Hell as a Warrant among postmodernists

Hell as a Warrant among postmodernists May 20, 2005

When my editor friend suggested that I blog, I balked. Mostly because I didn’t know what it really was all about, but also because I never anticipated it would be this much fun. Maybe I’ll burn out with this and someday just stop but for right now this has been a wonderful ride with others on their journey of faith.

If you looked at Books and Culture to see the piece by Corcoran, and then looked above it, you will have seen my piece on Alan Segal’s new book, Life after Death. Segal, surrounded by many fine things with which I do agree, contends that “heaven” and “hell” need to be deconstructed — though he doesn’t quite say it that way.

In essence, he sees language about heaven and hell as warrants for how life should be lived on earth. It is the language we need, he is saying, in order to get what we want in this life — both from ourselves and from others. If we threaten, because we have power, others with hell for certain behaviors, then maybe they’ll knock it off and be on our side. Such, but not in his terms, is what the historical description of beliefs in the after-life ultimately teach us.

Lo and behold! this evening, after a perfectly lovely walk and dinner with Kris, I sat down and read two chps in McLaren’s The Last Word and the Word After That and Neil (Neo) expresses just this deconstructionist view: to wit, Jesus used hell language, which he borrowed from the Pharisees, who had absorbed it from the ancient cultures discussed in Segal too — Jesus used hell language as a counterforce to get the Pharisees to see that goodness had another meaning other than the one they used. In other words, Neil thinks hell language is a warrant for a moral code for life on this earth. (I haven’t read chp 11 yet, and don’t know what will become of this character or this idea in McLaren’s book.) Maybe he thinks they are more than that, but I could care very little what Neil thinks — since he’s one of those fictional guys who don’t have bodies.

Now, here’s what I’d like to say: hell and heaven are warrants, and the postmodernists see them as nothing but that. They are rhetorical language-games exercised by persons in power in order to get others to toe the line.

What we are learning from the postmodernists is that far too often traditionalists (Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, etc) are using hell/heaven language for little more than warrants to prop up or raise the stakes in evangelism. In the case of Bunyan, of course, hell rhetoric dominates the entire Christian life leading to a rigorous sense of perseverance. Apostasy was real for Bunyan, though his Puritanism led him to the view that true believers would remain and that anyone who didn’t remain was not effectually called and saved. That is beside the point: the point is that hell is used as a warrant.

Is it more?

Here’s where the modern discussion gives us an absolutely wonderful opportunity to discuss hell/heaven as more than warrants and to discuss them in the context of a robust (if also generous) orthodoxy.

I’ve been reading up on perichoresis lately, and my Orthodox friend speaks of theosis, and my Evangelical heritage speaks not so much in these terms but in terms of heaven as worship and the like. In light of these forms of Final Eschatology, what would hell and heaven be then? To be sure, it is a warrant — but so much more.

What might they be?

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  • I was struck by the same thought in reading McLaren’s book. If “hell language” in Jesus is reduced to rhetoric, then what is “heaven language”? I imagine one has substance for McLaren while the other is mostly (if not only) rhetoric. I wonder if McLaren is not so “this worldly” that eschatology is almost fully realized within human history rather than the kingdom of God (new heaven and new earth) fully invading human history as a goal/end where human history begins again in a restored though glorified creation.I appreciate his point that evangelicals have a tendency to be too “other worldly” (so that matters of environment, social justice, etc. are neglected) and too platonic in their cosmology. But it is better to rethink eschatology (along the lines of Witherington and Wolters’ Creation Regained) than to collapse it into an immanent understanding of human history. The transcendence of the kingdom needs some significant play as well.I appreciate your postings, Scot–especially the last few where we have some compassioinate sensibilities in play. I have learned much from them and look forward to the rest of your series in this vein.

  • Anonymous

    Bravo- a fine post! Sounds like a fine evening, too.You might add to your list “tikkun”- the Hebrew idea of salvation/redemption/healing (soteria) of all of creation. You must have read NT Wright….and Romans 8.Dana

  • Thanks John Mark. Same as the previous blogs?I’ll have more response to McLaren when I get through the book.

