Monday, January 13, 2020
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Monday, January 13, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A Condescending Attack on the Doctrine of Hell in the New York Times: Since When Does the Times Care About Theology?
The modern age, we have been told over and over again, is a secular age, and there is no newspaper so emblematic of that age as the New York Times, which then leads to an interesting hypothetical question. What exactly would it take to get a major article in the print edition on the editorial page of the New York Times? Well, oddly enough, that isn't just hypothetical. The question was answered in Saturday's edition of the paper. The article took up more than half of a page in the Saturday edition. The headline was this: “Why Do People Believe in Hell?” The article was written by David Bentley Hart, theologian of the University of Notre Dame, and the subhead wasn’t subtle: “The idea of eternal damnation—is it biblically, philosophically, or morally justified?”
It is a huge article, and it's a condensation of sorts of the recent book published by Hart entitled That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. The essence of his argument is for a form of universalism, but it's no casual argument. In his book and in this article, David Bentley Hart is directing a head on attack on classical Western Christianity—all of it.
Hart was raised a high Anglican, but he converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church and that has a great deal to do with explaining the article. He sees himself not only as a professor, but also was a provocateur and he certainly is in this article. But perhaps the most amazing thing, even before looking at the article itself, is what this tells us of the kind of theology, if any theology at all, is going to be accepted by perhaps even publicized by the New York Times.
This article is a broadside attack upon the orthodox Christian biblical doctrine of hell. He doesn't pull any punches. Hart makes very clear that he sees not only the doctrine of hell as deficient, but those who believe in it as theologically and even morally deficient as well. He explains that even as his previous books have engendered some controversy, that's nothing like the controversy that has attached to his current book attacking hell. He says, "For a good number of Christians, hell isn’t just a tragic shadow cast across one of an otherwise ravishing vista’s remoter corners; rather, it’s one of the landscape’s most conspicuous and delectable details.”
Notice the way he wrote that. It's not only condescending, it is making a moral attack upon those who believe in the orthodox doctrine of hell, which is as he acknowledges in this article and in his book, it's been a mainstay of Western Christianity throughout centuries.
This is not an unambitious argument he's making here. He intends to shame Christianity into abandoning the doctrine of hell and for that matter, the doctrine of the afterlife. But as this article and his book makes clear, he really wants a reversal of the total structure of Western theology. That's all. After arguing for several paragraphs about the background theologically and historically to the doctrine of hell, with dripping condescension, Hart writes, "Still none of that accounts for the deep emotional need many modern Christians seem to have for an eternal hell." And he says, "I don't mean those who ruefully accept the idea out of religious allegiance or whose sense of justice demands the Hitler and Pol Pot get their popper comeuppance or who think that they need the prospect of hell to keep themselves on the straight narrow. Those,” he says, "aren't the ones who scream and foam and rage at the thought that hell might be only a stage along the way to a final universal reconciliation. In those who do, something else is at work."
We need to face the fact that what we are witnessing here is an attempt to publicly shame Christianity and with this kind of frank condescension also to offer a psychological and emotional assault against the doctrine of hell. Now I also want to state straight forwardly, and I will state this without equivocation. I do not believe that any responsible theologians in any sector of the church actually "scream and foam in rage at the thought that hell might be only a stage along the way." I just don't believe that. This is the kind of article that brings attention to the supposed virtue of the writer and the vices of those whom he attacks, and David Bentley heart attacks with abandon.
And the article is just a hint of the kind of condemnation that is found in the book. David Bentley Hart accuses those whom he calls infernalists, those who believe in the traditional doctrine of hell as, in one way or another, viciously vindictive, exquisitely malicious, ostentatiously absurd. He speaks of the doctrine as degrading nonsense. He speaks of language such as ridiculous and abominable and genuinely odious. He even goes so far as to accuse those theologians, church historians, and biblical scholars, not to mention ordinary Christians who believe in the doctrine of hell, as lacking a properly functioning moral intelligence. He actually used those words directly against the Catholic philosopher who defended the doctrine of hell, but by implication and by the time you reach the end of the book, he believes the same and alleges the same of all who believe in the doctrine of hell, much less would defend it.
