Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hades, Hell, and McLaren's Eisegesis

I keep breaking my own commitment not to discuss the Emergent Church (which is dead) or any of its leaders (who still now speak), but I will do the very thing I will not to do in this post. On his blog, Brian McLaren seeks to answer the following question regarding the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus:

I've read quite a few of your books... I'd like to espouse your cause but have honest questions. Jesus in Luke 16:19-31 speaks of "hades" or hell. He speaks of Abraham as saying (verses 29 & 31) that people have Moses and the prophets relating to this. So how can you say that the concept of hell in Christendom is a result of it being high jacked by the Greco/Roman philosophy?

Before giving McLaren's answer, we should note McLaren's repeated attempts, rooted in ihs commitment to postmodernism, over the years to avoid clarity. Clarity, he once wrote, is overrated (A Generous Orthodoxy, 27). For example, It wasn't until recently he clearly came out in favor of gay marriage - a position everyone already assumed he actually held. He has done the same regarding virtually every serious issue from marriage, to salvation, to life after death. However, such an approach to ambiguous theology has fooled no one. McLaren has always sought ambiguity in what he affirmed, but has always been clear on what he rejected: Calvinism,* penal substitution,** republicanism,*** and a host of other important issues.

With that said, we turn to McLaren's answer to the above question. After promoting his work of fiction on the subject of hell called The Last Word and the Word After That (the third installment of his A New Kind of Christianity series) McLaren writes:

One brief comment. Whatever that passage teaches, it does not teach that the only way to go to heaven is by believing in a Christian atonement theory. It does not teach that the only way to avoid hell is through adherence to a certain religion or creed. It does not teach that the sinner's prayer will lead to heaven. If it teaches anything (in a literalistic sense), it is that rich people go to hell and poor people go to heaven, or that people who are lacking in compassion for the poor go to hell and the poor they are careless toward go to heaven. So ... if people want to take the passage literally, they should teach what it plainly teaches.

I don't believe Jesus is teaching us about the geography or ontology of hades/hell in this passage, any more than I believe he is teaching about being able to communicate across the "chasm" between heaven and hell. I believe he is teaching us that the living God is deeply concerned about the way we treat the poorest and most vulnerable among us. Any way of interpreting the text that takes us away from that central moral summons is, I think, a colossal adventure in missing the point.

Caring for the poor is what Moses and the prophets emphasized - as, for example, Deuteronomy 15 and Isaiah 58 make clear.

That's not at all what it teaches. Jesus never suggested that the rich go to hell and the poor go to heaven. But this is not the first time he has made this facetious suggestion. In his book Everything Must Change McLaren wrote:

With no apologies to Martin Luther, John Calvin, or modern evangelicalism, Jesus (in Luke 16:19) does not prescribe hell to those who refuse to accept the message of justification by grace through faith, or to those who are predestined for perdition, or to those who don’t express faith in a favored atonement theory by accepting Jesus as their “personal Savior.”  Rather, hell - literal or figurative - is for the rich and comfortable who proceed on their way without concern for their poor neighbor day after day.  As Jesus also makes clear in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), they fail to love their neighbors as themselves and fail to follow “what is written in the Law,” and therefore will not inherit eternal life. (208)

McLaren’s describes his view of hell as “predicamentalism.”  Greg Gilbert defines this as "Instead of leading Christians to speculate on the eternal fate of other people, it focuses them on their own lives, their own predicaments."**** He finds the traditional arguments such as universalism, traditionalist, annihilationists, and others invalid.  Predicamentalism believes that the question, “what finally happens to the wicked in eternity,” is the wrong question. The right question is how does the idea of hell function in our lives?  Does it lead to hate or does it make us realize that God does not want anyone to be cast out from His Kingdom.

This is what makes McLaren's conclusion in this short article so baffling. He suggests that we should avoid bringing to the text any theological presuppositions***** and yet presents here his prepositional eisegesis of the text. McLaren is beholden to postmodernism and to a social gospel/liberation theology interpretation of Scripture. As a postmodernists, McLaren only knows what the text doesn't say (this is not a text about hell), but cannot say with any certainty what it does say.

