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.

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  1. Jack Isaacson July 17, 2008 at 10:55 pm

    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.
    John, would this be one of the “hard texts”?
    Acts 13: 8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for so his name is translated) withstood them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 Then Saul, who also is called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord? 11 And now, indeed, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind, not seeing the sun for a time.”
    And immediately a dark mist fell on him, and he went around seeking someone to lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had been done, being astonished at the teaching of the Lord.

  2. Fred Carpenter July 20, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    Dear John,
    Re: ECT, I gave it up quite some time ago, but I don’t believe the biblical answer is annhilationism (Stott’s position) but rather biblical universalism. You mentioned Origen. Four of the first Six Schools of Theology taught Universalism. When I finally came to the realization that the Bible does NOT teach eternal conscious torment, I had to look at all the scriptures left to me of my view of God. Given that, I don’t believe the alternative is a God who annhilates most of those He has created in His image, but rescues ALL to Himself. Thank you for bringing up this topic, as it is a hot one!
    Fred Carpenter

  3. Ken in Virginia Beach July 21, 2008 at 8:04 pm

    I met you a few years back when you spoke to the Metro New York Presbytery and subscribed briefly to the revival & renewal journal before you ceased publication.
    I agree and disagree — I hope you’ll hear me out.
    I agree that people tend to hear the phrase “those who do not believe in Jesus are going to hell” as a personal judgment; whereas no human being, only God, can make this statement. Therefore when Larry King hits people with a question like this, the proper response is, “What I believe isn’t the issue; how I feel about you or any other non-Christian isn’t the issue; and by the way, I like you and my other non-Christian friends a lot. But we’re talking about where they stand not with me, but with God; and God says there is only one way to be made right with him,” etc.
    So I think we agree that when we address this issue with outsiders (unbelievers) we need to make sure they really understand what we mean and don’t mean.
    Where I don’t agree:
    First of all, to be blunt, it seems you are falling into a common contemporary belief that “we must point people to Jesus but not claim to know with certainty what he said/meant/etc.” This agnosticism concerning knowledge (including knowledge of God, the afterlife, etc) is not quite biblical. I say “not quite” because of course we must be humble; but we must also be spiritually mature, growing in our confidence in God’s revelation and not growing more skeptical. The verse that comes to mind is, “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him…” It’s interesting that he said “and my words,” because that means they can be understood & believed & proclaimed with certainty.
    Also: It also seems to me that you are fighting the wrong battle. Does the church really need more people to express uncertainty about the afterlife & salvation in Jesus alone? Larry King has guests on all the time that fail to give a straight answer about whether someone must believe in Jesus to avoid hell (even Billy Graham ducked the question, it’s easy to find on youtube). The heartbreaking trend I see in the public sphere is a continual parade of Christian leaders who really want to be accepted and therefore will not say with certainty what their Lord said with certainty. It seems to me that’s what we need to fight against, first of all in our own hearts.

