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‘If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person’ (Book Review)

Book Review: ‘If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person’, Philip Gulley & James Mulholland, HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.

The questions

a.. How can the God Jesus talked about – who is both loving and powerful – tolerate seeing his creatures tormented forever in hell?

a.. How can the “saved” actually enjoy heaven while some of their loved ones are being tortured in hell?

a.. If Christians really believed in hell they’d go crazy urging people to avoid it. But they’re mostly not crazy in this way. so are most of them closet universalists?

a.. Can God’s will (God wills that ‘all come to repentance’) ever be ultimately thwarted?

a.. What do we do with statements like Paul’s “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive”?

a.. If Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, and do good to them, why can’t God do that to his enemies?

a.. But does all this mean Hitler shares the same hell – or even heaven – with the Jews he murdered?

have haunted thoughtful and compassionate Christians (and others) for 2,000 years.

Here’s a book (climbing the best-seller lists in the U.S. recently) where two Quakers – a theologian and a pastor – try to confront these questions honestly.

It’s a brilliant read, but is deficient in one important theological area (see below).

Universalism is the idea that all humans will be ‘saved’ / ‘go to heaven’. It’s an ancient idea (the early church fathers Origen and St. Jerome believed God would ultimately be reconciled with Satan).

Most of us Evangelicals (these authors are self-confessed theological Liberals), respond to the big hell questions with something like ‘I’m not a universalist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if God is.’ ‘Remember Jesus preached hell to the conservative Bible-believers, not the “unchurched”‘. Or ‘There are some clues in the NT – like preaching to the dead – which might make us tentative about being absolutist on this question.’ Etc. etc.

Gulley and Mulholland write in the first person, but we don’t know who originally wrote what. They believe theology is a conversation, not a monologue. Their chapters progress through the statement ‘I Believe God Will Save Every Person.’

Their basic affirmations: ‘God loves people more than formulas, mercy more than judgment, and pardon more than punishment.’ ‘If grace is true, it is true for everyone.’ ‘The world needs to know that God’s eternal, extravagant love is not part of the gospel. It is the whole gospel.’ ‘Love and punishment are not exclusive. but punishment must not be excessive, otherwise it becomes abusive.’ ‘[Like the prodigal’s father] God will run and embrace even his most wayward child. All will be healed. All will be forgiven. All will be reconciled.’ ‘Death does not have the final word. God has the final word.. a word of redeeming grace.’ ‘The only fire I desire for the wicked is the purifying fire of
God’s love.’

They issue a wise caution that we can easily become like the apostle Peter, who in his vision was too willing to reject what God had accepted. It’s important to note that Peter here was being asked to reject what his Rabbi had taught him (‘one of the signs of maturity is when we stop believing everything we’ve been told’), and had to learn that God’s grace was never intended to bless only a few.

This is a real challenge for conservatives. Our authors say of them ‘They claim to be “saved by grace” but then carefully outline a very specific set of beliefs one has to accept in order to be a Christian. [emphasizing doctrine and law over love].. Grace is a reward for good behavior.’ [According to their theology] God is powerless. ‘those who resist until their dying breath are forever doomed.’

Does the Lord have ‘yet more light and truth to break forth from his holy Word’? Evangelicals (like myself) would answer ‘Yes, but the light and truth will not be in conflict with God’s Word in Scripture. But we do not worship the Bible; we are to worship the One the Bible reveals.’

These two liberal writers go much further. ‘God speaks fresh words’ and if these conflict with what is in the Bible ‘it makes no sense to glorify the accounts of our ancestors’ encounters with God while diminishing our experiences with him today.’ ‘Jesus counsels against slavish devotion to the written word. Of the nearly 450 times when Scripture speaks of “the word of God” only a handful of references imply any written document. The Word of God is [mainly] a voice. It is experienced.’ Jesus/Christianity is not the only way to God; ‘salvation is no longer the sole possession of a specific culture, religion, denomination or person. [Although] Jesus had a special relationship with God. I’m no longer persuaded this required his divinity.’ (‘Was God uniquely present in the life of Jesus? I don’t think so.’). Salvation does not require ‘blood, a sacrifice, or the payment of a debt. Neither does God (Hosea 6:6, Isaiah 1:11, Psalm 51:16-17, Mark 12:33).

The two texts of course which give these authors pause about the deity of Jesus are John 14:6, and Acts 4:12. So they have to deny that ‘Jesus is the only way to God’ if all will be saved. But to deny Jesus’ divinity on the basis of this syllogism is surely to exalt reason over divine mystery. Why can’t the cosmic Christ draw all to God? ‘After death. judgment’ (Hebrews 9:27), yes, but is God only a ‘hanging judge’? Why can’t grace pursue ‘the lost’, as Jesus and Paul describes those ‘outside the kingdom’ beyond their death? Why can’t there be an ‘everlasting mercy’? Unfortunately to deny that God was operative in Israel’s history, or uniquely incarnate in the life of Jesus, or revealing God’s truth to us in Scripture. is to throw important theological babies out with the bathwater of ancient and modern pharisaism.

The book concludes with two interesting appendices: the first listing the 49 Scriptures which seem to indicate universal salvation (more Scriptures than mention hell?), and a history of the idea from the early church onwards.

BTW It’s a pity/mystery that these otherwise erudite scholars quote from a sexist translation (the NIV).

Questions about hell and universalism are very, very important for thinking and compassionate Christians. I am not sure you’ll get the final answers in this book. But it’s worth reading, if only to challenge some deeply-held but unexamined assumptions we all carry with us.

Copies of this book are available from Ridley College Bookshop – http://bookshop.ridley.unimelb.edu.au/bookweb/

Shalom! Rowland Croucher
May 2005


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