that his prooftexts establish God’s universal and efficacious saving will. The problem this introduces into his argument is that, even if God loves everyone, and wants everyone to be saved, the scope of human love is far from paralleling the scope of divine love.
In most societies and subcultures, there’s a distinction between in-group attitudes and out-group attitudes. You love your own. Your kin. Your clan. Your countrymen.
At a minimum, you don’t love everyone with the same intensity as you love your in-group. And oftentimes, the test of love for your own is group-solidarity at the expense of the outsider. Love and loyalty are synonymous. To love the outsider is an act of betrayal.
Now, at the moment, I’m not evaluating this attitude. I’m just describing the way in which, as a matter of fact, human beings feel about other human beings. It’s not distinguished by uniform benevolence.
And it won’t do for the universalist to criticize this attitude, for people either feel a certain way or they don’t. An emotive argument doesn’t evaluate emotion, but appeal to emotion. As soon as you evaluate emotion, the emotive argument loses any independent value. You’re judging it by other criteria. It ceases to be a criterion in its own right.
“God has to be just, they [Calvinists] maintain, but he does not have to be merciful. He has to punish unforgiven sin, but he does not have to forgive sin” (21).
Sounds good to me.
“This is a common view among theologians, but it ought to be seen as problematic for a Christian view of God. To subordinate divine love to divine justice so that God has to be just but does not have to love is odd for a Christian who confesses that God is love” (21-22).
i) How is that any odder than “subordinating” divine justice to divine love? They are both divine attributes. Coequal attributes.
ii) I wouldn’t say that we’re “subordinating” one attribute to another. We’re talking about God’s economic role. His relationship to the world. Certain attributes, and corresponding economic roles, are more suitable to a given situation than others. For example, God is inherently just, but the expression of justice depends on the existence of sin.
iii) Omnipotence is a divine attribute, but this doesn’t mean that God must do whatever God can do.
Suppose we apply MacDonald’s logic to omnipotence. It’s of the essence of God to be omnipotence. That’s his nature. Therefore, whatever he can do, he does. God can damn everyone; therefore, he does.
iv) Notice that MacDonald is equivocating. Love and mercy are not synonymous. The Son loves the Father. Does this mean the Son is merciful to the Father? No. That would be nonsensical.
Mercy presupposes ill-desert. Love does not.
“It could be that it is in God’s nature that he desires to show mercy to all. After all, Christians claim that God is love and that he loves his enemies” (22).
Does God love all his enemies? Does he love the damned? In fact, one of MacDonald’s arguments against damnation is that damnation is incompatible with the love of God. So his argument is viciously circular.
“For God to be love, it would seem to be the case that he has to love all his creatures.”
And for God to be holy, it would seem to be the case that he must judge his unholy creatures. Notice how utterly lopsided MacDonald is in his appeal to the divine attribute of love, as if God had only one attribute.
“This is because if it is God’s very essence to love, then God cannot but love, in the same way that if God’s essence is to hate evil, then he cannot but hate evil” (22).
Except that MacDonald has now backed himself into a conundrum. If it’s God’s nature or essence to hate evil, such that he cannot exercise any personal discretion in the matter, then God can never love an evildoer. Far from constructing an argument for universal salvation, MacDonald has now given us a logically compelling argument for universal damnation—if you concede the premise.
“And if God loves all he has created, then he will want to show saving mercy to all his creatures” (22).
Isn’t that rather tardy? If he loves all his creatures, why does he wait so long to show them mercy? Why not start by showing them mercy here and now? Mercy doesn’t have to be “saving” mercy to be merciful. Why not make life more bearable here-below so that he doesn’t have to compensate for all their earthly misery by saving them in the hereafter?
If it’s God’s “very essence” to be loving and merciful, then it’s not just a question of loving everyone, but loving everyone all the time. Sooner as well as later.
Suppose, to tell the sort of story MacDonald is fond of inventing, a father shows no affection for his son for the first 15 years of his life. Then when his son turns 16, the father showers him with affection.
Does MacDonald think that deferred version of love would be an adequate model of parenting? Would postponing your paternal affection for your own son, then overcompensating at a later date, somehow make up for your neglect for the first 15 years of his life?
On pp23-32, MacDonald scores some excellent points against freewill theism, open theism, and Molinism respectively. Moving along:
“A deep worry about the traditional Christian views on hell is that the implication of them is that very many people who suffer terrible injustices in this life, indeed perhaps most of them, will not actually have those wrongs righted in the life to come” (157).
I’d merely observe that his worry isn’t a Biblical worry. In Scripture, the reversal of fortunes concerns itself with vindication of the righteous and the judgment of the wicked. It’s the unjust suffering of the righteous, the suffering of God’s people, that’s a theodicean issue in Scripture—and not the suffering of the wicked.
