Twice this week, I caught snippets of NPR or APR stories about a Pentecostal preacher who stopped believing in hell. Or maybe it was a single story, replayed, and I caught different snippets.
As Rob Bell discovered, getting squishy about hell is kind of an Evangelical capital offense (at least for now, until Evangelicals’ “firm foundation” slips along the greased Zeitgeist into uncharted territory). So I was unsurprised when today’s radio snippet included that Carlton Pearson’s church had gone bankrupt and that he now is improbably preaching in Unitarian-Universalist Churches. His preaching in such churches is improbable because his preaching style is hellfire-and-brimstone, albeit without the hellfire substance any longer.
I have no reason to think that Pearson came to his new convictions dishonestly. It’s hard for me to see any incentive to deny hell in the Evangelical or Pentecostal world, even if one has a mixture of financial motivation; there’s probably more job security and money in cultivating fear of death and hell, which grows like a weed with minimal encouragement.
In Evangelicalism, although it’s pretty common knowledge that hell is a customary part of the cosmic map, there’s no Pope, Bishops, or Ecumenical Councils recognized as authoritative. If you can put some Bible lipstick on a pig, there’s nobody to say “that’s a pig, not an angel” with any real force behind it, howsoever obvious the truth or vehement the rebuttal. So if an Evangelical erases hell from his personal cosmic map, there’s at best a weak argument that integrity requires abandoning the moniker “Evangelical.”
Apropos of that, I listened as Pearson preached, in black church style, a hell-free-and-brimming-with-hope sermon that was pretty impressive in its intensity. If orthopathos, right feeling, really is the center of Evangelicalism, it’s hard to say that Carlton is peripheral, let alone out of orbit entirely.
I listen to stories like this pretty dispassionately these days. The Orthodox faith by consensus of the Fathers affirms hell, but it never has become credal (“and He shall come in glory to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end” — that’s it), and there have been and still are voices very sympathetic to universalism.* Though I’m with the Fathers, I cannot but admire the compassion for the world that make it hard for some to affirm hell.
In fact, despite my own Calvinist background, just about the only people in these debates about hell who totally creep me out are those who seem to feel some deep emotional need for hell to exist and for most people to go there. This classic statement from Section VII of Article III of the Westminster Confession (which Confession I loved and which statement I accepted, albeit with little enthusiasm) captures something of that feeling:
The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy, as He pleaseth, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.”
(Emphasis added) Maybe I’m reading it anachronistically, but that bolded phrase now gives me the willies. Eternal wrath and “glorious justice” seem difficult to reconcile in a way that would permit a decent human being, at least in our current state of seeing as through a glass, darkly, to exult in anyone’s eternal torment.
20 years after having left semi-Evangelical Calvinism and 40 years after having left explicit and unequivocal Evangelicalism, I find myself at a loss to understand Evangelical line-drawing, their determination that this is a deal breaker but that is not.
Nothing is more important to Christianity than proper Trinitarian doctrine, and specifically Christology. But the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood cheerfully solicited and publicized the subscription of the Nashville Statement by two men who deviate from orthodox Trinitarian views (see Alastair Roberts here). I could probably come up with a snarky explanation, but having said I’m at a loss to understand, that would be double-dealing.
* * * * *
* That something is not credal does not imply that it’s unimportant. As noted recently, though, we seem to lack a vocabulary for matters that are neither credal nor adiaphora.