Tag Archives: universalism

On David Bentley Hart’s Tradition and Apocalypse: An Overview of the Dispute

When two theological heavyweights clash with one another, the ensuing dialogue can be fireworks. But one can learn a lot about the state of the church from such disputes.

The immensely erudite and (apparently recently) idiosyncratic Eastern Orthodox David Bentley Hart published an extended essay, Tradition and Apocalypse: An Essay on the Future of Christian Belief (Listen to this summary in Hart’s own words). Hart has been one of the greatest theological voices undermining the pretentiousness of the New Atheist movement. In exposing the fault lines of thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Hart’s Atheist Delusions has been regarded as one of the finest polemical works against early 21st century atheism.

Alas, Hart’s star has since fallen after his That All Shall Be Saved, a bold and dogmatically absolutist defense of a Christian universalism, which argues that while there is still a future hell and divine judgment, that experience of hell is ultimately purgative and redeeming, such that none are ultimately lost in the very end.

Like what former megachurch pastor and now California surfer and podcaster Rob Bell strongly hinted at, and what the author of the evangelical blockbuster novel, The Shack, William Paul Young finally came out and admitted, the brilliant and exceedingly well-read David Bentley Hart has whole-heartedly endorsed a theological position that has historically been condemned by the vast majority of Christians. Hart does not care. Anyone who disagrees with him about universalism is effectively morally challenged, in his view, and he is not afraid to unload condescension on his critics.

That was just a few years ago. Now that this previous storm has passed, he has yet again triggered even more controversy.

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Why Wishful Thinking Can Make Us Blind to the Truth

I have a few confessions to make (I am taking a short break from the “historical criticism” series of blog posts).

I did not know much about Vladimir Putin, but for years, what I knew about him was somewhat positive. Sure, he was a former KGB man, and he still harbored some socialist ideals. But he had renounced communism, which was a big improvement over the days of Soviet Russia. He appeared, at least for awhile, to be a supporter of the Christian faith in Russia. Former U.S. President George W. Bush said that he was able to get “a sense of [Putin’s] soul.” That seemed promising.

Under Putin’s presidency, things with Russia became light years ahead of the dark days of Bolshevikism and the U.S.S.R., and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation I feared as a kid growing up during the Cold War. Like many Enlightenment-guided Westerners, I was convinced that the days of World War II style naked aggression were over. He was not perfect, but at least, under Putin, the threat of nuclear war was remote.

Even Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president during the 1990s, and Putin’s predecessor, who sought to make Russia into a modern democracy, had confidence in Vladimir Putin, believing that Putin would carry on the reforms in the post-U.S.S.R. era.

I really wanted Vladimir Putin to be a “good guy.”

However, the events of the last month or so have shattered that. Though I wanted him to be a “good guy,” I discovered that he was not. I have since learned that he is a nationalist, or more accurately, an empire builder/wanna-be restorer, who cares nothing about the lives and aspirations of thousands, if not millions, of Ukrainian people. In Mariupol alone, we have reports that 90% of the buildings in that city have been damaged or even demolished, leaving civilians without food, water, electricity and heat. The horror of effectively destroying such a beautiful country, like Ukraine, and causing over a million to become homeless, does not seem to register in the mind of Putin as being a moral atrocity. The fact that Putin’s cover for this “military operation” had been blown for weeks before Russian troops crossed the border into the Ukraine, and that Putin went ahead with the “military operation” anyway, is ghastly.

What makes it all the worse is that Mr. Putin’s version of a politicized Christianity plays into the whole tragedy. Apparently, Vladimir Putin has been enamored by the concept of a “Holy Rus,” a vision of one unified Russian people, with one great church holding everyone together, made up of Russians AND Ukranians. This ideology is traceable back to 988 C.E., when Prince Vladimir chose to be baptized into the Christian faith, thus introducing Christianity to the Slavic peoples. Prince Vladimir, along with his warriors and families, were baptized altogether in the Dnieper River, in Kyiv. When the Mongols swept through destroying Kyiv a few centuries later, Moscow became the new seat of north Eastern European Christianity. With the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 to the Turks the mythological status of Moscow as the “Third Rome” took hold.

Now, in the wake of the collapse of the U.S.S.R., Mr. Putin wishes to restore that Moscow as the “Third Rome” once again, hoping to restore the glory of pre-U.S.S.R. ancient Czarist Russia. If you read Putin’s hour-long speech that he gave, upon the eve of the invasion, you can begin to appreciate the inner working of his logic. One might argue that Putin’s vision of a grand “Christian empire” may have been at one time well-intended, but as we see this story play out, the dark side of this has been revealed. Christianity has again been hijacked by the State, and millions are suffering in its wake. Thankfully, many Christians, including many Eastern Orthodox have condemned the violence, but Putin shows no signs of backing down.

The issues behind the Ukraine/Russia conflict are very complex, and very few people are aware of the spiritual/religious aspects that are deeply rooted in the history of the region. The Gospel Simplicity YouTube channel, started by Austin Suggs, as a theology student at Moody Bible Institute, features an interview with John Strickland, an Eastern Orthodox priest in America and historian on Russia, who dives deep into history behind the conflict, describing details that few even know about.

I was blinded by my own wishful thinking about Vladimir Putin. My wishful thinking kept me from seeing and understanding the truth.

Wishful thinking makes us feel better. Wishful thinking can help us to think we are good persons: moral, upright, and justified. But it comes at a cost.

Wishful thinking can easily blind any of us. Sometimes a reality check is what we need to cure us of wishful thoughts, that while surely well intended, do nothing but lead us along a path of deception.

This can be a really hard thing to accept, as I hate to be wrong about anything. But there have been times where evidence presented against my wishful thinking has forced me to change my perspective. It has not always been easy.

Sometimes, the costs of such misguided wishful thinking are not too terrible. In my younger years, I wished that I could be a successful guitar player, and even be a rock star. Reality set in, and I instead became a computer geek. I still play guitar, but I no longer fantasize about being the next Jimi Hendrix. I am quite okay with that now.

At other times, misguided wishful thinking can get you into serious trouble. For Westerners who believed that Vladimir Putin was merely bluffing about invading Ukraine, that type of wishful thinking has become deadly. Putin himself has quite a bit of wishful thinking himself, describing the Russian aggression as freeing Ukraine from the domination of “Nazis” and “fascists.”

Why does Putin make this claim? Because during World War II, certain Ukrainian nationalists aligned themselves with Hitler’s Germany, as liberators from Soviet oppression… that is, until they figured out what the Nazis were really up to. Many historians say that Putin is ignoring what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story,” pointing out that the Ukrainian independence movement began earlier during World War I, in 1917, before the Soviets took over the Ukraine in 1922.

Putin’s narrative is this: Ukraine was, and is, and will always be part of Russia. End of discussion. This is the world that Putin wants to live in. It makes him feel good about himself. It makes him feel moral, upright, and justified.

