Crossing the line: MacDonald's conversion to Universalism

A Review of The Evangelical Universalist (Gregory MacDonald) - Part 1

How could a thoroughly evangelical Christian become a Universalist? Can evangelicalism and universalism mix without compromising one or the other? This is the question we must force ourselves to try and understand in considering Gregory MacDonald’s own conversion to and defence of universalism in The Evangelical Universalist.

In The Evangelical Universalist, Gregory MacDonald (Robin Parry) outlines a case for a re-reading of biblical theology from the perspective of universalism. This review is a summary of my own reflections as an evangelical Christian as I try to properly grapple with MacDonald’s presentation. These are my reactions, not my attempt to disprove MacDonald’s position or arguments. First, I seek to understand and simply communicate what difficulties I experience as I encounter them.

Confessions of an ex-mainstream Evangelical

Dedicated to Thomas Talbott, a Professor of Philosophy in Oregon who played a profoundly influential role in shaping MacDonald’s own acceptance of the doctrine of ‘universal salvation’, the book’s introduction is led by a quote from the famous philosopher and religious thinker Soren Kierkegaard – “I believe that we will all be saved” – positioned in primary place to set anybody on edge who in relying on mainstream Christian doctrine has never questioned the traditional teaching of the Church through the centuries.

MacDonald then begins with a very honest admission. It was a time of deep perplexity over his own notions of ‘free will’ and biblical predestination that eventually led him to lose his confidence in a God who deserves our worship because he loves everybody. A crisis fuelled by his commitment to philosophy, MacDonald came to reason that God could save every single person without violating ‘free will’ (p. 2). It seemed to MacDonald that whether from a Calvinist or an Armenian position, God could save everyone if he wanted to, and so therefore, if it is true that God does love everybody, it should stand to reason that he will save everyone.

For MacDonald, this logic questioned the very heart of his faith as it then stood. And turning away in distress and lovelessness for the God he had previously affirmed, he found hope in the philosophy of Thomas Talbott, and after him many others. And so he became what he describes and explains in his book as a “hopeful dogmatic universalist”: he adopts a position that God will certainly rescue all people from everlasting punishment, although he himself is not completely certain that this position is correct (p. 4).

It is an unsettling confession. A discerning reader will likely recall the warnings of the Prophets of old and of the Apostles, such as is found in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

Sensing our alarm, MacDonald responds, but with a surprising approach. Rather than even attempting to argue directly from the texts and contexts of the Bible (using direct exposition) in order to systematically lay out before us the combined teaching of the Scriptures on this subject, instead he couches his position first up as an alternative theology that only seems to him to offer a better-fit to the central themes of Christianity within the context of his own crisis over what he perceives to be apparent contradiction between the love of God and the eternity of hell.

To be honest, I expected MacDonald to argue in terms of right and wrong, fact and fiction. As an evangelical, I also expected him to appeal first to the Scriptures themselves. And I find the relativism of a top-down search for a best-fit philosophical model between the extremes of the kindness and severity of God to be quite unevangelical. Rather than presenting an upfront systematic treatment of the Bible’s progressive teaching about God’s hatred, punishment of evil and planned defeat of satan and his 'offspring' (Gen 3:15) – in order to somehow thereby argue that we have misread the actual revelation given in the Bible – MacDonald relies instead on certain assumptions and presuppositions about the love and justice of God, and from reason seeks to construct a new ‘biblical theology’ that provides a path of least-resistance between the tensions he struggles with.

While we are left in doubt that MacDonald does himself believe that his own position is “more or less correct”, he instead presents us with arguments from deductive reasoning, as an ‘opinion’, and asking us to mercifully consider whether or not he can be constituted with the legitimacy of evangelicalism.

