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.