I have been privileged to come across a number of interestingly independent thinkers among more-or-less orthodox Christians over the years. Note those two words: “interestingly independent.” I’ve certainly come across my share of “independent” thinkers, but those who can combine orthodoxy (by which I mean in a “mere Christianity,” happy-to-sign-the-great-creeds, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving, Spirit-filled faith), with independence of mind and “interestingness” of finding are precious and rare.
C. S. Lewis, of course, comes readily to mind. Many people read Lewis and enjoy him putting things vividly and cogently with which they already agree, while ignoring the many things he says with which they well might not. North American evangelicals who declare unqualifiedly that they “love C. S. Lewis” strike me as likely people who haven’t noticed all the oddments that abound in Lewis, whether in his fiction, apologetics, theology, or cultural essays.
Jonathan Edwards is another hero of mine whom many have embraced as simply a revivalistic reincarnation of John Calvin. But Edwards thought a number of things most Calvinists (whether in the sixteenth, eighteenth, or twenty-first century) would find strange and even threatening. (See Michael J. McClymond and Gerald McDermott’s massive study of The Theology of Jonathan Edwards and dip in almost anywhere.)
The late Robert Farrar Capon seemed untroubled by theological scruples and instead provoked decades of readers to think fresh things. Some of them, I think, were wrong things, but the very act of arguing with him was itself stimulating. The same goes for Frederick Buechner, or Thomas Merton, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer—each of these an author who refuses to be entirely domesticated by many fans who think he is saying just more eloquently what we’re all thinking. (Eric Metaxas’s very popular evangelical co-option of Bonhoeffer comes to mind in this regard.) Nope: Sometimes he’s actually saying something challengingly different. Let’s recognize that fact, and think about the unexpected stuff for a while.
Even people taken for granted as generically evangelical are more interesting than you might think. F. F. Bruce was less predictable in his views than many would assume who know him only from his commentaries or his bestselling The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Bruce early on championed female preachers.) So was John Stott (who tentatively espoused conditionalism/annihilationism in his eschatology.) And so is my predecessor in the chair I have held at Regent these past fifteen years, J. I. Packer (who has troubled some because of his friendly relations with Catholics and Orthodox theologians, among other transgressions.)
Among my own acquaintances, I think also of Luci Shaw, the delights of whose poetry must not lull one into ignoring her bold and even prophetic declamations. I think of the late Robert Brow, Anglican priest and author whose work, stimulated in equal parts by his study of Wittgenstein and his experience as a missionary in India, gave me new paradigms in which to think of the destiny of the unevangelized, the character of the church as a school, the pedagogical use of the sacraments, the nature of other religions in God’s economy of salvation, and more. (Come to think of it, it was the publishing house Luci ran with her late husband, Harold, who published Bob Brow’s books when larger, more mainstream evangelical houses steered clear of his creative suggestions.)
Today, however, I am thinking of the American theologian Edward Fudge, the biopic of whom, “Hell and Mr. Fudge,” enjoyed limited release in theatres last year and is just now available on DVD. Edward, trained first by his father and then by the Churches of Christ to be a pastor, suffered greatly from individuals, congregations, and informal-but-deadly networks of Christians who were determined to think more narrowly than they needed to, and to defend a view of God much more terrible than the Bible demanded.
His most important achievement was to thoroughly study and then argue for the interpretation of hell as a place of perfect justice in which anyone whose sins were not covered by the work of Christ would have to pay for them himself or herself. And at the end of one’s paying one’s due, one’s just deserts, one would vanish, consumed by the fire of judgment, released from existence because one had refused to embrace the Source of Life.
John 3:16 was one of Edward’s key texts, both because it was so familiar and reliable among evangelicals and because it so nicely epitomized this teaching: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish [that is, die/stop living/disappear] but have everlasting life.” Only the saints live forever. The doctrine of the “immortal soul” was Greek, not Gospel.
Edward argues for this view at great length in his classic work, The Fire that Consumes. I’ll be arguing for it myself in a new Zondervan “four views” book that will come out in a year or so. Today, though, this movie is available not only to introduce Edward’s ideas, but also to pay tribute to the bravery of a man (and his supportive wife, mother, and best friend) who was vilified by Christians who preferred to believe in a hell more awful than they had to believe in. They seemed to think, as many Christians think today, and in direct contradiction to the First Epistle of John, that they pay greater honour to God if they will hate their human brothers and sisters, devoutly wishing that the unsaved are condemned to eternal conscious torment. And they defended this God by the sustained persecution of one of his most industrious and loyal servants.
I know a little bit of what Edward put up with. I once briefly offered this view as a visiting preacher in the pulpit of a Canadian church, only to find out several weeks later that I had been denounced from that pulpit the very next Sunday by a preacher who, I daresay, had studied the subject far less than had I and who never engaged either me or this idea in any theological depth. He, like so many of Fudge’s detractors, simply knew what the truth was, and also somehow knew that the most godly and helpful thing he could think of to do when faced with an unpleasant alternative was simply to fry it. So I have existential, as well as exegetical, sympathy for Edward Fudge.
Despite the pain at its heart, the movie nonetheless is gently made, with Southern charm, welcome humour, and admirable restraint. Consider buying it to view and discuss with family members and friends. The theology really matters . . . and so do the lessons about how to treat others with whom we differ.
Yes, we might disagree over the nature of hell, but as we do, let’s refrain from giving it to each other, shall we?