From Peace Child
and Lords of the Earth
to Eternity in Their Hearts
, I’ve enjoyed reading Don Richardson’s missiological and biographical works. He was always something of a larger-than-life figure to me, but I did not meet Don in person until I traveled to Indonesia with him, his three sons and a videographer in 2012. We were there to capture the 50th anniversary of the family’s arrival among the Sawi, a (formerly) headhunting tribe, a large percentage of which are now believers. (For what it’s worth, you can watch the video here
.)A response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins
and Mark Galli’s God Wins
, Heaven Wins
is a departure from Richardson’s previous works. In spite of the book’s title, Rob Bell’s universalism is only briefly in his crosshairs. He reserves his most fervent criticism for Calvinism, a belief system he sees as contrary to scripture and a misrepresentation of the character of God.Heaven Wins
is (and I don’t mean this as an insult) a work of speculative theology, taking texts that may be less than clear and asking the question, “What if..?” It has become a trite descriptor, but Richardson really does
“think outside the box.” For the most part, this is a good thing, and the church needs people to take its traditional beliefs and hold them up to the scrutiny of scripture. I remember hearing Don explaining some of these same ideas while we were sitting around a table in the jungle eating roasted sago grubs. They were the sort of cosmological speculations you’d hear at a sci-fi convention and the philosophical and theological ponderings that you may have overheard from Lewis and Tolkien in the Rabbit Room at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford.In Heaven Wins,
Richardson questions the majority evangelical opinion that there will be more people in hell than there are in heaven. God, he says, will not merely win a pyrrhic victory in His quest to save humanity. Many—if not a majority—will be saved, and to arrive at this conclusion, Richardson must dismantle traditional reformed views. The first of these is federal headship (i.e. we are both damaged by
and guilty of
Adam’s sin). He argues that we are all prone to sin—and we will undoubtedly sin if given a chance—but we are not guilty of sin until we commit it. Thus the unborn, infants and children prior to the age of accountability are all welcomed into heaven upon their deaths because they have not committed willful sin. (Yes, he does argue quite compellingly from scripture for an age of accountability.)Due to high instances of infant mortality and childhood death—particularly in places where the gospel has not penetrated—Richardson purports that there will be many in heaven from cultures that have not yet heard the gospel. He even goes so far as to say that it is a divine act of mercy to prevent these multitudes from reaching the age of accountability and dying without the gospel. Although many follow him in believing that infants and children who die will be saved, they reach this conclusion via a different path.
A second significant area of divergence with historic evangelical theology—and one that is tied to his argument above—is Richardson’s contention that general revelation can be salvific. He points to Job as an example of a biblical character who apparently had no access to special revelation, yet was considered an “Old Testament believer.” He points to other passages that seem to indicate the effectiveness of general revelation in leading one to salvation—although he admits that this is not normative.
In my view, this topic in itself was fascinating enough to have been expounded in more detail in a separate book. Not only did Richardson offer scripture to support his views, but he cited multiple (albeit isolated) missiological anecdotes of people with no access to the gospel who were for all intents and purposes converted before missionaries arrived to share the gospel. Once again, Richardson does not see this as normative, but as evidence of God’s mercy.
An argument for this position that Richardson didn’t make, but which came to my mind as I was reading is this: Any good, evangelical theologian would consider the protoeuangelion (the promise of the serpent crusher in Genesis 3:15) to be special revelation, orally transmitted for several thousand years before being written in Genesis by Moses. Is it possible that this story could have been preserved and transmitted in some form to non-Jewish cultures? As Richardson has noted in earlier books, there are multiple instances of accounts of the creation, fall and flood preserved in the oral traditions of isolated tribes. If so, would this not be special revelation? Or is it only considered special revelation if it is formally canonized in Jewish or Christian writings? Here is where the boundaries between special and general revelation become a bit fuzzy, and I’m not sure why Richardson did not exploit this logical weakness in traditional views of revelation.
In the end, Richardson embraces a version of inclusivism that may be unacceptable (and even heretical) to many—opting to allow some into heaven through the back door versus relegating the majority to hell through the front door. While I am unconvinced by many of his arguments, I would be cautious to attribute to Richardson a dampening of passion for missions—which is often an accusation leveled at inclusivists. I’ve seen firsthand the results of his desire to see the gospel brought to the unreached, so it would be foolish to suggest that he has arrived at his viewpoints by way of missiological laziness or naivete.
At its best, Heaven Wins is valuable for its ability to cause readers to reconsider what they believe and whether it is motivated by allegiance to a theological system or by a plain reading of the text of Scripture.