Thursday, June 02, 2011

Can An Evangelical Be a Universalist?

The wagons are circling around what seems to have become the defining issue for evangelicalism today – the belief that Hell is eternal, conscious punishment.

According to Christian Post reporter, Audrey Barrick, Rick Warren “held back a few tears” in his interview with John Piper as he expressed his deep sadness about the 74 million people who will die this year alone and spend an eternity in Hell. “I can't live with that," he said. "My love compels us to care about that.”

Publishers Weekly noted that four books from evangelical publishing companies will be coming out this summer supporting the traditional view. David C. Cook will be publishing a book by well known pastor Francis Chan in July and another by Brian Jones in August. Tyndale has set a July release for a book on the subject by Mark Galli, Senior Managing Editor of Christianity Today, and Zondervan will likewise be coming out with a short compilation of essays on the subject from contributors including Timothy Keller, R. Albert Mohler Jr., and other prominent evangelicals, also in July.

All of which brings us back to the question that has suddenly become a major focus of attention in recent weeks – are evangelicals required to believe that Hell lasts forever?

In a recent blog post, I pointed out that many in the early Church, including some of the leaders who actually helped formulate the classic creeds of the faith, believed that Hell was remedial in nature and temporary in duration. But, what about today? Is that belief still a viable option for someone who is part of the modern evangelical church?

Without question, the belief that Hell is a place of never-ending torment is clearly the dominant view within the general Protestant evangelical Christian world. In a special report entitled “The Nature of Hell,” the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth among Evangelicals (ACUTE), a group based in the UK, explained,

We recognise that the interpretation of hell as eternal conscious punishment is the one most widely attested by the Church in its historic formulation of doctrine and in its understanding of Scripture. We also recognise that it represents the classic, mainstream evangelical position.

The Statement of Faith of the National Association of Evangelicals reads,

We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, which is the guiding document of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, says, in Chapter III, Article III, Of God’s Eternal Decree,

By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.

Similarly, the Statement of Faith of the Southern Baptist Convention – the largest Protestant denomination – states:

The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment.

Most . . . But Not All

While most of the evangelical evangelistic ministries hold to the belief that Hell is the place of eternal torment, there is at least one notable exception. The Statement of Faith of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association does not specify anything about the nature or result of God’s judgment. It simply says

That all men everywhere are lost and face the judgment of God, and need to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through His shed blood on the cross.

In recent years, several well-respected scholars, such as John Wenham, John Stott, Clark Pinnock, and others, have questioned the traditional teaching. Most of them have rejected the idea of Endless Punishment and lean toward Conditional Immortality – the idea that the “wicked” will ultimately be annihilated and cease from existence. The effect of this is seen in another statement in the ACUTE report mentioned above:

Evangelicals diverge on whether hell is eternal in duration or effect – that is, whether an individual’s punishment in hell will literally go on ‘for ever’, as a ceaseless conscious experience, or whether it will end in a destruction which will be ‘forever’, in the sense of being final and irreversible. It should be acknowledged that both of these interpretations preserve the crucial principle that judgment is on the basis of sins committed in this life, and that when judgment is to hell, it cannot be repealed (Matt. 25:41-6; Mark. 9:43-8; Luke 16:26).

An Evangelical Universalist?

But, can an evangelical actually believe that God will ultimately restore all of His creation to its initial perfection?

Much of the recent discussion surrounding the publication of Love Wins has focused on whether or not Rob Bell is a “universalist.” Bell denies the accusation. But, his book and the fury surrounding it brought the issue to light in an unexpected and very visible way.

In point of fact, there are those who clearly claim to be “evangelicals” who believe in the classic doctrines of the Christian faith except for the area of ultimate destinies. Like some of those in the early Church, they believe that the Scriptures teach that Hell is remedial and temporary.

Jan Bonda, a Dutch Reformed pastor, supported this view in The One Purpose of God: An Answer to the Doctrine of Endless Punishment published in English in 1998. His argument focused on a systematic study of the apostle Paul’s teaching in the book of Romans.

Robin Parry wrote a book with the actual title, The Evangelical Universalist, under the pseudonym Gregory MacDonald. The book is a scholarly work that addresses the philosophical problems associated with a belief in endless punishment, points out broad outlines of Biblical theology that support a belief in ultimate restoration, and examines specific passages in the Bible that relate to the issue. The book was published in 2006.

Gerry Beauchemin has been involved in missions since 1986. He served as a missionary in Mexico, the Philippines, and Senegal, West Africa. Since 2001, he has directed Dental Training For Missions where he trains missionaries in primary dental care. His book, Hope Beyond Hell, lays out a detailed argument in favor of ultimate restoration from a clearly Biblical and theologically conservative perspective.

One of the leading proponents of the belief in universal salvation is Thomas Talbott, currently Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Willamette University. In 1983, he authored a series of articles in the Reformed Journal debating the issue with John Piper. He penned The Inescapable Love of God in 1999, and was the lead contributor toUniversal Salvation: The Current Debate, published in 2004.

In a discussion of how his views on the subject developed, he wrote,

. . . the Western theological tradition seemed to leave me with a choice between an unjust and unloving God, on the one hand, and a defeated God, on the other. But of course this hardly exhausts the logical possibilities; there remains the additional possibility that it is God’s very nature to love, as I John 4:8 and 16 appears to declare, and that he is also wise and resourceful enough to accomplish all of his loving purposes in the end. Why, after all, should an assumption concerning everlasting punishment be the only unquestioned assumption in a context where some are limiting the extent of God’s love and others are limiting the scope of his ultimate victory? Why not at least examine the pros and cons of universal reconciliation alongside those of limited election and those of a limited victory over sin and death?

. . . I now view universal reconciliation as something more than a vague hope of some kind. To the contrary, I now view it as essential to a proper understanding of salvation, essential to a Pauline understanding of grace, and essential to the inclusive nature of election. For even as many Augustinians are utterly convinced that God’s salvific will cannot be defeated forever and many Arminians are utterly convinced that God at least wills the salvation of all human sinners, so I am equally convinced that both claims are true.

An extensive internet site addressing the issue from an evangelical perspective, maintained by Gary and Michelle Amirault. They produce and provide books, articles, audio and video material specifically focused on showing that the belief in universal salvation is a Scriptural teaching.

So, can an evangelical be a universalist? The answer to that question really depends on how one defines “evangelical.”

If an “evangelical” is someone who subscribes to the statements of faith of the National Association of Evangelicals, and most modern conservative churches and evangelistic organizations, then the answer is definitely “No.” If an “evangelical” is defined as one who believes in the authority of Scripture, the centrality of the gospel message and the classic creedal statements of the Christian faith, then the answer is actually “Yes.”


Unknown said...

Count me with evangelical universalists like yourself, Robin Parry, Gerry Beauchemin, and many others! We are in good company with the Apostles themselves,the first evangelical believers in the ultimate reconciliation of all. "The Apostle to the nations", St. Paul taught it extensively in his Epistles--especially the blessed Book of Romans!

Anonymous said...

I'd actually appreciate a clear layout of the Scriptures and its teachings rather than a discussion of what men believe and don't believe. Thus saith Yahweh is clearly preferential over the ideas of men which are to perish with its using. Anyone else?

George W. Sarris said...

Anonymous, may I encourage you to read my book - Heaven's Doors . . . Wider Than You Ever Believed! You can actually read significant sections for free on Amazon. It presents a strong Biblical as well as the historical case for ultimate restoration. FYI, I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture and base my case on the teachings of the Bible.