In Part 1 of this review, we looked over the first two sections of Dr. Timothy Keller’s article, “The Importance of Hell.” Here in Part 2, we will pick up where we left off, starting with the third section of Keller’s article. After through the rest of the article in some detail, I will give my own concluding thoughts on the importance of hell.
3. “It Is Important Because It Unveils The Seriousness and Danger of Living Life for Yourself.”
As a Christian, I would certainly agree wholeheartedly that living for oneself puts one in extreme danger. With that in mind, there isn’t too much to be said about a lot of the particulars of what Keller describes, as there isn’t much of an actual argument, scriptural or otherwise, in favor of his view. That hell is a place where the evil within every unredeemed person just grows and grows throughout eternity in some sort of C.S. Lewis-inspired fate of “God banishing us to regions we have desperately tried to get into all our lives” is mostly just taken for granted. His arguments are about why this makes hell important, though for the evangelical conditionalist, it is a moot point.
Keller’s attempt to actually demonstrate his descriptions of hell from this section amount to two passages of scripture. He mentions when he talks about the wicked running from the holiness of God. However, that passage does not say that the unsaved run from God’s holiness. It specifically tells us that it is his wrath that is feared by the unrighteous people being described. It isn’t about running from his holiness simply for the sake of running from his holiness, at least not on its face (Keller unfortunately doesn’t go any deeper than just citing the passage). Without further explanation, we are left wondering if Keller has some in-depth interpretation in mind or if he is just misinterpreting scripture and forcing them into his theological mold.
For what it’s worth, as far as biblical citations go, the citation of is more fitting to his point about wanting to flee from the holiness of God. At least in this passage, the prophet Isaiah’s fear of harm stems directly from the fact that he is not worthy to be in God’s presence. It is not a perfect analogy, since it deals with a righteous and faithful person who, after being reassured by God, boldly volunteers to do God’s will. But there is more of a connection, at least.
Overall, this section is mostly just Keller’s developed philosophical and systematic theology of hell, stated as a given, with a biblical principle applied to it. There isn’t much of an argument being made to refute. For what it’s worth, I have previously addressed why this or any other version of the traditional doctrine that eliminates fire is quite problematic (see here).
4. “The Doctrine Of Hell Is Important Because It Is the Only Way to Know How Much Jesus Loved Us and How Much He Did for Us.”
I can’t disagree with anyone who claims that Jesus loved us with immeasurable love. Even the biblical teaching, that hell is a place of final destruction, demonstrates what a wonderful gift eternal life is – eternal life that was earned for us by Jesus and not by ourselves.
That said, this section also has some teachings that are quite problematic.
“When he cried out that his God had forsaken him he was experiencing hell itself. But consider–if our debt for sin is so great that it is never paid off there, but our hell stretches on for eternity, then what are we to conclude from the fact that Jesus said the payment was ‘finished’ () after only three hours? We learn that what he felt on the cross was far worse and deeper than all of our deserved hells put together.”
Keller is parroting the common but poorly thought-out traditionalist claim that Jesus suffered the equivalent of hell while alive and conscious on the cross. Aside from those who would disagree that Jesus was actually forsaken by the Father while on the cross,1 this view leads to a conclusion that at least dances on the line of heresy.2 Simply put, if it is the case that Jesus experienced the equivalent of an eternity in hell while alive on the cross, and that is how he atoned for our sins, why did he have to die? This problem has been pointed out before, as this argument is by no means unique to Keller. Nevertheless, it takes what the Bible strongly emphasizes as the important part of the cross – Jesus’s death – and makes it unnecessary, at least for the sake of the atonement.3 It is not uncommon for conditionalists to be accused of making the cross unnecessary because annihilation somehow isn’t bad enough to warrant it Jesus making such a sacrifice to save us from it (apparently giving people eternal life isn’t that big of a deal…). But it is not the conditionalist whose view of the atonement essentially eliminates the necessity of Christ’s death! The traditionalist who argues that Jesus suffered hell in his conscious suffering on the cross is the one who makes Jesus’ death unnecessary.4
At most, the traditionalist could say that Jesus’ atonement for us did not have a 1:1 correspondence to what we would have suffered without him. And that’s fine for our purposes here. I think historically, that has been the view of most Christians anyway; Jesus atoned for us with his death, not by suffering a cosmic equivalent of hell while still alive on the cross. But this takes away most of the force of Keller’s argument here.
