evangelicalism and heresy

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.



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18 responses to “evangelicalism and heresy”

  1. It seems to me the author of that piece got confused about the difference between whether evangelicals *like* a theologian/writer/thinker/etc. and whether that person actually is, or claims to be, in the evangelical camp. I’ve benefited from reading some of the flotsam that makes its way across the Tiber (and more than once!), but I’m not about to farewell the Bishop of Rome from evangelicalism because we all know he was never part of the club to begin with.

  2. David Morgan

    You might be interested in this response to the article in question (particularly with regards to Luther, but he also has a different view on Lewis and penal substitution):


  3. Jonathan Shelley

    In addition to warning students to gain wisdom before trying to share it with the world, this article should serve as a lesson on why it is so critically important to actually review the primary sources rather than simply repeating someone’s interpretation of a single quote or passage from a lengthy, nuanced, and complicated text or body of literature. His quote from Augustine’s voluminous writings on Genesis is proof of this. But, then again, why should we care about what someone actually said when it is much easier to misrepresent their position in order to bolster our own. After all, it’s much easier to win an argument against a strawman. Grrr….

  4. Rob

    It appears that this article was published more for its shock value than for its credibility or insight. It’s interesting that your response is longer than the article itself. Maybe that’s because there is some context and nuance in your response. Maybe someone should slip him a Bible tract. Perhaps Proverbs 4:7?

  5. Eliza

    The fact that C. S. Lewis rejected penal substitution as stated by him in Mere Christianity and acknowledged by Christianity Today in their article should give you pause before you start berating the young man’s article. I confess I haven’t read it,but he represents the legitimate concerns that many Bible believers have concerning the false teaching and error that have rushed headlong into the church through the likes of Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Lewis, Graham, Warren, et al. You are representing the compromise and apostasy that is leading the visible church into greater heresy and so greater condemnation. Augustine taught many heretical doctrines that have been taken up by both the Catholic and Protestant churches. If you are willing to give him a pass then it makes sense for you to give all of these others a pass too. By the way Jesus Christ made it a prerequisite that those who belong to Him receive His words and that His Word is God’s Word which is the truth in John 17. So those who happily discount inerrancy and embrace the mere opinions and damnable doctrines of man are rejecting Christ. How can anyone come to know Who Christ is and what He has done for us apart from His revealed Word which is the Bible? Billy Graham is not the faithful man you paint him to be. He has been the supporter of gross heretics for years and has sent inquirers that have come forward during his “evangelical” campaigns into the heart of heresy by shepherding them to the Catholic church. He has stated his belief in universalism on more than one occasion and through the years. In interviews in 1978, 1985, and 1993 he confessed to his belief that people can be saved without conscious faith in Jesus Christ, something the Lewis also taught in Mere Christianity. Of course, Calvin and Luther both believed in infant baptism, and that God’s grace is somehow conferred on those infants, and Luther continued to believe and teach transubstantiation. Both of these unbiblical and heretical doctrines have their roots in Augustine. I don’t know, it just seems to me that you are trying to protect the “evangelical” brand and don’t really care about sound Biblical faith in Jesus Christ.

    As Christianity Today admits. “Clive Staples Lewis was anything but a classic evangelical, socially or theologically. He smoked cigarettes and a pipe, and he regularly visited pubs to drink beer with friends. Though he shared basic Christian beliefs with evangelicals, he didn’t subscribe to biblical inerrancy or penal substitution. He believed in purgatory and baptismal regeneration” (“C.S. Lewis Superstar,” Christianity Today, Dec. 2005).

  6. When dealing with Christians with different kinds of baggage it is useful to stick to the words or concepts found in the Bible and stop coining new movements.

  7. [sits and waits to see how Dr. Wittmer will respond to Eliza]

  8. Eliza

    Okay, I missed the point it appears, (I looked at a brief but thorough synopsis of the article) but my concerns are still the same, the church at large has embraced many who are heretical in their beliefs as genuine. This is why he could make the point that he made. The people he pointed out are not biblically directed but driven by other forces. C. S. Lewis never quoted Scripture in Mere Christianity, but he tried to prove the genuineness of the Christian faith by his reason and intellect. He started from the unbiblical conclusion that man is not depraved and therefore can know God unaided by his intellect, which is soundly disproved in the Scriptures. His own unaided intellect led him from the biblical gospel declared by God through Paul.
    This all comes down to where do we draw the line? Where and when do we declare a person as heretical because of their doctrine? Do we ignore their deviations from the revealed truth in the Scriptures because others have spoken highly of them? The Bible teaches the truth with clarity and Jesus Christ taught us only God’s Word, the Words the Father gave Him. If what a person believes contradicts His Word then how can that person be a believer? We are talking about life and death doctrine. What we believe determines where we will spend eternity. If we discount what God has declared in the Scriptures through His prophets, His apostles, and through His Son Jesus Christ then we are declaring a false way that doesn’t save. The truth is of supreme importance for without the truth of the Scripture we cannot know Who Jesus Christ is and what He has done for us. The doctrines of man and theological wranglings of the learned detract and distort the gospel of Jesus Christ. The twisted reasoning of men attack the sufficiency of Christ for our salvation, for our redemption, for our acceptance into the kingdom of God and reception of the gift of eternal life. The Scripture is proven to be true; God is true, but every man a liar. The slippery slope of deviation from the truth leads only to corruption and destruction. Have you wondered why the church is in the shape it is in? Look at the “Christian” heroes she embraces. Look at what they believe and who they associate with and then compare that to what the Bible says. We must hold fast sound doctrine and turn from the lie.

    holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict. Titus 1:9

    That is what is necessary from the leadership of the church today without reservation or partiality.

  9. Kevin Weaver

    There was a time when Mike’s seminary taught a class about C.S. Lewis’s writings. When Dr. Grier became dean, he discontinued that class, “because C.S. Lewis wasn’t a very good theologian.” (I heard Dr. Grier say that myself.)

    We don’t see C.S. Lewis as an evangelical teacher. Rather, we see him as a man who did a wonderful job of illustrating things. So, when C.S. Lewis got it right, we often quote from him. In many of his books he got it mostly right, so we recommend those books, even as we warn people about the known errors in those books.

    By contrast, I don’t know of much by Rob Bell that is written or said particularly well or that is particularly helpful to a Christian. Almost everything he has promoted in recent years seems problematic.

    In other words, we can use (even like) most of what C.S. Lewis wrote, as his problems were only a small part of his writings, even if a few of those problems were pretty serious in and of themselves. It is almost impossible to use Rob Bell, because his universalism is his main point. He brings it up again and again as a special point of emphasis. Once you remove it, there is little left for us to consider using within the Evangelical world.

    On the other hand, if we can’t use the writings of anyone who has any error, who could we turn to? What about the fact that every pastor in every church sometimes says unbiblical things from the pulpit? The Bible tells us we need to listen to our pastors, even to obey our pastors. You speak of a slippery slope and wish to discard C.S. Lewis entirely. If we take the slippery slope argument to its extreme, don’t we have to discard every pastor after his first public error? Where do you draw the line, and why there?

  10. Eliza

    C. S. Lewis was stalwart in his unbelief, he didn’t just make a minor error that was quickly corrected when it was pointed out to him. The genuine man of God, like Apollos, has the Word of God, the Bible, as his standard. Lewis’ standard was the word of man, not only through the traditions of the Anglican church (a church steeped in heretical tradition and the dictates of man) but also through his own reasoning and intellect which is abundantly clear in Mere Christianity. He rejected the inerrancy of the Scriptures and embraced the lies of man. The Bible is our standard!

    To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. Isaiah 8:20

    There was no light in Lewis. He called the Fall in the Garden of Eden a good myth, teaching we didn’t know who was responsible for the original sin. He believed and taught theistic evolution, completely discounting the Scriptural account of the creation of man and coming up with his own contrived theory. He set himself up as the authority over the Word of God! This is the behavior of all who set themselves up over the testimony of the Bible. He believed and thoroughly taught the false doctrine of purgatory rejecting the sufficiency of Christ’s propitiation, His atoning work for us(See his work The Great Divorce), he was ecumenical and believed that others could be saved apart from conscious faith in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. He led others astray. Peter Kreeft is a good example. He admits Lewis’ influence in his life. Kreeft went from being Dutch Reformed, to being Catholic, to being a universalist (See his book Ecumenical Jihad).
    Jesus Christ gave us the standard to use in Matthew 7.

    “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” Matthew 7:15-21

    The good tree, the genuine believer places himself/herself under the authority of the Scriptures and believes and obeys God’s Word; the bad tree, the unregenerate man/woman, will not, indeed cannot, place themselves under the authority of the Scriptures, being impotent to believe and obey God’s Word, since this is fruit of the Holy Spirit only in the lives of the redeemed.

    The church today is a group convivial of men and women discussing theology, authors, etc, but not focused on Jesus Christ and His love for them, their love for Him, and therefore, their love for one another. Bible study has become the study of the latest greatest author and their take on the Bible or some new controversy rather than a diligent study of the Word of God together for edification. Enriching these leaders through buying their books, rather than pursuing godliness and helping and supporting other believers, is not being zealous for the good works of Christ. We have His Word, we have His Spirit, He can and does lead and guide us as we study to show ourselves approved, rightly dividing the word of truth. Lewis couldn’t even do that since he didn’t consider the Bible to be the inerrant, infallible, inspired Word of God. That is why Lewis is a false teacher.


