Influence of Humanism on Our View of God (“Erasing Hell” Conclusions part 3)

20120901-231639.jpgChan, Francis; Preston Sprinkle (2011). Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up. David C. Cook. ISBN 978-0-7814-0725-0

Article by Leif L.

This article is part four of my own thoughts after having read the book, and do not necessarily follow the beliefs of the author of Erasing Hell.

Humanism and Hell

Our humanity coils at the thought of hell. God meant it to be so. One thing it reveals is a great difference between God and us, and that he is serious when he demands our worship and allegiance.

God is both transcendent (unlike us, beyond everything he has made) and immanent (near his creation). He is a God who listens to the lowly, and reasons with the one who humbles himself before him. But the very humbling of ourselves necessitates that we acknowledge that he has complete authority over us, and the freedom to either condemn or justify us, to destroy or save, with impunity. He is not accountable to us, but we will all answer to him.

We must know in our hearts that he is holy, and that we are not. He has the full right to send any and all of us into the lake of fire, and is not forced to save any. If he does save, it is not primarily because of human will or exertion, but of divine mercy and grace.

The doctrine of divine immanence must never be used as an attempt to reduce the majesty God as he is revealed in the doctrine of divine transcendence. Transcendence is always primary; God is first our creator, then our friend. He is essentially, in his being, high and holy; then willing to dwell with the contrite. Holy is what he is (an immutable characteristic), dwelling with the contrite is a decision that he makes of his own free will.

For thus says the High and Lofty One
Who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
With him who has a contrite and humble spirit,
To revive the spirit of the humble,
And to revive the heart of the contrite ones.
Isaiah 57:15

Philosophy and Eternal Punishment

Today’s common, small thoughts about God can be traced to humanist philosophies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which I believe were adopted into areas of Christian theology in the nineteenth century. Many religions that call themselves Christian seem to be established on philosophy, rather than the Biblical view of God, thus they share the common denial of hell and judgement. Indeed, offense at hell is one reason people reject Jesus. Atheist Bertrand Russell wrote:

There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.

A modern form of idolatry is when people attempt to create a God like themselves, or according to their understanding, and not Divine revelation.

Accompanying the rejection of hell is a reduced view of the cross. There is widespread offense at the blood of the cross, that Jesus accomplished our salvation by doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Many teach that Jesus simply came as an example of how we can live a right life to please God, and that we can achieve salvation by this means. That idea is paganism, which holds up its examples of holy men to emulate to achieve a better state.

These ideas are especially prevalent in the modern Christian-based religious movements spawned from the “second great awakening” (these include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, the original Worldwide Church of God/Armstrongism, and areas of Seventh-day Adventist theology). I believe these movements were influenced at some level by the humanist philosophies of John Locke and Thomas Hobbs, whose theories formed the basis of American individualism and democracy.

The theological substance of a lot of modern Christianity has been affected by these philosophies. As an example, the “great controversy” theory of Seventh-day Adventism (their theology strongly supports annihilationism) would like to portray a God who is on trial by his creatures, a God subject to ruling according to human approval, one who must judge as we think is just and fair in order to vindicate his character. In contrast, the Bible portrays a God who is judge, and does what he pleases, and no man can stay his hand (Daniel 4:35). He is a God who is the potter; we as clay have no right to challenge him. (Romans 9:20, 21)

From the mid-nineteenth century, democratic ideas were used as a window to understand God and interpret the Bible, resulting in a fundamental change in Christian thought. The God understood by the Hebrews, preached by Jesus, and believed by faithful Christians throughout the centuries was now seen as a stern and unbending tyrant, much like English monarch of the American Revolution, King James I. The new God was much kinder, ruling within a sort of democratic plurocracy (deriving authority from more than one source), and promising “life, liberty, and happiness”.

Man occupied a disproportionately large part of this new gospel. It revolved around individual choices and experiences, rather than faith in the story of the life and death of Jesus, what he accomplished for us. Salvation was no longer by faith in the completed work of Christ, but revolved around the experience that one had with God.

These changes in Christian approach to the gospel were not limited to modern sectarian movements, but were adopted by much of evangelical Christianity, through teachers such as Charles Finney. As a result, many mainline and evangelical churches have embraced the liberal sophistries of humanism. Christianity was turned on its head with new “revivalist” theology, which was entirely different in emphasis to the teachings of the Protestant Reformation, and the men of the First Great Awakening, such as George Whitfield and the Wesley brothers, and their many forebears, including John Bunyan and John Newton, Jonathan Edwards and others.

