This year Fuller Theological Seminary hosted the second Rethinking Hell Conference. Its theme was Conditional Immortality and the Challenge of Universal Salvation. Evangelicals holding conditionalism, traditionalism and universalism all gave talks and engaged with each other.
As I live on the other side of the world, unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend but I recently received the DVD! I’ve already watched the first talk and so would like to share some of the highlights 1. The talk was by an Evangelical Conditionalist, Chris Date, and was titled, A Seat at the Table: An Appeal for Dialogue and Fellowship.
I really appreciated that Chris’ gracious attitude extended even to those he strongly disagreed with. As he mentioned during the talk, sadly often Evangelicals aren’t interested in engaging or dialoguing with Conditionalists, and even less so with Universalists―instead:
… numerous other pastors, professors, apologists, authors, and radio show personalities feel comfortable writing, speaking, and teaching about the motives, errors, and dangerous teachings of conditionalists and universalists, all the while largely ignorant of what it is they actually think and argue.
Chris Date 2
Chris backed up this claim with quotes and explained that he wasn’t merely complaining but that:
… the reality is, whether we like it or not, universalism has been gaining ground, and we at Rethinking Hell think this may be because it is typically seen as the only alternative to the traditional view of hell, rather than as one of three competing views of final punishment including conditionalism.
Chris points out that traditionalists are actually increasing the rate at which people are switching to conditionalism and universalism because they are failing to engage them properly 3. He gives some reasons why this isn’t good:
1. We are all fallible and if Chris is holding a mistaken belief he actually wants to be shown that, because truth matters and mistaken beliefs can have negative consequences 4. I agree with him. Part of caring for our brothers and sisters is helping them to find truth.
2. It’s not building unity:
Jesus prayed to his Father that “those who will believe in me . . . may all be one” (John 17:21). He even said that by being one, the world might know that his Father truly sent him. Paul told the Ephesians:
to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:2–3)
F. F. Bruce understands Paul’s words as a call, not to agree perfectly on “a body of belief,” but to “live at peace with one another.” … Challies takes Bruce’s understanding of unity a step further …
It is God’s loss and your loss, and it is Satan’s gain, when you will not walk in love with other Christians, [and] when you will not work arm-in-arm together.
The call to Christian unity, then, is a call to both fellowshipping together, and ministering together.
Chris then gives a good definition of Christian essentials that unity can be built around. He also explains why the doctrine of Hell should be secondary, and gives examples of respected associations 5 and theologians who have classified it as such.
Sadly when unity breaks down:
Conditionalists and universalists have learned that rejecting the doctrine of eternal torment comes at a cost, both personal and professional… Those who do consider alternatives, and become convinced, often face the unenviable dilemma of either acknowledging their newfound conviction, or keeping silent and keeping their jobs…
I’ve seen that too, and have experienced being sidelined in church. Furthermore:
What breaks my heart still more than the refusal of many traditionalists to minister alongside conditionalists and universalists is their refusal to fellowship with them.
And he explains that this can result in conditionalists and universalists being forced to either join liberal churches or become churchless 6.
No longer allowed in their more conservative faith communities, they no longer have the opportunity to be involved in the discussions those communities are having about other issues. They lose accountability, and they miss out on the influence conservative evangelicals otherwise might have had on them. As a result, nothing remains to prevent them from abandoning other, often more important Christian and evangelical doctrines and positions.
If this lack of fellowship and unity in the Body of Christ were visible only to those within the Body of Christ, it would be bad enough. But recall Jesus’ prayer for unity so that the world would know his Father sent him, and now recall the publicly facing evangelical response to Rob Bell and Love Wins. Paul Coulter documents, for example, the accusations of heresy leveled at Bell by high profile Christian leaders in America before the book had even been published.
Chris thinks that although Bell deserved much of the criticism, the abusive manner in which is was done was an awful witness to the watching world—the opposite of:
“Just as I have loved you,” Jesus said, “you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35)
He rightly didn’t let conditionalists and universalists off the hook but encouraged them to also love and engage with traditionalists. I liked his suggestion to try to respect church leaders and not to undermine them in public or behind their backs.
It was helpful to hear his serious criticisms of universalism 7 and I will try to keep them in mind. I appreciated that he still acknowledged that Evangelical Universalists are at least trying to take the Bible, sin, atonement, etc. seriously, even though, from his perspective, they’re arriving at some very mistaken conclusions.
1. It was a 55 minute talk so I can’t cover all his points.
2. All quotes in this post are from his talk.
3. He gives examples of traditionalists either dismissing us entirely or criticising things we don’t actually believe.
4. e.g. From his point of view, some people may postpone their repentance and faith until it’s too late, if they think God will save them anyway. I wrote a response to this concern last week.
5. e.g. World Evangelical Alliance.
6. Sadly I’ve seen some also give up on Christianity altogether.
7. e.g. That we don’t seem to consider that “Scripture promises enduring life and immortality only to the risen redeemed”.