The topics featured in my title have been addressed many times before on this site, but people keep raising questions and objections, so I have to keep dealing with these subjects. In this case a comment on a recent article got me wound up, and instead of writing a very long comment in response, I thought I would just do yet another article on all this.
I suppose there is a place for repeating things, for rehashing arguments, and for constantly restating various truths. Being as forgetful as we all are, one can never emphasise various biblical truths too often. So even though all this has been discussed quite often before, here I go again. The recent article in question was my review of Rob Bell’s new controversial book, Love Wins.
My commentator expressed concern about my certainty on these matters and said this: “As respectively as I possibly can be, Bill; take care that you don’t become Saul (of Tarsus) Muehlenberg, knowing without a shadow of doubt the depths of the mind of God; especially when the Bible is full of poetic symbolism. How often have any of us thought we understood a passage perfectly for years when suddenly a clearer understanding jumps out and we wonder how on earth we could have not seen the lucid cross checked intent of a Biblical passage.”
My first response would be this: Yes you are quite right, we can and do change our theological understanding over time, and we need to be careful here. That is of course true of all sorts of secondary doctrines in which genuine disagreement can take place.
But what Bell is writing about is not some mere secondary doctrine. It is not only a core teaching of Scripture mentioned many hundreds of times, but it impinges on all the other core doctrines of Scripture. The simple truth is, if everyone is going to be saved, and there is no eternal destiny of torment for the ungodly, then Jesus is a false witness, the disciples were deluded, the Bible is full of lies, and the entire history of the Christian church has been in deep error.
If I had been talking about various modes of baptism or styles of worship, this person’s comments would be spot on. But with all due respect as well – and without resorting to calling him Saul or any other name – this is not some inconsequential item which believers can just take or leave.
This is not some secondary teaching which has no impact on the biblical worldview and how we live the Christian life. Indeed, if universalism is true – or annihilationism, and Bell seems to happily toy with both notions – then everything we know as Christians is basically wrong.
For example, why in the world did Jesus give us the great Commission? Was he just having us on? Was he deluded? A liar? Playing games? The imperative to tell others the good news of the gospel which runs everywhere in the New Testament, and is demonstrated powerfully in the book of Acts, makes absolutely no sense if Bell and his buddies are right.
Indeed, the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection equally make little sense if the trendy emergent view of things is correct. It seems everything we have been taught as Christians now has to be jettisoned and entirely reworked. Of course plenty of emergents have proudly said that is exactly what they want to do.
They want us to effectively reinvent the entire Christian worldview. They certainly want a new milder, gentler and far less certain version of it. They want a Christianity which questions everything, doubts everything, and is assured of nothing.
Thus the comment of my Christian critic makes good sense in this way of thinking. It is of course entirely consistent with postmodern thought and deconstructionist thinking. These twin wicked sisters both value doubt, uncertainty, mystery and 99 shades of grey.
They decry the notions of absolute truth, conviction, assurance, certainty and black and white. And given that the church regularly and slavishly follows the surrounding culture, we have the very same thing here. The emergent church especially takes pride in affirming the tenets of postmodernism, while decrying any evangelical certainties.
So today the doctrine of hell is up for grabs. Tomorrow – and I don’t doubt for a moment we will have to wait long – it will be the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and other core basics of the Christian faith. Indeed, emergents are already seriously questioning the very nature of the atonement, and why Christ had to die in the first place.
Thus by the reasoning of my friendly critic here (and that of Bell, the emergents, and the postmoderns) we would also have to say that all biblical doctrines and Christian verities must be held on to quite lightly and loosely. If doubt is the chief virtue here, if uncertainty and questioning are some of the greater Christian values, then of course no doctrine should be clung to too strenuously and resolutely
Instead of saying that the Word of God is our sole standard of truth and morality, now we have to say at best it might be, and then again, so too might be the Koran. Instead of saying with strong conviction that Jesus is the only way to the Father, we now will have to say, ‘Well, I think he is, but I don’t want to be too dogmatic about this, and I certainly don’t want to offend anyone.’ Instead of saying that when I die, I will live forever somewhere, we will now have to say, ‘Well, I sure hope so, but then again I should be open to changing my theology’.
Indeed, every single saint who died a martyr’s death would now have to be re-evaluated. Instead of seeing them as Christian heroes, we now should see them as dogmatic, intolerant, bigoted and rather narrow-minded believers who really need to latch on to the postmodern view of things.
They were far too dogmatic and sure of themselves. But of course then it is not just the saints of old, but every great character in the Bible, including Jesus himself. That is because we find daring, bold and sterling expressions of theological and epistemological certainty running throughout the entire Bible.
I would have to write dozens of articles just to showcase some of these examples. Everywhere we turn to in Scripture we see biblical faith celebrated not as doubting everything and believing nothing, but as passionate conviction, assurance, and certainty.
It is that sort of faith that Christian martyrs are made of. Postmodern and emergent faith would never have resulted in one single martyr. Indeed, if anything, Peter’s denial of Christ or Judas’ betrayal of Christ would be more in line with PoMo and emergent thinking. These were real Christians – they were not dogmatic and arrogant, but were willing to question everything and challenge everything.
On Biblical faith and conviction
Now, as I have said so many times before, does the conviction and assurance of Biblical truths mean that we are to be arrogant, unbending, never admitting to some new understandings, and so on? Of course not. I have said time and time again that we must always remain on our knees in prayer and dependence on God. We must be humble in other words and admit that in our fallen and finite and fallible condition we will never have exhaustive truth. But as Schaeffer always said, we can still have true truth about what is important.
Have I changed some of my theological views over the years? You bet, certainly on many of the more peripheral issues. But should I change my views on the core doctrines? Nope. I don’t care if Rob Bell and the entire emergent church movement come out next year with new books and teachings on how we have to just relax on believing Jesus is God.
They can ramble on all they like about how we have to settle for questions, doubts, mystery, and lack of certainty, and how this somehow makes us more spiritual and more Christ-like. But not me. Like Job, I will say, I know that my redeemer lives. Like Peter, I will say, we know that you alone are the one who has the words of eternal life.
Like Paul I will say, I know in whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep me. Like John I will say, we know that we have eternal life in the Son. Like all Christians throughout church history I will say boldly, and with unmovable certainty, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”
In closing, and getting back to the topic at hand, let me just finish with two quotations. You decide which one, if any, is in fact true:
-“Will everyone be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t.” (Rob Bell, Love Wins, p. 115)
-“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son…. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” (Jesus, John 3: 18, 36)