When a recent news release reported the sad retreat of a beloved and respected leader to an "inclusivist" position, I was grieved. His inclusivism is only a new term for an old error--which, among other things, presumes to extol God's grace by skirting the issue of His eternal judgment.
But to declare a gospel of divine love, grace and mercy, without the balancing implications of the cost of refusing those gifts, is to extrapolate from God's tenderness a hint that He also is spineless--that His generosity is gratuitous, not costly.
Love, grace and mercy as "stand alones" may produce warm fuzzies, seeking to embrace God's grace gifts without coming to terms with God's godliness; asking for His charismata without opening to His character. The trail of history is littered with leaders who have done this.
Beginning with a distortion of biblical "love," they end in ethical confusion, forgetting love's price, its commitments and its duty. Beginning with a sincere desire to platform God's abundant kindness, they go soft on His laws--His life principles that keep us from folly.
Before long, their miscalculations about God's love wander into excused infidelity and immorality; their aberrations of grace lead to the refusal of a disciple's lifestyle; and their presumptions about God's mercy end with rationalized syrupy notions of eternal life on human terms, where unrepentance is forgiven anyway and a universal waiver of all personal accountability is given to everyone.
Full fidelity. At the bottom line, this current matter brings us face to face with the ultimacy of God's truth regarding salvation's provision. We recurrently are faced with reminders that any pick-and-choose approach that neglects full fidelity to the entire scope of the gospel's component truths is untrue. Partial truth is not the truth, any more than a fraction is a whole number.
There is no such thing as a gospel of "inclusive love" that doesn't come to terms with salvation's exclusive terms; truths that incorporate inescapable issues of eternal judgment; the ultimate issues of heaven's joys and blessings; and the contrasting horror of hell's suffering and loss.
When this truth is short-changed, it is always the latter half of the whole truth that is omitted--the horror of hell. It's the most unpleasant truth in the Bible, but as we reflect on the inevitable drift inclusivism may lead to, I offer this review.
First, no Christlike follower of the Savior will ever self-righteously handle this theme, or ever view with vindictive delight the condemnation of a human soul to eternal perdition.
Similarly, no clear-thinking disciple of Jesus can ever view this issue with less conviction than Paul, who said: "Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men...if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; or if we are of sound mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died" (2 Cor. 5:11-14, NKJV).
Jesus on the subject. We aren't called to focus on hell--Jesus didn't. But He did reference it often, though He used a variety of terms. As a rule, I've preferred using such expressions as "eternal loss," "eternity apart from the Source of our being," or "the endless darkness for having forsaken the Light of the World." Our Lord models this approach, varying His own terminology regarding eternal judgment.
But while He will sometimes describe hell as to "come into condemnation," to "perish" or to go to "outer darkness," there is no danger of mistaking what He means. This is because at other times He is painfully direct, presenting the sobering and frightening truth of an eternal destiny He calls "hell."
In all, the full context He gives is consistently balanced, for Jesus always remains God's Incarnate Love, even when referring to "the everlasting fire" or "hell fire" (see Matt. 18:8-9). This text in Matthew reminds us that as much as our human diplomacy may tempt us to avoid this subject, Jesus teaches it with such gravity we dare not gloss it. Let's take a look at the passage:
"'If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.'"
This is no ranting spiel, but a confrontation of human selfishness and disobedience. The "hand, foot and eye" figures depict His call to "cut off" or "cast off" human willfulness that: (a) seeks our own works without God's will (hands); (b) pursues our own ways without God's Word (feet); and (c) lusts for our own goals rather than God's purposes (eyes).
Jesus teaches no "half gospel" without consequences, but neither is He "God on a vendetta." Following the starkness of His declaring the penalty potential in rebellion, He immediately turns to the beauty of God's love reaching to rescue the lost. The context, the parable in verses 10-14, literally spills love from God's heart, as the Great Shepherd's quest reveals "it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one...should perish" (see Matt. 18:10-14).
Seeing our Lord's directness faces us with the task of thinking through and deciding how we can responsibly communicate the whole truth without making the gospel sound like a "hell truth." Centrally, our mission is to proclaim salvation, not condemnation--to invite to God's heart and heaven's love, not to invoke visions of God's frown and hell's fire.
Nonetheless, any to whom we preach need to be aware "there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death" (Prov. 14:12). I can't point to salvation's "bridge over troubled waters," without making clear that any other route is a plunge into a chasm of destruction.
Neutralizing the superficial. Perhaps our first challenge is to neutralize superficial ideas.
In my book on basic doctrines, Grounds for Living (Chosen Books), I wrote: "Hell cannot be defined by the shallow human depictions of a God having an angry tantrum, or by medieval caricatures of people boiling in bubbling vats of liquid fire. No, hell is worse than that."
Teaching what that "worse" involves can gain the serious attention of adults otherwise tempted to discard seriously thinking about hell because of juvenile presentations of it. (Note: This is to deepen sobriety of thought about hell, not to minimize the reality of its fiery judgment or that the Lake of Fire is a literal truth--see Matt. 18:19; Mark 9:42-48; Rev. 20:7-15.)
I have found that a pensive presentation of the truth of hell helps remedy the cheap Hollywood stereotype of the "hell-fire preacher," who is always melodramatically depicted as a mouth-frothing, pulpit-pounding, early-Western-American evangelist (and who is almost always found out later in the film to be a drunken womanizer).
In helping people see hell in more than its "fire" light, use reasoned biblical exposition showing that its suffering is more than physical torture. The scriptures reveal it as the endless torment of a conscience--a mind and soul who refused alignment with God's order in this life, thus eternally setting themselves in opposition to God's love forever.
In that light, thoughtful listeners can be led to understand how the flames hell generates are more the result of the friction of a human will in resistance to its Creator than by any desire of God Himself to simply burn them forever. Hell, then, becomes understood as the revealed, logical projection unto eternity of the self-imposed consequence of eternal separation from God, whose loving purpose and plan of redemption was either ignored, unwanted and refused.
Thus I offer a few of the inclusive facts, but enough to demonstrate that it is a false inclusivism that, in the name of love and forgiveness, forgets that those graces were provided because "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (see John 3:16).
And that "none should perish," He issues this call: "I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live" (see Deut. 30:19).
True inclusivism includes the whole of that message.
Jack Hayford is chancellor of The King's College and Seminary in Van Nuys, California.