Now that the discussion about Spencer Burke’s controversial book A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity has died down a bit, I’ve finally gotten around to picking it up and reading through a bit of it. I jumped right to the sections that seemed most controversial, especially Spencer’s thoughts on salvation and hell.
Knowing Spencer a little from the ETREK courses he leads, I find the following statement to be classic Spencer, “People often ask how a loving God can send people to hell. My response is that I donâ€™t think God does. I do, however, believe that God allows people to choose hellâ€”whatever that might be” (200). This is another way of saying his belief that salvation is an opt-out situation, and not an opt-in.
When Spencer floated these ideas in the fall of 2004 at the ETREK course I attended, he stirred up the pot quite a bit, especially among the more conservative Presbyterians in the group. The difference between then and now is that Spencer floats these ideas, and then follows with a series of Bible studies from the Gospels illustrating the ways that God seeks people out and then is either received or rejected. In other words, Spencer has some strong support for his opt-out scheme.
Of course salvation is a touchy issue, and when someone suggests we’ve been preaching, teaching, and sharing a message that isn’t quite right, the defensive position becomes most natural. I haven’t read Spencer’s book cover to cover yet, but for now I find his ideas provocative and helpful.
Whenever I’m sharing the Gospel with people or simply explaining parts of Christianity with others, I make a point of including some diverse perspectives. This serves to open the conversation further and really draws people out. Instead of telling them how it is, we can discuss the merits of one view over another. Spencer gives us some food for thought here.
Whether or not Spencer is correct with his opt-out teaching, I do think his ideas have grown and developed over time. This is not a notion that he whipped up to sell books. He’s been wrestling with it over time and has some support for it. The book itself is well-written, even if some reviewers have lamented that Spencer is quite vague in his use of terminology at times.
I don’t plan on finishing it any time soon, as it’s a bit longer than I expected (I mean, the first edition is a hardback!), but I’ll plug away at it from time to time and share some thoughts.