With his new book The Last Word and the Word After That, Brian McLaren brings to an end the saga of Pastor Dan Poole. Those who have followed the story through the first two books will be glad to know Dan's tale comes to a happy ending, though not without conflict. This time, the good pastor's thoughts center on the traditional doctrine of hell, and through the characters and narrative of The Last Word, McLaren sets out to deconstruct the idea that those who reject Jesus Christ will suffer eternally in hell for their sins.
Before turning to a critique of McLaren's book, it is worth saying that some of the ideas he presents are fairly compelling, and perhaps even worth some extra thought by many evangelical Christians. McLaren's emphasis on the place of structural and systemic justice in Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of God, for example, should be a welcome contribution to Christian conversation. McLaren is wrong to give the impression that conservative Christians have (almost) entirely neglected such matters, but he is probably right to say that many evangelicals could stand to give a bit more attention to that part of Jesus' teaching. The vision he casts of churches ministering in inner cities is frankly wonderful, especially if one imagines those churches preaching the true and full Gospel of salvation.
Yet there also lies the problem with what McLaren has written. In trying to rescue the Gospel from irrelevance, he finally ends up with a theology that confuses more than it clarifies. In fact, by the time The Last Word comes to a close, McLaren's thinking about hell has descended into utter confusion, and he has presented a Gospel that falls far short of what the Bible actually teaches.
The organizing issue of McLaren's book is the doctrine of hell, and his treatment of it finally proves wholly unsatisfying. Essentially, he wants to argue that the idea of hell is "constructed, as all human ideas are" (71). The question of whether hell really exists is therefore not all that important. What finally matters is how the concept of hell is used, to what purpose this "power language" of hell is finally put. The Pharisees, McLaren argues, used the concept of hell to frighten sinners into living rightly, and perhaps thereby to convince God to rescue the Israelite nation from Roman oppression (63). When Jesus entered the scene, he appropriated the Pharisees' language about hell, but the point was never to endorse the idea. The point was that Jesus used the concept of hell in a different way. If the Pharisees used it to threaten sinners, Jesus turned it back on them, declaring that they were the ones truly in danger of hell-for turning God's loving and compassionate justice into a "cold, exacting, heartless, merciless" righteousness (63).
Of course, McLaren realizes pretty quickly that this "rhetorical hermeneutic" for dealing with hell is insufficient. After all, there are evil people in the world, and those evil people ought to be punished. The Nazis, for example, should not be allowed to avoid God's wrath (85). McLaren tries to deal with this problem in two ways, one of which does nothing to alleviate his discomfort with hell, and the other of which lands him in confusion. First, McLaren proposes that the biblical descriptions of hell, including the fire and worms, are "mere metaphors" for conveying the horror of standing under God's judgment (80). In other words, God's judgment of evil people will actually be worse than the traditional idea of hell, even if there are no actual, physical flames and worms. Now that may be true, but it is also nothing new-many Christians have made that very point. But even if so, how does this position even begin to alleviate the discomfort McLaren feels with the traditional doctrine of hell? How exactly is God's judgment made more palatable if you say the fire and worms Jesus talked about are really pointing to something infinitely worse? If anything, this move ought to make McLaren's discomfort even more acute.
Second, when McLaren does briefly consider what God's judgment might actually be (if not hell), he offers up an almost incomprehensible tangle of annihilationism and universalism. Every human being will stand before a loving, reconciling, compassionate God, he says (through the wise and kindly pastor, Markus), and that's good news. Good news, that is, "unless you're a bad dude," because "if God judges, forgives, and eliminates all the bad stuff, there might not be much left of you-maybe not enough to enjoy heaven, maybe not enough to feel too much in hell either" (137). How exactly is one to understand a sentence like that? Is McLaren saying that evil people will be in heaven, but with a diminished capacity to enjoy it? Or is he saying they will they be in hell, but with a lower capacity to feel its horrors? Or perhaps he's suggesting they will be "eliminated" if they are really, really bad enough. Unfortunately, McLaren doesn't give any clearer answer.
