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Hell and how to preach it

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Past threads on the subject of heaven and hell appear to be locked, so I thought I'd post this interesting piece by the increasingly popular Tim Keller.

Following a recent sermon on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the post-service question-and-answer session was packed with more than the usual number of attenders. The questions and comments focused on the subject of eternal judgment.

My heart sank when a young college student said, "I've gone to church all my life, but I don't think I can believe in a God like this." Her tone was more sad than defiant, but her willingness to stay and talk showed that her mind was open.

Usually all the questions are pitched to me, and I respond as best I can. But on this occasion people began answering one another.

An older businesswoman said, "Well, I'm not much of a churchgoer, and I'm in some shock now. I always disliked the very idea of hell, but I never thought about it as a measure of what God was willing to endure in order to love me."

Then a mature Christian made a connection with a sermon a month ago on Jesus at Lazarus' tomb in John 11. "The text tells us that Jesus wept," he said, "yet he was also extremely angry at evil. That's helped me. He is not just an angry God or a weeping, loving God—he's both. He doesn't only judge evil, but he also takes the hell and judgment himself for us on the cross."

The second woman nodded, "Yes. I always thought hell told me about how angry God was with us, but I didn't know it also told me about how much he was willing to suffer and weep for us. I never knew how much hell told me about Jesus' love. It's very moving."

It is only because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus' proclamation of grace and love are so brilliant and astounding.

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So if God inflicts a lot of pain and suffering on other people, it's okay because he inflicted a lot of pain and suffering on himself, too? He's so angry with the sins of other people that he beats himself up in addition to beating most of those other people up, too?

It's precisely this sort of theology that drove me out of Protestantism and towards Orthodoxy.

And anyone who would quote Romans 1 on this subject WITHOUT paying any discernible attention to Romans 2 needs to do a serious rethink of this whole issue.

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I read about 70% of the article and the main thing I came away with is that it's built on the idea that all the doctrines he already believes are true and infallible. Rather than backing up and taking a look at where certain ideas (about hell) presented themselves, and why they presented in that time and setting, and how we can learn from that and gain insight into the human condition now, he immidiately states that we have to believe in even the "harshest of doctrines." I think he even called the doctrine of hell "terrible."

But a brief glance at the Bible shows paradigms being changed everywhere and all the time, people wrestling with God and finding out they were wrong about him all along. Abraham, Moses, Joseph, Jonah, Ezekiel, the disciples -- these are all people that stumbled upon an understanding of God by relearning all they'd known before. The article presupposes that Christian history has gotten it right, when, if it's the Christianity as storied out in the Bible, we might be better to assume it's gotten a lot wrong.

Edited by Persona

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I read about 70% of the article and the main thing I came away with is that it's built on the idea that all the doctrines he already believes are true and infallible. Rather than backing up and taking a look at where certain ideas (about hell) could have presented themselves, and why in that time and setting, and how we can learn from that and gain insight into the human condition now, he immidiately states that we have to believe in even the "harshest of doctrines." I think he even called the doctrine of hell "terrible."

But a brief glance at the Bible shows paradigms being changed everywhere and all the time, people wrestling with God and finding out they were wrong about him all along. Abraham, Moses, Joseph, Jonah, Ezekeil, the disciples -- these are all people that stumbled upon an understanding of God by relearning all they'd known before. The article presupposes that Christian history has gotten it right, when, if it's the Christianity as storied out in the Bible, we might be better to assume it's gotten a lot wrong.

I think I'd echo much of what Stef says here, but interpret in the light that PTC proposed: which Christian history?

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As you say, it's an old piece. I hope in the meantime he has taken the time to understand other positions rather than just misrepresent them as he does here.

Matt

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And anyone who would quote Romans 1 on this subject WITHOUT paying any discernible attention to Romans 2 needs to do a serious rethink of this whole issue.

Sorry, I think I missed this. What are you referring to?

But to kind of speak to your point:

I guess I don't mind this so much. There is this process going on in evangelicalism wherein various pastors and teachers are re-dressing the traditional evangelical doctrines in more carefully posed language and imagery. This is fine and all. But what happens is that people who are not adept at reading between the lines get the impression that evangelical theology is reforming. It isn't. We are just moving the furniture around a bit. I think Keller is a fantastic teacher and writer, but this is all feng shui.

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The traditional view of hell is indeed unpleasant, but Keller completely ignores the more critical objections to the doctrine.

I found this bit a little jarring:

Hell is the freely chosen, eternal skid row of the universe
A "skid row" somewhere in some ghetto intersection of the new heavens and new earth?

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I don't know if there is a redressing of traditional doctrine. It seems that there has always been a belief in hell but there has not always been consensus on both the nature of hell nor its duration. So I don't see it as redessing but addressing those central issues, and attempting to work out their coherence. Either way, those who disagree over these matters all agree that the Bible does speak of hell and as such cannot be dismissed.

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Either way, those who disagree over these matters all agree that the Bible does speak of hell and as such cannot be dismissed.

Ok, but there is the whole fact that the Old Testament has next to nothing to say about hell. And, no, I don't consider the Jewish concept of Sheol to be the same thing. What to make of that?

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Either way, those who disagree over these matters all agree that the Bible does speak of hell and as such cannot be dismissed.

Ok, but there is the whole fact that the Old Testament has next to nothing to say about hell. And, no, I don't consider the Jewish concept of Sheol to be the same thing. What to make of that?

