Evaluating Gregory MacDonald's proposal for Universal Salvation
In the evaluation of MacDonald’s proposal, this essay shall first outline a summary of his proposal, identifying the main claims and methodology that he applies to his claim. It shall then take each point in turn for expansion and critical review to determine the implications of the proposal for both the Biblical message and Church unity.
A Summary view of MacDonald’s Universalism
MacDonald specifies how he intends to use the term ‘Universalisms’ as the notion that all individuals will eventually be saved. He accepts that the term can be used in two ways: 1) to indicate that the Gospel message is intended for all people groups as opposed to any specific group, and 2) that Christ died for each and every person; however, he is explicit that the thrust of his argument is not based on these statements.
His focus is on the temporary nature of Hell, he states that his version of Universalism means the ‘possibility of redemption from Hell’. By examining the philosophical problems regarding the traditional Church doctrine of Hell, he concludes that neither a freewill theism nor belief in predestination hinders God from saving everyone.
Moving to Biblical theology, MacDonald lays down his criteria for universalism; his methodology includes 1) that the idea must have positive support from scripture and 2) that it must not conflict with what is explicitly taught in the bible. He explores the hell texts: Matt 25:45; 2 Thess 1:6-9 and the two texts in Revelation; 14:11 and 20:10-15, concluding that Universalism has a strong claim to being well grounded in biblical revelation.
In his final chapter, he lists four advantages to belief in Universalism:
1) it assuages the problem of evil.
2) it assists in the coherence of biblical teaching that fall apart if one holds to a traditional view of Hell.
3) it unifies the Church in a way that a view of limited atonement could not.
4) it has Pastoral benefits.
The Duration of Hell
MacDonald posits a temporary Hell. According to Powys, in the mid to late 19th century the debate around the unending divine punishment of the unrighteous became ‘untenable’; he put this down to the dominant philosophical themes about individual worth and the expectation of progress; he notes that up until that point the doctrine of everlasting torment had remained largely unchallenged. Through the Middle Ages in the West, the final destination of humanity was tied up with retributive justice and the subsequent reward of everlasting heaven or hell. MacDonald writes that in the case of a ‘hermeneutical stalemate’ in the interpretation of a passage, it is perfectly reasonable to ‘seek the best fit among reason, scripture, tradition, and experience’.As illustrated, the ‘tradition’ of the Church has historically held to the notion of everlasting punishment; the development of a more temporary Hell being a later addition. Thus, MacDonald cannot appeal to tradition to resolve any tension of a temporary Hell.
We must assume that by MacDonalds claim that all ‘individuals will eventually be saved’, he means that all individuals will receive eternal life with God; he merely states that a ‘universalist believes that God will rescue all people’. MacDonald’s need to argue a temporary Hell can only imply that the salvation he envisages is the opposite of a temporary condition, therefore, an eternal condition. He clearly refutes annihilationism as much as he does an eternal Hell, but in prominent scholar John Wenham, who holds to the theology of conditional immortality (synonymous with annihilationism), he finds an ally in the notion of a temporary Hell.
Wenham is clear that conditional immortality ‘sees no continuing place in God’s world for human beings living on in unending pain not reconciled to God’.
However, this does not make it congruous with MacDonald’s Universalism. Wenham lists 264 references in the NT to life after death, and to the fate of those judged as wicked. The majority of those references refer to destruction of the individual; it is unlikely that MacDonald perceives this as a rescue from a temporary condition. Wenham states:
It is a terrible catalogue, giving the most solemn warning, but in all but one of the 264 references there is not a word about unending torment and very many of them in their natural sense clearly refer to destruction.
One final verse is identified by Wenham which he cannot reconcile with destruction, unfortunately it does not back MacDonald’s case either. Rev 14:11 speaks of the ‘smoke of their torment rising for ever and ever’ and biblically refutes the notion of a temporary punishment. Wenham’s references, and the revelation verse, therefore, make it difficult for MacDonald to appeal to scripture to identify a temporary Hell.
On Calvin and compatibilist views of Freewill
With appeals to scripture and tradition proving difficult for a doctrine of temporary Hell, MacDonald turns to reason. It is here, he makes greater strides in favour of Universalism. The thought experiment around the Calvinist solution to hell he engages with is sound logic and points to Universalism.
