May 5, 2006
Brian McLaren’s Inferno: the provocative church leader explains his view of hell
No contributor to Out of Ur has elicited more responses than Brian McLaren. Part of McLaren's appeal is his courage to rethink long-held evangelical assumptions and call the church to shed the baggage of modernity. Brian's critics, however, accuse him of throwing the orthodox baby out with the modernist bath water. In this interview McLaren discusses his view of hell and judgment, and explains why some have mislabeled him a universalist. Part one of this post also features fellow prophet Tony Compolo.
Brian, in your book, The Last Word and the Word After That, you focus heavily on "deconstructing" the evangelical view of hell. Some critics think your deconstruction has moved to the point of your embracing a "universalist" position. Are you a Universalist?
McLaren: No, I am not embracing a traditional universalist position, but I am trying to raise the question, When God created the universe, did he have two purposes in mind - one being to create some people who would forever enjoy blessing and mercy, and another to create a group who would forever suffer torment, torture, and punishment? What is our view of God? A God who plans torture? A God who has an essential, eternal quality of hatred? Is God love, or is God love and hate?
It might sound surprising to state it that way, but you'd be surprised at some of the emails I've received. For example, someone quoted Scriptures like Psalm 5:5 or Psalm 11:5 and said, "If you don't believe in a God of hate, you don't believe in the God of the Bible." Here's my concern: if you believe in a god of hate, violence, revenge, and torture, it makes you very susceptible to becoming a person made in that god's image.
Even though this subject is so controversial and I don't like controversy, we have to address it because we're dealing with our view of God, and the consequences of our essential view of God are staggering. The only thing that's more important, I guess, is God's view of us!
Anyway, Western Christianity has been overly preoccupied with the question of who's going to heaven or hell after death, and not focused enough on the question of what kind of life is truly pleasing to God here in the land of the living. We've got to look at that. In The Last Word and the Word After That, I wanted to raise the issue of "Judgment," that all will be judged rightly and fairly by God alone, who weighs the scales rightly, and does this for everyone. Again, when we put ourselves in the position of judge ? making pronouncements on the eternal destiny of others ? I think it's pretty dangerous, especially in light of Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount.
Campolo: I come out of a tradition that pays attention to George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis, and I'm contending that we need to deal with this question: Is God less just than I am, or is his sense of justice different than mine? It's very simple, MacDonald and Lewis would say, "There is a hell, there has to be, because if there is no hell, there is no freedom." In Lewis's book, The Great Divorce, he says, "The bus leaves heaven every half hour, and anybody who doesn't want to stay in heaven goes to hell . . . by his own choice!"
What I think we can say is, and this is where I get into trouble, I'm not so sure that when this life is over that all possibilities for salvation are over. I read in Ephesians 4:9-10 a passage that can be interpreted to describe a Jesus who descends into "the depths below the earth" to bring captives up to God. I read in 1 Peter 3:19 about a Jesus who goes to preach to those in the prison house of death, and I believe these Scriptures show Jesus doing something for people after they are dead, as we understand death. This reveals Jesus to be the "hound of heaven."
Yes, I believe there will be people in hell eternally, but somehow, I believe from Scripture - note I said from Scripture - that in the end everybody gets a chance to choose.
As Paul says, "We prophesy in part and we know in part, and we wait for that which is perfect which is to come." I'm willing to be corrected. I'm willing to be shown I'm wrong, but as I read Scripture, this is how I see things: You will never be condemned to hell because you didn't have a chance, you will condemn yourself to hell because you reject Jesus.
There's no sense of justice found in universalism. If everybody ends up in the same place no matter what they choose, there is no justice. On the other hand, grace says we don't get justice in the end. So we've got both of those truths in tension.