Two Views on Hell | Book Review


Two Views of Hell is a debate between Edward W. Fudge and Robert A. Peterson about how long hell lasts. Fudge is a leading evangelical advocate for conditionalism, which teaches that the wicked will be destroyed body and soul in hell. He is the author of The Fire That Consumes, now in its third edition, the best single-volume treatment of conditonalism. Peterson is a leading evangelical advocate of traditionalism, which teaches the eternal conscious torment of the wicked in hell. He is the author of Hell on Trial, probably the best single-author treatment of traditionalism from a Reformed or Calvinist perspective currently available.

The debate follows a point-counterpoint format. Fudge opens Part One of Two Views on Hell with “The Case for Conditionalism.” Peterson then offers “A Traditionalist Response to Conditionalism.” Part Two reverses the order. Peterson makes “The Case for Traditionalism,” then Fudge offers “A Conditionalist Response to Traditionalism.” Each author makes his case on the basis of exegesis of relevant biblical texts combined with systematic theological considerations. Peterson also makes an argument from the testimony of leading theologians, but with Fudge, I don’t think such an argument is persuasive as to the truth of Peterson’s case, though it certainly explains why traditionalism is traditional.

To oversimplify the debate, the crucial issue is the meaning of the words deathand destruction on the one hand, and eternal on the other. (I’m sure Fudge and Peterson would blanch at my simplification, for they bring many more arguments to bear than just disputes over these words. But, I think my admitted oversimplification helps illuminate the essence of the debate.) For Fudge, the words death  and destruction, which constitute the bulk of the Bible’s descriptions of the fate of the wicked, mean the literal cessation of bodily and spiritual existence. At the Final Judgment, God will pronounce sentence on the wicked and they will be annihilated, for lack of a better term. By contrast, Peterson understands the same words in terms of separation, loss, and ruin, not annihilation. Fudge argues that traditionalism assumes an unbiblical doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Because the soul exists immortally, whether it is saved or damned, hell must last eternally.

Peterson, on the other hand, believes that hell is eternal because the Bible speaks of “eternal punishment.” He cites ten biblical texts—two from the Old Testament, eight from the New—that lay the biblical foundation of the case for traditionalism: Isaiah 66:2–4; Daniel 12:1–2; Matthew 18:6–9; 25:31–46; Mark 9:42–48; 2 Thessalonians 5:1–10; Jude 7, 13; Revelation 14:9–11; and 20:10, 14–15. Although these are not Peterson’s or Fudge’s analogies, the tradtionalist hell is like life imprisonment without possibility of parole, while the conditionalist hell is like capital punishment. Both are final and irreversible, but whereas one is an eternal process of punishment, the other is a temporal sentence with eternal consequences.

If you’ve read any contemporary books on hell by evangelical authors, this book contains no surprises. Each author treads a well-worn path of argumentation. Each author makes the standard arguments for his position and the standard relies to his opponent’s. To me, despite the rigor of his arguments, Peterson came off a bit tetchy in his reply to Fudge and a bit dismissive of Fudge’s previous writings when he made his own case. By the end of the debate—that is, in his reply to Peterson—even Fudge seemed a bit peeved. One of the frustrating things about debates such as this is the mutual stupefaction each expresses at how the other could possibly believe what he does.

While I appreciate the scholarship Fudge and Peterson bring to their respective cases, this is not the book I would recommend if you’re looking for only one book about the evangelical debate on hell. I would start with Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed., edited by Preston Sprinkle (2016). It’s more recent, contains an argument for universalism and hints at a case for something like a traditional view that is more amenable to Arminians. If you’re collecting a library on the debate, however—as I seem to be doing—include this one.

Book Reviewed
Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson, Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

P.S. If you like my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

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Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed. | Book Review


Four Views on Hell presents a point-counterpoint debate between advocates of the three main interpretations of the doctrine of hell among evangelical theologians. Denny Burk makes the case for “eternal conscious torment,” John G. Stackhouse Jr. for “terminal punishment,” and Robin A. Parry for “universal salvation.” Jerry L. Walls’ argument for a Protestant version of Purgatory rounds out the “four views,” but while interesting, it is out of place in this book, since Purgatory—whether in its Catholic or Protestant version—is heaven’s antechamber, not hell’s.

