Response to Timothy Keller's "The Importance of Hell" Part 4

Originally Posted on

Written by
Gods Love Wins
Oct 26, 2019
Gods Love Wins

s Keller discussing “The importance of hell” or “The importance of an eternal hell”?

FIrst I’d like to point out something that missed my attention at the outset of these posts. If you notice, in the same way that the title of Keller’s article says “The Importance of Hell” and does not specify an “eternal” hell, Keller continues to defend his belief in what he simply calls “hell.” In other words he did not entitle his article “The Importance of an Eternal Hell.” This is very misleading for it creates the assumption in people’s minds that those who do not believe in an eternal hell do not believe in any form of hell. This is an inaccurate impression given by the very title and continues throughout the article. Please keep this in mind as you read other material in defense of an eternal hell. Often the author does not make a distinction making it an all or nothing kind of argument confusing the reader. (Mark Galli did this on the cover of his book God Wins.)

Keller’s defense of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement as it applies to an Eternal Hell

We are at his 4th point in the article. Keller continues his survey regarding the importance of an eternal Hell as it is supported by the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement:

4. The doctrine of hell is important because it is the only way to know how much Jesus loved us and how much he did for us….Unless we come to grips with this “terrible” [eternal hell] doctrine, we will never even begin to understand the depths of what Jesus did for us on the cross. His body was being destroyed in the worst possible way, but that was a flea bite compared to what was happening to his soul. When he cried out that his God had forsaken him he was experiencing hell itself. But consider–if our debt for sin is so great that it is never paid off there, but our hell stretches on for eternity, then what are we to conclude from the fact that Jesus said the payment was “finished” (John 19:30) after only three hours? We learn that what he felt on the cross was far worse and deeper than all of our deserved hells put together.

That Jesus experienced every human pain as our substitute and associate is true and one of the most precious truths for us to embrace. That he took upon Himself the hell of our sin is indisputable. But the fact that Jesus in His humanity felt alone and forsaken was fundamentally something He felt as our representative for “He was tempted in all points as we are” (Heb 2 ). When Keller uses Psalm 22 to support his belief that Jesus was abandoned by the Father (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?”) he is failing to note that to quote the first line of a Psalm was to introduce its entirety. If you read Psalm 22 you will find the exact opposite conclusion by David, a foreshadow of Christ: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him” (vs. 24). Ironically the Psalm ends with one of the most inclusive and restorative passages in all the Bible: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and return to the Lord…for He has done it”(!) And it is not inconsequential that Psalm 22 is followed by Psalms 23 and 24 where God is claimed the Shepherd and where ownership of “the earth and all its inhabitants” is proclaimed.

The forsakenness that Christ felt was on account of His identifying with every human suffering and emotion. When we sin we feel a separation from God. That is the lie that sin produces, every time. The very first pain mankind felt in Adam was separation from God. But as was pointed out in our first post it was an alienation in our minds (Col 1:21). It was man who ran away, hid, and was afraid and God who came seeking after His fallen image-bearers. It was God the Missionary who came seeking to save that which was lost. It was God who sent Jesus as the one who embodied and carried the name, “God With Us.”

Consider again how Keller’s trajectory of this notion of actual separation from God is moving towards a pagan dualism. And consider how it moves toward another form of dualism: that sin and death will be forever perpetuated in eternal beings paralleling the God of the universe never paying for sin because it never ends. How is this a reflection of Biblical restorative justice where Keller says we “deserve hell” yet it is “never paid off for all eternity?” This again is incoherent as well as reflects a pagan notion. (See article on true  Biblical Justice.)

Keller then states:

And this makes emotional sense when we consider the relationship he lost. If a mild acquaintance denounces you and rejects you–that hurts. If a good friend does the same–that hurts far worse. However, if your spouse walks out on you saying, “I never want to see you again,” that is far more devastating still. The longer, deeper, and more intimate the relationship, the more tortuous is any separation. But the Son’s relationship with the Father was beginningless and infinitely greater than the most intimate and passionate human relationship. When Jesus was cut off from God he went into the deepest pit and most powerful furnace, beyond all imagining. He experienced the full wrath of the Father. And he did it voluntarily, for us.

Please postulate the implications of this view upon the doctrine of the Trinity! How can the unity and mutual love within the relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit ever be broken? How can there be a disunity between the justice of God and His love? We have addressed the conundrum of possessing two opposing purposes for God’s justice in Part 2 and elsewhere so we will not repeat it here. But we cannot avoid facing what this understanding does to the very integrity of God: It splits Him in two! And the unanswered question remains: As Dr. Baxter Kruger asks,”Where is the Holy Spirit in all this? Is caught between two lovers?” Is He undecided between the two?

