The reconciliation of all things to God: Universalism and the theology of Colossians

A review of The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald – Part 4

If God has reconciled all things to himself in Christ (Col 1:20), it follows that he has reconciled all people, believers as well as unbelievers. And if God will finally unite all things in Christ (Eph 1:10), it follows that he will unite all people too, whether believers or those who never believe in Christ in this life.

The question of universal reconciliation

Universalists have looked to texts such Colossians 1:20 and Ephesians 1:10 (c.f. 2 Cor 5:19) in asking whether the Bible itself leads us to infer that every single individual without exception will in the end be forgiven by God and receive eternal life, including those who although not saved from ‘final’ judgment, will after death and judgment all eventually be ‘saved’, entering the New Creation after an ‘age’ of second death in the fires of hell.

In The Evangelical Universalist Gregory MacDonald (Robin Parry) describes the importance of the theology of Colossians for Universalism:

“...The teaching of Paul in Colossians on Christ, the cosmos, and the church... shows how the main structures of my proposal for a Universalist twist to biblical theology fit together.” (p. 41)
The first step that MacDonald makes when using Colossians 1:20 as a basis for Universalism is to read ‘salvation’ into the universal ‘reconciliation’ described there. In a section headed ‘redemption’ he argues:

“...The cross as a means of salvation also comes out clearly in 2:15, where Christ strips the hostile authorities of their power, making the way for salvation open... The next thing to notice about the salvation is that it extends as wide as creation...” (p. 13).
MacDonald believes that the universal reconciliation described is a peacemaking quest to restore the harmony of the original creation. But he forgets to consider that the original creation described as good in Genesis 2 contained a sharp separation between light and darkness, and between what was good and evil. Satan exists in God’s created order, ready to tempt Eve to disobey God’s word, at a time when they could still be described as ‘very good’. What would a restoration to the harmony of the original creation mean except a return to the clear division between light and darkness, and between what is very good and what is evil and external to God’s blessed creation?

MacDonald wants us to equate universal reconciliation with universal salvation, arguing first in terms of the use of the Greek word rendered here ‘reconciliation’. It is used in only two other places: as well as 1:20 it is used also in Colossians 1:22 where God reconciles believers to God by Christ’s death, to bring an end to the accusation against them; and in Ephesians 2:16 where God reconciles both believing Jews and Gentiles, both by Christ’s death, to bring an end to the hostility between them.

The first use of the Greek word in Colossians 1:20 is followed by Colossians 1:22 where it refers to the removal of the accusation arising from sin. The third use in Ephesians 2:16 refers to the removal of the hostility arising from the law. Having addressed how Christ has dealt with sin and the law, it’s not surprising that Paul also goes on too to address how God has dealt with Satan’s power over people. Reconciliation of evil elements in creation, if we are referring to a restoration to the harmony that existed in ‘the beginning’ at Genesis 2, would require that evil elements are stripped of their power over and therefore excluded from rulership over God’s good creation. And that is exactly what we have described in Colossians 2:15: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” Is this not bringing evil back under the rulership of God via the authority of his appointed Adam (now Christ) and is that not what reconciliation means?

But instead, MacDonald feels safe to infer that the ‘reconciliation’ used in Colossians 1:20 must be 'relational':

“...The verb [reconciliation] presupposes some kind of rupture in relationship that is then repaired. The damaged relationship, says Paul, between God and a fallen creation is restored in Christ.”
But nowhere in Colossians do we see evidence for the inference that reconciliation must involve the sort of happy relationship that MacDonald implies here. Certainly when describing ‘believers’ in Colossians 1:22 and Ephesians 2:16 we see relational ‘repair’ being attributed to ‘reconciliation’. But he does not describe the sort of 'relational' repair that MacDonald means when Paul in Colossians describes the effect of Christ’s death and resurrection on the evil ‘rulers and authorities’ in the heavenly realms. Colossians does offer a description of what end the reconciliation of evil elements in creation has affected: Firstly, Christ is now the “head of all rule and authority” (Col 2:10). And secondly, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities...triumphing over them” (Col 2:15).

But what is amazing is that MacDonald does not examine Colossians 2:15 within the context of its context in Colossians 2:9-15. The description of Christ as “head of all rule and authority” in Colossians 2:10 is significant but completely missed by MacDonald.

In the first ‘hymn’ of Colossians 1:15-20, although Christ is described as creator of all “rulers and authorities” (Col 1:16), he is not described there at that point as their ‘head’. But in Colossians 2:9-15 Paul goes further to now describe Christ as “head of all rule and authority” before declaring that “he disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (Col 2:15). The reason is that Christ was appointed as “head of all rule and authority” on his resurrection from the dead. This is taught in more detail in Ephesians 1:20-13, which describes Christ:

“... when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, (21) far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. (22) And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.” (Eph 1:20-22)
For Paul, clearly this is a reconciliation of “all things” to God, affected by Christ’s resurrection, because he says that after his resurrection, God “put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things”. If before Christ’s resurrection, all ‘rule and authority’ – including God’s enemies – were not under the headship of Christ the man, therefore by consequence they are reconciled to God by being brought back to again be under the headship once more of both God and a man (an ‘Adam’).

This is the promise of Genesis 3:15:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel."
Actually, this notion that on account of Christ’s resurrection all things have again been placed under the feet of both their creator and a man as designated head (in terms of authority), and will therefore at his coming be made to come under his feet in subjection (as their final state), is taught throughout the New Testament (e.g. Eph 1:20-23, 1Co 15:20-28, Heb 10:12-13). This is reconciliation, but it is not necessarily associated with salvation. Some will willingly come, who have actually already come under Christ as Lord. Others will be brought unwillingly by force to confess him under the compulsion of his irresistible power.

