Creating this post was a bit of a challenge. I want to faithfully represent the position of Robin Parry (“Gregory MacDonald”) in his book The Evangelical Universalist, but I obviously can’t reproduce it here. Parry clearly lays out his thinking (and so presents his opponents with his challenge) in the Introduction and Chapter 1. I’m going to present excerpts of those portions of the book below in an attempt to represent him accurately. Perhaps he will reply (we have chatted in the past). Then I’ll add some thoughts of my own in response.
1. Parry tells us his journey was propelled by coming to the conviction that “God could save everyone if he wanted to.” But in conflict with that idea was the belief that he had been taught that God would not save everyone (p.3)
2. Parry’s universal salvation view is focused on the work of Christ; it is not blindly pluralistic so that all religions lead to salvation. Salvation is only through Christ (pp. 5-6).
3. Parry does not reject the idea of a hell or afterlife punishment. He rejects the notion that such punishment is everlasting and that it precludes the ultimate salvation of those enduring this punishment. That is, one’s destiny is not fixed at death; those in hell can still throw themselves on the mercy of God and trust in Christ (pp. 6-7). He writes, “I argue that it is legitimate to understand the biblical teaching about hell as compatible with an awful but temporary fate from which all can, and ultimately will, be saved” (p. 7).
NOTE: By definition, universal salvation and an everlasting hell are mutually exclusive ideas. Hence the importance of eliminating an everlasting hell. However, one could still deny an everlasting hell (e.g., annihilationism) and yet not embrace universal salvation. I actually think it is easier to defend annihilationism than universal salvation, but that’s going off in another direction (albeit related).
4. Parry spends much of Chapter 1 (“A Hell of a Problem”) sketching out the reasons why an everlasting hell is problematic. He summarizes one section this way:
“In conclusion, all views of hell as eternal conscious torment suffer from two generic problems. First, the punishment seems out of proportion to any crimes humans can commit. Classical attempts to avoid this conclusion seem to lead to the problem of making all sins as bad as each other–a morally problematic position. Second, it is hard to see how God could give the redeemed perfect happiness if some of their loved ones are in hell forever” (p. 18).
5. Parry then sketches how it is that familiar theological positions are compatible with universal salvation. Examples:
On page 18 Parry first touches on the two positions of free will: the compatibilist and the libertarian. “The libertarian maintains that for a person to act freely the following two conditions must be met:
1. The action is one the person wants to perform;
2. The person could choose to perform or not preform the action (i.e., the agent is not causally determined to perform the action).
The compatibilist will accept 1 and deny 2. To the compatibilist human freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with causal determinism.”
Parry assumes both views are plausible and then sketches his Calvinistic line of universal salvation thinking:
1. God, being omnipotent, could cause all people to freely accept Christ.
2. God, being omniscient, would know how to cause all people to freely accept Christ.
3. God, being omnibenevolent, would want to cause all people to freely accept Christ.
Now 1-3 entail:
4. God will cause all people to freely accept Christ.
From which it follows that:
5. All people will freely accept Christ.
Parry notes that Calvinists will maintain #5 is false, rendered so because #3 is denied. He then notes several passages that to him suggest God is omnibenevolent (1 John 4:8; 1 John 4:16b; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Tim 2:4; Ezek 33:11).
It should be noted that omnibenevolence is important to Parry: “I have hinted that I believe that if God did not love and try to save everyone, he would be less than perfect” (p. 21).
Without going into the details, Parry believe open theism “[is] riddled with problems when it comes to justifying hell” (p. 25) since the Chess Master of open theism would be shown to be a poor chess player (losing souls) and instead plays like a reckless novice: “If God’s knowledge of the future is diminished by human free will, then God cannot be sure that anyone will freely respond to the call to salvation” (p. 22).
Molinism (“Middle Knowledge”)
NOTE: Molinists believe that, “in addition to knowing everything that does or will happen, God also knows what His creature would freely choose if placed in any circumstance” (Wikipedia).
Parry’s logic chain for Molinism works like this (pp. 26-27):
1. God, being omniscient, knows, via his middle knowledge, how to bring all people to accept salvation freely in Christ.
2. God, being omnipotent, is able to actualize a possible world in which all persons freely accept salvation.
3. God, being omnibenevolent, wants to bring all people to salvation through Christ.
Points 1-3 entail that if God creates creatures with free will, then all people will be brought to salvation through Christ. Thus 1-3 are inconsistent with:
4. Some persons do not receive Christ and are eternally damned.
If, however, one were to reject proposition 2 because one thought that God could not actualize a possible world in which all persons freely choose to accept salvation in Christ, then we could add proposition 5:
5. God prefers a world in which there are no persons at all to a world in which there are some persons who fail to receive Christ (and are damned).
Proposition 5 is also inconsistent with proposition 4. And if 5 does not seem compelling, we could substitute 6:
6. God prefers a world (W) in which any people who do not accept salvation in Christ freely (in a libertarian sense) will nevertheless accept it freely (in a compatibilist sense) to a world (W*) in which those who do not accept salvation in Christ freely (in a libertarian sense) are condemned to hell for eternity.
Now for some thoughts of my own. As you’ll be able to tell, I have a problem with omnibenevolence. It’s a major sticking point for me.
1. Generally, I’m comfortable with the author’s assertion that his position is within the bounds of orthodox Christianity (i.e., it does not violate doctrines core the Christian faith – person of God, Christology, salvation – by grace through faith, that sort of stuff).
2. I can say I have no specific predilection against the universalist position *as the author has defined it*. I think his description really could be held and defended *sincerely* from the Bible — though I need certain items to be more coherent to find it persuasive.
