Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Hell, Bell and Heresy - A Caution

You may not have thought about it before, but no matter who you are or what you believe, you are a heretic!

Or, at least you would have been considered one by some group or another at a certain point in the history of the Christian Church, and been subject to beatings, imprisonment, torture and possibly death. That fact alone should caution us to be careful when we call someone a “heretic” or accuse a Christian brother or sister of teaching “heresy” when they hold views we disagree with.

Heresy is a very serious charge. And, it has resulted in very serious consequences – not the least of which is the fact that excesses by some who have sought to stamp out heresy have led to God’s Name being blasphemed among non-believers!

The Eastern and Western Churches each considered the other “heretical” after the Great Schism in AD 1054. The leaders of the Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and others – were deemed “heretics” by the Roman Catholic Church. Members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy were considered “heretics” by the Reformers. And, both groups persecuted as “heretics” the Anabaptists who didn’t believe in infant baptism.

I mention this because the charge of heresy has come up repeatedly in conversations, articles and blog posts about Rob Bell and his position on Hell.

What people usually mean when they say his teaching is “heretical” is that it is wrong teaching. But, that is to use the word much too loosely. A teaching may be wrong without being heresy. For example, most Calvinists believe in predestination while Arminians believe in free-will. Each would say the view the other group holds is wrong. However, it is not heresy.

What is True Christianity?

Many individuals and groups throughout the world today claim to be “Christian,” but differ significantly from others who claim the same thing.

Some who claim the mantle of Christianity meet in large edifices that are beautifully adorned with gold, fine wood, or massive stone work. Others who make the same claim meet in houses or under a tree. Some who claim to be Christians use a variety of electronic and acoustic musical instruments to sing contemporary songs with upraised arms waving in the air. Others who claim the name Christian use no instrumentation at all, sit quietly, and only sing the Psalms. Some who say they are Christians handle snakes as part of their worship practices, or wash one another’s feet, or speak in tongues, or claim to have the gift of healing or prophecy or wisdom. Others do none of these things. Most who claim the name Christian meet together with like minded people on Sunday for a time of worship. Others meet on Saturday, and some on Friday. Some who claim to be Christian baptize infants. Others baptize only adults. Some “have communion” or “share the Eucharist” every time they meet. Others do so only once a month, or once a year.

If you ask an Independent Baptist if he is a Christian, he will say, “yes.” If you ask a Roman Catholic if he is a Christian, he will say, “yes.” If you ask Anglicans, or a members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, or people who attends services at a Charismatic, Pentecostal, or Seventh Day Adventist church if they are Christians, they will answer, “yes.” However, many in each of those groups would say that the others are not.

So, who is right? What does it mean to really be “Christian?”

The Ancient Church

Most churches, organizations or groups today that call themselves “Christian” have some kind of statement of faith that explains what they consider to be their core beliefs with regard to who God is, who Jesus Christ is, who the Holy Spirit is, what they believe about the Bible, or church polity, or specific worship practices. This is an important tool that distinguishes them from others who they believe do not represent true Christianity.

The ancient Church wrestled with this same issue. As the Church grew during a time of great persecution, it became necessary to clarify what truly represented the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Interestingly, the only official statement of faith that has come down to us from the early Church that put forth what they considered to be the essence of the Christian faith is the Nicene Creed. In fact, the council that issued it specifically prohibited other creeds from being officially formulated and presented as the authoritative teaching of the Christian Church.[1]

In addition to this, the Apostles Creed which preceded it (although not actually written by the Apostles) has generally been accepted by almost all those individuals and groups in the East and West who call themselves Christians.

Most committed Christians today, from a wide variety of theological backgrounds, would have no hesitation whatsoever in declaring that these two creeds contain what they believe is the heart of their faith. In fact, many of these same Christians actually recite them on a regular basis in their Sunday morning worship services as part of their declaration of what “we, as Christians, believe.”

So, what do these ancient statements of faith put forward by the combined Church assembled have to say about after-death punishment? Nothing! Neither creed contains a hint of the belief in the endless punishment of the wicked. The reason, as mentioned in an earlier article[2], is that endless punishment was not considered an important tenet of the faith at that time, and there were a great many believers who did not subscribe to it.