But about ‘reconciliation’ not necessarily implying ‘salvation’, we too today use the word to hold a wide variety of associations and connotations, including its use in accounting and by the law.

But MacDonald says:

“That reconciliation should be seen in salvific terms is underscored by the fact that the poem expands on the notion of reconciling all things in terms of making peace through the blood of his cross.” (p. 46)
This is unavoidably a false inference. Never has God’s peace been brought about in biblical history by a victory involving universal salvation. Just as the peace brought about by the ascension of David to be King in the land was to involved a complete defeat of the opposition to his rule from his enemies, so too the peace made by the blood of Christ’s cross is the effect of his ascension to the supreme position of kingship over those evil elements in creation, whose total defeat has brought an end to their power which had allowed their tyranny to reign.

Thought the New Testament we see peace as the result of God’s victory over evil, not his salvation of evil. Romans 16:20 is a startling example:

“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” (Ro 16:20)
It is the God of peace who will crush Satan and his followers forever, thus securing perfect and permanent peace, and like the conquest of Joshua's troops of old, God plans to crush Satan under our feet (his church).

The universalism of Colossians

Colossians 1:20 certainly maintains that through the cross, God was to ‘reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven’. If anyone thought Christ’s victory limited to his people only, the Apostle Paul forces us to ‘think again’. The scope of Colossians 1:20 clearly exceeds Christ’s own people; Paul speaks in the past tense of a reconciliation of absolutely universal proportions that has been effected by the cross of Christ: whether the seas or the stars, angels or demons, all creatures and the sum of the cosmos itself was ‘reconciled’ to God in Christ who made ‘peace’ by the blood of his cross.

And it’s counterpart, Ephesians 1:10, certainly matches this grand scope with the affirmation that God’s plan is to accomplish in the fullness of time a unification of ‘all things in him’, again including all of creation and its entire contents: ‘things in heaven and things on earth’ (Eph 1:10).

So what do we make of verses like this against the backdrop of the Biblical doctrine of hell and eternal punishment. How can it be if the Bible speaks of ‘all things’ reconciled to God, that traditionally the church has maintained throughout history that ‘some things’ will never – even in the end – be 'reconciled' to God? (Such as, unbelieving people, the devil and his angels) The doctrine of eternal hell and of everlasting punishment seems to be in conflict here with texts that teach that absolutely everything has been reconciled to God and will finally be united in Christ.

Perhaps the most significant thing for this discussion is to notice that Colossians 1:20 is speaking in the past tense. This is a vital feature that MacDonald cleverly skirts around. Whatever is meant by Paul that ‘through [Christ, God was] to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross’ (Col 1:20), it must be understood that this has already happened: although evil still exists, although Satan continues to hate God and his people, and although many people continue to reject Christ, it remains true that since Christ’s resurrection from the dead, God has through him reconciled ‘all’ things to himself and made ‘peace’.

The evidence is present in Colossians in order to understand this. When all the data is considered, as briefly described above, God’s reconciliation of all things to himself through Christ must involve his installation of the man Christ Jesus as the head of all things in creation. This was God’s original intention for the first man, Adam. And so in this sense, with Christ as ‘head of all rule and authority’ (Col 2:10), his resurrection has reconciled all things to God. And what is present there in Colossians is elaborated upon more fully and unavoidably in the description of Ephesians 1:20-23 about Christ:

“when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, (21) far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. (22) And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, (23) which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Eph 1:20-23)
Universal reconciliation in the New Testament

What we see from Paul in Colossians and Ephesians is described too by the Apostle in 1Corinthians 15:24-28:

“Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. (25) For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. (26) The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (27) For "God has put all things in subjection under his feet." But when it says, "all things are put in subjection," it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. (28) When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.” (1Co 15:20-28)
That God may be “all in all”; that is reconciliation. But how is this achieved in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28? It is by ‘subjection’. This is the language of war; of victorious war; the language of the Book of Revelation too: “he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet”. In fulfilment of his word in Genesis 3:15 to the Serpent, “he shall bruise your head.”

That God now fills “all in all” is what Ephesians 1:23 describes. But how is it achieved by God there. It is also when after Christ’s resurrection, “he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things...” (Eph 1:22).

That “Christ is all, and in all” (Col 3:11) is also the message of Colossians. And again too, in the theology of Colossians ‘Christ as all’ is achieved in the book of Colossians by Christ’s ascension to the position of supreme head of all things, to be ruler of rulers, and the authority of all authorities. Contrast and compare:

“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross...

“For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.”

(Col 1:19-20 and 2:9-10)
By putting everything in subjection under his feet, God has brought everything in creation back to himself as their rightful ruler. What does reconciliation to God mean if not ‘bringing back to God’? MacDonald speaks of the ‘relational’ requirement of ‘reconciliation’. But what relationship did all of creation have to God in the beginning if not subjection? As Hebrews 2:8 says, "Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control.” If this is not universal reconciliation to God of all things to their right relationship to him, then nothing is.

* * *

But I need to move on. Much more could be said, particularly on the sister book to Colossians, the book of Ephesians, and MacDonald’s use of it in his appendix. I’d like another article to focus on the future aspect to what I’ve outlined here, to describe a more adequate understanding of Ephesians 1:10 than what MacDonald offers. But next comes Chapter 4 and 5 where MacDonald outlines a new structure for a biblical ‘meta-narrative’ that he hopes will provide a Universalism with the status of a natural extrapolation of the storyline from Adam to Jesus.


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

Evil and the Sovereignty of God

If God is in control of everything, it follows that he is in control of evil as well as good. That may be a comforting thought to some but troubling to others. And if God controls evil, is he then responsible for it? In other words, if God controls evil, does he therefore to some extent cause evil? Some have attempted to explain the answer thus: he only 'allows' evil to occur. But if it is in God's power to act, even permitting evil to occur leaves open the question as to how God could allow evil to occur without being responsible for its cause.