In his argument for hell as eternal conscious torment, Burk begins by telling a “parable” about a how people would respond if they came across a man pulling the legs off a grasshopper, frog, bird, puppy, or baby. Most people would respond with increasing horror to these incidents, and that horror would increase their desire to intervene in the situation. Burks argues that this parable demonstrates “the seriousness of sin is not measured merely by the sin itself…but by the value and the worth of the one being sinned against” [emphasis in original]. That is why “to sin against an infinitely glorious being [i.e., God] is an infinitely heinous offense that is worthy of an infinite heinous punishment.”

Burk recognizes that this parable represents a “theological conjecture” not explicitly taught in Scripture (though consistent with it). So the bulk of his argument identifies ten key biblical texts that “deal explicitly with hell and with the final state of the wicked”: Isaiah 66:22–24; Daniel 12:2–3; Matthew 18:6–9, 25:31–46; Mark 9:42–48; 2 Thessalonians 1:6–10; Jude 7, 13; Revelation 14:9–11; and 20:10, 14–15. He argues that each of these texts presents hell as “final separation” from God, “unending experience,” and  “just retribution.” Burk nowhere appeals to the immortality of the soul in his argument. Instead, in his discussion of the Isaiah passage, he infers that “this scene seems to assume that God’s enemies have been given a body fit for an unending punishment.”

Stackhouse makes the case for what he calls “terminal punishment,” which is also known as “conditionalism,” “conditional immortality,” and “annihilationism.” Stackhouse’s term, it seems to me, is more apt than these others because it clearly identifies both the nature (punishment) and duration (terminal) of hell in distinction from the eternal conscious torment position.

The core of his biblical argument focuses on the meanings of the words eternal, destroy, and death. Regarding the first word, Stackhouse distinguishes “an event or action that occurs for only a segment of time” and “the result of that event or action.” Advocates of eternal conscious torment believe hell is eternal in the first sense, the segment of time being everlasting. Stackhouse argues, however, that it is the result that matters. “Eternal punishment” is not an eternal process of being punished but a terminal punishment that has eternal consequences. He goes on to argue that second and third words “speak of the destiny of the lost as termination, end, disappearance, eradication, annihilation, and vanishing.” Such terminal punishment rules out the doctrine of the soul’s immortality. Stackhouse also discusses terminal punishment in terms of the finite duration of Christ’s death on the cross and of the goodness of God.

Parry makes the case for universal salvation, “the view that in the end God will reconcile all people to himself through Christ.”. This is “not some new-fangled liberal theology,” he writes, but rather “an ancient Christian theological tradition that in the early church stood alongside annihilation and eternal torment as a viable Christian opinion.” It should be distinguished from the version of universalism that teaches all religions are salvific. It is Christocentric, not pluralistic.

Parry argues that “a universalist doctrine of hell makes good sense” of “the biblical metanarrative, the grand story that runs from Genesis to Revelation”: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. He cites Colossians 1:16–20 as one of many examples of what he takes to be universalist reasoning. He also responds to prooftexts commonly interpreted to be anti-universalistic: Mark 9:42–50; Matthew 25:31–46; 2 Thessalonians 1:5–10; Revelation 14:9–11, and 20:10–15. If God finally saves all in Christ, then what is hell? It is “judgment followed by restoration” [emphasis in original]. It is ultimately “restorative,” even if “retributive” for a time. Obviously, universalism requires a commitment to “post-mortem salvation,” which Parry acknowledges is consistent with Scripture, though not taught explicitly by it.

Of these three views, eternal conscious torment is the majority tradition of Christianity, while terminal punishment and universal salvation are minority voices. Each position can find advocates in the first few centuries of the church’s existence, but each one is exclusive of the others. If one is right, in other words, the other two are wrong.

My goal in this review is simply to introduce the main positions in the current debate. I would like to register one more caveat, however. (The first was that Walls’ argument for Purgatory was out of place in this debate.) The second also relates to Walls. Burk presents one version of the traditional view of hell, in which eternal conscious torment is warranted because sin is an offense against an infinite God. In other writings—especially Hell: The Logic of Damnation and Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory—Walls offers a different warrant for hell based on human choice. Picking up on C. S. Lewis’ remark that the door to hell is locked from the inside, Walls argues that hell is eternal because its inhabitants refuse to repent. This is the fourth view of hell that should’ve been presented in this book.

