From time to time, somewhere within the Good Old C of E, I come across a claim so baffling that it stays with me and I struggle to make sense of it. That last happened ten days ago, when I read the article by Dr Sam Wells in the Church Times, which called for a reformation so the Church ‘should rethink its purpose and change the way churches [ie church buildings] are used accordingly’. I was all the more baffled knowing that Wells, formerly Dean at Duke Divinity School in the US and married to Jo Bailey Wells, the Bishop of Dorking, has a reputation as an able theologian.
Wells begins by putting Jesus’ offer of abundant life at the centre of the Church’s mission:
Jesus is our model of abundant life; his life, death and resurrection chart the transformation from the scarcity of sin and death to the abundance of healing and resurrection; he longs to bring all humankind into reconciled and flourishing relationship with God, one another, themselves, and all creation.
As he says, ‘so far, so good’. The problem comes with the role of hell, which ‘people stopping believing in about 1860.’ It is here that his argument takes a very odd turn. He rightly notes the difficulties with reconciling notions of ‘eternal torment’ with our understanding of God as gracious—but seems content to articulate (and go along with?) the rejection of something that is really a parody of Christian reflection on judgement. It is odd that he makes no comment on the intense debates in this area (of which he surely must be aware) which have led many, including myself, so adopt what is known as Annihilationism. It might not be completely persuasive to see that this was the view espoused by the prominent evangelical leader John Stott—but the view goes back to Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, so it has some pedigree.
For Wells, his touchstone is ‘the God revealed in Jesus Christ’, and his recalibration of the gospel is in positive terms:
Salvation is not fundamentally to be conceived as enabling people to escape from the labours of life and the horrors of hell to the halcyon joys of heaven. Jesus did not fundamentally come to redirect us from judgement and oblivion to safety and sublime bliss.
This is such an odd statement, I really don’t know what to do with it. Jesus’ predecessor, John the Baptist, castigated his listeners: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’ (Matt 3.7). Jesus’ follower Peter, in his Pentecost speech ‘with many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”’ (Acts 2.40). Can it be that Sam Wells’ gentle Jesus, meek and mild, was like neither his predecessor or his follower and avoided all talk of judgement? What, then, are we to make of the centrality in Jesus’ teaching of the call to ‘repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand’ (Mark 1.15 and elsewhere)? What do we do with Jesus’ repeated language of ‘the darkness outside, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matt 8.12, 13.42, 13.50, 22.13, 24.51, 25.30, Luke 13.28)? We only need to look at the best-known verse in the New Testament about the love of God:
God loved the world in this way, that he sent his only Son, so that those who believe in him might not perish but have eternal life. (John 3.16)
John (or Jesus in John’s gospel) isn’t here suggesting that Jesus makes life just a little bit better; he is asserting that, without belief, there is no life, only death and judgement—and ‘belief’ here is something radical and whole-hearted, something that draws a sharp line between those who believe and those who do not. No wonder that John’s gospel continues deploying this language of stark contrasts:
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. All those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But those who live by the truth come into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3.18–21)
Note two things I am not doing here. First, I am not suggesting that the questions Christians have struggled with about judgement and post-mortem destiny are simply and easily solved. Nor am I suggesting that Christians should go around preaching about hell; I have heard one excruciatingly inappropriate Christmas sermon by an earnest curate, telling the C and E audience (‘Christmas and Easter’) that they are sinners who need to repent—and one was enough. But what I am suggesting is that Wells’ statement makes no sense of the New Testament at all.
Historically, there have been three main ways in which theologians have avoided these awkward bits of Jesus’ teaching in the gospels. The first is simply to believe that Jesus was wrong. Albert Schweitzer was a remarkable man who did remarkable things—and was motivated by the example of Jesus, though thought him a deluded apocalyptic prophet who was wrong about his central mission in life and ultimately failed. This notion that we understand what Jesus should have done better than Jesus did (which might be what Wells in fact means by ‘the God revealed in Jesus Christ’) is emerging quite widely amongst ‘Progressives’. Take this example from theologian James McGrath:
If Jesus doesn’t behave in a manner that seems “Christlike” to us, then we should be honest about it, and should honestly weigh the possibility that Jesus, being human, was not infallible and that we should not simply blindly try to do what he did, but should rather ask about core principles, recognizing that Jesus, like every other human being, may not have always consistently lived out the things that he taught; that he may have applied those principles in ways that it would not make sense for us to do so; and (most controversially), it is entirely possible that even the things that Jesus believed and taught may need to be evaluated from the perspective of hindsight as problematic and set aside.
That’s a perfectly legitimate approach to take—but it is not a Christian approaching to reading the New Testament, in that it bears little or no relation to historic Christian belief as expressed in the Creeds.