The very existence of evil raises many questions, especially regarding the extent to which we believe that God is sovereign: if God is all-controlling, did he plan a world to fall into wickedness? And if God is all-powerful, why will he allow sin and suffering to eternally exist in hell? Because he is not good? Surely not! That God is good is fundamental to the Bible's revelation of God's nature and axiomatic to Christianity.

In view of this basic conundrum, some Christian movements (for example, Pentecostalism) have concluded that the answer is that God cannot be in control of everything. He does not control evil. He does not cause disaster. He does not decree wickedness. And suffering occurs outside his 'intended' will. In fact, since God is perfectly good he cannot be all-knowing, nor all-powerful. He did not plan the world to be as it is today. No, God created people free to choose their destiny. He does not (or cannot) now override their freedom. But our sin and the awful consequences of our choices are never his intention. He does not control us and therefore nor does he control the future. Hell is simply inevitable and heaven his last miracle.

But according to this 'logic' God is not God at all; he is stripped of all his divine attributes, including his 'goodness' (for a god who does not now rule perfectly anything he has created is not 'good'). On this logic Christianity slides into dualism; the future is determined by an uncertain struggle between God and evil. Although God 'desires' our 'good'--health, wealth, success, eternal life--our destiny is ultimately in our hands; it comes down to our faith, our sovereignty.

This article does not hope to answer these questions entirely, nor attempt to 'solve' the 'problem' of God, evil and sovereignty. What it does intend to do is encourage Christians to think again, based on the biblical data.

Essential good and evil as perversion

The Bible affirms the essential goodness of everything that exists. God created everything that exists and everything God created is created good. Since only God and his creation exist, everything is good (Rev 4:11).

However, from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 the Bible also affirms the existence of evil. ‘The whole world is under the control of the evil one’; ‘this is the present evil age’; ‘every inclination of [man’s] heart was only evil all of the time.’

Therefore evil has no independent existence but is a perversion and corruption of what is good; sin is the greatest evil and is the root of all evil. This fact makes evil all the worse than it would have been if it had an independent existence.

God both hates and decrees evil

Evil is totally alien to God, whose ‘eyes are too pure to look on evil’; ‘he is light, in him there is no darkness at all.’ The Bible again and again affirms that God is perfectly upright and righteous and good and holy.

However, God himself says, ‘I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster’ (Isa 45:7); ‘when disaster comes to a house, has not the LORD caused it?’ (Amos 3:6). Also, God uses evil for his purposes. The Lord sends evil spirits who do his work: 1 Samuel 16:14 says, ‘Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.’

Although ‘God cannot be tempted by evil nor does he tempt anyone,’ the Lord sends evil spirits to tempt people to sin: ‘The LORD said, 'Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?' "One suggested this, and another that. Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the LORD and said, 'I will entice him.' " 'By what means?' the LORD asked. " 'I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,' he said. " 'You will succeed in enticing him,' said the LORD. 'Go and do it.' "So now the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The LORD has decreed disaster for you." (1 Kings 22:20-23). Although God ‘sends’ evil spirits to do the tempting, the temptation is also attributable to God: God says, "‘if the [false] prophet is enticed to utter a prophecy, I the LORD have enticed that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand against him and destroy him from among my people Israel (Ezekiel 14:9).

It is also true that God sends evil spirits to tempt ‘his own’ people to sin. 2 Samuel 24:1 states, ‘the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go and take a census of Israel and Judah,"’ i.e. to commit a sin that 1 Chronicles 21:1 attributes to the influence of Satan: ‘Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.’

This language is not just restricted to the Old Testament. 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12 applies this language to the work of Satan and the work of God when the Antichrist appears: ‘…the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing… For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie…’

At Calvary God displayed both his hatred for sin (evil) and his sovereignty over it: "This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross" (Acts 2:23).

God ‘tests’ his own people

The King James Version translates Genesis 22:1 as ‘God did tempt Abraham.’ 2 Chronicles 32:31 says about Hezekiah, ‘God left him to test him and to know everything that was in his heart.’ In 1 Timothy 1:20 Paul hands Hymenaeus and Alexander ‘over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.’ (i.e for their good). Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 5:5 Paul commands regarding a sinful brother, ‘hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed.’ This seems to be somewhat of an extreme measure used by God; hence Jesus instructs us to pray, ‘lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one'’ (Matthew 6:13).

Evil as punishment

One form of judgment is God giving sinners over to their own evil (Rom 1:21). Some of the most frightening evils recorded in Scripture are attributed to God’s judgment. Judgment itself is not evil but is an expression of God’s goodness and his faithfulness to himself. The display of God’s justice glorifies God’s Name: In Exodus 14:4, God says, ‘I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD."’ Similarly, in Ezekiel 28:22 God says: ‘" 'I am against you, O Sidon, and I will gain glory within you. They will know that I am the LORD, when I inflict punishment on her and show myself holy within her.’

The Bible suggests that God’s ultimate purpose for evil is the magnification of his own glory. Proverbs 16:4 says, ‘The LORD works out everything for his own ends-even the wicked for a day of disaster.’ Paul expands on this in Romans 9 – 11: ‘What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath--prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.’ (Romans 9:22-23). The everlasting nature of hell is a testimony to God’s commitment to his purpose of making his glory known through punishment as well as through everlasting grace.

Evil as divine permission

All of these passages affirm and marry together the Sovereignty of God and the responsibility of people; that is not in question. What is clear is that God’s sovereignty is absolute: he controls and uses evil for his own purposes. These passages magnify God’s sovereignty and rule out creaturely independence. Evil does not proceed from God but does depend on his decrees.

