After years of incessant whining and pleading, my dad finally caved in on my tenth birthday. If I would agree to finally shut up about it and not tell my mother, he’d let me start drinking coffee. Thrilled to have tiptoed inside the outer realm of adult pleasures, I poured myself a big cup of Folgers, took a sip, and instantly spit it into the kitchen sink.
The stuff was nasty. Nasty and bitter.
So I added a little milk and sugar. Then I tasted, spit, and added more milk and more sugar. I continued this process until what remained tasted like the leftover liquid from the world’s worst sugary kid’s cereal (Super Sugar Coffee Puffs!).
By the time I was ten years and three days old I had forever given up being a coffee drinker. Surprisingly, though I had developed a talent for watering down and sugarcoating the bitter, I never became a hip, young evangelical pastor.
Evangelicals may not have been the first Christians to dilute doctrine to make it palatable—but we’ve refined it into a fine art.
Take, for example, the doctrine of hell. People don’t like hell. They don’t like the idea that someone they love may end up there (especially if that someone is them). Add to this our culture’s disdain for the idea that there can only be one way to truth (e.g., Jesus Christ) and you have all the makings of a bitter doctrine in need of some milk and sugar.
That is where our young evangelicals come in. In the dark ages (pre-2005) you generally needed an advanced degree in theology—or at least a pretty thorough knowledge of the Bible—before intelligent believers would take your peculiar spin on doctrine seriously. But thanks to the Internet, that’s all changed. Anyone who can use Google to learn about theological “isms” (Inclusivism! Exclusivism! Universalism!) and find a few quotes by Origen feels qualified to weigh in on an issue that most orthodox evangelical Christians have always considered to be relatively settled.
Unfortunately, the cranks and bloggers (same thing, right?) often get encouragement by people who should really know better. This past week the evangelical wing of the blogosphere has been abuzz about whether a prominent young pastor’s new book downplays the doctrine of hell. Rob Bell of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is the kind of mostly orthodox/sorta squishy new evangelical pastor that . . . well, just watch the following video.
Notice that Bell mostly just asks leading questions, rather than stating directly what he believes. (Note: In hip evangelical circles Questions and Doubt are unquestionably good and virtuous while Clear Doctrine and Definitive Belief are, at best, worthy of suspicion and, at worst, the province of close-minded fundies like me.) Since he’s written a book on the subject, there is a chance that Bell will provide definitive answers to the questions he raises. But anyone who thinks that Bell’s book may say, “Yeah, there is a good chance that Gandhi is in hell,” doesn’t know Bell—or hip young evangelicals.
Thankfully, we still have some stodgy old evangelicals, like Albert Mohler, who are willing to defend orthodox evangelical doctrines against the gooey New Age-ish mush that is creeping into our tradition:
The pressing question of our concern is this: Whatever happened to hell? What has happened so that we now find even some who claim to be evangelicals promoting and teaching concepts such as universalism, inclusivism, postmortem evangelism, conditional immortality, and annihilationism — when those known as evangelicals in former times were known for opposing those very proposals? Many evangelicals seek to find any way out of the biblical doctrine that is marked by so much awkwardness and embarrassment.
The answer to these questions must be found in understanding the impact of cultural trends and the prevailing worldview upon Christian theology. Ever since the Enlightenment, theologians have been forced to defend the very legitimacy of their discipline and proposals. A secular worldview that denies supernatural revelation must reject Christianity as a system and truth-claim. At the same time, it seeks to transform all religious truth-claims into matters of personal choice and opinion. Christianity, stripped of its offensive theology, is reduced to one “spirituality” among others.
All the same, there are particular doctrines that are especially odious and repulsive to the modern and postmodern mind. The traditional doctrine of hell as a place of everlasting punishment bears that scandal in a particular way. The doctrine is offensive to modern sensibilities and an embarrassment to many who consider themselves to be Christians. Those Friedrich Schleiermacher called the “cultured despisers of religion” especially despise the doctrine of hell. As one observer has quipped, hell must be air-conditioned.
Mohler points out that liberal Protestantism and Catholicism have come up with their own ways of resolving the scandal of this doctrine. That’s fine. I have no beef with those traditions. My concern is with those who claim to be evangelicals while advocating or teaching a doctrine that is inconsistent with evangelical theology.
As Mohler notes, “there is no way to deny the Bible’s teaching on hell and remain genuinely evangelical.” He’s right. You don’t have to be an evangelical to believe in hell, but if you stop believing in hell then you’re probably no longer an evangelical.