Many have looked to humanism (viewing God and salvation merely from a human perspective) and rationalism (that God operates according to our logic) to answer questions about God that can not be answered. To insist that we possess, or require, all of the answers, and that there are no mysteries, is to deny the need for faith. We trust God, not because we completely understand him, but precisely because we can’t comprehend him. He is unlike our fallen humanity, and we know from Scripture that he is great, grand, and awesome. Before the era of English and American humanist thought, Christians had far less of an issue accepting the infinite attributes of a holy and righteous God who was different than themselves. A philosopher once said that in Western thought, man looms large, while our God is very small.

Thus, because of our democratic and philosophical bent in the West, we think that we have a right to serve whatever God we wish to serve, to create him in the image that suits us. I have heard it said, “I could not believe in a God who would (fill in the blank)”. For example, a person might make a statement such as, “My God does not torment people in hell”. To me, this would indicate that this person is not worshipping the biblical God which Jesus taught about, but their own idea of God, which is a form of idolatry. When asked why they believe this, a common answer may be, “I have not experienced God to be like that”, or “the God I know is like this: …”. Here experience trumps truth, because bondage to our delusion of god is easier than believing the truth which reduces us to nothing, yet which offers true liberty.

Truth Forms the Basis of Relationship

The reason we believe certain things about God and his character should not be because it makes sense or appeals to us, or agrees with our experience, but because it is written in the word. We must worship God as he is revealed, and not as we experience him; real experience is always based on true doctrine. We may experience many things that will bring us to ruin; by faith we have salvation, through which we experience the God of the Bible.

We should not be surprised that there are things about God that we can not understand (such as the biblical doctrine of hell). We should expect that there are things about God that will seem contrary to our natures, for he is not like us. He is not human, but Divine. God’s ways are higher than our ways, and his standard of righteousness is far beyond our small ideas of morality and justice.

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!
Romans 11:33

3 responses to “Influence of Humanism on Our View of God (“Erasing Hell” Conclusions part 3)

  1. Interestingly, since the publishing of Erasing Hell, Chan’s co-author, Preston Sprinkle, finds himself leaning toward annihilation. He’ll be joining us for an interview at very soon to discuss why.

    I absolutely agree that there are things about God that we can not understand, that will seem contrary to our natures. Being Reformed and committed to Sola Scriptura, I began to become convinced of annihilationism a little over a year ago, never questioning the justice of the traditional view. I just followed where Scripture led me.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the comment. I have only ever experienced the Annihilationism view built on the presupposition that the traditional view would be unjust. I just don’t think we, as fallen humans, are qualified to make that call.

    We attend a Baptist church, but our roots (and families) are in Adventism. There really is not much meaningful dialogue possible in either of these two camps, but especially within Adventism. The fact that E. G. White (Adventist’s prophetess) rejects the doctrine of eternal torment settles the issue for them, truncating any meaningful discussion of the issue.

    Our Baptist pastor was willing to give us room on the issue. I still find myself unable to fully commit to the traditional view, but it seems to be more Biblical in starting with a Scriptual, rather than humanistic, point of view.

    If you hold to Annihilationism, not questioning the rights of God in the traditional view, and still holding to a Reformation soteriological and theological structure, you have achieved something I have not yet seen. Most annihilationists (Clark Pinnock as an example) have embraced a liberal theology which denies God’s infinite attributes in order to accommodate their view of a limited hell.

    • Hi Leif,

      Edward Fudge, probably the most noteworthy contemporary conditionalist, also came to his position as a result purely of exegesis. As he explains in his recent book, and when I interviewed him for the podcast, he believed the traditional view without any real reservation until he was hired to research what the Bible says about hell, and his research convinced him of conditionalism. Additional anecdotal evidence could be supplied, so I’m just saying, there are many annihilationists who get there simply by the text.

      I agree with you that we’re not qualified to make the call as to the justice of either view. I don’t terribly disagree with you about Adventism, but then again, I’m not an Adventist 🙂

      I don’t think it’s true that “most annihilationists have embraced a liberal theology wihch denies God’s infinite attributes.” You gave one example of an Open Theist, but he was an Open Theist before he was an annihilationist, if I recall. Greg Boyd is another example, but again, I’m doubtful that you can make the link it seems like you’re making. The reality is that there is a huge diversity of opinion on other doctrines within conditionalism. Some are physicalists/monists, some are dualists; some are amil/postmil preterists, some are Dispensationalist premillennialists; some are Reformed, some are Arminiain, some are Open Theists; some are cessationists, some believe the gifts go on to this day; and so on and so forth. The problem is just that you’ve yet to hear abaout all of us 🙂

      But I think that’s changing as more and more conditionalists “come out,” if you will, and I look forward to the nature of the dialogue improving.

Please let me know what you think! I learn from your comments.

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