Interview: Brian McLaren on Sin, Hell, New Kind of Christianity

Brian McLaren, considered one of the more articulate leaders in the emergent church, has a lot of questions. And he hopes Christians won't avoid those questions.

In his new book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith, McLaren questions conventional truths and calls for a major overhaul of the Christian faith. He recently spoke with The Christian Post talking about where he really stands on certain Christian core beliefs and addressing some of his critics.

CP: Would you describe yourself as just an ordinary Christian who's struggling with questions and working his way through figuring out the Bible?

McLaren: I'd certainly say my struggle is first and foremost as a Christian myself. Add to that the fact that I was a pastor for 24 years so I suppose I'm struggling with this on behalf of the kinds of people I met as a pastor. And then thirdly, one of my primary concerns is evangelism. So I also think I struggle with these questions thinking about my friends who are spiritual seekers and so I'm struggling with these questions on their behalf as well.

CP: Some say the emergent movement is fizzling out. It seems there's less buzz about the movement and those who were originally part of it or thought to be part of it are distancing themselves from it or dropping the term emergent, like Dan Kimball and Mark Driscoll. I wanted to get your thoughts on that.

McLaren: This new book where I'm speaking from my heart. I'm not trying to speak as a spokesman for anybody's movement. That's important to say. But when it comes to emergent my sense is that what emergent has always been to me is a conversation. And a good conversation moves from subject to subject. Certain people have been most interested in the part of the conversation that was about church, about styles of worship, styles of leadership, approaches to evangelism and that's been an important part of the conversation. And then the conversation has moved to issues of theology and this new book especially the first five questions of the ten are about theology. For some people that's just not part of the conversation that they were interested in. So all that to me is fine. People shouldn't be forced to have conversations they're not interested in. I think they all have to happen. We need to have conversations about the practical conventions of doing church and some of us also need to have conversations about theology.

CP: When you say "not interested" in the conversation do you mean they don't want to debate on the core Christian beliefs?

McLaren: For them, the theological questions are by and large answered. Those questions aren't important to them. What's important to them is the matter of effectiveness, leading and serving, working within their current theological paradigms. So there's just no need to talk about that for them because they're very satisfied with their theology as it is.

CP: The new kind of Christianity you present seems like something a lot of Americans would get on board with. A lot of Americans today want a sort of pick and choose type of religion. But there's also a generation that really wants truths, core convictions at a time when there's so much uncertainty or it's all relative attitudes. What are your thoughts on this?

McLaren: First, I would hate for what I'm saying to be characterized the way you characterized it. I would consider that tragic if that's what I'm doing. First I should say, I think it would be wrong to say that I'm arguing for a kind of pick and choose approach to Christian faith. I also think it would be a mistake to conclude that anyone who talks about absolute truth isn't also in danger of having a pick and choose approach to faith. So for example, a lot of my fellow Christians who have a lot to say about absolute truth seem to pick and choose issues that they're very concerned about and ignore some other ones. It's a danger we all face. I would certainly hope no one would conclude that's what I'm advocating.

CP: You mention in the book that you do believe in some boundaries and don't necessarily agree with the "anything goes" notion. How do you define those boundaries?

McLaren: I want to do what's right and I want to believe what's true and I want to avoid what's wrong and I want to disbelieve what's false. But the issue is all of us are engaged in processes of interpretation when it comes to those matters. Some people seem to believe that all of those interpretations are easy and clear, that their church or denomination has nailed them down or figured them out. And I just don't think it's that simple. I think we're in a constant struggle to understand the truths more deeply and we have to be involved in ongoing, unending repentance where we are willing to say the things that we felt were true maybe were only partially so, so we have more to learn. That to me is part of what being a disciple is. A disciple is a person who turns their heart to Christ and seeks to be led by the spirit of God. Like Jesus said, there's always truth that we cannot bear and so we need to remain open to the spirit to keep guiding us into the truth as we can bear it.

CP: You mention how you once saw the Bible and Christianity through a more traditional lens and you've now thrown out those lens and you're building your faith with a new pair of lens. In the past it seems you held to absolute truths like inerrancy of Scripture, deity of Christ, that you built your faith on. So what foundation would you say you're building your faith on now?

McLaren: I think anyone who reads the book will be absolutely certain that I'm not moving from the deity of Christ at all. In fact, I'm arguing that we honor Christ as the ultimate word of God and that we don't put Jesus on the same par with any other authority. I'm certainly not questioning the deity of Christ in any way. The word inerrancy never occurs in Scripture and my concern with inerrancy is that it brings into our discussion about the Bible a set of philosophical assumptions that aren't really necessary and actually can be unhelpful and counterproductive. So I'm not in any way questioning the authority of Scripture but the question I'm asking in the book is how do we understand authority, what are the assumptions we bring to the question of authority before we even begin to talk about the Bible. What I try to suggest in the book, I offer a metaphor for this. I think a lot of us bring to the reading of the Bible the assumption that the Bible was inspired as a constitution. And I'm offering an alternative metaphor, that actually it is a lot more in line like what the Jewish rabbis have always said, and that is that the Bible is a library, an inspired library, and it's an authoritative library. So I'm in no way questioning the authority of Scripture but I'm questioning how we have defined that word authority.

