The Briefing 10-15-14

The Briefing 10-15-14

The Briefing


October 15, 2014

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


It’s Wednesday, October 15, 2014.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Same sex marriage supporters limit religious liberty to worship service context only

The cover story in The Economist, the major news magazines in Great Britain, has to do with the gay-rights revolution and its stunning success, in terms of reaching its political and moral and cultural aims just in the last several months and years. But one of the most interesting aspects of the coverage offered in this week’s cover story in The Economist has to do with an article entitled: “The Staff and Their Souls.” The magazine writes,

“Across the Western world, religious organisations have fought a hard and mostly successful battle to retain the right to ‘discriminate’ when choosing their own priests, rabbis and imams. And that seems reasonable enough. Something peculiar would be going on if say, a Christian church were obliged, under equality legislation, to admit to the priesthood a person who professed either atheism or some other religion.”

The Economist does not list the authors of its articles; rather the magazine itself takes credit for all of its content. Thus in looking at this article, the magazine is suggesting that it simply makes sense – and that’s interesting in itself – that a religious organization should be able to hire ministers, rabbis, or imams that would be in keeping with the faith of the congregation doing the hiring. Now you might be surprised that The Economist, a secular newsmagazine in one the most secular nations on earth, would recognize this; but the thing we need to recognize is just how narrow a religious liberty issue The Economist is actually recognizing. Because even as they say here would seem reasonable enough that a congregations should have the right to discriminate theologically when it comes to hiring the religious leader or teacher of the congregation, the article makes very clear that so far as The Economist sees it, that’s about as far as religious liberty would actually go. And when it comes to hiring virtually anyone else, even by a religious organization, as they say, when it comes to religion employment in teaching, the right of an organization or a congregation for that matter to discriminate on the basis of theological beliefs they see as far more dubious.

As The Economist writes,

“But the number of jobs over which religious bodies have some influence goes far beyond the ranks of clerics or prayer leaders. There are church-based charities and foundations. There are jobs like hospital chaplaincies where the employer is secular but appointments are subject to church vetting. There are university faculties, indeed entire universities, which are religious foundations. And across western Europe, churches have an influence over the education of children which is far out of proportion to the number of people who actually attend services.”

Very, very interesting – you can see the setup here. And even though this is a British newsmagazine writing primarily about the European context, it’s very clear they had the United States in view as well. They get right to the heart of what’s most important to us when they write,

“On the face of things, the further you get from narrowly defined clerical institutions and posts, the harder it would seem to justify ‘discrimination’ and the scrutiny of employees’ beliefs and private lives—something which would not be tolerated in any other walk of life. At any rate, that’s what secularists would strongly argue.”

Well the way they write it, their clearly siding with the secularists. And they’re also saying – if you watch their your own language – to quote again,

“…the further you get from narrowly defined clerical institutions and posts, the harder it would seem to justify ‘discrimination’”

And if you pay attention to the words of the magazine itself you’ll recall they said,

“…the further you get from narrowly defined clerical institutions and posts, the harder it would seem to justify ‘discrimination’ and the scrutiny of employees’ beliefs and private lives—

At this point in the report, The Economist points back to a story that first appeared in June of this year in the same magazine. That has to do with the fact that the European Court of Human Rights handed down a verdict in the case of a Spanish priest, who was an official religious teacher in the schools appointed by the Roman Catholic Church, who was discovered – after he appeared in the media – as being both married and having children; something that to say the very least is a direct contradiction and violation of the rules for priests. The church suspended him from his role and this case was appealed all the way to the European Court of Human Rights where the European court handed down the verdict that the Catholic Church had the right – in this case – to remove this official church teacher because he was violating the teaching of the church and its priestly vows by getting married and having children. Now, if you think that shouldn’t be headline news, ought to consider the fact that the headline news is the fact that we’re talking about this in the first place. The fact that we’re talking about a case in which now you have the newsmagazine revisiting the issue and suggesting that maybe the European Court of Human Rights went too far in its affirmation of religious liberty by allowing the church to remove someone who wasn’t functioning in the church, in the sanctuary as a priest or a preacher, but rather in a school as a religious instructor. So far as they see it, if you’re looking at concentric circles of influence and liberty, this man wasn’t in the sanctuary; he wasn’t fulfilling a priestly duty directly, and thus the churches on much shakier ground, according to their argumentation, for discriminating on the basis of religious belief and behavior.

