He responded in a very kind manner, affirming me that if my convictions hold to a different view, then I certainly have that right.
But that wasn't the first thing I brought up. I actually brought up the exclusivity of the gospel and the nature of the final judgment. I told him that I wasn't so sure about the nature of hell in terms of eternal, conscious torment, or some kind of annihilation, or some kind of Kierkegaardian diminishing of the soul (where the person in hell becomes smaller, and smaller, caving in on herself into a more and more miserable wretch, ever-conplaining, ever-hating, and ever-folding in on herself until she becomes a small--infinitely small-- mind of bitterness, like a wraith).
One thing I was sure of however, I told the reverend, is that Universalism is something I cannot endorse. Hence, my appeal to the exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Greg Koukl Tactic time: I asked him what he thought about these things (exclusivity, future judgment). "What is your opinion on these things? Do you hold to some kind of mild inclusivism, or are you more in the universalist mode of thinking? (I find that asking questions in this way, with a sincere tone of voice helps to have good conversations with people I disagree with). I affirmed to him that I was asking out of sincerity and wanted to learn--I wasn't looking to be belligerent or get in a debate. He said he was happy to talk about it!
I asked him what he thought about Jesus' words when he said things like:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3).and,
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:36)and,
No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (Matthew 11:27).I also referred to John 5:28-29:
Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.Now, I was not trying to be cute with this man--this was most certainly not my tone of voice. If you go about talking with seasoned ministers in liberal denominations with that kind of attitude, you can just forget it (you can forget it when you carry an attitude with anyone, for that matter! But it's especially true of liberal-minded minsters). So, I asked him, "What is your understanding then, of Jesus, when he says these kind of things?" He told me that when we read the Scripture and read "negative things" we had to understand them in context, the context of which was the greater notions of God's love and compassion.
He also quoted me the UCC slogan "God is Still Speaking." By this he means that God is in process, just as we are in process, and his (or her) word is also in process that we are evolving just as God is. Therefore, to his mind, the things in Scripture that are "negative" (his words) need to be reconfigured under the auspices of that which we know is the over-arching teaching: that God is full of love, compassion and mercy.
I asked him if he had ever been to a third world country. He said he had: he was a Vietnam verteran and served in Thailand during the War. I said, "So, you have probably seen some awful things in your life."
Yes, he said. He had. And that is one of the first questions he wants to ask Him or Her (again, his words), when he meets God: why all the suffering and evil? So you see that liberal ministers have a conscience, too--they also think of these things.
My next question was in reference to John 5:28-29 about the resurrection of the wicked. "May I ask you another question?"
Sure, you bet.
"Great, thanks." Usually people mention Hitler, Stalin and the like, but I wanted to do something different. I asked him about a guy like Ted Bundy who rapes and murders girls, or just in general, an evil person who does these kinds of things to people. "What does God do with that person at the end of time?"
"I don't know." His agnosticism wasn't total, however. He said the Bible does indeed teach about wicked people, but because God is loving and full of compassion, he doesn't really know what God will do with the wicked at the end of time (I didn't use the words "Final Judgment" because this idea isn't endemic to the liberal categories).
So, if I understand you correctly, you are saying that if we read something in the Bible that seems to contradict the notion of God's love, mercy, and compassion, then we need to let that "negative" text dissolve or be resolved into the greater understanding of God's love, mercy and compassion, is that correct?"
"Yes. That's right."
My final comment was that I think there is a major problem with understanding God as in Process. Process Theology teaches that God him/her/itself is evolving. I told the reverend that if that is true, then it may be the case that we could say, "2,000 years ago, God said adultery was evil. But on the Process Theology view, we could say that God's mind has changed regarding this issue and that adultery is no longer evil. This leads to moral relativism, and we can therefore no longer know anything about ethics." I also said that we run into epistemological problems as well, because if God is in process, then we can't know what God thinks about a certain issue. And it seems to me that Process Theology, with its emphasis on evolution, is really rooted in a Darwinian concept of chemical and biological evolution, the latest scientific research of which in Intelligent Design is showing to be incredibly unlikely, if not entirely false. I mean, it's impossible for chemical evolution to have occurred. Therefore, getting our understanding of the nature of God from Darwin is something I cannot accept."
"It sounds like you've given this a lot of thought," he said.
I guess so. I think the major win here is being able to talk with someone who has a very different worldview than I do, and being able to ask questions about his foundational beliefs (presuppositions) in a way that is sincere, kind and not "out to win an argument." That's good for liberal Christians as well as evangelicals.