So what is it that I need to be convinced of?
I view these issues through a semitist’s eyes, not from the perspective of someone who cares to side with this or that theologian. My view of theologians and philosophical theology is akin to my view of creeds. I’m not opposed to them since they can be useful; I’m more or less apathetic to them. As Naked Bible readers know, I have different takes on certain theological ideas that are germane to the universalism question. The grid through which I sift the author’s questions, assertions, and conclusions has been constructed by means of my understanding of the Bible (particularly the OT) contextualized in its ancient near eastern context.
Here’s a short list, without much explanation, of where I am at on certain issues that relate to this topic, and my thoughts on the topic in particular.
1. I believe in free will. To be imagers of God, freedom is necessary since it is a communicable attribute. One cannot image God and not have true free will. Therefore, to remove it as the author discusses at certain points is, to me, impossible in that it would mean a reversal of God’s own decreed choice to make humans as his imagers.
2. I don’t by the free will vs. predestination thing as mutually exclusive, though my solution isn’t the calvinist approach. I think God knows all things, real and possible. Since God knows things that will not happen, that *severs* a necessary link between foreknowing and predestinating. I do not believe one needs predestination of every event that ever happens (or even most – e.g., which shoe I put on first, which shampoo I pick off the shelf, etc.) to have a sovereign God. Rather, as readers know, I back-load sovereignty (the ends are what are predestinated, and God steers all things to those ends). I believe God can and does predestinate things; I just don’t believe he predestinates everything nor that he needs to. And so I am at odds with the calvinist and the open theist.
3. I would also quibble with the notion, assumed by the author, that God minds imperfection (better, uncertainty) in his created world. Gen 1 (and broader OT theology) seems clear to me (as seen through a semitist’s eyes) that chaos is present at creation from the beginning, and not eliminated. It is part of what God calls “very good.” Unpredictability is *built in* to the world.
4. I question whether God needs to be omnibenevolent for him to be perfect. I think God’s attributes are self-defined by him. If he chooses to not save everyone, I can’t call him imperfect. Parry’s view seems to suggest that God cannot be perfect and allow anyone to be lost. That seems to be a human-centered view But we’re humans, so that’s kind of understandable — and so his view is appealing–but I’m not convinced it’s correct.
5. Although I’d like to, I do not see universal salvation in the OT worldview. Yes, we can say all nations are to be blessed through Abram, but nations that curse Abram and his seed are cursed. I think one can make a case for the “universalistic” language of Isaiah as the reclamation of all the nations cast away at Babel (Deut 32:8-9) without requiring that means every last person who ever lived in those nations is saved. But this is in part due to my skepticism on omnibenevolence (See below). In other words, why can’t the language of Isaiah refer to the nations rather than everyone who has ever lived? Must “nations” be equated with every human being? Is there no place for hyperbole?
On a side note, I think Parry takes Ezek 33:11 way out of context. Read the verse. It refers to ISRAEL– not everyone who has ever lived.
6. The OT view of Sheol was certainly not one that had everyone eventually getting out. Any hope of escape was for the righteous; otherwise, no one escaped Sheol. I believe the thought that everyone would escape Sheol would be completely foreign to the Israelite, and I can’t think of any hint where sacrificial typology or messianic atonement would result in all going to Sheol. It seems to me the Day of the Lord passages don’t come with the sense that everyone will be saved.
Now, I could argue against myself by saying that the OT writers were not told of this idea, that God left them ignorant. I think that’s true in other areas, so I’m willing to think it possible here. But I have other difficulties . . .
7. I need it demonstrated to me that God actually loved the people put under kherem (“delivered to destruction”) in the Old Testament. Yes, we can say that even though God ordered their destruction he really loved them, but that seems quite incoherent. It seems to make God bipolar. If he really loved the Amalekites, the Repahim, the Hivites, etc., and intended them to be saved in the end, why the destruction at the hands of Israel? How was their destruction necessary to *this* plan of salvation? Why wouldn’t God want all Israel to know right away that he loved the Amalekites? Why hide it? They couldn’t possibly think ill of Yahweh, and if they did, who’s in charge? They would be in no place to question God’s love. I really need some sense made of this before I’ll accept omnibenevolence. The very idea of kherem (“devote to destruction”) of the above- noted people groups is something *pleasing* to God. They are treated as a whole burnt offering to him. How is it that he would be truly displeased with this (which he’d have to be if he really loved them)? And if he is not, then how is he omni-benevolent?
It seems to me the only way out of the kherem issue is to argue that the entire conquest account is mytho-poetic. I offer that to opponents as a consideration. I’d have to be convinced that is the case and (perhaps harder) even if a fraction of the people of Canaan were actually killed (i.e., the conquest stories are mythologized fiction for theological polemic, but based on actual conquest events), you still have people put under kherem — and I need to ask why was this not only allowed, but commanded, if they were loved?
8. Of what importance is remnant theology when all people will be saved? (And how is that Old Testament language honest?) In short, why would God elect a remnant when he could have elected all humans to begin with (and said so, avoiding the “remnant” language)? The OT is very clear that there is a remnant who believe and that remnant is distinguished from the non-remnant (the nations under wrath), and that the remnant was a sovereign creation. In short, God *could have* said “all humans are my remnant now that Israel has failed; all will be saved,” but he doesn’t. Why not? Why not make that clear?
This should get us started. For me, I’d like some input from universal salvationists with respect to my misgivings. I’m not here to beat on Parry’s view. His is the best articulation to date and deserves attention. For me to remain interested in this one, I don’t need to see anyone being overly critical of Parry (I’d say get his book). I’m just telling readers why I’m not persuaded of the view.