7 Questions for Brian D. McLaren

Jon the freelance theologian was recently privileged to meet Brian D. McLaren, author of A New Kind of Christian as well as many other titles dealing with Christianity on the cusp of the postmodern era. In the following exclusive interview, Jon asked Brian for his thoughts on one or two important topics and also asked a few personal questions to find out what make this internationally respected theologian tick.

Do you have a favourite Bible verse, and why is it your favourite?
I think 2 Corinthians chapter 5 and verse 19 [“in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses , and entrusting us with the message of reconciliation”], because it puts the focus on reconciliation with God and among human beings.

Which theologians have had the biggest influence on you?
Francis Schaeffer, CS Lewis, Leslie Newbiggin, Walter Bruggeman, NT Wright, Rene Padilla, and Nancey Murphy. (When pushed to pick one, Brian said NT Wright was his biggest influence).

In the postmodern era we are seeing the re-emergence of Gnostic alternative truths (e.g. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, National Geographic’s Gospel of Judas). Most reactions from Christians are modern proof-based arguments against them. What postmodern ways could we respond?
I’ve actually got an article on the Sojourners website on this topic, so it’s probably best if people read that. What I add is that the popularity of The Da Vinci Code tells us there are deficiencies in the way we present Jesus to people. [Click on this link to visit Brian’s Sojourners article – you may need to subscribe to Sojourners’ regular email update to access the article]

How do ongoing doctrinal disagreements in Christianity affect the credibility of Christians seeking to engage a modern and postmodern society that has no need of God?
Jesus said that ‘all people will know my disciples by the love they have for one another, and will know that the Father sent me for the same reason’ [John chapter 17, verses 20-23]. So if we don’t love one another it’s a very serious problem. Speaking personally, I am most unloving when I’m afraid or angry or greedy…

Your church, Cedar Ridge Community Church, is based in Washington DC. How do you feel about the recent establishment of the Washington Nationals baseball team? And do you think that the artificiality of baseball franchises have parallels in how Christians regard church?
I haven’t been to a Nationals game and haven’t kept up with them. I live closer to Baltimore anyway, so pay more attention to the Orioles. Franchises are formed by market realities and when we let our churches be formed by market realities too, then they do seem like a game.

Have you got one thing you would like to say to readers of freelance theology?
It’s great that you’re engaged through this website in theological conversation because if people can engage in constructive and charitable theological conversation that helps build a better world.

What does the ‘D’ stand for and why do so many Americans use a middle initial?
Douglas. The US is a big country. There are a couple of other Brian McLarens, who I feel sorry for in case they get saddled with my critics.

Read more by Brian Douglas McLaren on his personal website [click]:
Brian’s also recommends: Amahoro; Emergent (UK)

Life after death for non-believers

Question 103 – from CP, United Kingdom

In your post about the time lapse between bodily death and resurrection, you say: “The deceased are already resurrected and to them it would have felt instantaneous.” It seems to be your belief that those who achieve a life ‘with God’ and with Jesus in this life are the ones who are resurrected. And The Bible says those who believe in Jesus and ask for forgiveness will be resurrected. However, it seems strange that lots of very ‘good’, charitable, loving and kind people who might not believe in Jesus or might be vague about it will not be resurrected with the others. Where do they go? How about the difficult person who causes a lot of upset to others but who believes in Jesus all along or towards the end? Why would that person be resurrected before the charitable person? I understand to the degree that we ALL inevitably sin in our lives and Jesus is the key to being re-united with God. However, this type of question still puzzles me. How does it all work?

This question in one form or another has perplexed Christians for many years. Loosely speaking there are three basic alternative solutions:
i) universalism – the belief that everybody is granted eternal life,
ii) annihilationism – where the ‘saved’ (or righteous/good) receive eternal life, while the unsaved (bad) cease to exist, and
iii) judgement – where the saved/good go to heaven and the unsaved/bad go to hell.

There are problems with all three doctrinal positions, so it comes as no surprise to discover modified and hybrid opinions as well. However, put simply, universalism does not allow for free choice, because human beings get saved whatever they do. It also has very little Biblical basis. It does, however, emphasise God’s grace, mercy and forgiving nature, and has a long pedigree among freethinking Christians (often regarded as heretics). One notable theologian who adopted this view was the third century scholar Origen, who went so far as to claim that even the devil would eventually be redeemed.

Annihilationism is often argued from the reference in Revelation to the ‘second death’ endured by those who are thrown into the lake of fire in chapter 20, verse 14. As with the more typical ‘division between heaven and hell’ judgement scenario, annihilationism does take human sin seriously. In fact, human sin is the reason why those judged unrighteous are annihilated. However, this goes against the Biblical statements about hell, which seem to infer a continuing, conscious existence (see Mark chapter 9, verse 48).

