No True (Evangelical) Scotsman?—Denny Burk and National Geographic on the Rise of Conditionalism

Recently, National Geographic interviewed Chris Date and Preston Sprinkle in preparation for this article on the rise of evangelical conditionalism, which is somewhat reminiscent of the 2014 article in the New York Times, documenting the same phenomenon (on that occasion, Chris Date, Edward Fudge, and John G. Stackhouse, Jr. were interviewed). While the article has its flaws, and the title (“The Campaign to Eliminate Hell”) is sensationalist and just plain inaccurate, overall NatGeo is to be commended for a willingness to report on this topic in a balanced way. Both articles serve to instruct Christians on the curiosity of many in the secular world, not only about the topic of hell, but also the prospect of reform, which is deemed newsworthy.

In addition to quoting Date and Sprinkle, the NatGeo article quotes Edward Fudge as a leading conditionalist proponent, Robert Peterson as a traditionalist critic of our view, and Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, as another traditionalist “in some respects.” By this qualification, it seems that Galli means to style a truly faithful Christian as one willing to defy their own inclination toward disbelief in hell, transcend every “theological impossibility” and all “seemingly insurmountable problems,” and simply acquiesce to hell’s reality as just what Jesus believed, as we read it in the Bible.

That narrative sounds more or less agreeable to most evangelicals, I presume, given our high view of scripture. That is, until you realize that Galli has made the very idea of hell equivalent to eternal torment, and portrayed any other interpretation of what Jesus taught as the very denial of hell. In his words, which evidently inspired the article’s title, that would be to “eliminate hell” altogether.

The informed reader, like our informed critics, will note that we conditionalists also believe in hell as a very real designation for a very serious future punishment, and share the conviction that Jesus believed in it, and that we ought to listen to him. After all, we’re evangelicals, and it doesn’t even make any sense that we would not. Admittedly, “Eliminating Hell” has a certain iconoclastic ring to it, if you’re into that sort of thing. But we went with “Rethinking Hell” instead because that’s what we’re actually doing! So for us, hell stays, even though we think that it doesn’t look like eternal torment. (Neither does Galli, as it turns out, but I digress.)

One might expect a secular publication to play into fears about a subversive agenda—everyone likes a bit of intrigue—but in the media our critics should speak charitably and plainly of our disagreement being over the nature of hell, not its reality. By all means, critique our view as mistaken, but don’t deprive us of even having a view on the same biblical topic. More to the point, please don’t stoop so low as to suggest that whoever disagrees with you is just doubting Jesus himself. How can there even be a debate, or different views in dialogue, if one view is just automatically noble and right?

Denny Burk and the Four Views on Hell

In the recent edition of “Four Views on Hell” from major evangelical publisher, Zondervan, Preston Sprinkle (editor) assembled able defenders of each view presented: Denny Burk (traditionalism), John G. Stackhouse, Jr. (conditionalism), Robin Parry (universalism), and Jerry Walls (purgatorialism). At Rethinking Hell, we do our best to promote such evangelical engagements on this controversial topic, because we think they are healthy and productive.

On a more practical level, we like to see our view get a fair hearing, since we have a degree of confidence in the strength of our case (to some, maybe a little too confident!). But we would hope that all parties, ourselves included, are truly willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Surely, the basic premise for evangelical dialogue is principled open-mindedness to biblical inquiry.

In this context, I was very interested to hear what Professor Burk had to say about the recent National Geographic article.  (Note: It’s short enough for you to go and read before returning here, if you’re so inclined).

No True (Evangelical) Scotsman?

Before commenting on Burk’s thoughts more directly, I’ll tip my hand a bit. I’m going to suggest that Burk is indulging in what’s known as the No True Scotsman fallacy. Not in any formal or overt way, since, like Galli, he’s just opining more than he is arguing. Although it is subtle, I think it’s a fair observation, and can be instructive to all of us as evangelicals seeking to dialogue together. My issue is not so much that Burk himself is slipping into this mode with his commentary, but rather that far too many evangelicals are doing so, with negative implications for truth-seeking, unity, and our public witness.

