Evangelical Megashift

Why you may not have heard about wrath, sin, and hell recently.

by Robert Brow   (web site - www.brow.on.ca)

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today [February 19, 1990], pp. 12-14.

Evangelicals have long been at odds over the models they use in interpreting Scripture. Witness the differences between Calvinists and Wesleyans, pacifistic Mennonites and just-war Lutherans, or a Baptist and an Anglican such as Billy Graham and John Stott. In fact, all of us, in a way we often take for granted, view Scripture through a model, or pattern, that organizes our assumptions and governs our conclusions.

 But now, almost without our recognizing it, another model has appeared. I will call it "new-model" thinking, and suggest it is dividing evangelicals on a deep level. The wind of its influence blows in through every crack when we read C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia stories or Madeleine L'Engle's time travel fantasies. A whole generation of young people have breathed this air, making their thinking very different from that of "old-model" evangelicalism, even where there is shared commitment to Jesus as Savior and the Bible as the authoritative Word of God.

 How are we to understand this "megashift" in evangelical thinking? Shall we embrace it as a recovery of biblical faith? Repudiate it as one more case of Christianity capitulating to culture? See it as an important "contextualizing" of faith for modern minds? To move discussion toward an answer, I will outline the contours of this model and look closely at key terms, allowing the reader (and respondents) to decide whether, and in what way, the new model fits the revelation of God in Scripture and in Jesus Christ. For the most part, I will avoid naming individual authors and theologians, allowing the ideas to stand or fall without reference to persons, institutions, or schools of thought.

Justice: The glory of Rome

One of the most obvious features of new-model evangelicalism is an emphasis on recalling the warmth of a family relationship when  thinking about God. It prefers to picture God as three persons held together in a relationship of love. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, it argues, made humans in their image with a view to bringing many children to glory. So instead of being dragged trembling into a law court, we are to breathe in the atmosphere of a loving family.

 New-model evangelicals usually suggest that old model thinking came into the churches of Europe with the translation of the Bible into Latin. To the Roman mind, the justice of their law courts was the supreme glory of the empire. Theologians such as Tertullian and Augustine set the interpretation of the Bible in the context of a criminal found guilty by an impassive judge who pronounces the death sentence of hell. The Son of God was then viewed as the one who came in to pay the penalty so the criminal could go free. This forensic, law-court model was set out in its most rigorous substitutionary form in Cur Deus homo (Why did God become man?). Four hundred years later the Reformation would retain aspects of the law-court model of Augustine and Anselm. But Luther and Calvin did modify it to argue that the substitutionary law-court payment of Christ could be credited to our account on the basis of faith, not by submission to the Roman Catholic church.

 New-model evangelical theology argues that the Roman law court is the wrong context for understanding the Scriptures. This has a dramatic effect on the way faith is articulated, for the adoption of a new model changes the nuance of every word. A shift from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics, to suggest an analogy, makes terms such as gravity, light, energy, and space and time change their flavor. We similarly need to understand the new meanings given to some of the old words. Here, then, are some key terms that have completely changed their focus in new-model theology, words that point to the shift in how some now understand and articulate their faith.

 First, the word hell. In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis rejected the idea that God sends people to hell by a judicial sentence for failing to hear or understand. His picture of a gray city and the freedom to move into the light of heaven suggested that no one could possibly be in hell who would rather be in heaven. I would identify this understanding as new-model, and suggest that it is now a common assumption of many Christians in thoroughly biblical churches.

 This is not, of course, to suggest that new-model evangelicals preach universalism. C. S. Lewis had no doubt that some, together with Satan, will choose hell. The point is that the assignment to hell is not by judicial sentence. The model presents heaven and hell as the ultimate outcome of our freedom.

 A second key word is faith. C. S. Lewis's picture of heaven and hell as destinations of the heart supplies a new motive and meaning for believing. Faith is a direction of looking, new-model thinking would argue, not a particular decision. While choosing is important, decisions can be based on fleeting emotions, wrong information, or ignorance. But God looks on the heart, the new model says. Abraham, as described in Romans, shows this: He is justified by faith - a faith in which one cannot point to only one decision. His faith had to do with a constant looking in the right direction.

A comforting judgment

Another word with shifting connotations is judge. The word has two quite different meanings, it is argued. Instead of a Roman law court, the new emphasis derives its understanding from the books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Judges such as Deborah or Gideon or Samuel are portrayed as defenders of their people. They may have to settle petty quarrels, but their concern is the freedom peace of the people.

 This picture of a judge is sometimes merged with the Old Testament portrayal of the ideal king. David is a father of his people: He loves them, fights for them, and is a good shepherd. New-model evangelicals are comfortable with such interpretations, while old-model evangelicals complain that they produce preaching that misses the notes of sin, guilt, condemnation, and the terrors of hell.

