Evangelicals toy with the concept of a heavenly reward for all

17 February 2011

Ed Thornton attends a debate between Evangelicals about universalism

NEARLY 100 people gathered at Spurgeon’s College, London, earlier this month for a conference that addressed the question: “Is uni­versal­ism an Evangelical option?”

The Principal of the college, Nigel Wright, said: “The interest in this controversial topic shown by stu­dents, academics, and the Christian media means that we believe it is high time it was debated, openly and transparently, by leading proponents on both sides.”

Dr Robin Parry (above), author of The Evangelical Universalist: The bib­lical hope that God’s love will save us all, which he wrote under the pseu­donym Gregory MacDonald (Books, 16 May 2008), addressed the confer­ence, arguing that “Universal­ism is compatible with Evangelical­ism.”

Dr Parry admitted that, “his­tor­ically, almost all Evangelicals have denied the claim that God will save all people.”

The majority of Evangelicals have traditionally held that un­believers will be punished eternally; a minority, such as the Anglican Evangelical theologians John Stott and John Wenham, believe they will be ultimately annihilated.

Dr Parry said, however, that “Evangelicals happen to have opposed universalism, but there is no reason they need to have done so because of their Evangelicalism.”

Evangelical universalists, he argued, “affirm orthodox faith and have a high view of scripture”. The position is compatible, he said, with David Bebbington’s “quadrilateral”, which lists the defining features of Evangelicalism as: Bible, cross, conversion, and mission.

Evangelical universalists, however, made two adjustments to traditional Evangelical beliefs: “the belief that all people can be redeemed from hell, and [the belief that] in the end all people will be”.

Dr Parry said that Evangelical universalists should not be deemed “unEvangelical” by those who disagreed with their interpretation of scripture. Calvinists and Arminians also disagreed on issues such as free will and predestination, but did not therefore brand the other “unEvangelical”.

Dr Parry attempted to answer a number of common objections that Evangelicals had targeted at univer­salism. To the charge that it “under­mines the seriousness of sin”, he responded that universalists did “not so much have a low view of sin, but a high view of grace”.

Similarly, in answer to the argu­ment that it “sentimentalises God’s love and ignores justice and wrath,” Dr Parry said that Evangelical universalists “do not deny God’s justice and love . . . [but] seek to have a united view of the divine nature as “holy love”. He said that classical Evangelicals tend to “divide the divine nature so that some acts are of love and some are . . . just [acts of] retributive justice”.

The most common objection Dr Parry had encountered was that universalism undermined evangel­ism: “Why proclaim the gospel if people will be saved anyway?”

Dr Parry said that “fear of hell is not the only motivation for gospel proclamation”; furthermore, the traditional Evangelical position that argued for “eternal conscious tor­ment [in hell] is so awful that it’s paralysing to think about as a reality”.

The Revd Dr Derek Tidball, Visiting Scholar at Spurgeon’s, in response to Dr Parry’s presentation, acknowledged that some Evangel­icals, over the years, had “flirted with universalism and [have] argued it is not incompatible with core Evangel­ical convictions.”

Dr Tidball said that Dr Parry’s was “a particularly subtle form of universalism”. Evangelicals tended to “prefer things in black and white”, and, while Dr Parry’s position “deserves a fair hearing”, it “may be automatically rejected in some [Evangelical] circles”.

He emphasised the importance of hermeneutics, stating that “we can’t just claim to read the Bible.” While many Evangelicals believed scripture was inerrant, “our interpretations of scripture are not inerrant”.

In response to the idea that those in hell would ultimately be re­deemed, Dr Tidball said that there were “two forms of punishment” in scripture: “restorative [punishment] that believers will experience, and retributive [punishment] that un­believers will experience”.

He said that even if you accepted that divine justice was “integrally linked” to divine love, it was “not a necessary conclusion” that punish­ment must be restorative.

Dr Tidball said that Dr Parry’s “form of universalism is only found in the New Testament if some of the traditional understandings of the New Testament texts are revised”.

He admitted that “Evangelicals are constantly doing that [revising their understandings of the texts],” for example, over the issue of women in Christian leadership. “If we are going to do it, we need some convincing basis for doing it,” he said.

“Emotionally, I would like to believe universalism, but I would like scripture to propose it more clearly.”

Dr Tidball said that Dr Parry, in his book, had attempted “to join the dots up” to argue for universalism from the Bible, but was “making all sorts of assumptions that are not hinted at in scripture”.

In response, Dr Parry said: “I join the dots in a certain way, but everybody does. Nobody just reads the Bible.” He said that a universalist interpretation of the biblical texts had seemed “impossible” before [he was a universalist], but “now I read them as blindingly obvious.”

“Every Evangelical reading scripture has a problem text,” he said, not just universalists.

The conference also featured presentations on the approach to universalism taken by P. T. Forsyth, Thomas Torrance, and Jürgen Moltmann.

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