Tim Keller gets a lot right but gets hell badly wrong

Read time: 6 minutes

Among the many responses to Kurt Willems’ defence of Rob Bell was a link to an undated article by Tim Keller on “The Importance of Hell” (thank you, Jake). Tim Keller is an outstanding pastor, but his argument about hell seems to be wrong in so many ways—exegetically, logically, theologically, psychologically, possibly even morally… but mainly exegetically. Much of the argument has been covered in recent posts, so I have kept matters reasonably concise and provided links to the relevant material. This is, admittedly, an overworked topic, and I apologize for repeating myself. But it is a good test case for the debate between Reformed and New Perspective theologies, raising important questions about the use of language and the relevance of historical context.

1. Jesus does not teach “hell” if by that we mean a place of unending torment after death

What Matthew 25:31-46 describes is a symbolic judgment of the nations, at a time when the Son of Man will be publicly vindicated, on the basis of how they reacted to the presence of Jesus’ disciples (“the least of these my brothers”) in their midst. It is not a judgment of the dead—that is simply an assumption that we have typically read into the passage. Both “life” and “punishment”, therefore, must be interpreted in socio-political terms, with reference to the continuing existence of the nations following the vindication of the Son of Man and of the early martyr church. There will be those Gentiles who will in some manner share in the “life” of the coming age; there will be others who will be destroyed in the fire of the God’s judgment of the pagan world (cf. Dan. 7:10-11), punished, or excluded from the kingdom.

The “fire of gehenna” (Matt. 5:22; 18:8-9) refers not to a universal hell but to the judgment that Jesus believed was coming upon Israel. It is an image of the massive destruction of life that would result from the Roman invasion of Judea and assault on Jerusalem (cf. Jer. 7:30-33; 19:6-8). Matthew 10:28 addresses the fears of the disciples in the same eschatological context. The image in Mark 9:48 of corpses being consumed in gehenna by worms that do not die and a fire that cannot be quenched derives from Isaiah 66:24. The dead bodies of those who rebelled against YHWH serve as a perpetual reminder to the nations and to the returning exiles of the judgment on Israel. But corpses, of course, do not feel pain. Jesus uses the image to similar effect: it forms part of his warning to the Jews of an analogous judgment to come. Keller’s suggestion that he is speaking of the “ ‘totaled’ human soul” (italics added) is a fundamental misreading of Jesus’ language.

The image of an “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” describes the exclusion of rebellious Israel from the renewed people of God. The point in Matthew 25:30 is that “worthless” disciples will find themselves in the same category when Jesus is eventually vindicated.

Keller is right to draw attention to the frequency and prominence of these motifs in Jesus’ teaching. And if we changed the unbiblical word “hell” for “Hades” or gehenna or the “desolation” of Jerusalem or such like, and made some other contextual adjustments, his concluding paragraph would make reasonably good sense:

We must come to grips with the fact that Jesus said more about hell than Daniel, Isaiah, Paul, John, Peter put together. Before we dismiss this, we have to realize we are saying to Jesus, the pre-eminent teacher of love and grace in history, “I am less barbaric than you, Jesus—I am more compassionate and wiser than you.” Surely that should give us pause! Indeed, upon reflection, it is because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus’ proclamations of grace and love are so astounding.

2. We don’t need an unbiblical doctrine of hell to show us that we are dependent on God for everything

To be apart from God in scripture is not to be consigned to hell but to be excluded from the people of God—from that community which has recovered something of the original blessing of creation, in which the creator dwells through his Spirit. It is quite possible to argue that there is no “life” that is truly human away from the presence of God without invoking the threat of eternal torment after death. Death itself is the ultimate banishment from the presence of the life-giving creator.

What Paul describes in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12 is specifically, I would argue, a judgment on the persecutors of the early church: “God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you” (1:6). It is, therefore, a restatement of Jesus judgment of the sheep and the goats. It results in the destruction of a culture, the exclusion of violent paganism—and of violent pagans—from the presence of God. The language is apocalyptic, but the thought is entirely in keeping with Old Testament texts which speak of YHWH’s preservation of his people and the defeat of their enemies.

3. The argument that hell is self-chosen is fallacious

Keller constructs an antithesis between choosing God as master and choosing autonomy. Those who choose to be “their own Saviors and Masters” are really choosing all the psychological evils that come from being “self-centered, self-absorbed, self-pitying, and self-justifying”—and therefore, so the argument goes, they are choosing hell as a final destination. But people who choose not to submit themselves to Jesus as Lord and Saviour are not choosing hell—you cannot choose something that you don’t believe in. Paul argues in Romans 1:18-32 that idolatry—we might perhaps include self-idolatry—leads to sexual immorality and wickedness, but he does not suggest that pagans thereby choose the wrath of God. In any case, the wrath of God is not what we mean by hell. It refers to some “historical event or process by which a people or a nation or a civilization is ‘judged’ ” (see Kevin DeYoung, Rob Bell, and the argument about hell).