 In new-model theology, a fourth term, wrath - specifically God's wrath - similarly means something different from the old-model understanding. Wrath connotes not angry punishment, but the bad consequences God assigns, as any loving parent might, to destructive or wrongful behavior. The word wrath as used in the Old Testament, it is argued, is not primarily a law-court term. It never means sending people to an eternal hell. In fact, it can simply be translated "bad consequences" - the bad consequences of pestilence, drought, and famine, or the ravages of wild animals and invading armies, experienced in the here and now. Likewise, Jesus spoke of terrible consequences that would come about in the fall of Jerusalem - for his generation.

 So wrath is more like a loving encouragement or rebuke to help us into (or keep us in) the fold. New-model evangelicals shrink from using the terrors of hell to scare people into making a decision. From the old-model point of view, that approach misses the fact that God can send us to hell, and that the only hope is to accept what Christ has done to save us from the damnation we deserve.

 A fifth word, sin, also changes meaning. In a law court, sin is an offense deserving of a penalty. In old-model theology, even one sin would be sufficient to condemn us to hell. New-model evangelicals, on the other hand, cannot think about sin without reference to the fatherly care of God. For loving parents, sin or bad behavior requires discipline and correction, with a view to helping the child change. But the purpose is never to exclude the child from home. That means sin under the new model is dealt with primarily in the community of faith, under the inspiration o Holy Spirit. Old-model evangelicals stress that the judicial condemnation of sin must first be removed by a deliberate acceptance of the payment Christ has made on our behalf.

Who goes to hell?

A sixth key term in the model shift is the word church. Traditional medieval theology held that there is no salvation outside the church. Only the baptized who submitted to the discipline of the Roman Catholic church could have the sacrifice of Christ credited to them. All others went to hell. Protestants tended to think of an invisible church of those (really known only to God) who have genuine, saving faith. Some, therefore, tried to organize churches where all members knew they were saved by accepting the judicial transaction Christ had made for them. Most groups assumed that if one belonged to heaven, he or she would believe the right doctrines and belong to the "correct" evangelical church. Those who thought otherwise and belonged to errant churches were probably going to hell.

 New-model thinking views the church as one of the instruments of the love of God. Instead of a stockade for the saved, or an agency to save souls, the church is viewed as a royal priesthood functioning to make known the love of God, to say "your sins are forgiven" as Jesus did, and to offer the resources of the Spirit to all who want to learn how to love and enjoy God and their neighbors.

 That obviously produces a different motive for missions. Old-model missions viewed all the heathen as lost until they heard the gospel and made the right "faith decision." Christians - missionaries in particular - are to feel the burden of the millions going to hell; they should go and save any who can be reached with the good news.

 New-model evangelicals tend to appeal instead to the Great Commission at the end of Matthew's gospel. Jesus' program is to teach all nations. This means enrolling by baptism any who want to learn and training them, forming them into church families where the Spirit will teach them all that Jesus taught.

 Finally, there is a subtle difference in the meaning assigned to the title, Son of God. Both old-model and new-model evangelicals believe that at the right time, the eternal Son or Word of God took a human body, lived among us, died, rose again, and ascended from our space-time world. Old-model theology, however, stresses that our forgiveness was not purchased until Jesus actually died on the cross. New-model evangelicals, as suggested in C. S. Lewis's Narnia stories, view the Son of God as eternally both Lion and Servant, Shepherd and Lamb. He did not become Lamb simply when he was put on the cross. His identity as Lamb was eternal in the sense that he was already absorbing our sin and its consequences from the time the first creatures were made in the image of God. That means the cross was not a judicial payment, but the visible expression in a space-time body of his eternal nature as Son.

Changing our minds

We have looked at seven key words that have radically changed focus among new-model evangelicals. When these words are encountered in the Bible, their meaning is articulated with a different accent. Many readers of Christianity Today will recognize that they have moved in some of these directions without being conscious of a model shift. And the old model can be modified and given qualifications for a time. But once three or four of the changes have occurred, our thinking is already organized around the new model. We may still use old-model language and assume we believe as before, but our hearts are changing our minds.

 What are we to make of the new model? It does make sense of the family language of the Bible. And no one would deny that it is easier to relate to a God perceived as kindly and loving. But is new-model thinking biblical? Has it a place under the evangelical umbrella? Will it indeed, as old-model evangelicals believe, deprive our preaching of its cutting edge and dull the motive for missions? Does it provide a more helpful picture of God's good news, or is it "another gospel"?

 These questions deserve debate; facing and struggling to answer them should become evangelical theology's major task.

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