Response to Timothy Keller's "The Importance of Hell" Part 1

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Gods Love Wins
Oct 26, 2019
Gods Love Wins

ere is our critique of Tim Keller’s The Importance of Hell   (Indented is Keller’s article in full followed by our responses to his four points and conclusion.)

Let us say at the outset that we have the utmost respect for Dr. Tim Keller which we have shared at length in our Open Letter. As someone posted of Keller, “he gets a lot right but Hell very wrong.” Likewise our experience has been that for every point we disagree with Dr. Keller we have encountered hundreds in which we have been deeply enriched and challenged. But his defense of an eternal hell is where we feel he moves into and operates upon very inconsistent ground. We will attempt to expose at least three areas Keller fails to legitimately defend his doctrine of an eternal hell:

1. His view follows the pattern of pagan dualism as it maintains both good and evil as eternal realities.

2. Dr. Keller adheres to the Reformed faith (the saved have been predestined to eternal life) and yet he borrows most of his apologetic for an eternal hell from Arminian theology (man has free-will to choose or not choose salvation in Christ).

3. His paradigm of an eternal hell contradicts and negates his own outstanding teaching of both social and restorative justice.

The Importance of Hell

There are plenty of people today who don’t believe in the Bible’s teaching on everlasting punishment, even those who do find it an unreal and a remote concept.

by Tim Keller

In 2003 a research group discovered 64% of Americans expect to go to heaven when they die, but less than 1% think they might go to hell. Not only are there plenty of people today who don’t believe in the Bible’s teaching on everlasting punishment, even those who do find it an unreal and a remote concept. Nevertheless, it is a very important part of the Christian faith, for several reasons.

1.    It is important because Jesus taught about it more than all other Biblical authors put together. Jesus speaks of “eternal fire and punishment” as the final abode of the angels and human beings who have rejected God (Matthew 25:41,46) He says that those who give into sin will be in danger of the “fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22; 18:8-9.) The word Jesus uses for ‘hell’ is Gehenna, a valley in which piles of garbage were daily burned as well as the corpses of those without families who could bury them. In Mark 9:43 Jesus speaks of a person going to “hell [gehenna], where ‘their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ ” Jesus is referring to the maggots that live in the corpses on the garbage heap. When all the flesh is consumed, the maggots die. Jesus is saying, however, that the spiritual decomposition of hell never ends, and that is why ‘their worm does not die.’

If Jesus, the Lord of Love and Author of Grace spoke about hell more often, and in a more vivid, blood-curdling manner than anyone else, it must be a crucial truth.

In Matthew 10:28 Jesus says, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” He is speaking to disciples, some of whom will eventually be tortured, sawn in half, flayed and burned alive. Yet, he says, that is a picnic compared to hell. Clearly, for Jesus hell was a real place, since he said that after judgment day people would experience it in their bodies. Hell is a place not only of physical but also of spiritual misery.

Jesus constantly depicted hell as painful fire and “outer darkness” (Matt 25:30; cf. Jude 6,7,13,) a place of unimaginably terrible misery and unhappiness. If Jesus, the Lord of Love and Author of Grace spoke about hell more often, and in a more vivid, blood-curdling manner than anyone else, it must be a crucial truth. But why was it so important to Jesus?

The Scriptures cited above do appear to be declaring an eternal hell if, first of all, we do not take into consideration the Greek origin of the words “hell” and “eternal.” There are many articles devoted to this study but anyone can access an online interlinear and see for themselves how these words have been translated and then how they should have been properly rendered.

Second, we will assume hell is eternal if we miss what it ultimately implies. A deeper consideration of the eternal hell doctrine will reveal that it is diametrically opposed to the very foundation of our faith:  “the Lord thy God is ONE” (the shema). A theology that depicts God existing in opposition to and parallel with billions of His image-bearers who remain in rebellion for all eternity is based in pagan dualism. We must find the contextual meaning of the above passages (and indeed we can) in order to avoid falling into this ancient paradigm of good and evil eternally at odds.

Take a few moments to think through the implications of Keller’s interpretation above. If most of humanity are allowed to continue forever in their rejection of Christ then that means that sin, death, hate, and evil are a never-ending reality that will exist separate from God in what we claim is His UNI-verse.

