May 8, 2006
Brian McLaren’s Inferno 2: are we asking the wrong questions about hell?
In part one of this post, Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo tried to deconstruct the traditional evangelical view of hell. Here, McLaren continues to outline his view as neither universalism nor an exclusivist understanding of hell. And he pushes us to reconsider the questions we pose versus what Jesus really says.
McLaren: Tony [Campolo] and I might disagree on the details, but I think we are both trying to find an alternative to both traditional Universalism and the narrow, exclusivist understanding of hell [that unless you explicitly accept and follow Jesus, you are excluded from eternal life with God and destined for hell].
Tony is presenting the inclusivist alternative. The fact is, many people who claim to be exclusivists are actually inclusivists and they don't know it. For example, if you ask them if they believe all babies who die before or shortly after birth go to hell, they'll say no, that children who die before the age of accountability are included in Christ's saving work. They'll say the same for people who are mentally incompetent, and so on. So really, strict exclusivists are rather rare.
My approach is a little different. Although in many ways I find myself closer to the view of God held by some universalists than I do the view held by some exclusivists, in the end I'd rather turn our attention from the questions WE think are important to the question JESUS thinks is most important.
We obsess on "who's in" and "who's out." Jesus, however, seems to be asking the question, "How can
the kingdom of God more fully come on earth as it is in heaven, and how should disciples of the kingdom live to enter and welcome the kingdom?"
Universalism can unintentionally dis-empower the church, because it says everything's going to be okay in the end, regardless of our responses. That can be a very pacifying answer, and lead to attitudes that are not faithful to Scripture and to Jesus. As I see it, all of Scripture affirms that yes, you can really waste your life . . . you can play on the wrong side and live very destructively.
On the other side, exclusivism can spin off all kinds of terrible problems, too. It can create a view of God as vengeful torturer, and that has played a role, I believe, in horrible behavior on the part of Western Christians - from anti-Semitism to slavery and racism and holy-war mentality. In other words, if we can identify some people as God's enemies, hated by God for all eternity, we can find ourselves directly disobeying Jesus' clear teachings about loving our neighbors and our enemies.
Most people aren't willing to reopen these issues with an open mind, and those who do find the process painful and socially dangerous in many of our churches. In the end, I suppose I am truly an evangelical Protestant in the sense that I believe we must go back and search the Scriptures and look at them afresh and see if there isn't something better than what we have been taught. Ironically, we could stand before God and have to answer for our judgmentalism and heartless attitudes that were, to a significant degree, consequences of a popular and longstanding misreading of the Scriptures on this subject of hell.
For example, I think God will be far more displeased by our carelessness toward the poor, or by our lack of peacemaking, or by our unrecognized racism and nationalism than he will be about whether you're an exclusivist or not. I think many of us should tremble in light of what God says about caring for the poor, the fatherless, the vulnerable.
So you are saying that we've spent too much energy analyzing the aesthetics and environment of hell, and we've lost the clear scriptural call to proclaim and teach about Judgment?
McLaren: Absolutely. But even there, we don't preach judgment to create fear, so that people see God as enemy. Actually, in the Bible, especially in the Psalms, people are often praying eagerly that judgment will come. That's because they weren't thinking in the binary terms of heaven and hell after this life. Instead, they were looking for God to intervene in history so that the oppressors, the warmongers, the greedy, the abusers, the violent, the careless toward the widow and orphan and poor would be stopped, exposed, and frustrated, so that justice and peace and joy could flourish.
I don't think it's insignificant that Revelation ends, not with us going up to heaven (or down to hell) with the earth being "left behind." Instead, John has a vision of the New Jerusalem coming down to earth. The new heavens and new earth mean, I believe, not the replacement of this world, but its redemption and liberation from injustice and sin.
Some people think you're simply being evasive and not answering plain questions clearly. But you would say that you're not satisfied with the questions we're asking because you don't think we're asking the questions the Bible is trying to answer. It also sounds like you feel we need to pay more attention to the ethical dimensions of Jesus' teaching, and that some of our theological discussions distract us from what Jesus focused on.
McLaren: Yes, that's it exactly! I keep coming back to Jesus and his teaching. In the Sermon on the Mount, he says that God is good to the righteous and the unrighteous, and for that reason, we should love everyone, including our enemies. He says we shouldn't judge or we'll be judged. That's a very different attitude than I see so often in our Christian circles, where there's always this in-group/out-group mentality. And those in the out-group we treat with distance, disdain, or disrespect. How would we like it if God decided to treat us as we've treated others?