The Last Word and the Word After That by Brian McLaren
On the surface, The Last Word and the Word After That by Brian McLaren is primarily about Hell. It is a major theme and the most concrete theme of the book, but in typical McLaren style there is much more to it than that, especially in the narrative-driven A New Kind of Christian trilogy which this book concludes. I had not read the first two books (I’ve skimmed through the first) so I can’t speak too much to the narrative, but I am loosely familiar with the story of Dan Poole who some say broadly represents McLaren himself. Dan has already begun to move from a modern conservative faith to a postmodern faith through these other books and this concluding book brings many of those thoughts and their implications to a head.
Hell and Judgement
The primary issue of Hell first emerges through the questioning of Dan’s daughter Jess. Isn’t it often the case that we just assume our theologies are correct until somebody else steps in and starts asking us questions? Anyway, Jess is doubting her own faith primarily because of the common claim that God will torture every non-Christian for eternity. Dan himself at this point is an exclusivist (see definitions of the Hell debate) by default, having always been taught that as the only real Christianity. He explains the idea of inclusivism to Jess: some are saved, others are not, but the distinction isn’t as clear as just who said the sinner’s prayer or any other seemingly-arbitrary in-group vs out-group distinction. This seems to be satisfying to Jess for a little bit, but the next day she asks again and he explains Christian universalism to her as well. He doesn’t like it himself but as a good father and a good pastor, he explains all the positions within the standard realm of Christian orthodoxy. Later in the book she even gives a testimony to her campus group, mentioning that she struggled with her faith because of Hell and then became a universalist which led her back to God, and is ostracized for it. In any case, it unsettles Dan’s own discomfort with the idea of exclusivism and eternal conscious torment which leads to his intensive investigation into the concept of Hell.
What I love best is that he does not form any kind of explicit new concept of Hell or judgement. As one of the other characters put it so brilliantly, when you start to envision a more beautiful understanding of God who does not judge in such retributive ways, the question of Hell just becomes irrelevant. At points in the book he seems to explicitly reject all of exclusivism, inclusivism, and yes even universalism (although some I’m sure would accuse him of it anyway).
The reason for this is that all three positions are based on a legal paradigm for understanding Christianity. This is the heart of his challenge and there were some really interesting concepts to emerge along the way. The best part of the whole book to me was a simple chart that he put together of every time that Hell or after-life judgement was used in the Bible (all in the New Testament) along with what the purpose of using the imagery seemed to be. Now if you’re a conservative evangelical you probably think that the purpose of Hell is to encourage people to intellectually accept that Jesus is the son of God who came to save you as an individual from the penalty of your sins. Maybe even the specific understanding of how this atonement takes place is even included, most likely penal substitution. To put it bluntly, ultimately in this framework, Hell is used as a threat to establish that your afterlife is going to suck if you don’t join the Christian club.
In the Bible, however, Jesus seemed to be using his Hell imagery for the exact opposite purpose. The Pharisees of the time used Hell like many today do, as a fear tactic against those outside the Christian circle. Jesus, however, used Hell to defend those who had been marginalized by the religious elite. The theme he constantly goes back to is that we will be judged by the fruit we bear rather than by being in the right religious belief club. This will set many Protestant heads spinning and screaming about the heresy of salvation by works instead of grace. That’s not what he’s saying, though, and one of the characters brilliantly points out that salvation and judgement don’t have to be talking about the same thing. The legal paradigm has put it that way, salvation being about escaping the judgement of Hell, but this paradigm is missing from Scripture and there may be other ways to understand both judgement and salvation texts. In Scripture, salvation is primarily about the restoration of the world and judgement language is always about being held accountable for things you’ve done rather than doctrines you’ve acknowledged. If you’ve never heard this idea, I don’t expect you to be able to accept but I do suggest making your own chart like the fictional Dan Poole did to see how much is actually in Scripture and how much is cultural tradition.
The Judgemental Church
Meanwhile, Dan is going through a heresy trial at his church. It is a generally moderate evangelical church with a range of theologies. However, a group of fundamentalists in the church led by a man named Gil Zeamer are pushing for his removal. Gil’s wife Nancy is the head of the church council and while she is more moderate and great at navigating the complexities of a church – which is why she got the position – she has begun to let her husband push her around and pursue his agenda through her. I’m not going to delve into all the details but it is a pretty strong narrative largely because all the characters seem to be completely believable if you’ve spent any time in Christian groups with a similarly-varied constituency.
The connection between the academic study of Hell and the heresy trial narrative is pretty obvious: the point of talking about Hell, whatever it is, is always to hold the supposedly-godly to account for their actions rather than to judge outsiders and Dan’s church has decided he is an outsider theologically and must be removed. It is not impossible to hold to exclusivist eternal conscious torment and not be judgemental; I am not suggesting that. Sadly, they often have been paired up together and while there are parallels, they don’t need to be. Even Dan’s wife Carol expresses this idea at the end of the book. Unlike Dan, she wasn’t quite willing to abandon exclusivism (didn’t comment on eternal conscious torment) but she does state that it has changed how she throws around the language.
Here’s your challenge, then: if you feel the need to speak about Hell, be sure to be doing it in a way in line with Jesus. After all, Jesus came to save the world, not to condemn it (John 3:17). I, like McLaren, felt like this was why Jesus speaks as he does about Hell – calling for a restorative justice which is inherently opposed to the in-group/out-group mentality. Exactly what Hell is, assuming it is anything at all, becomes irrelevant once we start to embrace Jesus’ real point.