Three Myths about Grace

freight-train-rail-photo-0002

1980s: How are you doing? Fine, thank you.

1990s: How are you doing? Great.

2000s: How are you doing? Awesome!

2010s: How are you doing? Epic!!!!!!!

Over time, words lose their meaning. Like cars hooked together on a train, words carry freight. That freight consists of meaning and emotion (denotation and connotation, to be showy). Apparently, for some words, the freight leaks out. We use and overuse words to the point they have little meaning. If you tell me your day has been awesome or epic, I am sure you mean neither “that which produces jaw-dropping awe mingled with dread at powers beyond comprehension” or “worthy of universal acclaim and a big fat book like the Odyssey.” What you mean is “fine,” as our grandparents would say.

Word deflation. Continue reading

Damn! (ch 8 from FOUR LETTER WORDS)

Time Magazine Apr 25, 2011

Spurred by the sizzling sales of Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, the April 25 issue of Time Magazine features the Cover Story: WHAT IF THERE’S NO HELL? 

Here is an excerpt from Four Letter Words, my latest book. Leave your email at the end to continue reading, and I’ll notify you as future chapters released. Please share this link…   

Chapter 8

DAMN

The vague and tenuous hope that God is too kind to punish the ungodly has become a deadly opiate for the consciences of millions.

A.W. Tozer[i]

TOUCHY IDEAS

  1. Hell is real.
  2. God’s justice and God’s love exist in perfect harmony; therefore, the teaching of Hell in no way contradicts the loving heart of God.
  3. Love can’t win if holiness loses.
  4. A person’s response to Jesus in this lifetime determines his or her destiny in the next lifetime.
  5. This destiny is permanent and unchanging; Scripture describes no post-mortem second chances.

TOUCHY SCRIPTURES

  1. “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” Hebrews 9:27.
  2. “Because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” Acts 17:31.
  3. “But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” Romans 2:5.
  4. “And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.” Revelation 20:15.
  5.  “And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” 1 John 5:11, 12.

* * * * *

CHEERLEADING THE UNDERWORLD?

In researching this chapter, I stumbled upon some ultra-disturbing statements. In these statements, famous leaders of church history celebrate the damnation of lost people. In the interests of full disclosure, here are some horrid examples.

I apologize in advance.

  • Tertullian, pastor, author, (A.D. 160-220). “At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness…”[ii]
  • Jonathan Edwards, pastor (1703-1758). “[T]he sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever… [I]t will really make their happiness the greater…”[iii]
  • Samuel Hopkins, pastor (1721-1803). “This display of the divine character will be most entertaining to all who love God, will give them the highest and most ineffable pleasure. Should the fire of this eternal punishment cease, it would in a great measure obscure the light of heaven, and put an end to a great part of the happiness and glory of the blessed.”[iv]

“Entertaining?” Are you kidding? Grab your popcorn, and I’ll race you for a front row seat to watch the torment of the damned.

If this reflects the spirit of Christ, count me out.

The premise of this book is that Christianity is the most plausible, coherent, and beautiful system ever offered the world. But this “I [Heart] Hell” theology spoils that beauty like a stink bomb in an elevator.

The Bible does not whoop it up over hell. Jesus wept over the lostness of people (Luke 19:41). St. Paul wished he could accept damnation himself in place of his countrymen (Romans 9:3). God is not willing that any should perish, declared Peter (2 Peter 3:9). No damnation “happy feet” in sight.

The celebration of hell perverts biblical Christianity. As a pastor and a follower of Jesus, I apologize if this creepy teaching has ever messed with your mind. I’m sorry.

Yes, we have our share of nut-job God-defenders, picketing their hate, but this attitude does not reflect the majority of Christ’s followers today. None of the churches, seminaries, or organizations I’ve been a part of has ever fanned the flames of hell. In fact, the opposite is true. The idea of hell has only prompted sadness and concern among the Jesus-followers I’ve known.

In the mid-nineteenth century, a refined, highly-educated London preacher named R.W. Dale encouraged a rough, uneducated American evangelist named D.L. Moody. Moody conducted a preaching tour in England, and many of the snooty British pastors boycotted him. Dale however, joined forces with Moody. He said, “Moody is the only preacher who has the right to preach on Hell, because he can’t do it without tears in his eyes.”

The Bible’s revelation of Hell should melt your heart. Divine justice should cause silent awe, not giddy happiness. When Jesus unleashes the forces of judgment in the future apocalypse, the universe responds with stunned silence, not clap-happy glee (Revelation 8:1).

If you’re doing a slow burn right now, I get it. For some, even the idea of hell seems obscene. And, nobody can prove heaven, hell, or an afterlife. Like everything else we’re talking about, it’s a matter of faith. I’m just asking if it’s a plausible faith. I think it is, and I’d like to explain why. Right after we explore five hellish viewpoints that wave the “Christian” banner.

VIEWS ON HELL

1. Universalism, a.k.a., Pluralism

Universalists believe all will be saved through sincere devotion to the religion of their culture, choice, or upbringing. Under this view, Christ is not the only way to God. All roads lead to heaven, like hiking trails converging on the same mountaintop. Universalists claim scriptural support in verses that say God desires “all” people to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4) and that God reconciled “the world” to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). For them, the character of God begins and ends with love.

In their world, God’s love wins, even at the expense of his other attributes of holiness, purity, and truth.