To the contrary, the Scriptures teach that God is one existing in a triune Godhead of community, fellowship and love. God has one purpose: all things were created for His glory and all will bow and confess that He is Lord “to the glory of the FATHER.” But our traditional concept of an eternal hell has instead made our God to be two.

He is presented as being in two minds in regard to His purpose: He will save relatively few while somehow eternally sustain the rest in order to pour out His non-redemptive wrath causing them to live in a so-called state of “endless death” and sin.  He will sustain life while simultaneously sustaining death in eternal conscious torment. He will forgive and give mercy to those in one location of His universe while in another His mercies will come to an end where His wrath will endure forever. His love will stand secure and not fail for a few of His children but will not be experienced as steadfast or unfailing for the majority of mankind, whom Paul calls “His offspring.” (“For we are all His offspring.” Acts 17)

D. A. Carson describes hell as “a never-ending cycle of sin and punishment.” This appears to be the logical conclusion of Keller’s view as well. We must ask ourselves how likely that a holy God would sponsor and sustain that which He hates and opposes, the utterly unholy, for all eternity? Likewise it ought to come naturally to the mind of any serious adherent of the Reformed faith that it would be unthinkable for God to allow His glory to go to most of mankind as they cycle eternally in self-worship. It is incoherent that when “every knee bows and every tongue confesses” it will be a forced obeisance when He has told us explicitly that empty worship is something He hates. (Isa 29:13) A forced bowing and confessing is a carnal understanding of “conquering” in which even the likes of Napoleon knew was not worthy of the Divine.

Keller has left The Story of his alleged sovereign Hero never accomplishing His will “on earth as it is in heaven.” We believe there is a deeper Story, a “deeper magic” as C. S. Lewis allegorically described the power of the Gospel. After the “last words” of sin, death, destruction, and “depart from Me,” you will find another word after that:

“I will restore the fortunes of Sodom…”

“With man this is impossible but with God all things are possible.”

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

“In Adam all die but in Christ shall all be made alive.”

“Behold, I am making all things new.”

If you look closely you will find within The Story of God the ultimate restoration of all creation and ironically you will witness it coming from the very heart and lips of Tim Keller himself as well as his Gospel Coalition colleagues!

2. It is important because it shows how infinitely dependent we are on God for everything. Virtually all commentators and theologians believe that the Biblical images of fire and outer darkness are metaphorical. (Since souls are in hell right now, without bodies, how could the fire be literal, physical fire?) Even Jonathan Edwards pointed out that the Biblical language for hell was symbolic, but, he added, ‘when metaphors are used in Scripture about spiritual things . . . they fall short of the literal truth.” (from “The Torments of Hell are Exceeding Great” in volume 14 of the Yale edition of Edwards works.) To say that the Scriptural image of hell-fire is not wholly literal is of no comfort whatsoever. The reality will be far worse than the image. What, then, are the ‘fire’ and ‘darkness’ symbols for? They are vivid ways to describe what happens when we lose the presence of God. Darkness refers to the isolation, and fire to the disintegration of being separated from God. Away from the favor and face of God, we literally, horrifically, and endlessly fall apart.

In the teaching of Jesus the ultimate condemnation from the mouth of God is ‘depart from me.’ That is remarkable–to simply be away from God is the worst thing that can happen to us! Why? We were originally created to walk in God’s immediate presence (Genesis 2.) In one sense, of course, God is everywhere and upholds everything. Only in him do we all speak and move and have our being (Acts 17:28.) In that sense, then, it is impossible to depart from the Lord; even hell cannot exist unless God upholds it. But the Bible says sin excludes us from God’s ‘face’ (Isaiah 59:2.) All the life, joy, love, strength, and meaning we have looked for and longed for is found in his face (Psalm 16:11)-that is, in his favor, presence, fellowship, and pleasure.

Try to process the above interpretation in context of the non-dualistic Hebraic worldview of God as ONE. Keller admits that even in hell the Lord would have to sustain us. But if there is no redemptive purpose to His sustaining us in the midst of this consequence of our sin of rebellion then this again depicts God as having not one purpose but two as He sustains both life and death, forever.