Wishful thinking can deceive even world leaders, like Vladimir Putin. When we so desperately want something to be true, when the reality suggests otherwise, calamity is not too far behind.

 

The Corrective to Wishful Thinking: Fairly Evaluating the Evidence

In spiritual matters, wishful thinking that is not grounded in truth, as established by the evidence, can have undesired consequences, too. Much of what I say here will sound controversial to some. For the rest of this blog post, I will summarize where my thinking has either deepened, or even changed, on certain theological topics that I have explored over the last few years. A number of you may not like where I eventually land on these topics. Regardless of where you ultimately stand on these difficult topics, and how you evaluate the evidence, I hope you might appreciate the posture that I trying to take, as woven around this particular theme of “wishful thinking.”

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

There are times, surely, where we want something to be true, and it turns out that it is! However, wishful thinking can also deceive. What makes the difference is a fair evaluation of the evidence. This requires a willingness to rethink our assumptions and then follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Consider attempts that some Russian propagandists have made to try and get Ukrainians to give up against the Russian invasion, and re-assure other Russians that Putin is in the right, in this conflict. On March 16, 2022, a deepfake video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had been shared around social media, calling on his soldiers to lay down their arms. If you look at the video it might look and sound convincing, particularly if you were harboring wishful thoughts, that this message was indeed true.

The real President Zelensky responded to the deepfake, and refuted its message, and in turned urged Russian soldiers to lay down their arms, and go home. Upon closer inspection, evidence from the deepfake video showed that it indeed was a fake.

Unfortunately, a lot of supposed “evidence” for a position are actually assertions, that lack sufficient merit. In this particular case regarding the deepfake Zelensky video, it was outright propaganda.

But how many people unknowingly and willfully are drawn into accepting these messages to be true, when their wishful thinking steers them in that direction?

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Universalism

For example, let us consider a very serious spiritual matter. On this, my thinking has not changed much over the years.

I really wish I could be a universalist. I wish everyone, even a Vladimir Putin, could be converted and come to know Jesus in the end, and hell could be emptied. Even before I became a Christian believer, I could not imagine why anyone would want to believe in an eternal hell.

But as I have taken an honest look at the Holy Scriptures, it just seems near impossible for me to read the Bible and conclude that universalism is true.  God’s judgment, as presented in the Bible, does not seem to work like that. As Revelation 22:15 teaches, those who “love and make lies” will be barred from entering the New Jerusalem. It is really difficult to get around all of that.

I know that a brilliant theologian, like David Bentley Hart, probably thinks that someone like me is morally reprobate, because I do not find the case for universalism that he champions to be supported by the teaching of Scripture. When I wrote a blog article in 2019, covering book reviews of D. B. Hart’s defense of universalism, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Unversalism, I received some of the most uncharitable and scathing comments, that misrepresented my position, in all of the years of my blogging on Veracity, even though I spent several hours listening to interviews Hart gave in defending his thesis, in order to try to give Hart’s viewpoint a fair hearing. In D. B. Hart’s mind, he is moral, upright, and justified. I, on the other hand, to such critics, must be a moral cretin.

So, let me state this clearly again: I wish I am wrong about the evidence against so-called “Christian Universalism.”  I wish all could be saved in the end. Perhaps I will be proven wrong at the end of all time, but I am not convinced that I will be.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (National, Ethnic Israel)

Are you ready for more?

I started off with the universalism issue because it helps to frame a compassionate, honest way of thinking through these type of issues that I will address below. I mean, you really have to be a moron if you gleefully want people to perish in hell. Nevertheless, the question of truth matters. There is a certain sense of anguish that anyone with a pulse should be feeling, as they wrestle with such difficult matters. The same sentiment applies on a lot of these other issues.

Before we get into some really touchy issues in our day, that get us even farther away from the Ukraine/Russia crisis, I will briefly address a relatively easier issue first: As a young believer in college, I was immersed in a type of dispensationalist teaching that really championed the modern nation/state of Israel. However, in the mid-1990s, I took a trip to the Holy Land, and frankly, I was deeply disillusioned with what I saw.

Israel looked a whole lot like “Sodom and Gomorrah” and a lot less like the Jewish, deeply spiritual population group that my college church envisioned Israel to be. Aside from visiting a lot of places where Jesus walked, etc., I just sensed that the country was a spiritually dark place. I was most deeply bothered by how poorly so many Palestinian Christians felt treated by the Israeli government. So, I abandoned my dispensationalist mindset and embraced covenant theology, which at that time seemed to be the best, theologically orthodox alternative to dispensationalism. It was not like I completely rejected any type of future for national, ethnic Israel. It was just that I was not convinced that the modern nation state of Israel had that much to do with it.

Then about 15 years later, a friend of mine challenged me on my beliefs. Frankly, I did not want to be challenged. I wanted my newer beliefs to be true, and I really did not want to be questioned.

But in 2014, I began about a four-year project, with about a two-year break in the middle, to study this topic of Israel (and Christian Zionism, in particular), and to set aside the wishful thinking that I had adopted, and be open to the truth, following the evidence, wherever it led me. Here is a link to the starting place of my research journey. I ended up in a more nuanced position, somewhere between the dispensationalist theology of my college years and the covenant theology of my post-Israel visit. It was a very humbling process, but looking back, I am glad I went through it.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (Slavery)

Now, here is something that is really touchy.

For years, I believed that Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, and not Paul’s letters, were the best source for addressing the evils of slavery. After all, the “Golden Rule” taught by Jesus seemed like an obvious defeater for slavery. Jesus’ love for the poor and outcast seemed to me to outshine anything I read from Paul. Paul’s teaching in various places about slaves being obedient to their masters made me uncomfortable, so I tended to want to favor the “red letter” Christianity of where Jesus was quoted in the Gospels, in so-called “Red Letter Bibles.

The inconvenient truth is that there is nothing in the Gospels that indicates Jesus saw anything about slavery as being evil. Slavery was quite common in the first century Roman empire, but Jesus never spoke out against it.

Go ahead. Search through the Gospels yourself. See if you can find any explicit statement, or even an implicit one, where Jesus condemns slavery. Instead, you will find numerous places where Jesus simply assumes slavery to be a given reality in human society.

I hated to admit that to myself. But the silence in the Gospels about the evils of slavery is deafening.

Instead, one must look to the writings of Paul, Jesus’ designated spokesperson to the Gentiles, for any critique of slavery in the New Testament. While Paul does tell slaves to obey their masters, he also tells masters not to mistreat their slaves, which was quite out of step with the pater familias ethic of Roman households, where the predominate male of the house had complete, absolute control over everyone in the household, including slaves.

But the real clincher for Paul is found in his shortest letter in the New Testament, the letter to Philemon: When Paul returned the runaway slave, Onesimus, to his master, Philemon, he challenged Philemon to adopt the same attitude Paul had developed towards Onesimus, that of treating him as both a brother and a son.