Human actions do not take place independently of God even when those actions are wicked. This does not diminish human responsibility. This fact is clear early on in Biblical history (e.g. the story of Joseph, Genesis 50:20 ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good;’ the accounts of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, Exodus 9:12, ‘the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart and he would not listen to Moses’).

Theologians speak of God’s sovereign permission: when humans do what is evil, God is not at work in them to will and to act according to what is good. Thus, for example, God ‘left’ Hezekiah to test him. However, when humans do what is God, ‘it is God who works in them to will and to act according to his good purpose.’ (Philippians 2:13). This highlights the asymmetry of God’s relationship to evil and good. God stands behind good causing it directly; God stands behind evil indirectly by decreeing secondary agents to cause evil.

God not only knows in advance what humans will do; God decrees the future. He knows what will happen because he controls what happens and directs history to its destination. Proverbs 16:9 puts it clearly: ‘In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.’ This verse suggests that at the level of intention humans bear responsibility for their actions, but whether or not intention comes to fruition is the decision of the Lord. Thus, evil acts are encompassed by God’s active providence, yet humans are accountable for them.

Let God be God

As mentioned, this article does not answer or 'solve' the 'problem' of God, evil and sovereignty. If anything, it raises more questions, many of which the Bible does not answer and so nor can we. But what I hope it does do is encourage Christians to rethink their theology, to hold together God as both absolutely good and completely sovereign. The view that evil is outside of God's control simply will not do, even when motivated by a desire to distance a good God from the existence of evil, whether wickedness or disaster. It is a false dichotomy to maintain that evil exists independently from God's good purposes, and it brings him no glory.

"For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen." (Romans 11:36).


First published by Joe Towns at Talking Pentecostalism | Pentecostal Belief, the Holy Spirit & Evangelicalism:
Alexander, T. D. et al. New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. IVP: 2000.

A search for a Reasonable God: Universalism and Biblical interpretation

A Review of The Evangelical Universalist (Gregory MacDonald) – Part 3

What should we do when the Bible stops making sense to us – when the doctrines of the Bible no longer seem right? This is the question Gregory MacDonald (Robin Parry) faced on attempts to reason by philosophy for the justification of the eternal hell described by the traditional reading of the Bible, and after concluding that his attempts had failed.

I come to Chapter Two of The Evangelical Universalist, headed “Universalism and Biblical Theology”.

Universalism: Seeking biblical ground for reason

MacDonald begins,

“...There is a serious conflict between traditional interpretations of the Bible and reason. “ (p. 35)
It is reason that leads MacDonald both to seek and prefer a Universalist ‘interpretation’ of the Bible’s hell texts and the doctrine of final punishment.

MacDonald’s appeal to reason has been apparent from the outset, but now he seeks further ground. He will finish the first half of this chapter by claiming, “... [if] a reasonable biblical case can be made for universalism, then the philosophical arguments in Chapter 1 would significantly amplify the claims of universalism to be authentically Christian and biblical.” (p. 41). Because it does not ‘arise from’ Scripture directly, MacDonald wants to ‘ground in’ biblical revelation the reasoning of Universalism. And so in this chapter, be begins that grounding.

But, “ reason I do not refer to human autonomous reason but reason informed by the self-revelation of God testified to in the Bible.” (p. 35) By setting ‘human autonomous reason’ in contrast to ‘reason informed’ by the Bible, MacDonald has very subtly suggested that if reason is informed by the Bible then it ceases to be either human or autonomous, or both. But no genuinely evangelical thinker would concur that biblically informed reasoning ceases to be an unreliable guide to pure doctrine, because it is remains susceptible to the temptation of sin living in our flesh; our desire for the knowledge of good and evil.

Catholicism, Liberalism and Pentecostalism each are vastly different examples of new doctrinal systems that have been forged from the furnace of human thinking, and each fuelled in its informed endeavour by a search based on Biblical reasoning. Universalism's claim that mainstream Christianity has for centuries missed the truth by misreading the subtleties of our New Testament Bibles is a cry that has been heard from countless other sects since the early church. Like a new restoration movement, Universalism seeks to correct something missing in our modern understanding by adding a new teaching on to the end of our New Testaments.

MacDonald hopes to ground this new teaching in the Bible, and he compares this motive to Evangelicalism itself: “Evangelical theology lays great store by the claim that this or that teaching is well grounded in the Bible.” Whether knowingly or not, he shows no evidence here of understanding what is the evangelical approach to ‘theology’ (the study of God). Stereotypically the approach of cults, sects and false or corrupt versions of Christianity allows room for both heresy and the Bible because of their ‘genius’ in enabling (twisting) the Bible to support any new and distorted doctrine.

In contrast, Evangelicalism is associated with that discipline of refusing to budge from the essential task of holding to the central doctrines of the Scriptures themselves. It does this by an unswerving reliance on a plain reading of the text and by the vital method of historical-critical (or historical-grammatical) exegesis. Evangelicals actually do not want to ground our theology in the Bible at all (that is imposition) – instead we want only to comprehend the theology of the Bible (exposition).

Fiercely resisting the temptation to take away from or add to the Bible any other doctrine, we are interested in how the Bible itself does theology. This is what we mean by ‘Biblical theology’: it is the study of the way the Bible itself teaches us about God. But it is no secret that MacDonald wants us to go with him beyond historical-critical exegesis:

“The question is, “How can we Christian readers be true to these texts as part of the teaching of the whole canon?” This is not simply a question that is able to stop with historical-critical exegesis but one which must push further to uncover the logic of biblical teaching, even when a biblical author may not have explored the ideas in such ways.” (p. 40-41).
Universalism: Seeking to fit in with the Bible

MacDonald believes that Universalism has a claim of being ‘biblical’ if, firstly, it has positive support from Scripture, being either explicitly taught by it or can be reasonably inferred from what is explicitly taught, and is consistent with the biblical meta-narrative.