The Apostles Creed

As printed here, the portion in regular type was probably written in the early or middle part of the second century and was in Greek. The portion in italic was added later by the Roman Church, and was in Latin.[3]

I believe in God the Father Almighty maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he arose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church; the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

The earlier form of the creed speaks of the “resurrection of the body,” and the later form mentions the “life everlasting.” But, not a word is written about Hell. The belief that the wicked suffered endless, conscious punishment was not included in the creed because it was not universally held and taught by those who were leaders in the church at that time. It was also not considered to be an essential tenet of the faith at a time when Christianity was first being introduced to the pagan world around it, and making its greatest impact.

The Nicene Creed

The next oldest creed, and the only one officially authorized by a consensus of the whole church, was the Nicene Creed. This creed was originally drafted at the Council of Nicea in AD 325, with later modifications made at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. It is a statement of faith accepted by almost all those who claim to be Christians in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Oriental Orthodox churches, and almost all of the Protestant churches, including the Anglican Communion, most Baptist and Independent churches, the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Reformed churches.

Like the Apostles’ Creed before it, the Nicene Creed says nothing at all about endless punishment. That doctrine was then professed by a portion of the Christian church, but it was not generally enough held to be stated as the average or official belief.

The portion of the creed printed here in regular type is that composed at Nicea in AD 325. The portion in italic was added in AD 381 at the Council of Constantinople.[4]

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (or ages), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father,[5] who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets. In one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

As with the Apostles’ Creed before it, not a word is written in this clear statement of faith about the nature or duration of after-death punishment. None of the four great Ecumenical Councils held in the first four centuries of the Christian era – those at Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon – condemned the belief that God would one day restore all of His creation or even mentioned endless punishment as the consensus belief of the church, although both doctrines were held by various key participants at the time.

Is Rob Bell a heretic or is his belief about Hell heresy? Not according to the giants of the faith in the early Church upon whose shoulders we stand. We should be careful not to use the term heresy too lightly.

[1] Conc. Ephes. Can. VII. “'The holy Synod has determined that no person shall be allowed to bring forward, or to write, or to compose any other Creed (ἑτέραν πίστιν μηδενὶ ἐξεῖναι προφέρειν ἤγουν συγγράφειν ἢ συντιθέναι), besides that which was settled by the holy fathers who assembled in the city of Nicæa, with the Holy Spirit. But those who shall dare to compose any other Creed, or to exhibit or produce any such, if they are bishops or clergymen, they shall be deposed, but if they are of the laity, they shall be anathematized.' The Council of Chalcedon (451), although setting forth a new definition of faith, repeated the same prohibition (after the Defin. Fidei).” Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical notes, Volume I, The History of Creeds, Harper & Brothers, 1877, p 35, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds1.iv.v.html

[3] cf. Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical notes, Volume I, The History of Creeds, Harper & Brothers, 1877, p 14, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds1.iv.ii.html

[4] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom with a History and Critical Notes, Vol. I, Harper & Brothers, 1877, Sixth Edition Revised and Enlarged, by David S. Schaff, 1905, 1919, p. 28-29

[5] In the late sixth century, the Latin-speaking Western Church added the words “and the Son” to the description of the procession of the Holy Spirit in what the Eastern Church argued is a violation of Canon VII of the Third Ecumenical Council, since the words were not included in the text by either the Council of Nicea or that of Constantinople.


Widemouth said...

Thank-you for allowing me to pass on this warning for you to share with your readers. There is a man who's influence is growing in North America and he is teaching that Jesus became a sinner. His name is Dr. Jim Richards from Impact Ministries and video/audio proof of this heresy can be found here http://www.squidoo.com/jim-richards

Unknown said...

Rob Bell's book, "Love Wins" indeed has started a quest for the truth of UR, but Rob Bell only speculates that UR is true in his book. He doesn't assert that he believes that all will be saved, but that it is a possibility. Unfortunately, lately, Rob Bell has come out openly for so-called "Progressive Christianity", and has stated that homosexuality and other sins should be acceptable in Christ's Church--not heeding Christ's commands that we must be obedient disciples of ALL of His Word and Commands.