I Just About Believe That Very Thing . . .

One of my favorite movies is Stephen King’s “The Green Mile,” which is about as profound a Christ allegory as you’re likely to find in modern media.  And one of my favorite scenes from the movie is when the condemned Harlan Billibuck tells Death Row Warden Paul Edgecombe that he believes Heaven is a return to that place where he was happiest in his life, to which the humble and gracious Edgecombe, played by Tom Hanks, says reassuringly that “Yes, I just about believe that very thing.”

It’s a beautiful scene that says less about Heaven than about graciousness in the face of unfamiliar theologies, and it came to mind when I read this from Billy Graham, who reportedly has lead more people to Jesus Christ than anyone else in the history of Christiandom, and who has enraged and confounded more fundamentalists, I imagine, than anyone in the history of Christiandom as well.

As many of you know, I am a Biblically convinced annihilationist.  I don’t believe the Scriptures teach a final end of eternal conscious torment for the wicked or for the non-believer, and I don’t believe it’s the view you should hold — because it contradicts the Bible. The overwhelming testimony of the Prophets and the New Testament, and of the Psalms, which are not generally a solid foundation for the formation of doctrine, is that those found to be in opposition to God are annihilated –  that “the wicked shall be no more,” and that their fate is utter, final destruction.  This is a belief shared by John R.W. Stott, Clark Pinnock, Edward Fudge and Christians who follow the Millerite tradition that, in the mid-1880s, gave rise to the Seventh-Day Adventist movement. 

But I am intrigued by the evangelical universalism of the pseudonymous Gregory MacDonald, Wesleyan scholar Heath Bradley, theologian Thomas Talbott, and the haplessly pleasant Rob Bell, who, incidentally, is not one of my favorite Christian thinkers. His arguments lack the academic rigor of MacDonald, Talbott, and Bradley, but invite us to consider that we may just have gotten this whole soteriology thing wrong when we pretend to be Biblically certain that Gandhi, for example, cannot possibly be in Heaven.  It’s a question we need to ask ourselves, if only to strengthen our doctrinal framework, and if we’re honest in analyzing the Biblical data, we might find ourselves a bit less certain than we thought we had the right to be. 

I’m not convinced that evangelical universalists have it right.  Those who believe that Christ’s death and resurrection provided atonement for the sins of all of humanity and defeated death, giving eternal life to all humankind, have some strong arguments.  They’re not just sentimental or embarrassed by a doctrine they find odious and counterproductive to evangelism.  These scholars — these brothers — read in Scripture what Pinnock called “a wideness in God’s mercy” that will, by the work of the Holy Spirit, move women and men to hearken unto the call of life Jesus makes, either at the moment of death or during a period of purgative suffering afterward.  Evangelical universalists believe, as we all do, that the Day will come when every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord — and while most Christians believe that will be under duress for the majority, the evangelical universalists rejoice in their conviction of a life-giving confession made with gratitude and joy.  I’m not there — not yet, and probably not ever — but I appreciate the challenge to any doctrinal views I hold that may be born less of Scripture than by the Christiandom around me.

So it was with joy that I discovered this 20-year-old quote from Billy Graham, someone who only the fundamentally flawed fundamentalists would call squishy in his commitment to Christ and lacking in his knowledge of the Bible:

“I think the Body of Christ, which comes from all the Christian groups around the world, or outside the Christian groups —  I think everybody that loves Christ or knows Christ, whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re members of the Body of Christ. They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their heart that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have. And I think that they are saved, and that they are going to be with us in heaven.”

As Paul Edgecombe would say, “I just about believe that very thing,” and I would encourage you to explore the Word to see if maybe you could as well.

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