Philip Gulley is a Quaker minister and novelist whose fiction I greatly enjoy. Gulley is best known for writing in a humorous, Americana style, about the town of Harmony, Indiana, in a way similar to what you might hear on A Prairie Home Companion.
Gulley also writes theology. His views reflect the extreme left of the Quaker tradition and is virtually indistinguishable from Unitarian Universalism. At this point in his writing career, I would no longer consider him a Christian, even in an nominal sense. I enjoy Gulley’s theology books because he writes well, explains his beliefs well, and helps me to understand the extreme liberal religious spectrum. Of course, I often have reason to strongly disagree with Gulley’s views, and I was particularly bothered by several statements in the chapter on “Salvation” in his book The Evolution of Faith: How God Is Creating a Better Christianity.
First, Gulley summarizes the evangelical view of salvation:
Those involved in the divided church understood salvation to mean a secure eternity of joy and bliss with Jesus after one’s death. This was accomplished by believing Jesus’s death on the cross had paid the penalty not only for one’s person sin, but for the original sin of Adam, thereby satisfying God’s demand for holiness and justice. God’s forgiveness, and Jesus’s triumph over sin, were demonstrated by Jesus’s resurrection from the grave. One only had to acknowledge his or her personal sin, recognize the separation from God one’s sin had caused, believe Jesus had acted on his or her behalf, and accept the gift of Jesus’s vicarious sacrifice in order to enjoy that same gift of new and eternal life (p. 132).
That’s not a bad summary as far as it goes. I could quibble here and there, but the broad strokes are right. Eternal salvation is “a secure eternity of joy and bliss with Jesus” and this is received by believing in Jesus and accepting the “gift of new and eternal life.”
Gulley goes on to make the following statement, which strongly bothered me:
“this understanding of salvation flourishes because many Christians are theologically uneducated. They are unaware of church history, ignorant of the implications of their beliefs, and ill-informed about the Bible, how it came to be written, and the proper method for its interpretation. Nor have they taken the time or made the effort to learn how to think theologically” (p. 134)
Gulley says the “more conservative, evangelical strains” of Christianity (p. 133) believe that “Christians have held this understanding of salvation since the time of Jesus.” They’re wrong, Gulley claims, adding “this is a Christianity the first apostles wouldn’t have recognized” (p. 135).
What Gulley says here is not true. I think the apostles would have easily recognized it, because they learned it from Jesus. I would invite Gulley’s readers to consider the Gospel According to John, in the New Testament. John tells us why he wrote his Gospel:
Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:30-31).
Clearly, John was writing with an evangelistic purpose. He wanted people to believe in Jesus so they may have life in His name. That certainly sounds like the same motivation Gulley identifies with evangelicalism, but denies would have been recognized by Jesus and the apostles!
In fact, John’s Gospel strongly emphasizes believing in Jesus for eternal life, and the consequences of not believing in Him. This is very evident in John 3, in Jesus’s conversation with a Pharisee named Nicodemus.
Jesus starts by confronting Nicodemus with his need to be born-again:
Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
This is also what evangelicals do—confront otherwise religious people with their need to be born again. And how do you do that? Listen to Jesus once again:
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:14-18).
That is the evangelical message in a nutshell, in Jesus’ own words. Jesus had to die on the cross (“be lifted up”) so that whoever believes in Him will have everlasting life, and whoever does not believe has been judged already. If you believe, you have eternal life. If you do not believe, you do not have that life, but judgment and condemnation instead. D. L. Moody and Billy Graham didn’t make up that message (as Gulley claims)—it comes from the mouth of Jesus!
Although Gulley criticizes evangelicals for being “unaware of church history, ignorant of the implications of their beliefs, and ill-informed about the Bible” when it comes to the saving message and evangelism, I would suggest that criticism more appropriately applies to Gulley himself.