Now why is this important to us? Well in the United States of America, we have many church related schools and colleges; many congregations have preschool programs and other ancillary programs very much related to the ministry of the church. One of the things you need watch in the United States is the way that the Obama administration and our current Department of State continues to refer to what they call the freedom to worship. But the freedom to worship is a severe constriction of religious liberty because when the phrase ‘freedom of worship’ is used as a substitute for religious liberty, it is used to define only what takes place behind the pulpit or in the sanctuary; not what takes place in terms of other aspects of the religious organization’s life and work. In the United States for example, the affirmation of religious organizations right to hire on religious grounds – especially when it came to a school – was affirmed by the United States Supreme Court in what is now known as the Mount Tabor decision. But there are efforts even now by those who are trying to reverse that decision and reverse the logic of that understanding of religious liberty. When you look at the current situation in United States you come to understand that the normalization of homosexuality and the legalization of same-sex marriage sets up a whole new set of challenges when it comes to discrimination and the right to discriminate in hiring and other important personnel decisions. Furthermore, we need then to add to that equation the whole transgender revolution. And when you look at the situation in the United States right now, it is evident that there is a clear and present danger to religious liberty when it comes not only to churches, but especially to church related institutions: colleges and schools, seminaries, and all the rest.

In terms of worldview, a very important aspect is affirmed in the article by The Economist when it asked the question directly, ‘which freedom comes first?’ And the two freedoms they are talking about here are the liberties of a religious organization to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religious beliefs and the rights on the other hand of individuals to a so-called right of privacy; including sexual privacy, privacy in the most intimate aspects of life, or the privacy of conscience in terms of the religious beliefs that an individual might hold. Time and again I’ve come back to the fact that what we’re looking at in the United States of America is a conflict of liberties, not just a conflict of values but a conflict and a contest of liberties. On the one hand, I would describe it as religious liberty and on the other, erotic liberty. And this new liberty, now being recognized by courts and in the court of public opinion of erotic liberty is again and again trumping religious liberty. Ominously, in the most recent coverage in The Economist, a lawyer is cited who said,

“It could be argued that schools that apply blanket testing at all levels of teaching are going too far, because they could still maintain their ethos without religiously vetting every single post,”

Well here’s the big problem: you have a secular authority claiming to have the right to determine how many religious teachers in a religious school have to be committed to the religion itself in order for the school to maintain what is described here as its ethos. This is a recipe for absolute disaster. But the even bigger issue is this; we’re talking about this issue not because it was raised in this context by Christian leaders discussing the issue in a global context, but rather by The Economist itself and its cover story on the gay rights revolution. The most ominous aspect is this: even this secular newsmagazine, trumpeting the new arrival of a gay revolution, points to the fact that employment issues, discrimination issues, religious liberty issues, are necessarily, automatically, intrinsically, now on the line.

2) Secular report on conditionalism shows importance of hell and judgment to human mind

While we’re talking about the intersection of theological issues in the secular press, no more graphic example could be provided than what appeared in last Saturday’s edition of the New York Times. Here’s the headline, “Tormented in the Afterlife, but Not Forever: Conditionalism Gains Ground.” It isn’t often that a major secular newspaper in America give serious attention to a serious theological issue, much less to something that will be called conditionalsm; something that in terms at least of the terminology is basically known, mostly, to evangelical theologians and others dealing with the same issues. It tells us something that the New York Times, the nation’s most influential newspaper, still considers theological issues of importance. And one of the reporters of that newspaper that gives the most serious attention to religious and theological issues is none other than Mark Oppenheimer, who is the reporter of this article.

Conditionalsm is a fairly recent theological movement, found mostly in the last several decades, mostly in English-speaking evangelicalism after the end of World War II. The major tenet of conditionalism is a rejection of the traditional doctrine of hell, especially the doctrine of hell which follows the biblical logic that it is a place of eternal punishment and torment. And they suggest that it is the traditional doctrine of hell that presents a doctrine of God that simply doesn’t come up to the standard of divine love (more about that in just a moment). The interesting thing first of all is that the New York Times considers this an important story. Oppenheimer reports,

“In August 1976, Edward Fudge, a minister and Christian publisher, wrote ‘Putting Hell in Its Place,’ an article in Christianity Today exploring biblical language about hell.”

