Yet another attempt to persuade the world that Tim Keller is wrong about hell

Read time: 11 minutes

Steve Jacob found my post on annihilationism very interesting and wants to know whether I think “Tim Keller is on the mark in his recent article on hell”. The short answer is no. A longer answer follows. Readers might also be interested in my post “Tim Keller gets a lot right but gets hell badly wrong”.

Actually, Keller’s “The Importance of Hell” is not a recent article; it was first published in 2009 on the Redeemer website. In it he puts forward four reasons why the church needs to preach hell. All make some appeal to scripture, but only the first amounts to anything like a biblical justification of the doctrine. The other three arguments are attempts to mount a defence of hell on ethical and theological grounds.

1. It is important because Jesus taught about it more than all other Biblical authors put together

Quite possibly Jesus taught about something more than all the other biblical authors put together. But what was he talking about?

In my view, Keller has missed the point of Jesus’ reference to Gehenna as a place where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched (Mk. 9:43). This is Old Testament language. Its meaning is determined by the Old Testament stories from which it is drawn, not by later Patristic or Medieval or Reformed or evangelical theological schemata. When scattered Jews and foreigners are brought by God to restored Jerusalem, they will “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” (Is. 66:24). Read the whole passage, it’s important to understand the context.

The image is of corpses strewn unburied on the ground outside Jerusalem, having been slain during a siege of the city. It is not an entirely naturalistic description, but this is not a vision of a post mortem hell. These are the bodies of dead Jews who rebelled against God and therefore suffered divine judgment in the form of invasion and war. Dead bodies do not experience pain. We are told nothing about the experience or non-experience of the “souls” of these people. The unquenchable fire and undying maggots are a prophetic figure that underlines the finality of this judgment and the permanence of this grim memorial to the wrath of God.

The language of Gehenna is always descriptive of the suffering that Israel would endure if it was reckless enough and unfaithful enough to provoke conflict with Rome.

Yes, but Jesus uses the language differently, you say. And I say: well, where is the evidence for that? Jesus was a Jewish prophet who knew the scriptures. He was clearly aware of the dangerous situation that Israel faced at the time, and he spoke unequivocally about a coming futile war against Rome, which could only result in massive loss of life and the destruction of the city. He saw very clearly that the Jews were heading for a re-run of the disaster of the Babylonian invasion, only this time there was no prospect of the temple being rebuilt.

Jesus was a Jewish prophet, not a Christian theologian, talking—yes, at great length—about the historical experience of his people.

Nothing in the Gospels indicates that he was thinking of suffering after death. The language of Gehenna is always descriptive of the suffering that Israel would endure if it was reckless enough and unfaithful enough to provoke conflict with Rome. The exceptional story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31) is a parable for the judgment and restoration of Israel.

The same goes for the language of exclusion and expulsion into an “outer darkness” where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. The language evokes two thoughts: those who are judged by God “wail” and “weep” when the wrath of God comes upon them (cf. Is. 6:19; Jer. 3:21; Mic. 7:4); unrighteous Jews and Gentiles express their hostility towards the righteous by gnashing their teeth (cf. Ps. 34:16; 36:12; 111:10; Lam. 2:16). Those who weep and gnash their teeth are not dead. They are those who get on the wrong side of YHWH in history.

2. It is important because it shows how infinitely dependent we are on God for everything

Keller argues that the language of “fire” and “darkness” are not to be taken literally—they are symbols for something “far worse”:

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.

Jesus says “depart from me”. Sin excludes us from God’s “face” (Is. 59:2). Hell is “exclusion from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1:9). The “destruction” of Gehenna, Keller says, is not annihilation but the ruin or wrecking of the soul that has chosen not to worship and enjoy the true God. The soul 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 make the same objection to this line of thought as to Scott Oliphint’s argument about Jesus’ resurrection: it is an irresponsible, narrowly theological misreading of the historical narrative of scripture. Keller merely assumes that these diverse texts refer to what happens to individuals after they have died. The point is never demonstrated.

In fact, Jesus and his followers used Old Testament language of divine judgment in history to speak about new instances of divine judgment in history—judgment on Jerusalem and judgment on pagan Rome.