The judgement scenario has always been very popular in Christian thought, particularly among ‘fire and brimstone’ preachers. In some ways the concept of hell feeds the social insecurity caused by religion, in that while Christians may feel that they are a persecuted and threatened minority, they can at least take comfort in the fact that they will be proved right on judgement day. However, this simplistic approach – that believers automatically go to heaven and unbelievers automatically end up in hell – has intrinsic difficulties, both in its Biblical support and internal logic.

For a start, it has often been pointed out that it was the religious leaders that Jesus warned about hell. Jesus clearly saw a distinction between words and deeds, with words on their own not enough to save a person (Matthew chapter 7, verses 15-23). So it appears that a person who “causes upset” will be judged for it, regardless of whether they have said the ‘right’ formula of words (e.g. a ‘prayer of salvation’).

Reducing the effects of salvation merely to the afterlife takes the emphasis away from doing the will of God in the here and now, which is clearly part of Jesus’ intended message. In Luke chapter 4, verse 18, Jesus launches his ministry with a declaration of intent borrowed from the prophet Isaiah and promises “To preach good news to the poor”, liberate prisoners and the oppressed, and heal the blind. Later in Luke many of these phrases are repeated to authenticate Jesus’ status as the messiah to the imprisoned John the Baptist (chapter 7, verse 22).

In two ways then, the Biblical stories undermine the simplistic heaven/hell divide. There is also the question of rational understanding. If hell is a ‘physical’ place or dimension it must have been created specifically for that purpose, but there is no Biblical record of that taking place. In fact it seems from the Old Testament that the idea of hell ‘evolves’ or develops as time goes on, from ‘sheol’ the grave, through to ‘gehenna’ in the New Testament.

If hell is defined as ‘separation from God’ (as it often is in ‘softer’ versions of the judgement theory), then logically how can any place be separate from its creator? Hell will always bear the creative mark of God. Added to that is the sense that if people are condemned to hell for eternity, then evil has won, and God is not the triumphant victor that Christian tradition has always proclaimed. The question why God would allow human souls to be ‘lost’ is an inexplicable mystery.

Perhaps the best answer to this query is to say that the destiny of unbelievers remains uncertain. In contrast, the future of the believer is assured in the Bible and in Christian theology. While many missionary endeavours have been spurred on by the belief that people are being saved from hellfire, it would be as inspiring to give people the opportunity to replace uncertainty with the certain knowledge of eternal life.

Thanks for your question, CP.

The point of praise

Question 102 – from RT, USA

What does praise do? Why do we praise?

Praise, in terms of singing about or to God, is one aspect of Christian worship. Technically, all of a Christian’s life is regarded as being a place where the believer worships God. However, there are certain times when Christians gather together to express corporately their thankfulness to God using praise songs or hymns. God can also be praised in private devotional times.

There are two main reasons why Christians praise God. The first is that it is a purposeful activity for human beings to do, according to numerous Biblical sources. In fact, it would seem from the Biblical story of the Exodus that the main reason God wanted the Israelites freed from Egyptian tyranny was so that they could worship God freely (see Exodus chapter 7, verse 16). The second reason owes more to psychology and explains why worship/praise is common in virtually every religion. This is the sense that religious rites provide the participant with an understanding of the transcendent – that which is beyond normal experience. This sense of something higher naturally evokes praise.

In Christian terms, praise therefore brings the believer closer to God. It is a divinely sanctioned act, which God wants believers to do. Theologically, it can be argued that a reciprocal action takes place. As the believer delights in God, so God delights in the creation, as believers draw near to God, so also God draws near to them.

It is also believed that through praise God ministers to the needs of people, whether through supernatural ‘gifts of the Spirit’, or through direct revelation (prophecy). The action of praise and the atmosphere it creates also serves as a witness of the reality of God to unbelievers, usually resulting in conversion (1 Corinthians chapter 14, verses 24-25). In some Biblical accounts praise also caused the ‘enemies of the Lord’ to flee (e.g. 2 Chronicles chapter 20, verse 21-22). In churches with a tendency towards ‘spiritual warfare’, praise is seen as a key weapon against demonic influence, following on from the Old Testament idea of praise employed as a weapon.

However, it is generally considered that praise must be genuine in order for any of these things to occur. A key phrase can be found in John chapter 4, verse 23 when Jesus describes true worshippers as doing so “in spirit and in truth”. In the original Greek text, it would seem that Jesus is emphasising ‘spirit’ as a place a person is in (compared to being in Jerusalem or on the holy mountain of Samaria referenced earlier in the passage – John chapter 4, verse 20). ‘Truth’ also refers to a quality of worship – with that worship being a genuine response to God. Praise is also dependent on personal holiness (see e.g. Matthew chapter 5, verse 8), and is exercised in humility (Matthew chapter 6, verse 6).

Praise, then, is both a response to God and a means of apprehending God. It is usual for praise to be the first response of a person who suddenly becomes aware of the transcendent reality of God and serves a continuing vital function in the life of the church.

Thanks for your question RT.