In the parable of Luke 16:19ff, Jesus tells us of a rich man who goes to hell and who is now in torment and horrible thirst because of the fire (v.24) But there are interesting insights into what is going on in his soul. He urges Abraham to send a messenger to go and warn his still-living brothers about the reality of hell. Commentators have pointed out that this is not a gesture of compassion, but rather an effort at blame-shifting. He is saying that he did not have a chance, he did not have adequate information to avoid hell. That is clearly his point, because Abraham says forcefully that people in this life have been well-informed through the Scriptures. It is intriguing to find exactly what we would expect-even knowing he is in hell and knowing God has sent him there, he is deeply in denial, angry at God, unable to admit that it was a just decision, wishing he could be less miserable (v.24) but in no way willing to repent or seek the presence of God.
The overarching Story of God puts the above parable into context. This is a warning to be sure but it is not depicting the last word on our sin. Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension are the last word. “In Adam all die; in Christ shall all be made alive.” Again, we must face the obvious dualism of Keller’s point of view if this parable is taken as symbolic of a location where billions of souls like the rich man keep sin, rebellion, selfishness and death ‘alive’ forever paralleling our holy God.
In addition it renders meaningless the Scriptures that declare explicitly that, “every knee will bow and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” in worship. Note it does not say that the bowing and confessing are to the “Judge” but rather the Father (Isa 45; Phil 2). Place this parable alongside the part of the Story of God where in the New Jerusalem we are told “her gates shall never be shut” and “the Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come, take the water of life freely…all who thirst come and drink.'”
I can see the natural tendency to add this passage to one’s arsenal to defend eternal conscious torment if that is the dualistic story-line you think you see in Scripture. But placed into the context of the gospel’s creation-fall-redemption-restoration story-line it is simply another warning by Jesus to the religious elite who are blinded by their pride. (See our article by George Sarris on this parable.)
I believe one of the reasons the Bible tells us about hell is so it can act like ‘smelling salts’ about the true danger and seriousness of even minor sins. However, I’ve found that only stressing the symbols of hell (fire and darkness) in preaching rather than going into what the symbols refer to (eternal, spiritual decomposition) actually prevents modern people from finding hell a deterrent. Some years ago I remember a man who said that talk about the fires of hell simply didn’t scare him, it seemed too far-fetched, even silly. So I read him lines from C.S. Lewis:
Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others . . . but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud.
To my surprise he got very quiet and said, “Now that scares me to death.” He almost immediately began to see that hell was a) perfectly fair and just, and b) something that he realized he might be headed for if he didn’t change. If we really want skeptics and non-believers to be properly frightened by hell, we cannot simply repeat over and over that ‘hell is a place of fire.’ We must go deeper into the realities that the Biblical images represent. When we do so, we will find that even secular people can be affected.
First, Keller just contradicted himself with his statement above about God having sent the rich man to hell while earlier quoting Lewis who says we are the ones who choose and create our own hell.
Second, the story Keller used to try and convince us that Lewis’ image for hell is more effective is very subjective. This anecdote gives us no real information or proof of anything. Did the man really change? Does he today live a life motivated out of fear or love? But most importantly does it reflect and represent the image of hell-fire we are given in Scripture?
I find it interesting that so many theologians, especially in the Reformed camp, feel the need to adopt Lewis’ very imaginative yet very unbiblical take on hell: a self-chosen place with the “doors locked from the inside” harboring “successful rebels to the end” who will wreak an “eternal bad mood” forever in the universe. Really? The sovereign God of the universe will actually allow most of mankind to remain in this state of rebellion and sin against Him forever? Has God really given man that much power?
