Evangelical Universalism (5) oxymoron?

The title of this post is the title of Robin Parry’s article in the recent Evangelical Quarterly.

His argument is for a ‘NO’. The two are compatible.

Derek Tidball doesn’t quite give a bald ‘YES’ …. but he gets close.

He rightly says it depends on your understanding of ‘evangelical’. If defined in primarily theological terms and as a bounded set, Parry’s proposal will be rejected. Universalism relies on substantial speculation, quite a bit of eisegesis and sits outside the tradition of classic evangelicalism.

But if you define evangelicalism in more fluid terms, a centered set, it’s more tricky to say where and when an idea has moved so far from the centre that it is outside the bounds. Certainly it is on these sorts of grounds that Parry is arguing.

Derek is circumspect here – but does say personally that he finds the way the Bible is being handled is contrary to genuine evangelicalism.  He also wonders if universalism is borne out of cultural accommodation, evangelicalism presenting itself as a civil faith.

So what do you reckon? Is ‘evangelical universalism’ an example of a diluted evangelicalism accommodating itself, even out of good missional intentions, to the culture?

As I said earlier, it would take a hard heart not to feel the pull of what Parry is arguing for (or is that statement itself an example of dilution?).And I do believe there is a surprising and generous ‘wideness in God’s mercy’ otherwise God would not a God of grace.  But I find his case, however well argued, unconvincing.

Evangelical Universalism (4) biblical material

So to Derek Tidball’s discussion of the biblical material in his answer to the question ‘Can evangelicals be universalists?’ in the  current edition of Evangelical Quarterly.


– talks frequently of the final separation at the end / terror of hell (Mt 5:22; 18:8-9; 25:41, 46; Mk 9:42-48).

– Gehenna (Mk 9:48) – rejection, destruction and everlasting fire.

– John’s Gospel; strong dualism of those with eternal life and those not

Tidball argues there is no hint in Jesus that God’s judgement is irreversible or temporary but rather final. Parry’s acknowledgement that no contemporary of Jesus would have thought he was any sort of universalist, Tidball says this should be conclusive.


Parry’s case depends on establishing two ‘strands’ within Paul’s teaching, let’s call them strand A and strand B

Strand A: two ways; two types of people; two destinations. Romans 1:16-17; 2:7-9. 1 Cor 18; 6:9-10; Gal 5:21; 1 Thes 4:13; 2 Thes 1:9 (“everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord”), 2:10-12.

Strand B: Language that talks of a God who unites all creation under his reign. 1 Cor 15:26-28 (God is “all in all”). Philippians 2:10-11 (every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord). Colossians 1:20 (all things reconciled). Ephesians 1:10.

Do such ‘strand B’ texts imply universal salvation – and somehow trump strand A?

Tidball argues no: the two strands are not in tension or contradiction. It does not work to use strand B to trump strand A because strand B does not imply universalism. Indeed each of the four texts above can be best interpreted as teaching the opposite. For example, in 1 Cor 15, God is ‘all in all’ when all things are subject to him his enemies are destroyed, not re-educated or converted.

Such texts have no mention of hell being a temporary place – to argue they do is to do eisegesis not exegesis. The ‘all’ that Parry builds much upon, is all who are in Christ, not all individuals without exception – see 1 Cor 15:22.

Romans 5 develops this exclusive theme – the ‘all’ of Romans 5:8 is all (Jew or Gentile) who are in Christ as opposed to being in Adam. To argue for universalism from this and other texts goes directly against Romans 2:6-16; 14:11-12; 2 Thes 2:7-10 etc.

The ‘best’ universalist text is perhaps 1 Tim 4:10 “we have our hope set on the living God who is the saviour for all people, especially of those who believe.” But, Tidball argues, it is best translated within a particularistic framework of the letter and Paul more generally. The ‘especially’ understood as explaining the precise identity of the ‘all’ – ‘to be precise, those who believe’.

