Recently, Brian McLaren conducted an interview (link) with Leif Hansen, where they discussed several issues pertaining to very important teachings in Christianity. Now, before I go further, I want to make the clear disclaimer that I do not know Brian McLaren, nor have I ever had a chance to sit down with him to try to understand his point of views, nor have I read all his writings or listened to his sermons. Moreover, I understand that in an interview like this, overstatements are likely to be made in order to emphasize a point. Nonetheless, I would like to interact with a few comments that McLaren made, in order to try to bring some balance and maybe foster more discussion.
“I think anybody who would sit for five minutes and ponder the reality of hell as it’s commonly understood would either—I can say, lose their minds. I think if you actually faced it and what is really being said, I think you would—any person who faced it, really opened themselves up to it and the horror of it for five minutes would come out mentally damaged. And the result of that would either be that they, I think, would hate God—And I’ve met a lot of people who have this—the fundamentalists are right in their understanding of hell and so they, as a result, hate God. Or they become an atheist. They just say it’s better to not believe in God than to have to believe in that kind of God. Or they become a raving fundamentalist who’d be grabbing people on the street and shaking them and you know, saying you better repent.”
Right off the bat, I find it unfair for McLaren to imply that those who hold to an orthodox understanding of the doctrine of hell either have not faced the horror of hell for more than five minutes, or must inevitably become “a raving fundamentalist” who grabs people and demands their repentance. Surely this is an unhelpful caricature, because rather than dealing with the issue, he resorts to poking fun and generalizing. Also the dichotomy of either hating God or becoming an atheist is just not true. There are many genuine, God-loving Christians who are convinced that the Bible teaches there is a hell.
“I think that creates a rational problem. And is that rationally sensible? Would it be—Does it make sense for a good being to create creatures who will experience infinite torture, infinite time, infinite—you know, never be numbed in their consciousness? I mean, how would you even create a universe where that sort of thing could happen? It just sounds—It really raises some questions about the goodness of God. And that, to me, is the deepest issue. You know, John said in First John, God is light and in God there is no darkness at all. And I what I have to believe is that very few of us actually believe that. We all have the suspicion that there is a dark side to God. And that God isn’t truly, truly good.”
I find it encouraging that McLaren has really wrestled with the weight of the eternality of hell. He is right in that it really is the most horrific reality imaginable. Yet, I wonder if he believes in a reality that is the opposite of it, namely infinitely wonderful and beautiful and glorious, namely the glory of God? If so, there is a starting point for understanding such a thing as the infinite heinousness of a crime against this glory, and the infinite punishment that this crime would incur. My main point is that there certainly can be a rational basis for explaining why hell exists. Also, I would be interested McLaren provide a definition of what it means for God to be good and what it means for God to be light and how God being good or being light precludes the existence of hell.
“a wonderful new book has just come out. I just got my copy yesterday. By a friend of mine in England named Andrew Perriman. It’s called The Coming of the Son of Man. And he is doing some things that N. T. Wright has hinted at and delved into a bit. But he is going even farther to show how we understand so much of that biblical language of destruction. And one way to summarize what Andrew Perriman is saying is to say that either the primary or maybe the only eschatological horizon that Jesus is talking about and the apostles are talking about, it’s not the end of the world. It’s the end of the world as they knew it. Which meant the end of Judaism as they knew it, which meant the end of the temple system and the priestly system as they knew it. And I think Andrew makes a very strong case for this in his book The Coming of the Son of Man
What they’re basically saying is Jesus isn’t talking about—That’s not even what He’s talking about. He’s telling the Jewish leaders of His day, that judgment is coming. And that if they choose a path of violence, if they reject His path of peace, if they choose to stay on the path they’re on, that there’s going to be a horrible consequence to it. And what they would say is it happened, AD 67. The Jewish people rejected Jesus—the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus’ message of peace and reconciliation. They chose the path of the zealots, which was the path of violent revolution. When they engaged in violence the Romans responded in violence and crushed them. And so, in the great Jewish war, AD 67 to 70, Jerusalem was destroyed. Not one stone was left on another. You know, all of those things that Jesus said would happen, happened. And that His language of hell fire and language of Ghenna and all that language, was fulfilled in what would happen at that time, AD 67 to 70. And I think there is a very strong case to be made for that.
I think, first of all, I think it makes a huge difference whether you believe that that violence is waiting for everybody or whether you think that violence actually was focussed on AD 67 to 70. I mean, and I would just encourage people who are listening to this, for the next couple years, as you’re reading the Gospels, to be open to the possibility that that might be what Jesus was talking about. It’s really interesting, and this is what Andrew Perriman does very well in this brand new book, he really engages with Paul. Second Thessalonians and the others places in the New Testament that are pretty fiery, you know. And he makes a very strong case that the eschatological horizon for them—you know, all of these are written before AD 67. And so when Paul says, it’s coming very soon. Or Jesus says, this generation will not pass—in this reading, it turns out that they’re right. That the generation didn’t pass and it was very soon. It was literally a couple of years from when Paul was writing and this would happen. So what you do when that happens, suddenly, those Scriptures, it’s almost like an explosion that’s already happened. And it doesn’t make sense for us to keep talking about that explosion happening.”
