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.

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