Still, Four Views on Hell is a useful one-volume introduction to the state of the debate about hell among self-identified evangelical theologians. Its point-counterpoint format helps readers see both what the arguments and counterarguments are for each position. Although frustrating, working through the best arguments and deepest critiques of each position can result in readers developing a more informed biblical, theological, and philosophical understanding of this important doctrine.

Book Reviewed
Preston Sprinkle, ed., Four Views on Hell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Rethinking Hell | Book Review


Rethinking Hell is a compendium of readings by evangelical authors who advocate conditionalism. Conditionalism—also known as “conditional immortality” and “annihilationism”—is the belief that hell is “the wicked’s final total destruction,” not their “unending conscious torture,” as Edward W. Fudge states the distinction in his essay. It is a minority position among evangelical Christians, but one that has been gaining ground since the publication of Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes in 1984.

Because conditionalism differs from the traditional understanding of hell as eternal conscious torment, and because traditionalism is far and away the majority position among Christians, including evangelicals and Pentecostals (my theological tribes), it might be helpful to summarize why conditionalists think theirs is the correct biblical interpretation. Glenn A. People’s essay, “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism,” outlines its “principle arguments” under four headings:

  1. Immortality: “Eternal life in the sense of life without end is not a natural human possession. We are bereft of it because of sin, and God promises to give it to those who are united to Christ. Immortality is therefore not universal or inherent but conditional.” See, for example, 2 Timothy 1:9b–10.
  2. A World Without Evil: “The biblical writers anticipate a time when everything that exists will be united under Christ,” for example, Ephesians 1:9–10 and 1 Corinthians 15:24–28. “Creation itself will be brought into a state of sinless perfection to the praise of God’s glory, and the dualistic portrait of eternity with heaven on one side and hell on the other side finds no home in Scripture….”
  3. Substitutionary Atonement: “The New Testament is replete with the language of Jesus dying for sin, for sinners, and for us. Whatever else this might mean, it at least means that in Christ’s passion and ultimately his death we see what comes of sin,” for example, 1 Peter 3:18.
  4. Destruction: “[E]vangelical conditionalists observe that Scripture uses a range of language and images to refer to the fate of humanity without salvation through Christ: punishment, darkness, fire, death, destruction, being blotted out, and so on. Without any doubt, however, the overwhelming preponderance of the clearest such language speaks of the final death and destruction of the enemies of God.” For example, see Matthew 10:28, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, 2 Peter 2:6.

Arguments 1, 3, and 4 recur through Rethinking Hell’s twenty-two chapters. In addition to these biblical arguments, several of the chapters make historical arguments to the effect that conditionalism was a live option among Christianity’s theologians in the second and third centuries. Only with Augustine in the fourth century does eternal conscious torment become the majority point of view, one shared by Augustine’s descendants in the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and Evangelical Revivalism.

At a philosophical level, conditionalists argue that eternal conscious torment is disportionate punishment, thus violating the character of God and the lex talionis principle of biblical law. Traditionalists typically respond in one of two ways to this: First, that an eternity of punishment is appropriate, since sin is an offense against an infinite God. This is a longstanding reply, memorably articulated by Thomas Aquinas. More recently, a second reply has been offered: an eternity of punishment is warranted because in hell, sinners continue to rebel against God. As C. S. Lewis memorably put it, “The doors of hell are locked from the inside.”

The most common objection to conditionalism is the use of the adjective “eternal” to describe the fate of the wicked. Jesus juxtaposed “eternal life” and “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25:46. Since Augustine, this has been taken to show that the life of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked are both everlasting. The standard conditionalist reply is that the consequences of hell, that is, annihilation, are everlasting, not the experience of hell, that is, punishment. While this understanding may work in many cases, traditionalists argue that it doesn’t work for Revelation 20:10, which speaks of the devil, the beast, and the false prophet being thrown into “the lack of burning sulphur,” where they will be “tormented day and night for ever and ever.” In 20:15, anyone “whose name was not found written in the book of life” was thrown into the lake as well, presumably to suffer the same fate.

I mention these objections and replies to illustrate basic elements in the debate between traditionalists and conditionalists.

Rethinking Hell is a good book, though if you are looking to purchase and read just one book advocating conditional immortality, I would recommend the third edition of Edward W. Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes. Advocates in both camps agree that this is the classic modern statement of the position. Still, this book has its value, even if—or perhaps especially if—you do not agree with its conclusions.

