Brian McLaren’s Inferno: the provocative church leader explains his view of hell

No contributor to Out of Ur has elicited more responses than Brian McLaren. Part of McLaren's appeal is his courage to rethink long-held evangelical assumptions and call the church to shed the baggage of modernity. Brian's critics, however, accuse him of throwing the orthodox baby out with the modernist bath water. In this interview McLaren discusses his view of hell and judgment, and explains why some have mislabeled him a universalist. Part one of this post also features fellow prophet Tony Compolo.

Brian, in your book, The Last Word and the Word After That, you focus heavily on "deconstructing" the evangelical view of hell. Some critics think your deconstruction has moved to the point of your embracing a "universalist" position. Are you a Universalist?

McLaren: No, I am not embracing a traditional universalist position, but I am trying to raise the question, When God created the universe, did he have two purposes in mind - one being to create some people who would forever enjoy blessing and mercy, and another to create a group who would forever suffer torment, torture, and punishment? What is our view of God? A God who plans torture? A God who has an essential, eternal quality of hatred? Is God love, or is God love and hate?

It might sound surprising to state it that way, but you'd be surprised at some of the emails I've received. For example, someone quoted Scriptures like Psalm 5:5 or Psalm 11:5 and said, "If you don't believe in a God of hate, you don't believe in the God of the Bible." Here's my concern: if you believe in a god of hate, violence, revenge, and torture, it makes you very susceptible to becoming a person made in that god's image.

Even though this subject is so controversial and I don't like controversy, we have to address it because we're dealing with our view of God, and the consequences of our essential view of God are staggering. The only thing that's more important, I guess, is God's view of us!

Anyway, Western Christianity has been overly preoccupied with the question of who's going to heaven or hell after death, and not focused enough on the question of what kind of life is truly pleasing to God here in the land of the living. We've got to look at that. In The Last Word and the Word After That, I wanted to raise the issue of "Judgment," that all will be judged rightly and fairly by God alone, who weighs the scales rightly, and does this for everyone. Again, when we put ourselves in the position of judge ? making pronouncements on the eternal destiny of others ? I think it's pretty dangerous, especially in light of Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount.

Displaying 1–10 of 27 comments

martin jacobs

May 07, 2006  11:18pm

When we addess Biblical ideas, idioms and notions,I think it is important that we address them in Biblical terms. Not least so when we talk about judgement. What does God's judgement look like? The OT writers expressed it in terms of exile (Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden, the Israelites were exiled from the land). The NT writers develop this idea (Jesus' parable of the Vineyard in Mark 13, to the 'exile' of the sinners from the New Jerusalem in Rev 22) to encompass 'exile' from the land of the living, in other words 'death'. (BTW the idea of entering into God's sabbath, or the gathering together of the people into the land is used to describe 'salvation', or the reversal of exile). The logic of the NT writers seems to me to be that when we are in the land of the living when we are in Christ (who is 'the life'). Those who are not in Christ are in a different country, Death, which has been defeated and one day will be destroyed forever, together with its inhabitants. What does a person experience in 'death'? The obvious answer is nothing at all. But the Bible does speak of an 'unquenchable fire', and Hell has traditionally been interpreted as a state of continuing agony. I'm reluctant to revise this position, but could be persuaded to do so if we read scriptures referring to eternal judgement as meaning God's irrevocable and unstoppable plan, which was in place from the beginning and which shall endure to the end.

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Martin Downes

May 06, 2006  5:03pm

God does not have an eternal, essential, quality of hatred. But those terms are appropriate to describe his holiness. God's wrath is the response of his essential holy nature to the presence of sin. Without this factor there would be no hatred, there would be nothing to cause God's anger. But it would be a mistake to think that God chooses to punish sin (as if he may or may not do so). His holy nature is essential and eternal. He must punish sin. The alternative is a God of moral indifference and uncertainty. Sinners like us should be very cautious in assessing God's judgements, and especially what kind of punishment sin deserves.

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May 06, 2006  2:27pm

Eric, I understand that the motivation to just get to heaven can become idolatrous and selfish. However, I think that a proper view of heaven guards against the sin of self-service. Heaven will not be primarily about us, but about God Himself. Every day will be spent searching out the depths of the riches of God's glory, and every new day we will find that our capacity to understand that has been enlarged once more. In other words, we'll be learning to enjoy the most perfect thing in the universe for all eternity- and He will be glorified by our enjoyment! I like that, because He gets the worship while I get the benefit. The question was put to me this way: "If heaven were perfect, and I could do anything I wanted to do, and there was no suffering and no hunger and no thirst and so on and so forth, but God was not there, would I be satisfied?" That is a selfish motivation for heaven; being motivated by getting to know God more is not a selfish motivation because God is perfect. (I know it might sound like warmed-over Piper, but when he's right he's right.)

