A week or so ago I wrote about some of the influences on my spiritual journey. It was a brief intro into authors who influenced my thinking. Francis Schaeffer, John Ortberg, Rob Bell are the three I mentioned. We’ll dig in a little here and begin tracing my journey out of american christianity.
A funny thing happened as I grew into my late 40’s. I began to question. As a Baptist, questioning was kinda frowned on. I was big into Apologetics from my mid 30’s into my 40’s, but this was something different. The apologetics and authors I read and listened to had justified why I was right to believe what I believed. I thought I was getting a balanced view, but actually I wasn’t. Lee Strobel’s Case For Faith and the following Case for… books were telling me that I was right to think and believe as I did as an evangelical christian. At first this was very comforting to me. Sure in the Old Testament God ordered the slaughter of entire groups of people, but apologist Norman Giesler convinced me that it was “humane” for God to order the killing of the children, because they would go to heaven as they were too young to understand they were sinners. But in the back of my mind, the nagging thought that something was wrong with this kind of thinking was still there.
And then something big happened. I was already starting to battle with the thought that all who didn’t specifically ask Jesus into their hearts would burn for eternity in hell. And my religious world view was starting to be rocked by Rob Bell’s book Velvet Elvis. But then Bell wrote a book about questioning the concept of hell, called Love Wins. He didn’t come out and say there was no hell, just asked a lot of very good questions, gave a lot of very good information about Jewish beliefs around the time of Christ. Suddenly I was free to question and think and study. Bell’s book blew my mind because I was raised to believe unconditionally that hell was a real place. I began to read and study, and more importantly to tell my wife what I was doing.
Funny thing, my wife had grown up in fundamentalism and she was not happy with what I was telling her. She was worried I was losing my salvation and going to hell. So she did what she is great at, she dug in and began to study, with the intention of showing me how wrong I was. The interesting thing was, I would bring home something I had read and she would research it and find that what we had believed wasn’t so black and white after all. This caused her to dig in even farther. We began to study Universalism. Now when I was growing up, and into my adult years, I always thought that universalism was a mixed bag of all roads lead to god kind of thing. New age or some mumbo jumbo. But our studies led us to the finding that in the early church universalism was a popular teaching. Now, there are several schools of thought about what happens when we die in universalism, and I won’t get into that here. But the main idea is that God doesn’t burn anyone for eternity in hell.
I was shocked at what we were finding and shocked that I had never been told about this line of thinking in the early NT church. I went to bible school, I grew up in the church, I served as a deacon and small group leader. You would have thought it would have come up somewhere, besides being mentioned as “all roads lead to” heresy. During this time, my wife and I watched a documentary called “Hellbound?” that dived into the thinking and controversy around universalism. Not intended to be overly in-depth, but instead to present an overview of the three main thoughts (universalism, Annihilationism, eternal conscious torment) about hell that the church has had over the last 2,000 years, we found it fascinating. Faced with what we had learned over the period of a couple of years, we planted our faith flag in Universalism and thought we had arrived. We were wrong, our journey wasn’t over. We’ll pickup the trail in the next post Deconstructing Pt. 2.