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus addresses the precarious condition of wealthy Jews facing eschatological judgment. In context it does not speak to the whole of humanity, though it has a conventional moral core to it and can easily be recycled. Jesus asserts that it is the poor and marginalized in Israel who will be restored to the “bosom of Abraham”; the wealthy scribes and Pharisees, who have turned a deaf ear to the Law and the Prophets, will suffer the punishment of the gehenna of fire. In the end, it is only a parable. It is no more an argument for hell than the parable of the treasure in the field is an argument for buying metal detectors.

4. The doctrine of hell is not “the only way to know how much Jesus loved us and how much he did for us”

Jesus took upon himself the punishment that was Israel’s. That punishment was death or destruction on a Roman cross, prefiguring the horrendous slaughter and destruction that the nation would suffer at the hands of the Romans. Jesus did not suffer the post-mortem torments of hell, whether for Israel for anyone else. It is purely speculative—actually it is purely unbiblical—to suggest that when Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34), “he was experiencing hell itself”, unless Keller means that metaphorically, which I doubt. Jesus invokes Psalm 22, which tells quite a different story about the anguish of Israel’s king when encompassed by his enemies. Keller’s argument about the metaphysics of extreme suffering is worthy of Mel Gibson and is quite unnecessary. We know that Jesus loved us because he died for us. Death is quite bad enough, thank you.

donsands | Wed, 03/02/2011 - 13:48 | Permalink

"..it is because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus' proclamations of grace and love are so astounding." -Keller

I think Tim did well. Bottom line for me is that the Lord Jesus has some extremely serious things to say about hell.

He says to some that they be better off never being born. He says to all who offend with their hand, feet, or eye to cut them off, and pluck them out.  Most unbelievers mock at plucking your eye out, don't they. These words of Christ should make us cringe. But I'm afraid they don't. 


I understand where you’re coming from, Don. But that’s not really a response to the post. Before we jump to conclusions about what Jesus might be saying to us, I think we need to get a much clearer sense of what he was saying to his contemporaries and why.

@Andrew Perriman:

I like your reponse to the fourth point. It boggles my mind when I read someone say that sending people to eternal torment somehow demonstrates love for those people.

No, torturing people demonstrates hate, unless we want to argue that Mao and Stalin loved their enemies like Jesus. 


God gives us a choice about eternity, which I think demonstrates love.  The inevitable consequence of not choosing God (a choice that God allows) is eternal separation.  If we choose ourselves over God, than we choose eternal separation, which God allows, because ultimately we need to make the choice.  No one is arguing that tortuing is love.  The comparison between God and Stalin misses the point.  God is not torturing people by sending them to Hell; it is the choice of the individual, which God allows.  If God forces us to love Him, and by extension, choose Heaven, is it really love?  Certainly, nothing worse than Hell exists, but God's allowing us to choose Hell is not an admission of His hate, but a reflection of our selfishness. 

That's a really helpful post. I'd read that article before, and the chapter in Reason For God on hell, and thought it needed a critique from someone more committed to narrative theology. As much as I like Keller's preaching and style, it does seem he's becoming a bit of an unquestioned authority (and he adopts a more sober, intellectual tone than, say, Mark Driscoll).

I've heard him use Miroslav Wolf's argument about how a loving God must judge evil (in the context of murder, genocide etc) to then argue for an eternal hell, as if wrath automatically equals hell, or if you give up on the doctrine of eternal torment you're giving up on a God who judges evil. 

something I'd be interested to know is, are the likes of Keller, Piper, Driscoll and D.A Carson (Gagging of God argues for a position similar to Keller's on hell) aware of the narrative arguments, or just so committed to Reformed doctrines they'd rather not know?


something I’d be interested to know is, are the likes of Keller, Piper, Driscoll and D.A Carson (Gagging of God argues for a position similar to Keller’s on hell) aware of the narrative arguments, or just so committed to Reformed doctrines they’d rather not know?

That’s a very good question. There has been scholarly engagement between the reactionary forces of the Reformed and the reforming forces of the New Perspective (eg., Piper’s debate with N.T. Wright over justification, and I’ve no doubt Carson has had something to say on the matter). But it seems to me that by and large the Reformed argument is based squarely on traditional assumptions and demonstrates little interest in critical exegetical methods.

@Andrew Perriman:

I wonder if those evangelical scholars and ministers who fought battles with 'liberals' see it as their life's mission to defend their church's doctrines. Many seem to have a 'slippery slope' approach, e.g. once you question eternal hell, the next thing you're questioning the atonement etc etc. 

It also seems that, for those at the more conservative theological colleges and churches, they're paid to defend a certain line. Once you're on the circuit speaking at the big evangelical conferences, or a professor at one of the seminaries, it must be quite costly to change your stance. Or maybe that's a bit too cynical of me.

Sorry, me again. Just read this in Keller's article (which I recall being a line of argument in Reason for God):

But if, as the Bible teaches, our souls will go on forever, then just imagine where these two kinds of souls will be in a billion years. 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.

Does the Bible teach 'our souls will go on forever'? Is that a sort of truism of evangelical theology, which isn't actually biblical? It seems to be a prerequisite for believing in eternal hell, so maybe that's why it's a popular idea for people who hold that view. 


I thought of touching on that point but then couldn’t be bothered. Although things are never quite as clear or consistent as one would like, my understanding is that the basic biblical view is that we do not have a “soul” that survives death. The “soul” is the life-principle that returns to the giver of life when a person dies, but it is not some conscious, immortal aspect of a person’s identity. At death the person dies and returns to the earth. To go to Sheol or to Hades is simply to go to the grave.

