Q & R: More on hell

A lot of people feel I’ve “gone too far” in my reappraisal of the biblical teaching on hell. Others, like this reader, don’t think I’ve gone far enough. (after the jump)

Dear Dr. MacLaren
I have read some of the responses to your book, “A New Kind of Christianity” about whether God is violent. Your response has been to look at Christ and presumably see that He is not violent. But, can we be so sure of this?. Christ seems to have included violence in many of His parables such as the Parable of the Tenants of the Vineyard where He ends the story with the King ordering some of the tenants to be killed.Granted that this is a Parable and the story should not be pressed too far to determine doctrinal disputes. Nevertheless, there is this undercurrent of violence to them.
In your book, “The Last Word and the Word After That”, you assert that Christ’s teaching about hell is meant to turn the Pharisees teaching about that back against them. AS MUCH I WANT TO BELIEVE THAT INTERPRETATION, I AM NOT TOTALLY CONVINCED IT IS VALID OR TRUE. The problem I have is this: What evidence is there that the Pharisees believed in hell? Even if they did, what evidence is there in the text of the Gospels that Christ was not Himself teaching a new doctrine of hell and turning the Pharisees doctrine back on them as you assert? You do not provide enough supporting or convincing argument to back up that assertion. It is a novel interpretation that I have not seen elsewhere.
I think that the better solution is to interpret Christ’s teaching as being meant to be interpretation metaphorically or allegorically and not literally and is meant only to be a symbol of a warning about how God COULD punish us. If the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus which is the longest and most explicit description of hell provided by Christ in the Gospels is interpreted literally, Christ comes off as a very harsh, legalistic and sadistic judge who does not give people second chances and will not redeem people after death. Traditionalists have gotten around this by asserting that Christ is describing the Intermediate State between physical death and the Resurrection of the Body, (the Greek word used for hell is HADES, traditionally seen as a temporary place of torment that is described as being cast in to the LAKE OF FIRE in the book of Revelation) ) rather than the final eternal state for which the Greek word, based on the Hebrew, GEHENNA is used for the LAKE OF FIRE in the book of Revelation which is the place of the SECOND DEATH.
But, the description of hell in this parable can easily be transferred or applied to the final eternal hell of the LAKE OF FIRE as most traditionalists have done.
Therefore, rather than accept the idea that Christ is so violent that He feels compelled by His own internal moral character of punitive justice to punish sinners by torturing and tormenting them ( even if the Biblical descriptions of hell are interpreted symbolically rather than literally as describing suffering actually worse than physically burning to death) literally without end, I would reject Christ’s authority in this matter altogether by assuming the theologically liberal view that He made an outright error in the accuracy and validity and veracity of His teaching in this matter. This is justified by asserting that Christ was also human and could and did make mistakes in His teaching because in becoming human, one of His divine attributes that He gave up was His omniscience and infallibly. This is referred to as the Kenosis theory of the Incarnation based on the passage where it says Christ “emptied” Himself in the incarnation.
I can not be a Christian, I must believe that I must believe that hell is literally never ending suffering for people who are kept in existence, alive and conscious of their torment literally forever. Even it means that Christ will condemn ME to hell for believing as I do, I find it impossible to believe such a morally repulsive and repugnant doctrine. THIS WOULD INDEED MEAN GOD IS MORE VIOLENT THAN ANY HUMAN COULD EVER BE AND TURN GOD IN TO A MALEVOLENT BEING WHO IS FUNDAMENTALLY HOSTILE TO HUMAN BEINGS WHO ACTUALLY HATES US.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I share your concern about a disgracefully violent image of God which many people have become not only accustomed to but even comfortable with. I’m glad to see more and more people raising this issue. My new book tries to raise what I believe are the underlying issues – our assumptions about the Biblical narrative, the Bible itself, the character of God, and the identify of Jesus. My friend Sharon Baker has an accessible and well-written book coming out this summer on the subject – Razing Hell. On Jesus’ parables that have a violent turn in them, I’d recommend William Herzog’s important book Parables as Subversive Speech. I don’t take the interpretive route you take, but I think we want to arrive at a similar destination (no pun intended!) – loving and following the God of light, love, and life … in whom there is no darkness, cruelty, or death at all (1 John 1:5).