John Richardson asks whether Evangelicals are still preaching an authentic doctrine of salvation
I CANNOT REMEMBER the name of the TV programme, but I will never forget the snippet of dialogue, which went something like this:
Anxious parishioner to Wise Old Priest: “Tell me, Father, do you believe in hell?”
WOP: “Of course I do.”
(AP looks simultaneously relieved that WOP is orthodox and worried about the implications of what WOP has just said.)
WOP continues: “But don’t think I’d be foolish enough to think anyone actually goes there!”
(Universal relief on the faces of AP, audience, et al.)
This brief exchange surely expresses a key dilemma facing the church today. The traditional understanding of God’s nature, and therefore the traditional understanding of our position before him, have become unpalatable to the modern mind. Consequently, the traditional understanding of the gospel message as one of salvation from a punishment imposed by God is being replaced by a subtly different message, more acceptable to our generation but less in keeping with the truth.
An old problem
As early as 1948, C S Lewis observed this problem amongst the popular audience of his day. In his essay titled ‘God in the Dock’, he wrote,
“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the rôles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God in the dock.”
Such an accused God would, of course, have no right to condemn his judges to an everlasting hell. Indeed, the very notion of hell is itself one of their charges against this God.
A new situation
For some considerable time, the judgement of God by man has prevailed as the cultural norm in the West. Indeed, it was no doubt commonplace amongst theological Liberals long before 1948. What is new is the permeation of the rejection of hell throughout what has hitherto been regarded as orthodoxy and evangelicalism. Consequently, many modern Evangelicals no longer present the gospel as a message of salvation from judgement, but rather as the gateway to life-improvement. This is how one popular tract addresses the question as to why we need Jesus:
“You and I were created to live in a relationship with God. Until we find that relationship there will always be something missing in our lives. As a result, we are often aware of a gap. […] Jesus … is the only one who can satisfy our deepest hunger because he is the one who makes it possible for us to be restored to a relationship with God.”1
Here, the gospel exists to address a felt need. Jesus “satisfies our hunger” for three things: “meaning and purpose in life”, “life beyond death” and “forgiveness”. Without forgiveness, in particular, “there is a self-centredness about our lives which spoils them”. Hence,
“By his death on the cross Jesus made it possible for us to be forgiven and brought back into a relationship with God. In this way he supplied the answer to our deepest need.”
But such a representation of the gospel, though it speaks of a relationship with God, is in fact self-centred. My relationship with God supplies the answer to my need.
Later, this tract does admit that sin entails not merely certain consequences but a penalty:
“The result of the things we do wrong is spiritual death – being cut off from God eternally. We all deserve to suffer that penalty.”
To tell someone who does not know God that the penalty of sin is “being cut off from God eternally” is to fail to alert them to their true peril. At worst, spiritual death sounds to them like ‘more of the same’. Indeed, earlier on the tract says this about death:
“Most people don’t want to die. We long to survive beyond death. Only in Jesus Christ do we find eternal life. For our relationship with God, which starts now, survives death and goes on into eternity.”
At face value, this seems to be saying that without Jesus we do not survive beyond death – much as we might wish to. Again, this tract says, “Death is not the end for those whom Jesus has set free.” What, therefore, should we conclude about those whom he has not set free, except that death is the end for them? And yet for those who already do not believe in Jesus, this is what they expect anyway. Within the theological framework of this tract, both Christian and non-Christian seem agreed that death is effectively the end and that God is not to be feared. Consequently, there is little incentive here to turn to God, except to fill that ‘gap in your life’ – should you feel it to be there!
A Fatal Flaw
Some might complain that this is theological nit-picking. The tract is, after all, aimed at an audience with precisely the attitude C S Lewis was talking about. And as he observed, “It is generally useless to try to combat this attitude, as older preachers did, by dwelling on sins like drunkenness and unchastity.” That this is true is particularly evident when we consider that the tract is written by Nicky Gumbel, a member of staff at Holy Trinity, Brompton (and also a leading light in the Alpha Course). The Holy Trinity approach clearly attracts the typical Holy Trinity member – someone whose sins are, frankly, unlikely to have been those of violence or outright debauchery. They may well have appeared in court – but it will generally have been as the barrister or solicitor, not the accused! With such people, an acute awareness of sin is only likely to come after conversion. Surely, it might be argued, the important thing is to get them converted first and this tract rightly begins from where they are?
