A few years ago, I preached a message entitled “Judgment is no Joke” based upon perhaps the most provocative words the Lord Jesus ever spoke; so provocative, in fact, some scholars deny the Lord of Glory spoke them. In part Jesus said>>>
"And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire…And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell…And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’" (Mk 9:43-48, ESV)
Whatever difficulties exist within evangelicalism for taking the words of the Lord Jesus at face value, Southern Baptists have not now nor ever—so far as I am aware—shared evangelicalism’s historic, well-documented reluctance to embrace the disturbing but nonetheless biblical doctrine of eternal hell. From our perspective, anything less than an eternal judgment in hell implies mockery of God in human flesh and makes the coming judgment for which Jesus died into some sort of cosmic joke which our Divine Holy Deity plays on gullible human beings. “Ha Ha! I was just playing around!” God informs us as we all stand before the great white throne. Hardly.
Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), posted a piece entitled “Doing Away with Hell: Part One” I wish to commend to our readers. Mohler gets it exactly right placing the load of evangelical fuzziness concerning hell on the back of, well…evangelicals themselves and their unwavering intellectual addiction to extra-biblical philosophies not to mention the evangelical obsession to remain culturally “relevant” hoping to gain the sweet admiration of cultural institutions, particularly academia. Mohler writes,
“Ever since the Enlightenment, theologians have been forced to defend the very legitimacy of their discipline and proposals. A secular worldview that denies supernatural revelation must reject Christianity as a system and truth-claim. At the same time, it seeks to transform all religious truth-claims into matters of personal choice and opinion. Christianity, stripped of its offensive theology, is reduced to one ’spirituality’ among others”
Unfortunately, Mohler gets his wheels stuck in the mud a bit later into his essay giving us an insightful glimpse into where he believes evangelicalism took a wrong turn. Arguing his point from an undeniable Reformed perspective, he writes:
The biblical vision of God has been rejected by the culture as too restrictive of human freedom and offensive to human sensibilities. God’s love has been redefined so that it is no longer holy. God’s sovereignty has been reconceived so that human autonomy is undisturbed…Evangelical revisionists promote an understanding of divine love that is never coercive and would disallow any thought that God would send impenitent sinners to eternal punishment in the fires of hell. They are seeking to rescue God from the bad reputation He picked up by associating with theologians who for centuries taught the traditional doctrine. God is just not like that, they reassure. He would never sentence anyone–however guilty–to eternal torment and anguish”
The biblical vision of God which Dr. Mohler implies culture rejects is, of course, classical Calvinism. Non-Calvinism (whether evangelical or philosophical) redefines holy love, and in doing so, does away with God’s holiness. God’s sovereignty is abandoned while humanism (whether evangelical or secular) becomes embraced. Non-Calvinist evangelicals—whom Mohler identifies as “evangelical revisionists”—so interpret biblical revelation as to “disallow” hell in order to “rescue God” from association with the centuries old “traditional doctrine” by which Mohler presumably means the disturbing but nonetheless real doctrine of eternal hell, the hell which Edwards and Spurgeon faithfully preached ever how uncomfortable or unpopular it was for them to do.
While it may be admitted Mohler has particularly in mind open theists like the late Clark Pinnock who eventually turned a water hose on hell, Mohler’s wheels continue to spin. For the fact remains that taking the heat out of hell cannot be framed as a Reformed/non-Reformed issue. Mohler is obviously aware of this. Indeed it can well be argued (and is) that Reformed theology is especially vulnerable to universalist yearnings. Ann Lee Bressler, in her definitive study of universalism entitled, The Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880, argues that Christian universalism has its roots in none other than Jonathan Edwards and his school, labelling universalism as "Calvinism Improved." In a lengthy but enlightening passage, Bressler describes in part Edwards’s putting into motion the quest for universal salvation:
Jonathan Edwards’s religious philosophy centered on his conviction that humanity was not an assemblage of autonomous persons…Edwards, therefore, philosophically opposed what was evolving into the Arminian creed: that “God never violates the human personality.” Edwards believed that God did not “save” souls and then gather them individually; grace broke through the jealous shell of the individual, opening him to the effulgence of God’s love. Edward’s vision of human perfection, Robert Jenson observes, was “not first or last a vision of rescue, followed by self-achieved fulfillment, but of ‘heaven’, of transfiguring absorption in Christ’s glory…Despite the uncertainty of Edwards and other Calvinists as to whether the unregenerate could be truly loved, their definition of sainthood ‘allowed no man to rest content short of all mankind’s being drawn up into beautiful union’…
In support of this, Edwards even acquiesced in the modification of the traditional Calvinist doctrine of atonement. His Freedom of the Will had stated that humans had not a natural but moral inability to repent. Yet the concept of limited atonement implied natural inability. The New Divinity disciples of Edwards…solved this dilemma by asserting an unlimited atonement in which Christ died not to take upon himself the sins of humanity but rather to demonstrate God’s power and hatred of sin. This notion of atonement theoretically allowed for the salvation of all. By writing the preface to Edward Bellamy’s True Religion Delineated (1750) which argued for an unlimited atonement, Edwards implicitly endorsed the New Divinity doctrine” (pp 10-11)
Therefore, contrary to Mohler’s insistence that yearnings for universalism may safely be laid at the feet of non-Reformed thinking (whether secular or evangelical), Bressler argues Reformed thinking, especially as it was revised--not to mention improved--by Jonathan Edwards, remains key to understanding universalism’s intrinsic appeal.