In a nutshell, the No True Scotsman fallacy begins with the claim that a Scotsman, for example, is qualified by X (not shaving, for example). When faced with a counterexample (in this case, a Scot who does indeed shave), the fallacy then conveniently redraws the qualification, thus: “No true Scotsman would ever shave!”

Applied to evangelicals, that might look a bit more like this: an evangelical is someone with a high view of scripture and evangelism; but here are some like that who think that the Bible teaches conditionalism; well, I guess they’re not really that evangelical after all!

The last point is made any number of tactful ways. But when you look at what is typically being implied, you often find that two classes of evangelical have opened up: the pure evangelical (traditionalist) and the pseudo-evangelical (conditionalist). Still evangelical, sort of, but not really a true evangelical. And maybe the lesser evangelical is about to leave the evangelical fold for some other reason (which these lesser evangelicals tend to do by nature, you see), which will only prove that they were never a true evangelical in the first place. We can call them evangelicals for the time being, since we’re being polite, but we do it with a bit of a wink and a nudge. Or so the narrative goes.

It’s worth pointing out here that it’s not a trivial thing to insinuate that someone isn’t, or might not be a true Christian or evangelical. Perhaps it is the case, but if it’s going to be said at all, it should be done with appropriate care, devoid of false piety.

Burk’s Four-Point View On Evangelical Conditionalists

The NatGeo article included an eyebrow-raising prediction made by Preston Sprinkle, which Burk used as a platform for his four-point response:

“My prediction is that, even within conservative evangelical circles, the annihilation view of hell will be the dominant view in 10 or 15 years,” says Preston Sprinkle, who co-authored the book Erasing Hell, which, in 2011, debuted at number three on the New York Times bestseller list. “I base that on how many well-known pastors secretly hold that view. I think that we are at a time and place when there is a growing suspicion of adopting tradition for the sake of tradition.”

With his first point, rather than question the timing or inevitability of the prediction, Burk went all meta—“Dominant among whom? Bible-believing Christians? Bible-believing Christians around the world? I don’t think so.”

And what is his reasoning?—“The recent decline of that view in the West may simply be a sign of Christianity’s decline in the West.”

I can’t tell you for sure what Burk means by this. All I can do is point out what it seems to suggest in context. Whereas Sprinkle sees in this scenario a laudable departure from tradition for its own sake, Burk sees a departure from Christianity. Not just conservative evangelical Christianity, mind you, as Sprinkle framed it. Not even from evangelical Christianity more broadly. Rather, a wholesale departure from “Bible-believing” Christianity itself. Yes, when eternal torment declines, the gates of hell must be finally prevailing against Christianity in the West.

Burk’s perspective raises a question that I think should be rather disconcerting if it were true: are those many well-known pastors who right now secretly hold to conditionalism actually not bona fide, Bible-believing Christians? Are they not true evangelicals, nor even true Christians at all?!

I have to give Burk the benefit of the doubt, as it would be truly surprising for him to broadly paint so many conditionalists as not even Christian. On the other hand, it appears that he doesn’t shy away from insinuations that might be taken that way. If he wanted to avoid giving that impression, he certainly doesn’t appear to have tried very hard with his subsequent points.

In his second point of response, he places “Christians” in scare quotes (and we all understand what that convention means):

Western “Christians” who forsake the traditional doctrine of Hell tend to be drifting in other crucial areas of doctrine as well. I do not claim this is true in every individual case, but it is true in many cases.

So it is the rule, not the exception. Many so-called “Christians” have “forsaken” eternal torment because (it is implied) they are doing the same thing with “other crucial” doctrines, under a liberalizing tendency. They are drifting away from orthodox evangelical faith just in general, Burk says.

