Been doing a little re-reading of Brain McLaren's The Last Word and the Word After That, particularly the part of the book addressing the topic of Hell. I've been doing this because Hell has been in the news lately. Carlton Pearson, a once prominant pentacostal preacher from Tulsa who was proclaimed a heretic for no longer believing that God sends anyone to Hell, was recently profiled on NBC's Dateline. Bart Campolo, founder and director of Mission Year wrote an article for the Journal of Student Ministries that's stirred up the evangelical world because he too disconnects the idea of God's judgment and Hell. Now too, Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland's controversial book proclaiming God to be a universalist, If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person, is out in paperback.
I picked up McLaren's book because in it there is a good de-construction of the concept of Hell as it is generally understood.... a place God sends people because they were sinners and did not ask Christ for forgiveness of those sins. And generally, the sins most cited as the ones that people stubbornly hold on to are individualized in terms of personal behavior (all forms of sexual sin, drunkenness, debauchery, wanton greed, etc...). McLaren posits the idea that this idea of individual sins meriting punishment by God is at best, an incomplete reading of Jesus' words on the subject. Matthew 25:31-46, which is generally one of the more famous judgement texts, makes it clear that God will separate the faithful and unfaithful based upon how they served others, particularly the poor and oppressed, and makes no mention of any other criteria. McLaren goes further to say that the idea that by setting individualized behavior (confession of Christ as Lord, issues of personal morality) as the standard for whether or not you make it into Heaven (and Hell), the people who interpret scripture this way are able to avoid greater questions about systemic oppression and subjugation of others.
In others words, people in power or in control of wealth, want to convey to those not in power with no access to wealth, that their lot has been determined either cause God pre-destined them to it, OR to not focus on improving their station in life but rather delaying gratification until the next one (Heaven). Also, if the improper personal behavior leads to eternal punishment, it becomes a good tool of those in authority to deter the masses from acting improperly.
Or, to make things even simpler, Hell is a tool of The Man to keep others down.
Because the concept of eternal punishment has presented in this fashion, as a manipulative tool to motivate some sort of response (whether that be a change in behavior OR a conversion to Christianity), those who have been turned off by this approaching are questioning not just the wisdom of scaring the Hell out of people, but whether the concept of Hell as it's understood in this sense if even biblical. McClaren posits the possibility that the Pharisees used the fear of Hell much in the same way preacher do today as a means of motivating people toward certain kinds of behaviors or rituals, which is exactly what infuriated Jesus. Jesus, instead, uses the concept of Hell against the Pharisees.
For example, while the Pharisees would teach that not following the extensive cleansing rituals proscribed by the law would jeopardize a person's eternity, Jesus turns that language around to say that anyone who put proscribing certain behavior or ritual above meeting the real needs of people in love is going to Hell, so as to re frame an already existing idea.
Kind of like the scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption, where Andy Dufrane plays an opera record over the prison's loudspeakers to help the prisoners see themselves outside of the dehumanizing system designed to rob people of hope as imposed by the warden. Shawshank Prison was still Shawshank Prison, but somehow in the beauty of the music, it's walls no longer had the last word on how the prisoners should view the world or themselves or their fate. They were guilty in the eyes of the law, but that didn't mean that somehow their souls weren't yet still free. The Pharisees looked to imprison people in such a way that only they, under the guise of God's law, held the key.... Jesus says there is a way apart from them to the kind of freedom people are looking for.
The critique on the part of people like Phillip Gulley, James Mulholland, Brian McLaren, Bart Campolo, and Carlton Pearson (among many others) is that the churches have created the same kinds of prisons of hopelessness for people that the Pharisees did, where they, themselves are the only people who possess the key, under the guise of Jesus and Paul's words, to freedom from eternal punishment. While this has been a good motivational tool to help many people change their lives for the better, and push people to the ends of the earth to spread the Gospel message, somehow, these critics claim, the greater point that Jesus has died so that everyone would be free from condemnation is getting lost in the shuffle, particularly in cases where the people with "the answer" begin manipulating others for their own purposes.
Thus their question: as opposed to telling people that they will be freed from sin, death and hell if they profess Jesus as Lord, should we instead proclaim that people are free from sin, death, and hell because Jesus is Lord and invite them into living in that freedom now?
What... you think I'm going to write about football every day?