Tag Archives: Emergent

Discern God’s Justice

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a world without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” — that’s how H. Richard Niebuhr described the message of Protestant liberalism back in the 1930s.  In those days, there was a fairly clear dividing line in Protestantism between liberals and evangelicals.  The liberals didn’t believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God and so they could discard the elements of Christianity they found unpalatable.  The evangelicals generally had a high view of the Word of God and maintained that how we feel about what the Bible teaches is irrelevant to whether it’s true or not.  However, something changed in the following decades.

Back when I was still in Hamilton, one of the hats I wore was that of an instructor in North American Church History at the Canadian Reformed Teachers College.  When I first took on the role, I was given a sort of general set of topics that the College wanted covered in the course.  One of those topics was “the Emergent Church.”  That suited me just fine because I’d been studying that topic for a couple of years anyway.

Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck characterized Emergent as a combination of “mystery, journey and uncertainty – the perfect porridge of not quite fundamentalist, not quite liberal.”  It was also described as a conversation.  To some, it was about a new style of worship, one that involves “couches, candles, and coffee” – integrating the smells and bells of Roman Catholicism with low-church American evangelicalism.  For others, it was about taking postmodern philosophy and bringing it into the contemporary church.  A precise definition of this movement has always been difficult.  It was diverse and those who identified with it resisted the notion of precise definitions.

You might have noticed that I used the past tense in the previous paragraph.  Emergent is now a thing of the past.  It’s run its course and nobody really talks about it anymore.  However, many Emergent thought-trends linger.  This is especially true when it comes to the character of God.

The year I started teaching the CRTC course, Rob Bell came out with his book Love Wins.  I showed my students the promotional video for the book:

The video sees Bell getting to the heart of the matter:  what is God like?  His rhetorical questions ooze a disdain for the traditional Christian understanding of God’s character, especially as a holy and just Judge who condemns unrepentant sinners to an eternal conscious torment in hell.  In Love Wins, Bell argued that everyone goes to heaven because of Jesus – in other words, all are justified.  Everyone is right with God through Christ.  For those who don’t believe, heaven is like hell.  But eventually, there in heaven, God’s love wins them over and everyone lives happily ever after.

Rob Bell promoted universalism back then — these days, it isn’t clear where he stands on anything.  Regardless of what’s happened with him, universalism is more popular than ever, especially in circles that might be described as “evangelical.”  There are numerous authors and preachers peddling the view.  Surveys would seem to indicate that they’re having an impact.  For example, the Ligonier State of Theology survey from 2018 found that 57% of respondents who identified as “evangelical” disagreed with the statement, “Even the smallest sin deserves damnation.”  The same survey found that 53% of evangelical respondents agreed that “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”  That reflects a particular take on the character of God.

As always, we need to put our feelings to the side, and humbly listen to what the Bible says.  The Bible is God’s self-revelation.  One thing clear from Scripture is that God is just.  In his interaction with God in Genesis 18, Abraham recognized it already and appealed to it:  “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen. 18:25).  Exodus 34:7 sees God revealing himself to Moses as the one “who will by no means clear the guilty” — God just won’t look the other way when it comes to sin.  In Revelation 16:7, the altar speaks:  “Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are your judgments.”  God will always do what is right, as defined by his own holy character.

In connection with this, the Bible also speaks about God’s wrath.  It’s important to remember that wrath is not, properly speaking, an attribute of God.  Wrath is not essential to his being.   God’s wrath exists as a response to sin.  To express it more precisely:  wrath is how the holy and just God responds to sin.  Wrath is a function of the attribute of divine justice.

The Bible speaks repeatedly about God’s wrath against sin and sinners.  Let’s just take two passages, one from the Old Testament and one from the New:

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;

evil may not dwell with you.

The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;

you hate all evildoers.

You destroy those who speak lies;

the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.  (Psalm 5:4-6)

For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’  And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.  (Hebrews 10:30-31).

You’d have to do one of two things to up-end this biblical teaching:  1) Deny that the Bible is the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God; or 2) engage in some scarcely believable interpretive gymnastics to make the Bible say something it doesn’t say.