He goes on to say Mr. Fudge’s inquiry into the nature of damnation resulted in his seminal 1982 book “The Fire that Consumes” in which he argued that the suffering of the wicked in hell is finite, that after a time their souls are extinguished. This view, called conditional immortality or sometimes the more macabre, annihilationism, is in direct opposition to the traditional Christian view that suffering in hell last forever. The news reason for Mark Oppenheimer’s piece has to do with the fact that in July of this year, leading proponents of the theory gathered in Houston for a conference known as “Rethinking Hell.” It was a conference in honor of Edward Fudge. The group that produced the conference, according to Oppenheimer, maintains a website ( dedicated to its theology.

Now again, the first most interesting aspect of this development is the fact that the New York Times thinks this is interesting. You’re talking about a secular newspaper writing to a secular readership. By and large it is clear that the readership of the New York Times isn’t considered to know very much about theology or even Christianity in general. Furthermore we’re talking about a newspaper that twice in the last couple of years has made horrifying mistakes in terms of the facts of Christianity; in particular, the resurrection of Christ from the dead and later had to correct those mistakes – with neither the reporter nor the editors evidently noticing that they were mistakes. But Mark Oppenheimer’s a very skilled reporter and he comes back to say that there is something here that must, in terms of his interest and the interest of his editors, be of interest to the readers of the New York Times. And what does that tell us? It tells us that it just might be; that even in the most profoundly secular context in America, the most so professedly secular context in America, you might just find that hell is a very difficult thing not to think about.

In Romans 1 we are told that God implanted the knowledge of himself in the consciences of every single human being. Augustine referred to this when he made very clear that in every single human being is a hunger – a quest – to know God that may be misdirected but cannot be extinguished. And when you look at the moral consciousness that God implanted in every single human being, it cries out for a resolution of judgment. And that’s why many modern secular people may say they do not believe in God and they do not believe in hell, but they can’t stop thinking about hell nonetheless. But in terms of the actual theological issues reflected in this article, as Oppenheimer writes,

“Advocates of conditional immortality say that their view reflects a common-sense reading of the Bible. They point to passages like Romans 6, where Paul says, ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ The ‘eternal life’ of the saved is contrasted with the ultimate ‘death’ of the unsaved.”

Well you look through this and you come to understand that the effort to try to redefine hell is actually not very new. In his magisterial three volume history of Protestant liberal theology in the United States, Gary Dorrien of Union Theological Seminary points out that the earliest sources of heresy in the American theological tradition had to do with the doctrine of hell. The first root of theological liberalism in this country was an effort to deny hell as a reality and certainly as a place of eternal punishment. We need to note that in the larger evangelical world the impulse to try to redefine hell arrived not with Protestant liberalism – mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries – but after World War II; first of all in Great Britain where you even had leading evangelicals such as John Stott who came to adopt and to advocate conditional immortality, conditionalism as it is known here, or annihilationist, suggesting that there had been alternative to the traditional doctrine of hell.

The problem with the argument – and Mark Oppenheimer seems to understand this – the problem with the argument of the conditionalist is that they’re picking and choosing Scriptures and their running in the face of the traditional Christian understanding based upon the Bible. And when it comes to the depictions of hell in Scripture, you’re not looking at any promise of conditional immortality, you’re not looking at any suggestion that hell is some kind of temporary corrective, you’re looking at the reality that there is a dual destiny presented in Scripture; on the one hand those who in Christ are in heaven and those who have rejected Christ, and are found under the punishment and wrath of God, who are in hell as a place not of temporary but of eternal everlasting torment.

Apologetically, we can understand that in modern age whether would be the impulse to try to redefine hell. As one theologian said about 10 years ago, modern theology could be described as one great effort to, in his words, air-condition hell. Well it just might be that the most important point is the first point; the point in which we now return. If indeed the fact that this article appears in the New York Times and that that is evidence of the fact that hell is simply something that even secular people cannot not think about it. It points to the fact that the reason hell is such an implanted idea in our consciousness is because not only do we have an innate knowledge of God and a hunger to know him, but we also have an innate knowledge of judgment that is to come. We also have an inner understanding of the requirements of justice, for an absolute justice, and the problem with a finite hell is the reality that our sin is not finite – it is infinite. Every one of our sins and transgressions, biblical defined, is an infinite transgression against an infinitely holy and omnipotent God.