General Epistles and Revelation

Tidball refers to Howard Marshall and N T Wright on a regular basis who both conclude that there is no hint of a second chance post-mortem salvation in the NT.

Hebrews 9:27 – death followed by judgement

2 Peter 3:9 (the Lord does not want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance). This is a key text in a universalist argument, but to extrapolate out from this verse a conclusion that, to coin a phrase, God must get what he wants, is to interpret the verse  contrary to the whole flow of 2 Peter 3 which talks of the ‘destruction of the godless.’

1 John 2:2 – Jesus the atoning sacrifice for our sins and also the sins of the whole world. But John is strongly a two kinds of people / two paths  guy (see 1 John 5:23). This verse needs to be interpreted as talking of one saviour for all (the whole world) – whoever they are, across all ethnic, racial, gender, social and religious barriers.

Revelation: Lot of ground to cover here. Parry sees 14 and 20 as speaking of judgement, but 15 and 21-22 holding out the triumphant hope of God’s universal triumph. The latter ultimately overcoming the former. The judgement of the damned in 14 or 20 is not necessarily ‘for ever and ever’.  The open gates of the New Jerusalem point to a welcome for the judged – they will not be excluded for ever. But, Tidball contends such a reading is forced and speculative. The open gates are symbolic of peace. The whole context is of ultimate victory and the utter defeat of evil and judgement of God’s enemies to a second death (21:8).

Some concluding discussion in the next post.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Evangelical Universalism (3) reflecting on evangelicalism

This is an extra holding post 😉 – some reflections on ‘evangelical’ on this Easter Saturday.

When it comes to ‘evangelical universalism’, the question is not so much whether traditional evangelical interpretations are beyond challenge, critique and perhaps significant reform (after all don’t evangelicals believe in semper reformanda?), but whether such reform can be sustained exegetically and theologically.

In theory, evangelicals can live with all sorts of grey areas but agree on the core essentials of the faith. In practice this isn’t so neat – just have a browse through this series to see how serious, Bible-believing Christians and scholars come to different conclusions about exactly what the Bible does teach on a whole raft of issues.

More importantly, they differ over the significance of those issues for defining core evangelical beliefs. Some people’s non-essentials are other’s core etc.

Christian Smith has written a book about such “pervasive interpretative pluralism” – and responses to it reflect that pluralism!

It seems to me that most of the big debates and hot topics (hell; universalism; women in ministry; penal substitution; moving beyond the Bible to theology – to name a few recent /ongoing ones) that cause big stirs within evangelicalism do so because, at least for some, they are pushing the boundary of evangelical orthodoxy.

For example, on women in ministry, it seems to me that there is a strong exegetical and theological argument to be made for ‘mutuality’ and a significantly weaker and inconsistent one for various forms of hierarchicalism. Some want to make that a core issue and pin the gospel to it in a ‘slippery slope’ type argument.

Evangelicals will ‘defend the core’ because they are passionate about the gospel. After all, if there is no agreed core, there is actually no such thing as Christian orthodoxy let alone evangelicalism.

Why mention this? Well, it seems to me that the Parry-Tidball debate fits exactly within the inherent ambiguity and fuzziness over how to define evangelical, and the difference of opinion over what is an essential or non-essential matter.

Parry is arguing that his ‘evangelical universalism’, whether you agree with it or not, should be a legitimate evangelical interpretation since it is coming at the texts and the issues within a recognisably evangelical theological framework: in terms of theological starting assumptions and hermeneutical methodology.

Tidball is defining evangelicalism more narrowly; arguing that unless Parry’s view can be sustained biblically, it hasn’t the theological weight behind it to be considered evangelical in any meaningful sense.

Parry’s proposal that universalism be considered an orthodox evangelical option is a massive paradigm shift both historically and theologically. But that is not the main reason the vast majority of evangelicals will, like Derek Tidball, be un-persuaded. It is because evangelical universalism is perceived as both ‘threatening the core’ (as Parry is well aware and responds to – see the first post) and resting on thin exegetical foundations.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Evangelical Universalism (2)

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.

