A lot of people will like this book.

In fact, a lot of people have liked this book. And isn’t that all that matters? I mean, if you can write in a congenial autobiographical style that makes people feel good by telling them the kinds of things anyone would want to hear, if readers warm up to you the way kids would to a favorite uncle who intrigues them with views different from those of their parents, if you can effectively manipulate the emotional hooks in a story when truth and logic abandon you, does it really matter if your premises are faulty, your facts are few and far between, and the cover of your book is a tad misleading? So what if this book is less than the sum of its parts (much less, actually)! Why can’t we all just be open minded for a change, and if, in the process of opening our minds our brains fall out, so what? If God is bigger than our puny little brains, He shouldn’t care what’s in them, right? So let’s try putting the stuff Philip Gulley and James Mulholland have written in their book, If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (San Francisco, CA, USA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003) into them and see what happens.

Well, okay then. But before we do that, we Christians, who tend to be easily confused by our over-dependence on coherent thought, need to take a few things into account. The first thing we need to do is recognize that when using the word “grace” the authors are not referring to grace in the standard Christian sense of the term.

I know, I know: the whole book seems to be written from a Christian perspective by authors who claim traditional credentials that are at least Christian-sounding (Gulley is a Quaker while Mulholland has been a Baptist and a Methodist), and perhaps the less-sophisticated among us will find it disturbing that this book actually amounts to a wholesale rejection of virtually every core belief of the Christian faith, but they had to start somewhere with their systematic (or not) dismantling of biblical doctrine, so why not start with the very word that is central to their premise, “grace,” the meaning of which they clarify when they write, “By grace, I mean God’s unfailing commitment to love” (page 7, emphasis theirs).

And no sooner do I quote them here that I realize that this brings us to another feature of the book that can be slightly disorienting unless one takes the time to read their “A Note from the Authors” (xi-xiii). Even though the book has two authors, it is written in the first person singular. The authors attribute this stylistic choice to the kind of conjoined pilgrimage relationship they have established.

Though our backgrounds differ, our experiences with God are remarkably alike. Over time, it seemed quite natural to write as one voice. Hence, this book, though authored by two people, is written in the first person.

[Ibid., xi-xii.]

Okay, so neither Gulley nor Mulholland (nor their editors) realized that they could have pulled off writing “in the first person” by doing so in first person plural (“we,” “us,” etc.) rather than the first person singular (“I,” “me,” etc.). Let’s not get hyper-critically bogged down in technical details. We know what they meant.

The practical result is that when the authors tell personal stories about what happened to “me,” and what “I” said, and how “I” responded, it’s impossible to tell from the book whether the incident in question involved Gulley or Mulholland. That is apparently the way they wanted it, and in this book they find a way to get everything they want, so get used to it.

It seemed awkward to use the word we or to distinguish continually between “Phil” and “Jim.” Some of the stories in this book come from Phil’s life, some from Jim’s, and some are a combination of similar encounters. Regardless, they represent our shared view of life.

[Ibid., xii.]

And of what does that “shared view of life” consist? Well, for starters, it consists of a definition of “grace” as “God’s unfailing commitment to love” (ibid., 7), as we have just noted. The authors do not take any time to defend this definition, and they acknowledge that other definitions exist only long enough to caricature them as follows:

Now by grace, I don’t mean an expected reward earned by good people. Neither do I mean a divine gift offered grudgingly to a chosen few. I don’t mean any notion that slips easily and naturally into our tidy formulas. By grace, I mean God’s unfailing commitment to love.

[Ibid.]

The caricature set forth in the first sentence here ( “an expected reward earned by good people”) is a pure straw man. None of the views traditionally identified as “Christian” have ever defined grace in this way, even though the authors appear to be caricaturing one common misconception of the Roman Catholic definition of grace (which actually defines it essentially as “the free and undeserved help that God gives” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, (New York, NY, USA: An Image Book/Doubleday, 1997), §1996, 538). The caricature set forth in the second sentence (“a divine gift offered grudgingly to a chosen few”) is not much better. It’s an obvious pot-shot at the view of saving grace espoused by the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, who, of course, never taught that God was ever gracious in a grudging way, but simply defined grace as His “unmerited favor.”