CP: This is a bit of a left-field question but I'm just curious what your response is to the New Atheists.

McLaren: To me, when I read the New Atheists I think about the words in 1 Peter 3 where Peter says always be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have and to do it with gentleness and respect. So the New Atheists by and large are looking at the Christian faith and looking at some Christian behavior and they're asking a lot of questions so I want to take those questions seriously and respond with gentleness and respect. I think some of the New Atheists have been almost a mirror image of the worst kind of religious fundamentalists and so they've entered into the conversation with an attitude that I don't think is helpful when religious people have it so I certainly don't think it's helpful now to have two sides of an argument with that same kind of combative attitude. But two of the main issues that I've seen the New Atheists bringing up would be the issue of human suffering and the issue of religious violence. And even though I don't like the attitude and the ways the New Atheists might pose those questions, I agree with them that we have to have good and reasonable answers to the question of human suffering. And as you see in the book I certainly think we have to deal with the issue of religious violence and we have to be willing to scrutinize elements of our faith that are vulnerable to being used on behalf of religious violence.

CP: Going back to the book, you talk about this Greco-roman narrative. How did you come up with this and how is it that Christians adopted this?

McLaren: Like anything it's my interpretation and other people might interpret it differently. So far I've gotten response to the book and as I've shared this in public with different groups and in private in personal conversation most people feel that that six-line narrative does accurately represent the storyline that many, certainly not all, Christians kind of unconsciously come to hold. This is a point in the book that could never be proven with complete certainty. It's really a conjecture or it's a possible explanation. But I think many of these very gradually take shape. No one person is responsible. They just take shape over a long period of time and I think that's the case of this narrative. I think many good people for good reasons contributed to the framing of the biblical narrative in this way. And I think it takes shape really over at least four centuries. To me it's a very gradual process. Nobody had any malice in it. Everybody was trying to do the right thing. Often there end up being unintended consequences for all of our actions. It's probably the case with this narrative.

CP: Regarding "the fall," do you reject the notion of original sin and just describe it as a loss of innocence?

McLaren: I don't object to people using that term. But what I want us to do is really scrutinize that term and ask is it really in the Bible, is it the only permissible way for us to think about sin, and is it the only permissible way to frame our reading of the Bible? If people want to read the Bible in those terms, I'm not really trying to stop them. If that's what they're going to do they're not going to listen to me. But there are other people for whom the way that we have framed the issue of original sin has become a real obstacle and they've raised some very good questions about it. So I think we have to take those questions seriously and ask just as the early Christians had to ask, does every Christian need to be circumcised. That might have been an issue in the first century. We might need to ask the question in the 21st century, in order to be a Christian do you have to not only use the word original sin but do you have to hold the set of mental constructs and assumptions that go along with that word original sin?

CP: Is the main obstacle that everyone born after Adam and Eve are born sinners?

McLaren: It's a bit more complicated than that. What I suggest in the book that goes along with this idea of original sin is the idea that God no longer loves humanity. The idea that humanity has become detestable to God and that it's only the people who become Christians that God can truly love, that their being loved by God through just being God's creatures is somehow destroyed by original sin. Along with the idea of original sin is the idea that the problem of sin is primarily a legal problem. In other words, the primary category of sin is a category of guilt and condemnation. In the Bible there are a lot of other categories of sin too. Sin can be seen as a sickness God wants to heal us from, sin can be seen as ignorance that God wants to deliver us from, sin can be seen as a degradation and loss of glory that God wants to liberate us from. And unfortunately sometimes when we frame our story around this idea of original sin – again, a term that never appears in the Bible, that doesn't mean it's wrong but we just need to make a distinction in my mind between the things that are in our authoritative text and the things that are part of the Christian tradition.

CP: One reformed pastor, Kevin DeYoung, described your book as "easily the clearest presentation of McLaren's theology to date." Do you agree?

McLaren: I haven't read what he wrote. I've never written on systematic theology and I probably never will so I would probably say … I'm glad it's clearer and it expresses some of my questions and explorations.

CP: You talk about your struggle with the notion of hell. It doesn't seem to sit well with you. Could you just elaborate a little bit what you believe about hell and also what the Great Commission mean to you?

