Sunday, April 10, 2005

Book Review: If Grace Is True

Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland

As I read the book If Grace Is True, a well-known old bromide kept coming to mind: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” This book may be the ultimate and most ironic example of the truth of that saying.

This book is based on a simple premise: if grace (God’s unmerited favor) is true, then literally everyone will go to heaven, no matter their religion or behavior.

Those who are familiar with orthodox Christian doctrine will immediately realize there is a problem with this premise: there is nothing in all of Christianity that supports it. As a matter of fact, this very doctrine, which the authors correctly point out originated with Origen, was considered heresy by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. For the past 1,500 years, their has been nearly unanimous agreement amongst Christian theologians that universalism is false.

Yet despite its condemnation, the doctrine of universal salvation, also known by the technical term apocatastasis, has popped up from time to time, and in modern times has found it’s most fertile soil in the United States and Britain. It is no surprise then that both Gulley and Mulholland are Americans.

To fully understand why Gulley and Mulholland champion a doctrine that has no basis in orthodox Christian theology, you must first understand all their underlying premises, which they willingly supply to the reader. Here then, is the foundation upon which they build their case:

1. Universalism is true because God “whispered in my ear.” i.e. special revelation.

2. Personal experience is the ultimate barometer of truth, especially when concerning things of God. However, this is not Cartesian philosophy that’s being advocated, but more like the statement “anything outside my realm of personal experience is false.”

2. The Bible is neither inerrant nor authoritative, except for those verses and passages that can be ripped out of their context to support universalism.

3. Jesus is not God, nor is there a Trinity. God is just God; one person.

4. The doctrine of atonement is false. There is no need of atonement from sin.

5. God’s love and mercy will not allow him to send someone to eternal punishment. It is not in his character to ever harm anyone, except for their ultimate benefit.

Given these premises then of course universalism is true, for they immediately nullify any reasonable rebuttal. Most of the book is a further explanation and defense of these premises, with supporting scriptures, quotes, and experiences provided.

However, the orthodox Christian will immediately realize that all these premises are heresy. When you remove the authority of the Word of God, deny the Trinity, and deny the need for atonement, then you are no longer talking about Christianity. Gulley and Mulholland insist that there is Jesus, a Bible, and salvation, but these are mere forms, their substance has been carefully and systematically removed or redefined.

The logical errors the authors make, and the contradictions that are abundant throughout this book make it a far more useful tool for the denial of universalism than it’s proof! For example, if every person is saved, then it is no longer God’s grace that is in operation; grace is completely nullified. Heaven no longer needs God’s grace for admittance, since it is now an entitlement, an inaliable right. Whether we get there through grace, contempt, or guilt is ultimately meaningless.

If the Bible is neither authorative nor inerrant, then it’s frivolous and inaccurate. In other words, you can’t go and cherry pick your favorite verses from an unauthoritative document then imply that they are authoritative! Yet that’s exactly what Gulley and Mulholland attempt with their examples of scriptures that allegedly support their position! This is what is normally known as hypocrisy.

But the most grievous error of all is how universalism ultimately nullifies itself. For instance, let’s assume that every Christian church and denomination; Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, all decide that universalism is the real deal, and proclaim universal salvation to all people, whether or not they are Christian, whether or not they behave in accordance with Christian tradition. What would be the net result of such a thing?

Well, no one in his right mind would ever walk through a church door, for if there is no need of the church for salvation, then it is completely irrelevant. And since you are saved regardless of behavior or ethics, there is certainly no need to teach Christian morality and ethics anymore. Jesus, the Bible, grace, love, and all everything else becomes ultimately irrelevant, since we are all going to be in heaven anyway, whether or not we have even heard of such a place.

And since there is no need to adhere to any code of conduct to get to heaven, then there is no need to act in the fashion of a Mother Teresa. The reward for being the greatest saint is the same for the most evil sinner: eternal life and happiness. So why bother with self-denial and self-sacrifice? Goodness is no more ultimately rewarded than blatant evil and selfishness.

It is easy to see where I’m going with this: if universal salvation were fully believed and accepted, it would be the precursor to the greatest hell on earth the world has ever known! Those of you who think I exaggerate, take a look at the various godless utopian ideals that have been tried over the centuries, only to fall apart under the weight of their own corruptness.

The law of non-contradiction states that a proposition cannot be true that is it’s own nullification. Yet universalism is exactly that: a nullification of itself, or at least of the underlying forms that are used to support it.


Obviously Gulley & Mulholland’s argument is not a logical nor theological one, as it fails miserably to convince on those levels. So one is left wondering what their prime motivation is for embracing a doctrine--universal salvation--that has been deemed heresy for more than 1,500 years? There seems to be two motives: the rigidity and gracelessness of the modern evangelical/fundamentalist church and a slight misunderstanding as to what God wants to do in comparison to what he will do.

Let me state that I believe God does want every person to be saved; He certainly takes no delight what-so-ever in the condemnation and punishment of the wicked, as is demonstrated very well in the story of Jonah. However, it’s one thing to believe in what God wants to happen as opposed to what will happen. Gulley and Mulholland, not quite understanding the kindness and the severity of God, have decided that He will save everyone no-matter-what.

