The problem with Hell, part four...

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"In a narcissistic age, even the doctrine of Hell becomes proof of God's

love for sinners. Not a reason to fear God. Not a reason to reform our

lives. Not proof of the active wrath of God."

(David) This is the final installment in a four-part series reviewing an article on Hell by Tim Keller titled, "The Importance of Hell" (PDF). Here are parts one, two, and three of the review.

Pastor Keller concludes “The importance of Hell” saying, “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.”

This intriguing section of Keller’s essay hews closely to Calvin’s explanation of the clause in the Apostles’ Creed which speaks of Christ’s “descent into Hell…” (Institutes, 2.16.8-2.16.10) In Keller’s opinion, Jesus’ suffering on the cross constituted His descent into Hell. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” Keller says His payment was complete. The Atonement was won. Christ had suffered Hell in our place.

And what did that Hell consist of? Though “His body was being destroyed in the worst possible way… (it) was a flea bite compared to what was happening to his soul. When he cried out that his God had forsaken him he was experiencing hell itself.”  For Keller, then, Jesus’ descent into Hell consisted of His separation from God during His hours of suffering on the cross.

Though Keller reflects Calvin at this one point, it’s a slim reed to force to bear the full weight of his larger argument about the nature and character of Hell—his larger (and lonely) contention that Hell is merely the absence of God.

More importantly, granting Keller the right to argue from Calvin and the Apostle’s Creed at this one point does nothing to support Keller’s basic contention that Hell is the “natural consequence” of the “self-centered” life.

How could anyone believe Christ suffered Hell in our place, and yet conceive of Hell as a “natural consequence” of human selfishness, rather than an expression of the holy God’s retributive wrath? That the perfect, spotless Lamb of God would suffer Hell as a “natural consequence” of His life’s trajectory beggars the imagination and approaches blasphemy.

Of course Keller doesn’t say this and never would, I'm sure. But his argument implies it. If Jesus suffered the same Hell that sinners will; and if that Hell is not an active judgment by God, but rather a natural consequence of sinners selfishly going their own way; then either the Hell Jesus suffered was not the same Hell sinners suffer, or it was—and the implications of that are unthinkable…

These are deep waters—waters in which Keller’s idea of Hell’s nature and character founder irrecoverably. And yet, even at this point, we haven't reached the height of man's supremacy as demonstrated by Keller's doctrine of Hell.

Keller declares that a correct doctrine of Hell is “the only way to know how much Jesus loved us and how much he did for us," and it does this because only through His suffering Hell for us is the depth of Jesus’ love for us revealed.

Keller writes, “When Jesus 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. And he did it voluntarily, for us… if Jesus did not experience hell itself for us, then we ourselves are devalued. In Isaiah, we are told, ‘The results of his suffering he shall see, and shall be satisfied’ (Isaiah 53:11). This is a stupendous thought. Jesus suffered infinitely more than any human soul in eternal hell, yet he looks at us and says, ‘It was worth it.’ What could make us feel more loved and valued than that?”

Bear these words in mind as you read Keller's conclusion:

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. Nevertheless, it is possible to stress the doctrine of hell in unwise ways. Many, for fear of doctrinal compromise, want to put all the emphasis on God's active judgment, and none on the self-chosen character of hell. Ironically, as we have seen, this unBiblical imbalance often makes it less of a deterrent to non-believers rather than more of one. And some can preach hell in such a way that people reform their lives only out of a self-interested fear of avoiding consequences, not out of love and loyalty to the one who embraced and experienced hell in our place. The distinction between those two motives is all-important. The first creates a moralist, the second a born-again believer.

In a narcissistic age, even the doctrine of Hell becomes proof of God's love for sinners. Not a reason to fear God. Not a reason to reform our lives. Not proof of the active wrath of God.

Rather, it's proof that God loves usproof of that, alone.

Use the doctrine of Hell in any other way; preach obedience to God based on fear of His wrath; preach obedience to God based on the reality of Hell, rather than from love and loyalty to Jesus; and we are not making converts, but "moralists."

And doing that, we all remember, is the sin of Pharisaism. It's the Galatian error and a deep betrayal of the Gospel.

In Keller's world, this is what is at stake in our approach to the preaching of Hell. He is not hesitant to name as Pharisees and Judaizers those who preach the wrath of God as simply the wrath of God. Instead, the wrath of God must be seen as the love of God for man. The fear of God must be understood as a symbol, a metaphor of the Christian’s love for God.

The man who holds such small views of Divine wrath and Hell cannot have large views of the penal, substitutionary character of Christ’s Atonement. Aversion to the Biblical doctrines of fear, physical punishment, retribution, and wrath make this world and the one to come much more approachable to our postmodern age, but ultimately, maximizing man's agency over God's is at the heart of every heresy.

Certainly, though, nothing could be more pleasing to a narcissist. He's chosen himself and, as God looks on helpless to stop him, that's what he gets. Himselfeternally. God is nowhere to be found.