Not content with caricaturing traditional views of grace, Gulley and Mulholland also feel the need here to distance themselves from what they call “our tidy formulas.” This is our signal to yawn and begin thinking about making arrangements to dump this little volume at a nearby used book store. The phrase “tidy formulas,” along with its next-of-kin, “tidy little formulas,” has itself become a sort of abbreviated tidy formula for anything that has been decreed conventional-but-oh-so-painfully-obsolete by some self-appointed, smug, élite, and often recently-enlightened spokesindividual for radical change. If only the mindless theological clichés ended at this early point in the book.

But the utter irony of the authors’ “tidy formulas” epithet is so palpable that it requires us to stop suspending judgment on whether they are even aware of how far they have strayed from logical discourse. They seem totally oblivious to the fact that they have merely replaced the “tidy formulas” that they reject with a tidy formula they can accept—namely, that grace consists entirely of “God’s unfailing commitment to love.” The truth is that they have accepted a “notion that slips easily and naturally into” their “tidy formulas,” only they probably would not enjoy hearing it stated in those terms.

All this brings me back to my earlier remark about the cover of this book being “a tad misleading.” Immediately below the picture of the boy staring down the railroad track is the following quote from Christianity Today:

Gulley and Mulholland have done what many Christians have failed to do: they have honestly faced the Church’s traditional doctrines of salvation and eternal justice.

[Ibid., front cover.]

The unwary reader may be led by this out-of-context quotation to believe that its author, John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture magazine, actually endorsed the book. He did not. The title of the review (from the September 1, 2003, edition of Christianity Today, and also on Christianity Today’s free article preview for non-subscribers) is “A Distorted Predestination,” and its subtitle is, “Two pastors make a case for universalism, and end up trivializing human freedom.” You will also notice that the editors put a period after the phrase “eternal justice” when they should have put ellipsis marks (…). This is because they deleted the words “even if only to reject them” from the end of the sentence, obviously due to their negative tone, even though they are crucial to understanding the overall thrust of the review. In context, Wilson actually wrote:

Clearly there is an appeal to this account of the “great banquet” that awaits everyone who has ever lived, joyfully assembled in the presence of the God of grace. Yet there are two reasons why many Christians will not be able to accept it. First, as Gulley and Mulholland readily acknowledge, there is much in Scripture—not just an isolated passage here and there—that flatly contradicts their understanding of grace, salvation, and judgment. It is Jesus himself who speaks of souls condemned to “outer darkness,” where “there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Second, in their desire to emphasize the power of God’s grace, they end up trivializing human freedom. Talk about irresistible grace! If you reject grace in this life, Gulley and Mulholland promise, God isn’t finished with you yet—what they call his “infinite patience” guarantees that sooner or later in your posthumous existence, you will see the light. Ultimately theirs is a world in which human action has no real consequences, a distorted mirror image of Calvinist predestination.

But Gulley and Mulholland have done what many evangelicals and orthodox Christians more generally have failed to do: they have honestly faced the church’s traditional doctrines of salvation and eternal justice, even if only to reject them. In many congregations, these teachings are emphatically affirmed on paper yet rarely preached or even discussed. There’s a deep double-mindedness at work here.

[Wilson, ibid.]

While I disagree with Wilson’s opinion that Gulley and Mulholland have “honestly faced the church’s traditional doctrines of salvation and eternal justice,” the context demonstrates that Wilson was not praising Gulley and Mulholland for boldly going where no Christian has gone before. Instead he was using Gulley’s and Mulholland’s book to upbraid the church for failing in its responsibility to preach the whole counsel of God, thus leaving itself open to the kind of heresy represented by If Grace Is True. Whoever decided to tear most (but not all) of the first sentence from the third paragraph of the above citation was trying to give a false impression of the book, in much the same way that Gulley and Mulholland give a consistently false impression of the church’s traditional doctrines of salvation and eternal justice. Shame on all of them!