Keller quotes “In Him we live and move and have our being” and yet tries to construct a scenario where we can actually remain separate from Him indefinitely. When he quotes Isaiah as saying that sin excludes us from God’s face he fails to take in the full chapter where God says “But My own arm brought about salvation…” Keller has failed to consider the Story of God in the beginning in which when Adam and Eve sinned IT WAS MAN WHO HID FROM GOD! It was God who came looking for man! Sin indeed separated us from God because we were alienated from God in our minds.  (“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.” Col 1:21)  This is the lie that led to the eating of the fruit in the first place and it is the lie that continues to this day: –God is holding out on us and is not really “with us,” He will leave us and forsake us, His mercies might come to an end and His love might fail so I had better fend for myself and self-create my own reality and destiny. I am a religious orphan who must journey my way back to God.

Every worldly religious system proclaims a deity who is separated from his/its creation and presents the way man must strive and climb in order to reach that god. But the true Gospel says that because of the sin of Adam God sent the better, the greater, and the more powerful “Second Adam” to undo the curse and reconcile us back to God. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself…while we were still sinners and enemies Christ died for us.” Notice that God, in the past tense, has already done the reconciling as “the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.” We are now called to “be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor 5:11-21)

Do you see? God never left us…we are told we left God and made Him our enemy, in our minds. The Father in Christ already reconciled the world to Himself. He said “Father, forgive them…it is finished.” He then tells us to therefore “be reconciled to God!” The first lie was believeing that God was not with us and for us in the garden. Let’s not believe it again after His demonstration of love on the cross! “Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ…He who did not spare His own Son will He not freely give us all things?” (Rom 8) Indeed the very name of Christ is the proclamation that He is “God With Us” and will never leave us (Immanuel).

Sin removes us from that aspect of his power that sustains and supports us. It is to us as water is to a fish-away from it our life slowly ebbs away. That is what has been happening to us throughout history. That is why, for Paul, the everlasting fire and destruction of hell is ‘exclusion from the presence of the Lord.” (2 Thessalonians 1:9.) Separation from God and his blessings forever is the reality to which all the symbols point. For example, when Jesus speaks being ‘destroyed’ in hell, the word used is apollumi, meaning not to be annihilated out of existence but to be ‘totaled’ and ruined so as to be useless for its intended purpose.

First we must ask how anyone’s life can “ebb away” eternally. A better understanding would be in light of the experience of the prodigal “in a far country” where his life did indeed ebb away until he “came to his senses” creating a hunger and need to return to his father. Second, to interpret the destruction from God as a ruin rendering His image-bearers useless for their intended purpose flies in the face of what the Bible says is true justice and what Keller himself has defined in his book Generous Justice. True Biblical justice is restorative in nature and represents that of DOING justice rather than GETTING justice. It encompasses reconciliation because sin is relational, not just legal. We did not simply break some rules but rather God’s very heart, as Keller has often taught. True Biblical justice includes both reconciliation and a return to “right-useness” or righteousness. Or as Keller has defined for us in Generous Justice, “primary justice” is everything in right relationship.

Therefore for God to say that His creation is VERY GOOD and declare that mankind “Shall love thy God and neighbor” without  either the intention or power to bring it to pass violates His own word which He promised “will not return to Him void” (Isa 55:11). For God to fail in completing His intended purpose for His creation is incomprehensible to the very concept of “GOD.” This is even blasphemous when you consider the intent of Christ to “destroy the works of the devil,” “defeat death,” be “The Savior of the World” and “make all things new” through the cross and resurrection. It makes the cross a failure by either a God who can’t restore or even worse, a God who won’t.

Keller has sold short his own vision for true justice as restorative which he has delineated in his sermons and books.

In addition, Dr. Keller here quotes 2 Thess 1:9 to further his point about being separated and excluded from the presence of the Lord in an eternal hell. However if you look in a Greek interlinear the word “away from” or “excluded” are not in the original language but added because of an assumed meaning. The text actually says that “aionios” destruction shall come from the face of the Lord. (It is the exact grammatical construct as “Grace and peace from our Lord Jesus Christ…”) This gives it an entirely different meaning. To tell your children that you are going to deal with their sin directly face to face is one thing. To tell them you will turn your face away and abandon them forever to suffer alone depicts an entirely opposite intention and purpose. (To the credit of the ESV their footnote gives us the correct Greek translation: “destruction from the face of the Lord.”)

