Thursday, April 20, 2006

Where Emergent Goes Bad (4) - Some (like McLaren) Open the Door to Universalism

I am not aware if McLaren has actually denied being a Universalist. He certainly never comes out and states that he does believe every person will eventually go to heaven, but I will offer a few extended quotes to demonstrate why so many accuse him of this heresy.

If the Evangelical Jesus saves by dying, the Pentecostal Jesus by sending his Spirit, and the Catholic Jesus by rising from death, the Eastern Orthodox Jesus saves simply by being born, by showing up, by coming among us. In Jesus’ birth, these Christians believe two wonderful things happen. First, God takes the human life of Jesus into God’s own eternal life, and in so doing, Jesus’ people (the Jews), species (the human race), and history (the history of our planet and our whole universe) enter into—are taken up into God’s own life. God’s life, love, joy, and power are so great that all our death, hate, pain, and failures are eradicated, swallowed up, cancelled, extinguished, and overcome by being taken into God. In this way Jesus will ultimately bring blessing to the whole world, to all of creation.[1]

For the first time, through the Eastern Jesus, I began to have a glimpse of how Jesus could indeed be the Saviour not just of a few individual humans, but of the whole world. (In footnote 26 to this statement he adds: By “the whole world,” I do not necessarily mean every individual in it, but rather, I mean the cosmos, creation, the earth in history, not just beyond history.[2]

In another place, McLaren writes:

But what about heaven and hell? you ask. Is everybody in?

My reply: Why do you consider me qualified to make this pronouncement? Isn’t this God’s business? Isn’t it clear that I do not believe this is the right question for a missional Christian to ask? Can’t we talk for a while about God’s will being done on earth as in heaven instead of jumping to how to escape earth and get to heaven as quickly as possible? Can’t we talk for a while about overthrowing and undermining every hellish stronghold in our lives and in our world?[3]

Or this:

The king achieves peace not by shedding the blood of rebels but by—I hope the scandal and wonder of this is not lost because the words may be familiar—shedding his own blood.

And what is the goal of this suffering sacrifice, this self-giving to the point of blood to achieve the pax Christi? It is a new and lasting reconciliation between humanity and God, and among all the at-odds individuals and groups that comprise humanity. In another letter, Paul said it like this: “Old distinctions like Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female no longer exist, for you are all one in Christ” (see Galatians 3:28). Today, he might speak of reconciliation of the war veteran with the pacifist protester. The tattooed and pierced granddaughter / with her prim and proper grandmother. The Orthodox with the Catholics, and Pentecostals with Baptists. Christians with Jews and Muslims and Hindus. Tutsi with Hutu and both with Twa. Right-wing Republicans with left-wing Democrats. Believers with doubters.

What is this set of reconciled relationships other than the kingdom of God?[4]

McLaren includes other statements that appear to suggest (to some degree!) that he is not a Universalist, although he never fully comes out and says that he is not. But even if that is the case, I find it deeply perplexing that he would write the way he does in the first place.[5]

[1] Orthodoxy, 56.

[2] Orthodoxy, 59 and footnote 26.

[3] Orthodoxy, 112.

[4] Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything (Nashville, Tennessee: W Publishing Group/Thomas Nelson, 2006) 99-100.

[5] I will comment more on this in the appendix entitled, “Was Jesus Purposefully Confusing?” Please remember, I know that McLaren is not the official spokesperson for Emergent – but he is intimately associated with the movement and remains its “face” on a popular level. These kinds of reckless statements must therefore be addressed. And I would argue that universalism is heresy.


Rob said...

Brian chooses to answer the question by not answering it. If you read the Last Word and the Word after that I think he makes his views quite clear.

He doesn't know. I'm really comfortable with that answer. A lot more comfortable then the traditional conservative evangelical answers I've gotten my whole life. ie. Believe these propositions, pray a prayer and your into heaven. Or my favourite, if you died today are you sure you'd go to heaven.

Christ came not only to save us from Hell but to redeem us and make it possible to have a relationship with God. Surely this has some earthly ramifications as well.

