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.
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