Tim Keller on Hell

Rob Bell’s forthcoming book, Love Wins, is bringing the discussion of Hell to center stage.  May we all grow in our knowledge and beliefs about this very biblical and Jesus-y topic.  As the buzz continues to increase around this debate in the church as Bell’s book releases, may we all dig our noses into Scriptures and wrestle with the text.

And, please hear me, may we also recognize that there is a spectrum of different evangelical beliefs, all rooted in Scripture, on the reality of Hell.  Eternal conscious torment, the more traditional view, is not the only “biblical view.”  If you believe it is, then we disagree.

Let’s hear from Tim Keller today.  I love his perspective.

[The topic of Hell] is important because it unveils the seriousness and danger of living life for yourself. In Romans 1-2 Paul explains that God, in his wrath against those who reject him, ‘gives them up’ to the sinful passions of their hearts. Commentators (cf. Douglas Moo) point out that this cannot mean God impels people to sin, since in Ephesians 4:19 it is said that sinners give themselves up to their sinful desires. It means that the worst (and fairest) punishment God can give a person is to allow them their sinful hearts’ deepest desire.

What is that? The desire of the sinful human heart is for independence. We want to choose and go our own way (Isaiah 53:6.) This is no idle ‘wandering from the path.’ As Jeremiah puts it, ‘No one repents . . . each pursues his own course like a horse charging into battle. (8:6)’ (We want to get away from God-but, as we have seen, this is the very thing that is most destructive to us. Cain is warned not to sin because sin is slavery. (Genesis 4:7; John 8:34.) It destroys your ability to choose, love, enjoy. Sin also brings blindness-the more you reject the truth about God the more incapable you are of perceiving any truth about yourself or the world (Isaiah 29:9-10; Romans 1:21.)

What is hell, then? It is God actively giving us up to what we have freely chosen-to go our own way, be our own “the master of our fate, the captain of our soul,” to get away from him and his control. It is God banishing us to regions we have desperately tried to get into all our lives. J.I.Packer writes: “Scripture sees hell as self-chosen . . . [H]ell appears as God’s gesture of respect for human choice. All receive what they actually chose, either to be with God forever, worshipping him, or without God forever, worshipping themselves.” (J.I.Packer, Concise Theology p.262-263.) If the thing you most want is to worship God in the beauty of his holiness, then that is what you will get (Ps 96:9-13.) If the thing you most want is to be your own master, then the holiness of God will become an agony, and the presence of God a terror you will flee forever (Rev 6:16; cf. Is 6:1-6.)

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. First, it tells us that people only get in the afterlife what they have most wanted-either to have God as Savior and Master or to be their own Saviors and Masters. Secondly, it tells us that hell is a natural consequence. Even in this world it is clear that self-centeredness rather than God-centeredness makes you miserable and blind. The more self-centered, self-absorbed, self-pitying, and self-justifying people are, the more breakdowns occur, relationally, psychologically, and even physically. They also go deeper into denial about the source of their problems.

On the other hand, a soul that has decided to center its life on God and his glory moves toward increasing joy and wholeness. We can see both of these ‘trajectories’ even in this life. 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. . . .

. . . .Some years ago I remember a man who said that talk about the fires of hell simply didn’t scare him, it seemed too far-fetched, even silly. So I read him lines from C.S. Lewis:

Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others . . . but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud.

To my surprise he got very quiet and said, “Now that scares me to death.” He almost immediately began to see that hell was a) perfectly fair and just, and b) something that he realized he might be headed for if he didn’t change. If we really want skeptics and non-believers to be properly frightened by hell, we cannot simply repeat over and over that ‘hell is a place of fire.’ We must go deeper into the realities that the Biblical images represent. When we do so, we will find that even secular people can be affected.

We run from the presence of God and therefore God actively gives us up to our desire (Romans 1:24, 26.) Hell is therefore a prison in which the doors are first locked from the inside by us and therefore are locked from the outside by God (Luke 16:26.) Every indication is that those doors continue to stay forever barred from the inside. Though every knee and tongue in hell knows that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11,) no one can seek or want that Lordship without the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3.This is why we can say that no one goes to hell who does not choose both to go and to stay there. What could be more fair than that?

What do you think?

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