McLaren's answers regarding Hell are designed to challenge these evangelical notions. To make sure those who hold to them have thought about and understand what they mean.

For more difinitive responses please read the Last Word and the Word after that.


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say I'm really happy I found this blog. A good friend and I discuss the issues (both good and bad) with the emerging church practically every single day. We have also started a discussion on another site ( if anyone here would like to check it out. The most recent post is about Philip Johnsons critique of the emerging church. Hopefully we'll be able to continue productive discussion!

Anonymous said...

"McLaren includes other statements that appear to suggest (to some degree!) that he is not a Universalist, although he never fully comes out and says that he is not."

And why would he? I don't recall that I've ever made that statement either, and I'm sure if one were to comb through everything I've ever written you could statements I've made like "Jesus died for everyone" and infer things which I did not mean to imply.

If McLaren makes other statements that appear to suggest he is not a Universalist, perhaps you should

1. weight those equally with the ones you have quoted here

2. post those statements as well...

I'd like to see a bit more of an effort to be fair in your critique.

I don't believe a universalist would not make statements like:
Again, the thrust of Jesus' message is inclusion- shocking, scandalous inclusion: the Kingdom of God is available to all, beginning with the least. Yet Jesus often warns people of the possiblity of missing the kingdom. 'Unless you become like a little child,' He said, 'you shall not enter the kingdom' (see Matthew 18:3). So the possibility is real: the kingdom of God that is avaliable to all can be missed by some. "-The Secret Message of Jesus, pg 163

And on being asked about Unitarian/Universalism, Brian says:

"Answer: First of all, I’m a Trinitarian, not a Unitarian. So that disqualifies me before we even come to the issue of universalism. My newest book, “The Last Word and the Word After That” takes a couple hundred pages to explore issues of hell, so that might be a good place to explore some of my thinking on this important subject. At the end of the day, my views are not very different from those of C. S. Lewis."

So please... be fair. The accusations you are making are serious, and they deserve at least the half hour of research it took me to find these two statements...

Anonymous said...

I don't believe that McLaren has ever said for sure that he's not a girl. He's never stated that he's not a communist, that I know of. Therefore, he must be a girl communist.

Your fallacious logic betrays your motive.

Rob said...


I don't think that's a fair comment. McLaren really does make himself clear in Last Word. He makes no claim Universalism, and if he has to be pegged down he's probably and inclusivist.

But his point is that the question of Hell isn't the point. It's something to avoid, something to be aware of, but not the point of Christianity. Christ should make a difference for you here and now!

Anonymous said...

Paul, it really does sound like you are pulling quotes here to promote an agenda to categorize McLaren a universalist.

You acknowledge he hasn't said that he is a universalist and you acknowledge that he has made other statements that "appear to suggest that he is not a universalist" yet you don't bother to present those quotes in an attempt to be fair to the man.

This type of proof texting reasearch is dissappointing. Your paper continues to read less and less like an examination of the Emergent Church and more like an op ed piece.

Sorry if that sounds harsh, I really think the EC needs critics (like yourself) that can challenge us to examine flaws in our language and frames but for those critics to have a voice into the movement they are going to have to balance their critique and agenda carefully.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ian Hugh Clary said...

Wow, this looks a billion times better in Firefox!

Anonymous said...

Rob said "He doesn't know. I'm really comfortable with that answer.

I have a problem with that position. If someone from EC says that he doesn't know whether or not anyone will go to hell, then either:
(1) He really does think he knows, but is unwilling to say what he thinks. That would be disingenuous to say the least. OR
(2) He really does not know. In this case, it seems that the clear teaching of Scripture on this topic counts for nothing. It's not like the Bible is ambiguous on the topic. The only way to read what the Bible says and "not know" is to take an approach to Scripture that is very far from Evangelical.

So either way, I have a problem with that position.

Paul said...

Sorry for my delay in getting back to these comments - see previous posts for explanation...

