In the last post we sketched Robin Parry’s proposal for an evangelical form of universalism in the current edition of Evangelical Quarterly. Parry’s coming at this as an evangelical (former editor at Paternoster books). His tone is irenic, he’s not dogmatic, he’s not trying to dismiss traditional interpretations, nor is he trying to be provocative in order to sell loads of books … nough said.
He is, you sense, exploring the possibility that he would very much like to be true for pastoral reasons. He is a ‘hopeful dogmatic universalist’ without being too dogmatic.
Do you feel the weight of that hope? God himself desires all to come to a knowledge of salvation. He delights not in judgement – in the OT it is often a last resort after numerous prophetic warnings and appeals. Jesus comes first as one who seeks and saves the lost.
By evangelical universalism, Parry means not a form of universalism by which all paths lead to God but one in which all eventually are saved through faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. His version includes a place for justice, judgement and hell. But, he speculates, hell is temporary not infinite, ultimately educative not endlessly retributive.
In other words, God’s judgement is not the final word; ‘love wins’. Sin and sinners do not have the last word in defying God, God’s ultimate aim of reconciliation of all things will triumph. God will be ‘all in all’.
Derek Tidball, in his response, summarises the components of Parry’s argument, considers the biblical evidence and offers his verdict. I’ll just discuss the components in this post.
The argument for evangelical universalism traces some familiar paths – nothing being said here is dramatically new, except perhaps the proposal that such a view is inherently evangelical in nature.
A moral component: an argument against the idea of God inflicting infinite punishment for finite sin. John Stott famously raised this objection in Essentials many years ago (1988). And it’s telling that he (tentatively) proposed an evangelical case for annihilationism not universalism. There is nothing in this moral argument that demands universal salvation for all.
A philosophical component: if God is truly God – all loving, all powerful, and willing that none should perish, how is it logically compatible to say that some have the power to resist him and will therefore be punished eternally? Scripture, Tidball responds, simply does not resolve the issue and leaves space for the mystery of God. It also speaks of the victory of God over his enemies – ultimate judgement is not a failure of God to overcome those who resist him, but the opposite.
A theological component: This has several parts. The key one for Parry is that there are NOT two forms of God’s punishment: a disciplinary form for believers (e.g. Heb 12:6) and a retributive form ultimately endured by unbelievers.
The big idea here is that God’s justice will be restorative not retributive. This links together his love and his justice – eventually all will come to accept and know the love of God for themselves, it just takes longer for some to get there than others! Tidball isn’t convinced by the exegesis or the culturally shaped assumptions about what constitutes love and justice.
A hermeneutical component: Parry and Tidball agree that our reading of Scripture is context bound – we don’t ‘just read the Bible’ and fool ourselves if we think we are objectively neutral. For this reason we need to read the Bible aided by reason, tradition and experience. But they differ over the implications. Parry thinks that reason and experience point to a universalist hermeneutic. Tidball points out that universalism has been rejected by mainstream orthodoxy throughout Church history.
Next post the biblical evidence.
Comments, as ever, welcome.