McLaren’s third question has to do with whether or not God is violent. He readily admits that he is highly disturbed by many images of God that involve divine smiting, genocidal conquest, and quasi-geocidal flooding (99). He resolves this issue within the hermeneutical framework outlined in the earlier chapters on the Bible.. If the bible is really a library of cultural perspectives on God that mature over time, then the earlier and more disturbing accounts of divine wrath and punishment can be seen as immature, incomplete, and often incorrect steps on the way to a correct, mature, and enlightened understanding of who God really is. He sees passages like the flood narrative as immature human attempts to grapple with who God is. He also rejects the traditional understanding of hell as eternal conscious torment. At least four problems arise in McLaren’s account of the biblical text with regard to God’s character.
First, McLaren is looking for moral examples in the Old Testament judgment narratives like that of the Noahic flood. He is worried because this text and others have been used to justify genocide. If God sometimes wipes out entire races of people, well, then it must be okay to do that. The problem with McLaren’s reading, and of those against which he is reacting, is that they approach the Bible as a handbook for moral living, which it manifestly is not. Since some parts of the Bible don’t fit McLaren’s morality, he has to find ways to explain them away. But the flood is not set up as an example of how we should live and conduct ourselves with regard to other peoples or races. The flood narrative is a declaration of the deep wickedness of human sin, the justice of God in judging the deep wickedness of human sin, and the great mercy of God for preserving a remnant instead of wiping out the human race for its deep wickedness and sin. We are not supposed to come to the flood narrative and look for the “moral of the story.” We are supposed to come to the flood narrative and see a God who takes wickedness seriously and justly judges it. We are also supposed to see a God who uses one family to bring salvation to the sin-torn world.
McLaren’s mistake is that he responds to the moralistic approach with a cultural library approach rather than a biblical-theological approach. The biblical theological approach asks what this text tells me about God and God’s self-revelation in Christ. The text tells us that a just God cannot allow sin to go unpunished, and it witnesses to Christ in that he took our punishment in his death. The text tells us that God is perfectly holy, and it witnesses to the obedience and sinlessness of Christ as the perfectly holy revelation of God. The text tells us that even in judgment, God is merciful, and that, in Christ, God extends mercy for salvation through judgment. The Noahic flood does not give us immature human speculation about God; it gives us an image of God whose standards of righteousness are to be taken seriously, and who is committed to the redemption of his creation.
Second, McLaren finds himself so deeply offended by a God who judges an entire race because McLaren has no doctrine of sin. Remember, he has written the Fall out of the story. In his scheme, human beings are not under the curse of a holy God for their transgression, they are on an evolutionary journey towards maturity. They are not in need of redemption and deliverance through judgment, they are in need of enlightenment through conversation. When the deep and total nature of human sin and rebellion is understood in light of the profound and glorious holiness of God, then the flood narrative reveals a God who is not only just but deeply merciful.
Third, McLaren’s doctrine of God (yes, he has doctrines as well, even if they are false) demonstrates the failure of his interpretive approach to the Bible. If the Bible is a collection of evolving understandings of God, the earlier of which are incorrect and immature, then the reader must choose the biblical texts that he thinks evidence the most mature understanding of God. In this approach, the reader stands as the enlightened judge of scripture, and scripture is not able to function as a guide, let alone an authority.
Fourth, McLaren says that Jesus is the most mature and greatest revelation of a nonviolent God. I guess he missed those several passages where Jesus uses the fear the destruction of body and soul in hell (Matthew 10:28) where worm does not die and the fire is not quenched (Mark 9:48). The Greek term translated as “hell” in both of these texts is the word geenna (Gehenna), which is the perpetually burning trash dump outside the city that was cursed because a couple of Judean kings sacrificed their children to pagan false gods there. Whatever you call it, the context indicates that it involves the destruction of the soul and the body in a perpetual fire. The imagery is intensely scary, especially for those, like the disciples, who grew up taking their trash to the Jerusalem city dump. No matter how much it may offend Brian McLaren, Jesus is using the fear of violent punishment to motivate repentance. I’d like to see McLaren fit that into his reading of gentle-meek-and-mild-moral-example Jesus. Maybe he’s reading one of those color-coded Bibles. You know, the ones where they give different colors to the various words of Jesus to indicate the probability of whether he actually said what the text says he said.