Some treat Paul’s statement here as a kind of rhetorical flourish, but it really is much more than that. Paul’s Jewish heritage, grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures, had informed him that it was morally wrong to enslave a fellow believer, much less a family member, thereby cutting at the very foundation as to why people should ever become slaves in the first place. Paul also knew the story of the Hebrew slaves being set free from underneath the rule of Pharaoh. It is no surprise then, that such a prominent early church father, like Gregory of Nyssa, became such an outspoken critic of slavery, a thousand years before the first African slave ever stepped foot on American soil.

True, Paul never comes out explicitly to tell Philemon to free Onesimus. Paul’s failure to do so might explain why it took so many centuries before slavery would be finally rejected as a moral evil, and why so many secularists today are dismissive of the Bible as not being more forceful in condemning slavery. But the fact that slavery gradually and eventually did become a moral evil to be rejected in civilized society can be traced back to Paul’s letter to Philemon (Thanks to Sarah Ruden, who helped me to understand this).

Sure, we still have slavery in the modern world, albeit in illegal ways. Thankfully, in our day, no morally responsible person, influenced by the Christian message, enslaves their own brother or son, and since we live in a world where the Gospel message can make anyone into a brother or sister in Christ, the enforcement of a slavery system becomes a mute issue. Alas, we find very little of this in the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. But thankfully, we have Paul!

I wanted Jesus to be a slavery abolitionist, and leave Paul out of the discussion. One can infer truths like “love your neighbor, as yourself” as being abolitionist in intent, but history has shown that many slaveholders over the centuries have had no problem accepting Jesus’ teaching here, while still retaining ownership of another human being. But had those Christians really meditated on Paul’s short, little letter to Philemon?

Like many Christians have been tempted to want to believe, I had much preferred Jesus over Paul. However, the truth is that it all lands on Jesus’ spokesperson, Paul, and not Jesus himself, to voice that New Testament truth that undercuts the slavery system.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (Non-Violence)

For a long time, I wanted to believe that the Bible strictly teaches an ethic of non-violence. I have sincere and wonderful Anabaptist friends who hold strongly to this belief. I still find myself looking away at some of the more violent passages of the Old Testament (I have a book on my reading list that I hope to review on this topic and report on, later this year).

Pacifists like Martin Luther King, Jr., and India’s Mahatma Gandhi have been heroes to me, and I still believe that there are cases where non-violence offers the best moral solution. I pray, pray, pray for peace. But in looking at the example of German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who wrestled with the ethic of non-violence, he eventually concluded that it was morally right and indeed necessary to throw “a spoke in the wheel” to try to stop Adolph Hitler’s murderous efforts to eliminate the Jews, as a follower of Jesus. Likewise, as far as I am concerned, the current efforts by the people of Ukraine to use military force to repel the Russian invasion, as best as I can understand the issues, adequately meets Saint Augustine’s criteria for a just war.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (Loving Those Who Experience Same-Sex Attraction)

I have been bothered by the fact that some dear friends of mine have struggled with same-sex attraction. I wrestle with trying to understand why these friends have been subjected to this costly struggle, through no fault of their own. Some of these friends have since convinced themselves that foregoing the traditional Christian sexual ethic, and embracing same-sex marriage, is somehow “OK” with God. In many ways, I wish I could believe that. I want my friends to be happy, and if same-sex marriage brings them that happiness, I wish for them to experience that happiness.

The problem is that I find no room in the teaching of Scripture for sanctioning and blessing same-sex marriage, within the Christian church. Instead, I trust that God can provide other ways for my friends to experience intimacy and fulfilling friendship, without same-sex erotic relations, in a manner that brings God the glory. One can live without sex, but one can not live without friendship. Because I am tethered to the authority of Scripture, that is the position that I must take (Look here for an expansive treatment on this issue).

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (Women Serving as Elders in a Local Church??)

Here is another divisive issue in some quarters, though not nearly as serious as the previous topic of same-sex marriage. This is not a hill I am going to die on, yet I have some important concerns about how the Scriptures are interpreted: For years, I wanted to believe that God desired women to serve in the same ways that men serve in the leadership of the church. I was actually a pretty opinionated egalitarian, believing that women can and should serve as elders/overseers, or presbyters, in a local church, which is in contrast with nearly all forms of complementarian theology.

Before anyone misrepresents my position (see this series of blog posts that examine this issue in great detail), I am still convinced that Scripture allows for and encourages women to serve in an incredibly wide variety of leadership functions, ranging from deacons, to church planters, to parachurch ministry workers, to ministry directors, to small group teachers and leaders, to members of a church board of directors, to theologians, to Bible scholars, and to prophets (Some of my more conservative complementarian friends these days think that my list is way, way too broad!). In fact, a lot of the research done, particularly over the past thirty years by egalitarian Bible scholars, has brought about a better sense of balance in our modern Bible translations. However, when I began to focus on the question of women serving specifically as elders/overseers in local churches, I have had to really rethink through the arguments and evidence presented in the New Testament.

I have many, many dear Christian friends of mine who are convinced in their own minds that Paul’s restrictions against women serving as elders/overseers in a local church, as found in 1 Timothy and Titus, are merely temporary commands, or otherwise they are commands limited to specific cultural circumstances and concerns found in first century Ephesus and Crete, respectively (where Timothy and Titus were). I held that view for a long time, too, so I am very sympathetic and respectful of such viewpoints. Those who disagree with me truly love Jesus, care deeply about winning others to the Gospel, and seek to honor and love the Scriptures.

In fact, I would argue that probably the best argument for an egalitarian reading of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 suggests that Paul is only forbidding the women of Ephesus from exercising spiritual authority and teaching because they might have been promoting Gnostic heresy.  I just no longer find that argument convincing. So, I must respectfully “agree to disagree” here with my egalitarian brothers and sisters in Christ, despite how much it pains me that we lack unity in this area.

But as I have studied the evidence more I have come to the conclusion that Paul’s view against having women serve as elders is not limited to the 1st century church in Ephesus or Crete, nor is this a temporary decree. Women have served in leadership in a wide variety of ways, particularly during the early church era. For example, the evidence for women serving as deacons, as early as the first decade of the second century, is overwhelming. However, the only time you find women specifically serving as elders/overseers during the early church era was in some extraordinary corner cases, and more commonly in heretical Christian movements, such as the Arians, the Montanists,  and the Gnostics, that were condemned across the board by the early leaders of the Christian church. Otherwise, the early church rejected the notion of having women serve as local church elders. Such evangelical luminaries as Tim Keller agree with me on these observations, as well as Francis Chan. (A quick note: this has nothing to do with women serving in the marketplace. Extreme complementarians try to force the Bible to inappropriately restrict women here… whoops, just made some complementarians mad!  Oh, well!!)