“Reason seems to be in serious conflict with traditional theology; and this, I suggest, leads us to enquire whether we may actually have misunderstood the implications of biblical theology.” (p. 7).
Clearly, MacDonald seems to begin from a belief that it is impossible to understand why God would not save everybody, and this for him, has sent him looking for a more satisfactory understanding of the reality of hell in God’s plan. But I’m confused about MacDonald’s motive. God’s words to Moses come echoing through my conscience: “I AM WHO I AM”, and “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”. I can’t help but wonder why hasn’t MacDonald even attempted in this introduction to try qualify his approach with some reassurance to his readers that he himself is committed to accept God however he finds him (in holy writ), whatever he is like (as self-revealed), because he knows and believes and trusts that it is for God alone to define what is good, what is holy and what it means for him to be love, and for us to trust and learn and reshape the way we think accordingly.

I also cannot help recall the Apostle Paul’s angry rebuke in the letter of Romans to those who would argue from logic that God’s wrath in condemning sinners – who cannot resist his will – makes God himself to be unrighteous; but here at first glance MacDonald gives the impression of a comparative but almost reversed accusation: “What sovereign God would force souls to remain unrepentant in hell forever – is God unloving?”

I leave MacDonald’s introduction headed for Chapter one, feeling very worried about the nature of his proposal. I’m left wondering whether he is actually rebelling against God by seeking a God of his own making, formed in his own image, a Reasonable God, shaped to his personal liking in reliance on his own understanding.


MacDonald, G. The Evangelical Universalist, Cascade books: Wipf & Stock, 2006.

The Happy Life

In The Happy Life – The search for contentment in the modern world (2011), David Malouf asks,
“How is it, when the chief source of human unhappiness, of misery and wretchedness, have largely been removed from our lives – large-scale social injustice, famine, plague and other diseases, the near-certainty of an early death – that happiness still eludes so many of us? … What is it in us, or in the world we have created, that continues to hold us back?” (p. 8)
Malouf’s essay makes for insightful reading. He begins with Thomas Jefferson’s famous speech in June 1776, on the eve of America’s independence from Great Britain, which was perhaps the first time that the Western psyche had articulated the Pursuit of Happiness as a natural “right”, alongside and even in climax after Life and Liberty (p. 9).

Originally the word “happiness” – related to words such as “happen” and “hapless” – was the objective state of being lucky in terms of accidents or events. It had nothing to do with feelings but everything to do with materials (p. 11).

But Jefferson had combined two unrelated areas of human experience (good fortune and enjoyment), and in his famous Declaration joined with the political and legislative role of the State the promise of subjective happiness -- contentment, pleasure, satisfaction. (p. 14). Almost prophetically, he spoke for a generation and a culture whose dream would become much more than the quest for material and objective prosperity.

In sharp contrast the ancients had focused on the ‘interior’ life of the soul, advocating solitude, reflection and imagination as a means of connecting with the inner self as a cure for unrest. (p. 19).

Where are we at in the modern world of 2011?

“What is extraordinary, when we come to the present, is the reversal that has occurred in our notion of “unrest” in a century of iPods, mobile phones, multi-tasking; of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter; of news bites, 24-hour news cycles, jump-cut video clips; and the stimulation of our senses at every moment… Far from being an existential state of anxiety requiring cure, unrest is itself the cure, and for something quite opposite but equally close and persuasive: the fear of inactivity, of stillness; most of all, the withdrawal of every form of chatter or noise in an extended and unendurable silence.” (p. 22).
Today we have inherited a culture of unrest as children of the continual progress that has been created by generations who saw change as the result of their sustained energy and intensity. (p. 28).

And today, in a “crowded and actively happening” world, far from turning back to the ‘inner life’, we have turned to the Body as the source of our self and happiness. We see the possibility of pleasure and life arising from our health and wellbeing and joys ‘in the flesh’. (p. 29).

But though it may be true in general, certainly as a society, that we have ‘little to complain about’, our post-Christian culture still suffers from an age-old fear of external powers that have control over our lives: not God, but our secular lives are governed by the economy – a new impersonal force that we know very little about, and keeps us as stressed and unsafe as ever. (p. 50).