To be thrown into the valley of the Son of Hinnom meant the same for Jesus as it did for Jeremiah: it was a reference to the loss of life that would result from the siege of Jerusalem:

Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere. And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away. (Jer. 7:32–33; cf. 19:7-9)

Josephus confirms that Jesus spoke truly:

Now the seditious at first gave orders that the dead should be buried out of the public treasury, as not enduring the stench of their dead bodies. But afterwards, when they could not do that, they had them cast down from the walls into the valleys beneath. (Jos. War 5:518)

This would be Israel’s “hell”.

There is also an important distinction to be noted here regarding destruction and annihilation.

Destruction in scripture is, in the first place, destruction of cities, nations and empires. When Jerusalem is destroyed by the Babylonians, it is not annihilated; it is ruined as a city and becomes a wasteland, depopulated, the haunt of wild animals, until it is rebuilt. But when the city is destroyed by an invading army, the people living in it are mostly not “ruined”, they are killed, annihilated.

So at one level, Keller is right: destruction means ruin; a city or nation is “totalled” when it is judged by God. But the annihilationists also have a point, though they wouldn’t think of it this way: the destruction of a city or nation entails the irreparable destruction of life—end of story.

Finally, the judgment of the nations described in Matthew 25:31-46 is what it says it is: a judgment of the nations, a judgment of the living, not of the dead as in Revelation 20:11-15. Like the judgment of the beasts in Daniel 7, it is a judgment in the course of history, when the Son of Man would vindicate the disciples whom he sent into the hostile pagan world to proclaim his coming reign over the nations.

3. It is important because it unveils the seriousness and danger of living life for yourself

Keller notes Paul’s argument in Romans 1-2 that in his wrath against people who reject him, God “gives them up” to the sinful desires of their hearts, and then argues that hell is the same thing:

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.

This is the basis for his defence of hell as a fair and reasonable doctrine. First, what people get after death is only what they sought in life: either the blessed presence of God or the agonising and terrifying flight from the presence of God. Secondly, “hell is a natural consequence”—the simple extension of a trajectory established in life. In this world “self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness makes you miserable and blind” and sends your life into a tail spin. But if souls do not die, then this downward spiral of self-destruction must continue indefinitely after death. “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.”

So hell is not literal fire and darkness but a process of “eternal, spiritual decomposition”, for which we only have ourselves to blame. This account shows hell to be a “fair and just”, and one, moreover, which is likely to frighten “skeptics and non-believers” into repentance and faith. That’s how Keller sees it.

Does this argument work? It’s not a biblical one. In Romans 1:18-32 Paul writes only of the this-worldly consequences of the dominant pagan culture’s rejection of the creator. The wrath of God, when it eventually comes upon a people or culture, is destruction, which means, as noted above, either ruin or death, obsolescence or extinction, not eternal conscious torment, whether physical or psychological. It’s also not as obvious as Keller thinks it is that the soul survives death in any real sense.

And what if a secular humanist chooses to live a good, honest life and dies happily in old age, surrounded by loving family, admired by friends? What trajectory is she or he on? More of the same in the afterlife? Keller’s logic works only when applied selectively and prejudicially.

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

Keller’s final argument for preaching and teaching the “terrible” doctrine of hell is that without it “we will never even begin to understand the depths of what Jesus did for us on the cross”. When Jesus cried out that God had forsaken him, he was “experiencing hell itself’’—a form of suffering far worse than the physical pain of crucifixion.

This is an excellent example of the theological over-interpretation of scripture. Keller interprets Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22:1 on the basis of some explicit theological presuppositions, without any reference either to the context in Matthew or to the narrative of the psalm:

  • A convoluted medieval argument about the quantification of suffering leads Keller to conclude that what Jesus “felt on the cross was far worse and deeper than all of our deserved hells put together”.
  • The Son’s relationship with the Father is infinite, so when he was cut off from God, “he went into the deepest pit and most powerful furnace, beyond all imagining. He experienced the full wrath of the Father”.
  • In any case, it wasn’t just Jesus on the cross, it was God himself.

If these are our presuppositions, then we may perhaps read Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross as the expression of an infinite metaphysical suffering for the sins of humanity. But if we read the passage as a Jewish-Christian account of the suffering of a Jewish Messiah, we will come to quite different conclusions.