In the book, he writes, "I am convinced that practically no one who holds firmly to the majority tradition regarding the doctrine of hell ultimately does so for any reason other than an obstinate, if largely unconscious resolve to do so prompted by the unshakable conviction that faith absolutely requires it." He acknowledges that he is here running counter to the entire Western tradition, but he does so boldly writing, "I mean only that if Christianity taken as a whole is indeed an entirely coherent and credible system of belief, then the universalist understanding of its message is the only one possible and quite imprudently, I say that without the least hesitation or qualification."
Now, by the time you untangle all of this, a good deal becomes very understandable. In the first place, David Bentley Hart is not new to this position. He claims actually to have been struggling with the doctrine of hell all the way back to when he was 14 years old. And furthermore, he is also a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, which holds a very different position to say the least to Western Christianity on these and other crucial theological issues. But it would still be unfair to attribute to all of Eastern Orthodoxy the particular position, not to mention the personal vehemence of David Bentley Hart. Prior to the Reformation, the two most dominant theological figures in the Western theological tradition were Augustan and Aquinas. That would be Augustan, the Bishop of Hippo in late antiquity, and Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian of medieval scholasticism.
Both of them are key to the development of the doctrine of hell. Both of them are understood to be enemies of any kind of decent theology by David Bentley Hart, particularly when it comes down to the doctrine of hell. In his book, Hart make several arguments in support of his form of universalism, a universalism, by the way, that isn't merely hopeful, but is absolutely adamant. He believes that every single human being will eventually be united with God through Christ. Period. He doesn't believe in heaven, so to speak. He certainly does not believe in hell. He doesn't believe in original sin, but again, he is out to upend the entire Western theological tradition and that would include the continuation of that tradition in the Reformation and post-Reformation developments, that would mean us. He holds the doctrine of hell is incompatible, incoherent with the doctrine of a loving God. He basically dismisses the entire notion of divine sovereignty as we understand and that becomes necessary in order for him to upend that Western tradition and reformulate it without the doctrine of hell and without that kind of final judgment.
He of course in consistency also rejects a penal substitutionary atonement and in one of the most interesting sections of the book, he comes clean about his understanding of the Bible. He writes, "I am not very tolerant of what is sometimes called Biblicism, that is the oracular understanding of scriptural inspiration, which sees the Bible as the record of words directly uttered by the lips of God through and otherwise dispensable human intermediary and which entails the belief that the testimony of the Bible on doctrinal and theological matters must be wholly internally consistent.” And as if we needed him to say, "I certainly have no patience whatsoever for 20th century biblical fundamentalism and its manifest imbecilities." Well, there we have it.
Now, like David Bentley Hart, I also struggled with the doctrine of hell when I was a teenager, but we came to completely opposite conclusions. In my mind, it was all settled by reading Revelation 20:11-15. John writes, "Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence, earth and sky fled away and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne and books were open. Then another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it. Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them and they were judged each one of them according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the Lake of Fire. This is the second death, the Lake of Fire, and if anyone's name was not found written in the Book of Life, he was thrown into the Lake of Fire." Well, there you have a very clear, unmistakable teaching of a dual destiny, some unto eternal life, some unto eternal death. That is the Lake of Fire.
But what is found in Revelation 20:11-15 or elsewhere in Scripture for that matter is not an obstacle for David Bentley Hart rejecting hell. Why? Well, just consider what he writes about the book of Revelation. He says, "I have to be honest though, I tend not to think of it,” meaning the book of Revelation, “as a book about eschatology as such. Admittedly,” he writes, "it is so arcane a text that any absolute pronouncements on its nature or meaning are almost certainly misguided." He writes, "The whole book is to my mind, an intricate and impenetrable puzzle, one whose key vanished long ago along with the particular local community of Christians who produced it."
