The New York Times on the Rise of Conditionalism—Al Mohler Responds

New York Times: Conditionalism Gains GroundHow do you know when your small movement is gaining momentum? Perhaps first, you get well-respected thought leaders or cultural icons to adopt and promote your cause. Perhaps next, you find recognition in a well known national or international publication. And finally, in terms of seeing an impact, you begin to receive increasing mention by thought leaders in the community you are trying to influence.

In the past couple of years, and especially in the past few months, that has happened with the theological movement of Conditionalism, and the ministry of Rethinking Hell.

As many of you know, we held our inaugural conference in Houston this past summer, with none other than John G. Stackhouse Jr.  as the keynote speaker (video here). Dr. Stackhouse is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology & Culture at Regent College, one of the most prestigious endowed chairs in modern Christendom, created for and formerly held by J. I. Packer.1

Recently, New York Times journalist Mark Oppenheimer wrote a piece entitled Tormented in the Afterlife, but Not Forever: Conditionalism Gains Ground, in which he discussed the Conditionalist movement, and interviewed both Edward Fudge and our own Chris Date. Now that is high visibility!

And in one of the more notable responses to the NYT article, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Al Mohler made some obervations on Conditionalism in his daily podcast The Briefing.

Why Al Mohler’s response is important

I have a confession to make: I adore and respect Al Mohler. Every morning, I listen to his daily podcast on my way to work—and love it. His Christian analysis of news and events is thoughtful and proactive. He’s not just responding to the latest noise from the media, but discussing important milestones, trends, and thought patterns in society.

His frequent appearances on CNN and other national news media are a great example of Christian thoughtfulness and steadfastness in the face of the decay of our moral culture. And this high visibility and influence is just what Conditionalism needs if it’s to gain momentum, since we believe that the more we engage our fellow Evangelicals in substantive Bible exegesis and reasoning, the more this view will continue to challenge the destructive doctrine of Eternal Conscious Punishment (ECP), a.k.a. ECT or the “traditional view.”

So let us respond to Dr. Mohler’s points individually—may meaningful dialog commence!

1. Why is the secular New York Times interested in this?

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.

I’m not sure Al Mohler’s surprise is warranted. I mean, despite our secularity in the US, we are still the most religious and Christianized nation in the world. In a place where 56% of the people think that religion is ‘very important’ in life2, and all major magazines cover some salacious theological rumor about Christ every Easter and Christmas, this is no surprise. However, Mohler is right to mention that this article, compared to two previous NYT articles, doesn’t make any huge theological blunders to reveal a lack of understanding of Evangelicalism or history.34

Dr. Mohler chalks up this interest to the baseline conscience in all humans as described in Romans 1:

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.

However, he is missing a much more important motive for the interest in hell in particular, namely that for the many thinking Americans who do see themselves as Christian and do desire to belong to God, the doctrine of hell is a huge stumbling block, a painful and embarrassing one which violates what common intuition tells us about justice and the character of God.

2. Leaping to the ‘H’ word

The Times’ excellent summary of conditionalism:

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.

I was very disappointed that Dr. Mohler, rather than giving a decent exegetical reply to this strong claim, resorted to the “here we go again” response, explaining that such ‘heresies’ come and go, and are not new:

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.

Not only is this a logical fallacy (‘Conditionalism is untrue because it has been suggested and rebuffed previously’, similar to an appeal to Tradition), it is a very uncareful use of the strong condemnation in the word ‘heresy.’ Does Mohler feel that those who believe this should be ousted from fellowship? We argue, as John Stott did, that Conditionalism is at least a sound alternate Biblical interpretation, if not a superior one. Of course, there is a long history of Baptists condemning Conditionalism as heresy, not the least of which was Charles Spurgeon.56

3. Heresy indicators and the slippery slope

Let’s face it, the slippery slope argument is almost always invalid, and is typically based on the unwillingness to develop a nuanced and sophisticated set of rules to mitigate the risk of sliding, while allowing liberty at one pole of an argument for the few special cases. In rare instances, such as the Gay Marriage debate, one can demonstrate a good slippery slope argument in that the logic for one edge case demands allowing in all others. The exception is when you can define criteria that, for example, exclude those other cases from sliding in (i.e. “On what basis do you approve of gay marriage but can exclude polygamy, group marriage, or incestuous marriage?”). But such cases are rare. So to see Dr. Mohler resort to this is embarrassing.

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.

However, at this point, Dr. Mohler also offers some very interesting historical analysis: that one’s doctrine of hell is not only an indicator of the strength of your commitment to biblical authority, it is typically the first and perhaps foremost doctrine to slip during the slide to other heresies.78

While I admit that this could be true, a correlation could exist for two reasons. First, people can initially take offense at the doctrine of hell, beginning to trust their own intuitions on the matter more than the scriptures, and so become theologically liberal. In this case, you could indeed argue for causation.

But a second, better explanation is that the traditional doctrine is such an affront to our intuitions on justice, that many people are driven to exegetically investigate the traditional view and easily arrive at Conditionalism without needing to liberalize their view of scripture. However, upon encountering an intolerance for such exegetical liberty within more fundamentalist Christian circles, they end up taking refuge within more liberal circles. As a result, measurable data on how many evangelicals actually hold to Conditionalism is difficult to obtain, compared to liberal movements where it is much more visible.