But my “tad misleading” remark about the book’s cover mainly has to do with the authors’ redefinition of the word “grace,” which one does not discover until one starts to read the book. I’m not sure that John Wilson saw this redefinition as book’s central premise, for he wrote:

Gulley and Mulholland argue from what might be called the logic of grace as they construe it. Since grace is unmerited, it must be equally available to all. And not merely available, for the God they envision regards even a single lost soul as a defeat to his relentlessly loving will.

[Ibid.]

What Wilson does not elaborate on here is the actual meaning of grace itself in the authors’ minds. In my view, that meaning is more fundamental for Gulley and Mulholland than the “logic” of their grace “as they construe it.”

Be that as it may, Christians should be forgiven for assuming on the basis of its title that the book contains a well-reasoned, biblically-based argument for why God will ultimately extend his unmerited favor for salvation to every sinful, rebellious human being who ever lived. Its authors are not interested in that, as they finally make clear when they write,

Can a Christian believe God will save everyone?

Obviously, if a Christian must believe the Bible is the “infallible words of God,” the answer is no. There are too many verses about judgment, hell, and the eternal punishment of the wicked to make such optimism reasonable. If you are unwilling to question the Bible, neither my experiences nor my arguments will carry much weight.

[Gulley and Mulholland, If Grace Is True, 49, emphasis theirs.]

If only these words were printed on either the front or back cover, or somewhere very close to the beginning, I think many Bible-believing book buyers would choose a more satisfying way to spend their money and time. Unfortunately for the poor reader, he or she must plod through nearly one-fourth of the book, during which time the authors confusingly take pot-shots at “Biblical inerrancy” (37) while simultaneously using the Bible to support their position (12, 20-21, 23, 25, 29, 30, 32, 38-43), before arriving at this unambiguous declaration: you cannot agree with both them and the Bible at the same time.

Of course, warning lights go off fairly early in the book, like when they write:

But I need to admit my faith is not based primarily on theological reasoning. I believe because God whispered in my ear.

[Ibid., 18.]

How nice. Lily Tomlin once asked, “Why is it that when we talk to God we’re said to be praying, but when God talks to us we’re schizophrenic?” An updated version of this might go something like, “Why is it that when God talks to George W. Bush it makes people nervous, but when he talks to Gulley and Mulholland they get invited to book signings?” If the Bible cannot be counted on to speak with God’s own authority, and there thus is no standard by which to judge alleged new revelations from God, who is to judge which ones are true and which ones are not?

And yet, make no mistake about it, these men truly believe that God continues to provide special revelation, and that they are the recipients of it. They write:

God speaks fresh words.

I believe God spoke to the men and women of the Bible. I believe God has always spoken to his children, perhaps in an audible voice, but far more often through gentle prompting, circumstance, or other people. But I don’t believe we’ve always gotten the message straight. This is the reason God continues to speak. He doesn’t ask us to rely solely on the testimony of others. He doesn’t wish to be known by rumor or reputation alone. The God who spoke to Peter is equally committed to speaking to you and me.

God didn’t fall silent with the last chapter of Revelation. He continues to reveal himself. It makes no sense to glorify the accounts of our ancestors’ encounters with God while dismissing our experiences with him today.

We who are Protestants should be especially conscious of this need to listen for the voice of God.

[Ibid., 37-38.]

The number of fallacies of interpretation, theology, and logic in this brief selection alone could generate many articles longer than the one I’m now writing. God keeps talking because somehow He can’t quite get His message across to us? He speaks to us the same way he spoke to Peter in Acts 10 (see pages 22-25), but we keep missing his point? Then how do we know Peter got His point straight? How do we know that Gulley and Mulholland have grasped whether Peter grasped God’s point? If God Himself is such a poor communicator, how can we know anything about anything?

