Revisiting Hell

In the next chapter of The Reason for God Keller addresses a question that has been discussed repeatedly over the last few years: “How can a loving God send people to hell?” Given the amount of space that has already been devoted to this question (on Jesus Creed, although not here), perhaps it would be better to skip the chapter. But there are some insights of value that Keller adds to the conversation.

To begin, the topic of hell comes up in a few different places in the Veritas Forum interview I’ve used to frame several of the discussions of Keller’s book. In this first segment Martin Bashir asks Keller if he believes there is only one God and and that there is only one way to approach that God. The answer begins with Jesus but wanders around to the question of hell.

At one point in this segment Bashir asks about all those who are committed to other religions, and asks where Keller’s view leaves them. Keller responds:

(2:06-2:45) Where they are right now that means if there is never any change they don’t get Jesus, if he is who he said he is then long term they don’t have God. On the other hand, you know all I can ever say about this is God gives me, even as a minister with the scripture, a lot of information on a need to know basis. And a need to know basis means here is all I can tell you: Unless you get Jesus Christ who created you to start with, unless you are reunited with him sometime there is no eternal future of thriving.

The segment continues through a number of related topics, but I highlight this because it provides an example of something Keller says several times when addressed about the question of hell. There are some things that we simply do not know for sure, and in wisdom and humility we should admit it.

A bit later:

(3:05-3:25) I have a need to know basis, this is the only thing I know, you need Jesus. I certainly know that God is wiser than me, more merciful than me. I do know when I finally find out how God is dealing with every individual soul I won’t have any questions about it.

(5:43-5:51) But if you have a perfect God, a perfect King, who comes and suffers in Jesus Christ, then at a certain point I trust him.

Moving from the interview to the book … In chapter 5 of The Reason for God Keller organizes the discussion around the themes of judgment, hell, and love. He has a number of interesting observations here – taking his cue largely from C. S. Lewis.

Hell. First, lets dispel the common perception, both from the outside, and sometimes within the church itself:

Modern people inevitably think that hell works like this: God gives us time, but if we haven’t made the right choices by the end of our lives, he casts our souls into hell for all eternity. As the souls fall through space, they cry out for mercy, but God says “Too late! You had your chance, now you will suffer!” (p. 76)

A common image of hell in the Bible is that of fire. Fire disintegrates. Even in this life we can see the kind of soul disintegration that self-centeredness creates. … Hell, then is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on forever. (p. 72-77)

but

… it is a travesty to picture God casting people into a pit who are crying “I’m sorry! Let me out!”(p. 79).

In a footnote he elaborates on the image of fire as it relates to hell, and on the humility we should take to our interpretations of the idea of hell.

All descriptions and depictions of hell in the Bible are symbolic and metaphorical. Each metaphor suggests one aspect of the experience of hell. … The Bible clearly proposes that heaven and hell are actual realities, but also indicates that all language about them is allusive, metaphorical, and partial. (p. 259-260)

Keller uses the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16 as a biblical support for the kind of view he is presenting. The rich man, even in hell (or hades) goes on along the same self-centered track he took in life. This may not be the point of the parable, but it is a feature of the parable. In the view of both Keller and Lewis, hell is the result of God giving people up to their own desires, including their desire for freedom from God himself. It is a self chosen eternal consequence of failure to follow God. Because we are created by God, and for God, life without God is devastating … because it is without God. The person in hell is locked in the prison of their own self-centeredness forever into infinity. He quotes Lewis from the Great Divorce and the Problem of Pain.

There are only two kinds of people – those who say “Thy will be done” to God or those to whom God in the end says, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. (p. 79)

What Keller has to say about hell has certainly gotten flack from a number of different quarters. This isn’t a denial of the idea of hell. And it certainly isn’t universalism in any form. But it also doesn’t reflect the idea of sinners in the hands of an angry God desiring to send all into eternal conscious torment for the ancient sin of Adam.

The issue of judgment is even more important. Keller turns to Miroslav Volf and Czeslaw Milosz as he explores the importance of judgment coupled with love. A God of Love must also be a God of Judgment. How could it be otherwise? Think about it. If there is no judgment, there is no victory over evil and there is no basis for morality. Nothing in the present world matters – injustice will not be put to right, evil will never be punished. There is no real justification for statements of right or wrong. What difference does it make?

But… The Bible says that God’s wrath flows from his love and delight in his creation. He is angry at evil and injustice because it is destroying its peace and integrity. (p. 73) There is a God who will right all wrongs and settle all accounts, who has won the victory over evil, over pain and suffering. On this we rest – no need for vengeance and retaliation.

I believe in a God of Love. The idea of a God of love is unique to the Christian faith and, although less well developed perhaps, to the OT Jewish faith from which Christianity grew. The God of Love came to full revelation in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Keller notes that he, like so many others, found himself in college and in his early twenties questioning the faith he was raised in, especially troubled by Christians who stressed hellfire and damnation (see p. 81). But as he explored more deeply, comparing different religions and conceptions of God, he found that the idea of a God of love is not a universal concept – it is a concept with deep roots in Christian faith. But the God of love in the bible is also the God who judges and sets all to rights in the end. This is part of what it means, then, for God to be love.

Of course the issue that then comes up is the apparent capriciousness of a God who designated for hell (i.e. Eternal Conscious Torment) the 8 year old eighth century Tibetan girl who died of pneumonia and the children who were sacrificed in pre-columbian Mesoamerica and South America to appease the “gods”, not to mention the people who lived and died at an old age within cultures at times and places where the message of the gospel was not available. I don’t know exactly where Keller stands on this issue. He notes that the idea that everyone should have a “fair” chance is unique to our individualistic western culture. But I would counter that this very idea of fairness also arises from our Christian view of the world.

But … we are not the ones called to make any settled decisions about the fate of anyone. This is in God’s hand. The segment of the interview at the top of the post gives a taste of how Keller answers the question. In a later segment David Eisenbach brought up the question of hell once again, this time asking explicitly about those who don’t have access to the gospels, who don’t reject it because they’ve never had access.

I must admit that Keller’s description of hell and judgment here were not what I expected from a conservative Presbyterian pastor when I first read The Reason for God several years ago.

Judgment is an essential element of the faith. So are justice and love. But the bottom line it that there comes a point when we simply have to rest assured when we finally find out how God is dealing with every individual soul, it will be right. After all, if God is the perfect King, if the Word came and dwelt among us, if Jesus Christ made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross … well then at a certain point we must just trust him.

Does Keller’s view of Hell make sense? Is it consistent with the biblical witness?

At what point should we simply avoid inflammatory comment and trust that God knows what he is doing?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If you wish to comment please see Revisiting Hell on Jesus Creed.

Note added – Most of this post deals with the book, The Reason for God and with Keller’s comments there. The interviews are a good addition, but we need to be aware that people will often want to revise and rephrase answers given in a live interview. This may or may not be true of some of the things Keller said here. But it doesn’t negate the major thrust.  It is also important to realize that both the book and the interview date from February 2008 and do not speak to any of the more recent controversies concerning the question of Hell.

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