The evidence? Clark Pinnock. In fairness to Burk, Pinnock is fair game, as he was cited in the NatGeo article, and was the conditionalist proponent in the first edition of Four Views on Hell. But, as Burk mentions, “everyone who knows Pinnock knows that he was way off the evangelical reservation in his doctrine of God.” I guess people will each draw their own assessment of that, but all can at least agree that Pinnock has been regarded by many as unorthodox. And that’s why Pinnock is low-hanging fruit for Burk. Burk should know that Pinnock’s emotionally fraught case is not considered by us as representative of a good evangelical conditionalist approach (see Point 4 of the Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism). And Burk knows (even if the NatGeo journalist may not) that both the movement and the debate have advanced since Pinnock’s article twenty years ago. He could just as easily, and more appropriately, have interacted with Stackhouse, his recent Four Views counterpart. Portraying Pinnock’s whole theological approach as commonplace among evangelical conditionalists is convenient, and unfortunately false and misleading.

In Burk’s third point of response, he offers his own explanation for what’s happened since then. Remember, Burk is responding to Sprinkle’s prediction and NatGeo’s article about the rise of evangelical conditionalism. What’s been causing this growth demands an adequate explanation:

Honestly, I wonder if there would even be any serious evangelical consideration of this view if it weren’t for him. In my estimation, it is not the legacy of Fudge that has given this view such staying power. It’s Stott’s legacy. And that is sad.

This really got me thinking. I get that Burk is reaching for a social explanation, and more of a catalyst than a primary cause. But in so doing, he’s pitting it against an alternative that is categorically different, and the only one truly evangelically motivated.

After seeming to suggest that most evangelical conditionalists lack evangelical credentials (beginning with the fact that they’re conditionalists), should I understand Burk’s point here any differently? Is he now going to continue in a more charitable fashion?

Now, John Stott was not a true Scotsman. He never claimed to be. But by any reckoning, he was a true evangelical. And Burk is happy to grant it—“Yes, I think he was evangelical”—as if there was ever any doubt!

Or is he? One gets the impression that Stott’s conditionalism is for Burk quite the chink in his evangelical armor. He’s not just mistaken, but “patently unbiblical . . . really wrong.” Burk wants us to know that Stott is “otherwise” impeccably evangelical, apart form this serious demerit. I can’t help but feel as though we’re supposed to do the math.

At least we have an exception to the general rule now. But is there any hope for the rest of us, who might follow in Stott’s footsteps? Well, not if “those who have drifted away from the traditional view” has the same connotation of “drifting” as in Burk’s previous point. To drift is to be well on your way out of the evangelical fold. Still evangelical for the time being—but not a true evangelical, due to being on the slippery slope.

Burk thinks that Stott’s public disclosure back in 1988 “provided cover” for us all ever since, in terms of his “otherwise impeccable credentials.” This is Burk’s explanation for the recent rise of evangelical conditionalism, and “not the legacy of Fudge.” And that contrast is the real story here I think. Let’s parse it out.

The claim is that John Stott’s reputation is the substantial explanation for the “serious evangelical consideration” of conditionalism today, as opposed to Edward Fudge’s exegetical work, which is what conditionalists themselves commonly point to.

But does that sound like “serious evangelical consideration”? Both Stott and Fudge are admirable fellows, but mere admiration for others does not a serious evangelical make. What should motivate and qualify “consideration” of a doctrinal issue as being both distinctly serious and evangelical, is attention to the biblical case. No more, and no less.

Stott didn’t actually provide substantial exegetical work in this area, and what he did proffer hasn’t been widely read. Fudge, again, is widely credited by conditionalists as having provided the exegetical case to convince them. Date, Sprinkle, Pinnock—none of their convictions are motivated by the person of John Stott, and this is indicative of the wider movement. Stackhouse traces his conditionalist views to prior to Fudge, in fact. For those who’ve studied the literature, there is a more or less unbroken line of influence for more than a century before Fudge, and what’s more (as I have argued), conditionalism is latent in theological discourse since the beginning (when not reduced to mere annihilation).

