I’ve been listening to some episodes of the Unbelievable podcast from Premier Christian Radio.
I really like the show. It’s all about getting a discussion going – often between a Christian and a non-Christian – on a particular aspect of belief. The host, Justin Brierley, is a calm and even-handed moderator, and the guests usually behave themselves with courtesy and thoughtfulness.
I appreciated the discussion of ‘The Evangelical Universalist’ between Robin Parry and Laurence M. Blanchard. Robin published a book (under the pseudonym of Gregory MacDonald) of that title. Laurence is a pastor in the United States who is himself about to publish a book himself on the subject of universalism.
A few points (from memory) from this discussion.
Evangelical orthodoxy. Robin affirms the main tenets of evangelical orthodoxy, including the inspiration of Scripture, the Trinity, and so on. Unlike universalists such as John Hick, he is not a pluralist. He affirms one way of salvation, and that is through Jesus Christ.
Hell. Robin affirms the existence of hell. He regards it as a serious and terrible reality. But not an eternal reality. He believes that the occupants of hell will receive, and accept, an opportunity to receive eternal life.
‘Universalist’ texts. Robin thinks that if full weight is given to texts such as Colossians 1:19-20 (‘God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven’) then a universalist understanding becomes inevitable.
The ‘story’ of redemption. In addition to such ‘proof texts’, Robin suggests that the unfolding ‘story’ of redemption leads inevitably and unerringly to the complete and perfect triumph of God’s love and grace.
Christian evangelism. Although some Christian universalists might abuse this doctrine by neglecting Christian mission and evangelism, the fact that a doctrine can be misused does not prove that it is untrue. Paul (in Romans) recognises that the doctrine of grace might be used as an excuse for sin.
‘Practical universalists’. Orthodox evangelicals (i.e. those who believe in eternal punishment) often betray the shallowness of their own belief by failing precisely in the tasks of mission and evangelism. This suggests that many evangelicals are, in fact, practical universalists.
There remain, of course, serious problems with the universalist position, and Laurence was able to point some of these out. Indeed, Laurence was able to explain the ‘evangelical universalist’ position more readily than Robin could at one or two points. A general comment would be that both Robin and Laurence allowed the discussion to focus very much on heaven and hell as post-mortem destinations of individuals. Having recently been immersed in Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope this did jar a little. But it was interesting to hear a perspective that attempted articulate universalism while aiming to be true to the evangelical position in other respects.