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.

Displaying 1–10 of 34 comments

Thinking in Ohio

May 30, 2006  3:43pm

Actually Scott, I believe if you examine the context of Luke 16 where this passage if found what you'll notice is that the passage is about: 1) The love of riches–see 16:14 2) The hard-hearts of the Pharisees–see 16:16, 29

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May 27, 2006  7:24pm

If someone could help me on this one question I would greatly appreciate it. How does the Emergent Church handle the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16? I admit, there are several metaphors in the parable. However, one thing is not: the point of the story is what happens to the two men after they die. I would like to hear your take on this. Thanks.

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May 24, 2006  9:57am

Keep asking questions, Brian. Scrutiny polishes the truth, making it shine all the more brightly for having withstood the test. That uneasiness you feel when examining "traditional" doctrine is God's blessing of discernment in you. He has given you the gift to know when you aren't hearing the truth and to keep searching until you find it. It is there, but most have just stopped looking. They are too afraid of offending our Father. Trust me - it can't be done. For those that insist that eternal hell or annihilation is the deserved destiny of our brothers and sisters who "choose" to reject God I have one thought. "If you believe that anyone who KNOWS God could choose to reject Him, then YOU do not KNOW God.......yet." Our Father, in His infinite mercy, grace, and love, will wait as long as it takes, and do whatever it takes, for you to finally know Him. In His amazing wisdom you were designed to find complete fulfillment only in Him. You were made to love and be loved. By His design. Get over the whole preoccupation with "free will," it is His will that designed you that way, His will that is leading you on this journey of life (it's a lesson, not a test), and His will that WILL be done. By all means, don't just believe me. Believe the scriptures: "There IS nothing that can separate us from God's love." "Jesus WILL draw all men to Him." "Jesus IS the Savior of the world." As we are all God's children - Thank you, Father!

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May 20, 2006  11:15am

Brian Mclaren's questioning of the existence of a literal hell is not exactly blazing a new trail. The Jehovah's Witnesses haven't believed in a literal hell since their arrival on the scene in the early 1900s, nor have the non-evangelical churches that became the ecumenical movement of the 1950's and 60's. Brian is simply this generation's version of a pastor who never knew what he really believed before he took to the pulpit. Brian's belief in his unbelief seems very strong. Brian's problem is that Brian's God is no bigger than Brian's own mind. His level of reasoning is based on God having to think just like he does, yet Jehovah said, "my ways are not your ways and my thoughts are not your thoughts" Isaiah 55:8. And again in 1Cor. 1:20, "where is the wise, where is the scribe, where is the skillful debater of this age? God made the wisdom of this world foolish, did he not?" Why is someone who grew up in an "evangelical" church and is 50 years old and has had this much time to invest in searching the scriptures so completely confused?

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May 16, 2006  1:42pm

Mike Rucker (above) wrote that Romans never mentions hell. It seems like he's arguing from silence that hell is a non-issue in Romans. But isn't chapter 1 and 2 all about Paul convincing his readers of the certainty of judgment for all who do not flee to Christ alone? He's convincing his readers of the total depravity that can only be reversed by simple faith in the gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe. Note that in Paul's mind tolerance is a trait of God, but one that does not remove the reality of literal end of time judgment (and hell?): "Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?" "But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourselves in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God." (Rom 2:4-5) Tolerance and Hell. Can't throw off either one without misrepresenting the gospel. Fundamentalists miss the tolerance (McLaren, et al are right here). Liberals miss the "stored up wrath" (ie hell). God help us stay out of both ditches and meet in the middle with humility, patience, and fear.

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Richard Dennis Miller

May 16, 2006  7:41am

Mike Rucker I don't think you're reading theology into anything. I think you're reading ideology into scripture. Where will you spend eternity and how do you know?

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May 16, 2006  2:44am

I'm almost getting a kick out of the interaction between Rucker and Miller. One's interpretation of Matt 25 (just like much of the Bible) is going to depend heavily on how you understand inerrancy and so on. If you are verbal-plenary-fully-inerrant-and-authoritative in your approach, then you have a need to systamatize your theology and HAVE to read theology into the likes of Matt 25. However if not, then it is possible for Paul in Romans and Jesus in the Gosples to disagree. Discussion is beneficial and sharpening, but as we interact with each other's perspectives, we must realize that our presuppositions change everything. Rucker shouldn't be surprised (and I don't think he is) that Miller is reading theology into Jesus' words. Yet maybe those of us holding to inerrancy can allow our understanding of scripture to be sharpened by the challenges posed by those who disagree. So ... Let the discussion flow.

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mike rucker

May 15, 2006  2:32pm

Richard Dennis Miller, you know, i think that's what i was taught in seminary, too. but maybe we're coming at the passage and reading theology into it? v31 - Christ returns with ANGELS. v32 - nations are gathered and divided. v34ff - reward/punishment given based on...? pretty straightforward. kind of follows the previous parable's method of handing out rewards. read what darren says a couple of comments above about taking off the glasses through which we look at things - sometimes images are larger than they appear... :)

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May 15, 2006  8:42am

The last word on Judgment is Revelation 20:11-15. The passage is very clear that that there are books(plural)and the book of life(singular). The criterion for judgment in the books is "according to what they had done as recorded in the books."(verse 12)Again in the next verse it is repeated, "each person was judged according to what he had done." The chapter ends with the solemn words, "If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life(singular), he was thrown into the lake of fire." Revelation is a book of symbolism. But as C.S. Lewis once remarked something to the effect that if words in the Scripture are symbolic then the reality behind them is too harsh to describe literally.

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Richard Dennis Miller

May 15, 2006  8:04am

Mike Rucker, If the division is one of good works vs bad works then give it up. We are all going to Hell. Mat 25:31-46 is about our response to Jesus and His messengers, not about our taking care of the poor.

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