Carlton Pearson, a prominent pastor in the United Church of Christ said he did not believe “God would consign countless souls – or anyone, for that matter – to hell.” He teaches a “gospel of inclusion” which he describes as “basic universalism.”[v]

My Inner Nice Guy wants to be a Universalist. No hellfire. No smoldering brimstone. No four-letter words hurled my narrow way. No knots to unravel about why I was born in a Christian land and some jungle guy wasn’t. It doesn’t matter. The story of humankind is one, gigantic happily ever after.

You’ll find universalism in churches that call themselves Unity, Universalist, or Unitarian. It is the unofficial position of what can be called liberal Christianity; segments within mainstream groups like some Methodists, Episcopalians, or the United Church of Christ tilt toward Universalism. So do some Ivy League seminary professors, populist authors, many leading institutions of western civilization – arts, media, education – and celebrities like Oprah.

Warning: from here on, the names get extra confusing. Sorry. I didn’t make them up.

2. Universalistic Inclusivism

If my Inner Nice Guy wants to be a universalist, my Inner Conflict Avoider wants to be a universalistic inclusivist. That way I find salvation in Jesus alone and still unclench my hell muscles without losing my evangelical street cred. How does that work?

Universalistic inclusivism works by creating a nifty category called “Anonymous Christians.”[vi] Under this view, salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone, but people can be saved by Jesus Christ without knowing him by name. Sincere non-Christians benefit from the work of Christ just as much as Christians. Their sincerity proves their “implicit faith.”

Sounds like a win/win situation.

The Catholic church tilted hard this way in the mid-1960’s in an epic update called Vatican II. It said,

“Those [who have not yet received the gospel] also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds [emphasis added] to do His will as it is known unto them through the dictates of conscience.”[vii]

This position appears so win/win, in fact, it’s also called, “Lenient inclusivism.” Who wouldn’t want both sides of that label?

If you’re looking for universalistic inclusivism, check out your radically up-to-date nearby Catholic church. Also visit some non-Catholic churches formerly known as “emerging,” i.e., younger, hipper churches heavily influenced by popular authors like Spencer Burke,[viii] Brian McLaren,[ix] Rob Bell (?),[x] and Chuck Smith Jr.[xi]

3. Universalistic Exclusivism

A really nice group of friends began attending my church. They volunteered to duplicate audio and print media for our ministry. They were fun people. As I got to know them, they explained how they had spent most of their lives in a cult, and that their whole cult repented of their false teachings, and came to Jesus.

That got my attention…

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You’ve been reading an excerpt from FOUR LETTER WORDS: Conversations on Faith’s Beauty and Logic, by Bill Giovannetti.  © Copyright 2011, All Rights Reserved.

REVIEWERS: For an advanced digital copy for review, please email the author.

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[i] The Knowledge of the Holy, 1975, p. 95.

[ii] De Spectaculis, Chapter XXX.

[iii] From his sermon, “The Eternity of Hell Torments.”

[iv] Quoted in Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner, The Christian Hell: From the First to the Twentieth Century (1913?), p. 38.

[v] In Nancy Haught, “Ten Minutes with the UCC’s Carlton Pearson” on the United Church of Christ website, retrieved August 13, 2009.

[vi] The term, “Anonymous Christians,” was coined by Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner. For a discussion, see LeRoy Miller and Stanley James Grenz, eds., Fortress Introduction To Contemporary Theologies (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1998), pp. 194, ff.

[vii] From Walter M. Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Guild Press, 1966), 35, as cited by K. Neill Foster, in “Implicit Christians: An Evangelical Appraisal” in Alliance Academic Review.com, retrieved on July 29, 2009, http://www.allianceacademicreview.com/1998/AAR1998-7Foster.php

[viii] “I’m a Universalist who believes in Hell… [Grace] is ours simply because God has invited us to the party. We’re in unless we choose to be out. That is how grace works. We don’t opt in to it – we can only opt out.” Spencer Burke, A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity (John Wiley and Sons, 2006), pp. 196, 202.

[ix] Brian McLaren describes a conversation with his daughter, Jess: “I tried to help Jess that Saturday afternoon by telling her about “inclusivism,” an alternative to the “exclusivist” view she was unhappy with. While exclusivism limited eternal life in heaven to bona fide, confessing Christians, inclusivism kept the door open that others could be saved through Christ even if they never identified as Christians… Exclusivism was my starting point, inclusivism was my fall-back, and conditionalism [that Hell and/or its punishment is temporary] was my last resort.” In his article on Beliefnet.com, “If Christianity Is True, People I Love Will Burn in Hell,” retrieved July 30, 2009. McLaren has not yet self-identified with any specific position on universalism other than to say he is not a universalist, though his writings flirt with and tend toward universalism.

[x] Rob Bell. Love Wins. 2011. It’s a bit difficult to pinpoint Bell’s position. He might be classified as a universalist exclusivist, see below. 

[xi] “New-school believers are asking if it is possible for people who do not know the true Jesus to still be covered by his re­demptive work, because he (alone) knows their hearts.” Without explicitly affirming universalism, the authors hint at it strongly in this chapter. Chuck Smith Jr. (not to be confused with his father, the founder of the Calvary Chapel movement) and Matt Whitlock,Frequently Avoided Questions (Baker Books, 2005), p. 166.