But surprisingly, MacDonald does not aim in this book to argue that Universalism is explicitly taught by the Bible. Instead he admits the problem of the inherent bias introduced by the very question of Universalism, which skews the view of Universalist readers of the hell texts: Of those few texts that seem to ‘explicitly’ teach universalism (to universalists), they only do so (to universalists) because “the problems with hell discussed in Chapter 1... give a positive inclination towards the universalist interpretations of them” (p. 36).

Accordingly, MacDonald admits that Universalism needs to be “reasonably inferred from what is explicitly taught.” In other words, the only way to justify universalism is by arguing that there is enough room for speculation at this point, and that Universalists have made a reliable ‘inference’ at this point.

Universalists should at the very least be honest enough to admit that since a jump of inference is necessary, therefore by consequence Universalism is not a doctrine of the Bible, but a theistic theory of philosophy. And if universalism needs to be inferred by reason from what is explicitly taught, it begs the question as to why this is necessary. MacDonald’s answer is clear: “There is a serious conflict between traditional interpretations of the Bible and reason“ (p. 35). And so he admits to adding a theory deduced by inference to a doctrine of the Bible in order to make that doctrine of God conform to his own harmonious image of the end.

One thing is unavoidable: Since neither the Old nor the New Testament teaches directly that those condemned to the final state of hell will either be annihilated or saved from hell, Universalists have placed themselves among those ignoring to their own peril the prohibition of the final sentences of the Bible:

“And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire...

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelation 20:11-15, 22:18-19)
Secondly, MacDonald believes that Universalism has a claim of being ‘biblical’ if it does not conflict with what is explicitly taught in the Bible. But what he actually means is, if ‘what is taught in the Bible does not substantially contradict universalism’ (the other way around). MacDonald admits later to his actual intent: universalism must “present a plausible interpretation” of the hell texts (p. 37). And so, rather than requiring himself to prove universalism positively from direct propositions that teach universalism, MacDonald actually gives himself leave by asking himself only, “does any of the Bible’s teaching on hell substantially contradict universalism? ... [it will] if and only if the Bible teaches that hell lasts forever.” (p. 37). And so he sets himself the more simple task of arguing over the meaning of the words rendered ‘forever’ and ‘eternal’ in our New Testaments.

By ‘substantially’ contradicting universalism, MacDonald again gives himself a break by setting his sights just a little lower: from the outset he does not have high hopes for consistency in the biblical data; he is more than content to tolerate his fair share of “awkward texts”, because:

“All Christians are prepared to tolerate some problem texts without surrendering their beliefs... only if the problem texts are significantly serious or numerous should they start to worry” (p. 37).
So he gives himself a sort of ‘permission to contradict the Bible’ by an embarrassing appeal to the mass-mindset of ‘all’ Christians.

But it is not beyond the everyday Christian reader to see that Universalism does certainly contradict what is explicitly taught by the Bible. In addition, everyday Christian reading reveals that Universalism is neither explicitly taught by the Bible, nor can it be reasonably inferred from what is taught explicitly by the Bible, and nor is it consistent with the biblical 'meta-narrative'. But more on that later in my reviews on his subsequent Chapters.

Many a different ‘doctrine’ has crept into church history through such a top down approach to grounding new theories in biblical revelation as is seen here from MacDonald.

Universalism: A reason to re-view the Bible

In a chapter titled “Universalism and Biblical theology”, I expected an introduction of Universalism to the discipline of Biblical Theology. What I didn’t expect was a justification for a universalistic reinterpretation of the doctrine of hell instead. But that’s exactly what MacDonald gives. And the sequence of MacDonald’s logic is very telling:

1) Our reason (our philosophical arguments) is informed by beginning to read the Bible --> Reason comes into conflict with the Bible’s notion of eternal hell; therefore,

2) Our reason warrants a review of the Bible --> A reasonable biblical case is found for universalism (because it is biased by an inclination towards Universalism); therefore,

3) Our reason (our Universalism) is now authenticated as being both Christian and biblical --> Universalism is justified because it is grounded in biblical revelation.
This ‘review of the Bible’ as a ‘genuine’ search for the ‘possibility’ of a universalistic reinterpretation of hell texts is of course like asking whether jack can be found under the lid of a jack-in-the-box. It’s not a genuine question at all, because the answer is already known. Universalists have already found Universalism before they begin reading the Bible to see whether the Bible itself yields Universalism. And like MacDonald, they didn’t find it originally in the pages of the Bible, but they brought it to the Bible from such sources as philosophical reasoning. They can only be 'glad' that they have (to their liking) 'succeeded' in making it 'sit' on the branches of the Bible.

A bird wouldn’t fly into a tree unless it had confidence of finding a branch to perch on. It’s no wonder that when Universalists look under the box of the Bible they magically ‘discover’ support texts that they can use to rely upon and find support. Universalism wouldn’t exist in the first place unless Origen and others had first known that supporting branches existed on which they could innovate and build their early universalistic theories. All they have done is demonstrated that they find the message of the Bible insufficient; for they have gone out and constructed with their own hands another chapter in God's story to tack on to the End of the Gospel.

In the beginning (of Universalism), Reason was informing the reading. Since the arguments of philosophy find an eternal hell unreasonable, they (Reason) goes seeking support for a new belief, preferring not to accept the plain reading of eternal punishment. And so began the quest of Universalism for a reinterpretation of the Bible.

If this approach is both reliable and sincere, Universalists should genuinely go back to the beginning and start the review actually seeking any reinterpretation of the biblical data that resolves the conflict with reason, rather than simply comparing Universalism off against other pre-existant innovations, such as Annihilation and Liberal-metaphorical approaches to interpreting hell texts: Who knows what other doctrines they may discover in their pursuit of harmony between philosophy and the Bible. They may be able to change or add many more doctrines to the Bible to make it conform more satisfactorily with their sense of reason.

