What does it mean to be “evangelical”?
What must you believe?
What must you reject?
Can you be an evangelical Christian and believe…
…that Hell is only temporary?
…that people from other religions can be saved without even knowing it?
…that the atonement is not about God’s wrath being poured out on Jesus in our place?
…that Scripture is errant?
Many evangelicals would say “no” to most—maybe even all—of these. That’s why, in an attempt to protect the name of evangelicalism, some prominent leaders within evangelicalism have made it their responsibility to publicly denounce those with whom they disagree on issues like these.
To be clear, there is no problem with publicly denouncing ideologies (that is, after all, what this article is doing right now). It is, at times, necessary to publicly call out false teachers. However, one must fully consider whether they promote a different gospel before coming forward with such a bold claim.
But we’re not talking about denouncing ideas or exposing real false teachers. We’re talking about needless schisms and inconsistent, prideful exclusivism.
Self-appointed gatekeepers of evangelicalism tear apart what could be a noble, diverse movement of the Spirit. These gatekeepers take it upon themselves to pronounce who is “in” and who is “out” of orthodox Christianity.
By the standards of these gatekeepers, the definition of “evangelical” is becoming increasingly narrow, so much so that very few fit inside the definition.
So, if we are going to be consistent, it’s time to weed out all of the heretics—especially those who have the most influence—not just Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans or other Christian thinkers who have said something controversial recently.
Let’s start with these six:
1. C.S. Lewis: Guilty Of Inclusivism and Rejecting the Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory
Perhaps the most celebrated Christian writer of the last century, C.S. Lewis is respected by most Christians, no matter what theological corner they occupy. And that’s what confuses me. Lewis was no evangelical by the standards of modern evangelical spokespersons. Lewis’ seven-volume, fictional masterpiece, The Chronicles of Narnia, reveals his belief that it is possible for people in other religions to inherit the Kingdom of God without knowing it.
Lewis also rejects the Penal Substitutionary theory of the atonement, which states that Christ “diverted” God’s wrath toward us and took it upon Himself. Instead, in part three of Chronicles, Lewis describes what is called the “Christus Victor” view of the atonement, which holds that the Cross is not an image of God’s wrath against us, diverted to His son, but it was the defeat of evil through an act of selfless love. (Here is a video of Greg Boyd giving a good description of that view using Lewis’ imagery.)
2. Martin Luther: Guilty of Rejecting Biblical Inerrancy
Where would evangelicalism be without Martin Luther? He is the father of the Reformation and the champion of Sola Scripture.
But to the dismay of every evangelical Calvinist, I fear I must be the bearer of bad news that Martin Luther apparently didn’t believe the Bible is fully inspired, true or trustworthy.
Speaking of inaccuracies in the books of Chronicles, he states, “When one often reads that great numbers of people were slain—for example, eighty thousand—I believe that hardly one thousand were actually killed.”
3. St. Augustine: Guilty of Rejecting a Literally Reading of the Creation Story
In his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine (to put it bluntly) thought Christians who took the Creation Story literally were a laughingstock and looked like idiots among non-Christians because they denied science and reason. This is Augustine, the one to whom we can give credit for the doctrines of original sin and Hell as eternal conscious torment (which are at the core of reformed theology).
Here is his statement:
“It not infrequently happens that something about the earth…may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.”
Few are the pulpits he would be allowed to fill among conservative churches in our day.
4. William Barclay: Guilty of Universalism
William Barclay’s iconic little blue commentaries are on the shelves of many pastors. So it’s odd that Rob Bell has been so roundly rejected for holding essentially the same belief as this celebrated theologian.
Barclay writes, “I am a convinced universalist. I believe that in the end all men will be gathered into the love of God…the choice is whether we accept God’s offer and invitation willingly, or take the long and terrible way round through ages of purification.”
In that work, Barclay also lists early church fathers, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, as two other Christian Universalists.
5. John Stott: Guilty of Annihilationism
John Stott is one of the great evangelical Christian thinkers of the last generation. Stott rejected the view that Hell is eternal conscious torment of the wicked and suggested, instead, that the unrepentant cease to exist after enduring the penalty for their sins.
He wrote, “I believe that the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment.”
6. Billy Graham: Guilty of Inclusivism
Billy Graham is, perhaps, the epitome of the evangelical identity.
Or, so we thought…
Like C.S. Lewis, Graham believes that those who do not hear of Christ may, indeed, be saved without explicitly confessing Him as Lord.
In a 1997 interview with Robert Schuller, Graham said:
“[God] is calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world or the Christian world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they have been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light they have, and I think that they are saved and they are going to be with us in heaven.”
There are plenty of other examples: George Whitefield’s lobbying for slavery, Martin Luther’s hatred of Jews, John Calvin’s approval of burning heretics at the stake, etc. etc.
Now, you hopefully find it ridiculous to reject these great and godly people. Which is why it’s amazing to me what we ignore in order to protect ourselves from the truth. We want our “heroes of the faith” to be perfect in theology and conduct, so we ignore or justify the parts we don’t like.
We all do it.
So, maybe it’s time to extend a bit more loving kindness to the evolutionists, to those who reject inerrancy, to those who take the Bible literally when it says that God will redeem all people to Himself, to the Rob Bells and the World Visions.
And for those of us on the moderate-progressive side: maybe we can find it in ourselves to turn the other cheek and forgive those who wish us gone. Then, when we find someone who will accept us—“heresy” and all, let’s embrace and learn from them.
This article was originally posted at AndyGill.org.