The second option is to take a pair of (theological, source– and form-critical) scissors to the NT, and decide which things Jesus really did say, and which were mistakenly attributed to him. This is the approach of the Jesus Seminar, who classify the teaching and actions of Jesus into certain, likely, possibly, unhistorical and (my favourite) ‘things we wish Jesus had said but think he didn’t’. A third option is to read the NT existentially and dehistoricise it, following perhaps the example of Adolf Harnack or Rudolf Bultmann. Unfortunately, in the past this has lead to rejecting the Jewishness of Jesus, and historically that has led to the rejection of the Jewishness of Jewish people. None of these is a happy outcome, and all of them are hard to square with orthodox Trinitarian Christian belief.
Wells’ strange reading of Jesus in the gospels then leads to two other strange readings—one of the task of Christian mission, and the other the nature of the world around us. In relation to Christian mission, Wells asserts:
The central purpose of the Church is no longer to reconcile people to God, so that their eternal salvation will no longer be in jeopardy: it is to invite people to enjoy God just as God enjoys them. God embraces them for their own sake, not for some ulterior purpose: evangelism means inviting people to embrace God likewise.
In stating this, Wells is rejecting the most central (and perhaps the most helpful and interesting) Pauline understanding of the atonement: that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor 5.19). As I have explored elsewhere, it is this notion of ‘reconciliation’ that has the best claim (rather than ‘justification’) to summing up Paul’s understanding of the gospel. But note the direction of travel in this part of Paul’s writing. Look where it leads—into his understanding of Christian mission and ministry. If God thought reconciliation was so important that he was prepared to offer his Son for us, then this is the urgent imperative behind Christian mission: ‘We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God!’ (verse 20). But note as well the direction that this understanding is coming from:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor 5.17)
This expresses Paul’s (apocalyptic) eschatological understanding of the kingdom or reign of God. This present age is under the rule of God’s primeval enemy; we are enslaved to sin and our ‘sinful human nature’ (‘flesh’) but, through Jesus’ costly death which has defeated these powers, the Spirit of God has been poured out on us to bring us from death to life and set us free to live holy lives, which are a foretaste of the age to come. This is the context for Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God; this is the background to the paradoxical understanding of ‘the world’ in John’s gospel, both the object of God’s love and the enemy of his people; this is the pervading view of all the New Testament writers. But for Wells, this apparently all needs ‘rethinking’.
Despite all this, it is actually Wells’ reading of ‘the world’ that I find most odd.
But a different view of God leads to an alternative understanding of the world. No longer is life about dodging the flesh of this world to merit the spirit of the next. Now the world has a validity of its own. All has not been lost in the Fall. The Holy Spirit is doing surprising, exuberant, and plentiful things in the world.
It is worth noting that if Christians have read the NT eschatological outlook as saying that all in the world is bad and all in the Church is good, then they have not been reading carefully enough. The world is God’s creation, though fallen, and as Wells says ‘all has not been lost’. But a good deal has.
But in what sense does he believe that ‘the world has a validity of its own’? In popular culture, many people rather like the idea of judgement—that moment of tension as the music beats and presenter pauses before announcing ‘John, you’re fired/out of the competition/through to the next round’. But there is a more serious cry for judgement in the light of greed, economic inequality, apparently irreversible environmental damage, and the abuse of others, most often of women by men. Of all the comments about the death of Hugh Hefner, this was the most telling:
On hearing that the pimp and pornographer Hugh Hefner had died this morning, I wished I believed in hell.
Doesn’t the ubiquitous presence of #metoo currently dominating social media articulate the age-old cry for judgment by a transcendent and holy God who sees and executes justice? Goodness, we are now living in a culture where even children sexually abuse other children.
The strangest thing of all about Wells’ article is his conclusion about the use of buildings. I don’t know what it is like in his part of London, but where I live it is those churches which believe in the things that Wells wants us to rethink who are actually making most use of their buildings during the week. Trent Vineyard, who believe in all this eschatological kingdom stuff probably more than any Anglican church, run Nottingham’s largest programme of support for the homeless. It turns out that, contrary to expectations, believing in heaven actually transforms how you live on earth.
The reason why I found the article so baffling is that it seems to represent an extraordinary loss of confidence in the spiritual message of the Church—not ‘spiritual’ in the sense of ‘other worldly of no earthly good’, but of the conviction that the central human problem is not about social relationship, or finance, or politics, but about relationship with God—a relationship that God longs should be ‘reconciled’. Wells appears to be arguing for a secularised church with a social message—but there never has been a secular church which has truly flourished in a secular world. St Paul reflects, in his exploration of the resurrection, that ‘if only for this life have we believed, we of all people should be pitied’ (1 Cor 15.19). In this sense, I think Wells’ article is a great pity.
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