In his conclusion, Keller gives a few final points about how to apply the doctrine of hell (as he teaches it) to our Christian walk. I will point to one gem that I think is important to remember when other traditionalists claim that evangelical conditionalism is bad because it is not terrible enough to make people repent:
“And some can preach hell in such a way that people reform their lives only out of a self-interested fear of avoiding consequences, not out of love and loyalty to the one who embraced and experienced hell in our place. The distinction between those two motives is all-important. The first creates a moralist, the second a born-again believer.”
I think that is something important to remember. Evangelical conditionalism may not teach as scary a hell as the traditional view, but fear doesn’t save people – God’s mercy does.
As for my concluding thoughts on the piece, I think it simply fell short. As far as its biblical case for the traditionalist view, it was insufficient to prove its point. Texts served more as prooftexts than anything else. In its attempts to explain what hell is supposed to really be like, it fell short by missing the implications of Keller’s own points. If a dead soul is like a dead body, then any form of the eternal suffering view hits a wall. The attempt to tie the nature of hell to the love of Jesus fell into the same trap as a number of others have, taking the death out of Jesus dying for us. Overall, what we got was what we should expect to get when someone, in good faith and with the best of intentions, attempts to defend and even glorify a doctrine that simply is not true.
Hell is important. It is important because it reminds us that God will not be mocked. Those who oppose him to the end will be crushed under his hand. Even being made in the image of God cannot save people from the effects of their sin, turning themselves, God’s masterpiece, into so much chaff. No one who hates the only one who is good will get to enjoy what is good forever. No one will enjoy life forever who also hates the author of life.
And most importantly, hell reminds us that it is out of love and mercy, out of a goodness that goes beyond simply giving others what is deserved, that God gave us the gospel. Hell is important because it is the destruction that we had all earned, and it is important because in Christ, it is no longer what awaits us. Like the evildoers of , we had no claim to life, “but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God,”5. But Jesus washed away our sins with his own blood. We once faced death, but now, we do not face the wages of our sin. Instead, we will see the face of God (), and like is was for the psalmist of old, God himself is our inheritance (). That is the importance of hell.
- I myself am skeptical of the idea that Jesus was abandoned on the cross the way unbelievers would be cut off from God. Jesus’s cry, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ was not spoken in a vacuum. That’s the first verse of , a psalm about a godly figure who is subjected to all sorts of terrors, as if God had forsaken him, but who continues to cry out to God and is rescued in the end. That sounds more than a little bit like the only truly righteous person to ever live being subject to all sorts of terrors, even called forsaken by God by his mockers, who nonetheless trusts in God even to the very end (), finally receiving ultimate rescue by being resurrected.
- I am not saying that Keller and the many others who make this argument are themselves heretical, since I don’t think they have thought through the logical conclusions of their view.
- Jesus’ death is emphasized in both literal and figurative language (e.g. ; ; ; ; .
- A traditionalist who holds the view that Jesus’ death was an essential part of the atonement, and that Jesus did not suffer the equivalent of hell in his conscious suffering, is not liable to this charge (although other questions, such as how his death fits into what hell is like, would remain).
- NIV, .
16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb,
6:1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.
30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
22:1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
3 Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
8 “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
9 Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts.
10 On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11 Be not far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is none to help.
12 Many bulls encompass me;
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
16 For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
17 I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my garments among them,
and for my clothing they cast lots.
19 But you, O Lord, do not be far off!
O you my help, come quickly to my aid!
20 Deliver my soul from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dog!
21 Save me from the mouth of the lion!
You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!
22 I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
26 The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the Lord!
May your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
28 For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
29 All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
even the one who could not keep himself alive.
30 Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
31 they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it.
46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.
28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,
27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.
4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.
5 The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.