Universalism is not the only blurred theological proposition concerning future after-life about which evangelicalism historically struggles. Its theological “first cousin”—annihilationism--also threatens to drive a dangerous wedge within conservative evangelicalism. In fact, in the end, Mohler rightly makes no real distinction between annihilationism on the one hand and universalism on the other, presuming these twin extra-biblical ideas to be serious errors and, consequently, remaining perversions of the biblical gospel and not up to vote or revision:
“Hell is an assured reality, just as it is presented so clearly in the Bible. To run from this truth, to reduce the sting of sin and the threat of hell, is to pervert the Gospel and to feed on lies. Hell is not up for a vote or open for revision. Will we surrender this truth to modern skeptics?
Current controversies raise this issue anew among American Christians, and even among some evangelicals. Nevertheless, there is no way to deny the Bible’s teaching on hell and remain genuinely evangelical. No doctrine stands alone” (embolden mine)
While he doesn’t say, presumably, as with universalism so with annihilationism, Mohler’s perspective that Reformed thinking in contrast to non-Reformed worldviews must be viewed as the gatekeeper to “the Bible’s teaching on hell” in order to remain “genuinely evangelical.” Surely this includes any and all non-biblical ideas which deny hell is an assured reality. And, annihilationism definitively denies hell is an assured reality—at least in its ultimate sense.
Once again, however, Dr. Mohler finds himself with no real traction, for even stronger than universalism, annihilationism possesses a rich, undeniable history within historic evangelicalism. Mohler after all alludes to this:
“Current controversies raise this issue anew among American Christians, and even among some evangelicals” (italics mine).
Unfortunately, Dr. Mohler quickly expresses his doubt that one may actually be an authentic evangelical while at the same time holding to a doctrine of after-life for the wicked less than adhering to an eternal hell:
“Nevertheless, there is no way to deny the Bible’s teaching on hell and remain genuinely evangelical” (italics mine)
Where such a skeptical evangelical construct places John R.W. Stott, John Wenham, Michael Green, F.F. Bruce, and even Reformed Baptist hero, the late Roger Nicole, is a question Mohler does not address (perhaps he will in Part Two). For example, Roger Nicole was a Reformed icon among both Baptists and Presbyterians, long affiliated with and respected by evangelical Calvinism the world over. His last teaching position was at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, a premere academic institution of inspiration for the new generation of young Reformed theologues (perhaps mainly because of the prominence of R.C. Sproul and Ligioner Ministries).
In addition, unless my memory fails me, Nicole taught as visiting professor at SBTS where Mohler presides and was affiliated with Founders Ministries, the largest active network of Southern Baptist Calvinists in existence. Dr. Mohler, as well as Tom Nettles, professor of historical theology at SBTS, have long supported Founders Ministries. Indeed many Southern Baptist professors who are also Calvinists are in friendly cooperation with Founders vision for the Southern Baptist Convention. Even so, Roger Nicole served for years as editor of The Founders Journal, the journal of modern Southern Baptist Calvinism (i.e. Founders Calvinism). Indeed though passing on to glory in December, 2010, Dr. Nicole is still listed as editor for Founders Journal*.
What's lessor known is, apparently Dr. Nicole was instrumental in persuading evangelicalism to cease their attempts to dis-fellowship evangelicals who embrace annihilationism: Mark Galli, in a recent Christianity Today editorial writes:
“Evangelicals have long been divided on the value of annihilationism. In May 1989, Regent College theologian J. I. Packer attacked the idea at the Evangelical Affirmations conference held at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In the discussion that followed, Reformed Seminary theologian Roger Nicole argued that annihilationism should be respected as a persistent and biblical minority position among historic evangelicals. Nicole's speech effectively defeated a motion that would have defined annihilationists as outside the evangelical camp” (//link, embolden added)
For Mohler, then, to raise the question as an evangelical, seems entirely unwarranted, for evangelicals historically embrace and/or are tolerant of many doctrines which seem unbiblical. What is not unwarranted, however, is to raise the question definitively as a Southern Baptist, for Southern Baptists have not now nor ever—so far as I am aware—entertained the idea of any view of after-life which denied the eternality of hell**. While we have argued over the exegetical details of eternal suffering (e.g. whether the biblical imagery of the “flames” of hell are literal or symbolic), we nonetheless have firmly held that whatever hell will ultimately be, the biblical reality remains--hell is suffering, eternal suffering.
The theological conundrum Dr. Mohler and other Southern Baptist leaders and theo-ecclesial activists have effectively prodded Southern Baptists into, consequently spawning a friendlier, more open non-Baptist ecclesiology, may be coming home to the proverbial roost. If Southern Baptists are but one ingredient in the pot of quasi-evangelical soup—a soup which, by its very recipe, boasts of its numerous, varied and flavorful theological spices—I’m afraid Mohler finds himself becoming what he earlier rejects—an evangelical revisionist attempting to recast a vision for evangelicalism its adherents know not of.
This latest fiasco over the eternality of hell may demonstrate it’s time for Southern Baptists to once again claim their rightful heritage as people of the Book. It may be we need to reevaluate our wishy-washy, open border policy which entertains—at least philosophically—a sub-biblical ecclesiology, most often expressed in a dubious attempt to make Baptists more like presbyterianism rather than embracing our birthright as free church believers.
With that, I am…
*at least at the time of this writing
**no confession of the SBC remotely is ambiguous concerning the eternality of judgment