John Stott, Hell and the Future of Evangelical Theology
Stott's willingness to revisit the "traditional" notion of hell as "eternal, conscious torment" was a courageous performance of the belief that while tradition is important, it is not infallible. While Scripture is crucial to theology and practice, our interpretations are not inerrant. Claiming to be a Biblicist, in and of itself, gets you nowhere.
Stott's approach, which displayed close attention to relevant and disputed biblical texts, likely assuaged the worries of some his conservative theological colleagues that he was going off the deep end. I suspect that Stott's consistent reverence for Scripture and his stated desire to be faithful to biblical truth kept him in the generally good graces of prominent conservative evangelicals. J.I. Packer, who preached the sermon at Stott's memorial service, wrote years ago of Stott (and other annihilationists) that "it would be wrong for differences of opinion on this matter to lead to breaches of fellowship..."
2. To what extent will evangelicals be willing to embrace those with whom they disagree as brothers and sisters, as part of that loose "family" called evangelicals? The remarks from J.I. Packer toward John Stott are instructive and inspirational here. While Packer longed for them to arrive at unity of opinion, he considered the difference of belief to be not a matter of separation or disunity. Could this umbrella of openness today be extended to those who, after close study of the Scripture and with reverence for tradition, conclude that universalism might at least as biblically defensible and theologically coherent as annihilationism or as the mainstream traditional position? In any case, when it comes to matters of eschatology, it's worth considering that epistemic certainty simply eludes our grasp.
3. Can authenticity overcome controversy? While theological orthodoxy on the central points is crucial for guarding the faith, guiding its practice and inspiring the faithful, there may be a few things more important than theological orthodoxy: namely, faithfulness to Christ and authenticity of character. In that aforementioned 2003 chapel address, Stott answered a student who was looking for advice about evangelizing people given to post-modern relativism (a then-common caricature) with this comment:
I, myself, am persuaded that the major way in which the gospel can be presented to a post-modern age is not by anything we say but how we live. There needs to be in us Christian people an authenticity which cannot be denied, so there is no dichotomy between what we say and what we are...there must be no dichotomy between what we are in private and in public. What we say. What we are. That is authenticity. People have to see Christ in us and not just hear what we talk about.
John Stott was able to overcome the controversy generated by a marginal eschatological position through a life-long track record of authenticity. In this light, evangelicals might be inspired to withhold judgment and extending grace to those who may not share every default position of mainstream conservative evangelicalism.
Our final lesson may be that the admiration in these days expressed for the ministry and life of John Stott, despite an eschatological position that ran against the stream, can perhaps best be explained by the fact that he seemed to follow his own advice.
Authenticity can overcome controversy.
Kyle Roberts is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Lead Faculty of Christian Thought, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul, MN). He researches and writes on issues related to the intersection of theology, philosophy, and culture. Follow Kyle Roberts' reflections on faith and culture at his blog or via Twitter.