Don’t Stop Believing (4)

DSB.jpgWittmer, Michael E.

Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough

Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. Pp. 230. Paper. $16.99.

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With thanks to Andrew Rogers at Zondervan for this review copy!

[All page numbers refer to the galleys that I was sent and may differ from the published paperback edition.]

In chapter 9 Wittmer turns to the dreaded topic of hell asking “is hell for real and forever?”  He begins by noting that conservatives are so fixated on the afterlife that their life on Earth takes a backseat to it.  Postmoderns on the other hand are concerned with the here and now and see hell as “devalu[ing] all other values.” [p. 121]  He recounts a story from Brian McLaren’s book The Last Word and the Word After That in which McLaren basically argues (via a fictional dialogue) that Jesus didn’t believe in a real hell and used it as a rhetorical device against the Pharisees.  Wittmer asks why the discussion on hell should be limited to Jesus’ words alone and not take into account John’s detailed description in Revelation 19-20.  He also says that “even if we do limit ourselves to the sayings of Jesus, we are still struck by the volume and detail of what Jesus said about hell.” [p. 123]

In McLaren’s story hell is merely symbolic of “waste, decay, regret, and sorrow” [p. 125] which is why Jesus used the term Gehenna (a garbage dump) when talking about it.  Everlasting punishment is relegated to being disappointed in ourselves and McLaren’s character says that “fire and brimstone … are mere metaphors…. mere word pictures to help us imagine what it would feel like to come clean, to face the truth, to be found out, in the presence of God…. Nothing could be more serious than that.” [p. 126]  Wittmer’s response is especially poignant:

I am not as optimistic that autonomous sinners will ever fully “come clean” and “face the truth” about themselves. […] Sinners curved in on themselves will always find a way to exonerate their behavior. [p. 126]1

The remainder of the chapter is spent showing that Jesus never corrected the Pharisees for their belief in hell, that Scripture and tradition support the interpretation of everlasting punishment in hell, that God doesn’t send anyone to hell against their will, and that hell is serious business that we shouldn’t take lightly and it’s something that we should certainly never rejoice in.

Chapter 10 is about epistemology and asks “is it possible to know anything?”  While being about the same length as most of the chapters in this book, this one read much quicker.  Wittmer contrasts the modern and postmodern perspectives on truth and focuses much less on conservative and postmodern differences.  Unless I’ve read him wrong, he doesn’t seem to be making the point that conservatives are synonymous with modernity here.  Basically modernity spawned the belief that whatever was true could be proven either rationally or empirically.  The problem is that this led to a denial of God on the part of many modern thinkers because such ‘proof’ doesn’t exist for God.  There were two modern Christian responses:  (1) Schleiermacher grounded belief in God in religious experience, but this was subjective so when different religions articulated different experiences they were speaking of the same God. (2) Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and B. B. Warfield conceded that it was right to believe in only what can be proven, but asserted that modern thinkers were wrong in saying that there was no proof for God.  They developed logical arguments for the existence of God.2

Postmoderns on the other hand are basically agnostic, claiming that we as finite creatures can’t possibly be so arrogant as to assume that we can know anything objectively about a God who is infinitely greater than us.  They emphasize the “subjective, local, and relational nature of knowledge…. correctly observ[ing] that everything we see and hear is filtered through our unique perspective. We are unable to get outside of our skin and see the world in the raw, but we must interpret whatever we know.” [p. 137]3 So while modernity was overconfident, postmodernity lacked confidence.

Wittmer sees a better alternative to either approach, a “more biblical way between these two extremes, one that is appropriately modest yet claims to know specific truths about God and his world.” [p. 140]  Whereas both moderns and postmoderns begin with themselves, i.e., with what their minds can prove.  “[M]oderns naively suppose that they can prove a lot [and] postmodern innovators recognize that our limited minds cannot prove anything.” [p. 140]  Wittmer suggests that we start with God and he answers the charge of fideism with an appeal to Romans 1:18-20.  The bottom line is that everyone has an innate knowledge of God’s existence whether or not they want to admit it.  But how does anyone know that what Romans 1:18-20 says is true?  This is the topic to be taken up in the next chapter.

To be continued…


1 He uses as examples Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and a young man who was caught on television trying to have sex with a minor.  In every case the guilty party spun the situation so as to deny their true guilt.

2 Wittmer doesn’t go into details as to what these arguments were exactly, and since I’m not well read in either of the Hodges or Warfield, I wonder how they differ (if at all) from Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God.

3 This is an example of what I meant when I said that Wittmer doesn’t seem to be saying that conservatives are synonymous with modernity.  From my recent reading of Greg Bahnsen, this is the very heart of presuppositional apologetics, i.e., the very fact that no one is neutral and every worldview operates according to certain foundational presuppositions.  Everything gets filtered through these presuppositional lenses.  So this perspective is certainly not unique to postmoderns. See e.g., Gary DeMar, ed., Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Methodology of Greg L. Bahnsen (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2007), 43ff.


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