  • Anonymous

    john mark,Have you read Willard’s “Divine Conspiracy”? Transcendence of the kingdom is definitely addressed. Eschatology is not collapsed- it is expanded.Wasn’t Jesus (and Paul!) expecting the kingdom of God to fully invade human history as a goal/end, through the restored and glorified _humanity_ made possible by his incarnation, death and resurrection- by means of the Holy Spirit indwelling us?You are not alone in your appreciation of Scot’s postings.Dana

  • Dana,Are you saying that Tom Wright has a piece about “tikkun” somewhere? I just breezed through his Romans and didn’t see it, and he said nothing about tikkun in his Resurrection book.

  • Anonymous

    Scot,I don’t recall reading any kind of direct exposition of it in Wright, but it seems fairly obvious to me that he’s talking about exactly that concept.Have you seen http://www.tikkun.org? They ran an ad in the San Francisco newspaper’s Sunday Entertainment section (where many synagogues advertise high holy day services) a few years ago, just after my Divine Conspiracy experience and just before I began to read Wright. Lots of bells rang in my brain!Dana

  • Bob

    I’m not sure the question of whether of not hell exists is what we’re discussing (deconstruction doesn’t mean elimination). My brother is in the advanced stages of MS and the question comes up of “why?”. Our hell discussion seems remarkably similar but rather than “why” (which I think we could agree on) it’s “how could He?” (Even though some seem to have no qualms with people getting their “just desserts”–so gruesome…) Not to equate the two by any means but I wonder it might be a good frame of reference to approach hell (which is real) similarly to suffering. Are they used by God to teach us a larger lesson? (Sounds like this is the conversation McClaren wants to start, though I haven’t read the book.) A guess: one is “am I your all?” the other “do you know what it would be like to be without me?”

  • Another work to consider alongside Witherington and Wolters would be Michael Wittmer’s HEAVEN IS A PLACE ON EARTH. Maybe you have to have a “W” name — Willard, Wright, Witherington, Wolters and now Wittmer.

  • No, I’m a new –actually old– John Mark…not the same as the previous blogs. Neither am I John Hick. 🙂

  • Yes, Dana. I appreciate Willard’s book very much. He certainly would not fit my general chracterization of evangelicals.

  • Wittmer’s Heaven is a Place on Earth is a book that deeply influenced me in the past year! Kuyperian ideas as warrants for this life, I think, must be as accurate as it gets.

  • Anonymous

    Has anyone read Romans 9 lately? The text seems to state that God prepared vessels for wrath in order to demonstrate His mercy to the vessels of honor. Is His mercy temporal? Or rather should I say, Is the display of His mercy temporal, or is this contrast meant to be eternal because He means to show His elect what He delivered them from for all eternity. Hence, both groups glorify Him in that way.-tooaugust

  • John mark hicks, Have u read all of McLaren’s last book? Also, did u read the second book in the trilogy? As far as I see it, he leaves plenty of room for the future.

  • Hi Scot and All!I’ve enjoyed the discussion on Dark Thoughts and have been challenged greatly. I am a young missionary on Capitol Hill to staffers and members who is going through a period of newness in my views on a range of theological issues, including this whole idea of hell and eternal judgement. I have read all of McLarens stuff (and Scot’s JC and other emergent thinkers), including The Last Word (which I read in a weekend!), so I am steeped right now in many of these emerging thoughts.My question and challenge in this conversation is this:What is the fundemental nature of man, and how does this fundemental nature impact our ability to interact finitly and infinitly (or maybe better eternally) with God?I dont want to give away my cards (thoughts) on what I think the answer is and why it is important, because I think the answers to our fundemental nature have huge implications for our life now and in the future (whether living a God-centered eternity or hell/judgement-centered eternity, if there is one…)I think this is a rather significant starting place if we are to understand the way we began, the we are, and the way we can/are becoming/becoming in Christ…Does this make sense?? Any thoughts??-jeremy

  • Graham,I have read the Trilogy. There is much I like about it. And I grant that there is room for the future, but it is illdefined or intentionally articulated in vague ways, it seems to me. He does have something of substance about the future in terms of “heaven” though “hell” is largely (if not totally) rhetorical.My problem is not that there is no room for the future or that it is merely vague. Rather, the future seems to be almost wholly immanent in character. But I grant there is some kind of “new beginning” in the consummation for McLaren. I take it as an overreaction to the “otherworldlieness” of evangelicals.Nevertheless, McLarens’ emphasis on “this world” in terms of social justice, environment, etc. is commendable. I would simply prefer more of a balanced emphasis on how “this world” is renewed by the future kingdom of God into a “new heaven and new earth.”

