The problem with Hell, part two...

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"Keller rejects the literal nature of Hell’s fire by writing, 'Since

souls are in hell right now, without bodies, how could the fire be

literal, physical fire?'"

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

Earlier this year a document titled “The Importance of Hell” appeared on Redeemer Presbyterian Church Manhattan’s web site. Despite at first appearing a full-throated affirmation of classic Biblical teaching on Hell, the article by Redeemer senior pastor Tim Keller disappoints on a number of levels.

Keller initially—and rightly—emphasizes the importance of preaching and teaching on Hell. He writes:

“Why is this so extremely important to stress in our preaching and teaching today? The

idea of hell is implausible to people because they see it as unfair that infinite punishment would be meted out for comparably minor, finite false steps (like not embracing Christianity.) Also, almost no one knows anyone (including themselves) that seem to be bad enough to merit hell. But the Biblical teaching on hell answers both of these objections.”

It’s important to note that Keller is not addressing the uninitiated in his article. His aim is preachers and teachers whom he seeks to equip with a theology and understanding of Hell sufficient for the task of reaching a modern audience, an audience which finds the emphases of older preaching on Hell unconvincing.

Keller’s article is divided into four sections, each beginning with a statement on the importance of preaching and teaching on Hell. Grouped together, the sections constitute not just four discrete points on the importance of Hell to modern preaching, but a theology of Hell itself.

Keller’s first point is simply a powerful reminder of the significance of Hell in the teaching of Christ. He writes at its outset, “It is important because Jesus taught about it more than all other Biblical authors put together.”

Keller concludes this sober point, "If Jesus, the Lord of Love and Author of Grace spoke about hell more often, and in a more vivid, blood-curdling manner than anyone else, it must be a crucial truth.” 

Were this all Keller had written, we could praise God for his boldness and say no more. But in his three subsequent points, Keller takes away a good deal of what he has written initially.

In his second point, ("It is important because it shows how infinitely dependent we are on God for everything.”), Keller seeks to provide a definition of Hell’s terrors suitable to the work of the modern preacher or teacher.

He begins by noting that though Jesus speaks of Hell using such terms as “outer darkness” and “fire,” these “images” are “metaphorical” in nature. Keller claims this despite having written in his first section, “for Jesus hell was a real place, since he said that after judgment day people would experience it in their bodies.”

In Keller's view, Hell’s physical suffering is a byproduct of the spiritual suffering which Hell primarily consists of. Because Hell is a real place where real people with true bodies reside, it is necessarily a place of physical suffering. Its terrors and its pains, however, are primarily spiritual—in the same way that we suffer physically through experiencing spiritual and emotional blows in this life: the person who loses a loved one losing his appetite, being unable to sleep, suffering fatigue and shortness of breath for instance.

But while such a metaphorical interpretation of Hell is in itself no cause for alarm, Keller introduces a tendentious note in the first sentence of this section when he writes, “Virtually all commentators and theologians believe that the Biblical images of fire and outer darkness are metaphorical.”

Though he is not seeking to diminish the awfulness of Hell (Keller immediately goes

on to quote Edwards, “When metaphors are used in Scripture about spiritual

things . . . they fall short of the literal truth.”), by dismissing a specifically

physical dimension to Hell’s punishment, Keller goes well beyond Edwards and

most Church fathers. However metaphorical Scripture's descriptions of Hell’s suffering might be, Church fathers certainly did

not consider them preclusive of the possibility of real fire, real maggots and real darkness.

Augustine writes in The City of God, “Let each one make his own choice, either assigning the fire to the body and the worm to the soul—the one figuratively, the other really—or assigning both really to the body." Though Augustine understands the potential for metaphor in Scripture’s description of Hell, he himself does not view Hell’s fire as metaphorical.

Augustine goes on to explain why he rejects the metaphorical interpretation of Hell: “for I have sufficiently made out that animals can live in the fire, in burning without being consumed, in pain without dying, by a miracle of the most omnipotent Creator, to whom no one can deny that this is possible, by whom is made all that is wonderful in all nature.”

This issue is deeply significant for the development of Keller’s thought. Keller rejects the literal nature of Hell’s fire by writing, “Since souls are in hell right now, without bodies, how could the fire be literal, physical fire?”

Of course, for Augustine, Hell’s fire can be, and indeed must be, physical because God is capable of making it so. Augustine is unwilling to limit Hell’s fires to metaphor because by so doing the omnipotence of God is implicitly diminished in favor of a rational Hell operating in accord with physical laws of nature. Without denying further metaphorical potential to Scripture’s descriptions of Hell, Augustine begins his understanding of Hell by viewing it through the lens of the nature and character of God.

This is where Augustine and Keller part ways. Keller says that Hell is a “natural consequence” of sinful human life. Augustine views Hell as supernaturally imposed.

For Keller, Hell is the ultimate and complete absence of God. This is the theme of his second point; he writes, “In the teaching of Jesus the ultimate condemnation from the mouth of God is 'depart from me.' That is remarkable--to simply be away from God is the worst thing that can happen to us! Why? We were originally created to walk in God's

immediate presence.”

He concludes this section by saying, “when we lose God's supportive presence all together, the result is hell.”

Keller thus defines hell as the complete and permanent absence of God from human life. In His absence we continually fall apart, we are forever destroyed and undone. Hell is not so much an active judgment by God as it is passive. Hell is God removing Himself from sinful human life: yes, terrible, horrible, painful, but not actively so. Hell is, in a sense, the passivity of God in human life: He no longer contends with man, no longer strives with him, no longer sustains His creation in Hell by the gifts of His common grace.

It’s important to note the creativity of Keller’s quotations from Scripture in this section. At two points he recites portions of Scripture to underline his contention that Hell is simply the absence of God.

First, in the paragraph immediately following his initial description of the metaphorical nature of Hell’s fire and darkness, Keller writes, “In the teaching of Jesus the ultimate condemnation from the mouth of God is ‘depart from me.’ That is remarkable--to simply be away from God is the worst thing that can happen to us!”

But, of course, that’s not quite all Jesus says about the matter. The full quote from Matthew 25:41, 41 is this:

“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels."

God’s sentence on sinners, “Depart from me…” is not simply entry into a void where He is not present, but entry into a place of eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. God’s judgment on sinners is not simply to suffer in a place where He is not and where they are left to their own devices, but entry into a place of eternal fire prepared by God—and here Christ uses the same word to describe the place of eternal torment that in John 14:2 He employs to describe His activity in His Father’s house while He waits to be reunited with His disciples: “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place

for you."

Hell is prepared for those who suffer its terrors just as heaven is being prepared

for those who will enter into God’s rest.

Second, Keller includes Paul as witness to his contention that Hell is a place defined by separation from God’s presence when he writes, “That is why, for Paul, the everlasting fire and destruction of hell is ‘exclusion from the presence of the Lord.’ (2 Thessalonians 1:9.)”

But, again, this snip from 2 Thessalonians is so carefully chosen and paraphrased that it will almost certainly be lost on most readers that what Keller is quoting is actually a prepositional phrase in which Paul describes the place of eternal destruction, not the character of that destruction. Paul’s sentence actually begins, “These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction,” before adding the phrase, “…away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”

Sinners will indeed spend eternity excluded from the presence of the Lord and the glory

of His power, but that place of exile in which God is absent is simply where the “penalty of eternal destruction” takes place. They will pay the penalty away from His presence and the glory of His power, but the penalty is more than the absence of these things. Though the penalty takes place in their absence, it does not consist of their absence.

We will turn next to the significance of Keller limiting Biblical terminology for Hell to a metaphor of the effect of God’s absence from

human life....