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.

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