My raising the question concerning The Gospel Coalition’s fairly obvious duplicity in describing Rob Bell a heretic for his alleged universalist and/or annihilationist views while theologically cuddling up nice and cozy with Anglican scholar, John R.W. Stott, even though it is common knowledge Stott embraces some form of an annihilationist position concerning the after-life created many defenders who suggested annihilationism, although an error to be sure, hardly meets the “heresy” criteria that universalism does>>>
In fact, I had an email exchange with a TGC advocate who alleged my point was not nearly as potent as I made it out to be. He wrote annihilation is “an error to be sure, but not one that is as serious as universalism.” Some commenters on the thread suggested as much:
“From my understanding Bell seems to be leaning towards a Universialist [sic] understanding of redemption, completely opposite of Annihilationism” (//link)
So, do these men have a well-taken point? That is, can a wedge be legitimately driven between the degree of error for annihilationism on the one hand and universalism on the other? So much so, in fact, that the former is acceptable error while the latter is condemnable heresy?* If the answer is “yes,” then my analogy between Rob Bell and John Stott vanishes. If the answer is “no,” because a wedge is much too harsh of a distinction between the two theological positions to justify one being heresy and the other not, then the question I raised concerning TGC’s burning Bell while embracing Stott remains.
My point is simple: I suggest if evangelicals burn Bell for his belief, then evangelicals ought to build a fire for John Stott too.** Why? Both annihilationism and universalism have been treated similarly by theologians. Both are condemned so far as orthodoxy is concerned, especially Calvinistic orthodoxy. Schaff wrote, "Everlasting Punishment of the wicked always was, and always will be the orthodox theory." In many standard theologies, universalism and annihilationism are treated as very close positions--theological "first cousins"--so to speak.
For example, Hodge says,
"….If Christ and his Apostles did not teach that all men are to be saved [universalism], neither did they teach that the wicked are to be annihilated."
In addition, Charles Spurgeon has some stinging words for those like John Stott who embrace annihilationism. With his ever-fiery style, he wrote:
“No honest man can be a member of the church meeting at the Tabernacle, and hold annihilationist views, for now and in all time past we have borne testimony to the generally-received doctrine” (Spurgeon’s Autobiography, Vol 4, p.129)
Hence, for Spurgeon, embracing annihilationism was enough to warrant church discipline. Could it be that embracing universalism could muster a yet stronger discipline? It hardly seems reasonable.
Other citations could be added but what is the real point? The fact is, there is but a razor’s edge difference—even if a razor’s edge it be--between the ultimate outcome of annihilationism on the one hand and universalism on the other. This seems easy to illustrate by asking a few basic questions.***
- Do either annihilationists or universalists believe in an ultimate afterlife for unbelievers? NO
- Do either annihilationists or universalists believe in endless suffering? NO
- Do either annihilationists or universalists believe in eternal hell? NO
- Do either annihilationists or universalists believe in two future groups of conscious peoples after death? NO
- Do either annihilationists or universalists believe in the traditional view of hell? NO
- Do either annihilationists or universalists believe all people deserve everlasting bliss? NO
- Do either annihilationists or universalists believe all people deserve to be endlessly punished for their sin? NO
What, then is the substantial difference between the two positions toward the ultimate outcome of unbelievers who die without Christ? Do not both positions lead to the very same destination? A denial of the traditional--i.e. biblical--view of eternal torment for unbelievers? If this is so, how is it that one may legitimately drive a wedge between universalism on the one hand and annihilationism on the other, arguing that the latter is acceptable error but the former is condemnable heresy?
For my part, to drive such a precarious wedge is sheer rationalization and looks suspiciously like vested special interests. That is, John R. W. Stott is well-liked and respected. We accept him even if he theologically errs—it’s acceptable theological error. Rob Bell is not liked and is an emergent misfit. We reject him because he theologically errs—it’s condemnable heresy.
So much for keen theological discernment, not to mention loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.
With that, I am…
*though I have not thought carefully through this, I’m wondering how the popular hermeneutical triage found so prominent on Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary would tease this issue out
**recall I’m a Southern Baptist and have no pony in this show per se
***I asked my TGC friend these questions via email. He graciously bowed out of the conversation before answering