If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person. By Philip Gulley and James Mulholland. San Francisco, CA: Harper, 2010. 256 pages. Paper, $14.99.
The authors are liberal Quaker ministers. Though the book is co-authored, they write in the first-person singular. As the subtitle indicates, they argue for universalism. “I believe God will save every person” is the book’s constant refrain (p. 10). “Hell will be empty,” they insist (p. 162).
The book’s main strength is the clarity of the writing, and the honesty of their struggle with difficult questions about God’s love, grace, and the reality of hell.
For example, they tell the story of Sally, whom one of the authors met while conducting her daughter’s funeral. The little girl drowned in a pool while Sally was passed out drunk.
At first, the author’s opinion of Sally was extremely low. When she confessed to feeling abandoned by God and no longer having any reason to live, he reluctantly told her that God loved her, but did it “through gritted teeth” (p. 3). In reality, he despised her for neglecting her daughter. But when Sally herself died five years later, and the author learned more about her, his attitude changed.
Sally had been abandoned by her parents at the age of three. After marrying young, she was then abandoned by her husband, with three kids to care for. Drugs, alcohol, poverty, and a series of abusive boyfriends led to a steep decline until she hit rock bottom with her daughter’s tragic death. But after the funeral, Sally turned her life around. Over five years she got a job, bought a house, and made peace with her family. Shortly before she died, she told her son she was thinking of finding a church.
When the author was asked to conduct her funeral, he didn’t know what to say. Where did Sally go when she died?
The traditional Evangelical response was grim. “Having never accepted Christ, Christ wouldn’t accept her. She was doomed to hell” (p. 4). But he couldn’t bring himself to believe that. God had been working in Sally’s life. “In clear response to our prayers, she had been drawing close to God. She’d turned from the path of destruction. She’d been asking, seeking, and knocking. I couldn’t believe God would invite Sally to his home, then slam the door as she stood at the threshold. It seemed a cruel joke” (p. 5). After coming so far, would God really damn Sally to hell?
After meditating on the story of the Prodigal Son, and seeing the unreserved love of the father for the prodigal, he concluded that God must have welcomed Sally home, and she must ultimately be saved.
Unlike other books on universalism, the authors admit their argument is not based on Scripture, so much as on their experience.
As Quakers, they believe that God guides each individual through an Inner Light. While Evangelical Quakers believe the Inner Light can never contradict Scripture, liberal Quakers, like the authors, believe it can correct, improve, or expand upon Scripture.
The second chapter, “Trusting Our Experience with God,” defends prioritizing our spiritual experiences over Biblical revelation. As an example of what they mean, they appeal to Peter’s vision of a sheet full of animals being lowered from heaven. This vision led Peter to reject Biblical, rabbinic, and otherwise traditional teaching about the separateness of Jews and Gentiles, and he consequently took the gospel to Cornelius. As the authors interpret it, “Peter’s story…encouraged me to base my faith on my experiences with God” (p. 26). Scripture matters, but it cannot ultimately confine what God may choose to reveal to us. “I am…grateful I’ve been freed from my need to confine God within the boundaries of my tradition and my interpretations of Scripture” (p. 26). Hence, like Peter, Gulley and Mulholland admit their beliefs are contrary to certain Scriptures, but insist they agree with others (p. 36).
The authors chide “defenders of Biblical inerrancy” for claiming that “infallible Scripture is the only safe guide in our search for truth” while forgetting the Bible contains numerous stories of God speaking to people in dreams, visions, and appearances. Why deny God still acts in that way? “God didn’t fall silent with the last chapter of Revelation. He continues to reveal himself” (pp. 37-38). And what God is revealing today is that everyone will be saved in the end.
The authors prioritize Jesus’ commands, stories, and examples of love. If a belief does not comport with the primacy of love as they have experienced it, they reject that belief. For example, since the authors cannot imagine how hell can comport with a loving, forgiving God, they reject it.
The full consequence of the authors’ fatal error of prioritizing experience over Scripture, becomes apparent by the end of the book when they openly reject Jesus Himself.
They deny that Jesus is divine (p. 125), that His death was a payment for sin (p. 138), that He is the only means of salvation (p. 142), and finally, that the Gospels give us an accurate portrayal of Jesus at all (p. 154).
Essentially, the authors have gone beyond receiving extra-Biblical revelation to make a religion of their own devising. Although they claim to be primarily inspired by the “life and stories of Jesus,” that clearly isn’t true, since Jesus is our principle teacher about the reality of hell (e.g., Matt 13:41-42, 49-50; Mark 9:43, 48-49). You cannot have one Jesus, without the other. If you are going to pick and choose, why have Jesus at all? You have just become your own Messiah.
Experience is a fickle thing and should not be determinative for theology. If, for example, Sally had judged God by her experiences, what would she have concluded? Maybe she would have concluded that God abandoned her. Sally’s painful experiences might have led her to emphasize Jesus’ teachings about hell and judgment, and reject His teachings about love and forgiveness. “Weighing those stories on the scale of judgment finds them wanting,” she might have concluded.
Instead of judging their experiences in the light of Scripture, the authors did the reverse. JOTGES readers will not find their arguments compelling. Because they raise good questions about how to reconcile God’s love with the reality of hell, this book is recommended for mature believers only.
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society