But all of this makes little difference to Gulley and Mulholland. They inhabit a world in which the normal constraints of a reality that exists externally to us and which we must approach using proper interpretive methods must inevitably give way to the authority of personal experience. In the July/August 2005 issue of Candace Chellew-Hodge‘s “online magazine for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians” titled Whosoever, Chellew-Hodge (a practicing lesbian who describes herself as “a recovering Southern Baptist”) wrote an article titled, “Paradox of Grace: An Interview with Authors Jim Mulholland and Philip Gulley.” Part of the interview went as follows:

Whosoever: Here’s another question I hear: Didn’t Jesus say some people would be punished for all eternity?

Gulley: I think it’s clear that some of the writers of the gospel believed Jesus said that or believed it themselves and had Jesus say it, but it seems contrary to the picture of Jesus that I see in the gospel.

Mulholland: Or, that Jesus may have said that and Jesus was wrong.

Whosoever: Jesus was wrong??

Gulley: Jesus also thought the end of the world was here.

Mulholland: Or, maybe he didn’t. One of the things that historic criticism has done for us is really forced us to decide are our convictions only our convictions because Jesus said them or are they our convictions because we believe God has inspired that belief and truth within us? Fairly early in my life I abandoned the idea of “I believe it because the Bible says” because I realize the Bible was pretty complicated. What I adopted instead was “I believe it because Jesus said …” That’s still pretty much a fundamentalism which says it’s not based on any deep conviction or inspiration but based on some external authority. I think one of the challenges is to be able to say “I believe this because I believe it.”

Gulley: I experienced it to be true.

[Chellew-Hodge, ibid.]

Gulley’s remarks are understandable—predictable, even—seeing as how they’re coming from a Quaker, since one of the founding principles of Quakerism is the notion that God speaks directly today to just about everyone by means of an “Inner Light.” His comments seem generally in keeping with the teachings of Quakerism’s founder, George Fox. And if we take note of Mulholland’s background, American Baptist and United Methodist, two denominations historically riddled with liberal theology, it comes as no surprise whatsoever that we should find him appealing to “historic criticism” (by which he most likely means the higher criticism of Scripture). In this interview, in fact, Gulley and Mulholland come off as so stereotypical of their denominational backgrounds that it should cause us to pause and wonder how the extreme mysticism of Gulley’s background and the extreme rationalism of Mulholland’s ultimately converged into one grand universalist metanarrative. What do these background influences have in common? A radical rejection of the supreme authority of Scripture for matters of faith and practice.

And once the authority of Scripture is devalued in order to widen the extent of salvation, you can be sure that the central message of Scripture, the cross of Christ, will be devalued as well. Describing a conversation with someone they call Rebecca, the authors write:

When I admitted I didn’t believe Jesus died for our sins, she was shocked. She asked, “Then why did Jesus have to die?”

The simple answer is, he didn’t. His death was not God’s will. God didn’t send Jesus into the world to atone for sins. He was born to live, learn, and know God. …

Calvary was not the fulfillment of a divine plan. It was not the final installment on a cosmic debt. It was not necessary to satisfy some bloodthirsty deity. The crucifixion was the cost of proclaiming grace. The more insistent Jesus was on God’s grace, the more likely was his eventual death on the cross. His death was a human act rather than a divine one. People, not God, demanded his crucifixion.

[Gulley and Mulholland, If Grace Is True, 135-137.]

While I have been critical the authors’ failure to consistently observe the rules of logic in their book, I cannot go so far as to say that they ignore logic altogether. In fact, there are certain concepts that the authors must consistently hold in logical interdependence if anyone is to find their arguments intellectually satisfying. One such concept is that God does not require any penalty for sin. He simply forgives. The logic of universalism itself gravitates relentlessly toward this concept, which has a long and storied history in theology that goes well back into the Middle Ages. When faced with the question, “Could God have forgiven sinners apart from the death of Christ?” even theologians who were well familiar with Paul’s statement, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26, ESV), answered “Yes.” But most often it was only when it was that claimed that it was not only possible but necessary for God to forgive in this way that it unambiguously crossed the line into heresy. An obvious medieval example of this would be the moral influence view of the atonement of Peter Abelard (1079-1142), who even wrote a commentary on Romans.