Book Reviewed
Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, and Joshua W. Anderson, eds., Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

The Nature of Hell | Book Review


The Nature of Hell is a report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (ACUTE) published in 2000. It outlines points of agreement and disagreement among evangelical Christians in the United Kingdom about “whether hell is a realm of everlasting conscious punishment for each individual who goes there, or whether the suffering of the unredeemed in hell will eventually result in their extinction” (pp. xiii–xiv). The former position is named “traditionalism” and the latter “conditionalism.”

Historically, traditionalism has been the majority position in Christianity generally and evangelicalism specifically. However, in the decade prior to the report, some evangelicals in both the U.K. and America had begun to advocate conditionalism, most prominently John R. W. Stott and most prolifically Edward W. Fudge. ACUTE argues that one can be an evangelical in good standing and advocate either position, even as it urges both sides to come to agreement on doctrine.

Although the report is by U.K. evangelicals for U.K. evangelicals, it is a worthwhile read for American evangelicals too. The topics and authors on both sides of the debate are the same, after all. What I appreciated most about the report is its calm, measured consideration of complex issues, its irenic tone, and its call for evangelicals to continue working together to achieve one mind doctrinally, rather than “merely acquiescing in their disagreement” (p. 135).

Here is the table of contents for the book:

  1. Introduction: Evangelicals and the Debate About Hell
  2. Background Issues in the Hell Debate
  3. Hell in Scripture: Identifying the Relevant Texts
  4. Traditionalism and Conditionalism in Church History
  5. The Doctrine of Hell Among Evangelicals Today: I. Defining the Main Positions
  6. The Doctrine of Hell Among Evangelicals Today: II. Key Exegetical Issues
  7. The Doctrine of Hell Among Evangelicals Today: III. Key Theological Issues
  8. Practical and Pastoral Aspects of the Hell Debate
  9. Hell and Evangelical Unity
  10. Conclusions and Recommendations

Here are the 22 specific recommendations the report makes (pp. 130–135):

  1. All human beings must face death….
  2. After death, all human beings will be resurrected to face the final judgment of God….
  3. God has revealed no other way to salvation and eternal life apart from through Jesus Christ….
  4. In his sovereignty, God might save some who have not explicitly professed faith in Jesus Christ…e.g., the unevangelised [sic], children who die in infancy, or those who have severe mental disabilities…. In particular, we can find no convincing warrant in Scripture for ‘post-mortem’ or ‘second chance’ repentance. We also reject the teaching of universalism, which holds that all will be saved regardless of their commitment to Jesus Christ….
  5. Bearing 4 in mind, Christians should conduct mission and evangelism on the basis that proclamation and demonstration of the gospel are the definitive means by which God intends to save people and make disciples of all nations….
  6. Hell is more than annihilation at the point of death….
  7. As well as separation from God, hell involves severe punishment….
  8. There are degrees of punishment and suffering hell related to the severity of sins committed on earth….
  9. The Bible describes hell as a realm of destruction. Evangelicals, however, diverge on whether this destruction applies to the actual existence of individual sinners (eventual annihilation), or to the quality of their relationship with God (eternal conscious punishment)….
  10. Evangelicals diverge on whether hell is eternal in duration or effect….
  11. God’s purpose extends beyond judgment to redemption of the cosmos….
  12. We urge church leaders to present biblical teaching on hell to their congregations, and to relate it to their ongoing ministries of personal visitation, evangelism and social action.
  13. We commend sensitivity and discernment in presenting the message of hell—particularly to those for who commitment to Christ is uncertain or unrealised [sic]….
  14. When Christians have died, we encourage declaration of their heavenly inheritance in pastoral care of their bereaved relatives and friends, and in the conduct of their funerals or cremations.
  15. Where the relationship of a deceased person to God has been unclear, or even apparently hostile, we would caution against explicit pronouncement on that person’s eternal destiny….
  16. We encourage theological colleges and related Christian organisations [sic] to train church leaders to a high standard of biblical preaching, teaching and pastoral care in matters related to hell….
  17. We urge evangelicals involved in religious education in schools to ensure that modules on Christianity include presentations on death, judgment, heaven and hell.
  18. We recognize that the interpretation of hell as eternal conscious punishment is the one most widely attested by the Church in its historic formulation of doctrine and in its understanding of Scripture. We also recognise [sic] that it represents the classic, mainstream evangelical position.
  19. We recognise [sic] that the interpretation of hell in terms of conditional immortality is a significant minority evangelical view. Furthermore, we believe that the traditionalist-conditionalist debate on hell should be regarded as a secondary rather than a primary issue for evangelical theologians….
  20. We understand the current Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith to allow both traditionalist and conditionalist interpretations of hell….
  21. We…recognise [sic] that the majority of those who have published as ‘evangelical conditionalists’ have strong evangelical credentials, and have in particular demonstrated a genuine regard for the authority of Scripture.
  22. We encourage traditionalist and conditionalist evangelicals to pursue agreement on the matter of hell, rather than merely acquiescing in their disagreement….