Furthermore, aside from certain evangelical egalitarian scholars, you will not find any scholars today, either conservative or liberal, who accept the arguments that the Paul of 1 Timothy and Titus would have endorsed women serving as elders/overseers in a local church. Instead, I have come to see that there is a powerful sacramentalist understanding of why Paul thought the way that he did, that does not fit the stereotype of chauvinism. Rather, a sacramentalist interpretation celebrates the mystery of the difference between male and female. Now, I can understand why other Christians are so troubled by the thought that Scripture forbids women to serve as local church elders. I wish I was wrong here, and perhaps new evidence will emerge that changes the story, but I find it necessary to follow the evidence that we already have.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

Wishful Thinking In the Midst of Struggle

Do I still struggle with issues surrounding the doctrine of hell, slavery, non-violence, how best to support my same-sex attracted friends, and charges of misogyny in the Bible? Sure I do. Only the most hardened conservative would fail to wrestle with these difficult issues. But hiding behind the thin veneer of wishful thinking has caused more harm than good.

When Christians are willing to fudge the data in order to make a case for something important to them, even if the intentions are good, it casts some serious doubt on the reliability of the Christian witness. It can come across as cheating. A bad apologetic can become fuel for the fire for the skeptic of Christianity.

 

Analyzing the Evidence for the Most Important Teaching in the Bible: The Resurrection

There are much more fundamental matters at stake. The bedrock of the Christian faith is the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the Resurrection of Jesus is true, then Christianity is true, period! But if the Resurrection of Jesus did not happen, then even the Apostle Paul admits that our faith would be in vain.

But how do we know if Jesus really rose from the dead? Is that, too, also a product of wishful thinking? Is there sufficient evidence to support the truthfulness of the Resurrection of Jesus?

I have non-believing friends of mine who have challenged me with this question: “What would it take to prove to you, Clarke, that your belief in Christianity is a false belief? What would convince you that the Resurrection was untrue?”

My first instinct is to say that if you can produce the bones of Jesus, that would convince me that the Resurrection of Jesus was false. But in thinking about it some more, this is a bit of cheating. For how could you reliably find out if you actually had the bones of Jesus? How would you go about doing DNA testing, to figure out if you even had a match on Jesus’ bones? That is a pretty unrealistic way to try to falsify something.

A more realistic way of trying to falsify a belief in the Resurrection of Jesus would be to focus on the reliability of those early witnesses to the Risen Jesus. For if one can demonstrate that those witnesses were somehow unreliable and deceptive, it would cast some serious doubt on the Resurrection claim.

As a young college student, I often heard the claim from Christian apologists, that with the exception of the Apostle John, every single one of the original apostles died a martyr’s death. That claim helped me to be convinced that Jesus really rose from the dead. Plus, I really wanted this to be true. So, it was quite a blow to me to learn that this claim was overstated. A few of the early apostles were indeed martyred, like Peter, Paul, and James, but the others probably died natural deaths. In several cases, we simply do not know for sure.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

However, the rest of the story is vitally important. While not all of the apostles died as martyrs, is important to note that we have no evidence whatsoever that any of the early witnesses to the Resurrection ever denied their faith. None! Given the remarkableness of the Christian claim for the Resurrection, it is reasonable to conclude that they probably would have died for that belief, if the prospect of martyrdom became unavoidable. Just compare that with the story about the Book of Mormon, where several of the early witnesses to Joseph Smith’s story of the Golden Plates eventually did deny their earlier testimony regarding seeing the Golden Plates.

We still have good evidence that indeed the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is true, and not merely a product of wishful thinking.

When evaluating evidence for any truth claim, we must always keep in mind that we all have experiences that cause us to weight certain type of evidence as being more crucial than other types of evidence. We all have biases that can cloud our thinking. We all make certain assumptions that tend to shape the method we use, in which we discover truth.

But one of the most important challenges for us is to be willing take a reality check on our wishful thinking, to see if the evidence really stacks up in favor of what we believe, and often more honestly, what we want to believe is true.

This blog post has been a really L-O-N-G introduction to what might possibly the most important debate of all time. This might seem like an exaggeration, but here are the details.

  • Bart Ehrman is probably one of the world’s most recognizable skeptics of the Bible, a former Christian, who does not believe that Jesus bodily rose from the dead.
  • Michael Licona is an evangelical Christian, and a New Testament scholar, who has written one of most cogent defenses of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus.
  • Both Bart Ehrman and Michael Licona have debated one another several times, and they are both friends, even though they strongly disagree with one another about the historicity of the Resurrection.
  • On April 9, 2022, Ehrman and Licona will debate the topic once again, but this time, it will be “The Debate to End All Debates!” This debate is scheduled to last SEVEN HOURS. That’s right: 7 hours!!
  • To view the debate, you need to sign up for pay-per-view, which will give you lifetime access to the debate material.
  • Check out the following video by Michael Licona, describing how the debate will work.
  • Join me in praying for Michael Licona, for what will be an incredibly informative and thoughtful debate, that will test the stamina of both scholars!

 


When Philippians Says “Every Knee Shall Bow” to Jesus, Does This Mean That Everyone Will Be Saved in the End?

Philippians 2 includes some verses that advocates of universalism often quote to argue that every human individual will be saved in the end. Let us take a look at that claim, and see if it stands up under scrutiny. First, here is the passage, Philippians 2:4-11:

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (ESV).

The highlighted part, in verses 9-11, has phrases that puzzle many readers of the Bible, like “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,” and “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

What does that really mean?

Time magazine’s April 25. 2011 cover was inspired by former megachurch pastor Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins, with a revisionist look at the classic doctrine of hell, that eventually led to Rob Bell leaving the pastorate.

What is “Christian Universalism?”

Now, before we dive any deeper, it is important to define what is meant by “universalism.” There is a popular form of “universalism,” embraced by those who have only a shallow knowledge about the Bible, which basically argues that there is no such thing as hell. Instead, when any and every human dies they are automatically ushered into the presence of “God,” and warmly received there.

This is essentially a typical “man on the street” view of what life after death looks like. However, this rather generic view of the afterlife is to be distinguished from a specifically “Christian Universalism,” that actually engages the Bible and affirms a doctrine of hell, but that frames the experience of the afterlife in terms that are quite different from what most other Christians believe.

Advocates of “Christian Universalism” make the claim that Philippians 2 teaches that, in the end, every human individual will eventually find salvation in Christ, because this passage teaches that everyone will ultimately make a profession of belief in Jesus. In other words, even those who do not make a profession of faith in Christ in this life will eventually be won over to the Gospel in the next life.