On this point, Gulley and Mulholland have crossed the same line as Abelard. They do not argue for the possibility that God saves people apart from Christ’s death on the cross, but that it is necessary to realize that He does.

Whosoever: When I talk with people about your books and tell them the premise and that you both believe in universalism, they always have the same questions for me. Here are a few of those questions. If we’re all saved then why did Jesus die for our sins?

Gulley: Jesus didn’t die for our sins.

Mulholland: The interesting thing we run into is this whole concept that the church is about grace and forgiveness, but God has to have every sin paid for. That is a contradiction. Either God is really about forgiveness and grace or God is about payment. You can’t have both. If you want to have a religion that’s about payment, that Jesus paid this price, fine, but then it isn’t a religion about grace.

As in Mulholland’s statement here, we find If Grace Is True linking the concepts of forgiveness and grace in several places (66-67, 77-78, 80, 82, 85-87, 127). And each time it links them, it also radically opposes them to the concepts of justice and retribution. If we were to impose the terms of structuralism on the authors we would then observe that they are employing a binary opposition. For Gulley and Mulholland, grace and justice are polar opposites, and you can’t hold them both equally in the same hand at the same time; one will inevitably overwhelm and dominate the other. And, in fact, one of the authors’ primary contentions is that, in traditional Christianity, justice has already overwhelmed grace. By keeping them too close together, the church has allowed justice to dominate grace, draining its life away until Christians have come to accept the notion of a God who is supposedly gracious and yet eternally punishes unrepentant sinners.

So Gulley and Mulholland come along in good post-structuralist/postmodernist fashion and begin the deconstruction process by subverting the privileged term (“justice”) so that the repressed, marginalized term (“grace”) now becomes central. To complete the process, Gulley and Mulholland should go on to show how the new hierarchy they have created (grace dominating and oppressing justice) is just as unworkable as the former hierarchy, but they don’t. They stop here. Whereas deconstruction’s goal is to show that all hierarchies are inherently unstable, Gulley and Mulholland are more than satisfied with their new hierarchy, and thus they show that they not deconstructionists at all. They are merely revolutionaries, and theirs is a thoroughly modern project. Therefore, I suggest we think in modern terms when we try to understand Gulley and Mulholland, and use modern categories of logic to evaluate their thesis.

Now, to qualify as modern thought, it is not necessary for an idea to have been born after the Middle Ages. It could be a very old idea that was still accepted in the modern period. And one very old idea that has persisted into the modern period has been that the concepts of “forgiveness” and “payment” (or “punishment”) are both dependent on one essential idea: “obligation” (or “debt,” or sometimes “guilt”). When something is paid it means that the cost of a debt, or guilt, or some other kind of obligation, has been collected by the person to whom it is owed. On the other hand, when something is forgiven, it means that the cost of a debt, guilt, or other obligation has been absorbed (i.e., paid for) by the person to whom it is owed. Either way, whether through payment or forgiveness, someone ends up paying.

If someone hurts me, offends me, sins against me, and I forgive that person, it simultaneously means two things: (1) I do not require any kind of retribution upon, or even restitution from, that person, and therefore (2) the total cost of the offense is absorbed by me. Thus if a person sins against me by stealing my money (which, by the way, has happened to me more than once), and that person comes to me penniless, having spent all the money, and I forgive him, it ends up coming out of my pocket. I pay. To whatever extent may be required by the given situation, forgiveness means that the forgiver pays the debt of the forgiven. There is no way around this. The concepts of forgiveness and payment are inseparable.

