Friday, April 01, 2011

The Universal Light of Christ

I recently came across this video by David Platt, pastor of Brook Hills Church in Birmingham, Alabama. In it, Platt explains why he believes that the 597 million people in northern India who are not Evangelical Christians face eternal torment in hell. Referencing the recent debate around Rob Bell's new book, he speaks about what he sees as the dangers of universalism.

This video saddens me, because I realize that millions of Christians in the United States share Platt's worldview - one in which God created a world where millions of people would die without ever having the chance to be in relationship with God - and who would be punished for their misfortune by eternal misery in hell. Because this worldview is so prevalent among Christians in my country, I felt moved to create a video response. In it, I attempt to explain my faith that the saving presence of Jesus Christ is available to all people, even those who have not had the opportunity - for whatever reason - to accept the doctrines of orthodox Christianity.

(PS: I know some folks will not want to spend their precious internet time watching me blab. For those who are more textually inclined, I've transcribed the video, below.)


I just got done watching a video made by a pastor in Alabama named David Platt. And in the video, he's standing in India, and he's responding, essentially, to Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins, and the charges of universalism that have been leveled at Rob Bell - which, based on reviews of the book that are coming out now, and based on what I have read of it so far - I just got it - it doesn't seem to be the case. It doesn't seem that he's a universalist in the true sense.

But, regardless, I watched this video and there were several different points he made that I feel strong issues with. I guess my initial reaction to the video is a sense of sadness and even shame, because I recognize that David Platt is my brother in Christ. He and I both serve our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And so, I have to take responsibility for him and for what he is preaching, in a certain sense, because we are both trying to serve Jesus Christ as we understand him, and I take responsibility for him as my brother in Christ. So, I feel sad, not only for what he is preaching, but for how it reflects on the Body of Christ, which I believe is God's presence in the world.

To begin with, he starts out his video essentially saying, "if you're not an Evangelical Christian, you don't have Christ." That needs to be wrestled with a little bit. What does it mean to "have Christ"? As a Friend - as a Quaker - I believe that all people have access to Christ. Maybe David would agree with that, that all people have access to Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit. I believe that Jesus Christ has saving power in the lives of all people who accept that saving power, even if they do not know the gospel story.

David in his video puts great emphasis on the gospel story, on getting these stories - the biblical stories and the biblical commandments - to the people of northern India. And I think the stories are really important. Those stories are so foundational for me, and so much of what I know about Jesus I understand through my experience of him speaking to me through the Scripture, and in community around the Scripture. So, the Scripture is amazingly important to me.

But the concept that people don't have Christ unless they have had the Scriptures delivered to them is just incredible to me, because all things hold together in Christ. Christ is in all and through all and creates all. All things were created through Jesus Christ, the Word of God. And so, the concept that people who haven't - for historical, or cultural, or whatever reasons - received the gospel story, that they would all be condemned to eternal separation from God is just dumfounding to me. Because, Jesus Christ is there with them, whether or not they have heard that story. And I believe that it is possible to accept his lordship in their lives without actually realizing on an intellectual level what, exactly, that means historically, in terms of Jesus' historical incarnation and coming into the world.

Another thing in David's video that really disturbed me was his amazing presumption. He seemed to think that we as orthodox Christians can know who's going to heaven and who's going to hell. I think that's blasphemous. It is not our place as Christians to determine who's going to heaven and who's going to hell. We are not the judge of that. For us to put ourselves in the seat of judgment is to set ourselves in the place of God. I hope that David will reconsider his apparent attitude of sitting in that seat of judgment, feeling like he knows - and we know as Christians - who is going where. I hope we as a Church can repent of that, because I believe it's a sin.

Another thing that he says in his video that I felt was wrong was that he says, "...If we believe everyone is going to be OK in the end, then we are free to lead our lives however we want. We can sit back as easy-going Christians in comfortable churches, because, in the end, all of these masses are going to be OK." I don't think there's a necessary correlation between belief in damnation of all those who have not heard the story and an apathy that David assumes, that if someone were a universalist - or simply didn't believe that every person that didn't hear the gospel story during their lifetime was damned - I don't think that there's necessarily going to be an apathy about missions.