As it turns out, McLaren is fine with the confusion he creates here. "Clarity is good," he says in his introduction to the book, "but sometimes intrigue may be even more precious; clarity tends to put an end to further thinking, whereas intrigue makes one think more intensely, broadly, and deeply" (xv). Maybe, but if God had intended us to remain in very much "intrigue" (or confusion, depending on how you read it) He would not have given us a comprehensible Scripture. Besides, it's not that Scripture is all that unclear about the reality or the nature of hell; it's just that McLaren doesn't particularly like what it says-and he doesn't particularly like any of the alternatives, either. So rather than take the Bible's clear and distinct meaning at face value, he punts, taking refuge in "intrigue" and simply declaring that he really does like it that way. When it comes right down to it, McLaren trades in a clarity he doesn't like for a confusion he can be comfortable with.
Beyond all that, McLaren also entirely re-conceives the Christian gospel, accusing evangelicals of placing too much emphasis on the eternal salvation of individual souls. Conservative Christians, he argues, have been fixated on getting into heaven after they die when they should have been concerned with justice and righteousness here on earth. After all, he says, that is what Jesus meant by his "gospel of the kingdom," and it is what John meant when he talked about "eternal life" (77). In fact, McLaren argues that evangelicals have even misinterpreted Paul, taking faith to be "what gets us into heaven after we die" instead of "what brings Jews and Gentiles together on equal footing, equally justified, in God's kingdom here and now" (149-150).
That understanding, though, far underemphasizes the place Scripture gives to eternity. Yes, there are implications of the gospel in the here and now, but McLaren seems to think the here and now is all there is to the gospel-or at least that eternity matters much less than the here and now. But that's not at all how the Bible presents the gospel. When Paul reminds the Corinthians of "the gospel I preached to you," he talks about the death and resurrection of Christ and then turns immediately to the resurrection of the dead in eternity (1 Cor. 15). When he sings a hymn of praise to God for the gospel, he tells the Ephesians they have been sealed by the Holy Spirit "who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it" (Eph. 1:14). A chapter later, he says God has saved us "so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:7). Jesus himself warns that "an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out," and he tells his disciples at the Last Supper, "I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom" (Jn. 5:28-29; Matt. 26:29). Clearly, Jesus and his apostles were looking forward to something, and it is a lessening of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to de-emphasize that hope of eternity.
Finally, it should be noted that The Last Word is conspicuously lacking in any emphasis on, or practically any mention of, the cross of Christ. Perhaps that is unintentional, but whatever the case, it is at least strange that a book which focuses so intently on hell should so assiduously avoid discussion of the means God has given for avoiding it. Maybe the explanation for all this lies in the fact that McLaren's gospel is so socially oriented, so focused on the present, that it has no obvious place for concepts like atonement, substitution, propitiation, or eschatological salvation. Yet those are the ideas which lie at the very heart of the cross's meaning. It is therefore not surprising that a gospel which downplays those concepts will also wind up downplaying the cross. Ultimately, McLaren is so careful to avoid the uncomfortable "legal" language of evangelical Christianity, and so intent on making the gospel a matter of the here-and-now rather than the there-and-then, that he ends up leaving the cross itself with nothing better than a tenuous foothold in the Christian gospel.
McLaren set out with his "New Kind of Christian" trilogy to rescue the Gospel from irrelevance. By approaching Scripture from a decidedly this-worldly perspective, by revisiting the teachings of Jesus with postmodern sensibilities, and by stating the gospel in terms of social justice, he hoped to make the Christian faith attractive to a new generation. In the process, however, what McLaren has finally presented is a gospel so nearly emptied of eternity, so tethered to the here-and-now, that it really has no ability at all to offer a full and lasting hope. After all, as Paul wrote, "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men."