The Last Word and the Word After That
Publisher:San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Subject group:General theology
The Last Word and the Word After That is an examination of the idea of hell set against the background of the fictional story of a crisis in pastoral ministry. Pastor Dan Poole faces doctrinal investigation because a conservative faction at Potomac Community Church fears that he is on a twisting slippery slope that will lead by way of inclusivism and conditionalism to the cesspit of universalism. The following exchange between Dan and Neil Oliver mid-way through the book encapsulates the theological and moral dilemma that McLaren wishes to address. Jess is Dan’s daughter, whose own faith has been badly shaken by the thought that people she loves will burn in hell forever; Kincaid is her boyfriend.
I thought for a few seconds. “Of course, I need to talk this through - but I feel I especially need it to help her. Look, Neil, I’m a Christian. It really shakes me to think that I could have been so misguided or uninformed about so much, but even so, my roots go pretty deep. But for Jess and for Kincaid, if they don’t get this hell thing worked out, they’re never even going to send down roots. They’re going to become …”
Although it is rather contrary to the narrative, dialogical spirit of the book, I want to extract from the various conversations a number of points that relate especially to the exegetical basis for what is commonly understood as the ‘doctrine of hell’. This should not be taken as a repudiation of the novelistic approach - the value of McLaren’s books lies to a large extent in the fact that they model dialogue, they resist the closure of discussion, they demonstrate the practical and personal significance of theology, they keep us alert to the essential interplay of life and thought. But some sort of theological analysis is unavoidable. Although the conversational format makes it difficult to know how much of what is said reflects Brian McLaren’s own views on the subject (that is part of the point, it is an exploration of the experience of learning), a reasonably coherent line of thought takes shape as Dan Poole engages with various representatives of an emerging wisdom.
Jesus’ deconstruction of hell
The argument starts with the observation that the doctrine of ‘hell’, conventionally understood at least, is not found in the Old Testament. The ancient Jews were barely interested in an afterlife of any description: they were focused instead ‘on remaining part of God’s blessing or covenant on their land in this history’ (46). The failure of repeated attempts to overthrow Roman rule in Palestine, however, and the brutal killing of those who opposed YHWH’s enemies had led to a crisis of faith: ‘Why didn’t God give victory to these brave, heroic martyrs?’ (60). This gave rise to the new belief that the martyrs would be resurrected on the final day of victory, when the messiah would defeat Israel’s enemies. On that ‘day of the Lord’ they would be ‘raised from the grave, not to ascend to heaven but to share in the new post-Roman era of liberation and joy’. As the Jews developed these hopes for a life beyond death, they borrowed ideas of the afterlife from the religious systems of their neighbours - Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Zoroastrian, Greek.
The emergence of the distinctive rhetoric of ‘hell’ that we find in the New Testament is attributed further to the ‘scapegoat factor’. Who was to blame for the failure of the liberation movements? Different factions had different answers to that question, but the theologically creative Pharisees blamed the prostitutes, tax-collectors and sinners. They imported the idea of hell in order to frighten the wicked into repentance. What Jesus then does is turn this argument against them, deconstructing their doctrine of hell. The ‘perfection’ of God is expressed not in the condemnation of the weak but in compassion (62-63).
At this point in the conversation Neil and Dan take up the question of universalism:
“The problem with universalism is not just the answer it provides. True, its answer creates problems - but so do the alternative answers. The problem is the question it seeks to answer. The question assumes that the purpose of the gospel is to get individual souls into heaven after they die. No matter how good your answer is, it’s not good enough if you’re asking the wrong question.”
So the real issue is not how do people avoid going to hell but how do we get justice and freedom from oppression. If Jesus uses the language of hell, we have to ask, ‘for what purpose does he use the language? What’s his point in working with the construction?’ (71). Essentially, he can make use of it as a metaphor or model for God’s judgment on the oppressors without necessarily endorsing it as a ‘literal’ account of what happens to people when they die. This is an example of ‘rhetorical hermeneutics’ - ‘an approach to Scripture that among other things tells us that we normally pay too much attention to what the writers are saying and not enough to what they’re doing’ (81). As the intersexual poet Pat says of hell: ‘Its purpose, not its substance, is the point’ (26).