Universalism: Harmonising the hell of the Bible with philosophy

Borrowing again from his inspirational philosopher Thomas Talbott, MacDonald wants us to consider what he frames up as a sequence of inconsistent propositions in the Bible. To resolve the inconsistency he expects us to reinterpret one or more of his biblical propositions. To simplify, at the centre of his argument are two theological propositions, both of which are supported by the Bible:

1. God will 'reconcile' all things to himself (e.g. Col 1:20), including sinners (e.g. 2 Cor 5:19).

2. Some sinners will never be 'reconciled' to God (e.g. 2 Th 1:9).
Thus, MacDonald reasons that either we need to reinterpret 2. to maintain that actually all sinners will be reconciled to God (to be consistent with 1.) Or we need to reinterpret 1. to maintain that God will not in fact reconcile all things to himself (to be consistent with 2.)

But here, again, as throughout the Book, what is most frustrating is that MacDonald refuses to define his words. As a philosopher, he should know the importance of first demonstrating that he has set up an internally consistent domain in which to construct an argument. He needs to do this by defining his terms and then maintaining an internal consistency with that language. Otherwise an inherent internal inconsistency will be the fault of the philosopher himself.

But here MacDonald’s carelessness, whether deliberate or not, allows him to pluck and re-use words from biblical authors out of the context of differing books, mixing them together into separate propositions, and then stacking them side-by-side, he wants us to be surprised that the argument leads to internal inconsistency.

Words should only be read to mean what the original authors intended by them, and their words should not be re-used out of joint with their own use (and intended meaning) of those words. Different authors of course use the same words differently. But individual authors also themselves use the same words differently in different contexts. We do the same in our speech, everyday.

But how easy this is to set-up and do what MacDonald has done here! Let me demonstrate with a simple example.

The Bible teaches both:

1. God loves everything he has made, including people

2. God hates everything that is evil, including people
Here we have two propositions, both taught by the Bible, but seemingly inconsistent when set out like this, out of context and without definition. Would this be enough to justify a reinterpretation of the theology and biblical doctrines behind 1. or 2. to create a new harmony in the Bible? Should we deny either the love of God for all things or the hatred of God for all evil things? The answer is, of course, neither. Both are true, provided we know what we mean by both. Most of the work is done in the defining. Again and again in the Bible we see that seemingly inconsistent truths do actually in God’s universe go together and sit side-by-side in both harmony and tension. But if we try to harmonise what God has put in tension within his holy Word, we can only create error.

If we followed MacDonald’s approach, we could create 'inconsistency' in probably every single doctrine of the Bible, and thereby make a case for a reinterpretation of every theology of Christianity.

In my next post I will review the second half of this chapter, in which MacDonald sets out the theology of Colossians. There I will seek to show how contextualisation and everyday exegesis is enough to understand how these two propositions (set out above by MacDonald) are not in fact inconsistent at all, but make good and true sense in God’s universe.

Suffice it now to say that it is simply true to the Bible that God will both ‘reconcile’ all things to himself, including sinners (in one sense), while at the same time (in another sense), some sinners will never be ‘reconciled’ to God.


What should Christians do when God seems unreasonable? Like when the everlasting nature of hell seems unjust, unnecessary and unjustifiable. At least three big bible characters dealt with this question in relation to suffering, evil and judgment: Job, Isaiah and Paul. What was God’s answer to Job in relation to suffering? “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?” (Job 40:8). What was the LORD’s answer to Israel in relation to his use of evil instruments to achieve his own purposes: ‘will you command me concerning the work of my hands?’ (Isaiah 45:11). And what was the Apostle Paul’s answer in Romans in relation to the sovereign God of election who hardens those whom he nonetheless also judges guilty as responsible sinners:

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory-- even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? (Romans 9:22-24)
As Evangelicals, surely we, of all people, should know not question God by questioning the justification of his actions and his plan, whether about creation, evil or eternal punishment -- lest we should follow our own reason to our own fate in search of another more reasonable god.

But, we should worship him, the one true and living God, who alone created all things and to whom again in the end will come all things in subjection, whether willingly or unwillingly, whether good or evil, whether saved or eternally condemned.


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

Subject to reason: MacDonald's release of eternal hell

A Review of The Evangelical Universalist (Gregory MacDonald) - Part 2

Evangelical Christians are committed to humbly accepting as God’s good truth any doctrine revealed by his word – no matter how ‘hard’ and otherwise ‘unreasonable’ to our own preconceived principles of what should be good or right. We have come to repent of our desire to ‘know good and evil’ and have placed our faith in the one true and living God who himself says, “I am holy”, “I am good”, “I am light”, “I am faithful”, “I am right” and “I am love”. By him alone we come to know what is good, what is love, what is truth. He alone defines the shape of the universe, and without his actions to reveal himself and his word in the Scriptures to define and explain his activity, we would be lost without hope in the darkness of idolatry, making gods for ourselves to go before us according to what our own sinful minds would prescribe as worthy of worship.

But could one relying solely on the revelation of God as revealed in the written word, despite what seems apparent on the pages of our New Testament Bibles, accept that nonetheless everyone condemned to the punishment of hell must still eventually and inevitably be saved by God from that state?

This is the question that any thoroughgoing evangelical Christian will be bringing after his introduction to Chapter 1 of Gregory MacDonald’s (Robin Parry), The Evangelical Universalist.