He also wrote, "For myself, for what it is worth, I do not even really think that Revelation is a book about the end of time, so much as a manifesto, written in figurative code by a Jewish Christian who believed in keeping the law of Moses, but who also believed that Jesus was the Messiah." And so in his book, David Bentley Hart argues that the doctrine of hell is not logically coherent. He also says, "A final state of eternal torment could be neither a just sentence pronounced upon nor a just fate suffered by a finite being, no matter how deprived that being might have become." He also dismisses the idea that hell is made necessary by human moral choice and agency. And let's just remind ourselves, those who hold to the traditional understanding of hell, which has been held by the vast majority of Christians throughout the ages, lack, "a properly functioning moral intelligence.” Remember those words: viciously vindictive, exquisitely malicious, ostentatiously absurd, degrading, nonsense, ridiculous, abominable, genuinely odious.
But I must state that one of the most shocking passages I have ever read in theological literature comes on the next to last page of his book, published by Yale University Press. David Bentley Hart writes, "I have been asked more than once in the last few years, whether if I were to become convinced that Christian adherence absolutely requires a belief in a hell of eternal torment, this would constitute in my mind, proof that Christianity should be dismissed as a self-evidently, morally obtuse, and logically incoherent faith." And he writes, "As it happens, it would." That is to say that the bottom line in all of this is that the only version of Christianity that David Bentley Hart in his elevated morality and intellect is willing to accept is a version of Christianity which has been stripped of key doctrines, especially particularly the doctrine of hell.
If he were to discover, he tells us and be convinced that those doctrines, that doctrine of hell were essential to biblical and Orthodox Christianity, then he would reject it. Well, if nothing else, what we face here is a classic example of what faithful teachers throughout the history of the Christian Church have warned about, and that is those who state upfront what conception of God, what form of revelation, what doctrines, what theological structure must be in place if Christianity is to be an acceptable religion. Acceptable to whom? By what criteria?
Well, it becomes very clear that for David Bentley Hart, their criterion is his own supposedly elevated moral judgment and intellectual capacity. Those who disagree with him, and this means the millions who constitute the majority of Christians throughout the ages, those who dementedly and deludedly hold to the doctrine of hell as they believe it is made very clear in Scripture, well, they are just deficient.
I guess there really are two passages in this book that I found breathtaking. The one was that statement at the end. The other is that statement on page 29 where he says, "The whole question of hell is one whose answers should be immediately obvious to a properly functioning moral intelligence." What a categorical statement. What a brazen statement. What a put down.
Christians throughout the centuries have held to the doctrine of hell precisely because it is taught in the Scripture. It was taught by Christ. It explains to a considerable degree the gospel and it also explains why Jesus Christ died on the cross as our substitutionary Savior. It explains our urgency in preaching the gospel and taking the gospel to the nations and warning of hell. We follow the example of the rich man in Luke 16 who wanted Lazarus to go to his five brothers "so that he may warn them lest they also come into this place of torment.”
But let's just remind ourselves telescoping back that we are not actually having this conversation about this argument today on The Briefing because David Bentley Hart wrote a book recently published by Yale University Press entitled That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. No, we're talking about it today on The Briefing precisely because of a huge print article that appeared in Saturday's edition of the New York Times asking the question, why do people believe in hell? Now, let's just state the obvious here. There would be no space whatsoever given in the New York Times for an article defending the orthodox Christian doctrine of hell. No, instead, even in this supposedly secular age, an article condescendingly lambasting the traditional doctrine of hell—no, it's what gets the attention and the publicity for Hart's new book.
What Is Now Considered Good Religion or Bad Religion? Who Is a Good Conservative or a Bad Conservative? A Look at the Modern Carnival of Cultural Acceptance
But then that takes us to a second issue, very much related to the first, and this is the fact that this article is really an indication of a pattern we need to note in the larger society. And that is an increasingly liberal and secular society deciding on what is good and then bad religion, what is acceptable versus unacceptable religion, what is sophisticated versus unsophisticated religion, what is healthy versus unhealthy religion.