In different ways, however, scripture conceives of a resurrection of the dead, when the whole person, bodily, is raised to newness of life. There will be a final resurrection of all the dead prior to a final judgment and a final renewal of heaven and earth. But my view, apart from that, is that resurrection belongs primarily to a martyr theology: those who are raised are those who participate concretely in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Most of what is said about resurrection in the New Testament falls into this category.

The argument about “conditional immortality”, which is apparently what Rob Bell will advocate in some form, is that humans are not inherently immortal. Nothing in us survives death. Resurrection to newness of life is a gift of the God who re-creates.

@Andrew Perriman:

I'd be interested in how that squares up with his insistence that 'reconciliation of all things' means 'all things'. When I've heard him say that, it always sounds quite universalist, but maybe he means 'all that is left/raised to life' is reconciled. Thanks for reply, v helpful.

donsands | Wed, 03/02/2011 - 19:46 | Permalink

"Before we jump to conclusions about what Jesus might be saying to us"

For nearly 2,000 years the Church has been saying waht Jesus is saying my friend. Have all the saints and scholars got it wrong? They were not as informed as you are?

I'll stick to the Scriptures and to Church history, as I lean on God the Holy Spirit.


Actually, if you took the time to learn just a little, you would discover that it is a fantasy to think there is any christian doctrine that has been taught consistently for 2000 years.

One example is the immortality of the soul. Justin Martyr wrote in the second century that it is the heretical minority that was teaching that the soul goes to heaven on death. Whether you agree with Justin or not, the idea that souls split from the body and go to heaven or hell when they die was certainly developed decades, perhaps a century or more after the NT was written. So it is very unlikely to have been taught by Jesus or the apostles, who had a thoroughly Jewish belief in the afterlife. Immortal souls are a Greek idea developed by Plato.

And as you lean on god the holy spirit, you might try to learn something about that as well. The debate about the nature of Jesus developed in the decades after his death, so (although I don't agree) one could plausibly argue that he was thought of as divine not too long after his death.

However, the idea that the holy spirit was also a part of a godhead was clearly not a part of christian teaching until the middle of the fourth century.

It's one thing to be wrong -- hey, we're all learning. But try not to be so arrogant about things of which you clearly are uninformed.



However, the idea that the holy spirit was also a part of a godhead was clearly not a part of christian teaching until the middle of the fourth century.

You might be playing fast and loose with the term "clearly" - particularly in light of your other argument (that Christian doctrine hasn't been consistently taught.)  Many scholars would suggest that the doctrine of a Triune God was present in the NT, and the conversations in Nicea were certainly not the first time someone realized that God had been revealed as a trinity of persons!

Arrogance and poor education are also being slung about in your post like the term "black" in an argument between cooking containers.

donsands | Wed, 03/02/2011 - 20:48 | Permalink

"not a part of christian teaching until the middle of the fourth century."


Okay, 1600 years is a long time.


I'm not arrogant. You are judging wrongly my friend.

Rob Robayna | Wed, 03/02/2011 - 22:02 | Permalink

Thanks Andrew for your voice of sanity and incisive narrative theology analysis. Your blogsphere voice has been one of the few source of hope and encouragement for someone trying to make sense of his faith and engage his world while surviving the conservative evangelical world (especially in Sydney - home of the Sydney Anglicans and populated by fans of the Neo-Reformed!). Your historical contingent readings (in the footsteps of NT Wright and others) gives us back the Bible we didn't know we had and is a hopeful way forward in our post-Christendom/postmodern world

I've been a longtime reader of your blog/books but first time poster.

Keep up the good work. Blessings 


Sometimes I wonder when people write things or say things, whether they've actually read anything in the Bible or just go along with what others say. 

Jim Hoag | Thu, 03/03/2011 - 13:26 | Permalink

From Josh Harris's post on "Rob Bell, Hell and Why I Hope I'm Wrong":

Jesus taught that a select number of people would make it to eternal life. Most people will choose the broad way that leads to destruction, but a few will choose the narrow way to life.

Kind of interesting that about a year and a half ago I would have totally endorsed that interpretation of Matthew 7:13 and much more on Josh's post. And I would have done so unreflectively, without question. THAT was the problem.... Maybe I've stopped simply going along with what others say. And Rob R., ditto on your comment.

donsands | Thu, 03/03/2011 - 13:37 | Permalink

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few."-Jesus

How would you interpret Jesus' words? Seems like it says what it means. Why add to it, or take away from it.


Don, the question we are having to consider is this: What difference would it make to our understanding of Jesus, the gospel, and the New Testament story generally, if we recognized that Jesus is speaking here specifically to his own people, to Israel, in prophetic language that they would have recognized and understood, about a life and death choice that they had to make in light of the coming judgment on Jerusalem and the temple? For the exegetical argument see this post.

This is not a matter of adding to or taking away from Jesus’ words. It is a question of what is he saying and to whom is he saying it.

donsands | Thu, 03/03/2011 - 21:58 | Permalink

I understand Andrew. He is talking to Israel for sure, and to anyone who ever read this holy truth. Some may even have repented of their sins, and cried out to our Lord to help them enter the narrow gate down through history. I can see that happening from this verse.

