Recently, an old friend of mine, upon reading some of what I have written on this site, expressed his concern that some of the things I have written are a “departure from orthodoxy.” He asked what happened to me since he knew me last that had led to these views. Copied below are the two emails I wrote him in response to his email. I have edited the emails, removing things of a more private nature.
Thanks for your concern for me. What happened to me — the reason I hold the beliefs I do now — is that I stopped taking things for granted. Take the doctrine we have been discussing [my friend and I had just exchanged a few emails on this topic], whether God will punish people in the end and if so with what punishment. I had taken for granted that the answer is that God will punish people and the punishment will be to everlastingly torment those people. Why had I taken this view for granted? Simply because that was the view that my ministers, teachers, and authors of the books I had first read as a young Christian (books by John Piper for example) held. I trusted these people were right. Well, one day I decided I would investigate the question myself. What I found is that the evidence, from both special revelation and general revelation (moral reason), give us no good reason to think God will torment people forever. Special revelation points to God punishing the finally wicked with eternal destruction, or annihilation; and I believe moral reason suggests the same. You say you disagree, citing the biblical text, but frankly I don’t think you’ve studied it enough to make an informed decision. Just as I had not, even though I had completed two masters degrees in theology and biblical studies, one from a rigorous conservative school and one from a rigorous liberal school. So this is the reason I hold the beliefs I do now: I just decided to investigate everything myself. I did not know where it would lead. I had no agenda. I just made it my goal to be open-minded and follow the evidence and arguments.
Now you point out my convictions about Jesus in particular concern you. I take it you have read something(s) on my blog on this point? Yes, my convictions about Jesus are a departure from orthodoxy as you put it, but this is because in my studied opinion the orthodoxy you refer to is itself a departure, a drastic one, from original orthodoxy, that is, from the beliefs and teaching of Jesus and his apostles. I did not come to this conclusion hastily or lightly. In fact, this was an investigation where my commitment to be open-minded was tested, for I knew there would be loss I would suffer if I came to the conclusion that the doctrines of the deity of Jesus and the trinity were not true. I knew that it would realistically spell the end of most of my Christian friendships, church-going, and any real possibility of an academic career in theology or biblical studies, which is the career I had hoped and worked very hard for. Nevertheless, I pressed on and made the study trying my best not to pre-judge the evidence in favor of “orthodoxy.” Well, frankly, it did not take long for me to see that the evidence is strongly against the orthodox doctrines of the deity of Jesus and the trinity. Whether one considers the biblical texts, the historical development and maintenance of these doctrines, or philosophical argumentation, the evidence from all quarters to my mind decisively shows that Jesus is a man and a man only and that God is strictly one being and one person. I know you think that is heresy (and perhaps even puts me in danger of eternal torments), but again it is evident to me that you have not studied the issue enough-really investigated it-to make an informed decision. If you did, and did so with a truly open mind, then I have little doubt that you would come to essentially the same conclusions I have. That’s how confident I am of what the evidence points to, to all who approach and study the question with an open-mind.
Again, thank you for your concern for me. I hope this has given you a better picture of who I am today and where I am coming from and why I believe the things I believe.
I’ve been thinking over the past couple of days on your query as to whether an experience(s) of mine has led me to the convictions I have now. I said that I decided one day to stop taking things-all things, no matter how sacrosanct-for granted; and that is what has led me to where I am today. All of that is true, but in thinking about it, the reason I made that resolution did come from something in my experience. Specifically, it was not being able to refute the view that in the Hebrew Scriptures human beings are not composed of body and souls (or spirits) nor do human beings go on living after death: when human beings die, they die. An OT professor of mine at Yale presented this as self-evidently the case, and I could not refute him. So it was this experience of coming to doubt something that I believed was true, because I had trusted my pastors, teachers (in seminary), and other Evangelical theologians, that led me to start making my own investigations. Through studying the question myself without pre-judging the issue, I became convinced that it is in fact the case that in the Hebrew Scriptures death really is death and human beings are not composed of mortal bodies and immortal souls. In fact I became convinced that this is true of the New Testament writings as well. This experience, in turn, led me to make the decision to investigate everything, and that is what I have done over the past several years since graduating from Yale. Another element of the experience was realizing that I had been arrogant to not give fair consideration to the views of others, including others smarter than me. For example, with respect to the topic we have been discussing, annihilationism, I had read (as a young Christian) John Piper’s appendix in Desiring God where he criticizes John Stott’s annihilationism and had taken it as settled that Piper is right and Stott wrong. I had not bothered to read Stott himself or even better those who had written book-length defenses of annihilationism (something Stott never did). The same goes for something like open theism. At seminary it was simply dismissed as heretical. I accepted this without ever taking the time to read open theists for themselves. And so on and so forth. The doctrines of the deity of Jesus and the trinity I did not scrutinize until a few years ago. I did so because I had concluded in the case of one doctrine after another that the mainstream view in the church is false. So knowing that I might, but hoping that I would not, discover that these doctrines (the deity of Jesus and the trinity) are false too, I gathered the courage to make the study. Like I said before, I hoped that I would find that “orthodoxy” was right on these doctrines, for I knew that if I became convinced it is wrong, this would mean the end of most of my friendships (most of which I had lost already anyway over my other new convictions, however), the end of church-going, and the end of any realistic possibility of the career I had worked very hard for (seminary and Yale were grueling). I also did not know if I would be able to ever share my convictions with my own family (beyond my wife), seeing that it might be too scandalous for them. Well, in spite of all this, because I gave precedence to the truth above all else (and, again, you are right: I was only able to do that because of experiences I had had, going back to doubting the nature and destiny of man in the Hebrew Scriptures), I pressed on and made the study. And, as I said before, it did not take me long to conclude that the many unitarian Christians at the Reformation, many of whom were tortured and even murdered by Catholics and Calvinists alike for their unitarian convictions (it’s a disgusting history; what Calvin and others in Geneva did to Servetus is only the tip of the iceberg), were right: what had become orthodoxy in the 4th century was a drastic departure from the revelation of the Hebrew Scriptures and the teaching of Jesus and the apostles (i.e. original orthodoxy). To my pleasant surprise, however, I learned that there are thousands of Christians today who share this conviction. In fact, even arguably the world’s leading expert on the doctrine of the trinity, Dale Tuggy of the State University of New York is a unitarian Christian. Interestingly, he like me was raised an Evangelical Christian and had taken the doctrine of the trinity for granted too. But he too became convinced after carefully studying the question that, yes, the unitarian Christians are right and the trinitarian Christians (and binitarian Christians for that matter) are wrong. What is more, he holds, like me and many other unitarians (but not all), that Jesus did not personally pre-exist his birth. If you are interested in looking into Tuggy, you might start with this short 15 minute video where he explains how and why he became a unitarian Christian after being raised a trinitarian Christian and even continuing in that view (i.e. trinitarianism) in his graduate studies and early career as a philosophy professor: http://www.21stcr.org/multimedia-2012/interview_dale_tuggy.html.