I recently joined the Reformed Baptist Fellowship & Theology Forum group on Facebook. This group exists ostensibly to foster theological discussion between Reformed-minded Baptists. A wide array of topics is discussed and, for the most part, discussion is civil and friendly. However, just a few days after I joined, someone posed the following question: “Dear all, I’d like to know the good or best source that covers hell. Recently I’ve read that hell is not everlasting, and they explain that using the Bible and Hebrew words. Thank you, all.” I was gravely disappointed to read the very first comment on that question: “What heretics have been spreading that falsehood?”
In another Calvinistic Facebook group, which I joined only for a brief time, someone posed a question about theistic evolution, and the view was likewise immediately decried as “heresy.”
“Heresy” is an emotionally loaded term, and labelling someone a heretic can be a rather effective scare tactic. What Christian wants to be a heretic? When we have a theological disagreement with someone, often it is far simpler to accuse them of heresy than it is to engage intelligently and honestly with them.
Gaining a biblical definition of “heresy” is not a straightforward matter. The King James Bible uses the English word “heretick” in Titus 3:10, but modern translations render the word there as “a person who stirs up division” (ESV), “a divisive man” (NKJV) or “a factitious man” (NASB). The Greek word is hairetikos, which speaks of one who (deliberately) creates schism. Aberrant theology is not necessarily a part of the picture there.
The Greek term heiresis, from which “heresy” is derived, is used a few times in the New Testament. It is sometimes used to describe a particular religious or political “party” (Acts 5:17; 15:5; 26:5). Christianity itself was considered a “sect” early on (Acts 24:14; 28:22). Galatians 5:20 includes heiresis (translated “divisions”) in a list of general vices. First Corinthians 11:19 frankly states that “there must also be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognised.” The context there has to do with unspecified divisions within the church, specifically in the context of the Lord’s Supper.
The most helpful text in the New Testament for defining “heresy” is perhaps 2 Peter 2:1: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” This is the only time that the word “heresy” (or the plural “heresies”) is used in mainstream English translations of the Bible. The “heresies” here are very narrowly defined as teachings that deny the person and work of Jesus Christ.
If we consider teachings with which we disagree in this light, it will perhaps give us pause when we are tempted to write someone off as a heretic, or their teaching as heresy. Does the person or the teaching actually deny the person and work of Jesus Christ?
There are false teachings today that can legitimately be described as “destructive heresies.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, do harm to the person of Christ when they deny his divinity. That is a destructive heresy, which denies the Master who bought them. If someone denies the bodily resurrection of Christ, they can rightly be accused of teaching a destructive heresy. Heresy exists, and it must be recognised and countered. But not every teaching that disagrees with your personal theology is heresy.
Consider, for example, the teachings specified above.
The first question (about hell not being “everlasting”) is a reference to the teaching commonly known as annihilationism. Technically, annihilationists (or, at least, evangelical annihilationists) do not teach that hell is “not everlasting,” only that it is not a place of eternal, conscious torment. Annihilationism holds that the wages of sin is death, and that the second death (portrayed in Revelation as a lake of fire) is an eternal death. The duration of the punishment is everlasting, but it not consciously everlasting.
Given the context in which the question arose, we must assume that that is what the questioner meant: that he has heard teaching about hell not being a place of eternal, conscious torment, but instead a place (or description) of final, irreversible (thus eternal) death. Is that heresy?
Annihilationism is a doctrine that is held by biblical conviction by a number of evangelical scholars. John Stott famously played his annihilationist cards in 1988 in a discussion with liberal theologian David Edwards. Stott certainly did not deny any essential doctrine relating to the person and work of Christ, but he did embrace annihilationism. Few evangelicals would dare to label Stott a heretic, but if annihilationism is heresy, that is precisely what Stott was.
John Stackhouse is another annihilationist. For seventeen years, Stackhouse filled the position at Regent College in Vancouver that was formerly held by J. I. Packer. He is a solid evangelical scholar, though his annihilationism would ostensibly render him a heretic, if indeed annihilationism is heresy.
John Wenham and Philip Edgecumbe Hughes were both annihilationists and were both highly respected in evangelical academia. None of these men taught anything that would be construed as denying the Master who bought them, even though they were annihilationists.
Theistic evolution is likewise hardly a teaching that can be described as heresy. Like the doctrine of hell, the doctrine of creation is not an unimportant one, but it is not a doctrine directly impacts on the salvific person and work of Jesus Christ. Good Christian scholars can and do disagree among themselves on the precise interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis.
Make no mistake: Doctrine is important. I am all for Christians clearly defining and defending with great conviction what they believe the Bible teaches. At the same time, we must realise that not everyone who disagrees with us is necessarily a heretic. If their teaching places direct attack on the salvific person and work of Jesus Christ—if they, in other words, deny the Master who bought them—then their teaching can legitimately be described as “destructive heresies.” But since Peter speaks in the harshest terms of such heretics, we should probably be very reticent of accusing good brothers and sisters in Christ of teaching things that lead to “swift destruction.”