A Universalist Theodicy?

Whatever Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Church Michigan, America, intended with the publication of his book Love Wins, the resulting controversy highlights an issue that has been flickering on the edge of Evangelicalism for awhile. Robin Parry the author of The Evangelical Universalist and editor of All Shall be Well made the case recently at Spurgeon’s College, London for ‘Evangelical Universalism’. Parry’s argument is that everyone will eventually come to a saving faith in Jesus.

Essentially the argument for Universalism is that God’s primary characteristic of love means that he ultimately vanquishes sin, death and evil. All the parts of Scripture, the parables and teachings of Jesus, the flow of Biblical history and the all the various doctrines of Soteriology and Christology are understood in the light of this over arching idea, at the end of the cosmos, God is utterly victorious, in the end there is no sin or evil.

However at this point Blocher’s insightful monograph about theodicy, Evil and the Cross is very useful. In it he surveys a number of non-Christian responses and their Christian corollaries before offering a biblical solution. The Universalism as espoused by Bell and Parry, problematically teeters between “solution by universal order” and the “the solution by autonomous freedom”. Falling dangerously in other words between the idea that sin and evil are simply part of God’s larger plan or that sin and evil are the cost of our freedom.

The solution by universal order

The solution by universal order comes from the “optimism”, of the Stoics. Blocher writes: “[Stoics] like the slave Epictetus who was capable of smiling even while his cruel master deliberately broke his leg.” They see, says Blocher, the bigger picture of a universe striving towards “beauty” (page 14). The Christian variations come from Leibniz, the Continental mathematician, who asserted that God was sovereign and that evil was an imperfection that simply reflected a thing’s distance from God. Later Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist, saw evil as a by product of evolution, part of God’s creation process.

The solution by autonomous freedom

The solution by autonomous freedom, sees the difficulty in aligning evil too closely with God and so makes it a necessary cost of human freedom. Blocher writes: “According to his ‘consequent’ nature at least, God is limited, emergent, advancing with the universe, and can influence the agents of historical change only by persuasion.” (page 41) John Hick’s famous “vale of soul-making” (page 53) is an expression says Blocher of this solution. In Hick’s words “Man can be truly for God only if he is morally independent of Him, and he can be thus independent only by being first against Him.” In other words sin (and evil) are a “prerequisite of love” (page 54).

An ‘iron triangle’

As Blocher points out in his closing chapters the biblical solution is an ‘iron triangle’ of sorts, made up of three sides that when broken introduce non-biblical ideas.  They are according to Blocher the three ideas of a Scriptural theodicy: God is sovereign, evil is evil and God is good. Universalism of a more deterministic variation errs in making evil part of God’s ultimate plan, while the more freedom focused variation errs in either reducing God’s sovereignty to make space for human freedom or errs by granting evil a place in order to allow for human freedom.

It seems Parry and Bell in their eagerness to emphasize one of God’s primary characteristics, love, have overlooked the theological consequences. Evil cannot be simply subsumed into God’s love and neither can it be counted, in some sort of divine-cost-benefit analysis, for freedom.  Hell is an expression of God’s defeat of sin and evil, but also God’s moral and ontological separation from sin and evil.   I suspect as evangelical universalism is placed under closer scrutiny, it’s theodicy will not bear the weight and it will continue to be a regarded as a heresy.

Luke

About Luke

Luke Isham, a graduate of Ridley Theological College, is a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Tasmania and serves in the inner-city Parish of St George's Battery Point. He's married to Amy and has a daughter named Evangeline.
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