I don’t want to do this, but a few friends and pastors I respect have asked me to respond to this popular article which essentially says that because evangelicals like C. S. Lewis they should also accept Rob Bell. The essay is written by a young man who hasn’t yet started seminary, which may account for much of his confusion. Here is a quick response.
The opening sentence is a good question, “What does it mean to be an evangelical?” No one seems to agree on this, which is why Zondervan published Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism. I don’t know anyone who is deeply invested in the term “evangelical,” though we need some word to describe those of us who seek to preserve the gospel from the encroachment of theological liberalism.
The Evangelical Theological Society has a minimalist doctrinal statement. Anyone who subscribes to the Trinity and inerrancy may join the ETS. ETS contains many members who give the “wrong” answer to the essay’s first four questions. So yes, obviously you can be an evangelical and believe in annihilationism and inclusivism. I personally know a few. This doesn’t mean these views are without serious problems, and we should discuss them, obviously without attacking the person who holds them.
The author states that evangelical leaders denounce others in order to “protect the name of evangelicalism,” apparently because they suppose that only evangelicals possess the gospel. There may be a few people like this, but I don’t know them. Evangelicals are likely to think they are right, or else they would change to something else, but we gladly realize the gospel is faithfully proclaimed by many who do not subscribe to inerrancy. Unlike the author’s caricature, we thank God that the church is larger than our evangelical wing. We read with profit theologians from outside our tradition, a fact that undercuts the author’s main argument.
Regarding C. S. Lewis, his theological writings are a mixed bag that require discernment. He was an inclusivist, which I argue elsewhere is a serious problem, and his story of Aslan and the White Witch is a good illustration of the Christus Victor view of the atonement. But so what? Every Christian I know believes in Christus Victor. The Bible teaches that Jesus came to defeat sin, death, and Satan. The author asserts that Lewis “rejects the Penal Substitutionary theory of the atonement,” but says nothing that supports this. Most Christians I know believe in both penal substitution and Christus Victor. For all I know, Lewis believed in both too. The author has not even attempted to make his case.
The author again shows his need for a logic course in his discussion of Luther. He conflates inerrancy and inspiration and says that because Luther disagrees with some of the numbers in Chronicles that he didn’t believe the Bible was “fully inspired, true, or trustworthy.” This would be news to Luther. All the author has proved is that Luther would not be able to join ETS. This does not mean that he believed the Bible was uninspired and untrustworthy. Good grief!
Regarding Augustine, the author is right that Augustine said Genesis 1 should not be taken literally. But that does not mean Augustine believed in evolution. He hadn’t even heard of the theory and would have likely dismissed it if he had. Augustine said God created the world in an instant. It wouldn’t have taken him an entire week. So while Augustine can’t be cited by Ken Ham, neither does he provide support for the author’s position. Another sloppy sleight of hand.
Regarding Barclay, his universalism is different from Rob Bell’s. Barclay grounds his in God’s sovereignty, while Bell follows Origen and grounds his in human choice. As I demonstrated in my response to Love Wins, Bell’s real problem is not his view on hell but his existentialism. Bell is a contemporary Paul Tillich, who argues that no one actually needs to be saved. We’re fine just the way we are. Bell offers the heresy of Pelagianism, which should offend every Christian, not just evangelicals.
Regarding Stott, he did believe in annihilationism. I am sympathetic to this view, though Revelation 20:10 and 14:11 prevent me from believing it. But I don’t know any evangelical who would say this is a disqualifying view of some sort.
Regarding Graham, this was an embarrassing conversation with Schuller. A member of his family told me that they chalked this up to him getting old. I hope so. This is a blemish on an overwhelmingly faithful life of ministry. Inclusivism is not as bad as pluralism or universalism, but it is a serious problem and it is in our churches. I wouldn’t say it disqualifies someone from being an evangelical, but it inevitably undercuts evangelism and missions. Why risk giving someone more knowledge, which they might reject and be damned, if they are already okay because they responded to the slim light they have?
In his conclusion, the author shows his ignorance of history (everyone in Calvin’s day thought Servetus should die, and it was actually Calvin’s Libertine opponents, not Calvin, who burned him. Calvin argued for a more humane beheading. I’m not saying Calvin was right, but to be fair you must condemn the entire period, not just one man, especially the man who did not do it) and theological confusion. He runs so many issues together, issues that have various levels of importance, that it would take much time to untangle them. Evolution, limited inerrancy, universalism, and homosexuality are all different and require patient discussion of each. It’s far too simplistic to say that if a person accepts one then he must accept all the others.
I trust the author will learn nuance after a year or two in seminary. For now his essay is exhibit A for the warning I often give to students. Don’t be in a hurry to get published. The world can wait for your wisdom. Make sure you get it first.