Evangelical Universalism? (1)

A significant debate goes on within the latest Evangelical Quarterly between Robin Parry and Derek Tidball among others on whether evangelicals can also be universalists. Robin Parry is the (formerly anonymous) author of the The Evangelical Universalist. Derek Tidball is ex-principal of London School of Theology, author of Who are the Evangelicals (and coincidentally our current external examiner at IBI and my former PhD supervisor).

Parry’s argument here is not so much a detailed case for universalism (see his book for that), but an appeal for evangelicals who are universalists to be considered and accepted as authentic evangelicals – to see this as an inner-evangelical debate. In other words, to see this as a secondary sort of matter of interpretation and theology.

What do you reckon? Is the notion of universalism ‘out of bounds’ for authentic evangelicalism? What’s your reaction (emotional and/or theological!) to those like Parry arguing that universalism should have a respectable place at the evangelical table? Is such a project a sign of capitulation to an increasingly pluralist and inclusivist culture or a theological awakening prompted by currents within culture? Or something else?

[Rob Bell is close to Parry but Parry’s book is far far better than Bell’s – Bell is not quite all the way with Parry down the universalist path in that he (Bell) says people can freely choose hell]

Parry roots his case in a two part argument.

In Part 1 he asks and addresses 10 common objections to universalism within evangelicalism:

  1. Universalism in unbiblical – he argues the Bible can be interpreted in universalist-compatible ways. And evangelicals holding this interpretation do not cease to be evangelical. Universalism is not incompatible with core evangelical beliefs.
  2. Universalism undermines the seriousness of sin: he says not. Evangelical universalists believe in the seriousness of sin but God’s love is bigger and deeper than sin.
  3. Universalism undermines divine justice and wrath: see point 2.
  4. Universalism undermines hell: evangelical universalists believe in hell, but also believe redemption from hell is possible.
  5. Universalism undermines Christ’s role in salvation: he rejects the charge that his universalism is a form of pluralism. Rather he quotes Bell here on a universal salvation based on the unique and effective work of Christ.
  6. Universalism undermines the importance of faith in Christ: Parry affirms its importance – he just argues that in time, whether before or after death, all will come to such exclusive faith.
  7. Universalism undermines mission and evangelism: while Parry agrees this can well happen, it need not do so.
  8. Universalism undermines the Trinity: while there has been overlap between universalism and unitarianism, Parry again says this need not be so. There is nothing in evangelical universalism than requires unitarianism.
  9. Universalism was declared ‘anathema’ by the Church (especially Origen): he argues that universal restoration is compatible with the great Creeds and Councils of the Church
  10. Historically, evangelicalism has rejected universalism: He admits this is true but argues for the evolution and development of a living tradition, open to reform and change in light of the heartbeat of that tradition.

In Part 2, he proposes that evangelical universalism has historic antecedents within a narrow stream of evangelicalism and, more significantly, universalism grows out of theological reflection on core evangelical concerns. He has a creative line of reasoning here: combine aspects of Calvinism and Arminianism and you can get evangelical universalism – therefore there is nothing intrinsically ‘un-evangelical’ about evangelical universalism since both Calvinism and Arminianism fall within its orbit.

1. God, being omnipotent, could cause all people to freely accept Christ

2. God, being omniscient, would know how to cause all people to freely accept Christ

3. God, being omnibenevolent, would want to cause all people to freely accept Christ

(Premises 1 and 2 are Calvinist, 3 is Arminian)

4. God will cause all people to freely accept Christ

5. All people will freely accept Christ.

So he concludes

Evangelical universalists are christocentric, trinitarian, evangel-focused, biblically-rooted, and missional … what else does one have to be to be an evangelical?

Next post will be on Derek Tidball’s response.

Comments, as ever, welcome.