Yes, Stott is practically unimpeachable due to his stature and renown. But if that matters so much, it says more about the evangelical establishment than it does about the nature of the case: evangelicals being convinced by their study of the Bible. At most, Stott’s public disclosure of his tentative beliefs, held for some 50 years (i.e. pre-Fudge), could be said to have persuaded some since 1988 to consider the case put forward by Fudge and others, who otherwise would have been completely closed to the inquiry. While that is understandable at one level, if anything it speaks negatively against their evangelical seriousness (I’m talking about traditionalists who would not consider the biblical case unless and until someone like Stott did so). Evangelicals shouldn’t have to wait for the blessing of luminaries like Stott in order to evaluate the conditionalist exegetical case. And because we all know that, Burk’s explanation serves its purpose: the lesser evangelicals were (allegedly) more impressed by Stott than they were the Bible, via Fudge, so that’s really what is causing changed minds in increasing numbers.

Whatever else may be said about the social influence of luminaries and gate-keepers, there remains a legitimate appeal to authority. Does Richard Bauckham count as a legitimate authority in Bible scholarship? No doubt his annihilationism and commendation of Fudge’s work makes him not evangelical enough for some. And yet this is the problem with populism and selection bias: it’s easy enough to keep redrawing the lines for those who are deemed evangelical enough.

In my experience, some American evangelicals are prepared to throw all of British evangelicalism under the bus as not evangelical enough, once they learn that Stott was just the tip of the conditionalist iceberg in that region. “Christianity in America” may be “bedeviled by false teaching on every side” (quoting Burk’s first point), but Jesus is not coming back to claim an exclusively American Bride—whatever happened to the Lausanne movement spearheaded by Graham and Stott, inclusive of 150 nations participating in this push by the global evangelical church? That’s real leadership worthy of our respect.

It seems that Burk may be surreptitiously defining “evangelical” not as one with a high view of Scripture in the protestant spirit, and a high view of the gospel as exemplified in the Lausanne covenant, but rather as one who affirms among other things a long-standing tradition about God tormenting people forever. I’m not sure if he would protest that analysis or happily agree with it, but either way, this narrative is very present and discernible within the evangelical sphere. So I think that each of us needs to understand how we are drawing the lines, both in what we say, and in what we imply.

At the End of the Day. . .

Finally, with his fourth point of response, Burk says that the real question is what the Bible teaches:

At the end of the day, this is a question of biblical interpretation. What does the Bible teach? I am in agreement with the overwhelming testimony of the Christian church over the last 2,000 years. I make the case for that view in my chapter . . .

Of course he’s totally right; credit where credit’s due. Even though he hastens to appeal to tradition here, he does offer his biblical case elsewhere.

But I feel compelled to point out that this question of what the Bible teaches is just a good working definition of what it means to uphold evangelicalism.

Yet Burk has narrated a situation where to “forsake the traditional doctrine of Hell” is just a de-evangelicalizing, Pinnockian, drifting-away thing to do, as if by definition.

As one raised in the conservative evangelical church (non-American), who became a conditionalist only upon the strength of my evangelical convictions and resources, and one who is also tracking with the growth of this movement, I would rate the change of mind as ironically a “more serious,” “more evangelical,” and “more conservative” thing to do when compared to some of the counsel of its critics. Even if conditionalism ends up being mistaken.

And that’s the point. You can be evangelical and wrong on hell. Because to be evangelical about hell, is to be possibly wrong, not automatically right.

Pointing to what is best in evangelicalism I think serves as a far more accurate and informed explanation for the cause of the growth of evangelical conditionalism, compared to the narrative of suspicion and aspersions about emotionalism and liberalizing.

If Sprinkle is right about conditionalism soon becoming “the dominant view” among evangelicals, based on his sense of how many well-known pastors already hold to it, then I suspect that Burk would agree that this wouldn’t then render him any less evangelical as a traditionalist. If so, it’s easy to see that the same standard applies now, to conditionalism.

Critics can’t have it both ways. Either it’s a serious evangelical thing to do to be willing to examine the Bible on this issue even if it results in adopting conditionalism, or it’s a serious departure. If it’s evangelical, then we should accept that true evangelicals can differ on this point. If it’s not evangelical, then we shouldn’t portray that there is a legitimate in-house debate on hell, as if no true evangelical would ever depart from tradition or consensus.

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