Thus, unless one abandons the very categories in which their reasoning operates, at its most basic level, Gulley’s and Mulholland’s thesis is fatally flawed. Not only can God’s salvation be about both forgiveness and payment, but it must be about both. The contradiction does not lie with those who link these two concepts together, but with those who try to have a “forgiveness” that is totally unrelated to a cost that must be absorbed by the forgiver. Thus a religion that’s about grace is, by definition, a religion about payment. And nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the biblical teaching on the atonement, which tells us that

he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

[Isaiah 53:5-6, ESV]

And as we know from Scripture, the person on Whom the Lord laid our iniquity was none other than the Lord Himself, “our God and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1, ESV). This is true forgiveness: God, in the person of Jesus Christ, absorbing the cost of—paying for—our sins. We were “bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23, ESV). But when a religion abhors the notion of God paying for our sins Himself through Christ, it should come as no surprise that its spokesmen deny the ability of Christ to make such a payment by denying His deity, as Gulley and Mulholland do when they write:

This is why I use the term incarnation carefully. I’m not suggesting Jesus was 100 percent man and 100 percent God. Even when I believed that, I couldn’t explain or understand it. Neither am I arguing Jesus was biologically human and spiritually divine—God wearing a human costume. I now believe in something far more wonderful. God was present in Jesus in the same way God wishes to be present in all of us. He wants to fill us with his spirit—to make us into people of grace.

Was God uniquely present in the life of Jesus? I don’t think so. Even Jesus was uncomfortable with people’s attempts to make him unique.

[Gulley and Mulholland, If Grace Is True, 145-146.]

Meanwhile, however, the only way for Gulley and Mulholland to successfully avoid the notion of payment that is inherent in forgiveness, and thus escape the self-contradiction they have brought upon themselves, is to jettison the concept of forgiveness entirely from their understanding of grace. Ultimately it will become necessary for any truly consistent universalist of their stripe to break the link between grace (which is in the title of their book, and central to their thinking) and forgiveness (which is not central to their thinking, but sounds useful because it carries positive connotations). While it may be possible to tinker with the notion of a forgiveness that has nothing to do with absorbing the cost of someone else’s obligation or offense, such efforts will prove fruitless. If forgiveness must involve absorbing a debt (which it must), and if absorbing a debt is a form of payment (since I end up paying for what is owed me when I forgive a debt), and if payment cannot coexist with grace (at least so say Gulley and Mulholland), then forgiveness will have to go. Those who seek to improve upon the inherent inconsistencies of If Grace Is True ultimately must find a way to divorce grace from forgiveness. They must get rid of one of the key words they use to defend their position, because in the end it undermines their position.

But what then? We are left with a “grace” that has been reduced to “God’s unfailing commitment to love” people who do not need forgiveness, because forgiveness has become irrelevant to grace. Once forgiveness becomes irrelevant, the concept of “sin,” and even the distinction between “wrong” and “right,” loses meaning. If the Supreme Being of the universe will not accept any kind of payment for sin, it eventually follows that mere human beings are in no position to pronounce moral judgments over any act or behavior. We can no longer speak of any behavior as “right,” or “righteous,” but only “useful,” or “functional.”

But Gulley and Mulholland can ill-afford to abandon categories such as “right,” “just,” and “fair”—or any traditional moral categories, for that matter—because deep down they are driven by the conviction that the traditional concept of God—as they understand it, at least—is morally inferior to theirs. And this deep seated conviction fills them with a moral outrage that makes no sense unless they believe that they are right and traditional Christians are wrong. They write:

Let me be perfectly clear. I no longer want anything to do with a god who punishes homosexuals by giving them a terrible disease. I want nothing to do with a god who murders children in order to maintain racial purity. I cannot believe in a god who will eternally punish a vast majority of his children. This isn’t the God of Jesus. This isn’t the God I have experienced. It is certainly not a god I can worship.

[Ibid., 54.]

The caricatures never end in this book, and here they become Gulley’s and Mulholland’s own personal voodoo doll, as if sticking the pins of their dreadful misconceptions into the “god” they hate (notice the lower-case g) will cause more people to accept the “God” they love. But it becomes evident as we read this book that one of the real tragedies in the authors’ lives is centered in the fact that they have exchanged one false god for another, and in the process they have moved from one form of rage (a rage directed against sinners) to another (one directed against Christians). We learn of this through the occasional confessional passages we come across, like this one:

Wrath came easily to me. Because it came easily to me, I assumed it came easily to God. I was reluctant to abandon the biblical images of an angry God because this is the God I would be. I preferred living with this spiritual schizophrenia, forever vacillating between a God of love and a God of wrath, rather than accepting the gracious character of God and living as a grateful, forgiving child.