The image of ‘gehenna’ and ‘maggots’ means decomposition. Once a body is dead it loses its beauty and strength and coherence, it begins to break into its constituent parts, to stink and to disintegrate. So what is a ‘totaled’ human soul? It does not cease to exist, but rather becomes completely incapable of all the things a human soul is for–reasoning, feeling, choosing, giving or receiving love or joy. Why? Because the human soul was built for worshipping and enjoying the true God, and all truly human life flows from that. In this world, all of humanity, even those who have turned away from God, still are supported by ‘kindly providences’ or ‘common grace’ (Acts 14:16-17; Psalm 104:10-30; James 1:17) keeping us still capable of wisdom, love, joy, and goodness. But when we lose God’s supportive presence all together, the result is hell.

Yes, the result of an orphan spirit doing things our own way is indeed disintegration for “the wages of sin death.” But the question we must keep presenting is how long is God going to allow His image-bearers to follow this path and is there a redemptive purpose in God’s act of “giving us over” to our sin? Keller would say no but that would negate the one purpose of God and His “word which does not return to Him void.” It would give God’s justice two purposes: one is to get even with sinners and the other to restore sinners back to their original design. It also makes Keller’s all-sovereign God one who set eternally into motion a “decomposing, stinking, disintegrating” host of His image-bearers without hope of restoration. Dutch Reformed theologian Dr. Jan Bonda described the concept of an eternal hell as a “gaping oozing wound in the universe never to be healed.” (The One Purpose of God)

To leave our Father’s house is indeed the road to disintegration and death but it will not result in an eternal existence apart from Him. Again, Keller’s depiction of an eternal reality of evil, rebellion, hatred of God and man paralleling our holy God is rooted in pagan dualsim.

3. It is important because it unveils the seriousness and danger of living life for yourself. In Romans 1-2 Paul explains that God, in his wrath against those who reject him, ‘gives them up’ to the sinful passions of their hearts. Commentators (cf. Douglas Moo) point out that this cannot mean God impels people to sin, since in Ephesians 4:19 it is said that sinners give themselves up to their sinful desires. It means that the worst (and fairest) punishment God can give a person is to allow them their sinful hearts’ deepest desire.

What is that? The desire of the sinful human heart is for independence. We want to choose and go our own way (Isaiah 53:6.) This is no idle ‘wandering from the path.’ As Jeremiah puts it, ‘No one repents . . . each pursues his own course like a horse charging into battle. (8:6)’ (We want to get away from God-but, as we have seen, this is the very thing that is most destructive to us. Cain is warned not to sin because sin is slavery. (Genesis 4:7; John 8:34.) It destroys your ability to choose, love, enjoy. Sin also brings blindness-the more you reject the truth about God the more incapable you are of perceiving any truth about yourself or the world (Isaiah 29:9-10; Romans 1:21.)

What is hell, then? It is God actively giving us up to what we have freely chosen-to go our own way, be our own “the master of our fate, the captain of our soul,” to get away from him and his control. It is God banishing us to regions we have desperately tried to get into all our lives. J.I.Packer writes: “Scripture sees hell as self-chosen . . . [H]ell appears as God’s gesture of respect for human choice. All receive what they actually chose, either to be with God forever, worshipping him, or without God forever, worshipping themselves.” (J.I.Packer, Concise Theology p.262-263.) If the thing you most want is to worship God in the beauty of his holiness, then that is what you will get (Ps 96:9-13.) If the thing you most want is to be your own master, then the holiness of God will become an agony, and the presence of God a terror you will flee forever (Rev 6:16; cf. Is 6:1-6.)

Keller above tells us on the one hand that sin blinds us and destroys our ability to choose. He then turns around and says that we get hell when we apparently “freely choose” to go our own way.