“What most alarms us in our contemporary world, what unsettles and scares us, is the extent to which the forces that shape our lives are no longer personal – they know nothing of us; and to the extent that we know nothing of them – cannot put a face to them, cannot find in them anything we recognize as human – we cannot deal with them. We feel like small, powerless creatures in the coils of an invisible monster, vast but insubstantial, that cannot be grasped or wrestled with.” (p. 55)
Malouf is of course asking one of the most fundamental of all human questions. One thing David Malouf’s essay helps to show is that the gospel is as radical and as revolutionary to our modern world of weary tech-slaves as it was to Jesus’ contemporaries. I hope that Christians widely read and learn from his essay, which is helpful for summarizing not only the classics but also modern thinking and behaviour in a large and busy world.

The Christian not only believes in a personal God who knows us and has put a face to himself – took on flesh, a human body – so that we might recognize him and actually come to know him, our hope is in a real man who can be wrestled with and whose message can be grasped.

The Bible may be a hard read, but Jesus’ promise of new possibilities carry a guarantee that Jefferson’s famous addition of Happiness to the ‘right’ of Life and Liberty could never deliver. More than the dream of a New World here, where we would feel free to seek rest and enjoyment, Jesus’ promise of resurrection into a real world of bodily rest is the guarantee of eternal life and freedom that will bring both an objective prosperity materially and the lasting feeling of happiness.


Malouf, David. The Happy Life – The search for contentment in the modern world (Quarterly Essay, Issue 41, 2011)

Easter reading post-mortem

Journal on the eve of Good Friday:

I've been getting behind on my extra-biblical reading. It's always the first thing to go for me.

Just in the last few months I've been given four books, all of which hold significant personal interest for me (and or course, I've only 'started' them all):

1. The Evangelical Universalist (Gregory MacDonald)
2. The Holy Trinity - In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Robert Letham)
3. Quarterly Essay: The Happy Life - The Search for Contentment in the Modern World (David Malouf)
4. Creation or Evolution - Do we have to choose? (Denis Alexander)

I'm determined to play catch-up, but how will I go with 4 days?

Tick, tick, tick. Time starts now.

Post-Easter, back to work:

Well, I had fun trying. As always, we got sick! Elijah got tonsillitis, Bella influenza, Millie ear infections, Cath and I sleepless kids and colds! The truth is I never stood much of a chance.

But there's good news:

I got half way there. I knocked over the quarterly essay plus finished initial overview of both Evangelical Universalist and Evolution or Creation. That just leaves me with The Holy Trinity (for next Easter?) and a lot of work to begin making and writing up my reviews!

The most frightful + wonderful view from the OT? (Isaiah 34 + 35)

I've gone backwards to reading Isaiah 1 to 39 after concentrating for some time on Isaiah's second half (chapters 40-66). One thing I noticed (it's taken me several reads and re-reads to fully appreciate it) is the way that the themes of the second half of Isaiah are most often introduced and established earlier on in the first half, and how vital these introductions are to understanding the visions of Isaiah 40-66. We need to keep reading the book as a whole (and perhaps even stop thinking of Isaiah as a two-halved book). Previously, I think I've over-relied on the artificial division at chapter 40, between a 'pre-exilic' and a 'post-exilic' Isaiah (who did I get that from anyway?), and this has meant that I've missed some of the background clarity that Isaiah has initially given to the later stuff.

Of particular interest to me recently (because of its relevance to Universalism), is the way that Isaiah 34 to 35 relates so directly to Isaiah's concluding vision in chapter 66, in which he ends the book with a final sentence that leaves us fixed on an awesome picture of those who are permanently redeemed starring with abhorrence upon those rebels, having been slain by the sword of the LORD, whose destruction follows by means of a fire that continues without end: "For by fire will the LORD enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the LORD shall be many... And [the survivors] shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be abhorrence to all flesh" (Isaiah 66:16, 24).