So why embrace a position that has no scriptural or theological support? The authors seem to think fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity places far too many restrictions on salvation. In order to compensate for the perceived stinginess of the evangelical community, Gulley and Mulholland have fallen off the other side of the narrow road, and have proclaimed that God will, absolutely, save everyone. In many places throughout their book, the authors point out many, many places where the evangelical community has taken far too narrow a view of God, the Bible, and Christianity; and as a result they have created a Christian “clique” that is more interested in removing oneself from the world rather than saving it. In a self-revealing passage, the authors state:
So many people enter churches persuaded God is lurking in ambush. They come expecting fire and brimstone, and we’ve been all too willing to heap it on. We’ve slandered God’s character too long. I regret the times I manipulated and coerced other with sermons designed to shame and frighten rather than celebrate the love of God. I failed to appreciate the depth of God’s love. (pg. 68)
Certainly churches exists like those the authors were apart of. However, this type of severity is not true of all churches, not even all evangelical churches. I have found several conservative churches that spend far more time preaching on the love and mercy of God then they do on eternal condemnation and the fires of hell, if they preach on those subjects at all! So it is obvious that Gulley and Mulholland are painting a select picture of fundamentalist Christianity using a very broad brush.

The authors are correct to state that God’s love and grace must be the primary teaching of the Christian church; with that I have no problem. But God’s unconditional love doesn’t mean that we are all going to escape the fires of hell! It is explicit throughout scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, that we must take responsibility for our own actions, and God will reward or punish those actions in a fair and balanced way. Yet God often does not punish us nearly as severely as we deserve! But still a constant theme of punishment unto death exists throughout the Bible, and especially in the parables and teachings of Jesus. Also there are times where Jesus explicitly states that punishment is eternal; but it is also made very clear that the ultimate decision concerning one’s eternal destination is made by ourselves, not God! Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has opened the door of eternal salvation, and there are constant reminders telling us that we must walk through that door.

While I do not agree with Gulley and Mulholland’s solution to the problem of gracelessnes in some churches, I do agree with their criticisms. It is my belief that every church should extend as much love and grace as possible, and then go beyond even that! Those churches more interested in your sins than your salvation only create pride and triumphalism, along with false expectations no one can live up to.

God’s unconditional love for us does not automatically translate into our unconditional salvation. Definite conditions are placed on our salvation in both the Old and New Testaments, and those who are wise will heed these conditions. They are not difficult nor are they unreasonable, but they are conditions none-the-less. The first condition is to love God as He loves you, and this is demonstrated by us through obedience to His commandments. The second is to love everyone just as you are loved, and to show them the grace and forgiveness that God has shown you. And that’s about it. The rest of the Bible deals with particular applications of these conditions, and the punishment that awaits those who do not follow them.

But I do not blame Gulley and Mulholland for being blind to conditional salvation, as most of the evangelical church is blind to it as well! There is a subtext of “once saved, always saved” that permeates the evangelical community, especially those who are of the reformed theological tradition. Yet the Bible does not guarantee anyone’s salvation, unless the above conditions are met and lived out on a daily basis. Evangelicals often think people are “saved” if they say a prayer of repentance and are dunked in water; but this is not the biblical standard as salvation is only promised to those who walk as Jesus did. In other words, people need to LIVE the Christian life, not just pledge allegiance to it.

I really wish universal salvation were true, and most Christian I know would have no problem with that if it were Biblical. But if universal salvation is true, there could be no individual accountability for evil, and so a grave injustice would be done on a cosmic scale. The Bible often warns us that it is evil to reward the guilty and to punish those who are innocent; I don’t anticipate God is willing to ignore a standard that He expects us to live by.

For a very scholarly and in depth critique of universalism and similar systems, I highly recommend the book Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment published by Zondervan.


The Theology of Wishful Thinking (
A Distorted Predestination (Christianity Today)

1 comment:

manofredearth said...

Well thought out, though we disagree as to the book's merits. You attempt to use logic and emotion to refute other points of logic and emotion, but it's all the same bag of tricks. For example, the idea that churches across the globe would be empty if Universalism were true is hardly believable. The hundreds of thousands of Christians who agree with Universalism have certainly not left the church, indeed, they remain to strengthen it in light of the revelation of God's loving salvation of all people.

Also, the idea that special revelation is no way to found a belief is laughable in light of biblical account after biblical account of special revelations. The Samiritan, the Angel to Mary, Peter and the Sheet, and many others show exactly how valid special revelation is. You mentioned how the 2nd Council of Constantinople declared Universalism a heresy in 553, but last I checked the councils are as human as any of the rest of us. If there was 500 years of belief in Universalism, the idea that it is wrong can certainly be construed as "special revelation" ex post facto.

I understand what you are saying, but your methods of argument fall short due to the fact that they are subject to the very same style of arguments.

I recently read "a generous Orthodoxy" by Brian McLaren. I suggest it if you have the time to pick it up. It doesn't have much to do with Universalism, but more to do with bridging the gaps between the dualisms in Christianity.