In the nineteen years since this report was published, conversations about hell have continued among evangelicals. Unfortunately, traditionalists and conditionalists have not arrived a doctrinal unity in this matter. It may be that “merely acquiescing in their disagreement” is the most that can be hoped for, just as the debate between Calvinist and Arminian evangelicals has not made any fundamental progress since the Sixteenth Century.

Also, since 2000, universalism has made inroads among evangelicals, largely through the influence of Thomas Talbott, Robin Parry, and other “evangelical universalists” who believe that all will eventually come to faith in Jesus Christ, either in this age or the age to come. Hell, according to them, is rehabilitative rather than retributive. These universalists make both biblical—especially Pauline—and theological arguments for their conclusions. Were ACUTE to issue a new report in 2019, it would have to pay more attention to this development.

Book Reviewed
The Nature of Hell: A Report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (London: ACUTE, 2000).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

The Common Rule | Book Review


“We are all living according to a specific regimen of habits,” writes Justin Whitmel Earley, “and those habits shape most of our life.” Even more, “they form our hearts.” In The Common Rule, Earley outlines a “rule of life” or “program of habits” to help readers fulfill the biblical commandment to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:34–40).

Earley calls this program “the common rule” because it has to do with “common practice by common people.” Its focus on laity rather than clergy distinguishes it from the well-known “rules” of Benedict or Augustine, although its basic purpose is the same as theirs. The common rule consists of eight habits, four daily and four weekly.

The daily habits are:

  • kneeling prayer three times a day,
  • one meal with others,
  • one hour with the phone off,
  • and Scripture before phone.

The weekly habits are:

  • one hour of vulnerable conversation with a friend,
  • curate media to four hours,
  • fasting from something for 24 hours,
  • and setting aside a day for sabbath.

Earley distinguishes the habits along two other spectrums. The first spectrum pertains to whether the habit helps us love God (sabbath, fasting, prayer, and Scripture before phone) or love our neighbors (meals, conversation, phone off, curated media). The second spectrum has to do with embracing the good (sabbath, prayer, meals, and conversation) or resisting the evil (fasting, Scripture before phone, phone off, and curated media).

One of Earley’s crucial insights throughout the book is that our habits reflect (and reinforce) our beliefs. He cites the early years of his career as a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer as a cautionary tale. To keep pace with his colleagues, to take just one example, he would pick up his phone to check his emails and formulate replies even before getting out of bed. As he thought about why he did this, he came to realize that he was drawing his identity and worth from others’ opinions of him. “Unless I’m well regarded in the office, I’m not worth anything,” he writes, describing that period.

By contrast, when he began to practice the daily habit of reading Scripture before picking up his phone, he began to draw his identity and worth from a different source. “Daily immersion in the Scriptures resists the anxiety of emails, the anger of news, and the envy of social media. Instead it forms us daily in our true identity as children of the King, dearly loved.”

Our habits, then, are what Earley calls “liturgies of belief.” Regardless of what we say we believe or value, habits reveal what we really believe and really value. “Our habits often obscure what we’re really worshiping,” Earley warns, “but that doesn’t mean we’re not worshiping something. The question is, what are we worshiping?”

That’s an excellent question, one that all eight habits of the common rule force us to face as we examine our habitual behaviors.

I highly recommend The Common Rule. It is a helpful little volume that will repay careful reading and re-reading, especially if you start putting its habits into practice. The book can be read individually, but perhaps the best way to read it is in a group whose goal is to grow in love for God and neighbor together.

Book Reviewed
Justin Whitmel Earley, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

P.P.P.S. I interviewed Justin for Episode 163 of the Influence Podcast.

P.P.P.S. Just wrote the cover story for the November-December 2018 issue of Influence magazine: “Habits of the Tech-Wise Heart.” It explores many of the themes of the book.