  • Matthew shows no interest in the redemptive significance of the crucifixion of Jesus. The overriding issue is whether this man really was the one whom God had chosen and anointed as king over his people, as “Son of God” in the sense determined by Jesus himself in his trial before the Council (Matt. 26:64).
  • He makes no attempt to suggest that Jesus’ suffering was of an entirely different kind to the suffering of the two insurgents crucified alongside him.
  • Jesus presumably recited the whole of Psalm 22 from the cross, in which case we must assume that he found in it simply an expression of trust in God when faced with ordinary physical hostility and aggression. The psalm says nothing about metaphysical torment or the infinite pains of hell.
  • The suggestion that Matthew thought that God himself was dying on the cross is illogical and wholly without exegetical support. Jesus is on the cross feeling abandoned by God to his enemies, but is assured in the end that God will deliver him. As a result “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations” (Ps. 22:27–28)—an excellent summary of core New Testament Christianity.


Keller thinks that the doctrine of hell is crucial: “without it we can’t understand our complete dependence on God, the character and danger of even the smallest sins, and the true scope of the costly love of Jesus”. I think the doctrine is indefensible, whether on ethical, theological or biblical grounds.

Philip Ledgerwood | Wed, 04/04/2018 - 16:38 | Permalink

Hey, I tried to help!

I will say, in fairness to the view Keller puts forth, that Gehenna does acquire in Judaism a significance beyond the physical location. There are references to the valley being a gateway to a much, much larger subterranean realm with rivers of fire with conscious inhabitants who are dead. Egregious sinners/heretics and Roman tyrants, mostly.

In Shabbat 149b, there’s a comment that Rav Yehuda said that Rav said that when Nebuchadnezzar descended into Gehenna, the inhabitants trembled because they feared Nebuchadnezzar had come to rule over them, which is a really great image.

Anyway, like you, I think Jesus is referring to destruction in the valley per the historical referents, but I also want to acknowledge that there’s a fair share of rabbinic writings that conceive of Gehenna and the judgement meted out there more broadly than the actual valley itself. And there are indicators that, for particularly evil people/tyrants, there would be longer punishments that would extend past their death. I’m thinking, for instance, of 4 Maccabees where the sons tell Antiochus Epiphanes that, although he is killing them, now, they will be raised to eternal life while he would be raised to fiery torment.

I guess where I’m going with all this is that I’m in full agreement with your take on Jesus’ references to Gehenna, but it’s easy to see where Keller’s position comes from.

Yes, that’s a fair observation. There is an apocalyptic and Rabbinic development of the motif that somewhat mirrors the emergence of belief in a tormented afterlife in early Christianity. That development, however, is not apparent in Jesus’ teaching—perhaps with the exception of the anomalous parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus remains within the sphere of the classic Jewish prophetic depiction of the horrors of war and the eschatological significance of massive historical disruption. In that sense, Jesus is a thoroughly canonical prophet.

And thank you for your help.

Alex F | Wed, 04/04/2018 - 23:46 | Permalink

Andrew, what do you make of the ways in which Gehenna became to be understood in the Rabbinic period as a more otherworldly place? Texts such as 4 Ezra 7:36, 2 Baruch 59:10 and in the Sibylline Oracles.

I plan to address this question at length at some point, but my basic argument would be 1) that the Jewish texts were written from a very different historical perspective, and 2) that we are under no literary-linguistic pressure to ascribe Jesus’ language to texts outside the canonical tradition.

As both Judaism and the church moved away from the specific crisis of early first century Israel and perhaps came increasingly under the influence of Hellenistic traditions (Tartarus becomes popular), it seems that apocalyptic language came to be put to a different use. We shift from history to metaphysics.

I would think it very strange if Jesus’ views of Gehenna were not shaped to some extent by the views of his day. Because our Bibles Jump from Malachi to Matthew, most Christians think Jesus’ views can be found in the Old Testament; however, when it comes to things like the satan, afterlife, resurrection, kingdom, and judgment, I think we need to read the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha from the intertestamental period to see how some of these topics, which are only briefly mentioned in the Old Testament, were developed. We also need to examine the Talmud, and the works of Josephus and other contemporaries of Jesus.

Scholars such as Hurtado and Ehrman see the apocalyptic views of Jesus and his contemporaries as further developed Jewish ideas rather than foreign (Persian/Hellenistic) ideas.

I agree with that, but there is still the question of how the contemporary language works within the larger narrative that Jesus assumes and tells about Israel. The name Gehenna is a novel development in the Hellenistic period, but if it goes back ultimately to Jeremiah’s warnings about the Babylonian invasion, and if we think that the prospect of another war with similar consequences dominated Jesus’ thought, then there is a very strong case for saying that he uses the language of Gehenna and associated imagery to warn his own generation about an impending political-religious catastrophe.