  4. K. Darrell July 21, 2008 at 9:00 pm

    I have been an occasional reader of your blog for several years and I haven’t felt compelled to respond too often, but I think your comments on “pluralism” need to be addressed, if for no other reason than asking for clarity.
    You know our culture well and have guarded yourself well with a comment like, “Sadly, I am sure some will look for every grain of error they can spot!” With this sort of fencing, it makes any criticism appear to be the problem of the individual (“oh, he is just a fault finder”) and not the trajectory of your thought. Yet, despite that sort of hedging & my desire not to be “that guy”, I think what you wrote needs to be responded to. Again, even if it is for clarity’s sake.
    Granted, it is a blog comment section, so I will try to keep brief & I know I can be misunderstanding you, but your posts are public, so I feel free to respond publicly.
    1. As currently stated, your position lacks Scriptural exegesis. It begins with the culture and works back to the Scriptures – “But I do believe the gospel has been influenced by history and cultural forms. This is my real problem with exclusivism and how it comes across in the modern world.” Is this not the exact same influence on your position? Is your concern exclusivism, i.e. only conscious faith in Christ saves, or the disposition of some who hold it?
    2. The post is not quite clear. Beginning with our culture and working backwards, you then end up moving towards an element of weird subjectivism by suggesting “the Christian religion is a human expression of religious faith made by various churches and groups.” I ask, how do we get at Jesus without the human expression? Would not creation and the incarnation tell us that the human expression is sufficient? I think you detract from Biblical anthropology & theology at this point. Yes, it is human expression, but, given Scripture & Jesus being the Word, that expression is sufficient. Exhaustive? No. Sufficient? Yes. You add, “To be a Christian is to know Jesus Christ and to exalt him personally above all others.” How is this done if not by human expression?
    3. The trajectory of your thought seems to be driven by what our culture says and fears of being “judgmental”.
    4. You say, “It looks and sounds like it is saying ‘our doctrine of Jesus is what condemns’ you who do not follow him. I submit that a better way to express that Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life” is to missionally disconnect our views from gospel itself and then point people to him, not to our view of what happens to people who embrace other religions. Let God be God and let us preach the gospel!” Who is the “him” that we are pointing folks to if that does not include our doctrine of him? Can you provide clarity on this, because this is rather confusing, at least to me? Our Gospel includes doctrines of who Jesus is, which includes that Jesus will judge everyone and God has shown this by raising Jesus from the dead. Can I preach that and let God be God? I believe preaching that openly more freely enables us to let God be God and, if anything, the idea that we hold back certain texts, which you (or some other preacher) arbitrarily declares “difficult” or “tough”, is not letting God be God.
    5. If, all you are saying is, “Be humble”, then I have misread your comments and I can concur, but let us not have this “humility” be defined by “cultural forms”, but from the Bible & Jesus. If your message is “Be Humble”, then the issue has nothing to do with exclusivism, inclusivism or universalism proper, especially if exclusivism is by grace.
    Any clarity you can provide is greatly appreciated.
    Thanks, Keith

  5. jls July 22, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    I am impressed with the thoughtfulness of the discussion above. Thanks to you all. This is an important subject, and I have been hoping for some time that it would come up on John’s blog.
    I have nothing to add, except a question. What happened to our western mindset in recent years that has now made it so difficult for us (myself included) to accept the plain teachings of Jesus with regard to judgment, hell, etc.? Of course, one could say “it’s pluralism,” but that’s just a name or label that we put on this phenomenon. As far as I can tell–and perhaps I am wrong–Christians in other times and places, who were no less enlightened than we, did not have such difficulty with this issue as we do today. Why not? It leads me to wonder how many othernonbiblical premises we may have swallowed without realizing.
    For me, it’s really an issue of trust. I trust that the words of Jesus are true, including his words about judgment. I trust that God is loving and merciful. I trust that God is supremely fair and correct in what he decides to do with the soul of each human being whom he created. And I’m so glad that I don’t have to decide or pretend to know the eternal destiny of any person. Yet I can have confidence, through the work of the Holy Spirit, that my faith and salvation are secure in him.

  6. Craig Higgins July 23, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    I’m posting this after only skimming the previous comments (a dangerous practice, to be sure), but I wanted to add a couple of notes:
    (1) A mutual friend of ours spoke with Stott about this issue a few (well, about 10) years ago, and Stott said that he was not committed to annihilationism himself, although he leans that way and thinks it is exegetically defensible. But he is himself a bit agnostic on the question.
    (2) I deeply appreciate your call for humility on this, and I think this is a thoughtful discussion-starter on how we present the claims of Christ (those exclusive claims!) with charity and humility. We all agree that refusing to follow Jesus has eternal consequences, but I think we can also all agree that making those judgments for any individual is way above our pay grade! For one, I’d be hesitant to say, “Hitler/Pol Pot/fill in the blank is in hell.” Of course, their sins deserve separation from the Holy & Blessed Trinity! So do mine! But I cannot know what God might have done–in that mercy that gives full pay to those hired in the 11th hour–in the last moments of their life.
    That’s what I heard in this post–a call for some personal humility. Nothing more. Nothing less.

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