IN PRISM'S BOOK BAG: Brian McLaren takes readers to hell and back in the final installment of his NEW KIND OF CHRISTIAN trilogy

Sixty-four percent of Americans believe in hell, according to U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT. But what exactly do they believe? While Christian views on this hot topic differ widely, the conventional doctrine, says author Brian McLaren, too often casts God as a sociopath – loving one minute and vicious the next. In THE LAST WORD AND THE WORD AFTER THAT: A TALE OF FAITH, DOUBT, AND A NEW KIND OF CHRISTIANITY (Jossey Bass, a Wiley Imprint, $21.95, April 2005) McLaren challenges Christians to rethink their assumptions about hell, offering a new understanding of God's justice and mercy.

The final installment of the bestselling series that catapulted McLaren to the forefront of the emerging church movement continues the intellectual adventures of fictional pastor Daniel Poole and his postmodern mentor, Neil Oliver, chronicled in the preceding volumes: A NEW KIND OF CHRISTIAN and THE STORY WE FIND OURSELVES IN. Through their soul-searching conversations, McLaren probes contemporary beliefs about justice in this life and beyond, explores the historical antecedents of hell, and examines Jesus' teachings on final judgment.

McLaren's brief history of hell debunks common misperceptions of its depiction in Scripture. Many of the fiery notions that we think we know from the Bible actually come from the poets Dante and John Milton, he says. Also contrary to popular belief, hell is not revealed in the Old Testament, it's first mentioned by Jesus.

Troubled by Jesus' seeming endorsement of hell, Dan and Neil hypothesize that Jesus' use of hell was crafted in response to the Pharisees, his main antagonists: "The Pharisees used hell to threaten sinners and undesirables. Jesus turned their rhetoric upside down and used hell to threaten those who would exclude sinners, showing God's compassion and mercy."

Likening himself to Balaam's ass (a colorful equine character from the Book of Numbers), McLaren says any beatings he gets for this book will be well worth it. While he intends THE LAST WORD to be a conversation presenting multiple viewpoints, rather than an argument for a single viewpoint of his own, he's aware that some will find it disturbing or unsettling. "I'm a little nervous," he says. "But recently I've realized that the status quo needs some shaking up, even at the expense of some reputations, mine if need be."

 

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