Not all “Christian Universalists” articulate their argument in exactly the same way, but there is a common thread of logic: A “Christian Universalism” perspective argues that the experience of hell, in the afterlife, does not have a purely punitive effect. Rather, hell has a purgative effect, of redeeming the lost sinner, who has refused the Gospel in the earthly realm, only finally to be united with God, once the experience of hell removes their rebellion and hostility towards God. At the risk of oversimplifying the position, a “Christian Universalism” is basically an attempt to treat the medieval doctrine of purgatory as being applicable to all human beings, where God will ultimately sanctify every person, ranging from your kind yet eccentric uncle or aunt, who spouts atheistic sentiments, to the most terrifying persons, like an Adolf Hitler and a Joseph Stalin.

Cautions About Prejudging Any Discussion Regarding Universalism

It is necessary to say a couple of more things, before diving into the Scriptures regarding this passage. First, it must be acknowledged that over the years of the Christian church, outspoken advocates for a “Christian Universalism” have made their case for this particular point of view. Back in the early church, those like Origen, and perhaps(???) Gregory of Nyssa, have promoted some form of universalism. In the 19th century, the famed Scottish fantasy writer George MacDonald wrote in favor of a “Christian Universalism,” while others have made the claim that the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, did so, too (albeit in a rather obfuscated way).

In the 21st century, contemporary advocates of universalism have included the author Robin Parry; the somewhat obfuscated perspective offered by former megachurch pastor, Rob Bell, in his 2011 book, Love Wins;, and most recently, an unashamedly forceful case made by Eastern Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart. Hart has no qualms in announcing that the traditional doctrine of eternal hell is a cruel “obscenity” that does nothing more than terrorize young children with unfounded trauma.1

In other words, let those who believe in eternal damnation be damned themselves.

While some may find such a view of eternity as attractive, accompanied by a sigh of relief, it must be stated that “Christian Universalism” has been a minority view in the long history of the Christian church.  More often than not, Christians over the centuries have typically viewed such purveyors of “Christian Universalism” with contempt.

Some Christians have believed that all historically orthodox Christians should shun such “Christian Universalism” proponents as being nothing more than pure heretics, that deserve full-on condemnation and the utter rejection of all of their writings and teachings. However, we should be careful not to sanction a blanket dismissal of such persons. Consider just a few of these things:

  • Origen wrote the first Christian systematic theology, in defense of a Christian worldview, in the early church of the 2nd century. After Saint Paul, we owe pretty much the entire intellectual development of a “Christian mind” to the seminal writings of Origen.
  • Gregory of Nyssa championed both the doctrine of the Trinity as well as being one of the first persons to advocate for the elimination of slavery, hundreds of years prior to the Atlantic slave trade of Africans to America.
  • George MacDonald’s fantasy books played a large role in bringing the well-known apologist C.S. Lewis out of atheism to having faith in Christ.
  • Karl Barth has been credited as almost single-handedly recovering the doctrine of the Triune nature of God, for 20th century Christians, back in the day when many Christians were ready to abandon the Trinity.
  • David Bentley Hart, one of the world’s most prominent theologians, has written perhaps the most lucid, extraordinarily witty, and highly acclaimed critiques against the “New Atheists,” Atheist Delusions.

One can respectfully and strongly disagree with someone on a very important point of doctrinal controversy without having to feel the need to completely throw that other person without mercy under a bus. Christian Universalists can still be quite orthodox in other doctrinal matters. Christians can learn even from those who have heretical tendencies, on certain doctrinal matters. Or to put it another way, if you have a Christian friend who believes in universalism, it is okay for you to let your friend be wrong.

Secondly, very few thoughtful Christians relish the idea of the doctrine of hell, and for good reason. The doctrine of hell raises really difficult questions, that even the most devout Christian struggles with from time to time.

The late J.I. Packer put it this way:

“No evangelical, I think, need hesitate to admit that in his heart of hearts he would like universalism to be true. Who can take pleasure in the thought of people being eternally lost? If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you!”

Likewise, I want the universalists to be right. I do not want people, for whom I deeply love and care for, to perish eternally separated from God. Even if universalism was not true, and yet there was still a way for people to somehow have an opportunity, post-mortem, to come to faith in Jesus (as some have argued), I would want that to be true. Better yet, I would want everyone to come to know Jesus, in this lifetime!

But just because I want something to be true, does not make it true. If the Bible teaches something that I have a difficult time accepting or understanding, that still does not give me the liberty to pick and choose what to believe, from the Bible. If the Bible really teaches that not everyone will be saved in the end, a viewpoint which I will argue is indeed found in the Holy Scriptures, then it is incumbent on me to be willing to submit to that teaching, out of obedience to God. If the evidence found within the Bible points towards a particular direction in establishing a doctrinal truth, then I need to hold onto that, and not waiver, even if from my limited point of view, I do not like it.

Sure, there are difficulties, such as the fate of the unevangelized, that every Christian reading the Bible needs to deal with. But one answer to that would be for Christians to be gripped with the urgency of the missionary enterprise, and do everything we can to make disciples of all of the nations. One of the biggest criticisms aimed at the “Christian Universalist” position, is that it undercuts the impetus behind world evangelization.

Alternatively, by taking seriously the Great Commission, we demonstrate obedience towards following the commandments our our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:16-20). Still, when all is said and done, it is one thing to hope for and pray for God to make a way for someone to come to know Jesus, in a manner that might completely defy our understanding. But it is quite another to dogmatically assert a belief which can not be wholly be reconciled with Scripture (I will have to save any discussion of conditional immortality, or annihilationism, as a possible alternative to the doctrine of conscious eternal torment to a future blog post).2

Thirdly, what makes “Christian Universalism” so attractive to many is that it is perceived as a solution to one particular aspect to the problem of evil. Therefore, one can share empathy with such a concern on an emotional level without giving into a denial of sound doctrine. Here is the objection: For if God so loved world that he gave his Son for us, why would God not also just save the entire world, with every person in it? The doctrine of hell, in this context, comes across as triggering a sense of unfairness, that begs for an answer, for many non-believers and believers alike. In many ways, “Christian Universalism” addresses yet another dimension of any supposed unfairness being imposed on humanity by God. However, this is where Christians need to tread carefully, for what might appear to be unfair from a human perspective many not accurately correspond to what God deems to be unfair. A truly Christian view of God requires us to have the confidence that God is indeed right and good in ways that we as humans do not fully understand.

The bottom line is this: I am called to put my trust in God, and his goodness, and therefore I must accept the judgments of Scripture, and not defiantly question the Scriptures themselves as our authority. I may have doubts and struggles, and even honest questions, but I do not have the freedom to outright reject the truth of something taught within the pages of the Sacred Text, if I truly consider myself to be follower of Jesus.

Medieval depiction of purgatory, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (credit: Wikipedia). For “Christian Univeralists,” the experience of hell is real, albeit in a disputed sense, but not eternal. Rather, it is the rough equivalent to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Those who do not accept Jesus in this life will eventually be purged of their sins in hell, before becoming ultimately reconciled to God in the next life.

So, What About “Every Knee Shall Bow” and “Every Tongue Confess?”