And God has mercy on callous hearts through the preaching of His truth.

I wonder what Cornelius would have thought of our Lord's words?


Just thinking out loud.

I seriously wonder how many folks have seriously wondered what Jesus actually had to say about 'hell' and 'eternity'. A cursory examination of the subject in the original Biblical languages will probably confuse most and make them want to head for the hills. Just start with aion/aionion for fun.

The bottom line to me is, if there is such a ‘place/state’ as eternal torment in hell, than poor, insane Andrea Yates had it exactly right, her children are in heaven, and sorry, but all the rest of the eternal hell believers are B team player wanna be’s.

If eternal torment in hell is real, it seems we need only one page in the Bible which says, TURN OR BURN. I mean, why complicate matters.. especially when we're talking about the eternal destiny of folks? (gee, thanks God!)

When did "if you eat you shall surely die" morph into "you shall surely burn forever and ever in the torments of an eternal hell"?

Some folks believe that universal reconciliation/redemption is an unBiblical, heretical, minority opinion... http://www.amazon.com/Universalism-Prevailing-Doctrine-Christian-Hundre…

I think what is fundamentally at issue here is the concept of free will. All I've seen the belief in a free will do in the evangelical community is give them the "right" to manipulate and pressure folks to come to an old-fashioned altar and "choose" Jesus.

The only issue to me is, what happens at The End? The scriptures on my website GreatestStoryTold.com bear out that GOD WINS in the end through Christ Jesus. Therefore, if there is a ‘hell’, it can not be ‘eternal’. My own journey into hell is linked there as well.

donsands | Sat, 03/05/2011 - 00:17 | Permalink

"I seriously wonder how many folks have seriously wondered what Jesus actually had to say about ‘hell’ and ‘eternity’."-Susan


I don't. Millions of Christians throughout the history of the Church have very seriously wondered and read, studied, and pondered deeply what the Lord jesus said about hell and eternity.

It's true that many have not. But I'm sure many have as well. And there are huge volumes of books with deep thohgt and teachings on these things.


have a terrific weekend and Lord's day, in His grace and truth Andrew, and others.

Here's a couple of new understandings that might explain some things (and it comes straight from the Bible and is based on reasoning).

1. Matthew 10:28-31 (ignore the capital letters in verse 28): pay attention to the progression in these verses--don't fear men who can only kill you, do fear the one who can destroy body and soul in hell, and don't fear because God has numbered the hairs on your head.

2. John 10:10: Christ said the thief (the kingdom of evil) comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but he (Christ) comes so we might have life that is more abundant than than loss, death, and destruction.

3. Revelation 20:13-14: Death and Hell give up all their captives and are cast into the lake of fire (Hell is a temporary state of affairs).

The understanding: Hell is a creation of Satan and the kingdom of evil and is part of their plan to completely destroy the human race and the rest of God's creation. (God came to the kingdom of evil--the darkness--and created good. Satan intends to destroy that good.)


What about the perverse wickedness of human beings?

1.) Matthew 3:11-12: Christ will deal with the loss, death, and destruction that Satan has deceived us with through the baptism of the Holy Spirit (aka the Spirit of Truth) and the baptism of fire. The purpose of Christ's work is to set us free from everything that would keep us bound to loss, death, and destruction.

2.) Revelation 6:9-11, Revelation 7:1-17 and Revelation 20:11-15: These passages account for every human being. Revelation 6 deals with those who have given their lives for Christ, but who have not yet received the promise of immortality; Revelation 7 deals with those people who are alive when Christ returns, who have gone through the baptism of fire in their lives, and who receive the promise of immortality. Revelation 20 deals with all others who have died. One very important thing to remember is that God's judgments are not to damnation, but to freedom. Christ himself said we will know the truth and the truth will set us free.

Here's a picture I carry in my mind: A person comes before God's throne and that person is bent double with his nose touching his knees. On his back are the horrible and evil "things" that have attached themselves to him during his lifetime. As this person comes to the throne, God pulls one of the "things" off the person's back. God crouches down so He can look into the person's eyes and He explains the deceptions behind the "thing" and explains the truth of His absolute love. Then He asks the person whether he wanted to keep the "thing" or to toss it into the lake of fire. Because there is nothing greater than God's absolute love, the person begs God to toss the "thing" into the fire. This process goes on and the person begins to stand upright. When all of the horrible and evil "things" are dealt with, God looks at the person eye-to-eye and ask him "What do you choose--life (immortality) and blessings or death (the second death) and cursings?" (Deuteronomy 30:15-20). What do you think that person will choose?

Isaiah 25:6-8 states that God will swallow up death forever and that He will wipe the tears away from all faces. I Timothy 2:4 tells us that it is God's will that all people be saved, and in Matthew 6:10, Christ asks that we pray that God's will would done on earth as it is in Heaven. I'm praying and believing that everyone will know and understand God's absolute love! 

donsands | Sat, 03/05/2011 - 20:26 | Permalink

It's appointed for us to die once. And then the judgment. The books will be opened and God will judge everyone who is not written in His book of life, the Lamb's book of life.