1. There have been comments deleted by me on this string - they simply had nothing to do with the discussion.

2. Universalism. Rob, you say that you have never said you are not a universalist. Well, I have, and I would hope that if asked you would, too! :-) If all people go to heaven after death, then you would certainly want to make that point clear. Now, you also mention that Brian says his views are not far from C. S. Lewis. Fine. There is also ample evidence in Lewis' writings of a kind of universalism also. A 30 second google search can give you the passages. My own view is that universalism is a heretical doctrine. So, if McLaren is not a universalist, it seems quite easy to just go ahead and CLEARLY say so.

3. Bill, Jeremy, Bod - I urge all of you to read my opening sentence again. ("I am not aware if McLaren has actually denied being a Universalist. He certainly never comes out and states that he does believe every person will eventually go to heaven, but I will offer a few extended quotes to demonstrate why so many accuse him of this heresy.") It was intended to give the benefit of the doubt to McLaren, not to lynch him! You are reading more into this than is there. I am urging clarity on the part of emerging leaders on a core doctrine of the faith. It is not rocket science to tell others whether or not you believe that all people will one day "go to heaven." But it is misleading to allude to that but never fully come out and say it if that is what you believe.

Paul said...

Bob -
The chapter from which you quoted McLaren in Secret Message was one with which I am general agreement with. In fact, I just picked it up to see the context of your quote and this is what I have written on the last page of that chapter: "This chapter was essentially good!" That is a direct quote and was written over a month ago when I first read the book. I only say that to point out that this is the problem, IMO, with guys like McLaren - one chapter says one thing while another chapter seems to contradict it. Clarity... what's so wrong with that?
It seems to me that Jesus was extremely clear!
I will have more to say on that when I post my appendix "Was Jesus Purposefully Confusing?" which argues against some (not all) of the major premises of Secret Message.

Rob said...


I'm going to submit you don't know either. Otherwise explain to me the Theif on the Cross? He says to Jesus, "Remeber me," and Jesus responds, "Today you will be with me in paradise." If the formula for salvation equals understanding the 4 spiritual laws then praying a prayer then how does the theif's experience add up?

I don't know, beyond some primal desire to know God. This theif was able to recognize Jesus as somehting more?

I'm also going to ask you a few questions as well. Like if knowing Jesus is the only way to heaven what happens to everyone who comes before Jesus? What happens to everyone who never hears about Jesus? What happens to Children? What about those unable to use their brains like you and me? What about people who suffer from mental illness?

I answer these with I don't know. Maybe you have a difinitive answer for me? (Something explicit would be really nice).

Just some thoughts.


Anonymous said...

1st, I can understand that you felt as though you were being generous with your opening statement re McLaren and universalism. But, seriously- not generous enough. The wording is extremely inflammatory.
An example:

"I am not aware if Paul Martin has actually denied being a wife-beater. He certainly never comes out and states that he does believe beating spouses is acceptable behavior, but I will offer a few extended quotes to demonstrate why so many accuse him of this."

See... that's just crappy to do to someone, no matter how you slice it!

On the matter of contradiction- Honestly.. there's no contradiction.
What there is is people who read some statements in the worst possible light, but are unable (for various reasons) to do so with others. Trust me- Brian is smart enough to not be self-contradictory, at least without acknowledging a change in his belief system.

The whole clarity thing... You want Brian to give you so many answers... Why do you care what he thinks about homosexuality? I'll tell you (if I may be so bold...) Those who want to critique the emerging church movement care what Brian thinks because it's easier. You'll admit he doesn't speak for a whole diverse movement of people and churches, but in the next sentence you'll quote him and say "the Emerging Church movement says x and y". Now... what was that about contradicting ones self? :)

If you want to know what the emerging church thinks about a particular issue, please talk to some emerging churches. Do a survey of 100 or more emerging churches, find out where they are at (by and large) and then you have the basis for a critique. Until then, you are critiqueing Brian. I'm a pastor of an emerging church and frankly, you have yet to say anything which applies to me or to my church... so how can this be "Examining Emergent?"

