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.

No comments: