Can an Evangelical be a Universalist? by Gregory MacDonald
“Can an evangelical be a universalist?” In other words, could someone be an evangelical and also believe that one day all people will be saved? If I asked that question of almost any evangelical I know the answer would be a clear and unequivocal, “No!” It would be akin to asking whether a vegetarian could eat pork. Indeed, even those evangelicals who seem to fly close to the wind at times on this issue always seem very keen to make clear that they are “not endorsing universalism.” To admit to being a universalist is the theological equivalent of signing one’s death warrant. It is like putting one’s hand up and saying, “Hi. Guess what – I am a misguided person who has abandoned the faith and embraced heresy. Would you like to be my friend?” So it is with some fear and trepidation that I choose to turn my little fishy nose against the stream and head off in the opposite direction from the majority of my fellow evangeli-fish. I will suggest that the answer to my opening question is actually, “Yes! It is possible to be an evangelical universalist.” Oh, “and would you like to be my friend?”
I must start by emphasising that it is not just a coincidence that few evangelicals have historically embraced universalism. The fact of the matter is that traditionally evangelicals have had strong and sensible reasons for rejecting the belief. If I am going to persuade you that one can be an evangelical and a universalist we will need to consider those reasons and see if they do the trick of blasting universal salvation out of the water. So why have evangelicals found universalism so objectionable? There are several reasons amongst which we find the following:
Objection 1: it is sometimes felt that universalism undermines the seriousness of sin. Universalism suggests, so many evangelicals think, that we do not deserve hell. It suggests that sin is not serious and that God’s “job” is to forgive everyone. Perhaps it even suggests that we all deserve to be saved. The evangelical knows that this liberal anthropology is self-deceptive garbage.
Objection 2: Universalism, it is often said, rests on a woolly and unbiblical understanding of God’s love (God is too kind to hurt a fly) at the expense of God’s justice and wrath.
Objection 3: it is often thought to undermine the necessity of Christ and the cross for salvation. The universalist, it is said, thinks that God will save us through whatever route of salvation we choose, whether it be Christ or some other track. It is believed that for the universalist all ways lead to God as surely as all roads lead to Rome. But the evangelical knows that this pluralist view undermines the glorious uniqueness of Christ and the truth of the gospel.
Objection 4: universal salvation is often thought to undermine the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation. Even if the Christian universalist insists that all those who are saved are saved through Christ and his cross presumably the universalists are the ultimate inclusivists. They believe that God will save everyone through Christ whether they have heard of Christ or not and, if they have heard of Christ, whether they accepted him or rejected him. Yet, the evangelical knows that the gift of salvation comes to all who trust in Christ but not to those who spurn him.
Objection 5: a belief in universal salvation is usually felt to undermine evangelism and mission. If we believe that everyone will be saved whatever they do, then what motivation do we have to proclaim the gospel to them? Who is going to risk their health, their safety, their families or their lives to reach the lost if the lost will be saved whether we preach to them or not? Evangelism is at the heart of evangelicalism and to undermine it is to rip the heart from our faith.
Objection 6: the claim that all will be saved undermines Scripture. The Bible clearly teaches that there is a hell and that it will not be empty. To accept universalism is therefore to fly in the face of the clear teaching of God’s word – something the evangelical knows is folly.
Objection 7: Universal salvation is sometimes said not to be fair. Why do we put all this effort into living the Christian life when God will save us all, including all those evil people who enjoy a life of sin? It is not fair! We may as well have fun sinning now and then let God save us.
Objection 8: universalism is sometimes thought to undermine the Trinity. After all, are not most universalists Unitarians? The historic link between “modern” forms of universalism and this heresy does not bode well.
In the face of such serious considerations it is hardly surprising that evangelicals have steered clear of the belief that all people will be saved. However, in considering whether an evangelical can believe in universal salvation it is important to realise that universalism is actually a broad family of views and not a single belief. The criticisms above do apply to some forms of universalism but not necessarily to others. There is one version of universalism that I think has good claims to being compatible with evangelicalism so rather than explaining all the different versions of universalism on the market, many of which are highly questionable from an evangelical perspective, I wish to explain just this one (which I will refer to as “evangelical” universalism with the “” marks to leave it an open question for now just how evangelical it really is). We can then ask how the standard evangelical anti-universalist objections stand up against it. It is important, before we do so, to be very clear about what I am, and am not, arguing in this brief article. I am not arguing that evangelicals ought to be “evangelical” universalists nor am I arguing that “evangelical” universalism is true. I am simply arguing that if someone holds to this form of universalism they do not automatically put themselves outsides the bounds of what can legitimately be called evangelical. So please do not complain after reading this that I did not produce any convincing arguments in defence of universalism – you’ll have to read my book (The Evangelical Universalist, ) for my attempt to do that.
So what does the “evangelical” universalists believe? Much the same as any other evangelical. They believe that God is triune and created the world ex nihilo; they believe that humans are created in this God’s image; they believe that human rebellion separates us from God and deserves punishment; they accept the final authority of the Scriptures for matters of Christian faith; they believe that the Father sent his one and only Son as a human being (who did not cease to be divine) to live as our representative, to reveal the Father and to atone for our sins through his death on the cross; they believe that through his resurrection eternal life is available to those who trust in Christ; they believe in salvation by grace (not merit), through faith in Christ (not works); they believe in the return of Christ and the coming day of judgment; they even believe in hell! Like any evangelicals they may disagree on issues – they may be Arminians or they may be Calvinists; they may be inclusivists or they may be exclusivists; they may accept penal substitution theories of atonement or they may not; they may accept retributive theories of punishment or they may not; they may accept the inerrancy of Scripture or they may not. However, on all the core evangelical doctrines (which are really just historical, orthodox Christian doctrines with some Protestant emphases) they will agree. At this point you may well be confused – exactly how are these “evangelical” universalists supposed to differ from the mainstream? In two respects
(a) they believe that death is not a point of no return. In other words, it is possible for those in hell to cast themselves upon God’s mercy (made available through Christ) and be saved.
(b) They believe that in the end everyone will do this and there will be no people left in hell.
Now not all Christian universalists accept this version of universalism but it is what I am proposing constitutes an “evangelical” version of universalism. Suppose someone hold to this belief – how will they react to the standard objections against universal salvation?
Objection 1: “evangelical” universalists have a very strong view of the seriousness of sin and they believe that hell is merited. They do not think that anyone deserves to be saved so this criticism simply misses the mark. Indeed, I would say that it is not because they have a low view of sin that they are universalists but because they have a high view of grace. In the words of Paul, “Where sin abounds grace abounds all the more.”
Objection 2: “Evangelical” universalists arguably have a very biblical and robust notion of divine love (or so I argue in my book). They do not need to imagine that God is a soft touch who would not dream of punishing anyone. Their understanding of divine love seeks to be shaped by its revelation in Christ. And they have a strong view of divine justice. Indeed, they think that every divine action is a manifestation of what P.T. Forsythe called, “holy love.” It is not that some divine acts are loving (like saving people) whilst others are just (like sending people to hell). Rather all God’s deeds are loving and just. Whatever hell is we must not suppose that it is the action of justice as opposed to love. It is, they think, an act of severe mercy – of “holy love.”
Objection 3: obviously “evangelical” universalism insists on the uniqueness of Christ and the necessity of the cross-resurrection for salvation so this objection slides away.
Objection 4: clearly “evangelical” universalism, at least in its exclusivist versions, insists on the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation (and in its inclusivist versions has no more problems than any other version of evangelical inclusivism). Hence this objection falls away.
Objection 5: “evangelical” universalists are committed to evangelism and mission more broadly construed. They desire that people enter into salvation through faith in Christ. In its Arminian version “evangelical” universalists also believe that without mission there are many who will go to hell who would not have done so otherwise thus preaching to stop people going to hell is still a motivation for evangelism. They also believe that there are many biblical motivations for mission and evangelism apart from the belief (a belief that they think mistaken) that those who die as unbelievers are damned to hell forever without hope of redemption. So whilst this objection has some teeth they are not sharp ones.
Objection 6: This really is the objection that most evangelicals think sinks universalism without a trace with so called “evangelical” universalism included. There is no way that I can possibly address all the complex issues here. For that I must refer you to my book in which I argue at length that there is a strong biblical case for universal salvation, perhaps stronger than most evangelicals have ever realised. In this context my point is merely that the “evangelical” universalist thinks that she has sought to do justice to the whole of Scripture and thinks that the Bible is compatible with her universalism. As those who seek to be true to evangelical traditions what more can we do? Obviously there are many discussions to be had on this topic and I can see the hands in the class raised even as I type. My question is simply that if we have a fellow evangelical believer who thinks in all honesty that Scripture is consistent with his universalism then, if that universalism is not a threat to any creedal beliefs or central gospel affirmations, can we exclude him from the fold? Can he not be treated simply as an evangelical who we think is mistaken about the possibility of redemption from hell? Can he not be treated with the same tolerance Arminians and Calvinists have for each other? This need not mean that we avoid arguing about the topic but simply that we see it as an argument taking place within evangelicalism.
Objection 7: Whilst I have heard some evangelicals make this “it’s not fair” objection it does seem to be a betrayal of the evangelical conviction in the gospel of grace. There is much one can say in response but it seems so clearly off the mark I shall not waste ink on it.
Objection 8: Clearly, “evangelical” universalism does not deny the Trinity. Indeed, “evangelical” universalists regard Unitarianism as a fundamental betrayal of the gospel and the biblical revelation of God.
So I ask, “Could ‘evangelical’ universalism possibly amount to a genuine evangelical universalism? Could it possibly be allowed as a legitimate evangelical option?” If not, on what basis is this denial made?
There are positive reasons for including this version of universalism within the fold even if as the black sheep of the family who needs careful watching.
First, it is based on gospel instincts and evangelicals are gospel people. The Father sent the Son to save all people (something many, though not all, evangelicals believe). The Son represented all humanity before God, and died for everyone. In Christ-our-representative all humanity dies and is resurrected to new life. Universal salvation is, in one sense, an accomplished fact in Christ. Of course, one needs to respond by the Spirit’s power to the gospel to participate in what God has already accomplished in Christ, but the fact remains that there are good biblical reasons to see the logic of the gospel (the evangel) as one with a universal reach. This form of universalism is gospel affirming and mission affirming and thus has some claim to belonging in the evangelical fold.
Second, it has biblical foundations. In my book I argue that it is not merely certain proofs texts that can be used to support universalism (e.g., Romans 5:18-21; Colossians 1:18-20; Philippians 2:9-11) but the logic of the entire biblical metanarrative from creation to new creation. Obviously that is a case that will need to be argued out elsewhere – especially in the interpretation of the hell passages (see my book) – but the form of universalism we are considering here has aspirations, at very least, to be thoroughly biblical. This instinct to seek to listen to the whole canonical witness is deeply evangelical and constitutes another reason to see the small number of “evangelical” universalists as players on the same team.
In conclusion, whilst I do not imagine that I will have persuaded anyone of the truth of “evangelical” universalism, indeed I have not sought to do so, I do hope that at very least the answer to my original question is not so obviously, “No!” and may even be, “Maybe” or just possibly even, “Yes!”
 Inclusivists think that it is possible to be saved through Christ without having explicit faith in Christ. Inclusivists are not usually universalists.
 Exclusivists believe that one can only be saved through Christ if one has explicit faith in Christ.