The problem with Hell, part one...

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"Religious narcissism, no less than cultural narcissism, makes man the

measure of all things. And nowhere is this seen more clearly than the

attenuated, kinder and gentler view of Hell embraced by postmodern


(David) This is part one of a four-part series reflecting on an article by Tim Keller titled, "The Importance of Hell." Part two of the series can be found here. Part three can be found here. Pastor Keller's original document is available here.

In a narcissistic age, proclamations of sin inevitably focus inward and are psychological, not spiritual. The primary reference is self rather than God, His holiness and judgment of sinful men.

Postmoderns preaching to postmoderns are all about "Look what you've done to yourself by your selfishness." This is their conviction of sin. "Look how disordered you've made your world. Look how you--and others like you--are tearing the world's fabric by your self-centeredness."

Narcissists preaching to narcissists speak of selfishness as the supreme sin. And indeed, selfishness is a root sin of narcissism. But what solution do they offer?

Such preachers proclaim deliverance from self-centeredness by turning the sinner into a better, happier, more self-actualized narcissist. The narcissistic gospel delivers the sinner, not from himself, but to himself; to the true him as God intended him to be.

So, in a narcissistic age, the holiness of God becomes an altruistic mirror through which the narcissist may come to see his own failure to realize his own God-given potential. Rather than an infinite indictment and insurmountable obstacle, the holiness of God becomes an aid to personal holiness: in its light we see light, we are inspired, we are chastened and lifted beyond ourselves.

The Christ of narcissistic preaching is the all-loving one whose supreme selflessness permits us to understand our true value to God. "Look how much God values you," becomes the message of the narcissist's cross and gospel. "Look what lengths He went to to win you. You have great worth. Won't you please understand what you can be in the light of His sacrifice, and then embrace it?"

Over against the culture of narcissism permeating American Christianity stands a doctrine of the Christian faith that is death to the idea of man's potential loveliness, death to our attempts to reweave a kinder, gentler creation, death to the idea of the Gospel as a boon and spur to generic human flourishing. That doctrine is the biblical teaching on Hell, a doctrine which over the centuries has served as a fundamental dividing line between the Gospel as the realization of human potential and loveliness and the Gospel as deliverance from human nature and character to a holiness alien to sinful man.

Is Hell simply human choice confirmed by God or the active judgment of God on human sin? Is Hell sin’s natural consequence, the trajectory of sin over eternity, or is it a disruptive punishment imposed by the Holy God Who has a perfect hatred of iniquity? These are important questions in a culture of narcissism. Religious narcissism, no less than cultural narcissism, makes man the measure of all things. And nowhere is this seen more clearly than the attenuated, kinder and gentler view of Hell embraced by postmodern preachers.

I suspect most preachers influenced by the American culture of narcissism would secretly prefer annihilationism over the biblical doctrine of Hell--the conscious eternal state of torment decreed by God as the end of sinners. But even at this late date, annihilationism remains beyond the pale in the view of modern evangelical and reformed Christians. It continues to have something of a bad reputation as a way-station on the road to universalism (which is outright heresy, entailing as it usually does a Unitarian, deistic view of God and a denial of the substitutionary atonement). Though a few within the reformed and evangelical world (such as John Stott) have adopted annihilationist views, in a young man, annihilationism is a sign of incipient heresy; and in an old man, it may be taken as evidence he’s entered his dotage and is no longer fully in control of himself…

So what is the religious narcissist to do when it comes to Hell? How can he affirm to the modern narcissist that God is good, and yet also maintain the reality of Hell? How can he preach a loving God, as the narcissist would conceive of love, yet still affirm the reality of Hell?

To answer this question, I’d like to continue tomorrow by looking at a modern defense of Hell by a prominent reformed pastor....