Well, all of this comes down to how these issues are being negotiated these days in the public square. Several observers of late who've noticed the same thing and that is that the discussion of religion increasingly in our society is being divided between the right kind of religion that's acceptable in modern, millennial, and urban metropolitan context. It's a form of spirituality without doctrines and certainly without doctrines like the doctrine of hell, and the unhealthy bad religion, unsophisticated and unacceptable that is laden with all of those odious doctrines and moral teachings, particularly these days, teachings on human sexuality and gender.
Good religion is a vacuous spirituality. It's unthreatening to anyone. No one is out because everybody is in. There's nothing basically wrong in us. It's just something that happened to us. There's no doctrine of sin. There's no necessity of a doctrine of atonement. There's no specific God, certainly not any kind of classical theism. There's no God who would be just and righteous and sovereign, not to mention one who might interfere with our lives, particularly our sex lives. Bad religion is that old doctrinal theological Christianity that comes out of the past and says you must believe in order to be saved, and that Christianity based upon a deposit of divine revelation is unchanged and unchanging. David Bentley Hart's article in Saturday's New York Times is an example of that, but there are many others.
David Brooks is often identified as a conservative columnist at the New York Times. That's not accurate. He is not genuinely a conservative. He's just conservative in the context of this liberal newspaper. He wrote an article supposedly looking back at the 2020s from the year 2030. He entitled his article, “An Optimistic History of the Next Decade.” So he's writing about how he hopes the world will go in the next decade and he's writing as if all of his hopes came true. He writes about the major events of the decade being cultural, not political. He writes about a new political age. He writes about President Joe Biden, but then he gets theological.
He writes, "A second cultural trend of the decade was the rise of the urban church. Suburban mega church attendance fell because the pastors had disgraced themselves under Trump, but suddenly there was a surge in church plants in places like Brooklyn, Washington, D.C, Chicago, and San Francisco, as highly educated people found homes for their spiritual longings." He goes on, "The churches were liturgically highly charismatic (Bethel music), and highly universalistic and intellectual (Richard Rohr). Their politics were not mixed, pro-LGBTQ, pro-life, active on climate change, pro-animal rights (one of the significant moral causes of the decade). The religious left gained on the religious right."
So, well, that tells us exactly where David Brooks hopes the world is going to go and for that matter, Christianity is going to go in the next decade. But notice that when he writes about this victory of urbane sophisticated intellectual Christianity, he describes it with the word “universalistic.” That's just like David Bentley Hart. Universalism, meaning everybody gets to heaven. No one goes to hell. Everybody's okay. I'm okay. You're okay.
So according to David Brooks, that's the kind of religion that's to be celebrated and acceptable. It's nonthreatening. No one should avoid it or be alarmed by it. He cites Richard Rohr, a Jesuit thinker who is on the left of modern Catholicism as being one of his examples. He actually puts the name Richard Rohr after his words, “universalistic and intellectual.”
It's also important to note that's very key here that David Brooks, years ago affirmed the legitimacy of same sex marriage. He claimed that it was actually a conservative position because it would lead American homosexuals into a more conservative marital lifestyle, but that's not conservative. It's not only a rejection of the clear teachings of Scripture, it is also a rejection of the basic conservative principle, which is that we must conserve the things that are most precious. One of them is marriage. Redefining marriage as marriage has never been defined before in human experience is profoundly not conservative. But that explains also why David Brooks and others in the editorial page of the New York Times sometimes identified as conservative are allowed on those pages because they are the right kind of conservative, which means really not a conservative at all.
Now, I mentioned David Brooks precisely because in his fantasy article about the way he wants the world to go, he also mentioned universalism as what he hopes will represent the spirituality of the decade ahead. In that he's completely in sync with David Bentley Hart.
