Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Call it a Comeback: Evangelicals, Liberals, and the Problem of Hell

In his 1971 IFES addresses on "What is an Evangelical?" Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones referred to the tendency of denominations to so lose their way that they end up becoming institutions whose beliefs, values, and practices run counter to the convictions and vision of their founders.  Lloyd-Jones summed it up in the epigrammatical words of Dean Inge, "institutions tend to produce their opposite."

At first blush the thought that evangelicalism could prove itself capable of reproducing, under different circumstances, the virulant strains of liberal theology seems, frankly, implausible.  How could those committed to the authority of Scripture and the supernatural Christ of the Bible descend into a world where long held dogmas were routinely thrown overboard?

Part of the answer is in understanding liberalism as a mood, and a mindset, as well as a particular set of denials.  Another part of the answer lies in the tension evangelicals constantly feel when they relate the "scandal of particularlity," all those non-negotiable hard edged truths of the Christian faith, to the desires, aspirations, and intellectual and moral boundaries of contemporary culture.

Liberals tried to advance the Christian faith by cutting themselves loose from the offensive doctrines of historic orthodoxy.  They put forward an evangelistic strategy that attempted to assuage the emerging intellectual and moral rebellion of Europeans and Anglo-Americans on the run from God, a strategy that was doomed from the start.

They felt the same fears that haunt evangelicals every day: the fear of rejection, irrelevance, loss of influence, being pilloried as intellectual pygmies and dismissed as intolerant cranks.  You cannot embrace the doctrines of original sin, judgement, the holiness of God, the authority of Scripture, the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, and the eternal misery of the finally impenitent, without getting into trouble with the intelligentsia who act as guardians of morality in the modern world.  They don't like and don't want the God of the Bible unless he accommodates himself to their ways and accepts their terms and conditions concerning what is true, good and beautiful.

If Kant baulked at the idea of substitionary atonement because it was an unthinkable idea for rational thoughtful people when he said that:
It is totally inconceivable, however, how a rational human being who knows himself to deserve punishment could seriously believe that he only has to believe the news of a satisfaction having been rendered for him, and (as the jurists say) accept it utiliter [for one's advantage], in order to regard his guilt as done away with...No thoughtful person can bring himself to this faith. (From Religion and Rational Theology, quoted in Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, p. 64, n. 81)
Whoever then will believe in eternal hell without submitting their reasoning and moral calculus to the authority of God as he has spoken in Scripture?  Who will hold fast to these truths without the gracious regenerating, illuminating and teaching work of the Holy Spirit?  The answer to both questions is no-one.

We will either revise the Scriptural doctrine of hell to make it more palatable and plausible, or else we will selectively dismiss it as a culture-bound primitive belief that we have grown out of.  Both are live options for contemporary evangelicals who wish to revive the theological options set out by the older liberals.  Either way you can call it a comeback.

For an in depth take on this as it relates to the doctrine of hell you should read the following posts by Al Mohler:

We have seen all this before: Rob Bell and the (Re) Emergence of Liberal Theology

Air Conditioning Hell: How Liberalism Happens

It is also well worth watching Martin Bashir's interview with Rob Bell


For more on evanglicals following the path of Protestant liberals see:

"Liberalism: A warning from history" (Banner of Truth online article) 

"The Emerging Church and the Cultural Captivity of the Gospel" (Affinity online article adapted from the chapter in Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church)


thin lizzy said...

Matthew 24:11 "And many false prophets will arise, and will mislead many."

My prayer is that others will see through Bell as clearly as Bashir has, sadly this is a trajectory I have seen Bell on for a while.

Wrinkled Weasel said...

There is a problem with this and it does not just apply to evangelicals, it applies to atheistic liberalism in a wider sense.

Tribes search for key words in encounters with individuals.

You write of "non-negotiable truths", which of course exist, but does one have to quote them every single time as a pre-requisite of dialogue.

A friend of mine was recently accused of being more "New Age" than "New Testament" merely because she did not cite the 39 articles of faith, prefering the intelligent among readers to join the dots.

Well, you can decide for yourself by visiting my blog, but the language of modernity is not the preserve of liberals. Christians need to understand that the vocabulary of everyday moves on. So, make sure it is the meaning you are challenging and not the language, or you will merely replicate the rather emotive and politically correct mores of those you seek to oppose.

Not only that, you will be speaking to only your own flock.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"Lloyd-Jones summed it up in the epigrammatical words of Dean Inge, "institutions tend to produce their opposite.""

I wonder if this is bi-directional as well. Do liberal institutions produce conservatives too?

Or is it mostly one-way?

David R. Nelson said...

Well presented, Martin. In a short space you have summarized well the issue and marshalled numerous helpful resources for those passionate enough to follow-through on this important controversy. Thank you.

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