Setting The Record Straight: Brian McLaren on Hell

Posted by Sam Hailes  ·  Be the first to comment

Following on from our conversation on evangelism and the gospel, I wanted to delve deeper into Brian's theology. 

You may expect a book on other religions [Why did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha and Mohammed Cross The Road?] to deal with views on the afterlife but other than a brief reference to Rob Bell's Love Wins, the difficult topic of hell was missing from the book. What does Brian believe?

One of the main messages of your new book is that it’s possible to be a strong Christian with firm views, while still being benevolent toward people of other faith. But your critics would view your Christianity as weak because they see you as theologically liberal. How do you respond?

“For some people the only way to be a strong Christian is to be a hostile Christian and the only understanding they have of strong Christian faith is hostile.”

“That’s why many people leave the faith entirely or develop a weak Christian identity that is more tolerant. I’m advocating a third option and not everyone will like it.”

Can you have a strong and benevolent faith which loves other people while still believing they will go to hell?

“I think so.”

Is that where you’re coming from?

“It’s not where I’m coming from, but it’s possible. Let me say it this way: It’s possible to have any number of bad beliefs and behave better than those beliefs might lead you to behave.”

Mark Driscoll has said you refuse to answer the question of 'Does hell exist?' Are you still friends?

“I haven’t seen him in several years. Last time I saw him I stopped at his home and we’ve had a few private email exchanges that have been very cordial. I think Mark is very smart, I like Mark a lot. Obviously we disagree with each other on any number of levels. Mark might say he hopes I’ll return to the fold that he’s in at some point but I hope that Mark will some day... I think Mark is too smart to be saying and doing what he’s saying and doing.”

Does hell exist?

“Obviously the word hell exists but it has a history, some of which comes from Plato, the Greek idea of hades part of which comes from Zoroastrianism which some liberal Jews in the inter-testimental period embraced – the Pharisees...”

...But what did Jesus teach?

“He didn’t teach what evangelical Christians teach about hell. He taught if you’re rich you’re going to hell. [long silence]”

Anything else?

“He taught if you call your brother a fool you’re in danger of hell.”

Am I in danger of hell then?

“This is where we just have to stop being so ridiculously childish in our interpretation of the Bible! Jesus was a grown up and he was speaking to grown ups. He didn’t play childish games. He worked in very grown-up ways with the idea of hell.”

“The most detailed teaching Jesus has about hell is the story of the rich man and Lazerus. In that story Jesus uses hell in a very different way to the way Evangelical and Conservative Catholics would talk about hell today. The rich man doesn’t go to hell because he doesn’t believe in penal substitutionary atonement, he doesn’t go to hell because he fails to accept Jesus as his personal Lord and Saviour and he doesn’t go to hell for failing to say the sinner’s prayer. He goes to hell because he steps over a poor man sitting at his gate.”

“And Lazerus doesn’t go to heaven because he learned the four spiritual laws. He went to heaven according to the text because he had been poor and had been deprived of good things in this life so he’s going to be compensated in the next. If you want to derive a doctrine of hell based on those words of Jesus it would be incredibly different. What I think Jesus is doing is teaching the good news of the Kingdom of God and he’s using standard understandings of hell to do it.”

“If I were to say to you :'We’re not in Kansas anymore and we have to pull back the curtain on the wizard', I think you would understand what I’m saying. Am I telling you that I think the Wizard of Oz is a true story that really happened? No I’m using the language of a near universal social convention and I think Jesus is doing something similar. He was using the language of hell that was popular among the Pharisees to discredit their entire approach.”

You’ve said before that Salvation is totally by grace and judgment is totally by works. How does this effect your view of hell?

“To me hell isn’t the ultimate issue. The ultimate issue is pleasing God. I want to live a life that pleases God and encourage others to live a life that pleases God.”

“What does Jesus teach pleases God? Not stepping over the poor guy at the gate is a good start. The other thing is we define judgment as judgment means going to hell. But I think in the Bible judgment means God showing us where we’re wrong.”

“I also think judgment by and large means setting right what was wrong. So to be judged may be painful but ultimately it’s healing. I would define judgment always in terms of God’s justice which I think is a restorative justice. How God works all that out is beyond me and that’s why I’m glad God is God and he’s not depending on my consultation in the process.”

Time Magazine listed you as one of the top 25 Evangelicals. How do you feel about being described as an Evangelical?

“I have mixed feelings about it especially in my country where 82% of white Evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney. You can make a pretty strong case that the centre of evangelicalism has a certain political and economic viewpoint that doesn’t fit.”

“On the other hand evangelicalism truly is my heritage and I feel the ways that I’ve changed in my 56 years of life I feel I’ve become more truly evangelical not less. I’m more devoted to Jesus than I ever was, I’m more devoted to wanting to spread his good news and I’m more confident that his good news really is good.”

“I’m more passionate about helping people become authentic followers of Jesus than I ever was. I truly love Jesus and for me faith isn’t just about institutional participation, it really is a personal life. All of those things feel very evangelical to me.”

You were once a Calvinist. What made you reject this theology?

“One of my mentors became a Calvinist and he put a full court press on me the way only a Calvinist can do. I remember the first time he told me about predestination I said 'if that’s what the Bible teaches then I don’t believe the Bible!'”

“Then he put so much guilt on me that in the end I said 'ok I’ll accept that’s what the Bible teaches'. Eventually I saw the beauty of Calvinism from the inside. There is something very very beautiful. But later on the thing that undid my Calvinism more than anything else was a statement by Lesslie Newbigin: 'The greatest heresy in the history of monotheism is a misunderstanding of election. We define ‘Election’ as God choosing for privilege rather than for service and for suffering.'”

“As soon as I read that it was as if the whole Calvinist system fell like a house of cards for me. When you redefine God’s choosing as choosing for service and suffering, not choosing for blessing and choosing to be a blessing not just to receive a blessing, that changes everything.”

What’s the best Christian book you’ve ever read?

“The Lord by Romano Guardini. He was the chaplain to Pope John the Vatican II pope, he wrote a biography of Jesus, it was wonderful.”

What has God been teaching you recently?

“One of my big struggles is I developed some heart trouble a couple of years ago. I’m getting older. One of my big lessons is learning to accept limits, slow down and say no.”

Part One of this interview, Rethinking Everything with Brian McLaren, saw Brian talk about evangelism, the Gospel and his reactions to being called a heretic. Read our review of Brian's new book, 'Why Did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?'

8th March

March 8th, 2013 - Posted & Written by Sam Hailes

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