[Ibid., 66.]

And then there is this:

My hunger for justice was another obstacle to my embracing God’s universal grace. I wish I could blame my thirst for revenge on Hollywood, but Hollywood didn’t create it. The movies simply satisfied my craving for unsparing justice. Such justice had only one concern—balancing the scales. Forgetting that Christianity’s symbol is the cross, I believed God stood blindfolded, weighing our deeds, demanding pain be answered with pain, injury with injury, until the heavenly scales drew level. I confused God with Lady Justice.

[Ibid., 78.]

The authors share these glimpses of their pasts with us because they believe that if we are traditional Christians we might somehow see ourselves in what they used to be and turn away from the image in horror as if it were the picture of the degenerate Dorian Gray. But all it really shows us is that they didn’t really depart from the biblical concept of grace because they never really held it in the first place. If they had, instead of seeking vengeance for sinners they would have been more like Paul (whom they also accuse of misunderstanding God’s grace [100]), who wrote concerning those who persecuted and stoned him:

I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. …

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.

(Romans 9:2-3; 10:1, ESV)

Gulley and Mulholland fully realize and admit that Paul held to the traditional understandings of God’s wrath toward sin and eternal punishment that they so bitterly oppose. And yet these traditional understandings did not make Paul into the kind of angry, judgment-hungry person that they describe themselves as having been. Instead, it made him into someone who yearned for, prayed for, and worked for the best possible eternity for those who tried to kill him. Why such a difference? Perhaps it’s because Gulley and Mulholland never really understood the traditional Christian view the way they thought they did, and obviously still think they do.

No true Bible believing Christian can contemplate the idea of eternal punishment without experiencing the kind of anguish Paul described. But we can’t escape the fact that forgiveness only has meaning when set against the background of sin and guilt. Grace only has meaning when set against the background of justice and deserved punishment. And the Christian faith only has meaning when it is read from the text of Scripture and believed. Otherwise it is not Christianity; it is something else.

All Gulley and Mulholland have actually done is repackage the universalist brand of old time theological liberalism in a slick new package. What J. Gresham Machen wrote in 1923 clearly applies to what Gully and Mulholland wrote 80 years later:

…it may appear that what the liberal theologian has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category. …

In trying to remove from Christianity everything that could possibly be objected to…in trying to bribe off the enemy by those concessions which the enemy most desires, the apologist has really abandoned what he started out to defend.

[Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, reprinted 1996), 6-8.]

This book is nothing more than an attempt to clothe non-Christian, even pagan, ideas in Christian terminology. It represents yet another example of the current triumph of marketing over substance in the religious book business, and it is symptomatic of the long-running fixation on internal, personal reality as the hallmark of “spiritual truth” in radical opposition to any external source of authority, including the Bible. To the extent that this book is being read and followed by up-and-coming evangelical church leaders, which in some circles it apparently is, to that extent they are sowing the wind and will reap the whirlwind.

I wouldn’t say that I dislike this book in the same way I dislike banging my head on a cabinet door that I didn’t realize was open, or in the same way I dislike being cut off while driving by some jerk who doesn’t believe stop signs pertain to him. The first of these analogies compares the book with a painful accident, the latter with intentional rudeness, and the authors’ style was actually more enjoyable than either of those alternative comparisons. Rather, I would have to say I dislike this book in the same way I dislike being stuck at a social gathering where I’m sitting next to someone who enjoys pontificating at great length before an audience that is either too polite, ill-informed, or superficial to advise him that his vast knowledge and experience ultimately amount to a hackneyed collection of worn-out misconceptions and threadbare reasoning. If only all the spiritual hot air in this book were as innocuous.


[This article is cross-posted at reading Scripture.]


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