Tuesday, January 08, 2008
Brian McLaren's Inferno
I just stumbled across an interview Brian McLaren did with Christianity Today's "Out of Ur" blog in May of 2006 on the subject of Hell entitled "Brian McLaren's Inferno". This is a subject I've done a lot of thinking about myself in the past three or four years. Brian's interview came in three parts:

Inferno 1: the provocative church leader explains his view of hell

Inferno 2: are we asking the wrong questions about hell?

Inferno 3: five proposals for reexamining our doctrine of hell

Brian raises some really good questions about our traditional doctrines of Hell, and I was especially glad to see that he did it primarily by calling people to come back to scripture and take a second look at what it actually says about Hell. (As he puts it in the article, "My opinions aren’t worth two cents compared to what the Scriptures actually say.") This is important since I've encountered so many people who are quick to condemn us emerging folks as heretical when we question doctrines like this without realizing that many of our questions are coming from a re-examination of scripture itself. As it turns out, many of our traditional doctrines are not necessarily well-founded in scripture, especially when one learns how to read the text through the lenses of historical context and literary genre.

His third part is the best of the three in my opinion, where he invites each of us to come back to scripture and examine them for ourselves with these new sets of lenses (his "five proposals"). Here is an abridged version of his proposals:

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... 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.

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... 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...

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.
Click here to read the whole article.

I've taken Brian's suggestions myself, and found that when I read scripture with these considerations in mind, a very different picture of "hell" does in fact emerge. I think anyone who wants to faithful to what the Bible actually teaches, and not just to what our theological traditions tell us it teaches, needs to be willing to at least consider these proposals with an open mind.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 9:41 PM | Permalink |


At 1/09/2008 07:20:00 AM, Blogger The Christian Heretic

I've been saying the same thing for years now, challenging people to take a second look at the common passages used to defend the doctrine of everlasting torment and give a consistent theological exegesis of these passages. So far nobody's been willing to try. Of course I know that this is because nobody is actually able to, but it's entertaining watching people give excuses as to why they can't right now, or watch them say they'll do it later when I know they never will. :D


At 1/09/2008 10:43:00 AM, Blogger Drew

What we have clearly done in the Christian faith is confuse the medieval notion of hell with the biblical one. There is a final judgment no doubt. But how that judgment is rendered muct be understood through the event of the cross and what that means as far as access to redemption and salvation from that possible end. Barth once said something to the effect of, I believe there is a hell and scripture speaks vividly of it, but I do not believe it is populated!


At 1/09/2008 12:33:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

I agree with much of what McLaren says. But it isn't enough to simply critique the prevalent notions about Hell. We must also talk about (as N.T. Wright says) "life after life after death" and offer an alternative view to the prevailing one, if one is needed.

Yes, many of those passages may have had present-day meanings. But not all were intended as solely present-day political statements, I don't think.

Regardless, there is still the question that many people have of "what happens after I die?" How do we answer that? On what grounds? As an inclusivist? A universalist? What is the post-death destiny of those who continue to say "no thank you" to the way of Jesus, those by whom, as C.S. Lewis would say, the door to Hell is locked from the inside? Eternity is a hella long time and if I buy that who and what I trust, and who and what I am becoming now, have some bearing on what that long time will be like for me, then that's kind of important. McLaren seems to have more to say about the incorrectness of the prevailing view, and the way to act in the here and now, than he says about what vision of the hereafter we should replace the bad old vision with. What do you think scripture says of these things?


At 1/09/2008 04:36:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Karl, I agree that we need to also talk about resurrection ("life after life after death") as well. Of course the Bible does have some things to say about that.

As for all your questions, Brian did give a few more answers in the first two parts of his interview - though in general I think he wanted to avoid constructing a new theory of the afterlife in favor of inviting people to go back to scripture and start trying to figure it out for themselves. If he had just said "all our old conceptions are wrong, let me tell you the right answer", that would sort of short-circuit the whole process.

As for myself, I've already posted some reflections on the topic and some answers to your questions in my "Hell Q&A" from last January.


At 1/10/2008 09:02:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

Good stuff in the Hell Q&A. Lewis has been helpful for me in forming my thinking about Hell also. I don't see room in your explanation of hell though, for Jesus' chilling words in the parable of the sheep and the goats: "depart from me, for I never knew you" or other parables talking about unproductive branches being pruned, the tares being separated [by the landowner] from the wheat and burned, etc. Where do you think those fit in? Simply declarations of a during-this-lifetime reality? Or do they have post-death implications?


At 1/10/2008 11:24:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I haven't looked at those passages specifically in a while so I can't say for sure, but my inclination would be to say that the default setting in reading passages like that would be to understand them as more examples of Jesus warning the nation of Israel about the impending judgment for rejecting the ways of God. Whether they also (or instead) carry implications for an afterlife reality would have to be demonstrated from the text, but that shouldn't be our first assumption IMHO.


At 1/10/2008 02:34:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

I can accept that as the starting assumption, but would have a hard time getting to the idea that all of these passages apply solely to the nation of Israel and carry no implication for the afterlife. Some of them seem too broad and sweeping to be pinned down solely to that context:

Matthew 25
31-33"When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.
34-36"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what's coming to you in this kingdom. It's been ready for you since the world's foundation. And here's why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.'