Sometimes good parents must allow their children to continue in their sin until it runs its course and they come to their senses. But a parent who has no purpose in their dealings but to see to the permanent destruction and ruin of their child would be considered a moral monster. Consider the theology of Dr. Keller who believes there are an elect few who will experience the first kind of discipline but the majority of mankind (the non-elect) will experience the second, non-redemptive, version of discipline eternally. This depicts not a God who is one but a god who is in fact two. This god is clearly in two minds and therefore lacks integrity, the very thing that is the foundation for trust. Like the child of an alcoholic parent who never knows which frame of mind he will encounter when he arrives home, a god who has two ways of dealing with our sin can never be fully trusted.
But on the other hand if you take the Scriptural concepts of “fire,” and the “lake of fire and brimstone” in the direction they imply you will remain within the Biblical framework and it will engender trust while instilling a healthy fear of our God who is a “consuming fire.” But to abandon the concept of fire forces us to make up things like the dualistic “eternal bad mood.” It sounds clever and it does sound scary but God has never said that we have that much power–we are not capable of maintaining sin separately alongside our Almighty Holy Creator for all eternity…!
Rather what we are given in God’s holy word are pictures of fire as a refining fire ( Micah 3:2), baptized with fire (Matt 3:11), saved through fire (1 Cor 3:15), all salted by fire (Mark 9:49), tongues of fire (Acts 2:3), lake of fire (Rev 20:14). Different applications but one fire. Different experiences by different people but one goal in mind.
There is one fire with one ultimate purpose: to make us into the image of the Son. Our false selves will be consumed. Those who resist His Potter’s hand will find it will burn. But if the promise to the fiery Sodom is any indicator, we are told that their “fortunes will be restored” (see Ezekiel chapter 16).
The Scriptures tell us that the lake of fire is “in the presence of the Lord” so it is clearly not separated from Him. It in fact IS Him, for He is a consuming fire. We need to be reoriented away from this concept that we are separated from God and have the independent power to somehow rebel against Him for all eternity if we so choose. This is an impossibility, for in Him we are “held together” and “In Him we live and move and have our being.” (Col 2; Acts 17)
We run from the presence of God and therefore God actively gives us up to our desire (Romans 1:24, 26.) Hell is therefore a prison in which the doors are first locked from the inside by us and therefore are locked from the outside by God (Luke 16:26.) Every indication is that those doors continue to stay forever barred from the inside. Though every knee and tongue in hell knows that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11,) no one can seek or want that Lordship without the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3. This is why we can say that no one goes to hell who does not choose both to go and to stay there. What could be more fair than that?
It does not say that every knee and tongue “will know that Jesus is Lord.” That is a misquote of Scripture; it rather says that “every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” But Keller is right to mention that “no one can say that ‘Jesus is Lord’ apart from the Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). Indeed that is the other part to the equation: If all are confessing that Jesus is Lord then it must be by the power of the Holy Spirit at this point in God’s eschatological plan where this bowing and confessing are taking place.
Again in order to make the doctrine of eternal hell appear more reasonable than his Reformed tradition portrays Keller trades it in for a full-on Arminian view: those who go to hell choose to go there in order to get away from God and they desire to stay there…for all eternity! So I guess that does sound more “fair” than to remain consistent with his Reformed Westminster position which instead says:
“The rest of mankind, God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by, and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice.” (Westminster Confession Ch. 3; VII)
“…the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day.” (Westminster Confession Ch 32; I)
The Westminster Confession offers absolutely no freedom to believe that God is respecting man’s “free-will” and allowing man to have his way and send himself to this location called eternal hell where God is somehow not present. This is absolutely foreign to the Reformers. Keller has adopted the doctrine of the semi-Pelagians here.
In closing please let us remind you that this is ultimately NOT a criticism of Keller but merely a revelation of his struggle to wrestle with a doctrine we all find difficult to defend, especially if you are of the Reformed persuasion. It is instead an attempt to expose his compassionate heart that desires to draw people to the One he has found to be the ultimate Source of all love, hope, truth and meaning.
It is the testimony of a man who has felt the need to defend the goodness of his God even if it means he must twist and betray his theological tradition to do so. Most of us if in his position of notoriety and influence would, I hope, do the same.