Now, with those introductory remarks out of the way, we can explore what Philippians 2 is teaching, with more clarity. Contextually speaking, Paul in Philippians 2 is making a case for the incarnation of God, as expressed through Jesus Christ. What is true of God the Father is also true of God the Son. Furthermore, we need to follow Christ’s example, in his humility in becoming human, for our sake, considering others better than ourselves. It is through this humility that Jesus the Son of God is, in turn, lifted up to be given honor and glory, just as the Father is.

What then does this “every knee should bow” and “every tongue confess” regarding the Lordship of Jesus really mean? Some advocates of the doctrine of hell, in the form of eternal conscious torment, suggest that Philippians 2 is teaching that the sinner, separated from God in hell, will ultimately offer some begrudging acknowledgement in the superiority and/or worshipful-status of Jesus as Lord.

The problem with this interpretation is that in just a few verses later Paul urges his readers at Philippi to “do all things without grumbling or disputing” (verse 14). Yet this would be a strange thing to say, if indeed in a couple of prior verses Paul teaches that this form of acknowledging the Lordship of Jesus would include those who do so under duress, in a begrudging manner. Why would Paul teach this “begrudging” view of Christ’s Lordship, only to flip the application upside down a few verses later to warn against “grumbling or disputing?”

Some reinforce this “begrudging” view by suggesting that those “under the earth,” in verse 10, will included Satan and the powers of evil. But the phrase “under the earth” need not necessarily refer to such evil powers. It could just as easily refer to those who have died, including those who are buried; that is, “under the earth“, who are awaiting resurrection and salvation, upon the Second Coming of Jesus.

Still, a case might be viable for a “Christian Universalism,” at this point, if this “begrudging” view is to be rejected. But is this really what the Apostle Paul had in mind? A better answer would be to consider where this language of “every knee should bow” and “every tongue confess” actually came from.

The key is to remember that the mind of the Apostle Paul, as a Jew, was saturated in the world of the Old Testament. The language of “every knee should bow” and “every tongue confess” can be found in Isaiah 45:23:

By myself I have sworn;
    from my mouth has gone out in righteousness
    a word that shall not return:
‘To me every knee shall bow,
    every tongue shall swear allegiance.’ (ESV)

In other words, Paul is forcing the reader to look back at what the prophet Isaiah was talking about, and that this gives us the clue as to what Paul is really after here. When Isaiah was writing this, he was referring to Cyrus the Great, the Persian ruler, who ended the Babylonian Exile, for the Jews in 6th c. BCE, and instructed the Jews to return back to their Promised Land (Isaiah 45:1). The favor that Cyrus extends towards the Jews in Exile is a sign of God’s faithfulness to the Jews, and therefore, the people should bow in reverence and allegiance to the God of Israel.

Interestingly, this passage of Isaiah also makes reference, not just to the restoration of the Jewish homeland, but a calling to the Gentile peoples to repent and come to know and worship the God of Israel (Isaiah 45:20,22 ESV):

“Assemble yourselves and come;
    draw near together,
    you survivors of the nations!
They have no knowledge
    who carry about their wooden idols,
and keep on praying to a god
    that cannot save….

“Turn to me and be saved,
    all the ends of the earth!
    For I am God, and there is no other.

In other words, the prophet Isaiah is talking about “every knee” and “every tongue,” not the sense of “every individual,” but rather, in terms of “every kind of person.” For Isaiah, this means that God is interested having “every kind of person,” including not just Jews, but Gentiles as well, including all “the nations,” coming to know the God of Israel.

Furthermore, Paul argues throughout nearly all of letters for a view of salvation, that not only includes Jews, but Gentiles as well.  This ties in perfectly with the message of Isaiah, that Paul has brought to mind in Philippians. He specifically brings up the Jewish/Gentile issue in Philippians 3. Therefore, it is more consistent and exegetically responsible to say that the “every knee” and “every tongue” in Philippians 2 is about “every kind of person,” including not just Jews, but Gentiles as well, acknowledging that Jesus as the Son is just as much divine as the Father is.

However, for the sake of the argument, what if the “Christian Universalist” is right, by suggesting that “every knee” and “every tongue,” in this passage, is about “every individual,” as opposed to “every kind of person,” both Jew and Gentile? While this case is not likely, it is important to consider briefly what else Paul might be thinking regarding the permanence of hell.

It is true that the Apostle Paul never talks about hell specifically in any of his letters. But this does not mean that he does not address the topic. In 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, Paul writes that at his Second Coming, the Lord Jesus will inflict “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” Regarding the permanence of this punishment, he goes onto say that “they will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord,” which indicates a certain finality to the eternal judgment against those who reject the Gospel. It is just really difficult to imagine how anyone can read this passage, while still making a compelling argument for “Christian Universalism,” though some have tried. While Paul admittedly focuses on the message of eternal life for those who do know the Lord, by always urging his readers to believe the Gospel, he never ignores the sad reality of God’s condemnation of the lost.

You really can not get away with trying to make a case for universalism from Philippians 2 without running against a central argument that both Isaiah in the Old Testament, and Paul in the New Testament, are trying to make. When we allow our “wishful thinking” for something to be true to distort our evaluation of the evidence for or against a particular doctrine, we end up creating a situation that creates more problems than it solves. In other words, “Christian Universalism” may sound like a great thing, and some might still hope for it, but you really have to bend over backwards with awkward exegetical somersaults and hermeneutical handstands to try to “make it work” with the Bible. Instead, we should soberly accept that the failure to acknowledge Jesus as Lord in this life has eternal consequences that lead to an ultimate separation from God.

To summarize the points of this post, readers might want to view the following video interviewing Dr. Russell Moore, public theologian at Christianity Today magazine. After that, for a quick summary as to why “Christian Universalism” does not work with the teachings of the Bible, take a few minutes to listen to Old Testament scholar, Dr. Michael Heiser.

 

Notes:

1. David Bentley Hart has raised a lot of eyebrows in recent years. His spat with N.T. Wright over competing New Testament Bible translations (Wright’s review of Hart’s translation, and Hart’s review of Wright’s translation) serves as a reminder that one should never simply depend on just one Bible translation, particular one done by just one scholar. Committee-based translations, like the NIV and ESV, are not perfect, but they have a built-in mechanism that prevents idiosyncratic readings from disturbing the reader, how thought-provoking they might be. Hart’s own Bible translation has come under critical review from a wide variety of sources (a positive review at the PostBarthian blog,  James Parker at The Atlantic with a mixed review,  Eastern Orthodox priest Stephen Young’s incisive review, blogger Alex Joyner’s mixed review, Bob Short’s multipart review at CatholicBibleTalk #1, , #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, and Wesley Hill’s description of Hart’s project as a “glorious failure.”). Ah, but N.T. Wright’s New Testament translation got a good work-over by Robert Gundry.  