Accepting that the philosophical problem does not lie in the punishment of hell being unjust, rather that one must accept God does not want to save all people. MacDonald writes, ‘The real problem of the Calvinist solution is not with God’s justice but with his love’. Helm has also tackled this issue, he remedied it by pointing out ‘a mercy (love) which could not be unilaterally waived would not be mercy’.
Regardless of this truism, MacDonald presses on and states that scripture seems to claim the nature of God is to love his creatures, and is therefore obliged to show mercy to them; he cites 1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:16 to back this claim. Walls, in his book, points out that in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin does not cite either of these verses, giving strength to MacDonald’s claim. 
Furthermore, MacDonald highlights other parts of scripture that seem to stress the view of Christ dying for all and God’s desire to save all, contra to the Calvinist doctrine of election.
Acknowledging critics of his 1st edition in his addressing of the Doctrine of Election, MacDonald tackles the problem in more detail in appendix 6 in his 2nd edition. He provides a thorough analysis, although admits his view on the matter is in flux, concluding that the Doctrine of Election is not a barrier to Universalism. That the chosen people of God are elected not instead of the others but on behalf of them. For MacDonald, this at least allows for the possibility of a reconciliation with God to both the elect and the non-elect, i.e. that even the non-elect (those in Hell) may still be reconciled by the elect. MacDonald’s logic links the possibility of redemption from Hell with the necessity of the redemption from Hell, by defining the role of the elect as an eschatological agent of restoration; in this manner the propositions become necessarily linked.
MacDonald writes that although he would not use the understanding that Christ died for all as the basis of an argument for his universalism, he uses scriptural verses that contain that claim to repudiate the Doctrine of Election. He then uses the refuted doctrine to make his case for his universalism. Although his understanding of the Calvinist idea of predestination is modified, it does provide a robust defence of his proposal; unfortunately, due to the poor logic in its construction it undermines his previously stated claim. Although he makes a strong attempt to solve the problem of the biblically attested doctrine, he fails to do so.
The Hell texts and Biblical Exegesis
MacDonald’s exegesis of the Matthew text places Jesus’ teaching in context. In Matt 25, Jesus is using Gehenna as the metaphorical backdrop to his parable of the sheep and the goats; MacDonald is keen to stress a metaphorical use of the ‘eternal fire’, granted, Jesus’ divine teaching often finds a certain paucity with human comprehension, and so he does apply metaphor frequently to enable a deeper understanding. However, MacDonalds hermeneutical focus is on the use of αιωνιος. Correctly he points out that is does not necessarily translate as ‘eternal’ but as ‘agelong’. The difference is nuanced, but power is removed from MacDonald’s argument when we find the same word in use in the LXX to express the Hebrew words for always; forever and enduring.
In a narrower focus, as MacDonald wishes us to view his version of universalism, he writes ‘Jesus’ claims about Gehenna do not explicitly affirm its identity as beyond hope of redemption’. Where this idea complies with his stated second criteria for his biblical theology, it does not comply with his first, i.e. that of a positive support.
In the Pauline text (2 Thess 1:6-10) MacDonald makes a similar argument around the use of the word αιωνιος, but also goes further to suggest the key verse, v9, does not ‘envisage any eternal separation from God’ with the translation of απο meaning ‘coming from’. Reading the Epistle further, these verses are unpacked in Chapter 2:1-12 were a more definitive separation, brought by death, is the case.
Dealing with apocalyptic literature is notoriously difficult to interpret definitively. MacDonald himself writes that ‘Fudge argues that the language is symbolic, and a literal interpretation is impossible’. The same argument is given for αιωνιος, in both cited texts, but a further claim that only the demonic trinity are those destined for an eternal conscious torment, is made. MacDonald takes power from his argument by concluding with a subjunctive that ‘the Universalist could maintain that…’. In defence of this, MacDonald mentions that in the cases of hermeneutical stalemate he would come down on the side of the universalist; therefore, there is no dishonesty in this approach, but it does go against his stated methodology that scripture should provide positive support. Also, it can be argued that if one maintains that only demonic trinity would suffer eternal torment, then God could do the same for others as it would be within His power.