Keller then offers the following arguments:

Fairly often I meet people who say, “I have a personal relationship with a loving God, and yet I don’t believe in Jesus Christ at all.” Why, I ask? “My God is too loving to pour out infinite suffering on anyone for sin.” But this shows a deep misunderstanding of both God and the cross. On the cross, God HIMSELF, incarnated as Jesus, took the punishment. He didn’t visit it on a third party, however willing.

So the question becomes: what did it cost your kind of god to love us and embrace us? What did he endure in order to receive us? Where did this god agonize, cry out, and where were his nails and thorns? The only answer is: “I don’t think that was necessary.” But then ironically, in our effort to make God more loving, we have made him less loving. His love, in the end, needed to take no action. It was sentimentality, not love at all. The worship of a god like this will be at most impersonal, cognitive, and ethical. There will be no joyful self-abandonment, no humble boldness, no constant sense of wonder. We could not sing to him “love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Only through the cross could our separation from God be removed, and we will spend all eternity loving and praising God for what he has done (Rev 5:9-14.)

And if Jesus did not experience hell itself for us, then we ourselves are devalued. In Isaiah, we are told, “The results of his suffering he shall see, and shall be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:11). This is a stupendous thought. Jesus suffered infinitely more than any human soul in eternal hell, yet he looks at us and says, “It was worth it.” What could make us feel more loved and valued than that? The Savior presented in the gospel waded through hell itself rather than lose us, and no other savior ever depicted has loved us at such a cost.

First, it is completely disorienting to bring up folks who say they don’t believe in Jesus Christ because they can’t believe in a god who would pour out his wrath on his innocent son so he could love and forgive us. This is not a rejection of Christ but the rejection of a false paradigm of His role in our salvation! Keller is painting an either/or picture here: either you believe in penal substitution or you can’t believe in Jesus Christ. This is scandalous for the reasons we mention above (historically, scripturally, and also relationally as it pertains to the Trinity).

Then Keller asks the emotionally charged question of “What did it cost your god…?” as if to say that any other explanation of the cross is short on love and grace! The above conclusion by Keller fails to allow that Jesus’ death was in every way as painful, agonizing, and horrifying as He became the Last Adam assuming our sin, hell and doubt. Penal Substitutionary Atonement is not the only way for Christ to “pay” for our sins. The first is coherent and has biblical merit whereas the PSA has its roots in paganism and possesses absolutely no revelatory merit. It only reflects the scapegoating violence that has raged within societies from the dawn of time.

To reject the PSA, according to Keller, is to reject Jesus and his cross because we are saying “it was all unnecessary.” This is a vastly unfair and misleading statement. Nothing could be further from the truth! What did it cost our God? It cost Him everything! It was the highest most sacrificial demonstration of love ever imagined, beyond our comprehension Scripture says (Eph 3). He laid down His “right to be equal with God” as He emptied and humbled Himself and became obedient unto death on a cross (Phil 2). He was “numbered among the transgressors” (Isa 53). He paid the highest price! “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). There was no other way as “He became sin for us” identifying as the “Last Adam.” We believe as Paul said in 2 Cor. 5:14: “One died for all; therefore all died.” Our union with Him in His death, burial and resurrection was the only way for us to know salvation (“sozo“). Jesus is The Way, The Truth and The only source of Life. “All things are by Him, through Him and back to Him” and “In Him all things consist.” And finally, “In Him we live and move and have our being.”

As you can see, to reject penal substitutionary atonement is far from saying His death was unnecessary! We could not live, or move or breathe without the cross! But our salvation goes so much deeper than the cross: we were included in the eternal life of the Father, Son and Spirit before the foundation of the world as well as included 2000 years ago in Christ’s life on earth, His death, His resurrection, His ascension to the Father and His glorification at the righthand of the Godhead! This is the full salvation with which we were granted in Christ Jesus.

The question you must ask yourself while exploring this gospel of inclusion: Does it make Jesus Christ bigger or smaller? Greater or lessor? If you are honest with the desires of your redeemed heart and mind, you know the answer.

Providing a safe venue for the Body of Christ to explore the hope, desire, and inkling that the redemptive love of God in Christ may be bigger and more powerful than we've been allowed to believe. The purpose of God's Love Wins is to reveal how the Body of Christ together has always supported the Story of God's complete and final victory over sin, death and evil. We affirm foundational doctrines of both the Reformed (Calvinism) and the Arminian (Free-will) perspectives and embrace the truths contained in the historical creeds.