And Lewis a universalist??? Google some more!

“I said glibly a moment ago that I would ‘pay any price’ to remove this doctrine [of Hell]. I lied. I could not pay one-thousandth part of the price that God has already paid to remove the fact. And here is the real problem: so much mercy, yet still there is Hell.” - The Problem of Pain

“In all our discussions on hell we should keep steadily before our eyes the possible damnation, not of enemies nor our friends… but of ourselves.” - The Problem of Pain, chpt 8, par 13

“About Hell. All I have ever said is that the N.T. plainly implies the possibility of some being finally left in ‘the outer darkness’. Whether this means (horror of horror) being left to a purely mental existence, left with nothing at all but one’s own envy, prurience, resentment, loneliness & self conceit, or whether there is still some sort of environment, something you cd. call a world or a reality, I wd. never pretend to know. But I wouldn’t put the question in the form ‘do I believe in an actual Hell’. One’s own mind is actual enough. If it doesn’t seem fully actual now that is because you can always escape from it a bit into the physical world–look out of the window, smoke a cigarette, go to sleep. But when there is nothing for you but your own mind (no body to go to sleep, no books or landscape, nor sounds, no drugs) it will be as actual as–as–well, as a coffin is actual to a man buried alive.”
- Letters

(Sorry if I sound agressive... my blood sugar is getting low, I'm crashing and it makes me a bit... err... less circumspect.)

Son of Man said...

The thief called "on the name of the Lord [and was] saved." Romans 10:13. What is the name of the Lord? It is Jesus. He knew exactly what he was doing and who he was calling out to.

On people before Christ: check out Romans 3:25,26. Especially the part about God's propitiation and forbearance.

On people who have never heard: Romans 1 says that man is without excuse. Romans 10 says that they cannot believe unless it is preached. Psalms 19 says that the heavens declare his glory and there is no place were that testimony is not heard.

This is what we DO know. I am with you on Babies and the people with various forms of moral inculpability. We must leave that up to his widsom.

Paul said...

I can apppreciate your concern over language, and I don't want to get lost in this, but I think there is a difference between what I wrote and the example you gave of inserting "wife beater" in place of "universalist."
The difference is that there is zero evidence to suggest I am a wife beater. Obviously we have never met, so you do not have any firsthand knowledge of my behaviours, but you could google local Toronto newspapers, contact the local police department, email my wife... and I am quite sure you would not find a shred of evidence to suggest I have ever beat my wife (this is even weird to speak of in a hypothetical way!).
With McLaren, however, the statements that point toward universalism far outweigh any statements that contradict it. I have read A Generous Orthodoxy and The Secret Message. I would also point you to his involvement (and the involvment of emergent/US in S3K as another example.
What I am saying is that there have been statments made and actions taken that suggest he other emergent folks default to a universalist position. I am certainly not the first to suggest that. Thus, it behooves these men and women to make clear what they really believe.
Let me try an analogy of my own...
If you used a lot of foul language, called down curses from heaven and openly mocked me on this blog or another, it would indicate that something is fundamentally wrong in your relationship with Christ. It would behoove you to make that clear and give evidence (in this case) of repentance which demonstrates itself in seeking forgiveness and love. I think from what I have read from you that (God forbid) you were ever to stumble like this, you would be quick to make matters right. But it is this hesitancy with emergent to make matters clear or right that has many of us very concerned.
If I floated out ideas that sounded very much like polytheism, it would fall on me to make clear my position on how many gods there are. If I refuse to make clear a matter as important as this, then I am certainly not fit to be leading anything and those who follow me I ought to be extremely cautious.

Sorry for the long reply. I am just trying to make clear my intentions. I don't think you could have found a nicer guy than me to read McLaren and with an open mind. :-) I hate controversy. But I am very concerned about much (not all!) that I read and think these guys need to come clean - the sooner the better.
I hope that helps explain more of my motives and my thinking... But I am open to rebuke if you still think I am missing it.

Paul said...


P.S. Maybe you should eat a Snickers bar.