The eighth question that is “transforming the Christian faith,” according to author Brian McLaren, is the biblically and politically heated question of eschatology. For those not familiar with the term, eschatology refers to the study of “last things,” and specifically, in this case, to the interpretation of what the Bible has to say about these last things. McLaren rightly points out that some version of the dispensational view, which was “invented somewhat recently…[and] popularized worldwide through the Scofield Reference Bible” (p. 191), is far and away the most popular and accepted interpretation among the modern evangelical church. I would go even further and say that dispensationalism has become so synonymous with modern evangelicalism that most churches are dispensational simply by default. Many are not only unaware of the “newness” of the system, but they would be shocked to learn that any credible alternatives to it actually exist.
McLaren is justified in his frustration with dispensationalism. In its short 200-year lifespan, the sensational and headline-grabbing claims of dispensationalism have taken it from being the “new kid on the block” to being nearly the only kid on the block. McLaren correctly laments that “in recent decades, dispensationalism and its eschatological cousins have become significant factors in the foreign policy of the [United States]” (p. 192). This is only to be expected in a nation that practically demands church attendance by its politicians (keeping up appearances is a 24/7 job). On the off-chance that any of these politicians actually listen to the sermon being preached on any given Sunday, they will most likely hear some form of dispensational premillennialism. Enough of these sermons given at various churches across the country will invariably affect how they view the future. If nothing else, they will no doubt be convinced that the nation of Israel is the relief valve on the pressure-cooker that is foreign relations. They believe that opposing Israel closes the valve and leads to more and pressure build-up in foreign affairs, while standing beside them keeps the valve open and buys at least one more day of relative “peace.” McLaren also blames dispensational thinking for a lack of concern in general for things as diverse as the environment, interfaith dialogue, climate change, the economy, energy consumption, and genocide. He writes: “Who gives a rip for endangered species or sustainable economies or global poverty if God is planning to incinerate the whole planet soon anyway?” (p. 192).
Of all the questions that McLaren has presented so far in his book, A New Kind of Christianity, this question of the future is the one that I have the least to debate with him about, in principle at least. McLaren is spot on in his condemnation of the nearly unquestioned dominance of the dispensational view. I agree with him that it has promoted many counterproductive solutions to social and ecclesiastical problems because of its ultimately futile view of the future. Dispensationalism’s distinct separation between the church and Israel has twisted Scripture into an interpretational pretzel that few Christian’s ever fully understand. When people in the early 20th century read their Scofield Reference Bibles, the notes so nearly resembled the biblical text that readers weren’t sure when they were reading Cyrus Scofield and when they were reading God. The two became so intertwined that it was nearly impossible to separate them. Thus, Scofield’s system came to be viewed as the Bible’s system. Rather than using the time-tested and orthodox practice of the analogy of faith—Scripture interprets Scripture—to interpret the Bible, 20th century Bible readers began to use the analogy of laziness—Scofield interprets Scripture.
But as much as I agree with McLaren in principle, I cannot follow him in practice. Once again, his theology (which he would recoil in horror at my calling it that) does not allow for an explanation of what it actually is, only what it isn’t. McLaren is quite clear about what he doesn’t believe, but his clarity is almost nonexistent when it comes to describing what he does believe. We are treated to descriptions like the following:
In [my] view [of the future], God is not in control in the sense of being a machine operator pulling levers or a chess master moving bishops and pawns. Nor is the universe out of control in the sense of being chaotic, random, and purposeless. Instead, God and the universe are in relationship. That in-relationship vision is captured in a number of metaphors in the Bible. For example, God is like a rider guiding a horse with a will of its own, or God is like a parent guiding a child with a will of her own. (p. 196)
This may sound all nice and warm and cozy, but it is as far from the biblical description as one can get before crossing into the “zone of heresy.” McLaren may not like the connotations of it, but God is large and in-charge of the universe. He is sovereign; He is like a machine operator, One that holds all the rights of refusal and veto power. God doesn’t ask for our cooperation, He demands our obedience. He is the Potter and we are the clay (Isaiah 29:16; Romans 9:19-26); clay can’t do anything until the Potter transforms it into something useful. McLaren’s usage of the horse and child metaphors interestingly have no biblical reference. It is true that the Bible uses metaphors such as these, but they are not to be used to extrapolate out into a description of the relationship between God and His creation, or God and His people. Metaphors should not be used to build doctrine, only to illustrate it. Even the potter and clay metaphor has its limits. McLaren is so enamored with the idea of working with God that he ends up employing God in his own service. He refers to his eschatology as “participatory,” and asks: “What does the future hold?”