This parable does address hell. We can debate all day about chasms, was Lazarus a real person, etc. But at the very least we ought to see that Jesus assumes that the righteous go to Abraham's bosom (a common Jewish phrase meaning heaven) while the unrighteous go to hell/hades. Jesus undoubtedly affirms the afterlife, contra the Sadducees. If the gospel is merely limited to humanitarian aide and progressive policies then the apostles should not have preached the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ in Acts but instead challenged the Jerusalem and Roman authorities regarding their draconian tax policies.

Finally, McLaren rightly admits that his interpretation is not a typical interpretation of the text. On that point he is certainly right. Few outside of modern and postmodern liberalism have come to such a conclusion regarding this parable. But McLaren repeatedly fails to realize that novelty is not insight into theological truth, it is the definition of heresy.


Brian McLaren - Q & R: Hades, hell, etc. 


* He redefines Calvinism's TULIP in A Generous Orthodoxy.
** Where do I begin here? Try here and here and here for starters. McLaren has praised penal substitutionary deniers like Tony Jones for there work in this area. He is, at best, a social gospel defender and has used the language of "divine child abuse" to describe the doctrine (see his book The Story We Find Ourselves In, 101-102. McLaren also endorsed the Steve Chalke book The Lost Message of Jesus which first used this language). In addition consider More Ready Than You Realize, 79-82; A New Kind of Christian, 105-106; The Story We Find Ourselves In, 105-106;
*** He heavily campaigned for President Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012 and is anything but a fan of former President George W. Bush.
**** Gilbert, “Saved From the Wrath of God,” in Reforming or Conforming, 248.
***** I know that differs from what many have been taught, but I think it's pretty hard to reach any other conclusion when you approach the texts reverently and without preconceived conclusions in mind.


For more on McLaren and the Emergent Church:
Farewell Old Friend: Saying Goodbye to the Emergent Church
Thesis | Brian McLaren and Emergent Soteriology: From Cultural Accomodation to the Kindgom of God - Full Series
The Clarity of Ambiguity: The Erosion of the Perspicuity of Scripture in the Emergent Church - the Complete Series
Where to Begin?: 10 Emergent Must Reads 
"A New Kind of Christianity" - A 11 part review and critique of McLaren's book
Revelation and the Ambiguity of Justification: McLaren Adds to the Confusion
Does McLaren Reject Penal Substitution?: A Review of the Evidence
Hamilton: McLaren and Whole Foods Stores
SBTS and McLaren: A Response to SBTS Panel Discussion
The Evolving God: McKnight's Critique of McLaren
The Future of the Emergent Church: McLaren Weighs In
Repost | Occupy Wal-Mart?: So This is What the Kingdom of Heaven Looks Like
Repost | Pinata Theology: Ignore the Issue and Swing at the Distraction - What Piper Has Taught Us About the Church
Emergent Panentheism: The Direction Towards Process Theology Continues
Will the Two Become One?: Emergents Turn to Process Theology
God's Many Names?: Emergent Pluralism in the Extreme
Theology Thursday | Don't Be Fooled: The Conversation Is Not Open To Everyone


For more on the social gospel:
Rauschenbusch and the Social Gospel Yesterday and Today: An Interview With Christopher Evans
"The Kingdom is Always But Coming" by Christopher Evans: A Review
Theology Is Not Superior To the Gospel": Rauschenbusch, Liberalism, and the Old Old Story
Is Social Justice an Essential Part of the Mission of the Church?: The Wallis-Mohler Debate
 

For more on Walter Rauschenbusch:
You can read Waltar Raushenbush's groundbreaking book, "A Theology for the Social Gospel" online here.
"A Theology for the Social Gospel" - Part 1
"A Theology for the Social Gospel" - Sin
"A Theology for the Social Gospel" - Atonement  
Orthodoxy vs. Unorthodoxy: A Look at Rauschenbush's "A Theology for the Social Gospel" 
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