More on the Pluralism Debate

John ArmstrongUncategorized

A few days ago I raised the question of how to respond to modern pluralism. I was sure that some would not read my words carefully but I also felt raising this issue was worth whatever risk might be involved. This discussion is so important because it seems that so many of us are locked into one of the three views I stated that we cannot see any other way to think about this question of Jesus being "the way, the truth and the life." As a result of this great harm is being done in the name of the Christian religion in the modern and post-modern world. Let me enumerate some of the mistakes made by people who tenaciously insist on the old paradigm, language and answer.

1. They sound like they know exactly what God is going to do with a person who is not presently a Christian. This sense of personal insight into the divine purpose drives people away from the faith for no good biblical reason. I suggest we introduce the person to the life and claims of Jesus and let them discover what he says and deal with it themselves. The Holy Spirit is quite able to apply the hard texts to the soul without you and me insisting we understand them perfectly ourselves.

2. We come across to many modern people as the judge and jury, a role that is clearly not given to us. We go around telling people that we know who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. Have you really listened to what non-Christians say about the evangelical message? We must not "trim our sails" to win people to Christ but we dare not add our personal religion to the message of the good news either.

3. There is a great deal that we do not know about the judgment to come. Enough is revealed, I am convinced, to warn you and me to be exceedingly careful about our own souls. Not enough is given to us to plainly inform us about the souls of those around us. I think one of the worst things evangelicals communicate to this present age is the idea that what they believe about that mysterious day of judgment is exactly what God reveals.

4. We should warn people that the stakes are high when it comes to dealing honestly with Jesus but this does not mean that we go around telling them: "You are going to hell." Where do you see this "gospel" preached in the Books of Acts? Yes, I know that Jesus spoke openly about hell more than about heaven but the number of times he spoke about hell is not the issue here. I would rather see an honest debate about who he was speaking to and why. This frightens me a lot more than any other issue in these texts.

5. Finally, there have been Christians who did not agree with me or you on this matter who were real Christians. One thinks of the great early church theologian Origen. He was a universalist. He was also a bright Christian and had a whole lot of very good things to say that make it clear to most Christian historians and students of his work that he really was a Christian man.

I can still recall the late Dr. John Gerstner telling an audience I had gathered to hear him speak in the 1980s that John Wenham, John Stott Stott_2
and Philip Edgcumbe Hughes were not real Christians because they did not believe in the "eternal conscious torment of the wicked in hell." (They all believe, in some form, in hell and a period of suffering that would likely come to an end at some point.) There was an audible gasp in the room. I am still amazed at his statement then and at how far he pushed this point before he passed away. Gerstner had been a hero to me, of sorts, but that day his certitude about three wonderful Christian men created a response in me that I shall not soon forget.

I thought about the Gerstner episode the other day when I was purging my library once again. I came across the worst book he ever wrote, Steps to Salvation. In it he argues for a God who hates and who wants his preachers to make people fear such a righteously hateful God. The book is built on the premise that some readers might not be among the elect so what then can they do about their condition since they are unable to believe and be saved? Instead of telling them to flee to Jesus because his promises are for Gerstner suggests that they "seek" and then hope God might save them. I find no such message in the New Testament.

I concluded that only a theologian who had built his practice on the logic of his system could discover such a concept of God in the New Testament. In fact, most Calvinists I have known and still know, would strongly disagree with Dr. Gerstner. I know this firsthand since he preached this same doctrine in my pulpit and nothing so unsettled my flock. This led me to call every Calvinist theologian I could find to try and discover what was wrong with it. (I was a very young man.) In the end B. B. Warfield, not a light weight Reformed thinker himself, helped me out of my jam. He wrote a short article on the simple fact that election and inability should never be a bar to coming to Christ and that corrected, for me at least, Gerstner’s monumental mistake.