Steps to the Dark Side, part 3- Some Theological Abuses that Lead to Christian Universalism

Today I am going to briefly hit the final part of my argument over the four theological errors that are leading or contributing to a rise in Christian Universalist beliefs among traditional evangelical circles by discussing the denial of the doctrine of a literal hell.  Following today’s post I will take a day or two to jump back into the What We Believe series going through the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 and then at the start of next week I will return for one last post over what the evangelical church can do to combat against Christian Universalism in its midst.

Whenever I consider the denial of the doctrine of a literal hell my first thought is always over this quote from Brian McLaren which has appeared numerous times on my blog:

Tony [Campolo] and I might disagree on the details, but I think we are both trying to find an alternative to both traditional Universalism and the narrow, exclusivist understanding of hell [that unless you explicitly accept and follow Jesus, you are excluded from eternal life with God and destined for hell] . . .   Although in many ways I find myself closer to the view of God held by some universalists than I do the view held by some exclusivists, in the end I’d rather turn our attention from the questions WE think are important to the question JESUS thinks is most important. (Brian McLaren, Christianity Today5 May 2006)

This quote, in my mind, was the rallying cry for an acceptance of Christian Universalism into the mainstream.  McLaren’s writings are readily available in any bookstores ‘Christianity’ section, so his name, combined with the long-standing platform of Christianity Today among the evangelical community, makes this a powerful statement.

For clarity’s sake, when I say that someone is denying the doctrine of a literal hell, what I mean is that they deny the doctrine of a literal, eternal separation from God.  Many people want to quibble over things saying, “No, I don’t believe in a place of eternal darkness,” or “No, I don’t believe in a place of fire and brimstone,” but this is avoiding the point.  I do not care to argue over if hell is a fiery place, a cold dark place, if it is a place under the earth, an actual lake of fire, or maybe just New Orleans; that’s all of no consequence.  What matters is whether you believe in a “place” where God eternally punishes those who have not come to him in faith?  If you do then you believe in a literal hell; if not then you don’t.  

Now you may ask, why do I call this literal hell?  I mean, some Christian Universalists say things like, “The Universalist regards hell as signifying the consequences of sin, severe but salutary, to endure as long as sin endures, but to end with the reformation for the sinner.”  Does that not mean they believe in a literal hell too?  No, because they do not believe in hell in the way that the Bible believes in hell, which is where the “worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9.48) and where people “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1.9).  The only literal hell is the one that is spoken of quite literally in Scripture.  (Of course, many will argue that the Scriptures are not so clear on this, but how many ad hoc arguments and hand-waving exegeses will we listen to before saying enough?)

So, is it obvious enough why the denial of a literal hell is a major contributer to Christian Universalism in evangelicalism?  

Looking at it again, there is one thing I agree with McLaren– the opposite of the denial of hell is exclusivism: “Although in many ways I find myself closer to the view of God held by some universalists than I do the view held by some exclusivists . . .”  What I mean is that ANY religion which believes you can be saved by some means outside of faith in the vicarious atoning death of Christ and his resurrection is functionally Universalism.  All other means are a lie and heresy just like Universalism and believing that one thing else can save you is for all intents and purposes a belief that anything else can save you.

I will probably have more to say about the denial of hell after reading the two chapters on it in Dr. Mohler’s new book The Disappearance of God, but I think this will do for now.

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