Response to Timothy Keller's "The Importance of Hell" Part 3

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Gods Love Wins
Oct 26, 2019
Gods Love Wins

irst, the Mystery…

These last posts in response to Keller’s “The Importance of Hell” will be a bit lengthy for they concern the mystery of the atonement. Evangelicals generally teach the atonement as if it is indisputably understood as they present their understanding as “the correct view.” Unfortunately one’s view of the atonement has become a dividing line between the theologically “liberal” and “conservative” and in some circles the basis for determining who’s actually in the Kingdom and who’s out.

But could something that has intrigued the hearts and minds of theologians, philosophers and mystics and arrested the attention of millions for centuries be nailed down within one single vision? Or is the cross actually the awesome mystery Scripture teaches? Could it possibly contain facets of glory not yet recognized? In other words, has the understanding of the cross been exhausted by our human understanding or are there ever more dimensions to be discovered?

Paul said “the mystery of godliness was great” as he recounted the gospel events of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. Jesus most often shared what His kingdom was compared to as opposed to confining it within a definition.  It seems He could only tell us what it was like. In the same way I believe we must admit our inability to explain the atonement in anything more than in terms of what it resembles. There have been many theories: Was it like a sacrifice? or a ransom? or a rescue? or a victory? a recapitulation of human history? or a great example of love?


Yes to all of them while believing there is surely more revelation to be discovered!

Sacrifice seems to be the first association made for the cross for the obvious reason of the Messiah entering into the midst of a Jewish sacrificial system. But what kind of sacrifice and with what intention was it made? Was it a legal substitutionary payment to appease a wrathful God? This is the number one assumption and therefore the exclusive view presented in most churches today.

But is this the only view? More importantly, is this an accurate understanding of the cross as a sacrifice? What was “that thing that Jesus did on the cross”?

We’d like to put forth two main thoughts regarding Keller’s assertion of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). One is to understand that there have been many theories of the atonement revised throughout the centuries. This means that we really can’t claim that there is some kind of orthodox consensus. We must therefore look to the richness of all the visions of the cross together. Secondly we will discuss in particular how Keller’s view of the atonement as the foundation for “eternal conscious torment” does not align with Scripture.

We will begin with a summary of why we believe Keller’s Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory theologically, historically and anthropologically fails as an explanation for what happened on the cross. These preliminary points will be followed in another post by a more in-depth look with some links for further study:

Why Doesn’t Penal Substitution Theory Make Sense?

1. The Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) view that Keller appeals to in relation to an eternal hell was not introduced until the Reformation. A rudimentary Substitutionary view was formed by Anselm in the 1100’s. This begs the question of how the Church operated without the revelation of the one and only “correct view” in hand for over 1500 years.

2. The historical views of the Atonement are generally recognized as “theories” and are simply attempts to explain the inexplicable. The idea of a substitutionary atonement (while challenging the concept of it being “penal”) is taken to be at the very most simply one of many views of the atonement by such scholars as the late Leon Morris or Scot McKnight. (See McKnight’s book, A Community Called Atonement). And in the end they all admit to there being within the atonement “infinite mystery.” Doesn’t sound like something we can be dogmatic about with one another.

3. To adhere to the Penal Substitutionary Atonement view one must reverse the message of the Gospel from “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” to “For God so hated sinners that He had to pour out His wrath on His Son in order to love them…” This denies the Gospel “Back-Story” of love that pre-existed within the Trinity. It splits the unity of the Trinity and places an angry deity behind the back of Jesus. Did God have to die in the person of Jesus Christ in order to love and forgive you or has He loved you from before the foundation of the world and therefore die for you?

4. Most troubling the PSA view reverses the message of 2 Cor 5 where we are told: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” as we are invited: “Be therefore reconciled to God!” It changes it fundamentally to a message of His need to be reconciled towards the world. But notice in Scripture there is no sense in which God needs to be reconciled. He does not need to be changed. We do. We are invited to respond to His offer and His work of reconciliation. The cross was to change us. It appears that Jesus died that we might fall in love with Him rather than so that He might fall in love with us. (“We love Him because He first loved us.”) If you are an evangelical who has assumed the PSA view you must grapple with the fact that this view means the purpose of the sacrifice of Jesus was ultimately to change the Father’s mind! This is a glaring contradiction of  “the Father of Lights who knows no shadow of turning” and “Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever.” (James 1:17; Hebrews 13:8)

5. It is also crucial to consider that the foundation of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement view has its origin in the legal framework and Greek mindset set forth by Augustine. The PSA reduces the cross and salvation to a legal transaction. Within the PSA model we lose sight of the importance of the incarnation and relational nature of the atonement where Christ is said to be identified with our humanity. It is our “at-one-ment” with Christ. “The Word took a body” said Athanasius.