Furthermore, MacDonald’s biblical exegesis does not provide any engagement with the texts associated with the Doctrine of Reprobation. Grudem defines the doctrine as ‘the sovereign decision of God before creation to pass over some persons, in sorrow deciding not to save them, and to punish them for their sins, and thereby to manifest his justice’. Grudem cites Jude 4, Rom 9:17-22 and 1 Peter 2:8 as pivotal passages for this doctrine which MacDonald does not include in his proposal.
The Four advantages of Universalism
MacDonald views the problem of evil through the lens of the individual, whereas he views the problem of good (if there is such a thing) through the lens of the corporate: he states ‘Divine goodness requires universalism.
MacDonald seems to be equating the goodness of God with the will of God, making an ill though out human assumption about divine will. In his non-denial of suffering within a universalist theology, he inadvertently highlights the problem of evil. Human suffering is not only individual, but also corporate. If divine goodness requires universalism, so too does divine wickedness.
The Universalism of MacDonald’s suggestion does not improve the coherence of biblical teaching as claimed; it confounds it with an anthropocentric focus that could qualify as idolatry. The danger arising from this notion is that it can detract from a theocentric worldview, making the rescue of humanity the sole focus of theology.
Regarding the last two claims, there is a more pleasing and pastoral virtue to preaching that all will be saved eventually; this could also be viewed as unifying for the Church; however, it does not fit with biblical doctrine, particularly the doctrine of reprobation. To that end, there can be no real virtue in preaching a false doctrine which can in turn cause division within the Church.
This essay outlined MacDonalds proposal and engaged with each identified point. Critically examining his proposal with the understanding that MacDonald was clear in pointing out his bias towards universalism beforehand. His strongest argument was found in the modification he placed on the Doctrine of Election. His proposal faulters, however, by not engaging with the Doctrine of Reprobation.
The exegesis of the Hell texts is well argued, but ultimately fails to qualify under his own methodology for well-grounded positive support. The Pastoral advantages to MacDonald’s specific view are recognised, but upon reflection the proposal is anti-biblical and therefore cannot be considered to add value to the Christian life, potentially even endangering Church unity by moving the focus of worship away from a corporate view to an individualistic one.
Comfort, Philip W., Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, Philemon, (Illinois: Tyndale House, 2008)
Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (London: IVP, 2020)
Helm, Paul, ‘The Logic of Limited atonement’, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, 3.2 (1985)
Letham, Robert, The Work of Christ, (Leicester: IVP, 1993)
MacDonald, Gregory, The Evangelical Universalist: The Biblical hope that God’s Love will Save Us All, (London: SPCK, 2012)
Powys, David J., ‘The Nineteenth and twentieth Century Debates about Hell and Universalism’, in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, ed Nigel M. De S. Cameron, (Carlisle:Paternoster Press, 19992)
Walls, Jerry L., Does God Love Everyone? The Heart of What is Wrong with Calvinism, (Oregon: Cascade, 2016)
Wenham, John W., ‘The Case for Conditional Immortality’, in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, ed.Nigel M. De S. Cameron, (Carlisle: Paternoster Press,1992)
 Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist: The Biblical hope that God’s Love will Save Us All, (London: SPCK, 2012) 5  Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 5  Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 35  Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 36-37  Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 41  Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 156  David J Powys, ‘The Nineteenth and twentieth Century Debates about Hell and Universalism’, in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, ed Nigel M. De S. Cameron, (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1992) 93-139  David J Powys, ‘The Nineteenth and twentieth Century Debates about Hell and Universalism’, 96  Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 36  Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 4  John W. Wenham, ‘The Case for Conditional Immortality’, in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, ed.Nigel M. De S. Cameron, (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1992) 162  John W. Wenham, ‘The Case for Conditional Immortality’, 174  Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 19  Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 19  Paul Helm, ‘The Logic of Limited atonement’, Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology, 3.2 (1985) 50  Jerry L Walls, Does God Love Everyone? The Heart of What is Wrong with Calvinism, (Oregon: Cascade, 2016) 17  1 John 2:2, 2 Pet 3:9, 1 Tim 2:4 and Ezek 33:11  Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 242  Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 242  Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 148  Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 152  Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, Philemon, ed. Philip W Comfort (Illinois: Tyndale House, 2008) 389  Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 129  Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 129  Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (London: IVP, 2020) 834  Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 160  Robert Letham, The Work of Christ, (Leicester: IVP, 1993) 189