This vision has its introduction in Isaiah 34, including the metaphors of death by sword followed by destruction without end by fire. This chapter may perhaps be the hardest passage of Scripture to read in the whole Bible? Certainly some of the horrible imagery in the Book of Revelation, about the eternal torment of those who suffer everlasting destruction in the lake of fire, borrows directly from this passage. But here (and what makes it even harder to read?) the details are more slowly, carefully and clearly defined and elaborated upon with the un-escaping focus of a magnifying glass.

Here we have an entire chapter within the Prophets dedicated to explaining and clarifying the definition and nature of the place of hell and the permanent situation of those who go there: "Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever... He has cast the lot for them; his hand has portioned it out to them with the line; they shall possess it forever; from generation to generation they shall dwell in it" (Isaiah 34:10, 17).

What is more, this terrifying vision is contrasted immediately with the comparison of the everlasting joy of the redeemed, and also accompanied by an emphatic denial that all without exception shall enter upon that way or dwell there among them, though at the same time maintaining without contradiction the very gladness of those ransomed whose sorrow has ended permanently: "No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away" (Isaiah 35:9-10).

But you need to read it all together as a whole to let its entirety, and its own internal consistency, interpret itself. In fact, to the modern mind (if you're a reader anything like me) you'll probably need several goes to get into the rhythm and paradigm of Isaiah's genre.

Isaiah 34:1-35:10 is perhaps the most staggering view from the entire Old Testament for its grandness, scope, and its clarity. It is also perhaps the most frightful and, at the same time, wonderful picture from the Prophets (In my limited estimation anyway).

I dare you to read it all together as one passage. I dare you to read it several times, and then re-read it again. After all, Isaiah dedicated himself to here give significant treatment to this subject for good reason: we need to hear this for our good. So here it is: Isaiah 34 and 35 together...

(34:1) Draw near, O nations, to hear, and give attention, O peoples! Let the earth hear, and all that fills it; the world, and all that comes from it.

(2) For the LORD is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host; he has devoted them to destruction, has given them over for slaughter. (3) Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood. (4) All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree.

(5) For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom, upon the people I have devoted to destruction. (6) The LORD has a sword; it is sated with blood; it is gorged with fat, with the blood of lambs and goats, with the fat of the kidneys of rams.

For the LORD has a sacrifice in Bozrah, a great slaughter in the land of Edom. (7) Wild oxen shall fall with them, and young steers with the mighty bulls. Their land shall drink its fill of blood, and their soil shall be gorged with fat.

(8) For the LORD has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion. (9) And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch. (10) Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it forever and ever. (11) But the hawk and the porcupine shall possess it, the owl and the raven shall dwell in it. He shall stretch the line of confusion over it, and the plumb line of emptiness. (12) Its nobles--there is no one there to call it a kingdom, and all its princes shall be nothing. (13) Thorns shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses. It shall be the haunt of jackals, an abode for ostriches. (14) And wild animals shall meet with hyenas; the wild goat shall cry to his fellow; indeed, there the night bird settles and finds for herself a resting place. (15) There the owl nests and lays and hatches and gathers her young in her shadow; indeed, there the hawks are gathered, each one with her mate. (16) Seek and read from the book of the LORD: Not one of these shall be missing; none shall be without her mate.

For the mouth of the LORD has commanded, and his Spirit has gathered them. (17) He has cast the lot for them; his hand has portioned it out to them with the line; they shall possess it forever; from generation to generation they shall dwell in it.

(35:1) The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; (2) it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. (3) Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. (4) Say to those who have an anxious heart, "Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you." (5) Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; (6) then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; (7) the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. (8) And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray. (9) No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. (10) And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

(Isaiah 34:1-35:10)

And don't forget: read x 7, then re-read again!