I just finished reading Brian McLaren’s “New Kind of Christian” trilogy and thought that it was excellent. I highly recommend these books to everyone, including those folks who are skeptical of the emergent church.
The last book in his series, “The Last Word and the Word after That” was probably his most controversial as it dealt primarily with the doctrine of “Hell” and did so in a very unorthodox fashion. I will leave it to you to read this important book (the series need not be read in order) and make up your own mind as to whether McLaren is a prophet or a heretic. (I vote for prophet, myself). McLaren feels that our opinions on this topic are of paramount importance in influencing how we see God, the Gospels and the Kingdom message of Jesus. He also suggests that the misinterpretation of this concept has led to much of the world’s suffering throughout history as well as today.
His book piqued my imagination (one of the best things about McLaren’s writing is that rather than give you a straight answer he encourages you to ask more questions, seeking the truth by further study and prayer). For some time now I have had a little bit of trouble embracing the creeds, or professions of faith, that most churches have incorporated into their ecclesiology. I have made many professions of faith in the past, but a verbal profession, no matter how often stated, does not guarantee a heart-felt belief. I decided to go back and look at some of the common creeds and see what the churches are having their people say about hell.
I was surprised that only one stood out in this area, the Apostle’s Creed, and in the modern English language version hell is modified to ‘death’ or the grave. In this creed Jesus descends to hell (or the grave) to preach the good news to those who are trapped there. In some of the others (i.e. the Nicene Creed) there is specific reference to Jesus’ death and resurrection but no descent into hell. I will leave the debate as to whether there is a biblical reason for believing in hell or not for another time but for right now I would like to talk about who might be there and why. (For the record, I personally I have come to believe that the current concept of Hell is the result of outside cultures infecting Judaism and Christianity over the years with their own myths.)
Some of the scriptural support for the Apostle’s Creed’s statement about hell can be found in these scriptures:
Job 38:17, Psalm 68:18-22; Matthew 12:38-41; Acts 2:22-32; Romans 10:7; Ephesians 4:7-10, 1 Peter 3:18-20, and 1 Peter 4:6
After reading these scriptures I find only slim evidence for believing Jesus ever entered into a physical place called hell (or Hades) but never the less what is interesting is the idea that if he went there he did so to bring the Gospel message to those who already died.
Now if God exists outside of time, if time is merely part of the physical universe, then it could be surmised that for God there is no past or future, only an eternal present, or ‘now’. As Jesus came to die for all mankind, paying the price for everyone’s sins from the beginning of creation until he comes again, then it would be logical to assume that he is right ‘now’ meeting those of us who did not know him in life, giving them a chance to surrender to him after the ‘first death.’ (I like the idea that all of the people, who have ever died or ever will die, will ‘awaken’ simultaneously together in our ‘future’ but in reality what is God’s eternal ‘now’.)
Is this Inclusivism or Universalism? I don’t think so. It might be possible for someone whose life is made up of more ‘chaff’ than ‘wheat’ to be left with nothing after being exposed to God’s fiery judgment. And this idea does not support the premise that all faiths would serve God as well as that of those who truly follow Christ’s teaching ( I am not including what has historically been called Christianity in that description.) But it would encourage us to stop considering much of the world’s people as being the “damned”. I think this attitude could help us to serve the Kingdom much more effectively than the prevailing concept of hell.