But I also want to look at a New York Times columnist by the name of Bret Stephens. Bret Stephens is Jewish in background. He wrote this article on December the 21st of 2019. He entitled it “A Decade of Disillusion.” And in the article, he writes about the generational transition happening in the West, but speaking of young people and the ideas that they have brought, and he says transform the society over the last several years, he writes, "Some of those ideas like marriage equality,” he says in parenthesis, "(the single greatest moral victory of the decade) were long overdue." He tries to draw the line elsewhere saying, "Others like intersectionality, gender fluidity, new standards of sexual consent or the purported centrality of racism to American identity are much more debatable."
Well, of course, all those things are debatable, but you'll notice that he celebrates—he doesn't just concede—he celebrates the acceptance of same sex marriage. Even saying that the arrival of same sex marriage was long overdue. Again, he's identified as a conservative. But the reason I want to bring up Bret Stephens and David Brooks is because there is an effort going on right now not only to define the good religion versus the bad religion, the healthy religion versus the unhealthy religion, but also to say, here are acceptable kinds of thinkers in America's public square. And you'll notice, affirming the understanding of marriage that has been consistent throughout several millennia of human history, that's now unacceptable. Instead, there is pressure to show your bonafides as a decent person by not only affirming the LGBTQ array of issues, but also saying that something like the legalization, the normalization and celebration of same sex marriage came too late. It should have come even earlier.
It's one thing to see so many people on the left, including candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination falling over themselves to try to make people forget that they had ever held to the understanding that marriage is to be the union of a man and a woman. It's another thing to see that happening among conservatives and you have to wonder, given the political and moral pressures of the age, how long it will be until there are overt attempts to try to redefine American conservatism on the other side of the LGBTQ revolution.
But again, let's just draw a very clear line here. The abandonment of the understanding of human gender and sexuality and sexual behavior and marriage that is not only laid out in Scripture, but has been central to the human project—well, that is not conservative. But at least we're now being warned. Not only is there good religion and bad religion, and it's really clear what the world thinks those are, but there's also a good conservative and a bad conservative and we're being told over and over again, here's how we're supposed to understand that.
The Cultural Games Christians Can’t Play: What Moral Change Will the Left Demand and Celebrate in the Coming Decade?
But turning from looking at the right to turning at the left, I also want to point to an article that ran in the New York Times. This one also just before the end of the year. This one by a very liberal columnist, Charles M. Blow. He also, looking at the decade behind us, wrote an article entitled, “The Decade We Changed Our Minds,” and amongst the things we supposedly changed our minds on are the entire array of issues on LGBTQ.
The reason I'm pointing to this article is because it's so over the top. He says, "In 2010, for the first time, Americans’ acceptance of ‘gay relations’ crossed the 50 percent mark. Now that number is well into the 70s. Over the same period, acceptance of same-sex marriage went from the 40s to the 60s. Acceptance of gay adoption went from below 50 percent to above 70 percent.” He said, "Being gay became mainstream,” and he says, "This reaches further than just gays and lesbians. There's a new visibility for trans people, drag, and fluidity."
But the truly over the top section is what comes next, and I quote: "A YouGov poll asked Americans to place themselves on the Kinsey scale, ‘where 0 is completely heterosexual and 6 is completely homosexual.’ While only 5 percent rated themselves as completely gay, 20 percent rated themselves somewhere between completely gay and completely straight.”
Now, what I want us to note here is that whether or not that statistic is even close to being true, Charles Blow is celebrating it because he thinks it says all the right things about Americans, that Americans are now not only confused about sexual morality, they're confused about their own sexuality.
The left is ready to throw a party after the 2010s. Let's just imagine what they have planned for the decade after the 2020s. But in conclusion, we're watching here games we can't play, but games we had better observe very carefully because the culture around us is consumed with playing these games.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'm speaking to you from Orlando, Florida, and I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.