Problems with an eternal hell

Chapter one is headed by a quote from Bishop J. A. T. Robinson: “The God I believe in [...the God of love] could not be all in all [despite the damnation... of many of his creatures]”. And after an introduction in which we have already felt the warning about the dangers of relying on philosophy in MacDonald’s proposal, he opens his argument by an appeal to reason. Titled “A Hell of a Problem”, MacDonald’s main point is that since reason can produce arguments that seriously throw into question the logic of the traditional reading of the Bible on the subject of hell and eternal punishment, this should make legitimate attempts to reinterpret these Biblical doctrines in an effort to remove this ‘clash’ between mainstream biblical interpretation and human logic / philosophical reason.

MacDonald is quick to point out that at other times in Church history ‘reason’ has played an important role in uncovering misapplications of biblical texts by the Church. And since evangelicalism does not in theory recognise our interpretation of the Bible through history as infallible, he challenges us to entertain the ‘possibility’ that we could be mistakenly misreading the Bible on this subject.

And going with the majority of Christians who may well be happy to use reason as a method of guiding biblical interpretation, MacDonald sets out to critique the doctrine of hell according to deductive logic, critically analysing God’s possible use of ‘eternal’ punishment against philosophical attempt to defend it.

The core of MacDonald’s synthesis is that a number of unresolved problems exist with the current attempts of philosophers to justify the doctrine that hell as eternal conscious torment. Accordingly, since the attempts of these justifications by religious thinkers have to-date been apparently problematic, to MacDonald this signals a great victory for Universalism as a philosophical argument, because it successfully removes all these problems.

Problems with justifying an eternal hell

1. The first problem described is the difficulty of using the retributive theory of punishment to justify hell if hell is indeed everlasting conscious torment, as traditionally maintained.

MacDonald finds fault with Anslem’s argument that ‘[finite] sins committed against an infinite God are infinitely punishable’. But he cannot find fault with the justice behind a God who condemns unregenerate sinners (who go on sinning against God perpetually) to an eternal hell because they never cease incurring his punishment. He only 'objects', but for two reasons that we might question.

He objects firstly based on an expressed view that sin itself will be finally destroyed from creation in the coming age. However to my extreme surprise, MacDonald does not stop for a moment to define or himself attempt any justification of this belief. Of course, the whole of creation itself will be destroyed. I assume he means more than that that sin will be destroyed from creation by being excluded from the New Creation (which is what the Bible teaches). He implies that sin will cease to exist completely, although he doesn't come out and actually say it clearly.

I will present later in this post a logical deduction like those constructed by MacDonald that contradicts this logic, to reason that God will make evil exist eternally, but only in order make the point that this type of approach cannot reliably lead to sound theology.

Although the Bible teaches that sin and evil will be excluded from the New Creation (Rev 22:15), this by necessity confirms that it will still exist outside (which is also what Revelation 22:15 teaches). Although 1 Corinthians 15:24-26 teaches the destruction of God's enemies, including power and authority, and lastly death, the language is one of subjection. These powers will be destroyed because they will be dethroned under Christ's feet, forced to finally submit to his rule in fulfillment of Genesis 3:15 ('he will crush your head'), which is what 1 Corinthians 15:27-28 explains.

MacDonald objects secondly with a rhetorical question: Why would God create a hell in which a subset of his creatures will be always sinning against him? At this point, he again does not seek any justification that the Bible itself might give for the everlasting nature of hell. Instead he moves on immediately to reason that if by logic it is possible for hell to be otherwise and justice still be done, then it is illogical that God would create a hell of this kind. Thus the biblical data presenting God’s reasoning is ignored at this point. (p. 14)

To be honest, I’m staggering by the brevity of MacDonald at a major point such as this one. To the notion that eternal punishment is metered out for those rebels who remain stubborn and unrepentant in their opposition to God, MacDonald’s simply gives a throw-away question – ‘why would a reasonable God make hell like that if he does not need to?’

This type of rhetoric questioning suffers from the same fault as his entire approach to this subject so far: it presupposes that the reader has not been able to recall the Bible’s own answers to these questions. And since MacDonald himself seems genuinely at a loss as to how to possibly understand from a philosophical perspective why a good God would create an eternal hell, he assumes that we will follow him on his journey of logic to question the certainty of our plain reading of the propositions of the Bible about a Hell that will be occupied for good reason as long as will the New Creation.

He will go on to suggest that on this basis alone we are warranted in seeking alternative views of hell where justice is done but hell is not everlasting, since that would be preferable from the perspective of reason. In other words, since MacDonald and other philosophers have found eternal hell unjustifiable according to their own philosophical approaches, he reasons that we are justified in returning to critique the Scriptures themselves in order to determine if there exists any way of reading the Bible on this subject without needing to accepting what he has already predetermining without the Bible to be an ‘unreasonable’ doctrine.

2. The second problem MacDonald describes is the difficulty of understanding how the redeemed can possibly be perfectly joyful while at the same time knowing the truth about eternal conscious torment of those not redeemed. Here he presents Thomas Talbott’s version of a Schleiermacher argument, and plays if off against William Lane Craig’s attempt to contradict it. But again Talbott’s basic pre-suppositions, that form the basis of his argument, are again assumed. MacDonald does not even think there is need to justify his assertion that the redeemed in heaven will have love for all others, including those rebels who remain unregenerate in their evil state. Without a moment’s pause he assumes that these underlying premises are perfectly unquestionable. But there is a glaring question begging here: we are command to “love what is good and hate what is evil”. How does he expect the redeemed who are perfected like Christ to, contrary to this command, ‘love what is evil?’ And so regardless of whether hell is eternal, his basic premise is flawed. And again, the Scriptures give reasons for the everlasting joy of the redeemed without contradicting its insistence that hell is both understood by the redeemed and eternal for those who go there. But it seems these texts are off limits to a chapter focused only on human reasoning.

Problematic defences of hell

After briefly considering only two philosophical problems for a hell that is everlasting, MacDonald turns his attention to refuting various defences of an eternal hell in terms of an external logic that he applies to systems including Calvinism and freewill theism.