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May 06, 2006  1:29pm

I think one reason Brian uses hyperbolic language is because he wants pagans reading his stuff... people that go, "Ya, you're right! I always thought the Church was like that and that's why I've never gone near Christians." Brian is an American evangelist equipped with clear, direct and simple words. Put Kierkegaard and C.S. Lewis in a shaker and drop them out into 21st Century U.S. of A and you get guys like Brian. Only Brian would say he is not a philosopher and doesn't have the brains of an Oxford Don (whatever that means :) This guy writes to raise the curiosity quotient in people who are not "churched" - and he kicks them in the butt in the process. Guys like Brian and Tony spur us on to think with our mouths open, so we all go on exposing our hollow pretenses... wisdom forces us all to hear ourselves. Some claim to see and their guilt still remains. I'm 35, and Canadian and spent time with both of these men, and I love their hearts for Jesus and the marginalized.

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Timothy Wright

May 06, 2006  12:08pm

Final judgment by God and assigning people to Hell is not an act of hate, but love. I do not believe in a God of hate. When God ordered the Israelis to smash the heads of babies on the rocks and kill everyone in the Old Testament, I consider those acts of love, not hate. God acts out love and just because his actions do not fit into my world view or align up to my sense of justice, I will continue to trust in the justice of God than any person. Tim

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May 06, 2006  10:05am

I also study MacDonald, and one of his observations seems to pith this argument when he points out that Jesus did not come to save us specifically from hell, a just consequence of sin (James 1:15), but rather from our sins themselves (Matt.1:21), which alienate us from God, and affect all our being in this life and beyond. Perhaps it might be better to consider, Do many in the pews wish to be secure from hell without repenting of savored or "respectable" sins? Jesus preached a message of repentence (Matt.4:17). To me, that's significant.

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Martin Downes

May 06, 2006  2:54am

To quote from Brian's comments: "Here's my concern: if you believe in a god of hate, violence, revenge, and torture, it makes you very susceptible to becoming a person made in that god's image". Sorry but that is a straw God argument. It so badly misrepresents what it is rejecting that you have to ask who among us will raise his hand and say "yeh that's my god!". Blur the distinction between the Creator and creature and you end up thinking "hey I wouldn't do stuff like that...I don't see that God would disagree with me". But God is unique, infinitely holy, just, good and true. Infinite, eternal and unchangeable in all his ways. Take one of the words that Brian uses, vengeance. Consider what Paul teaches about that in Romans 12 & 13. It is inappropriate for individuals to take vengeance against those who do evil (never avenge yourselves) but leave it to the wrath of God because he has said "vengeance is mine, I will repay". And then the state is given a limited remit to punish evildoers, not bearing the sword in vain but a servant of God carrying out his wrath on those who do wrong. Vengeance is appropriate for God, for the state in a limited way, but not for private individuals. Are we susceptible to doing things in the vengeful God's image? Be very careful. Vengeance is appropriate for him as the righteous and good Judge and Lord. It is not appropriate for us. It is appropriate for the state. Don't buy into badly constructed arguments or you'll end up denying what Scripure affirms and misconstruing Scriptures distinctions between creatures and the Creator.

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May 05, 2006  6:29pm

I encourage everyone to actually read "The Last Word..." McLaren takes the Bible very seriously, even studies it, examing the orginal Hebrew word for "hell" (Sheol) and the NT Greek word (Gehenna). Look up those words in a good Bible dictionary. There you'll discover that the biblical understanding of "hell" is quite different from the cultural, folk understanding, even though many (most?) Christians hold the "folk" viewpoint. I wonder if we're not projecting into the Bible a meaning of "hell" that is not there, and McLaren is doing us a big favor to show us that. Peace, Tim

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Timothy Wright

May 05, 2006  5:03pm

I am amazed how Brian McLaren can use so may words to say absolutely nothing new. I am amazed that people buy his books when in a paragraph he sounds so confused. I don't see a tension pursuing heaven and persuading others to belive in Jesus and part of the reward will be heaven, but the main reward is peace with God and living in that peace as a means of grace for others to experience and be thanful for. Tim

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the fundamentalist

May 05, 2006  4:33pm

As Paul says, "We prophesy in part and we know in part, and we wait for that which is perfect which is to come." I'm willing to be corrected. I'm willing to be shown I'm wrong, but as I read Scripture, this is how I see things: You will never be condemned to hell because you didn't have a chance, you will condemn yourself to hell because you reject Jesus. It seems that Compolo is advocating some form of post mortem evangelism. I am not convinced, especially from this referenced verse, which is out of 1 Corinthians 13. Paul is saying the prophecy and knowledge are only in part, and we only know in part: That is our doctrine is based on a limited revelation of God. We cannot say one or another if he is right or wrong. Generally if I cannot say it for certain, then I don't say it at all. One thing, though, that we can say for certain is the eternal destination of those who do not believe in Christ and those who do. This is not a matter of personal judgment, but restating what the Bible says. If a person a does not believe, then they are not a child of God. Is there post-mortem evangelism? I can't say for sure, but I do know that it is my responsibility to preach the gospel while I am alive. And I do know that I believe in Jesus now, so my eternal state is secure. As for those who don't believe, it would best if we didn't take the chance and hope in postmortem evangelism (Pascal's Wager applied...)

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