Keller and Packer lead us right to the enormous theological elephant in the room: Both Calvinist theologians have used an entirely Arminian position to defend their view of an eternal hell. They defend it on account of man’s free-will to choose hell not God’s sovereign prerogative as God to punish guilty sinners. It appears their Westminster Confession’s defense of eternal conscious torment would reveal the “dark side” of their Calvinism and so they hide behind a more free-will oriented explanation. They offer what seems more palatable to swallow—that hell is “God’s gesture of respect for human choice.” They circumvent the fact that the Reformed view holds that all are dead in their sin and how God predestined to leave most of humanity in that state in order to show His sovereign grace to His elect alone, for His glory …which they tell us is a “mystery.”

We must ask both Keller and Packer why they chose to borrow from their theological opponent’s doctrine and deny their own Reformed position here? Could they not bring themselves to be consistent with their Calvinism? Clearly they cannot have it both ways. If they champion man’s “freedom” to choose against God’s will then they must jettison the absolute sovereignty of God they claim to believe. If they want to be consistent with their faith as Reformed believers in Christ’s Lordship then the C. S. Lewisian teaching of God giving us what we ultimately want, respecting our “free-will,” is off limits. But both Packer and Keller dip into the Arminian paradigm and use it liberally when necessary to make the eternal conscious torment doctrine appear more reasonable. However a closer examination of Arminianism will reveal some very troublesome implications, as Packer himself has unpacked elsewhere.

A true Calvinist would never say God ever ultimately defers to man’s choice. They would never say that God through an eternal hell is “respecting our choice.”

Astonishingly they both negate the very essential and precious aspect of their Reformed faith: the confidence in God’s sovereign choice to prevail over our bad and fallen choice that led to our being dead in sin. In the above paradigm most of mankind is somehow allowed to “worship themselves” …forever! It is understandable that a wise Father at times might allow a child to experience their sin until it “ripens” into repentance (a “change of mind”) but to extrapolate from Romans 1 and other like passages an eternal hell of infinite sin and death is, as we keep pointing out, dualism.

Why is this so extremely important to stress in our preaching and teaching today? The idea of hell is implausible to people because they see it as unfair that infinite punishment would be meted out for comparably minor, finite false steps (like not embracing Christianity.) Also, almost no one knows anyone (including themselves) that seem to be bad enough to merit hell. But the Biblical teaching on hell answers both of these objections. First, it tells us that people only get in the afterlife what they have most wanted-either to have God as Savior and Master or to be their own Saviors and Masters. Secondly, it tells us that hell is a natural consequence. Even in this world it is clear that self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness makes you miserable and blind. The more self-centered, self-absorbed, self-pitying, and self-justifying people are, the more breakdowns occur, relationally, psychologically, and even physically. They also go deeper into denial about the source of their problems.

Keller continues above to answer 100% like an Arminian. He presents hell as an eternal state and location where sinners are given that which they ultimately desire—to be their own masters and saviors.

But it is most important to see how this explanation puts man in the sovereign seat allowing his many faceted self-centeredness to prevail in opposition to God forever. This is NOT allowed in their Reformed theology of God’s sovereignty.

Ironically what you have when you blend Calvinism and Arminianism together is a God who desires all to be saved and has the sovereign power through His irresistible love and grace to bring it to pass! This is nothing less than the doctrine of the Ultimate Restoration of all!

On the other hand, a soul that has decided to center its life on God and his glory moves toward increasing joy and wholeness. We can see both of these ‘trajectories’ even in this life. But if, as the Bible teaches, our souls will go on forever, then just imagine where these two kinds of souls will be in a billion years. Hell is simply one’s freely chosen path going on forever. We wanted to get away from God, and God, in his infinite justice, sends us where we wanted to go.

Again Keller denies his Reformed perspective and puts the ultimate power in the hands of the sinner. How does a “soul that has decided to center his life on God” make that choice? Is not the Reformed view that even the faith to believe is a gift from God placing salvation entirely in God’s hands preserving it as all of grace? (Eph 2:8-9) In Keller’s apologetic of eternal hell, in order for man to have his “free-will” apparently God must forfeit His. It seems that God wants to save us but can’t violate our will. But this does not reflect Keller’s nor Packer’s theological tradition which unequivocally declares rather that God does not want nor intend to save all.

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.