However, the phrasing of the tract makes one question whether it is indeed undergirded by a biblical doctrine of sin and salvation. And if not, then this weakness must ultimately prove fatal. Perhaps significantly, a few years ago Holy Trinity gave a platform to Clark Pinnock, editor of a symposium titled The Openness of God.2 Pinnock is from an American Evangelical background, but has been steadily moving towards what many would regard as straightforward liberalism. The concept of God’s ‘openness’ is an attempt by Pinnock and others to resolve the ‘freewill versus predestination’ debate through a synthesis of self-limited divine sovereignty and controlled human freedom. The particular significance of this symposium is that the contributors represent, according to their own view, the legitimate Evangelical standpoint.3 However, one of them, David Basinger, writes as follows in the final essay:
“Almost all Christians … believe that many people are not properly related to God personally and, accordingly, that it is also important to share with them the ‘good news’ – the joy and excitement of being properly related to God. In short, almost all Christians also support some form of evangelistic effort.” (p 173)
Evangelism here has been degraded almost beyond recognition, yet the similarity to Gumbel’s position is striking. In both cases, the desired outcome is essentially a better immediate relationship with God. And, for Basinger, a failure to evangelize means little more than that people will miss this out on this in the ‘here and now’:
“… some may fail to relate properly to God at least in this life because of our failure to share the ‘good news’ with them. […] A personal relationship with God is what gives this life its fullest meaning.” (p 175)
Notice, all is not lost – it may turn out only be a failure “in this life”. And in any case, the personal relationship with God is about giving “this life its fullest meaning”. As to the next life, Basinger admits the possibility (though only that) that “some will spend eternity separated from God” (175). But he continues,
“… many [proponents of the open view] maintain that each person’s eternal destiny will ultimately be determined by God on the basis of the ‘light’ available to him or her (or by other criteria).”4
There is, of course, nothing new in this. It is a view, for example, which is explicitly rejected in the Thirty-Nine Articles:
“They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.” (Article XVIII)
Nevertheless, Basinger concludes,
“… it is within the open model that our decision to obey or disobey this command [to preach the gospel] has the most significant impact on whether others will develop their relationship with God in this life to the fullest extent possible. And while we who are proponents of the open view find this sobering, we also find it highly motivating.” (p 175)
Perhaps so – but it is hardly the stuff for which to endure, “frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren” (2 Cor 11:26). If, as Basinger argues, it regarding this life only that we can be certain of the impact of evangelism, then we might more easily say with the Apostle Paul in an ironic mood, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor 15:32). Why go through the tedium and terror of door knocking, for example, when the only assured result is that someone “will develop their relationship with God in this life to the fullest extent possible”? Let us rather go down the pub!
From What Peril?
Most modern Evangelicals believe they are united around the gospel message that Jesus died to save us from our sins. But in fact this is a ‘Motherhood and apple-pie’ notion to which even most Liberals would assent, provided they could give their own meaning to “save” and “sins” (not to say “Jesus”). As Gumbel’s tract and Basinger’s article show, there is a tendency amongst confessed Evangelicals to back away from the traditional understanding of salvation as salvation-from-hell. Those who would claim to be theologically orthodox are increasingly unwilling to state clearly what happens to those whom Jesus does not save from their sins. The biblical understanding is that they are lost forever, and that their being lost is the result of a divine verdict issuing in a divinely-imposed punishment for their sins. The modern Evangelical, however, tends to play this down in favour of the benefits gained from a right relationship with God. Hence, though we still talk of being saved, it is no longer clear from what peril we are being saved.
This issue was specifically raised in the opening chapter of the 1995 Doctrine Commission report The Mystery of Salvation, which asked, “If God is said to be acting towards the world in order to save it, from what is it being saved?” (p 2).5 Later, the report says,
“Salvation is not only the various good things that God gives us – forgiveness or eternal life or liberation from oppression or healing of relationships or finding our true identity. It is all these things …” (p 31)
But to assert that salvation is “all these things” is still insufficient if we mean it is only these things! The report itself recognizes the difficulty by the illustrations used in its opening paragraphs:
“To the drowning passengers of a sinking ship salvation does not need to be explained, only offered – and quickly. […] Those trapped on the top storey of a blazing building … are clear what salvation means in their situation.” (p 1)
The point is made that the peril in these cases is clear. Yet were we later to ask those who were rescued “What happened?” we would find it very odd if they answered, “Thankfully, we were able to go to work the next day as normal.” Would we not expect to hear something more along the lines of “We nearly drowned”, “We were almost cooked”? A proper account of salvation in these circumstances would relate the potential peril as well as the actual outcome. Hence to describe salvation as “forgiveness … eternal life … liberation from oppression … healing of relationships” and “finding our true identity”, as this report does, and yet not to describe it as “not going to hell” is ultimately to fail to give an account of salvation at all.
To talk of salvation solely in terms of heaven, without mentioning hell, may be palatable to the modern mind, but is not the truth. Consequently, those responding to such a message are already crippled in their Christian lives and indeed may not be Christians at all, since there is no real appreciation of who Christ is when there is no understanding of that from which he has saved us.
The Significance of This
No doubt many will feel that the doctrine of hell is one that we would do well to downplay and better to abandon entirely, on the grounds that it produces at best a negative form of Christianity and at worst a thundering, hellfire-and-brimstone triumphalism. And certainly this doctrine has its dangers – but that is true of all doctrines. However, the truth is that without a proper doctrine of hell we have an enervated gospel – albeit one that is more palatable to the human ear.
Currently the gospel is presented by many Evangelicals as if the choice is between a relationship with God, which leads to eternal life, and no relationship with God, which leads to continuing ‘lostness’. The result of this, however, is that since sin is not given its true weight in terms of leading to God’s wrath and condemnation, salvation is also denied its true weight in terms of the astonishing love of God for his enemies and the completed unmerited nature of his grace. Moreover, without a proper awareness of the significance of sin, whilst the life of the believer remains properly focused on improving one’s ‘relationship’ with God, the means to this through ruthlessly putting to death sin in our own lives is undermined. In short, many Evangelicals are preaching the ‘gospel-minus’ they so readily decry in Liberals, and are producing semi-Christians who in some cases are no Christians at all.
In the next article, therefore, we will look at what the doctrine of hell should be, why it is necessary and why it actually produces more joyful Christians.
1.Nicky Gumbel, Why Jesus? (Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications, 1991)
2. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1998
3. “… I, like the other authors of this book, consider the open model not only to be significantly different from its main competitors but to be superior.” (David Basinger in Pinnock et al, p 176)
4 .At this point, Basinger himself footnotes references to Pinnock’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions and John Sanders’ No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized. The titles of these works in this context give little hope for them having a traditionally orthodox content.
5. This statement might, of course, itself be critiqued. The biblical picture is that God is not saving “the world” so much as individuals from this world for a future world.
John Richardson is Senior Assistant Minster at St John’s Stratford, in the diocese of Chelmsford.