McLaren: On hell, here's the issue. That six-line narrative I talk about in the book, as interpreted by many people, suggests that every person who does not say the sinner's prayer, personally accept Christ as their savior will spend eternity – which means absolutely forever without ever any abatement or termination – in conscious torment. So every second will be like they're burning in fire, every second they'll be in absolute agony, every second. And so a lot of us find that is not something you can just lightly swallow. For example, we're so sad that 230,000 people were killed in a terrible earthquake in Haiti but that involved them suffering for a few minutes and dying. But this is every single person who's ever lived and ever will live who isn't part of one group. You think about someone who went through the Holocaust. They were so horribly treated by the Nazis and then the Nazis kill them and then they go to something even worse just because they weren't Christians.

A lot of us say, when we read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and really when we read most of the Bible, the image of God that we see does not seem like an eternal torturer. So many of us Christians are asking the question and we're not asking because we don't want to believe. We're asking because we get a vision of God in Jesus Christ that just doesn't seem to match with that. And not only that but even if a Christian is comfortable with that, if you are involved in evangelism as I have been for the last 30 years of my life, over 30 years of my life on a daily basis, that question comes up again and again and again when you're trying to share the Gospel with other people. That's the question I'm raising.

CP: Some people evangelize by saying if you don't believe you'll go to hell. What is your approach to evangelism?

McLaren: I want to invite people to become followers of Jesus Christ. I want to invite them to join God in the healing of the world instead of working against God in the destruction of themselves and others in the world. I want to invite people to follow Christ into life in the Kingdom of God as opposed to just living for their own kingdom or their own agenda or living for somebody else's destructive agenda. So I want to invite them to turn from a life of sin and separation from God and I want to invite them to follow Jesus in a life of love for God and love for neighbors.

CP: Scot McKnight and DeYoung argue that the new kind of Christianity you present is not actually new but "old fashioned liberalism," "liberalism dressed up for the 21st century." What is your response?

McLaren: That's certainly their opinion. I would say the word liberalism as I understand it does not at all describe what I'm saying. As I understand the tradition of theological liberalism, it's based on a whole set of assumptions that I don't share so I don't think that's accurate. But if the word liberalism means freedom and if freedom means the freedom to ask questions, honest questions, then I can understand why they would apply that word to me because I am asking questions. But I think it will be a sad day if being reformed or being evangelical means you aren't allowed to ask questions and to be honest when some answers that you're given you don't find those answers squaring with the Scriptures as you're honest and trying to read the Scriptures.

CP: How would you sum up the message that you have in your book? You're on this quest for a new Christianity so do you feel you've made some significant strides in this quest and that you've arrived at some of the answers or do you still have a long ways to go?

McLaren: I definitely still have a long ways to go. In some ways, the quest to be the person that God wants me to be as a person I'll never finish that in my life. And the quest for the Christian faith to become all that God intends it to be I don't think we'll ever be able to say we've arrived. In fact the day we say we've arrived is probably one of our most dangerous days of all.

What Jesus said to us is follow me. And I think Jesus is continuing to lead us. So my understanding of the Christian life is that it is a quest and my understanding of the Christian faith is that it is a continual quest, a continual journey, a continual growth, a continual learning.

CP: Would you like to add anything?

McLaren: Even if people don't like the answers I'm proposing in the book, I hope they won't problematize me and the book. In other words, I hope they won't decide that if they just write me and the book off the problem is solved. Because the real issue is these questions are here and we need to face them and we need to think about them and they're being raised by people all over the world. And so I hope what will come of this is after people weigh in that we won't stop there and then we'll go on and say, can we have a discussion on whether our version of the biblical narrative is really true to Scripture; can we have a discussion on whether the Bible must be read as constitution or whether there are other or even better ways to understand the Bible. So I hope that what this will lead to goes beyond labeling and name calling but that it will lead to substantial and constructive conversation.

CP: So people are accusing you of departing from the Bible, but what you're trying to do is go closer to it and find truth?

McLaren: Exactly right. Part of the reason I use that six-line narrative in the book is that I'm worried that what a lot of people have done is they've learned to cut out verses from the Bible and paste them on to that narrative and without realizing it, without intending to they're missing a whole lot of verses in the Bible.

Can I give you an example? When I was a little boy, I memorized a verse from the book of Isaiah, though your sins be as scarlet they will be as white as snow and though they are as crimson they will be as wool. I memorized that verse as part of understanding the plan of salvation and then many many years later I was a pastor and I was preaching in Isaiah. And then I read that verse in context, I realized that verse in context was God complaining with the people that they had developed a whole approach to religion that ignored justice and care for the oppressed and care for the widow and the orphan. So I realized that when I had quoted that verse it had nothing to do with justice, the oppressed, the widow and the orphan. I've been taught that verse to fit into another narrative entirely. It had nothing to do with oppression and the poor. So it's not in any way because I want to get us away from the Bible, I'm trying to be true to the Bible and to what God really wants from us.

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