Here's a thought for you--human beings are not the only occupants of the earth (if the Bible is correct). The kingdom of evil also dwells on the earth. If we read the book of Revelation with that in mind, some mysteries will be solved. For example, Isaiah 25:6-8 and Revelation 20:11-15 seem to contradict each other. However, if the Book of Life includes all who have had physical life, then those who are cast into the lake of fire are Satan's cohorts (Jude 6) and there is no contradiction. Every human being will go through God's judgments (the baptism of fire) at one point or the other because His judgments are truth and truth sets us free from the loss, death, and destruction that kingdom of evil has raised against us. We are born into a world full of deception and one of the reasons Christ went to the cross was to make the way for us to know and understand truth.  

donsands | Sun, 03/06/2011 - 14:51 | Permalink

"..one of the reasons Christ went to the cross was to make the way for us to know and understand truth."


Jesus came to bear witness to the truth. All those who love the truth will come into the light, those whom God has mercy on.

Those who hate the truth will stay in darkness, for they hate the Truth, they hate Christ.


Yet, Jesus says, "Come unto Me all." Many will not come, becuase they hate Him. And they will cast out into darkness, the Jew first, and also the Gentile.


If you go and tell all sinners that everyone will be in heaven one day, even if you don't repent and believe the gospel: the death and ressurection of Christ, then you my friend are in dire straits.

paul said anyone who preaches a different gospel will be accursed. In fact, he includes himself, if he would ever preach a different gospel he says let himself be accursed. 


If you tell anybody that they will go to heaven or hell when they die, then you have violated the teachings of Jesus and every other writer of the book you call the bible.

Jesus said god would forgive those who forgive others. He said people who feed the hungry, etc. would enter his kingdom. But you say he was wrong. Man, I'd hate to go to the mercy seat with that hanging over me.

donsands | Tue, 03/08/2011 - 00:47 | Permalink

"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him." John 3:36

If someone tells me they don't have to believe in Christ and obey Him, then i can tell them the wrath of God abides upon you. If they say they believe in Christ, then they certainly could have eternal life, but there are many who call Christ Lord, and yet Jesus does not know them, and they will be cast out.

Simple truth. I thank the Lord for giving us His simple and pure truth. (There are deeper things as well, I understand that.)

I appreciate reading this exchange because it epitomizes my own journey in the Christian faith. I was raised to believe that making certain verbal proclamations immediately put me with the 'in group' and the people who couldn't make such pronouncements boldly were spineless or 'hated Christ' as it were. My journey since then has been one of discovering how difficult the journey towards the Truth can be and how selective the reading of the Bible I used to subscribe to actually is.

There is nothing easy or plain about the Gospel - and reducing it to pithy verbal formulas that read an us-them jingoism into the Bible and the Church really cheapens the revolutionary message of Jesus Christ.

donsands | Thu, 03/10/2011 - 01:30 | Permalink

"There is nothing easy or plain about the Gospe"


Sure there is. God made in pure and simple, so that even a child can understand. In fact, unless we accept Christ as a child, we can not enter the kingdom.

The prudes and wise are the ones thrown out.


yet, there is a great depth of the Gospel as well, becuae the good news IS Christ Jesus. he Himself is the Gospel. His death and resurrection is the Gospel. We simply ask Him to help us, forgive us, and repent, and Christ will never refuse anyone who comes to Him.


The Holy Writ as a whole has some very difficult things for us to love and study and ponder, but the salvation of our Lord is pure and simple.

God made in pure and simple, so that even a child can understand.

I have heard this all my life, backed up by a reading of Matt 19:14. Now that I'm a dad, I find it curious that this verse has been interpreted to mean that to be a good Christian one has to have a kind of intellectual naivite. Children question everything and are curious about everything - so if we're talking about having a child-like attitute towards faith, it doesn't mean intellectual or moral simplicity. That's just infantilizing the Gospel - but I grant that this version sells quite well.  

I think that it's pretty clear that the passage contrasts Christ's attitude to those of the disciples who become impatient when the focus of their teacher falls upon those that they regarded inconsiquential. Jesus replies that it is such 'inconsequentials' that matter in the Kingdom (the last shall be first etc). This has got nothing to do with having a 'child-like' faith.

We simply ask Him to help us, forgive us, and repent,

I think it's about more than simply asking - Jesus Christ has a way of turning your life upside-down. Yes the salvation of our Lord is pure - but rarely simple!


I appreciate that Andrew addresses the doctrine of conditional immortality (soul sleep). This is teaching that has been given short shrift too often.

I believe that soul sleep fits better the reality of 1) a loving God 2) the idea that eternal life is a gift from God but the wages of sin is death.

My point being that if a person is relegated to the confines of an "eternally burning" hell, then they will have eternal life...a miserable one, but eternal nonetheless. We are told in Malachi that the wicked wll be ashes under the soles of the righteous' feet and there will be left neither root nor branch. Sounds an awful lot like annhilation to me.

donsands | Thu, 03/10/2011 - 16:29 | Permalink

"Yes the salvation of our Lord is pure - but rarely simple!"

I was not really considering that Matt. passage. I was thinking more that a child can be saved.  My pastor became a Christian when he was five.