2. In Christian circles, there are basically three views regarding the doctrine of hell: (1) the doctrine of conscious eternal torment, the most traditional view, (2) the doctrine of conditional immortality, whereby the wicked are annihilated in hell, once they have fully experienced God’s judgment against them, and (3) Christian Universalism, whereby all people are saved. There has also been a revised interest in purgatory, among some evangelicals, in recent years. Obviously, this relatively short blog post is not the place to advance any sustained argument regarding any particular view of hell. Rather, my aim here is to address one particular objection raised by “Christian Universalists” regarding one particular Bible passage, by examining the larger Scriptural context for that one Bible passage.  


When A Theologian Goes Rogue: David Bentley Hart’s Universalism

David Bentley Hart is one those theological minds that I have hesitated to dive into deeply.

It is not as though he is not erudite (which he is), nor that he is not polemical in the most insightful way (which he also is). It is because he is so well knowledgeable and so marvelously incisive that I think it almost impossible to explain the penetrating power of his intellect to the average evangelical lay person. Why waste all of the effort? Let the academics have at him, and leave the rest of us mere mortals alone. But alas, Hart’s latest book is extremely difficult to ignore. So this is fair warning that this blog post will sound quite dense and geeky. Here we go….

An Eastern Orthodox theologian, currently teaching at Notre Dame, after having picked up a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Virginia, along the way, David Bentley Hart is probably best known for his devastating critique of the New Atheism, of Dawkins, Harris, Bennett, and Hitchens, in his Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies

David Bentley Hart. Astute critic of the New Atheism, who has now tasted the confusing allure of universalism, and amazingly finds it satisfying.

Long time Veracity readers will know that I greatly benefit from the pithy, enjoyable, and learned blogs posts by Reformed charismatic pastor, Andrew Wilson, of Kings Church of London, England, at the Think blog. Just about anything Andrew writes about, I try to read. He is that good. Andrew got his blogging start working his way through Hart’s Atheist Delusions back in 2011, which offers an excellent summary of the high points of Hart’s argument (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, plus a follow up essay, #10). Andrew’s blogs are a good place to start to get a taste of what David Bentley Hart is like.

But while Hart has served as a masterful champion of demolishing the New Atheism, in service to the greater Christian tradition, Hart has also applied his rhetorical, polemical skills against fellow Christian thinkers he finds to be petty and annoying. He can be over the top in some respects, but his criticisms deserve thoughtful responses. For example, he dismisses the greater classic evangelical Reformed tradition, embodied most broadly by the folks at The Gospel Coalition, as hopelessly fundamentalist, who are most likely guilty as “moral cretins.” That is a bit harsh, but for some on the far side of hyper-Reformed thinking, Hart may not be too far off.

Hart’s bristling does not end there. I am convinced that David Bentley Hart utterly despises N.T. Wright. While Wright, a British Anglican, who is perhaps the most well known New Testament scholar living today, may have captivated an entire generation of millennials, in seminaries, over the past twenty years, Hart will have none of Wright’s “idiosyncratic” style of New Testament translation methodology. Along with other critics, Hart believes that N.T. Wright’s enthusiastic embrace of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” has led Wright down the path of injecting a false dichotomy into Paul’s doctrine of justification, a core doctrine in New Testament thought. Sample just this biting, scathing sentence from Hart’s rejoinder to an earlier critique by Wright, regarding one another’s work in doing New Testament Bible translation:

Regarding, for example, [Wright’s] insistence on rendering “dikaiosyne” by the cumber­some phrase “covenant righteousness” (a special hobby-horse of Wright’s, which he takes out for a gallop around the paddock whenever he can), I would be only one among legions in pointing out that this arbitrarily isolates a single dimension of a term [within] a far larger range of possible meaning in the text.

Wright’s translation of the New Testament could hardly be any more different from D. B. Hart’s version of the same (which is why the committee approach to how the English Standard Version, the New International Version, and the Christian Standard Bible were able to produce such excellent work, inviting millions of Christians to feast on their presentations of God’s Word, is far superior than any translation done by a solitary scholar…. but I digress).

Nevertheless, it is Hart’s latest volume That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell and Universalism that has caused the greatest amount of controversy. Here, Hart has moved away from the very center of Christian tradition, causing shockwaves among today’s theological intelligentsia.

Hart’s thesis here is built on the speculative work of the 4th century Cappadocian, early church father, Gregory of Nyssa, who advocated for a type of Christian universalism, that the doctrine of hell actually serves a more redemptive purpose, suggesting that, in the end, all humans will be saved. Unlike popular forms of universalism, that blithely claim that all humans bypass hell, Hart channels Gregory of Nyssa to say that, yes, there is indeed a hell, but its purpose is more like that of purgatory, a process after death whereby all sin is to be purged from every human, thereby ultimately resulting in everyone’s final reconciliation with God.

Now, before anyone gets too suspicious about Gregory of Nyssa, it should be noted that Gregory of Nyssa was mostly known for other teachings, that most Christians take for granted today. For example, among the early church fathers, Gregory of Nyssa was singularly outspoken in his belief that Christianity and the practice of slavery were incompatible with one another, in an age when slavery was an established norm in Greco-Roman society. Gregory of Nyssa was also one of the greatest champions of the doctrine of the Trinity. But when it came to universalism, Gregory of Nyssa speculated on certain ideas that later writers, such as David Bentley Hart, have taken and run with.

Contrary to a type of “hopeful universalism” of the 20th century Swiss theological, Karl Barth, that maintains that God’s ultimate purpose of saving “everyone” be held out as a theological possibility, with a number of caveats, David Bentley Hart takes a bolder approach. As St. Louis University theologian, and historical scholar of universalism, Michael McClymond, put it, Hart’s latest work casts aside the tentativeness of a “hopeful universalism” in favor of assertiveness. To think that God “might” save everyone in the end, as a type of optimism, while at the same time soberly recognizing an utterly just and final punishment of a hell, that can not be ignored, is something too weak for Hart to counsel.

Alas, defenders of Hart believe that Hart continues to be greatly misunderstood. Yet McGill University’s Douglas Farrow believes he understands Hart all too well, laying out his concerns in the pages of First Things, a (mostly) Roman Catholic think-tank journal:

David Bentley Hart, familiar to readers of these pages as an intellectual pugilist who floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, has entered the ring for the Big Fight. Armed with his recent translation of the New Testament, he is ready to prove that no one suffers eternal damnation. Almost the entire Western tradition, backed by much of the East, is in the other corner. In his corner are fellow followers of Origen, the evangelical universalists, and a motley crew of sparring partners from the gyms where he has trained. As he approaches the ring, he strikes a Luther-like pose. Of course he wants nothing whatever to do with Luther, or any other product of the Augustinian stable. But he will stand where he must stand; he can do no other. The Church has backed the wrong man. She is about to be taught a lesson.

