May 11, 2006
Brian McLaren’s Inferno 3: five proposals for reexamining our doctrine of hell
In this final installment of his interview on hell, Brian McLaren provides more insight into how he understands the teachings of Jesus, and offers five suggestions for rethinking our traditional understanding of hell.
Let me offer five suggestions on how we could re-approach this subject by looking at the Scriptures in a fresh light. After all, my opinions aren't worth two cents compared to what the Scriptures actually say. First, I'd suspend the common assumption that every time the word judgment occurs in the Bible, it means "going to hell after you die," or every time the word save occurs, it means "going to heaven after you die."
Second, I'd encourage people who say, "Well, what about Matthew 25:41?" or some other specific passage to also pay attention to the reasons those passages give for people experiencing those negative consequences. Jesus never says, "If you don't believe in a particular theory of atonement . . ." or "If you don't accept me as your personal Savior by saying the sinner's prayer . . ." then you'll experience the lake of fire. That's not what he says. I put a table in the book that tries to help people attend to what the texts actually say, and in case after case, they simply don't say what many Christians commonly say they do.
Third, we need to re-sensitize ourselves to Jesus' use of figurative language. We act as if "metaphorical" were a small thing, and concrete/literal were a big thing, but that's the reverse of what I see in Jesus' teaching. I think about John 6, for example, where Jesus talks about people eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and then says his flesh and blood are real food and drink. They take his statements non-metaphorically and concretely, and they miss the point.
Or there's Nicodemus not getting Jesus' language about being born again. Or when he's talking about the leaven of the Pharisees and the disciples assume he's talking about physical bread. There's so much going on metaphorically in Jesus' teaching about hell and judgment, and I think we often misinterpret it by reducing it to the concrete just as the disciples did.
I'm an old English major, so I'm sensitive to genre, and the highly metaphorical genre of Jewish apocalyptic literature was pervasive in Jesus' day. We need to let him use language in the richly metaphorical way his contemporaries did. N. T. Wright, Walter Brueggemann, and many others are writing very helpfully on this subject.
Fourth, we should consider the possibility that many, and perhaps even all of Jesus' hell-fire or end-of-the-universe statements refer not to postmortem judgment but to the very historic consequences of rejecting his kingdom message of reconciliation and peacemaking. The destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 67-70 seems to many people to fulfill much of what we have traditionally understood as hell.
Jesus, along with the other apostles too, seems to be much less focused on the post-mortem destiny of individual souls and more focused on the end and rebirth of the Jerusalem/Temple/sacrifice-centered world as they knew it, and on the constitution of a new people of God that includes Gentiles with Jews. People should re-read the texts with this possibility in mind. After all, when the Old Testament prophets used apocalyptic language, we know they were referring to historic events - like the attack by Assyria, or the exile in Babylon for example.
Finally, I think we can leave some theoretical questions unanswered because what we need to know is very clear: God is love. God is gracious. God is just. God is holy. And these things are never in tension, but are always perfectly integrated. God's love and mercy are always just and holy. God's justice and holiness are always loving and merciful. God shows his perfect integration of love and justice through sending his Son to live and die as one of us. We see God's love and justice perfectly expressed as the Word-made-flesh spreads out his arms on the cross to offer himself as the perfect sacrifice for all sin, once and for all, saying, not "Father, repay them for their evil deed," but "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Our proper response to that view of God is not to speculate on who will, or will not, be forgiven. Instead, Jesus makes our proper response very clear: if God treats those who hate him with such love, then we should love our enemies, not repay evil for evil, turn the left cheek after being struck on the right, walk the second mile, stand naked by giving away our undergarment if someone takes our outer garment, and so on. I trust God's goodness and wisdom in judging others, just as I trust myself into God's care; I don't feel he needs my help.
This is where my reflections on this have been taking me in recent years. Some people thinking I'm going astray, but I know that I'm seeking the truth. And I know I still have a long, long way to go in my search. I hope people can understand that some of us show our love for God by seeking better answers when our current answers seem unworthy of God. Maybe we'll be proven wrong in the end, but I can't see what faithful alternative we have other than to ask, seek, and knock ... trusting God will respond and doors will be opened.