Review of "The Importance of Hell" By Timothy Keller – Part 1

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 Mark 9:48 (quoted as such but cited as Mark 9:43). No connection is made to Isaiah 66:24, however, which is what Jesus is quoting. Isaiah 66:24, 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, 3 4 5 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 Matthew 25:30, cross referencing with Jude 6, Jude 7, and Jude 13 for emphasis. In the one passage mentioned that mentions fire, you really have to read “painful” into it. Jude 7 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 Lamentations 4:6, 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 Matthew 22:13, the one who did not dress for the wedding is bound and thrown out of the party into the outer darkness. In Matthew 25:30, 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 Matthew 22:13 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 Matthew 8:11-12. 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 Matthew 22. 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 Matthew 25:41).
Jude 6 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 Jude 13 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. Matthew 3:12, 13:40, 2 Peter 2:6). 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 (James 5:20), 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 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).”

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 (verses 30-31) 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 (Revelation 20:11-15).
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!

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  1. Powers, Kirsten, “Fox News’ Highly Reluctant Jesus Follower,” (2013), reproduced at Christianity Today, n.d., (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 Mark 9:48 Rethinking Hell [blog], posted on July 12, 2012, (accessed November 25, 2014).[]
  4. Chris Date, “The Fire Is Not Quenched: Annihilation and Mark 9:48 (Part 2)” Rethinking Hell [blog], posted on November 20, 2012, (accessed November 25, 2014).[]
  5. Joseph Dear. The Bible Teaches Annihilationism (n.d.), Section XXI, found at 3-Ring Binder, n.d., (accessed on November 25, 2014).[]
  6. Jude 7 also throws a monkey wrench in the traditionalist arguments from “eternal fire” in Matthew 18:9 and 25:41, the two other passages that use the phrase. Jude 7 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. Job 3:3-6, Psalm 88:12[]
  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

    , hosted by Chris Date, July 22, 2014, (accessed November 25, 2014).[]
  13. Pretty much any color works[]
  14. For more on that, see Dear, XIX.[]