I don't believe that all people who have not heard the story are damned. I believe that Christ can work in their hearts, even in the absence of the Scriptures. So that's where I'm coming from. But my entire life is devoted to mission. I want people to hear the story, to accept Jesus, not only in a vague spiritual sense, but in a real, intellectually satisfying sense, where they know - both with their hearts and with their heads - that Jesus is Lord, and they can confess that. That's what I desire for all people.

But I desire this in a context of believing that people can be saved in spite of their lack of intellectual understanding of who Jesus is. So I would just like to challenge David a little bit on that concept, that if we believed that people weren't necessarily going to be damned for not intellectually accepting certain ideas about Jesus that we would just give up on mission and go sit in our easy chairs and drink a beer. I don't think that's how things play out.

I think that many of us are motivated far more by love for others and wanting to see the redemption in their lives now, rather than a sense of, "all these people are going to hell and I've got to save them from that."
Finally, there was one other thing in the video that disturbed me. David said that his response is the only one possible for those of us who really believe in the Bible. What really caught my eye was "believe in the Bible." And we hear Christians today talking a lot about believing in the Bible, being "Bible-believing Christians." That's kind of a phrase: "Bible-believing Christians."

I trust the Scriptures. I believe the Scriptures have great authority, and they are extremely important in my walk with the Lord. But, ultimately, I believe in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, and he is sovereign over all things - over heaven and earth and that which is under the earth, and over the Bible. Jesus Christ is Lord and Sovereign over the Scriptures themselves, and he is the one who we must go to to be able to understand the Scriptures.

I don't think the Scriptures themselves - without the Spirit, without Jesus Christ - have any power. I believe it is only as we listen to Jesus Christ as he is present with us today, through the power of his Holy Spirit, that we can understand the Scriptures and truly follow him. And I believe that if we get up into our own intellectual understandings and don't rely on the Spirit, we will misinterpret the Scriptures. We will interpret them as human beings, rather than as sons and daughters of God.

I believe that many of the ideas that David Platt is promoting are reflective of a human understanding of the Scriptures, a human analysis of the Scriptures that does not rely sufficiently on the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.


Robin Vestal said...

Very good points. I think some of the insistance on hell as being important to belief is from what is motivating people in their lives. Some people respond best to moving away from negative things and others to moving toward positive I've been thinking about this alot because I've been astonished since this whole Rob Bell thing started at all the people that have expressed that there is no good news without hell. There may be hell...I don't know but it's not what motivates me. My life has been forever changed by Jesus/Father and Holy Spirit trying to follow Jesus in love is what motivates me. It also may be some legalism..if you do or say certain things you are saved rather than a process of accepting God/Christ and moving forward from there.See More

R. Guy Pharris said...

An echo of your thoughts in Steve Chalke's "The Lost Message of Jesus":
"Goodness, kindness and holiness and grace and divine presence and creating power and salvation were all here before I got here. My role as a herald of that gospel, as a messenger of the news of what had already happened in the world, as the person whose task it was to point to 'the one who had stood in their midst whom they did not recognize' was only a small part of the mission of God to the world."

Bill Samuel said...

Thanks, Micah, for this. The early Friends pointed out that views like that of David Platt diminished the power of Jesus Christ. They believed that Christ is much more powerful than is implicit in those who believe that everyone who does not know the Biblical story of Jesus Christ is doomed.

And it is a key point that the center of our faith must be Jesus Christ not the scriptures, as valuable as they are. My pastor remarked a couple of months ago that even if the scriptures were proved beyond a reasonably doubt not to be genuine, he would still put his faith in Jesus Christ.

Do we believe in a God of relationship or in a God of rules and doctrine? Jesus said I am the way, the truth and the life. Christ himself, not doctrines about him or what has been written about him. Hard to grasp in our limited human minds, but I believe it to be true.

Marcus said...

