"Gregory MacDonald opens this excellent book with a personal story. One day, in an evangelical church, Gregory MacDonald stopped singing. God did not deserve his singing. God did not deserve to be loved – “I was having a doxological crisis – wanting to believe that God was worthy of worship but unable to do so. The crisis was brought on by my reflections on hell.”(p.1). The author said in one interview that this book was originally written just for himself, and it is certainly a personal work.
The first chapter (“A hell of a problem”) discusses philosophical objections to the traditional doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment (ECT). Discussions include the problem of infinite retribution and the joy of the redeemed MacDonald certainly cannot be accused of not giving ECT its best defence. Reference is made to all the major evangelical systems (Calvinism, Arminianism, Molinism and Open Theism) and their best defenders of ECT (including William Lane Craig, Oliver Crisp and Jerry Walls). MacDonald then briefly discusses the role of philosophical argument in Christian theology, arguing that while Scripture remains the highest authority, philosophy, history, reason and experience should also guide our interpretation of Scripture. Thus the philosophical arguments against ECT should give us a “hermeneutical bias” against such interpretations.
The next four chapters attempt to make an exegetical case for Evangelical Universalism. MacDonald’s view is perhaps not what one would expect. He believes that one’s eternal destiny is not fixed at death (this is the only major Christian doctrine that MacDonald denies in the book) but rather those already in Christ pass into heaven and those not found in Christ pass into hell, a place of suffering. However, those in hell are free at any point to accept Christ at which point they pass from hell into heaven. MacDonald is speculative here, but says that it is possible that the resurrection of all the dead will occur once all have been redeemed. Passages discussed include Colossians 1 (where the case is strong) and Revelation (where I felt the case was less strong). Refreshingly, the book does not focus on “proof texts” but provides a discussion of the biblical metanarrative from Adam to the Church. “…we have argued that in Jesus Christ God has acted to save Israel and, thus, to save the world. On the cross he takes upon himself Israel’s exile and Humanity’s expulsion, both conceived in terms of a divine curse. His resurrection anticipates the return from exile the Jews longed for and the restoration of humanity and creation. Christ is thus, on the one hand, the Messiah representing the nation of Israel and, on the other, the second Adam representing the whole of humanity. In his representative role nobody is excluded. Christ does not merely represent a limited group of people within Israel and the nations. Christ’s death is not merely on behalf of some elect grouping within the wider family of humanity. He represented all, and his death was for all without any exceptions. In his resurrection, the whole of creation is reconciled, and the whole of humanity is redeemed.” (p. 104f.) These biblical chapters have a particularly interesting take on the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah.
Chapter 6 is when MacDonald steps back from making a positive case for Universalism and instead defends his views against the “hell texts”. The hermeneutical bias discussed in chapter 1 is stretched a little, but, as MacDonald points out, no less so than other evangelical systems’ readings of their own ‘problem texts’ is stretched, such as Hebrews 6:4-6 for Calvinists. The honesty throughout the book is striking.
The book finishes off with some replies to remaining objections, including an interesting discussion of mission that is truly inspiring. The final paragraph is magisterial: “In conclusion, let me ask you to hold in your mind traditional Christian visions of the future, in which many, perhaps the majority of humanity, are excluded from salvation forever. Alongside that hold the universalist vision, in which God achieves his loving purpose of redeeming the whole creation. Which vision has the strongest view of divine love? Which story has the most powerful narrative of God’s victory over evil? Which picture lifts the cross of Christ to the greatest heights? Which perspective best emphasizes the triumph of grace over sin? Which view most inspires worship and love of God bringing him honour and glory? Which ahs the most satisfactory understanding of divine wrath? Which narrative inspires hope in the human spirit? To my mind the answer to all these questions is clear, and that is why i am a Christian universalist.” (p. 166f.)
I only have a single truly negative comment; the book lacks an index which has certainly made this review harder to write! Also, a scriptural index would be appreciated. Some readers will find the book hard going, the ‘average pew sitter’ (I have never met one of these, though surveys continue to insist that they exist) would find it difficult. However, those with a basic grounding in Christian doctrine, philosophy of religion and biblical studies will be fine and those without can easily skip over sections without missing too much (though they might find Thomas Talbott’s book “The Inescapable Love of God” more useful). This book is not an easy read.
A final word then about the author. He has chosen to write under a pseudonym, which while a shame, is understandable and has several advantages. He can open discuss things on the internet with normal uneducated folk like me (evangelicalunversalism DOT com SLASH forum) and the writing style is excellent. This is a stunning book and I hope it has a similar effect to John Stott coming out as an annihilationist. Universalism will not become the major view, but with any luck it will be accepted as a genuine evangelical option."