Oppenheimer writes,

“For now, conditionalism is a scholars’ movement; it has yet to work its way into the pulpits. Most evangelical preachers still hew to a traditional view of hell, and mainline and liberal preachers are often ‘universalists,’ who believe that everyone goes to heaven, at least eventually.”

Well that’s a very revealing statement – the great theological divide is between those who believe in hell and those who don’t; those who believe in the gospel and those who are Universalist. But there is also a divide amongst those who believe in hell, as to what exactly is the hell in which we believe. And as this article makes clear, this isn’t ever just about hell because no single theological issue is entirely about just itself; it points to greater issues. And the conditionalist are right about one thing, the doctrine of hell does point to the doctrine of God and that’s where you have to begin with the doctrine of God in his absolute perfection, in his absolute righteousness, and His absolute justice. And that’s what makes the gospel of Jesus Christ such good news, for as the greatest of all American theologian said, ‘the real issue is how can any sinner avoid hell’ and as Jonathan Edwards said so well, ‘that salvation is found only by fleeing to Christ, believing in him.’ And only by believing in Christ can anyone escape hell, not as a temporary punishment, but as an eternal reality.

3) Willingness of some terrorists to confess result of genuine belief

Finally a really interesting article in yesterday’s edition of the New York Times – the headline: “Some Captured Terrorists Talk Willingly and Proudly, Investigators Say.” The article is by Benjamin Weiser and has to do with the fact that several people, who have been arrested for terrorism charges, especially those involved in Islamic fundamentalism, tend actually to say a very great deal when they are being interrogated. They don’t hold back, there is no need for any kind of intense interrogation; their asked a question and they often, according to this New York Times article, actually offer far more in return than was even asked. This is catching even many federal prosecutors by surprise.

Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, told the Times,

“It is counterintuitive — and I understand that…that people one morning want to do everything they can to kill everyone who looks like an American, and destroy cities, and in some cases, prepare to engage in suicide missions or help others engage in suicide missions, and then the next afternoon, when caught, snitch on their plans, snitch on their colleagues, snitch on intelligence that otherwise would have been unavailable to the very same people that they were dedicated to killing. However, it is true; it happens all the time. He said… [this] should be considered a little bit more by people who fight really hard in these debates.”

One FBI agent quoted in the article said,

“What works on one subject does not necessarily work on the other. But if you know how to do it and you know what buttons to push, intellectually and mentally, these guys will talk. Sometimes, the problem is in shutting them up.”

You know what you’re actually looking at here in this article is the fact that you have a secular newspaper that finds it very hard to believe that people who believe in a cause like this will take you exactly what they plotted to do. But that’s exactly what we see here evidenced in this article. We see the fact that people who really sign on to the agenda of Muslim terrorism, when they are interrogated often will take you exactly what they plan to do and why, because amazingly enough – and this is the point that seems to be missing from so many in this article – they must actually believe what they say they believe; and the must actually live in the worldview they were prepared to die for. The article appears in the New York Times because the behavior of the suspects under interrogation surprises the secular people asking the questions and the secular newspaper considering the whole picture, but perhaps the real take home lesson is exactly that – a secular culture is in no way prepared to deal with theological question and with the people who operate out of deep beliefs that our profoundly not safe.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information go to my website at you can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to For information on Boyce College just go to I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.



Podcast Transcript

1) Same sex marriage supporters limit religious liberty to worship service context only

Marriage equality in America: So far, so fast, The Economist

The staff and their souls, The Economist

Which freedom comes first?, The Economist

2) Secular report on conditionalism shows importance of hell and judgment to human mind

Tormented in the Afterlife, but Not Forever, New York Times (Mark Oppenheimer)

3) Willingness of some terrorists to confess result of genuine belief

Some Captured Terrorists Talk Willingly and Proudly, Investigators Say, New York Times, (Benjamin Weiser)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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