"You pore over the scriptures, believing that in them you can find eternal life; it is these scriptures that testify to me, and yet you refuse to come to me to receive life!"

Julian said...

Micah - thanks for standing up Christianity in a way doesn't have us continually denouncing other people's sins and separating ourselves from them.

Jesus' message was about loving people (tax collectors, lawyers, prostitutes, whomever) by building relationships with them, eating dinner with them, healing them... not about loving them by making threats

Raye said...

Good work, Micah. Thanks.

Jeremy Mott said...

Jeremy Mott said ....

Bravo, Micah, This is the sort of
statement that Friends must make,
over and over.

Luis Pizarro said...

Micah, very good video. I loved it. I absolutely agree with you in all points.

By the way, when you claim that Rob Bell does not seem to be an Universalist in the true sense, are you referring to the fact that Rob Bell does not affirm that all religions are the same, ie, all are roads to the same goal? I think Rob claims that Jesus is the Way, the True, and the Life, BUT he also considers that ALL human beings regardless their beliefs will be eventually redeemed by Christ and reconciled with God. (I hope my English is understandable enough.)

Anyway, your response to David Platt's video is superb.

Luis Pizarro said...

...I forgot to say that your way of thinking regarding salvation and damnation has the power to heal soul wounds.

Anonymous said...

Sticks and stones can kill me, but words cannot as they say. Unless you dare to say or do anything against Mohammad. Some radical Christians may preach fire and brimestone, but so what? Ignore it. You cannot even begin to criticize Muslims as you would Christians. I dare you to try it. It would be like a hit put on you like from the Mafia, were it still around.

Ganeida said...

There are plenty of personal testimonies coming from people who have never heard the gospel, or actively disbelieve it, of how Christ appeared to them & personally revealed Himself. It is sheer arrogance to assume God can't take care of His own, whoever they are, in whatever coutry they live. I do not know the details of how God is going to work it out. I do know He has said that there will be people from every nation, tribe & tongue in heaven.

Jani Kurki said...

For once I find myself whole-heartedly agreed with Micah's message - at least with the transcript, didn't watch the video (hope thee doesn't take offense, Micah ;)).

Yet I don't quite get Julian's point (here we go again;)). Was it somehow indicated in the video/transcript of it? Namely, I fail to see the main point of the message (was it to be read in-betwen the lines?) to be that of distancing ourselves from condemning sin...

I wish and pray to be condemning of the sin in me/my own sinful behaviour (in which I've sadly excelled well during these past couple ogf months that I've found to be a very trying time) , I wish and pray that other people do correct me when I sin & I wish that I don't stop condemning sin just because I've sinned and do sin... Sin never does good to anyone.

I see Jesus' message in terms of loving people - including those tax collectors, lawyers, prostitutes, whomever - by building a relationship with them, AND telling them that their condition was sinful/harmful to themselves and that they would need to change their ways. This I find real love. And it's none the more than us sinners that need a redeemer. A sinner not knowledging his/her sin doesn't need a redeemer. He/She might like to have a friendly by-passer come to see him/her in his/her condition, but that wasn't/isn't Jesus' "job" as I see it.

When Jesus works within people not having outward knowledge of the Bible, He just don't pay them a visit saying they're fine in their condition - be that of the prostitute, tax-collector, lawyer, whomsoever. He challenges them inwardly to stop sinning/trying to follow good - sin & good defined in the wat they're in the Scriptures. This I beleive in.

Kathy Summers said...

Thanks so much for what you shared. A beautiful way to think. Kathy

Jim714 said...

Dear Micah:

Thanks for posting this. I found it inspiring and resonant with my own life. For three years I was a Prison Chaplain at a Prison for the Criminally Insane. Some of the people I worked with were deranged. This experience was a turning point for me on many levels. But apropos your post, some of the people I worked with would not have understood doctrinal disputes and distinctions. In many ways they were farther from the Bible and its word than those who for cultural and geographical reasons are removed from this explicit message. Yet it was my experience that the light of the Lord did dwell within them and did move within them, and that the saving grace of the Lord was present even in these extremely difficult circumstances.

