Evangelical Universalism – Oxymoron?

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The title of my book, The Evangelical Universalist was deliberately chosen to raise eyebrows and stir up curiosity (and perhaps even animosity). If there is one thing that most of think that we know it is that “evangelical universalism” is an oxymoron (and anyone who claims to be an “evangelical universalist” is just a moron).

It is certainly true that in the history of evangelicalism belief in Hell as eternal conscious torment was, and remains, the majority view. And if evangelicals have rejected Hell as never ending torment then they have embraced a version of annihilationism. But universalism? No never! Universalism is for those who have given up on the Bible or perhaps even on traditional Christianity itself. After all, universalists believe that everyone is saved and yet the Bible says that some people go to Hell so … universalists obviously disagree with the clear teaching of Scripture and thus eject themselves from the evangelical camp. Simple. Right? Wrong.

It is my conviction that, weird as it may sound, there is a version of universalism that is thoroughly Christian and even counts as evangelical. Indeed I think of myself as precisely such an evangelical universalist. The view is very simply this:

(1) a universalism that maintains the creedal orthodoxy of the main Christian traditions (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant). It affirms the Trinity, the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension and return of Christ. It affirms the centrality of the Church and of baptism.

(2) a universalism that maintains a high view of the Bible. It affirms the divine inspiration of all Scripture and holds the Bible as authoritative for all Christian theological reflection.

(3) a universalism that maintains David Bebbington’s four distinctives of evangelicalism: (a) conversionism, (b) biblicism, (c) activism, (d) crucicentrism.

Evangelical universalists believe in one God, the creator of heaven and earth, in the goodness of the created order, the severity of sin and its terrible consequences, the necessity of divine action to effect redemption. They believe that salvation is found only through Christ’s work in becoming flesh, suffering the consequences of our sins on the cross, being raised to new life in the power of the Spirit, and ascending to reign in heaven.

It is perfectly possibly (though not essential) for an evangelical universalist to believe that people need to come to explicit faith in Christ to be saved (i.e., to be an exclusivist). They believe in final judgment and they also believe that many people will be thrown into “outer darkness” – into Hell. Yes indeed! Traditional Christian universalists DO believe in Hell!

So what precisely is distinctive about evangelical universalism? Two things:

1. Evengelical universalists believe that it is possible to be saved from Hell. We do not think that, when it comes to salvation, there is such a thing as a point of no return. It is never too late to be the recipient of grace and mercy.

2. We believe that, in the end, everyone in Hell will turn and receive divine mercy through Christ.

Now you may think that we are mistaken in those beliefs. 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? In the book I argue that they do not undermine the Bible (which I maintain can be interpreted in universalist ways), the creeds, any of the central evangelical distinctives, nor the centrality of mission and the passion for holiness.

Evangelicals agree to disagree about a lot of things – indeed a lot of big issues (e.g., Calvinism and Arminianism) – but such disagreements take place within the camp. All I am asking is why the issue of how many people God will eventually save cannot be counted as one those areas where we agree to disagree.

If we agree on what people need saving from (sin and death), on who saved them (God in Christ), on how they are saved (by being united by the Spirit to the death-resurrection of Christ through faith) then the gospel is hardly at stake in this debate.

If evangelical universalism is Christ-centred, trinitarian, gospel-preaching and Bible-believing then I think we have as much right to be thought of as evangelicals as Calvinists, Arminians, Dispensationalists, Covenant theologians, creationists, theistic evolutionists, and so on and so forth.

So “evangelical universalism” for me is not an oxymoron and I like to hope that I am also not a moron (but that is for others to decide).

Gregory MacDonald

The Evangelical Universalist

Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006
London: SPCK, 2008