Timothy Keller is a wildly popular Christian pastor and author, and understandably so. I myself highly recommend several of his books (such as Generous Justice and The Prodigal God).

       

His Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan has done all sorts of good in bringing God to the people, even bearing unexpected fruit like the bringing of liberal political commentator Kirsten Powers to Christ.1 There is no end of good things to say about Tim Keller.
Now, as many Christian leaders have done since the release of Rob Bell’s Love Wins in 2011, Keller has  taken a stab at not only defending the traditional view, but also explaining its importance. He did so in piece that was very appropriately titled “The Importance of Hell.” Dr. Keller was also something of a theological hipster and wrote this article defending the traditional view it in 2009, before it was cool. Although this isn’t a very recent article, it is nonetheless a fairly well-read piece by a hugely popular name that is therefore worthy of examination. Ultimately, however, as we have seen time and time again when believers try to save the sinking ship that is traditionalism, Keller’s arguments for the doctrine are unsuccessful.

Here in Part 1 of this review, we will look at the first two sections of Keller’s article (there are four sections in total).

1. “It Is Important Because Jesus Taught About It More Than All Other Biblical Authors Put Together”2

In this first section, Keller mentions a number of passages to support this claim. Most don’t mention duration at all and presumably are not meant to be used as proof of the eternality of hell’s suffering. One passage that does appear to be used to show the eternality of suffering is (quoted as such but cited as ). No connection is made to , however, which is what Jesus is quoting. , of course, is speaking of corpses, not conscious people, and this doesn’t fit so well with this idea that “Jesus is saying, however, that the spiritual decomposition of hell never ends, and that is why ‘their worm does not die.'” Those familiar with Rethinking Hell will know that a number of free resources exist that address this passage, both on this site and off,345 Now, we see some talk of corpses later on in his article, so we will come back to the matter of dead bodies and hell.

“Jesus constantly depicted hell as painful fire and ‘outer darkness'”

Here Keller directly cites the words of Jesus in , cross referencing with , , and for emphasis. In the one passage mentioned that mentions fire, you really have to read “painful” into it. is the verse in question, which reads:

“Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire.”

When people think of Sodom and Gomorrah and their destruction by fire, pain is hardly what is emphasized. In fact, in , the one time the Bible ever speaks of the pain and suffering of the Sodomites (as opposed to the death and destruction), it emphasizes the fact that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was quick and not particularly painful!  The article does not explain how the connection is made between a verse about Sodom and Gomorrah and hell being a place of painful fire. My guess is that Keller, like many traditionalists, simply saw the phrase “eternal fire” and in his mind it clicked that the verse was talking about hell and eternal torment in eternally burning fire – fire that is only a metaphor, of course.6 There just isn’t much of a case made here.
As for “outer darkness,” for brevity sake, I will just point out that nothing in the phrase necessitates perpetual existence. It is only mentioned three times in the Bible, all in Matthew. Two times it comes up in the context of a parable, and the third, though not a parable, is similar in nature. In , the one who did not dress for the wedding is bound and thrown out of the party into the outer darkness. In , the slave who did not use the master’s money to earn him more money is kicked out of the master’s house into the darkness outside (i.e. “outer darkness”). In both cases, the darkness seems to simply be the night sky, that which is outside of the place the person is kicked out of. It is not hell per se but part of an earthly setting in a parable.
Now, the night sky could certainly conjure up negative images to the ancient mind, and I imagine that was not lost on Jesus when he used that motif. Here, however, we see it simply in the concept of rejection, not some eternal place of sadness. If you want to keep pressing the imagery for symbolism about hell, it goes both ways. The fellow cast out in is bound hand and foot. Tied up and left outside, he would either free himself, be rescued, or die. None of these foreshadow the idea of eternal torment.
We also see “outer darkness” in . The Lord said, regarding the unbelieving Pharisees:

“I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

In this context, the phrase “outer darkness” is not a parable, but two things must be said. First of all, even if Jesus is being literal, and at the end of the world there is a big banquet with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob which the unsaved are not allowed to attend, that doesn’t mean that they are in the darkness as conscious beings for ever and ever. Presumably, we wouldn’t be sitting at the banquet for ever and ever, so what is in view is not eternity but only the start of eternity. We are welcomed in while the unsaved are kicked out into the darkness, amid weeping and gnashing of teeth (i.e. great sadness and anger),7 because they want to be let in but are not allowed. What happens afterward? It doesn’t say. To claim that the darkness in this case is symbolic of eternal torment would be pure assumption.
Secondly, I at least find it much more likely that there is meant to be a figurative element here. After all, for hungry peasants in a shame and honor culture, getting invited to a grand banquet feast was enjoyable not only for the wonderful food but also because of the honor and privilege involved. And for the Jewish audience, to feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be beyond their wildest dreams. That is why Jesus used a banquet as a parable setting in . Imagine the heartbreak of wanting to go to the banquet but being kicked out, left alone outside, in the dark of night. This would seem like a fitting, figurative description of the joy of the saved vs. the anguish of the unsaved.8 But this does not prove eternal torment in the slightest, because we all agree that the unsaved will be alive at the judgment to lament their situation when the kingdom is given to the children of God while the Lord tells them to depart (cf ).
I will just touch upon briefly because it is an odd passage. I imagine Keller cited it because of the reference to gloomy darkness more than anything else. It is an odd passage because the chains the angels are held in are said to be everlasting, and yet the angels are held until judgment (i.e. not for ever and ever). Different commentators have different takes on exactly what to make of the specifics,9 but it is hard to base a particular description of hell on this passage, given that it doesn’t even describe the end times.
It is also worth noting that in the Old Testament, while darkness can have a number of meanings (including, most of the time, literal darkness), it sometimes symbolizes death.10 This is certainly relevant, especially in which, though not mentioning “outer darkness,” is nonetheless a passage about darkness that Keller cites. That is not all that can be said about that passage, but it gives at least one reasonable alternative to the interpretation that this verse is saying that the unsaved will spend eternity in a conscious state of misery that is represented by darkness.11

2. “It Is Important Because It Shows How Infinitely Dependent We Are on God for Everything”

Many of the overall points of this section I agree with. Without the presence of the Creator, we cannot survive. So as to how people in hell are supposed to be still very much sustained and, for all intents and purposes, alive, is a mystery to me. Like Keller says, “sin removes us from that aspect of his power that sustains and supports us.”

“Virtually all commentators and theologians believe that the Biblical images of fire and outer darkness are metaphorical.”

That may be an overstatement, though if Keller is speaking only of this current era (he does use the present tense, after all), then he’s not that far off base. But as has been discussed previously, a view that entails eternal suffering in hell but with no fire is very problematic when we actually open up our Bibles. Keller and others who hold this view have a very hard time explaining passages that compare the wicked to things that are not only burned but burn up (e.g. , ). When the Bible speaks of the fate of the unsaved by directly comparing them to things that are completely destroyed and subject to fire, it’s hard to justify the claim that in hell, they are neither destroyed nor subject to fire!
The more literal (and historical) interpretations of hell as a place of real fire can at least say that the unsaved are like burning chaff and burning tares and Sodom and Gomorrah because of the fire. Not so with Keller’s arguably untenable view (that as he notes, is quite common among proponents of the eternal suffering view today).

“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.

Yes, that is exactly what happens to a dead body. Keller even points out the effects of breaking down and ultimate disintegration.  Few images do a better job of bringing to mind the complete destruction of a living creature better than the picture of a dead body that Keller himself describes (except perhaps, the biblical references to being burned in a raging fire like weeds and chaff). What then does that mean for a dead soul?

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.

I don’t recall the Bible ever referring to a soul as totaled, but whatever the case, while Keller may describe the soul as something that “does not cease to exist,” his description is confusing to say the least. In his own words, the soul that is unsaved, which is compared to a disintegrating dead body and is itself subject to death according to the scriptures (), cannot feel or reason. How does one who can neither feel nor reason undergo suffering?
As I read this part of Keller’s argument, the only explanation that I can come up with is that Keller sees what a dead body is like. He sees what death is. He sees what happens when something dies. It is in every way contradictory to what the traditional doctrine says is supposed to happen to someone in hell. It disintegrates. It has no feeling, good or bad. It’s a rotting corpse that is just inert matter, not a person or a part thereof. Keller isn’t even making the normal argument that “dead” means “alive but separated from God” in special Bible-speak. He’s making the connection that death is what happens to a body (because as discussed previously, it is only the body that dies at the first death). He is a traditionalist and sees what is not supposed to be there. He sees a state that is contrary to any sort of eternal suffering. However, since everyone has an immortal soul and hell just is eternal suffering and that is that, all the descriptions of the Bible and even those of his own making must all somehow be some bizarre metaphor for a spiritual condition that is terrible but at the same time totally conscious (unlike a corpse) and that would be, in any other context (including biblical contexts), considered life.12 To me, this section on the nature of the soul is a very telling example of the level of assumption and bias that sometimes comes into play when defending the traditional view. As the oft-used analogy goes, when you see the world through blue-lensed glasses,13 to you the blue-tinted world doesn’t look blue at all. To you, the world just looks normal.