And, by extension, this would also apply to those who lack full mental capacity. At another point in my life I was the Manager of a Goodwill Store involved in training such people. Again, I could see the Lord working in the lives of people, even those of limited abilities.

The Lord's ability to work and bring grace to the lives of all is literally unlimited; unlike the limitations of the human mind and heart.

Best wishes,



Nick said...

Hello Micah,
I have to say, I see the same weakness in your argument as I see in Platt's - neither appeals to the scripture's authority over this issue. I can find one million different opinions about this issue, but who can back them up with God's word?

Anonymous said...

With much love and respect from a sister in Christ: I cannot fathom how you can believe that a God who is all-powerful, and sovereign would give us scriptures that are not completely truthful. The Lord states clearly that the path to destruction is wide, and the path to righteousness is narrow. Even if you only "trust" the scriptures, and do not see them as complete authority, what you believe still contradicts the gospel in so many verses. Not once in your blog do you quote scripture. I know that what you believe makes you feel comfortable, but it is not biblical at all, it is a completely made up religion.

"If God is the creator of and commander of beauty and goodness and the reflection of his moral character and is not bothered by us standing in opposition to that, he is at best indifferent to sin, and at worst cares nothing for the pain and sorrow that that rebellion causes all over the world. So, God's wrath toward disobedience is absolutely tied to His holiness and beauty. You can't separate them out. He is not holy and beautiful if he is not wrathful toward rebellion against that holiness. If you separate them out then you no longer have the gospel of Jesus Christ."
-Matt Chandler


Luis Pizarro said...

@ Beth: Dear Beth, though I do not know whether or not Micah agrees with the content of the book The Inescapable Love of God, by Thomas Talbott, however you can find there solid biblical evidence that supports Micah´s claims.

Micah Bales said...

@Robin It is indeed astonishing how many folks seem to consider hell a part of the good news. Hell certainly exists (I've experienced it!), but it is most definitely not the good news.

@Bill @Marcus @Ganeida Amen!

@Julian @Raye @Jeremy @Kathy @Jim Thanks for the encouragement!

@Luís Glad you enjoyed this post. When I say that Rob Bell does not seem to be a universalist, what I am referring to are the reports I have heard from those who have read the book (I've not yet gotten through it) that Bell comes down on the side of the idea that hell exists, but that human beings choose it for themselves.

This is more or less the same position as C.S. Lewis, and one that could make sense to me. It's not a universalist position, but it takes the choice to damn out of the hands of God and places it squarely in the choices of each person.

@Anonymous What does any of this have to do with criticizing Islam?

@Jani I'm so glad to know that we're in agreement on this, Jani! :)

@Nick That was precisely my point: The Bible is not the Word of God - Jesus Christ is. As long as we appeal to the authority of Scripture without submitting ourselves to the present-day direction of Jesus Christ, we will never understand the true meaning of the Scriptures. Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures, and we must be inspired by that same Spirit in order to understand those Scriptures.

@Beth I'm surprised you did not notice that I did quote Scripture during my little talk. Now, I am not in the habit of citing Scripture while talking, but everything I said has a scriptural basis and can be supported by a Spirit-led interpretation of the Scriptures.

That being said, I do not derive my authority from the Scriptures. During his earthly ministry, Jesus, "taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law" (Matt 7:29). I seek to live in the same life and power that Jesus revealed, imitating his authoritative teaching. This teaching is based not on the letter, but on the Spirit that created the cosmos and gave forth the Scriptures.

This is the power that was before the Scriptures and which inspired the Scriptures. This power is the only true authority, the Way, Truth and Life that the Scriptures point to. Any appeal to the Scriptures that is not grounded in that authority is a blind clutching at human wisdom.

May we rely on the sweet presence and power of Jesus and not on any outward authority, no matter how venerable.

Moad said...

Hello Micah, I agree with what you have said and have felt this way for many moons much to the frustration of many Christian brothers and sisters over the years who I have spoken about this with. Nicely talked through Micah. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.
Your Friend in Christ........Shane