I agree that there are several prophetic passages that refer to the destruction in AD 67, and McLaren highlights a few of these that are particularly so (Schreiner’s New Testament Theology that’s coming out soon has a really good section on this). I haven’t read Perriman’s book, but it sounds very interesting. However, in reading the NT, I don’t find it convincing that all the passages that warn about hell can be said to be about the destruction in AD 67. I don’t know if that is the argument that Perriman makes, but if it is, he definitely has his work cut out for him. For example, some passages that come to mind that would not seem to be speaking about AD 67, but about an eschatological punishment
Matt. 10:28 “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. – Jesus is specifically speaking of the act of God to destroy both body and soul in hell, and human beings not being able to do that here on earth. But if Jesus meant AD 67, then this would be nonsense, because AD 67 was a destruction wrought by Roman soldiers and therefore, they could not destroy the soul.
Heb. 6:7 For ground that drinks the rain which often falls on it and brings forth vegetation useful to those for whose sake it is also tilled, receives a blessing from God; 8 but if it yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to being cursed, and it ends up being burned.
Heb. 6:9 But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things that accompany salvation, though we are speaking in this way. – I take the burning (and other warning passages) to be speaking about an eschatological punishment, because it is clearly contrasted with an eschatological reward throughout the book of Hebrews (entering a rest, an abiding city, Sabbath, etc…).
” a primary meaning of the cross is that the kingdom of God doesn’t come like the kingdoms of the this world, by inflicting violence and coercing people. But that the kingdom of God comes through suffering and willing, voluntary sacrifice. But in an ironic way, the doctrine of hell basically says, no, that that’s not really true. That in the end, God gets His way through coercion and violence and intimidation and domination, just like every other kingdom does. The cross isn’t the center then. The cross is almost a distraction and false advertising for God.
I heard one well-known Christian leader, who—I won’t mention his name, just to protect his reputation. Cause some people would use this against him. But I heard him say it like this: The traditional understanding says that God asks of us something that God is incapable of Himself. God asks us to forgive people. But God is incapable of forgiving. God can’t forgive unless He punishes somebody in place of the person He was going to forgive. God doesn’t say things to you—Forgive your wife, and then go kick the dog to vent your anger. God asks you to actually forgive.”
It’s fascinating how Piper highlighted the fact that the cross and hell are the two greatest shouts in all the universe as to the greatness of the glory of God. And here, in McLaren’s theology, by minimizing substitutionary atonement, and doing away w/ hell, he is able to create a God who is much less glorious and much more understandable. His point about forgiveness is interesting, but unconvincing. When we forgive another person, there is still a party that suffers, namely the one who does the forgiving. This party, rather than satisfying themselves by inflicting justice, is willing to bear the suffering and return forgiveness and love. And is this not what God did on the cross when He forgave us our sins? He Himself bore our sins on His body in order to bring us to Himself.
Unfortunately, McLaren totally misrepresents the traditional (substitutionary) understanding of the cross by his comment about kicking the dog. Sadly, I know that this is not his best articulation of the substitutionary understanding of the atonement, but he probably intentionally made this gross misrepresentation to further his point.
“one of the questions I could raise that might be helpful for you and other people thinking about this, is to say, what is the problem with sin? What’s so bad about sin? Now, I can just imagine some people quoting—See, McLaren doesn’t think sin is a problem. I take sin really, seriously. But here’s the problem, If I were to make this sort of analogy or parable. When I had little children, if one of my little children—Let’s say my son Brett, was beating up on his little brother, Trevor. Now, Trevor is bigger. But back then—What was the problem? Was the problem that I don’t want my younger son to get hurt and I don’t want my older son to be a bully. I want my older son to be a good person. I want my younger son to be a good person. I want them to have a great relationship. Then the problem of sin is what it does to my family and what it does to my boys, you know. That’s the problem with sin.
And so now it seems to me the entire Christian theology has shifted so now the problem is, how can we keep me from killing Brett? And I don’t think that’s the kind of God that we serve. I think the problem is God wants His children to get along with each other. He wants them to be good people. Because He’s good. And His vision for creation is that they’ll love each other and be good to each other and enjoy each other and have a lot of fun together.
So sin is incredibly serious. But I think we have shifted why it’s so important. Can I say it one more way to say the same thing is—The problem is, why does sin matter to God? And I think what has happened is through the influence of Ansolm and maybe not even really Ansolm, but the way Ansolm was interpreted by later people—We have a vision that the real problem is God wants to kill us all. And we’ve got to somehow solve that problem. And what that does to me, Leif, that is so significant, is that it then minimizes the concern about injustice between human beings. That becomes a peripheral concern. But what if that’s God’s real concern, from beginning to end, see?”
I definitely agree that one of the terrible consequences of sin is that it destroys the relationships that we have with each other and this is something for which the gospel must provide a solution. However, to say that the main problem of sin is the marring of human relationships is unconvicing. There are many, many passages in the Bible that McLaren would need to address before this is a plausible explanation of the problem of sin. Again and again, I find that the consistent witness of the Bible is that sin is first and foremost about evil done against God, not against man. The evil of sin is ultimately that it dishonors God, it rejects His rightful Lordship, it belittles His glory. I think one of the clearest pictures of this is in the Fall of man. This was not an act of rebellion of Adam against Eve… if anything Adam joined Eve and they were both unified in their sin. Rather, this was a clear rebellion against the command of God and His Lordship.
Again, I don’t doubt that many of McLaren’s statements were purposefully overstated in order for him to make a point, but unfortunately, it is quite possible that many can read his overstatements and go right on agreeing without giving it a second thought. Hopefully that won’t be the case for any of us, regardless of who we read.