Into this discussion steps Brian McLaren. McLaren (who is getting beaten in the blogosphere for his own theological views ) says that people who have based their theology on "penal substitution" have misunderstood Christ's teachings on Hell. He believes Christ doesn't introduce the idea of Hell (as is suggested by many scholars) but is responding to the way the concept of Hell - which by the way doesn't seem to come onto the scene until Judaism connects with Greek Hellenistic (no pun intended) thought which occured when Israel was conquered by Alexander the Great - as it was expoused in that age. McLaren says that in Jesus day, one of the end products of people asking the question of "How is God going to restore Israel to her proper place in the world?" is a train of thought which states,
"If in the Old Testament Israel is punished because she isn't faithful to God's law, then she'll only be restored if each and every Jew becomes faithful to God's law".
Thus, when the people who kind of followed this idea saw Roman soldiers marching through Jerusalem, they blamed those who were sinful for this fate. Thus those who were, for example, prostitutes, drunkards, the diseased and handicapped (because their physical condition was believed to be the consequence of some sin on their or their parent's part), and others who were obviously "sinful" were told that if they didn't turn from their ways, not only would Israel still be occupied and ruled by pagans, but that they as individuals would also spend eternity punished in Hell.
And who were the people making these arguments: a group of radical Jewish religious leaders called "Pharisees".
McLaren believes that Christ's teachings on Hell are commentary on Pharisaic ideas, hence all the criticism Jesus makes of the Pharisees who he claims (among others things) "makes new followers twice the sons of hell than they are" (which is a pretty strong critique). It's this idea that the sinful are to blame for all Israel's problems that Jesus takes and turns on its head. Instead, Jesus tells the sinful that theirs "is the Kingdom of Heaven", where "the last shall become first and the first shall become last". This for sinners is "the Good News" of the gospel: that Christ has come to set them free.
In this way, McLaren believes that Jesus calls everyone to a new understanding of what it means to be faithful. Instead of remembering 600+ laws, and countless scholarly commentary on them all, instead we should enter a new world (a new Kingdom) where the top priorities are a love of God and a love of neighbor that makes them as high a priority as ourselves. To be a light, to embody hope, for those who are desperate, feeling cursed by God in this life either because of the stupid things they or their family have done, or because of the evil that's been visited upon them without invitation. It is to these people that Jesus' coming is designed to bring hope, and you and I have the opportunity to join into great work of the Father.
McLaren posits that by telling people that they are going to Hell if they don't accept Jesus, and then subsequently the particular doctrinal teachings of that particular church or preacher, that essentially the Christian doing this is simply repeating the same mistake made by the Pharisees: the use of Hell to scare people into giving religious authorities the ultimate say in who gets to go to Heaven and Hell, which then has all kinds of consequences by marginalizing the earthly demands of Jesus' teaching.
A better understanding of Hell, I think McLaren would say, would be the realization that people live in pain and squalor, or essentially "Hell on earth" while religious authorities make and enforce rules leading to little more than condemnation and demonization WHICH is a perversion of what it was God intended in the first place when Abram first heard him speaking. Hell used in this way is just another religious idea meant, in the end, to give religious leaders authority they don't deserve over people who deserve better...
nay, have been promised by Jesus that something better is available.
While McLaren is reluctant to rid us of the idea of Hell completely, partly because Jesus did speak about it, and partly because he's afraid a person who heard that Hell didn't really exist would respond, "Whew! Now I can buy that second BMW." (an exact quote, by the way), his hope is that his hypothesis will lead some Christians to de-emphasize the "Heaven or Hell" question, and a concentrate more on what it means for a Christ-follower to live into, and even help usher in, the Kingdom of Heaven. An idea, he inferred, that if it had been emphasized five hundred years ago might have led the Christian church, and the development of the western world, in a different direction.
So, what might this kind of thinking do in terms of development of the Christian church, now? For that we go to part 3.