The man in question is Augustine, the bête noire of universalists everywhere. He wears the black trunks. Hart is in the white trunks, standing in for Gregory of Nyssa, the man the Church ought to have backed and didn’t…..

Other theologians have taken notice, and have weighed in. Peter Leithart, a featured blogger at First Things, wrote a partial review of That All Shall Be Saved, that Hart considered to be at least faithful to critiquing what Hart actually wrote. Nevertheless, Hart still found Leithart’s critique to be wholly lacking. Leithart, in return, offers a rejoinder to Hart’s response. Fellow Eastern Orthodox theologian, John Mark Reynolds, wishes to disown Hart from Eastern Orthodoxy. Others, acknowledging the puzzling depth of Hart’s thought, like Nicholas Frankovich, at the National Review, watches the sparks fly. Quirky-evangelical contrarian and blogger, Andrew Perriman, is intrigued by Hart’s argument, though not entirely convinced. The debate goes on. If you like spirited dialogue among academic theologians, it does not get any more exciting than this.

Pastor Andrew Wilson, mentioned above, who has greatly appreciated Hart’s previous works, regrettably describes Hart’s latest book as “Trump with a thesaurus.

It is as though David Bentley Hart completely slept through the controversy a few years ago, surrounding former megachurch pastor Rob Bell, when he wrote Love Wins. In Love Wins, Bell hinted at but never came out and explicitly endorsed universalism, as much as Hart does in That All Shall Be Saved. But Bell pretty much had to quit his megachurch pastor job in Michigan, to take up his surfboard in Southern California, and occasionally traveling across country for various book tours. Preaching universalism in an evangelical church can not pay the bills, for any pastor. Evangelical pastors who flirt too much with universalism should consider a new career. Hart admits that he is not a pastor, which makes me wonder how in the world anyone could ever preach his message, in any evangelical church, and survive past a single sermon!

The once brilliant theologian Hart has now gone rogue, reframing a theological argument that got the early church father Origen, for all practical purposes, branded as a heretic, at least regarding his views on the doctrine of hell. The conscious eternal torment view, embraced by a majority of Christians (though not all), through Christian history, is to be rejected by Hart, as being ultimately “unChristian.” Apparently, according to Hart, this great majority of Christian believers, across the centuries, never got the memo.

Furthermore, though viewed by many as suspect, in a less obtrusive manner, the conditional immortality, or annihilationalist, approach to hell, as offered by thinkers like John R.W. Stott and Edward Fudge, is left off the table as a viable alternative to either the traditional conscious eternal torment view, or a universalist view, for Hart. No, David Bentley Hart will have none of that. Hart has planted his flag firmly in this universalist camp. Hart is now placed in the column marked “beware.” A theologian of David Bentley Hart’s stature and intellectual talents can not be ignored. But his thesis in That All Shall Be Saved makes him highly suspect, a good example of what NOT to do, when doing theology.

What is most disturbing about Hart’s thesis is that he pretty much accepts the New Atheist complaint about the Old Testament at face value. For the New Atheist, the God of the Old Testament is capricious, unjust, and vindictive, and therefore, not morally worthy of being God. This is not an aberrant view, but rather an all-too-common criticism among learned, skeptical readers of the Bible today. A quick glance at EvilBible.com shows just how pervasive this New Atheist complaint has reached into our culture.

Consider the great flood of Noah. As much of traditional interpretation indicates, Genesis would have us to think that the vast majority of humans perished in that catastrophic event, a sign indicating that God takes judgment against human rebellion quite seriously. Ah, but observers will point out, this would presumably include small children, and mothers, pregnant with child, who were among those who drowned in the rising sea of God’s judgment. To critics, this would be genocide, with divinely sanctioned abortion built-in.

Other Christian thinkers offer nuanced responses, to this interpretive quandary, looking at the story of Noah within a broader Scriptural context (for example, consider this brilliant alternative, more theologically modest and centrist perspective, advocated by Eastern Orthodox theologian, Father Stephen De Young). But it would appear that in Hart’s estimation, the matter is more black and white. Hart rejects the historicity of the Noah story, but he does so on a basis that concedes this New Atheist critique of Christianity: An Old Testament God who inflicts such vindictive violence must be a caricature of the one true God (if there is a such a God). If God does not save everyone, then God can save no one.

But the New Atheist secularizes Hart’s argument, agreeing with Hart, and concluding that, yes, God can save no one, as such a God can not be ultimately trusted. Dawkins, Hitchens, and others, can easily respond: Why even bother with universalism? Just get rid of the whole concept of hell altogether, and the whole notion of final judgment, and be done with the whole problem…. while you are it, save yourself the trouble and deny the existence of God.

David Bentley Hart has touched a nerve, and his thesis deserves a thoughtful response. Yet Hart’s critics rightly pin him into a corner. Hart’s fellow Eastern Orthodox theological colleagues are not impressed by Hart’s theological innovations. Sure, I would love to think that in the end, even the most hardened sinner will embrace Jesus as their Savior. But to embrace such a view, as Hart has done so wholeheartedly, is sadly merely wishful thinking.

Even Douglas Farrow concludes his review of Hart thus, “Hart makes clear in conclusion that if Christianity requires belief in eternal punishment, then Christianity is false. Which prompts from this reporter an unhappy observation. If he really believes that, then the New Atheists, to whom he gave a thorough thrashing in earlier books, should demand a rematch. This time they might well win, and that by default.

 

 


The Shack, Is Genesis History, and the False Dichotomies in Christian Films

God, The Bible and The Shack is a short pamphlet, designed to help readers of W. Paul Young’s The Shack navigate through some tough theological issues.

In the study of logic, a false dichotomy is when only two options are presented, either believe this or that, even though there might be yet a third option available. The fallacy of the false dichotomy is that it excludes other reasonable alternatives.

I really hope I am wrong. But sadly, it appears that several recent Christian films (and their associated books) are trying to exploit certain false dichotomies that are increasingly popular in the church today.

On one side, stands something like Del Tackett’s Is Genesis History?, blogged about several times here on Veracity (#1, #2, and #3). According to some reviewers, such as Alan Shlemon at Stand to Reason, though there are some very positive elements in the film, Shlemon thought that Is Genesis History? plays into the notion that the church is divided into two different groups: the sole defenders of the Bible, who unswervingly hold to a view of the earth as being young, around 6,000 years old, versus compromised Christians, who undermine the Bible by accepting anti-Christian, scientific evidence of an earth that is millions of years old. Of course, Del Tackett, in an admittedly kind, warm and unassuming way, urges Christians to pursue the first option, and shun the second.

For Del Tackett, the question of, “Is Genesis History?,” is of great interest, in terms of the age of the earth. But it is often a misleading question. “Is Genesis True?,” is a much more profound and disturbing reality to consider. Alan Shlemon rightly sees the fallacy here, regarding the fundamental argument from the movie as a false dichotomy.
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