‘The Pharisees used hell to threaten sinners and other undesirables and mark them as the excluded out-group, hated by God. Their rhetorical use of hell made clear that God’s righteousness was severe and merciless toward the undeserving. Jesus turned their rhetoric upside down and inside out and used hell to threaten those who excluded sinners and other undesirables, showing that God’s righteousness was compassionate and merciful, that God’s kingdom welcomed the undeserving, that for God, there was no out-group.’ (74)
If Christians today use the language of hell to exclude others, they risk aligning themselves not with Jesus but with the Pharisees, and so they themselves are challenged by Jesus’ warning that the justice of God will come upon those who lack compassion. The process of deconstruction can then be taken a step further. Although at a certain level the language of hell can be used to maintain a sense of moral order, the vision of God that lies at the heart of Christianity must sooner or later replace fear with love, making hell a redundant construct (75). In the notes at the end of the book McLaren sums up his position in his own words:
The language of hell, in my view, like the language of biblical prophecy in general, is not intended to provide literal or detailed fortune-telling or prognostication about the hereafter, nor is it intended to satisfy intellectual curiosity, but rather it is intended to motivate us in the here and now to realize our ultimate accountability to a God of mercy and justice and in that light to rethink everything and to seek first the kingdom and justice of God. (188-189)
Rhetoric and history
There are a number of ideas presented in the course of The Last Word and the Word After That with which I resonate strongly or which I think merit further investigation: for example, the questioning of the assumption that salvation consists merely of securing souls for heaven (69); the inclusion of issues of justice within the scope of mission (70-71); the understanding of ‘eternal life’ in more worldly, historical terms (77); the suggestion that while salvation is by grace, judgment is by works (138); the notion of a post-Protestant ‘deep ecclesiology’ (140-142); the argument that we need to explore the territory beyond ‘both Imperial Christianity and consumerist Christianity’ (155); the understanding of ‘election’ in terms of responsibility rather than privilege (169).
I would also argue that McLaren’s ‘rhetorical hermeneutics’ is entirely legitimate in principle: biblical interpretation has often failed to grasp the degree to which language is used indirectly for rhetorical or poetic purposes. The question is whether this is an adequate method for reading the passages in the Gospels about hell. I think there are weaknesses with the rhetorical analysis which need to be addressed. Despite Neil’s cryptic email recommending that Dan begin his search for a better understanding of hell with history rather than doctrine (19), the main shortcoming of the biblical analysis presented in this book is that it fails to take into account the historical context (and therefore reference) of Jesus’ ‘hell’ statements. Rather than ask simply, ‘What’s the rhetorical purpose of the passages about hell?’ (114), I think we need to ask, ‘What is the historical purpose?’ Having established that, we will then be in a position to consider how the rhetoric works.
The argument about the importation of foreign ideas in order to develop a theology of martyrdom in the intertestamental period may have some validity, but the narrative is not carried through properly into the Gospels. Instead we jump from the particular story of Israel’s oppression to an argument about injustice as a general and universal phenomenon. What has made this possible is a rhetorical hermeneutic that is content with abstract, existential answers to the question, ‘What’s the point of this metaphor?’ So, for example, Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13:47-50 about the bad fish being sorted from the good at the end of the age is reduced to the bland assertion, ‘Rightly understand the message!’ (117). This is not an altogether unreasonable inference, but can it really be regarded as an interpretation of the parable, which is not about ‘understanding’ but about judgment and destruction?
It seems to me that we have to recognize that Jesus’ ‘rhetoric’ is not so easily disconnected from its historical context. His language of hell, as we have come to term it, presupposes, on the one hand, the historical prospect of judgment and devastation, and on the other, analogous Old Testament accounts of divine judgment on Israel. I would suggest, in fact, that Jesus is much more dependent on the Old Testament than McLaren’s argument about the influence of foreign beliefs about the afterlife suggests.
Jesus’ ‘hell’, in my view, is the suffering that Israel as a nation would undergo if the people did not repent. The burning of the bad fish (and similar parables) is a ‘metaphor’ for the destruction of an unrepentant nation. It is not simply telling us that ‘deception and false appearances will go up in smoke’ (78). Jesus’ metaphor of two roads, one leading to destruction, the other to life, is found in Jeremiah 21:8 with reference to the Babylonian invasion and should be understood in the same way:
Thus says the Lord: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war. For I have set my face against this city for harm and not for good, declares the Lord: it shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire. (Jer.21:8-10)
This reading is hinted at (77) but not followed through. Gehenna is not an image of eternal, post-mortem punishment, but neither does it merely represent a wasted life, as Neil suggests (78). Again, in Jeremiah the valley of Hinnom is a symbol for the destruction of Jerusalem and the slaughter of its inhabitants:
Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere. And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away. And I will silence in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, for the land shall become a waste. (Jer.7:32-34)
Neil informs us that Gehenna was a ‘garbage dump with a terrible reputation where carcasses were cremated’, and then asks, ‘Does that mean that people will very literally be deposited in that trash dump outside Jerusalem?’ He clearly expects the answer no, but I think Jesus would have said yes. What Jesus foresees is the same appalling destruction that Jeremiah foresaw - the dead literally dumped in the valley of Hinnom. That would be Israel’s ‘hell’.
Towards the end of the book one of the members of the small ‘emergent’, ecclesiologically deep community into which Dan is initiated offers him some advice:
‘You can’t leave a sinking ship until you begin to construct a seaworthy one. Hell is one of the leaks in your sinking ship. You’re trying to patch the hole. During your days here, I’d recommend you try to imagine a new ship, a seaworthy one. Put your energy there. You may find that the hell problem sinks with the old ship, then, and you won’t solve it, but you’ll leave it behind.’ (143)
This is right, and I think that what Brian McLaren has done, in this book and others, is present us with a startling and imaginative sketch of what this new ship might look like. But there is still some work to be done before we have a workable design that we can be confident will support the weight of community and mission in our post-this-that-and-the-other future.