  • Ah, that clarifies it, thanks. I may be being over-charitable, but I’ve just been assuming that in those areas where McLaren is least specific, he is least sure of himself.That is, if there’s any area where I would expect someone to present ill-defined or vague ideas it’s here.In some of the comments during the recent blog-tour McLaren made clear that he sees hell as more than rhetorical, but that that is mostly its functions when used in scripture. (Can’t think where I read that now!)

  • Bob,I’m sorry about your brother, and can only empathize with you.But, I’m unclear what the last part of the blog was about.

  • Jeremy,As a teacher I must say you’ve got some funky (and fun) spelling!But, your thoughts on “who we are” and our nature are undoubtedly the place to begin — after, of course, “who God is” and God’s “nature” (as if we really know these things in any way other than metaphor and approximation).Let me be a postmodernist story-teller here for what I think humans are.Once I bought a small head of a Frenchman with a beret, and named him Pierre. He was made to hang on a hook and so I hung Pierre in front of my desk. He had a twinkle in his eyes and smile on his face, and everyone who looked at him smiled. I did too.Then one day the wind slammed my door shut, and Pierre fell to the floor, and busted into bits. I picked him up in pieces and tossed him into the garbage bin.Now, let us say that Pierre is humans; let us say God is the Maker; and let us say that humans fell, too. What does God do with his little cracked Eikons?

  • On McLaren’s view of the future: just as he would say it is shaky to read too much theology out of Jesus’ parables, so it would be the same with his stories.But I just read that chp about Markus and he clearly believed that there is a final accountability to God.And, isn’t one of McLaren’s driving points that gospel work ought to make us good for this world rather than just ready for the rapture? (Pretty catchy, don’t you think?)Deep in McLaren’s style is the via negativa; he wants to say “no” to lots of things in order to say “yes” to more important things. It is not surprising to me at all that his book is imbalanced.

  • Bob

    Scot, Thanks for your empathy.I’m a simple guy (haven’t read this body of knowledge others are so conversant with) so I have to keep things simple. I’m intrigued by the parallel between suffering and hell.1) both are real (and real awful)2) in terms of human logic, both are inconsistent with an all-loving God (“how could He?”)3) both are misused by man as a warrant, in Jesus time (“who sinned, this man or his parents?”) and now (“AIDS is God’s judgement on an immoral life.”).4) Jesus was concerned with the correction of our views on both as well as our healing/redemption from them.5) Both (here’s the guess) are meant to show us something larger?(a.k.a. to magnify God).The parallel breaks down pretty quick after that but it was enough to make me wonder.

  • Scot,Thanks for the gentle ribbing (read: reminder!) to spell check my writing…I heard the voice of one of my professors echoing in my ear when I read it…scary, hehe :)Anyway, on to the task at hand: interesting illustration. If I am reading you correctly, Pierre still reflected the creativity, affection, intellect, emotion…IMAGE of his Maker, but was cracked and damaged. Pierre’s essence of being a small headed, beret fitted Frenchman didn’t change, but was severely damaged.So, now to unpackage your illustration in terms of the fundamental nature of humanity: it seems like you are saying our nature and essence (in the Platonic sense, maybe…) hasn’t changed, but has been crushed, damaged, demented, warped, etc…Is this where you meant to go?? It seems to be QUITE a different take on the traditional, fundamental notion of the nature or man…For me and what I have known all my life (the evangelical, fundamental version of Christian spirituality), the fundamental nature of an individual (whether pre- or post-Christ experience) has direct bearing on the nature of his or her relationship with God now and for eternity…thanks for taking the time to help me (and US!) through Dark Thoughts, and others!-jeremy

  • Bob

    I’d pulverize the pieces of Pierre, get some water from the creek behind my house and make a new bust. This time, it’d be a smiling Irishman named Patty–with a tam.