“In the parable of ff, 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).”

No, at most this parable tells us about a man in the intermediate state. As demonstrated previously, the rich man is not in his eternal state. As I am sure Keller would agree (as would any remotely orthodox theologian), there will be a resurrection of the dead at the end of the world. The rich man here is in Hades, the intermediate state. While he is in Hades, his brothers are alive and in a position to repent. The fact that Lazarus could in theory be sent from the dead () means that he hasn’t yet risen from the dead. This is the intermediate state, a state that the dead will be freed from in the end, though not necessarily with positive results ().
The most that this passage could possibly prove is that there is consciousness and suffering in the intermediate state for the unsaved prior to judgment. And this is aside from the strong case that I think can be made that the passage isn’t even meant to tell us that much.14

Until Next Time…

There remains more article to analyze and critique, so head on over to Part 2!

  1. Powers, Kirsten, “Fox News’ Highly Reluctant Jesus Follower,” (2013), reproduced at Christianity Today, n.d., http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/november/fox-news-highly-reluctant-jesus-follower-kirsten-powers.html (accessed on November 25, 2014 []
  2. I am not so sure about the calculus here about how much Jesus taught it, but for our purposes we’ll assume he’s right. []
  3. Chris Date, “Their Worm Does Not Die: Annihilation and Rethinking Hell [blog], posted on July 12, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/07/their-worm-does-not-die-annihilation-and-mark-948 (accessed November 25, 2014). []
  4. Chris Date, “The Fire Is Not Quenched: Annihilation and (Part 2)” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted on November 20, 2012, http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/11/the-fire-is-not-quenched-annihilation-and-mark-948-part-2 (accessed November 25, 2014). []
  5. Joseph Dear. The Bible Teaches Annihilationism (n.d.), Section XXI, found at 3-Ring Binder, n.d., http://3-ringbinder.weebly.com/uploads/1/9/1/0/1910989/the_bible_teaches_annihilationism.pdf (accessed on November 25, 2014). []
  6. also throws a monkey wrench in the traditionalist arguments from “eternal fire” in and 25:41, the two other passages that use the phrase. does this because the “eternal fire” it tells us about is the one that fell on Sodom and Gomorrah, not the eternal fire of the future, This is evident in the more literal translations like the NASB. And yet we know that this “eternal fire” isn’t burning anyone alive for ever and ever at the end of the word because we know what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah…For more on this, see Dear, XVI-XVII. []
  7. For more on this, see Dear, XXIII. []
  8. That isn’t to say that there may not be big banquets and eating food in the new heavens and earth, just that this particular description of their being a banquet and the unsaved being left outside sounds more figurative []
  9. For more on this, see Dear, XXX []
  10. e.g. , []
  11. For more on this, see Dear, XXXI, 343-347 []
  12. Countless traditionalist theologians would agree that this state is a state of life, until we point out what the Bible says about who gets life – see “Persuasive or Evasive? Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Shifts in Traditionalist Dialectics, with Ronnie Demler,” Rethinking Hell [podcast], hosted by Chris Date, July 22, 2014,http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2014/07/episode-58-persuasive-or-evasive-subtle-and-not-so-subtle-shifts-in-traditionalist-dialectics-with-ronnie-demler (accessed November 25, 2014). []
  13. Pretty much any color works []
  14. For more on that, see Dear, XIX. []

48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.

24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—

just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

13 wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.

just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

For the chastisement of the daughter of my people has been greater
than the punishment of Sodom,
which was overthrown in a moment,
and no hands were wrung for her.

just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

22:1 And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ 10 And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. 12 And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.

23 The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother. 26 So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.”

29 But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” 33 And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching.

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord,
Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet’?

45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day—

“Let the day perish on which I was born,
and the night that said,
‘A man is conceived.’
Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it,
nor light shine upon it.
Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.
Let clouds dwell upon it;
let the blackness of the day terrify it.
That night—let thick darkness seize it!
Let it not rejoice among the days of the year;
let it not come into the number of the months.

12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

13 wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.

12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Matthew 13:40

40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age.

if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;

20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.

30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.