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Tim Keller gets a lot right but gets hell badly wrong

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.