37-40"Then those 'sheep' are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?' Then the King will say, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.'

41-43"Then he will turn to the 'goats,' the ones on his left, and say, 'Get out, worthless goats! You're good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.'

44"Then those 'goats' are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn't help?'

45"He will answer them, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.'

46"Then those 'goats' will be herded to their eternal doom, but the 'sheep' to their eternal reward."

[The Message]

Yes, this passage is preceded by other parables that could arguably apply just to Israel and probably did apply to Israel primarily, even if they also apply more broadly and to the afterlife. But this one seems more sweeping and to contain language and imagery that doesn't fit the "just Israel" or even the "primarily Israel" paradigm. And there seems to be a "go away" element, a casting out or sending off to the self-chosen destiny apart from Jesus, that goes beyond the idea of everyone being in the same place but some people not liking it.


At 1/10/2008 02:38:00 PM, Blogger The Christian Heretic

Matthew 25

The one thing I notice from this passage, at least if taken at face value, is that it seems to say those who help the helpless go to heaven forever and those who don't get punished forever. Just like the passages about bodily mutilation, I just don't get how one reads "non-believer in Christ (apart from any works)" into "those who don't feed the hungry or look after the sick," particularly since I know of many believers who don't and many non-believers who do. In fact, this passage seems to imply that more non-Christians might go to heaven than Christians and more Christians might end up in hell than Atheists (again, if taken at face value).


At 1/10/2008 02:48:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

Good observations Heretic. I'd say the question of what lands one in Heaven or Hell post-death is a separate topic from whether there is a separate post-death Hell that SOMETHING can land one in, and what scripture has to say about the nature of that Hell.

Your comment seems to focus on the first of those topics. My questions were more related to the second.


At 1/10/2008 02:52:00 PM, Blogger The Christian Heretic

Your comment seems to focus on the first of those topics. My questions were more related to the second.

True. I'm a Universalist, so I don't believe in everlasting torment in hell. I was just pointing out the theological inconsistency of those who base their belief that non-believers in Christ go to hell on that passage.


At 1/10/2008 03:21:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Yes, Karl, I agree. That passage in Matthew 25 does seem to be referring to something more than just judgment on Israel. And I also agree with Drew that the criterion for who goes where in that passage appears to be very different than what traditional evangelical theology implies that it is.

As I recall, Brian made both of those points in his interviews - that he is not a strict Universalist because the scriptures seem clear that there are consequences for not following the way of Christ, but also that we need to take a more honest look at what exactly brings about those consequences and admit that they rarely fit into our theological formulas.


At 1/10/2008 04:09:00 PM, Anonymous Karl

I agree with both (or all 3) of you, to an extent anyway. But it feels a bit like a bait and switch when a discussion of "is there a Hell; I'm not so sure" gets shunted over into "well if there is a Hell, the criteria for entry isn't what many evangelicals think it is." That is where Brian jumps when he mentions Matthew 25:41, and what I hear in your post. One question at a time, please.

For your own beliefs on Hell, you referred me to your previous blog entry Q&A on Hell, which I am sure was more representative than exhaustive. Like I said, there seems to be a "go away" element in those scriptural passages, a casting out or sending off to a self-chosen destiny apart from Jesus, that doesn't quite fit with what I read in your Q&A. Something that goes beyond the idea of everyone being in the same place but some people not liking it. An impression of people wanting (and some expecting) to be counted among the sheep, but being sent away. I don't say that lightly. It's a frightening thing, especially in light of the criteria given in the passage. But if you can't ignore the criteria, neither can you ignore the suggestion of an unpleasant and undesired final destiny. I would love to be able to be a universalist like G. MacDonald, but just can't get there from scripture. A very tenuous hope for (not really a belief in) something like purgatory is about as far as I can get.


At 1/10/2008 05:38:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I agree you can't ignore any of that stuff in scripture. At the same time, I'm not sure the Bible really tells us enough at all about Hell to make any definitive statements. There are parts in Paul (especially Romans) that make me wonder how I could not come to a universalist conclusion, but other parts, like that passage in Matt 25, that seem to argue against universalism. So in the end I'm okay with saying "I don't know for sure and the Bible doesn't tell me everything I'd like to know about it."


At 1/14/2008 11:55:00 PM, Blogger Kristina

you read passages like matthew 25 and romans and see conflicts about hell. Does this hurt the case for consistency in the Bible?


At 1/15/2008 01:28:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

If it does (and I'm not saying it does) then maybe we shouldn't be making a "case for consistency" in the first place. Maybe a better case can be made for the Bible as a "conversation" with multiple perspectives and sometimes even differing viewpoints represented.

I'm not saying that's necessarily the case in this particular Matthew-Romans instance, but at the same time, this whole "consistency" thing sounds like a term that certain theologians have probably tacked onto the Bible in order to win arguments about other tacked-on words like "inerrancy", none of which have anything to do with what the Bible actually says about itself. These days I'm more interested in taking the Bible for what it actually is, rather than trying to make it conform to some preconceived ideas about what it's supposed to be like. I hope that makes sense.


At 1/16/2008 11:33:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

Not sure where to post this but since this is the most recent McLaren-specific thread, CT and B&C's John Wilson has written a brief review/reaction piece on McLaren's "Everything Must Change" which is now online.



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