Q & R: I still don’t get McLaren on the who’s-going-to-heaven stuff.

Here’s the Q:

I still don’t get McLaren on the who’s-going-to-heaven stuff. I get the feeling he’s scared of the question, like that he’d get in trouble. But maybe I’ve got that wrong? … in BMC’s case, he seems to not want the question to arise. But to those terrified by the church’s brutal and horrific doctrines of hell, “We don’t ask that question any more” just doesn’t cut it. … I take myself to share BMC’s basic outlook on where the focus should be, but instead of thinking that shared focus requires us to never let the question arise, it pushes toward a certain *kind* of answer (which need not be universalism)
… As one who was himself terrorized by traditional doctrines of hell, my greatest concern is for those still haunted by them. I do think these horrifying views are a major stumbling block. It seems to me that such folks should be told that there are more hopeful Christian views out there (Christian universalism being just one example). To someone who sees a horrific doctrine of hell as the only real Christian alternative, and for whom that’s a tragic deal breaker, or to one terrorized by the thought of people going to such a hell, what doesn’t seem to help (to perhaps again be a bit unfair to you here) is to tell them “We don’t ask about / think about that anymore.”

Here’s the R:
This important question arises in response to my reply to a recent article, where I said:

Anyone who applies the term universalism to my understanding of things hasn’t read me carefully. The situation is actually much “worse” than simply switching from exclusivism to inclusivism or universalism. I think the set of assumptions that divides the world into inclusivists, exclusivists, and universalists is deeply flawed. It’s not that I’ve answered the “who goes to heaven” question differently – it’s that I’ve become convinced (by Scripture and by many great theologians of the church through history) that “who goes to heaven” is not the primary question Jesus (or other biblical writers) came to ask.

First, I can see why someone might suspect I’m scared of the question. The religious world gives people a lot to be afraid about (as the fiery comments sections of most religious blogs make clear!). But if I were scared of the question, I probably wouldn’t have written a whole book on the subject (called The Last Word and the Word After That). I’ve done my best to demonstrate a commitment to speak freely, carefully, and I hope graciously about what I believe and face the consequences.
Second, I am glad to clarify that I am not trying to “never let the question arise,” nor do I want say in any way, “We don’t ask or think about that question anymore.” The universalism question arises constantly, and regular readers of this blog know I address it repeatedly.
Third, I agree we must be very sensitive to “those terrified by the church’s brutal and horrific doctrines of hell,” and I understand why a simple “universalist” response may be the most pastorally helpful for those people. They are rightly terrified, brutalized, and horrified by the portrayal of God as a terrifying, brutal, and horrific. They aren’t in the mood for nuance and a lot of theological backstory … they just need reassurance that God is not vicious, vindictive, and dictatorial.
So, if by Universalist, you mean, “One who believes God perfectly and fully loves the entire universe, and every creature in it,” or if you mean that God will do everything possible to give everyone possible the best possible eternal outcome of their temporal lives, or if you mean that God is not a capricious and vicious torturer who will punish eternally all those who are not “among the elect” or otherwise successful in selecting and following the correct religion … then, yes, of course, sign me up. I am happy (and unafraid) to be counted among your number.
Perhaps I should stop there.
But for those who are interested, here’s why I don’t normally choose that label. When the conventional question – who goes to heaven and who goes to hell – frames reality, universalism and inclusivism are preferable answers to exclusivism. But when that conventional question frames reality, and when one chooses universalism, we face a temptation to say, “Whew. What a relief! Everything will be OK! There will be a happy ending!” And that relief can lead to a kind of passivity, namely, that if all will be well in the end, then all is well now. But that isn’t the case.
In other words, I don’t think that the heaven-hell question is the one that should frame reality. But I acknowledge that it does frame reality for many Christians (and Muslims), and many of them need a better answer within that frame than the exclusivist one they’ve been given. They simply aren’t ready or able to reframe reality with a different question.
When a different question frames reality – how can God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven – then we have to acknowledge that for billions of God’s creatures, God’s will is not being done on earth as in heaven. Universalism may be good news for them after they die, but right now, they need good news that God cares about the mess they’re in … the mess of injustice, oppression, ignorance, prejudice, hunger, thirst, sickness, loneliness, guilt, shame, addiction, fear, poverty, etc. And that good news can not be in word only. It must come in deed and in truth, as 1 John and James both say (echoing Jesus) … which makes our reply very costly.
I guess this is a case of needing pastoral sensitivity to discern which problem people are facing. For some, the urgent need is to be liberated from a vicious and cruel depiction of God as eternal cosmic torturer. For others, the urgent need is to be liberated from a sense that God may help them after they die, but until then, they’re stuck and sunk. Perhaps what we need is a kind of activist universalism – that affirms God’s saving love for all creation, but doesn’t stop there … but rather sends us into creation to bear and manifest that saving love universally – for friend, stranger, and enemy … for Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and everyone else … for humans and living creatures and all creation.