I know that “The Sanctuary” isn’t just about me and my “theology,” but because of all the hullabaloo in the last few months, if I was you, I’d be wondering: “Is Peter a Heretic? Is it legal to burn people at the stake or boil them in oil within the city and county of Denver?” ANSWER: No, it is not legal. HERETIC? You make the call!
Actually, I was never even accused of “heresy” by any ecclesiastical body. It’s just that when people chat, they like to use that word. I don’t think my views (primarily questions), were ever labeled as heretical by any early church council either, indeed, most in the early church werer probably far more radical in extending grace than me. These would include the Early Church Fathers: Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Ambrose, to name just a few.
It wasn’t until 553 AD that the Roman Emperor Justinian the Great (though I don’t think he was that great), pressured the Fifth General Council into stating that the idea of a temporal Hell was anathema (heretical). Emperors like to threaten folks with the biggest stick possible.
Of course, there is much disagreement today around the nature and duration of Hell (Hades, Sheol, Gehenna) – disagreement between theologians who all claim to be Biblical. There is also great disagreement between denominations. So when I share my questions with some, they seem worried. When I share them with others, they seem shocked that there is even a controversy.
Let me say that I DO NOT believe that one’s views on the nature and duration of Hell or one’s views on “ultimate redemption” are ESSENTIALS OF THE FAITH. Some have accused me of saying such and indeed I’ve been arguing just the opposite. We are each saved by the blood of Jesus alone. HE is ESSENTIAL. How many He saves is up to him and you’re not the Judge. He is essential. Yet that means the Truth is essential, for He is the Truth.
It’s human nature to want to abdicate big decisions like faith, but we each must stand before the “Judgment Seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10). He’ll ask you something like, “Who do you say that I am?” (Probably not, “What are your eschatological views regarding Barthian existentialism and your exegesis of Romans?”) It’s essential that you know Him—that is, that He knows you. He’s a person. He’s also the Truth. It is essential that you desire The Truth. It’s not essential that you know everything about the Truth.
You cannot know all of the Truth—that is, everything about the Truth, however by God’s grace you can chose to be truthful. We are saved by the Truth, who is Jesus, yet we will each have to give an account on the Day of Judgment—an account for ourselves, right down to every careless word we speak (Matt.12:36, Romans 14:12, Hebrews 4:13). You cannot know all of the truth, Scripture says so (Romans 11:33), but by God’s grace you can chose to walk in the light, that is you can choose to be truthful.
We would like to abdicate our decision of faith in the Truth, and we would also like to abdicate our decision to be Truthful. But no one can decide to be truthful for you—except perhaps, Jesus in you. The Truth—Jesus—is essential. That we desire to be Truthful, is also essential. That we know everything about the Truth is non-essential and impossible, at least in this world.
The Presbytery asked me to confess two things that I am not convinced are true. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t true, but that I do not know they are true: First that there is a group of people that God cannot save, and secondly that God takes “pleasure” in damning the wicked. I knew that to agree with these two propositions, I would have to bear false witness and deny the Truth—perhaps not the “objective Truth”, but the “subjective Truth”, that is Jesus in me.
Whenever we lie, we deny the Truth, and Jesus is the Truth. It really doesn’t even matter what “the Truth” is out there; if I’ve been untruthful, I’ve denied the Truth in here—in my heart. There is an objective Truth out there (Jesus is not something I make up), but I can’t arrive at that Truth unless I’m Truthful. Another way to say that is that “Jesus is the Way.” I think some folks wanted me to confess things I didn’t believe, but that is to deny the Way and to walk into the dark.
Some publicly accuse me of having a “blind spot to accountability.” Think about it: if I do have a “blind spot to accountability”… I wouldn’t know it… would I? So how could I argue? Perhaps someone could reveal it, but so far I haven’t been told what “the blind spot” is. Actually I’m certain that I do have a “blind spot to accountability”—it’s called sin, yet I’m not convinced that’s the reason I chose to be truthful in this instance.
I think I said what I did, because I felt accountable: accountable to God, accountable to Jesus, accountable to my heart, accountable to you and finally accountable to my fellow Presbyters in the Lord (The Presbytery). If there is an elder in the Presbytery of the West, who is not convinced that there is a group of people God “cannot save” and is not convinced that God takes “pleasure” in damning the wicked, and that elder does not make his views known, it certainly seems to me that that elder has a “blind spot to accountability.”
Check out this verse:
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God. So each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:11-12)
Well, I guess I’m saying: I hope you don’t abdicate your faith to someone else. You cannot abdicate saving faith to someone else—faith in Jesus, faith of Jesus. But I also hope that you don’t simply abdicate these questions to someone else. You have a Bible. Do you have Jesus? Call on His Spirit. Seek the Truth. He said, “If you seek you will find.” To seek is to be truthful. To be Truthful is to be on The Way.
So is Peter a heretic? You make the call. Sola Scriptura—remember? We’re “Protestants.” We don’t have a pope. (Actually the last one pretty much agreed with my stuff.) But you make the call… better yet, don’t make the call. You’re not the Judge, but you could be a seeker of Truth. When you find Him—when He finds you—I’m pretty sure, you won’t be disappointed.
And by the way, if some don’t want me in their group, that’s OK! That’s there prerogative. I (we?) can find another group. We can also just content ourselves to be part of God’s group—The Church. I don’t mean to be facetious. Human groups can be really helpful, but they can also become idols to which we abdicate faith. It’s important that we all have accountability—especially in the moral realm. It’s also important that we have theological accountability, but that’s not just to one little group, that’s to God, His Word and to His Church, that is each other.
This is why I made the following papers available and why I want to make them available to you here—to assist you in wrestling the Truth:
- A Summary for the Presbytery of the West. I hope you read this first. This is the document that I sent to the Presbytery explaining my position.
- Peter Hiett’s Exceptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith. These are the exceptions that I submitted to the Presbytery of the West. The first two were not approved. This also includes the Presbytery’s response to me and my response to them.
- An Adventure in Taking Scripture Literally. This is the long document that I pulled together at the end of my sabbatical in 2006.
I’ve just recently read four fascinating books on the topic of Hell and ultimate redemption. Of course there are many very scholarly works out there, but many are not very accessible to the average reader. I think these four are. They each take a stance more dogmatic than mine. So, I’m not saying that I agree with everything in each book—I do think there’s much more to be said, especially by Karl Barth (hard to read) and Albert Einstein (who changed our knowledge of space and time)—however, these four books are a good summary of the biblical and philosophical issues at hand. I hadn’t read any of these books when I pulled together All Things New. It’s pretty exciting to read contemporaries thinking some of the same thoughts as yourself. Maybe I’m not crazy! You can get them all at Amazon.com.
- The One Purpose of God: An Answer to the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment by Jan Bonda
- The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott
- Hope Beyond Hell: The Righteous Purpose of God’s Judgment by Gerry Beauchemin
- The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory McDonald
If you’d like to read some folks arguing the other side, you might try:
- Hell under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment a collection of articles edited by Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson
(This is what was given to me by the Chairman of the Ministerial Committee. I thought the book to be pretty poor in scholarship and logic. If you disagree, let’s have coffee.)
“We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Cor. 4:2)
Let’s wrestle the Truth together. He really is good. Hang on and He’ll bless us before morning (Genesis 32:22-32).