  11. Rev 20:10 and 14:11 are two texts which convince me that annihilationism is true. Would you like me to explain why?

  12. mikewittmer


  13. Well, one must keep in mind that as Richard Bauckham put it, Revelation is “a highly stylized form of literature, with its own conventions of symbolism and terminology…a literature of dreams and visions…never intended to depict the End in literal terms” (New Bible Dictionary, s.v. “apocalyptic.”), and that as G. K. Beale notes, “No other book of the NT is as permeated by the OT as is Revelation. Although its author seldom quotes the OT directly, allusions and echoes are found in almost every verse of the book” (D. A. Carson & G. K. Beale, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Baker, 2007), Kindle edition, p. 1081.). With those things in mind…

    Revelation 14:9-11 sounds like it teaches eternal life in hell; it speaks of smoke rising forever from the torment of restless beast-worshippers, but let’s look at all the imagery and how it’s used in the Old Testament whence it comes: drinking God’s wrath, fire and sulfur, and smoke rising forever. Job 21:20-21 says, “Let their own eyes see their destruction, and let them drink of the wrath of the Almighty…their months is cut off.” In the imagery of Jeremiah 25:15-33, where the nations are made to drink of the cup of the wine of God’s wrath, God summons a sword against them, and their dead bodies won’t be buried but will instead be dung on the surface of the ground. So drinking of God’s wrath is associated with being slaughtered. So, too, is the imagery of sulfur and fire, and rising smoke, imagery coming from Genesis 19:24 and 28, and Isaiah 34:9-10, in which fire and sulfur destroys cities and their inhabitants, and smoke rises forever from their remains. So this imagery, of smoke rising forever from torment, symbolizes death and destruction.

    In Revelation 20:10, the devil, beast and false prophet are all tormented forever in a lake of fire and sulfur—there’s that imagery symbolizing destruction again—and the unsaved are later thrown into it. But this is the same lake of fire into which death and Hades are also thrown after being emptied of their dead (Rev. 20:13-14), and death and Hades can’t be tormented at all. Death is the process of dying; Hades the grave or the underworld, the place of the dead. The imagery symbolizes an end to death and Hades—in fact, it symbolizes an end to, or the destruction of, everything thrown into it. This is why both John and God Himself interpret the lake of fire imagery as symbolism representing “the second death” of human beings thrown into it (Rev. 20:14, 21:8). “The second death” is not another metaphor; it’s the straightforward, plain interpretation of the metaphors in the imagery. The unsaved will die a second time.

    When I held the traditional view of hell, I thought these passages were strong support for it, but upon closer examination, they prove to be better support for annihilationism. This, in fact, is one of the biggest reasons I abandoned the traditional view in favor of annihilationism: With virtually no exception, all the texts traditionally cited by those who think the risen lost will live forever in torment prove upon closer examination to teach that the risen lost will instead die a second time and never live again.

  14. mikewittmer

    Chris: the symbolism you depend on doesn’t seem to fit the literal meaning of the sentences, but as you say, Revelation has many images that aren’t meant to be taken literally. Still, it does seem that you take some things literally when it suits–e.g., “death and Hades can’t be tormented at all.” I’m not convinced by the argument, but I wish you are right.

  15. Forgive me, Mike, but I don’t understand what it is you think I take literally. Death and Hades are pictured in the imagery as apocalyptic horsemen (Rev 6), but I don’t think they are literally horsemen. The point of the imagery is that the fact of death and whatever the intermediate state is will, in reality, be destroyed, even though the imagery depicts the eternal torment of everything thrown into the lake of fire.

    You see, as Bauckhaum explains, apocalyptic, prophetic visions in Scripture are not intended to be taken literally. They represent reality in symbolic form, and our only recourse is to understand the symbols in Revelation according to the way their readers would have understood them, namely, as they were used in the OT. And as I demonstrated, all that imagery supports annihilationism, not eternal torment.

  16. Even if you take Revelation literally you can’t get eternal torment of people from it — maybe Satan and two beasts, but not people. The usual way of reading Rev 14:9-11 doesn’t give people tormented forever and ever, because if you take it with no symbolism you have to see that verse 11 is in the present tense, not the future. Their smoke is going up while they’re worshiping (think of this as a furnace preheating to the “very hot” setting), and they have no rest while they’re worshiping (like the Living Creatures in front of God). Their torment, on the other hand, is in the future — and although their destruction isn’t mentioned unless you look at the meaning of the symbols, if you really want to be literal, being tormented by fire and sulfur is lethal.

  17. […] Should C.S. Lewis be among the “6 Heretics Who Should be Banned from Evangelicalism.”?  Michael Wittmer responds. […]

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