4. Intellectual Liberalism, WWII and annihilationism

In a previous article, Mohler discussed the post-Revolution rise of Protestant liberalism in America:

Soon after the American Revolution, more organized forms of liberal theology emerged, fueled by a sense of revolution and intellectual liberty. Theologians and preachers began to question the doctrines of orthodox Christianity, claiming that doctrines such as original sin, total depravity, divine sovereignty, and substitutionary atonement violated the moral senses. William Ellery Channing, an influential Unitarian, spoke for many in his generation when he described “the shock given to my moral nature” by the teachings of orthodox Christianity.9

Of course, the Unitarian movement was a theologically liberal movement that wanted to do away with hell. But that doesn’t mean that the Conditionalist desire for a more biblical view than ECP is theologically liberal.

Most evangelicals are aware of the rise of higher criticism as part of the late 18th century, and the resulting emergence of Christian Fundamentalism at the turn of the following century. That liberal movement, and the horrors of WWI and WWII forced American theologians to re-examine our glib references to eternal burning torment, as well as the nature of God in general, who had allowed the Nazi horrors.

But all of these associations are really just possible motives, not true argument. It makes no difference why people question the doctrine of hell at a given point in time. The real questions to be answered are:

  • Are you sure of your exegesis of scripture on this matter?
  • Have you personally addressed the challenges of the Conditionalists, or are you taking someone else’s word while superficially understanding the theological issues?
  • Are you as a Protestant relying too heavily on tradition, and not Sola Scriptura?
  • Are you sure that God’s nature includes such an affront to even the Biblical notions of Lex Talionis as the rule for justice, both human and divine?10

Because if you are wrong, as we contend, there may be, as it is said, hell to pay—and trust me, more people stumble into unbelief due to depictions of hell than the believability of the miracles of Jesus or the resurrection.

It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. ~ Luke 17:2

5. Picking and choosing scripture

Here, Dr. Mohler’s argument hits an even lower note, stooping to a misinformed ad hominem followed by unsupported claims about what the scripture teaches.

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;

Of course I know that a 20 minute podcast can’t unpack those statements in much detail. But here, he is just relying on his appeal to Tradition alone, even to the point of sidestepping the scriptures mentioned in the NYT article.

6. Whose intuition?

Mohler seems to think that, on balance, most people find eternal conscious punishment as intuitively matching what we think of as ‘just punishment.’

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.

But here Dr. Mohler is entirely incorrect. Even many conservative theologians who support ECP have admitted that the doctrine seems counter-intuitive and harsh, and on the surface seems to violate the idea of the proportionality of punishment.

In actuality, ECP matches only the intellect of the person who has been indoctrinated or otherwise persuaded against intuition and balance of love and justice with the traditional view on hell.

7. The Character of God and Other Related Doctrines

In his contribution to a recent book on the subject,  Hell Under Fire, Dr. Mohler states the real importance of this issue from many theological perspectives, other than the fact that we may be leading millions away from faith:

How is it that so many evangelicals, including some of the most respected leaders in the movement, now reject the traditional doctrine of hell in favor of annihilationism or some other option? The answer must surely come down to the challenge of theodicy — the challenge to defend God’s goodness against modern indictments. (emphasis mine)11

And this is where Traditionalists share ground with Conditionalists: we are concerned not to damage to the balance of justice and mercy, or undermine the justice of God. Sure, Universalists eschew punitive justice (though they might contend otherwise), yet, understood as never-ending torment, Traditionalism skewers mercy on the fire pit of hell, making ‘biblical’ justice seem like a grotesque and cruel despotism.

CONCLUSION

Dr. Mohler, I know you are a busy guy. And I love your thoughtful ministry. But we Evangelical Conditionalists do not take to superficial criticisms, and are willing to joust on the field of exegetical battle as well as philosophical. Our case is strong. We love the lost and the church, and are distressed by the negative impact that an erroneous doctrine has had on both.

You have only partly understood the rise of Conditionalism in our day. It’s not only found within liberal circles, but among conservative bibliophiles (for instance, those aligned with Rethinking Hell) who are willing to challenge orthodoxy with scripture.

Your own Baptist tradition knows all about this type of reform. It is time for Baptists like yourself to take a more serious look at this, not as a liberal movement, but as a conservative Evangelical concern for the lost, the honor of God, and the Church.

  1. Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology & Culture []
  2. Pew Research Religion and Life Report []
  3. NYT’s ironic fact-check error (Commonweal) []
  4. New York Times, you had one job (Kirk Miller) []
  5. Minutes of General Conference of the Freewill Baptist Connection, Volume 2 []
  6. A Sermon(No. 39-40) Delivered on Tuesday Evening, September 4, 1855, by the REV. C. H. Spurgeon In a field, King Edward’s Road, Hackney. (The Spurgeon Archive) []
  7. Air Conditioning Hell: How Liberalism Happens (AlbertMohler.com) []
  8. Theological Liberalism as measured by your doctrine of Hell (wholereason.com) []
  9. Air Conditioning Hell: How Liberalism Happens (AlbertMohler.com) []
  10. The Philosophical Case for Conditionalism 4 – Proportional Justice and Traditionalism (wholereason.com) []
  11. Doing Away with Hell? (AlbertMohler.com) []
Commentary
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  • HaakAway

    I appreciate your positive summary of Dr. Mohler’s work and how you personally admire it. Yet you also can see how short he falls in failing to understand Conditionalism. I think you show the attitude that will win the day but it also reveals how harsh good hearted leaders can be in labeling things as heresy. I am new in accepting CI and have found some surprising support and some harsh rejection too. I think sticking to the exegetical and hermeneutical points will gain respect while the points of logic and consistency of God’s justice let others think we are wandering from Scripture.

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