Why Liberal Is Not a Bad Word
So, back to your question. Take the church in America today. We have this powerful movement called the Religious Right composed largely of well-mobilized evangelicals and Catholics. Many of them love and are deeply influenced by Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, the Tea Partiers, the Left Behind novels, Pat Robertson, John Hagee, and Christian Zionism -- even though you'll seldom, if ever, hear those names or causes celebrated at the Evangelical Theological Society or the Conference of Catholic Bishops. Or to put it differently, in my travels around the world, I'd have to say that Joyce Myers and Benny Hinn are far more influential than John Stott or C. S. Lewis on the popular level.
Christian scholars may have a dismissive opinion of these popular movements in our day similar to that of the Pharisees toward popular movements in their day (John 7:47-49), but the Religious Right, Christian Zionists, and Prosperity Gospel folks can become a powerful force when mobilized to win elections, launch wars, determine budgets, pass laws, scapegoat minorities, and so on -- all based on a theology that serious scholars could easily critique. Of course, one wonders why the scholars so often seem content to speak to one another and ignore these popular movements when so much is at stake.
And one wonders why some voices, in responding to my book, seem very energetic to defend what I describe as the Greco-Roman narrative as the biblical narrative. I don't think you can have it both ways. You can't say, "McLaren is drawing a caricature that no serious scholars hold," and then have others say, "McLaren is throwing out the historic, orthodox Christian faith that we hold."
You argue in your book that there is, across the span of the Bible as it was written over the centuries, an evolving understanding of God that moves from vengeance and wrath toward a more mature view of God as full of forgiveness and love. Yet Jews would not agree with this characterization of the God of the Hebrew scriptures, since they find many passages that speak of God's mercy and loving-kindness, and Jesus spends a fair amount of time talking about hell and wrath. Do you think you simplify matters a bit to pose this evolutionary model?
I think the way you've described it does simplify it, but I don't think that's the way I express it in the book. I would never ever say that there is no loving characterization of God in the Hebrew scriptures; in fact, I quote the Hebrew scriptures in making my point. Nor would I ever say that there is an orderly, neat progression. It's terribly messy, full of regressions and switchbacks. After all, it's human beings we're dealing with!
I devoted a whole book to the subject of hell and wrath [The Last Word and the Word After That (2005)], and I try to make clear there that what Jesus says about hell and wrath is very different from what we say Jesus says. For example, Jesus never says, "If you're not a Christian, you're going to hell." He never said, "If you don't believe in the inerrancy of scripture or penal substitutionary atonement theory, you're going to hell." But I've had quite a few Christians say exactly these things to me. But Jesus does say, "If you call your brother an idiot, you're going to hell." Or "If you aren't compassionate to the poor, you're going to hell." Now why he says that, and what he's trying to get through to his hearers by saying that -- that's a big subject.