“On traditional modes of thinking, her suffering and death take away from her any further opportunities for salvation. If the mother says that God allowed her daughter to die because it was the key to her turning to the Lord, it looks very much like God is not treating her daughter as a person valuable in her own right, but merely as a means to someone else’s good” (157-58).
i) What about the virtue of altruism? What about a soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades?
ii) As usual, MacDonald speaks of “persons” in the abstract rather than sinners. But to be a sinner is to forfeit certain rights and immunities.
“Such [horrendous] evils, which seem to rip the heart of meaning from a life, provide reason to doubt God’s goodness towards any individual whom he allows to experience them. It may be that one could argue that by allowing such evils, God does create a better world overall and that those who suffer horrendous evils may be a necessary sacrifice for the benefit of the whole system. However, Adams responds: ‘I contend that God could be said to value human personhood in general, and to love individual human persons in particular, only if God were good to each and every human persona God created. And Divine goodness to created persons involves the distribution of harms and benefits, not merely globally, but also within the context of the individual person’s life. At a minimum, God’s goodness to human individuals would require that God guarantee each a life that was a great good to him/her on the whole by balancing off serious evils’...Sacrificing some individuals for the benefit of the system is not the action of a God who values individuals. If God values individual persons, he will act with goodness towards them; and this requires, first, that he brings about, a better balance of good over evil for every individual and, further, that any horrendous evils experienced by an individual would have to be defeated” (158-59).
i) Notice the purely stipulative character of the reasoning. Adams and MacDonald posit that God must do thus-and-so. But why should anyone believe them? Do they speak for God? No.
ii) Absent revelation, we can only judge by experience—by the experience of life on this side of the grave. And that sets an ominous precedent for such an optimistic eschatology.
iii) And there’s the continual moral blindness of framing the issue in terms of abstract “individuals” rather than sinners.
iv) Universalism likes to speak in generic terms about eschatological compensations, but how, in particular, does universalism offset various deprivations we suffered in this life?
For example, what if I didn’t get to marry my high school sweetheart? She was the love of my life. She’s the only woman I ever wanted to share my life with. How does universalism make up for that emotional hole in my life? Does it send me back to high school? Do I get to start all over again? Have kids by her? Celebrate our golden anniversary?
Suppose I was an only child. I always wanted to have a brother. But my parents didn’t give me one. So I went through childhood and adolescence without a brother by my side. How does univeralism make up for that emotional hole in my life? I can’t repeat the life cycle, can I?
Just saving someone from hell doesn’t, of itself, explain how you’re going to compensate for all the pain or deprivation he underwent here-below. You’re sparing him additional pain or deprivation in the world to come. But that doesn’t go any distance in explaining how heavenly joys will outweigh earthly sorrows. At this point, universalism must retreat into mystery. Step out on faith.
To say that God will “balance it off” issues a voucher in lieu of an explanation. It’s not as if universalism offers a better explanation. It doesn’t.
MacDonald quotes some more Adams: “God’s becoming a blasphemy and a curse for us will enable human perpetrators of horrors to accept and forgive themselves” (160).
You know, whether Josef Mengele is able to accept and forgive himself isn’t all that high on my priority list. And I also don’t find that urgent concern in the pages of Scripture.
And if Marilyn Adams had a five-year-old daughter who was the subject of Mengele’s experimentation, I rather doubt she’d be so broken up about his infernal fate.
“Clearly punishing the perpetrators of horrendous evils in hell forever and ever is not going to overcome horrendous evils in the lives of the victims” (160).
Have you ever noticed that the folks who pen morally condescending books on universalism aren’t survivors of the Holocaust? You have pampered prigs like Adams and Talbott and MacDonald who presume to speak on behalf of the victims. They don’t allow the victims to speak for themselves. How did Simon Wiesenthal spend his remaining years? Was he trying to track down Nazis so that he could convince them to accept themselves and forgive themselves? To value themselves as individuals.
In my observation, victims often want retribution. They find that morally and emotionally satisfying. Who is MacDonald to deny them their due? Even Job got his day in court.
“And it would certainly not be a display of God’s goodness to the criminals” (160).
MacDonald is equivocating. If we define goodness as mercy, then damnation is not an act of mercy. But justice is another one of God’s defining attributes. A good God is a just God.
“Eternal conscious torment contributes nothing to God’s purposes of redeeming creation. In fact, it would ‘only multiply evil’s victories’” (160).
To the contrary, righting the scales of justice represents the triumph of good and the vindication of the righteous—who persevered in faith in the face of adversity.
“One constantly danger that a tradition doctrine of hell generates is that God’s nature is divided up and set in an internal conflict. The theology goes as follows: God loves humanity and wants to save them but at the same time is holy and cannot stand human sin. Being just, he cannot leave such sin unpunished. So God has an internal dilemma; he wants to save us because he is loving, but he also wants to punish us because he is just. God’s love and his justice are set in opposition. This analysis produces a conception of divine justice that has no integral link with divine love and a conception of divine love that is disconnected with divine justice. The joy of the redeemed in the new creation is the result of God’s love and mercy, whilst the torment of the damned is the result of God’s justice (not his love)” (163).