The Incarnation answers the question: “Does God have a clue what it is like to be you? The cross is where Jesus identifies with our deepest alienation from God. Remember, He is fully God and fully man. On our behalf He assumes our doubt that we may become partakers of His faith.” (Andre Rabe) The PSA undermines the vicarious humanity of Christ as it translates Christ’s identification with man into the notion that God is somehow forsaking His Son.

6. Finally, to refer back to the top we ask: was it like a sacrifice? Yes, but in a way consistent with God’s true character and nature. God has always had a “habit” of taking our human concepts and through subversion turning them upside down. There is an understanding of the cross that is becoming ever more clear as we are being faced with the pagan origins of sacrifice to appease an angry deity. If Christ’s death was no more than a reflection of the same cycle of human sacrifice that has been the blight of human existence from the dawn of time then there is no divine revelation within Christ’s death. It is simply a replication of humanity’s failed wisdom. It would be the ultimate exhibition of an evil pagan practice.

So What Was That Thing Jesus Did On the Cross?

As theologians have concluded over the centuries the meaning of the atonement is as wide and deep as the universe. But that doesn’t mean it is a nebulous concept but rather it provides deep revelation for our worship. The stunning beauty of the atonement is that it possesses a timeless and very present application for every individual as well as a transforming power to bring healing to the nations!

Anthropologists have noted that every civilization has a founding murder and subsequent sacrificial practices of its scapegoat victims. This violence has escalated into wars. One theory called the Mimetic Theory explains man as a being that cannot be himself by himself but rather he is a being that reflects whatever he beholds. This theory harmonizes perfectly with what we have learn form Scripture. Ultimately man was meant to reflect the love and adoration of his Creator back to Him. This is where things went wrong. Man chose to try and be like God, without God. Man has been mimicking or mirroring one another to inform his desires which has led to competition, conflict, violence and even war. Sacrifice was instated as a magical way to appease the gods and bring peace to the conflict within societies. In enters God with a sacrificial model when He asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Iasac. But notice how God “shifted” the paradigm of a human sacrifice to that of one He would provide! Here is the shadow of Christ!

We see Jesus coming not to imitate human pagan sacrifice but to be the sacrifice that ends all evil pagan and religious sacrifice …forever! Jesus came to turn our human wisdom to nothing (1 Cor 1:20-31), not to validate human sacrifice with a picture of yet another angry god needing blood to be satisfied. As Andre Rabe has so profoundly revealed through his penetrating question:

“What is the perfect sacrifice to the God who ‘does not require sacrifice or offerings’? Would it not be the sacrifice that forever invalidates our religious sacrificial systems?” (Psa 51:16; Heb. 10:8)

Andre continues to illuminate for us this understanding that Christ’s sacrifice demonstrated a divine sacrifice to end all pagan ideas of sacrifice:

“Jesus enacts the atonement to turn our view of sacrifice on its head. ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ Jesus was not to satisfy the blood-lust of God. It’s God taking the initiative to change your mind about Him. He’s coming to reveal that He is not the angry deity. You were the angry deity who in your own violence invented the sacrificial system. God comes to reveal the Lamb of God. Every attempt we have made to try and twist the arm of a reluctant God Jesus comes to forever invalidate it.”


The above requires a real paradigm shift. We have had the legal view of redemption ingrained along with its implications of a god who is distant and separated from us. These are yet more Greek concepts accepted throughout mankind’s history; the idea that if there is a god he is distant and he is ticked off at us. He needs to be appeased in order to win his protection and affection. This is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And this is not a reflection of the relational oneness found in the Father, Son and Spirit–what has been called by theologians perichoresis (the interpenetrating love and dance of the Godhead).

Intuitively Keller seems to reject this legal notion as he often reminds us that “sin is more than breaking God’s rules but a breaking of God’s heart.” However, as he tries to defend the relational aspect of sin and salvation, he is contradicting his Westminster Confession foundation which is based upon Augustine’s legal understanding of salvation. What is quite shocking is that the Westminster Confession’s very definition of God does not include the trinitarian relationship within God, nor does it mention God as our “Father,” nor is love listed within their definition for God! This is not reflected in Keller’s preaching but he needs to come to terms with the contradiction.

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.