Death or Eternal Suffering—Which One Reveals How Much Jesus Loves You? (A Response to Timothy Keller)

Timothy Keller is a widely respected Christian pastor and much-needed public voice. But even our best and brightest are prone to saying questionable things due to the implications of their doctrine of hell. A case in point is Pastor Keller’s recent tweet: “Unless you believe in Hell, you will never know how much Jesus loves you.” This statement proved to be quite controversial, leading Keller in subsequent tweets and comments to seek to clarify what he had meant.

Now, to those like myself who believed for decades that the Bible taught a hell of eternal torment, Keller’s statement doesn’t seem controversial at all. It hits all the right notes for conservative evangelicals, and just feels appropriately pious and true. It’s one of those statements you whip out when you want to defend hell from its liberal or postmodern detractors. There are many variations on the theme—to do with God’s love, glory, holiness, or even His willingness to defer to the sinner’s own desires—but in each case the basic formula is the notion that the worse hell looks, the better God looks by contrast.

For example, if you think that the idea of a loving Creator tormenting people should cause us to raise at least one eyebrow, simply realize that people in hell are tormenting themselves, and you’ll soon feel much better about the whole thing. In time, you will see that God is really being magnanimous for giving them a separate place to do so. You know, forever.

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Warned of Sin’s Wages: A Concise Explanation of Death in Genesis 2:17 and Romans 6:23

In Genesis 2:17, God’s warning “you will certainly die” (מֹות תָּמֽוּת) refers to the penalty or consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin, should they disobey God’s command. They had been given the ongoing privilege to “live forever” by accessing the Tree of Life (Gen 3:22 cf. 16), but this would be forfeited and their lives would be cut short by death—death as normally and universally understood; sometimes called “physical death.”1I do not recommend using the term “physical death” (or “biological death”) unless deemed necessary. If further clarity than simply “death” is needed, I suggest “ordinary death.” The term “physical death” implies an unhelpful dichotomy between physical and spiritual death, and/or prejudices an interest in mechanisms that might attend death, in terms of things like bodies and souls. The more obvious way to define death is through its operation upon life, which is, simply, to bring life to an end. Death at any time does this, so we should also be mindful not to think of “the second death” as categorically different from “the first death” (terminology the Bible never uses). It might be complete and permanent (Matt 10;28), unlike ordinary death where resurrection follows, but it is still an end to life. Romans 6:23 simply says “death” for good reason. The universal wages of sin is not first death, second death, physical death or spiritual death. It’s just death, the ending of life.

The main objection to this view is that Adam and Eve did not die “in the day” that they ate (Gen 2:17), if in fact ordinary death was in view. But this is to misunderstand the Hebrew idiom, as Walter Kaiser et al. explain:3Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Baruch, “Hard Sayings of the Bible” (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 92, emphasis in original.

It is just as naive to insist that the phrase “in the day” means that on that very day death would occur. A little knowledge of the Hebrew idiom will relieve the tension here as well. For example, in 1 Kings 2:37 King Solomon warned a seditious Shimei, “The day you leave [Jerusalem] and cross the Kidron Valley [which is immediately outside the city walls on the east side of the city], you can be sure you will die.” Neither the 1 Kings nor the Genesis text implies immediacy of action on that very same day; instead they point to the certainty of the predicted consequence that would be set in motion by the act initiated on that day. Alternate wordings include at the time when, at that time, now when and the day [when] (see Gen. 5:1; Ex. 6:28; 10:28; 32:34).

In other words, “you will certainly die” became true instantly, as a kind of death sentence or curse. But the timing of the death event is not specified in the warning. This is clear in the Aramaic translation of Genesis 2:17 found in Targum Jonathan, which suffices to show that at the time of Jesus this was viewed as ordinary death. It reads, “in the day that thou eatest thou wilt be guilty of death.”2See J. W. Etheridge, “The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Pentateuch,” 1862, 1865.

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1. I do not recommend using the term “physical death” (or “biological death”) unless deemed necessary. If further clarity than simply “death” is needed, I suggest “ordinary death.” The term “physical death” implies an unhelpful dichotomy between physical and spiritual death, and/or prejudices an interest in mechanisms that might attend death, in terms of things like bodies and souls. The more obvious way to define death is through its operation upon life, which is, simply, to bring life to an end. Death at any time does this, so we should also be mindful not to think of “the second death” as categorically different from “the first death” (terminology the Bible never uses). It might be complete and permanent (Matt 10;28), unlike ordinary death where resurrection follows, but it is still an end to life. Romans 6:23 simply says “death” for good reason. The universal wages of sin is not first death, second death, physical death or spiritual death. It’s just death, the ending of life.
2. See J. W. Etheridge, “The Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Pentateuch,” 1862, 1865.
3. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, and Manfred T. Baruch, “Hard Sayings of the Bible” (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 92, emphasis in original.