There is, indeed, a genuine tension in standard evangelical theology. On the one hand, God wants to save everyone, and pursuant to that end he makes provision for everyone’s salvation (universal atonement, sufficient prevenient grace). On the other hand, his salvific intentions are thwarted by human freedom.
But there’s no dilemma or disconnect in Calvinism—especially the supralapsarian variant. God, out of sheer generosity, intends to share his beatitude with a race of rational creatures. Knowing God is the greatest good since God is the greatest good. But an existential knowledge of God’s justice and mercy is unobtainable apart from evil. So God foreordains the fall and redeems the elect. The reprobate are justly damned, and their damnation reinforces the gratuity of grace.
Universalism and supralapsarian Calvinism both deploy a greater good defense, but universalism cannot explain why there would be an underlying situation that called for this solution in the first place. Calvinism can. Universalism lacks a coherent theodicy. Calvinism has explanatory power at the very point where universalism is empty-handed.
“How could tormenting sinners forever and ever be seen as a loving action” (164)?
It isn’t a loving action. It isn’t meant to be. It’s an act of retribution. Retributive justice. A God who allows evil to go unpunished is an evil God.
And MacDonald has never shown that God is “tormenting” the damned. He’s punishing the damned.
“Consider the case of a Christian mother at the funeral of a beloved son who had rejected his Christian upbringing and turned away from the Lord. What hope can Christian faith offer her?...traditional theology can offer virtually no hope at all, for it is more or less certain that her son will be condemned to hell with no hope of redemption” (172).
This is the high card of universalism. This is where it where it taps into something profoundly and undeniably appealing. What are we to say?
i) Let’s take a different example. Consider the case of a mother whose daughter was murdered by a serial rapist. Not only is the mother grief-stricken, but vengeful. She wants to see the rapist suffer for what he did. She wants to see him burn in hell.
But her pastor is a tenderhearted universalist. He tells her that her vindictive feelings are unchristian. God will undoubtedly save the man who murdered her daughter. They will all spend eternity together. She must learn to love him and forgive him.
Universalism sounds nice as long as you’re talking about nice people. Saving all the nice guys. The little old ladies who hand out boxes of chocolates. It instantly loses its sentimental charm when we turn to hateful men and women.
ii) Let’s go back to the case of the Christian mother. What can an orthodox pastor tell the grieving mother? He can hand her Bible and tell her to read Rev 21:4 aloud. He can then tell her to memorize that verse and recite it to herself every day.
That’s the hope he can give her. The promise contained in that verse.
I don’t know how God intends to keep that promise. That’s something we must take on faith. But that’s a promise to live by.
iii) Feelings are mercurial. What about that guy who falls madly in love with a woman (or vice versa). She occupies his every waking thought. He can’t imagine life without her. He’s sure he can’t go on without her.
Yet, five years later, that may all have changed. He doesn’t know what he ever saw in her (or vice versa). What was he thinking?
There are couples who sincerely think they that can’t live without each other. They can’t bear the thought of spending a few days apart.
But after spending a few years in each other’s company, they can’t stand to be in the same room. They can’t bear the thought of spending their lives together. Physical proximity is unendurable. Their honeymoon was heaven on earth, while their marriage is hell on earth.
There are kids who can’t wait to leave home. They find their parents insufferable. They want nothing more to do with them. They hope to put as much distance between themselves as their parents as humanly possible.
Some high school buddies who would die for each other. Fiercely loyal. Inseparable. But then they have a falling out. Maybe they fall in love with the same girl. Friendship turns to bitter betrayal and mutual hatred.
Some brothers and sisters love each other from the moment they’re born to the moment they die. If one were to die prematurely, the sense of loss would be inconsolable. Other siblings hate each other until the day they die.
These are the paradigm-cases of human love. Of our loved ones. And in each case, it cuts both ways.
I’m not evaluating any of this. My point is simply that the emotional argument for universalism is a double-edged sword.
iv) Finally, Christians tend to emphasize the deity of Christ because that’s what makes him unique. All of us are human, but how many of us are God Incarnate? That’s sui generis.
Yet, as we also know, Jesus had a human side. Human emotions.
There are lots of domestic details that didn’t make into the Gospels. They focus on his public ministry. But he had many relatives. Jewish culture was a tribal culture. Big families. Extended families. Kin and clan.
So he had loved ones, too. Aunts and uncles. Grandparents. Cousins, second-cousins, nieces, nephews, and siblings (by his step-dad).
And he had childhood friends. Don’t assume that when he called the fishermen to be his disciples, they never met him before. They fished in the Sea of Galilee. He grew up in Galilee. I’m sure he went hiking and swimming with the local kids as a boy.
Jesus had loved ones, just like us. Felt the same way about them that we do. Were they all pious, God-fearing individuals? No reason to think so.
That doesn’t keep Jesus from preaching on hell. More than that, Jesus is the judge of the living and the dead. He puts them there. If, humanly speaking, Jesus can cope with that, then who am I to protest?