In a participatory eschatology…the answer [to this question] begins, “That depends. It depends on you and me. God holds out to us at every moment a brighter future; the issue is whether we are willing to receive it and work with God to help create it. We are participating in the creation of what the future will be.” (p. 196)
Yet, despite all of his talk about us participating with God and creating a glorious future, McLaren feels empowered to impose limits on who or what kind of individuals are allowed to “participate” in this new and hopeful future. It makes sense enough for him to bar the door to premillennialists and amillennialists, because they both share in what he calls “pessimistic determinisms” (i.e., the world gets worse and worse until God has to step in and save the day), which is obviously contrary to the optimistic view of the future which he is promoting. But he also bars the door to postmillennialists, who (for the most part) are in basic agreement with his hopeful view of the future. He accuses postmills of being “triumphalistic determinists,” and claims that they “justify Christians seizing political power and even using violence (against native peoples, for example) to ‘bring God’s kingdom’ to earth.” He further states that postmillennialism got a boost in popularity in 1970s and 80s due to the Reconstruction movement, which he claims “inspired and influenced the American religious Right in the late twentieth century” (p. 285). And here is the real rub for McLaren. The problem is not that postmills are optimistic, the problem is that postmills are generally politically conservative. Although McLaren completely misrepresents the influence of the Reconstruction movement during the later decades of the 20th century1 , he has no problem discrediting an entire group of individuals who were actually “participating” in their view of the future. Apparently, mere participation is not good enough, only a certain type of participant is welcome in McLaren’s “undeterministic” view of the future.
Yet it is not really undeterministic, because as hard as he tries, McLaren still can’t shake the undeniable doctrine of final judgment from his eschatology. Even though he can’t deny it, he attempts to reinterpret it, and this he does with magnificent appeals to emotion. After explaining that God won’t be concerned about beliefs or outward signs of religion (like circumcision) at the final judgment, McLaren confidently states that it will be our works that will speak on that day. Completely ignoring the fact that Christ is speaking only to the sheep (not the goats) in Matthew 25:31-46, McLaren writes:
God will examine the story of our lives for signs of Christlikeness—for a cup of cold water or a plate of hot food given to one in need, for an atom of mercy shown to one who has been unkind or unthoughtful, for a visit to a prisoner or an open door and warm bed for a stranger, for a generous impulse indulged and a hurtful one denied, like Jesus. These are the parts of a person’s life that will be deemed worthy of being saved, remembered, rewarded, and raised for a new beginning. All the unloving, unjust, non-Christlike parts of our lives—and of our nations, tribes, civilizations, families, churches, and so on—will be burned away, counted as unworthy, condemned (which means acknowledged for what they are), and forgotten forever. (p. 204)
For someone who assertively stated that the doctrine of eternal torment in hell is not taught in the Bible, McLaren seems pensively less sure of himself when he actually steps close to the biblical teaching. Rather than conscious torment in flames, he gives us annihilation in the flames as a happier alternative. One would be forgiven for asking the question: What does the non-Christlike part of a civilization look like? I hate to put words in McLaren’s mouth (because I know he will deny them anyway), but wouldn’t the non-Christlike parts of a civilization (or a tribe, or family, or nation, or church, etc.) be the non-Christlikepeople that are a part of it? And wouldn’t they be non-Christlike because they are not “new creations” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17)? Therefore what Jesus said in Matthew 25 is very relevant to the discussion of the final judgment:
All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat… Then He will say to those on His left, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat… (Matt. 25:32-35a, 41-42a)
The works themselves are not what is being thrown into the fire, but the workers of the works. Try as he might, McLaren’s “participatory” eschatology cannot dismiss the final judgment awaiting each of us. McLaren continues to selectively take what he wants from the Bible, while ignoring the rest. In his 1985 commentary on the first 18 chapters of the book of Exodus, Dr. Gary North (one of those “influential” Reconstructionists”) explains that “liberation theologians keep appealing to the Book of Exodus as their very special book.” The liberation theologians were the ones promoting the social gospel in the 1970s and 80s. Interestingly, McLaren appeals to the book of Exodus as one of his “very special books” in an earlier chapter. North further points out: “The misuse of the Exodus story by liberation theologians is another example of the misuse of the Bible generally to promote anti-biblical social, political, and economic views.”2 North’s point is not to be missed, because it neatly summarizes all attempts to “liberalize” the Bible as a book concerned more about social issues than about obedience to God. Like the liberation theologians that came before him, McLaren picks and chooses the portions of the Scripture that say what he needs them to, and discards the rest. North shows that these types of interpreters use the Bible to promote ultimately unbiblical ideas. In other words, they use a portion of the Bible to undermine its full message of salvation. Just as the liberation theologians used the first half of Exodus to strengthen their theology of political deliverance and ignored the last half of the book, filled as it was with rules and regulations about what the Israelites should and should not do, so does McLaren ignore the whole message of biblical eschatology, choosing instead to fabricate one—using only the verses that serve that purpose. McLaren is quite correct that the modern evangelical church needs a “new kind of eschatology,” but it most certainly does not need his. The social gospel is nothing new, and if a renamed version of it is the best McLaren has to offer, he might want to retreat back into his study for another twenty years. Maybe by then it will be “new.”
To be continued…
- Not to mention the fact that seizing political power and using violence to bring God’s kingdom to earth are not justified by postmillennial eschatology. That McLaren would even include this is shameful and shows just how far he is willing to go to exclude certain groups from his future paradise, even those who ostensibly share his stated goals. Once again, this reveals that McLaren’s “theology” is motivated primarily by his political ideology. For an interesting extra-credit project, ask any of the Christian Reconstruction leaders to tell you about the grand old days when they “inspired and influenced” the political Right in this country. If you get anything more than a hearty laugh, please email me their response. [↩]
- Gary North, Moses and Pharaoh: Dominion Religion versus Power Religion (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), xvi-xvii. [↩]