The Gospel is deep and infinite in one sense, I agree. yet it is simple enough for a five year old to trust in and accept.

donsands | Thu, 03/10/2011 - 16:32 | Permalink

"Sounds an awful lot like annhilation to me."


That may, but what about this verse: " the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever." -John

Andrew- good discussion. I appreciate (though without necessarily agreeing with) the various points of view on the biblical language of hell. Andrew- as you and I spoke about- I think it's a both and. Was Jesus warning of an impending temporal judgment? Or a judgment that would come post-time. I don't think I have to choose- I think it's both.

In terms of what comes beyond, later... Jesus Himself described the resurrection in John 5- "Don’t be so surprised! Indeed, the time is coming when all the dead in their graves will hear the voice of God’s Son, 29 and they will rise again. Those who have done good will rise to experience eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to experience judgment. "
Sheep and Goat judgment, 70AD, Israel/Gentiles aside... Jesus is describing something after/beyond all of that, isn't He? And He seems to be contrasting two different destinies, isn't He? Am I reading that wrong?

@Bob Hyatt:

Bob, thanks for your comments. I understand your point—in fact, you’re not the only person to make it to me today. This is a quick response.

1. I think that there will be a final judgment of all humanity as part of a final renewal of all things. I’m just not sure that this is what Jesus has in mind when he addresses Israel.

2. I don’t see any evidence in the text to suggest that Jesus was referring both to an imminent judgment on Israel and to a final post-temporal judgment. Can we be sure that we are not reading this into his statements.

3. The argument has been put to me that the New Testament finds further stages of fulfilment in Old Testament prophecies. That may be the case. But then the New Testament itself validates those extended applications. Does the New Testament validate the extension of Jesus’ account of judgment? Does every prophecy necessarily have a further or final application? Who decides?

4. John 5:25-29 may have reference to a final judgment (though there would be no two-stage fulfilment involved). But I would ask about the relation of this passage to Daniel 12:1-3, which is a limited resurrection associated with a crisis centred on Jerusalem under threat from a pagan power. Arguably it is this sort of scenario that Jesus has in mind. The curious resurrection described in Matthew 27:52-53 may be relevant here.

5. I think there are reasons for not interpreting the sheep and goats passage as a final judgment.

oh man, this is the silliest thing i have ever read... i feel stupider for having done so...

donsands | Thu, 03/17/2011 - 23:11 | Permalink

"this is the silliest thing i have ever read"

Really. The silliest eh.

That's a silly name Anon. What's your real name?

I always enjoy reading your stuff. And when it comes to this post, I agree with much of what you've written. (I'm actually planning to explore the issue of hell - as it relates to evangelism - on my blog. So, I was intrigued by the subject of this post.) It seems to me, however, that much of your commentary on hell is so couched in historical and eschatological terms that it never breaches that which is "beyond the grave."

I mean, let's say we are to grant your construal of the doctrine of hell, it doesn't answer the question of life after death, or, in your terms, after judgment. Sure, all this (historical/eschatological) judgment is going to take place on those who chose not to accept the gospel, but what becomes of them...i.e. beside physical death and destruction.

The discourse of "hell" (psychosocially speaking, anyway) is not so much trying to query into the exegetical and historical doctrine of hell, but rather an attempt to probe the metaphysical question of "what happens after you die?"  

Is it your opinion, then, that Holy Writ speaks nothing of this sort of soulish, after death reality? Is everything so forcibly concerned with historcal judgment that it speaks no word to the situation of human lives/souls once they pass from this historical context?


Aaron, I think that’s probably a fair analysis. I wouldn’t say that the Bible says nothing that might be construed in terms of a “soulish, after death reality”. The place of the dead in the Old Testament appears sometimes to be inhabited by the ghostly spirits of the dead. I think this is, in effect, figurative language. The witch of Endor seemingly conjured up the spirit of Samuel from the dead, but I doubt that this should be taken as evidence of soul-survival.

But the basic idea, I think, is that when we die, we are dead, we decay, we return to the dust, the breath of our life returns to the God who gave it, and we remain dead and gone unless or until God raises us from the dead. So nothing becomes of the dead “beside physical death and destruction”. There is no disembodied existence. We exist only bodily. The only distinction to be made is between a natural or physical or “soulish” (psychikonbody now and a spiritual (pneumatikon) body in the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:44). Jesus was raised bodily. I think that the New Testament holds out the same promise to the martyrs—they will be raised bodily and will reign with Christ throughout the coming ages of human history. The rest of us will have to wait until the final resurrection of the all the dead.

The discourse of “hell” (psychosocially speaking, anyway) is not so much trying to query into the exegetical and historical doctrine of hell, but rather an attempt to probe the metaphysical question of “what happens after you die?”

But this “discourse” is not what the Bible is interested in. It resolutely does not speculate about the metaphysics of a disembodied after-life. Biblical Jewish thought is actually rather anti-metaphysical. Those questions come from elsewhere—from Hellenistic dualism, from animism, from folk religion, from the pseudo-scientific investigations of the 19th century, from natural human superstition, and so on.