Pagans and Christians in the City | Book Review


Christianity was conceived in a Jewish womb but born into a pagan world. For the first four centuries of its existence, Christianity struggled against the polytheism, violence, and sexual immorality of classical culture, eventually displacing paganism as the default faith of the West. That dominance continued through the Middle Ages until the 16th century, when conflicts between Catholics and Protestants divided Christendom and set the stage for the rise of Enlightenment secularism. Since then, secularism has slowly displaced Christianity as the West’s go-to ideology.

That’s the standard narrative of Western history, at any rate. Steven D. Smith’s Pagans and Christians in the City offers a thought-provoking counternarrative inspired by T. S. Eliot’s 1939 Cambridge University lecture, “The Idea of a Christian Society.” Speaking six months before the start of World War II, Eliot stated his conviction in binary terms: “I believe that the choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.”

At first glance, Eliot’s conviction and Smith’s counternarrative seem implausible. In a 1954 lecture at Cambridge, C. S. Lewis expressed impatience with “those Jeremiahs … who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism.’” He laughed at the very idea: “It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t.” Why? Because history does not move backward. “The post-Christian” — Lewis’ term for modernity — “is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.”

Fair enough. We can all have a good laugh with Lewis. But what if he misidentified an incidental feature of paganism (sacrifice) as an essential feature? What exactly ispaganism, after all? Smith describes “the pagan orientation” as “the commitment to the immanent sacred.” This orientation “beatifies and sacralizes the goods of this world.” It teaches that “‘the sacred’ exists…in this world and this life.” By contrast, Smith explains, “the Christian position has never been to deny the goodness of this world, but only to insist that it is not the ultimate good, and that its goodness derives from a more transcendent source.”

This description of paganism throws a clarifying light on the term secular, which derives from the Latin term saeculum, meaning “generation” or “age.” According to Smith, “the secular” comes in three forms. In the “pagan secular,” “this world and this life … are viewed as having a sacred quality.” In the “Christian secular,” “this life has value … because it is a (subordinate) piece of the larger domain of eternity.” Finally, there is “the distinctively modern positivistic secular reflected in the naturalistic worldview associated with modern science.” Like the pagan secular, the positivist secular has no concept of transcendence. Unlike the pagan secular, however, it also has no concept of sacredness — that is, of life’s goodness, value, or meaning.

When, therefore, public intellectuals speak of Christianity being displaced by secularism in the modern world, they need to define their terms more carefully. The positivistic secular exists, but it is a distinctly minority position. The hardest battles in today’s culture wars are fought between the pagan secular and the Christian secular — that is, between immanent and transcendent accounts of goodness, value and meaning. Smith illustrates these battles in the debates over public religious symbols, human sexuality, the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, and religious freedom. Smith is Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego in San Diego, California, and an acknowledged expert on religious freedom and the relationship between law and religion.

What he writes about the debate over religious freedom in particular applies just as well to the other three debates. “One side of the debate favors a conception of religious freedom that is consistent with … a city or a political community that respects and is open to transcendence.” The other side works “to maintain a public square whose commitments are confined to the satisfaction of ‘interests’ and to immanentlysacred values.” At the end of the day, then, what is at stake in all these debates is the kind of community America has been, will be, or should be. Or any other political community where Christianity and paganism clash, for that matter.

As is the case with any book that tackles as large a subject as this one, careful readers will find nits to pick with the author throughout. Whatever those nits may be, however, Pagans and Christians in the City is a real achievement, clarifying the religious nature of the culture wars that have roiled America for the past few decades and showing their deep continuity with the original four-centuries clash between Christians and pagans.

Book Reviewed
Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018).

P.S. This is a preview of an article appearing in the March/April 2019 edition of Influencemagazine. It is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

P.P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

The Challenge of Sharing Faith in America Today | Influence Podcast


“Almost Half of Practicing Christian Millennials Say Evangelism Is Wrong,” reads the headline of a storyabout a new report from Barna Group. Titled Reviving Evangelism, that report details the erosion of support for evangelism among next-generation Christians. In Episode 169 of the Influence Podcast, I’ll be talking about this report with David Kinnaman.

David is president of Barna Group, a leading research and communications company that works with churches, nonprofits, and businesses ranging from film studios to financial services. He is also the author of several bestselling books, including Good Faith,You Lost Me, and unChristian. He and his wife live in California with their three children.

P.S. This podcast is cross-posted form InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.