The same is true when it comes to what the Bible says about hell as the place and experience of God’s just wrath against sin.  The Old Testament speaks about hell in places like Isaiah 66:24.  It’s a place of undying worms and unquenchable fire (cf. Isa. 50:11).  No one spoke more about hell in the Bible than Jesus.  He says in Mark 9:43, “It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.”  And again in verses 47 and 48, “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’”  That is a description of eternal conscious torment.  In Revelation 20, those whose names are not written in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire, the second death, a lake of burning sulfur.  There they will be tormented with the devil day and night, forever and ever.

The error of universalism is not just about the character of God.  Ultimately, it follows through to the very nature of the gospel.  What’s the gospel about?  What’s so good about the good news?  The Bible teaches that the good news is so good because, in his love, God has provided a way of rescue from the judgment and condemnation we deserve for our sins.  When you deny this message, you obliterate the urgency of mission and evangelism.  If everyone’s going to heaven anyway, if “love wins,” why would you ever need to tell anyone about the cross?  The cross is emptied of its meaning as a substitutionary atonement.  While the universalist message might be appealing on a sentimental level, if you approach it with the Bible as your ultimate standard, you’ll discern that it’s a terrible, gospel-denying fabrication.  No, God is just.  Because of his justice, God has infinite wrath against sin and sinners — but the gospel promises that, for all who believe in the Saviour God has sent, that just wrath is turned away and his favour restored.


The Line Connecting Rob Bell and N.T. Wright

I’m finally reading David Wells’ The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World.  This is the final volume in Wells’ series exploring the current state of “evangelical” theology and practice.  He says that it is a summary volume, and thus it has no footnotes or endnotes.  Nevertheless, he does interact with various theologians and names names and gives sources.

Chapter 3, “Truth,” has a subsection entitled “Evangelical Adventures.”  Here he discusses recent trends in how the authority of the Bible is understood:

In recent years this understanding of biblical inspiration and its resulting authority in all of life has been undergoing a major revision among some evangelicals.  The revision, on the high end, is evident in the work of N. T. Wright, for example and I. Howard Marshall; it is evident on the low end in experimenters like Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and a host of other cultural fashionistas. (85)

He then goes on to describe how Marshall speaks of how the Holy Spirit has continued to enlighten God’s people since the time of Jesus, moving us beyond the New Testament.  Then he comes to Wright:

Wright, more adventurous than Marshall, disengages the authority of God from the authority of Scripture rather more radically.  In different ways and in different places he mocks the idea that Scripture contains timeless, unchanging truths or that it was ever meant to do so.  The authority of God is experienced as something other than the authority of Scripture.  This was his thesis in The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture.  Wright offers a baffling illustration to make his point.  Suppose a lost Shakespeare play were found today.  Four of the acts have survived but we know that originally it had five acts.  What would we do?  Would we not try to create the fifth act as faithfully as we could so that the play could run its course?  That is our situation in the church today.  We do not have the fifth act of God’s revelation, the one for our present moment.

The problem with this, of course, is that the fifth act of Shakespeare’s play could be written in any number of ways with any number of outcomes.  So it would be with Scripture had God left us to our own wits. (85-86)

Wells moves on to discuss Bell and McLaren.  Then he draws the connection between these emergent authors and Wright/Marshall:

A line connects Marshall and Wright to Bell and McLaren.  It is that the authority of God functions separately from the written Scripture.  Marshall thinks the Spirit has liberated us from some of what is in Scripture; Wright thinks the Scriptures were never given to function as absolute truth in our world in the first place; Bell thinks the Scriptures simply send us on our way to do our own thing; McLaren thinks historic faith needs to be de-reconstructed for postmoderns so that the baggage of enduring truth can be dropped.

The common thread across this broad front is that Scripture cannot be fully authoritative at the level of its functioning in the life of the church today.  We are in fact autonomous, freed from its language and constraints as we shape our own understanding, in our own way, in the postmodern world.  At the end of the day Christianity is about filling out my story, being propelled on my journey by the Scripture or the Holy Spirit, and being propelled into the (post)modern world.  It is not about our fitting into the Bible’s narrative.  It is not about seeing it as an objective framework of truth… (87)

I’d never heard of that before.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Wells is right about this connection.  Wright gives me the heebie-jeebies.