@Andrew Perriman:

Fair enough. I agree that the force of biblical discourse on life after this historical context is not disembodiment (though from my perspective their seems to be a period in which that is the case). But my question now is, do the dead who rejected the gospel not also awake to a bodily/physical situation of judgment, just as the dead in Christ are raised to live in the consummated kingdom? Or, do you believe that for such people, physical death is their only judgment?


If Revelation 20-21 is anything to go by, all the dead are raised and judged according to what they have done. Those whose names are not written in the book of life (which is perhaps different to the Lamb’s book of life—don’t have time to give the references) are thrown into the lake of fire which is the second death. I think that this is simply a restatement of the final judgment of death and destruction on human wickedness. By the way, I don’t think it’s correct to think of being raised to “live in a consecrated kingdom”, but that’s another issue.

Just to bring out a thought.

A lot of liberals who will throw out statements like, "You really need to know the context of what he is saying in order to understand it.", or "you really need to read more and educate yourself more to understand it."


1. They don't realize they are coming from an air of skepticism, relative truth, and liberalism. The nature of liberalism is to question authority, this rose out of the 18th century in the enlightenment, when the age of reason began. This is when professors in Christian colleges started teaching Jesus as just a moral teacher because they believed in the goodness of man and ability for man to fix himself and culture. In short the age of enlightenment put a lot of esteem on man.


The Bible however speaks of man as absolutely worthless, dirt, nothing, less than nothing, without God. As a preacher said, "How can you question God when you are borrowing air from Him to even speak?" Think about how God responded to Job when he came to visit him.


Jesus said that man builds his faith on a foundation. Liberals believe that their 'enlightened minds' about 1st century judaism and contextualization gives them an air of authority and understanding of the Bible that surpasses others. That is why they can throw out those statements and think themselves humble--"You really should go read some NT Wright or Sanders and find out that Paul was really talking about a covenantal gnomism and not individual salvation... etce tc.." But the sand they stand on is shaky because it's of their own development. They have stepped outside the Word of God as their foundation and are now standing in education and historical research.


Think of this scenario--a woman is dieing on her death bed and she has 2 minutes to live, she has rebelled against God her whole life, and you have to go in and let her know that she is saved.


What are you going to say? Are you going to tell her, "You better go read a bunch of historical evidence about the contextualization of the Bible in order to understand what Jesus was saying.."

"Help me, I'm on my way to hell."


"Well, lady, first let me tell you, a little about the parable that Jesus said.. You see, he wasn't actually talking about an eternal damnation, but bla bla bla bla."


Do you think this would be disenhartening to a dieing man or woman? Yes. Does that make a point? It should. The Gospel is God's redemptive story for our souls. It is our guide to heaven and eternal life. If you think it is just a book written by man for the culture and time they were living in, then you are not in the realm of Christianity anymore.

A professor said, "Christian liberalism is the new athiesm." I would argue that it is even more dangerous, speaking to evangelical Christians with authority and destroying faith..

Jesus warned that in the last days the biggest threats would be false teachers and deception. Why do you think in church history there was such big stress on doctrine, there were many heresies that caused men to be kicked out of the faith. Now, there is no doctrinal discussions anymore for the sake of 'unity'. We believe that 'it is all about how you look at it' aka relativism. BUt that is a faith in and of itself.


There is one way, one truth, one light. And the road is straight and narrow. Remember, the law of God is written on every heart. WHen you read the Word of God and it has an effect on you, there is a reason: God is speaking to his creation through his Word. Don't think for a moment that it is the work of men.


Any responses?


By the way, if you are going to say that I am being proud, show me where. I stand on the authority of the Bible, not my own. If you think you can say that I am just interpreting the Bible from my "own" perspective, I think you just proved my point.


Dear heaven! 

I do not question the intensity (implacability) of your faith, but have to point out that your description of my general belief and its accompanying scholarship is simply riddled with misinterpretation and falsity. Further, it sounds as if you are reading from a script. Not scripture, which is a living document, but script, which is immovable.

Thanks very much, but given my choice between, "What Jesus meant was..." and "You're going to hell unless you promise to believe something you can't believe," I'll go with Jesus.


Ryan, you seem to define "liberal" as people who are not complete dupes, so I guess I'm glad to meet your definition. 

One could go through every sentence you wrote and pick out laughable falsehoods.

Only liberals are concerned with context? So you are proud to read things out of context? "Believe what I say, because I'm stupid."

Questioning authority started with the enlightenment? Sounds like a very poor grasp on history, like you went through a wingnut homeschool course. History is full of people who question authority. Didn't Jesus question authorities of his time? Oh, never mind.

Can you cite any evidence about the percentage of professors that taught anything in particular at a given point in time? No need, when you can just pull "facts" from thin air, or other places I won't mention.

Jesus warned about the last days -- he also said that his listeners were in the last days, so I don't think he had the 21st century in mind. But if he did, how do you know that he wasn't warning against people who think like you? I think Jesus was warning against people twisting his words, as you do.

In fact, I think he wants you to give him his air back.

Because if you put his teaching in context, which I know you think is evil, you will get the sense that the point of his ministry wasn't to get people to assert an intellectual proposition two minutes before they died to attain a Greek-type existence in the afterworld. The point was to prepare people for the world that was foretold by the prophets of the religion to which he was devoted (which as a matter of historical fact wasn't christianity).