I was particularly focussed on his section titled ‘Calvinism and Hell’. Hoping MacDonald would present and weigh-up at least some Biblical data in order to critique the Calvinistic understanding of eternal punishment, or even engage briefly with any leading theologian arguing from a Calvinistic persuasion, I was again disappointed. Instead MacDonald only attempts to hold up a few generalised principles extracted from the theological system we call Calvinism, and based on deductive reasoning seeks to determine whether he can make sense of the existence of a permanent hell using the type of qualitative analysis you might expect to see in a mathematics or philosophy lecture.

A brief example: He argues thus –
(1) If God was all-powerful, he could cause all people to freely repent;
(2) if he was also all-knowing, he’d know how to do that;
(3) if he was also all-loving, he’d want to do that;

and so consequently points (1) – (3) require that
(4) God will cause all people to freely repent;

and consequently again
(5), that all people will freely repent and be saved. (p. 19)
This entire argument is flawed from the very start, because it is based on presumptive premises that are not consistent with the doctrines of Calvinism or any reasonably biblical or systematic theology of the Biblical data. For example, God as Omni-benevolent: what is MacDonald’s notion of God as all-loving, and how does he define and justify this? Of course, no one would deny that God has been loving to everyone he has made, including demons before their fall, but where in the Bible does MacDonald find the basis for his assumption that God will be eternally loving toward everyone without exception? What then does he do with the doctrine of the hatred of God, who not only hates what is evil, but whose “soul hates the wicked” (Ps 11:5)? God 'hates all who do wrong' (Ps 5:5).

But a temporary hell for others unsaved, but still loved by God, who in their evil state continue to hate him, after having first rejected him, but who now post-mortem will be taught by torture to love him, this is both illogical and inconsistent with the character and revelation of the God of the Bible.

How can MacDonald expect to arrive at theology based on this type of reasoning that relies on broadly generalised principles only loosely associated but undefined by actual doctrine as prescribed in the Bible?

Let me try to illustrate the point here that this type of deductive reasoning can lead to vastly different results, simply by changing the set of starting premises we choose, and ignoring any attempt at definition or precision:

(1) If God is good, then (1) requires (1a): all of God’s actions are good;
(2) If God is eternal, then (1) requires (2a): God does good eternally
(3) If God is perfect, then (1) requires (3a) he is perfectly good, then (3b): God does not fail to do any good that he can do
(4) If God controls everything, then (1) & (4) require that (4a): everything advances good;
(5) If God created everything and evil now exists, then (4) & (4a) require that, both (5a): God is the cause of evil, and (5b): it is good that God caused evil to exist because (5c) God makes evil advance good;

Then consequently (5c) requires that:
(6) It would do more good if evil existed eternally;

And (6) and (3a) require that:
(7) God will make evil exist eternally
And so we have a logic here that God will make evil exist eternally, which is a premise contradicting one of MacDonald’s own premises based on his own perception of the teaching of the Bible:

“In the coming age God destroys sin from his creation.” (p. 14)
MacDonald would do better to begin with direct biblical statements from propositional revelation, carefully defined from contextual and expositional analysis, rather than trying to construct meaningful philosophical arguments from logic in a hope that this will have legitimate application to his construction of biblical theology.

But here I’m left at the end of Chapter 1 feeling like the primacy of exegetical analysis is something of a serious blind spot for MacDonald, who at this point shows no sign of even thinking about looking over his shoulder. Exegetical analysis should always come first because it is the basis for constructing theology, whether biblical or systematic.

There is nothing ‘evangelical’ about MacDonald’s approach. He has not even for a moment yet presented any of the Bible’s own teaching on the reasons for hell, nor has he given even a hint at this point as to whether he should or will look within the pages of Scriptures themselves to honestly see whether God himself has given justification for the everlastingness of hell’s punishment. It is unavoidable that any seriously evangelical reader of the Bible will at this point feel as though MacDonald has effectively to this point covered over God’s own mouth, put the Bible behind his back, and also quickly concealing its material from our own view too, so as to first put up before us every reason he can think of from the perspective of philosophy as to why when we do go back to the Bible, we should read it with a different focus. He wants us to stop looking at the words of God as we see them in the pages of our Bibles about eternal punishment, and instead try putting on his set of recommended glasses, before going back to the Scriptures for a re-read of the doctrine of hell, this time through the lens of universalism.

But whether or not MacDonald or modern philosophy see it as standing to logical reason, nonetheless I could expound that it does stand according to Biblical data -- and therefore according to God's reason -- that:

An eternally good God who created and controls all things does have an eternally good purpose for all his creation;

God has not given a genesis account of the origin of evil so on a grand scale Christians are like Job who did not himself have the boarder information contained in the prologue of our Bible’s account of his life, but we like him need to trust that based on the direct revelation provided us God’s sovereign purposes and actions are both good and most glorious;

The direct revelation given us does teach us that evil has no independent existence because all things created by God are good, but evil elements of God’s creation – such as Satan and his offspring – are both hated by God and controlled by God to exist in conformity to his eternally good purposes;

God’s eternally good purposes do involve the eternal existence of evil (including Satan and all followers, angelic and human), which by its eternal defeat (in everlasting hell) God will for himself maximise his glory by the everlasting praise of his eternally advancing grace (to his eternally redeemed people).
Rather than including hell as a means of making 'everything subject to him' (to Christ, cf. 1 Cor 15:28) - including those disempowered demons whose crushing defeat will force them unwillingly to submit under Christ's feet, which will be their eternal punishment - MacDonald instead seems to want to make hell subject to us (our reason).

But I’m on to Chapter 2, entitled Universalism and Biblical Theology. At this point I’m certainly looking forward to getting into the Bible and taking a good look at the unfolding message of God’s word as it pertains to this very weighty and important Christian doctrine.


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