Pondering Hell Today | Scot McKnight

By Daniel Warner

Dr. Scot McKnight laid the foundation for Belmont’s Spiritual Development speakers this year during his first EMERGE talk on Monday morning. His first topic was “Pondering Hell Today”. I was surprised that he would start off on that topic, but I didn’t really know too much about him so I figured he would be an in-your-face, confrontational kind of guy. He was definitely not afraid to issue challenges, but not in the way I thought he would.

He began by stressing the gravity of the topic of hell through a story of two students he had at North Park University in Chicago. One stood up in his class and said “I believe in hell because I believe in justice”, while another retorted “I don’t believe in hell because I believe in justice”. I appreciated his treatment of the seriousness of the situation. This summer I read Chan’s Erasing Hell; he starts out the book by asserting that if you are excited to read his book about hell, then something is wrong with you. Hell is not just an idea, the destination of our souls is not something to be simply debated about, and McKnight poignantly conveyed that this reality requires action.

He then explored a variety of views on hell like traditionalism, annihilationism, universalism, inclusivism, pluralism, and post-mortem opportunities. I would go into detail about these but I think that would miss the point of his talk.

The text on which he based his lecture on hell was Luke 16: the parable of Lazarus and the Rich man, or as he called it “The Parable from Hell.” He read the parable, explained the differences between the beggar Lazarus and the selfish rich man, and immediately began to focus on the theological ideas in the parable. He began to discuss the different words for hell such as “Sheol”, “the pit”, and “Gehenna”, and whether Jesus believed in second chances for salvation after death. But here, he took a sudden turn that changed the entire scope of his message.

He told the crowd to stop assuming that we are Lazarus. He reminded us that we are so rich. We are in college, we live in a nice part of Nashville, and when we looked for clothes in the morning we didn’t ask if there were clothes, we asked which clothes we would wear. From this platform, he launched into a series of challenges about how we are treating the Lazaruses in our lives. He asked if we even know a Lazarus? This question reminded me of a book by Chris Heuertz called Friendship at the Margins. Last year, Chris came to speak at Belmont and challenged to audience to look at their cell phones and check their calls and texts. If we hadn’t talked to a person outside of our social class in the last few days, he argued that we weren’t truly loving the poor and marginalized.

McKnight made it intensely practical when he listed off four groups of people who are the Lazaruses of our society: Muslims, homosexuals, opposing political parties, and the homeless, poor, and unemployed. The point of the parable is not whether the chasm between Abraham and the rich man in hell is uncrossable, but a reminder of how we must be treating those in our midst. Ultimately, McKnight stated that Jesus deconstructs our questions and asks us how we are treating the marginalized people in our lives.

McKnight took a turn in his talk that many of us need to take in our lives. I need to quit hiding under my blanket of theological ideas when reading the Word of God. As Soren Kierkegaard said, “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” Let us read the Bible, and let us, through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, act on its instructions, and may we befriend some Lazaruses along the way.

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