What really ticks me off about your type of drivel is that it is an attempt at bullying. Your ilk parrots catch phrases that you were taught in Sunday School yet miss the whole point of being a christian, which involves the fruit of the spirit. You speak as if you have settled thousands of years of debate without even having bothered to try to think about the issues.

So please, and I'm saying this for your own good, pull your pants up and go back to playing with your GI Joe dolls. And do try to stop making a fool out of yourself in public.


Brother, you misread me.


By the way, I am a NT Theology major in 2nd year, have graduated with an AA from another college having studied psychology and sociology.


These thoughts aren't 100% mine, of course how you think is always determined by what you read and who you read.


It may sound like I am yelling but my intention is to bring up a point I think people miss: The radical questioning of the Bible is rooted in history. There was a time when people didn't radically question the Bible.



Machen on Christianity and Liberalism



Coming with love and open for discussion.


Don't attack me, but talk about the content I am bringing. You personally attacked me and said go back to sunday school, when in fact I might have more theological knowledge than you. Act in love, my friend.


Ryan, which is it? One minute you say studying the bible in context is evil, then you are bragging about how many college courses you are taking.

I'm so confused. Is studying the bible good or bad?

Of course, I know your answer. Any study that you agree with is godly and any information you disagree with is evil.

If I mistake you for a schoolboy idiot, it is because you are writing like one. I'm sorry to be harsh, but you need some humility. You make blanket statements that you can't back up and insult just about everyone who frequents this site, which is devoted to thoughtful study of christianity, then you are surprised to get smacked down?

You want to talk content now? Because you came here and threw insults and you still got nothing in the way of actually backing up what you said.

Now please, I hear your mom calling. I think she made meatloaf tonight. Yumm.


That's better.

Now read all the brilliant comments to Andrew's follow-up post by the good people who wrestle with the context of the bible, and learn from them. And take that kind of attitude, and then you will have learned something.

This isn't about who is right. I think Andrew's central idea is right, but I disagree with some details and implications.

There is nothing wrong with challenging someone's view, but you have to be smart about it. Smart is being able to question your assumptions, always. It is about learning from the dialogue.


I'm sorry.


I realize I came from a pretty bad place when I posted these things. I am struggling in my faith of hardcore calvinistic literal interpretations of the Bible and more coercive interpretations.


What I said was definitely judgemental and ignorant.


Forgive me.



All is cool. I dish it out but I can also take it.

Far too many years ago I was a cocksure kid who thought he knew more than he did. I know that might be hard to imagine. No? Shut up. :)

Anyway, even though I was never what you would call conservative, I remember the first time I read a tract questioning the Trinity. I tore it up. Eventually, as I read more about history I was in a place where I was able to consider such ideas. A lot of things in this life aren't sure. One thing that is certain, though, is that we are all wrong about a lot of things. Like last year I was certain that there was no way that a team that started Pat Burrell could win the World Series. Good thing I don't bet.

Good luck. This is a good place to think out loud, as is James McGrath's site.




Yes, I'm glad we can forgive one another, or else this world would be sad.


Well, I have a question. My main problem with reinterpreting the Bible is this scenario I brought before--how can you tell a man on his deathbed he is saved.. If the reinterpretation of it radically affects the simplicity and the foolishness of the Gospel I do not think it is God's intention of His Word. Does that make sense?


Peace, brother. :)




Ryan, I'm not sure what to say. How do I know this person is two minutes from death? Am I about to kill him? Did god tell me the minute he will have a fatal stroke?

What if I cough a lot during my two minutes and they die before I can finish? Then it would be my fault.

And are you wondering what the bible says or what I think?

I don't think there is anything in the bible that contemplates such a situation because they weren't concerned about individual "salvation." Most of the OT assumes no life after death.


With all honesty brother you are impossible to converse with. Your post here is rediculous. I'll leave the conversation now, if anyone would like to continue, please do so. I will respond to another.


How do I know this person is two minutes from death? Am I about to kill him? Did god tell me the minute he will have a fatal stroke?

Brian Dockery | Sun, 11/18/2018 - 05:39 | Permalink

While I don’t want to base theology on just one verse, what are your thoughts on Matthew 18:9 where Jesus says hell was prepared for the devil and his angels? Apologies is you have dealt with this verse and I just haven’t seen it.

@Brian Dockery:

Hi Brian,

Might you instead mean the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25?

@Phil L.:


Yes, it seems that is what I was thinking of.

@Brian Dockery:

Matthew 25:31-46 describes a judgment of the nations according to how they have treated Jesus’ disciples, the least of these his brothers. Those Gentiles who tend to the physical needs of the disciples in their sufferings will be invited to share in the life of the restored kingdom (Matt. 25:34). Those who neglect the disciples will suffer the destruction of the age represented by the fire. They will not have a share in the life of the age to come, following the restoration of Israel.

Eventually the devil and his angels will suffer the same destruction: “and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev. 20:10).

This is Jesus’—or Matthew’s—way of saying, on the one hand, that righteous Gentiles will be rewarded, and on the other, that the persecution and suffering that will be an inevitable part of the experience of the disciples in this period would come to an end.