Thursday, March 6, 2014

McLaren on Hell and Universalism . . . Again

As I have written before, the Emergent Church is dead. That does not mean, however, that some of its (former) leaders and writers have disappeared. Brian McLaren, for example, still writes and travels the world promoting his brand of theology and though his voice and influence has waned as long as he is selling books, publishers will continue to be eager to print his words.

At his blog, McLaren tried to "clarify" (clarity is sometimes overrated he once wrote) his position on hell and universalism. Of course the reason McLaren must repeatedly clarify his theological positions is because he swims in theological ambiguity. Even though he has written an entire book on the subject of Hell (The Last Word and the Word After That), readers still don't really know where he stands.

So here we go again. Is McLaren a universalists? McLaren writes:
Third, I agree we must be very sensitive to "those terrified by the church's brutal and horrific doctrines of hell," and I understand why a simple "universalist" response may be the most pastorally helpful for those people. They are rightly terrified, brutalized, and horrified by the portrayal of God as a terrifying, brutal, and horrific. They aren't in the mood for nuance and a lot of theological backstory … they just need reassurance that God is not vicious, vindictive, and dictatorial.

So, if by Universalist, you mean, "One who believes God perfectly and fully loves the entire universe, and every creature in it," or if you mean that God will do everything possible to give everyone possible the best possible eternal outcome of their temporal lives, or if you mean that God is not a capricious and vicious torturer who will punish eternally all those who are not "among the elect" or otherwise successful in selecting and following the correct religion … then, yes, of course, sign me up. I am happy (and unafraid) to be counted among your number.
McLaren gives three definitions of "universalism" and seemingly agrees with them all. First, a universalists is one who believes God is love (whatever we may mean by that). Secondly, a universalists believes god will do everything possible (an interesting word choice) to give everyone the best eternal outcome. Thirdly, God is not a capricious and vicious torturer who will punish eternally all those who are not "among the elect." This last definition is particularly interesting. Clearly he has an ax to grind against Calvinists which is the one brand of Christianity the Emergent Church was never open to (oh, and those that vote for Republicans - any Republicans).

But with that aside, his characterization of the orthodox teaching of hell should not shock us. To describe the God of wrath as capricious and a vicious torturer not only places him squarely in the camp of classic universalism, the language is reminiscent of his views on penal substitution. In another work of fiction (The Story We Find Ourselves In), McLaren borrows the language of Steve Chalke who infamously suggested that the God of penal substitution is a divine child abuser.

Of course, such characterization of traditional doctrines of the faith are caricature's and orthodox Christian and do not reflect what Christians have actually taught over the centuries. But what does he care? Such language makes his rejection of the Christian gospel more easily to accept and spread. He goes on to add:
But for those who are interested, here's why I don't normally choose that label. When the conventional question - who goes to heaven and who goes to hell - frames reality, universalism and inclusivism are preferable answers to exclusivism. But when that conventional question frames reality, and when one chooses universalism, we face a temptation to say, "Whew. What a relief! Everything will be OK! There will be a happy ending!" And that relief can lead to a kind of passivity, namely, that if all will be well in the end, then all is well now. But that isn't the case.

In other words, I don't think that the heaven-hell question is the one that should frame reality. But I acknowledge that it does frame reality for many Christians (and Muslims), and many of them need a better answer within that frame than the exclusivist one they've been given. They simply aren't ready or able to reframe reality with a different question.

When a different question frames reality - how can God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven - then we have to acknowledge that for billions of God's creatures, God's will is not being done on earth as in heaven. Universalism may be good news for them after they die, but right now, they need good news that God cares about the mess they're in … the mess of injustice, oppression, ignorance, prejudice, hunger, thirst, sickness, loneliness, guilt, shame, addiction, fear, poverty, etc. And that good news can not be in word only. It must come in deed and in truth, as 1 John and James both say (echoing Jesus) … which makes our reply very costly.
This is why so many find McLaren frustrating. The question of eternal destinies is not a secondary or even tertiary matter. It is a primary concern. Being that every human being dies, what happens after we take our last breath is a central question of life? To suggest that "its important, just not that important," is dumbfounding. What good is it if we solve all of the world's problems (from injustice to oppression to ignorance to prejudice to hunger to thirst to sickness to loneliness to guilt to shame to addiction to fear to poverty, etc.) and yet have no answer for what comes next? If there is no heaven, does any of this matter? If  there is no hell, does working for the good of mankind ultimately and eternally matter?

In the end, we come back to the main question? Is McLaren a universalists? Well, he  may not like the categories, but he fits squarely in it. No doubt about that.


For more:
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
Hades, Hell, and McLaren's Eisegesis
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  
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