The Old Testament (especially if you stick to the Protestant canon) also has precious little to say about "Heaven," and only a passing few clear references to resurrection. Jewish ideas about the afterlife developed significantly in the last part of the Second Temple period, and for Christians the New Testament is overwhelmingly the source of authoritative teaching on the subject.

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M. Leary wrote:

: : And anyone who would quote Romans 1 on this subject WITHOUT paying any discernible attention to Romans 2 needs to do a serious rethink of this whole issue.

:

: Sorry, I think I missed this. What are you referring to?

Under the heading "2. Hell is less exclusive than so-called tolerance", Keller cites "Rom. 1:17" to make a point -- but he never addresses the fact that the following chapter, Romans 2, poses a direct challenge to the exclusivist sensibilities of the Jewish Christians to whom Paul is writing (or that Romans 2 explicitly refers to God's "kindness, TOLERANCE and patience", at least in some translations).

And immediately after his Romans 1 reference, Keller goes on to say, "You can believe that faith in Christ is not necessary or you can believe that we are saved by grace, but you cannot believe in both at once," which is just idiotic. It's a typical example of evangelicals trying to put God's grace in a box, as though God were somehow incapable of saving non-Christians.

Note, BTW, that I do not belittle the significance of believing in Christ when one is truly aware of who and what Christ is. But that's not the issue here. The issue here is that narrow-minded evangelicals like Keller are concerned to demonstrate that non-Christians MUST go to hell, that sending non-Christians to hell is somehow an ESSENTIAL requirement for any God who is worthy of the attention that these narrow-minded evangelicals are willing to give him.

: We are just moving the furniture around a bit. I think Keller is a fantastic teacher and writer, but this is all feng shui.

This is a beautiful line. :)

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Well, essentially I'm assuming that some sort of belief in hell or punishment is what the majority of the church held. According to Ellis the three dominant views were universalism (in some variation or another), ECT (Eternal Conscious and torment/suffering) and everlasting punishment as an effect i.e. extinction or annihilationism. I really don't get into scripturally based arguments because they don't seem to resolve the issue as a whole and one could go back and forth on it forever and a day. It seems that the real dilemmas may fall along more philosophical lines that need solving. That is, for me anyway, once the question of whether all will in fact be saved (not that I simply hope this to be the case) then I put my eggs in the universalism basket and its all down hill from there. In other words, case closed. :D

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The article is quite old indeed, but there's a 2006 sermon in which Keller adresses the same issues. It seems he still reasons along the same lines but it might be interesting (if you're interested in Kellers ideas) to find if there are any differences. I listened to the sermon recently (I run with Keller ;) ) and I didn't have the impression that he thaught that only christians can be saved. But of course that might be attributed to an even more subtle rephrasing...

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Either way, those who disagree over these matters all agree that the Bible does speak of hell and as such cannot be dismissed.

Ok, but there is the whole fact that the Old Testament has next to nothing to say about hell. And, no, I don't consider the Jewish concept of Sheol to be the same thing. What to make of that?

The Old Testament (especially if you stick to the Protestant canon) also has precious little to say about "Heaven," and only a passing few clear references to resurrection. Jewish ideas about the afterlife developed significantly in the last part of the Second Temple period, and for Christians the New Testament is overwhelmingly the source of authoritative teaching on the subject.

I'm right with you SDG. But try to explain that to many Evangelicals who insist on reading the Old Testament in a strangely retroactive way that I'm not so hot on. It's just a pet peeve of mine, akin to people speaking of Abraham, et al as "Christians."

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And immediately after his Romans 1 reference, Keller goes on to say, "You can believe that faith in Christ is not necessary or you can believe that we are saved by grace, but you cannot believe in both at once," which is just idiotic. It's a typical example of evangelicals trying to put God's grace in a box, as though God were somehow incapable of saving non-Christians.

Agreed. The woefully common evangelical prejudice that every other religion but Christianity is works-based and lacks a crucial grace dimension drives me bonkers.

The wordplay in which 'open-minded' is code for 'willing to consider the exclusive claims of my brand of Protestant evangelicalism' also strikes me as somewhat disingenuous. I daresay Keller is not 'open-minded' about exploring a personal relationship with Vishnu.

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It's precisely this sort of theology that drove me out of Protestantism and towards Orthodoxy.

Forgive me if this has been covered elsewhere -- if it has, please point me to it -- but how does Orthodoxy's views on hell, God's judgment, etc. differ from what Keller describes?

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I don't know if there is a redressing of traditional doctrine.

The intent of my point was simply that there was nothing in terms of doctrine in Keller's sermon that can't also be seen in conservative American or European Christianity going back a few hundred years. So: traditional doctrine, more contemporary format.

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Agreed. The woefully common evangelical prejudice that every other religion but Christianity is works-based and lacks a crucial grace dimension drives me bonkers.

OK, skip "works". What about believing wrongly on a basic and fundamental point, ie. that the One who emptied himself is not the unique means of grace and that some other diety, or prophet is validly followed? Of course God can intervene in any way he so chooses, but will He? How are we given to be confidant that implications from scripture are misleading, or not the whole picture?

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So if God inflicts a lot of pain and suffering on other people, it's okay because he inflicted a lot of pain and suffering on himself, too?

Far be it from me to say that it makes it okay, as if the notion of God-as-human-sufferer is enough to create a robust theodicy--if there can be such a thing--but yes, the fact that, as Bonhoeffer wrote, "Christ bore in himself the whole burden of the flesh, under the curse, under condemnation" does serve as one of the key notions in working towards one.

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Ryan H. wrote:

: Far be it from me to say that it makes it okay, as if the notion of God-as-human-sufferer is enough to create a robust theodicy--if there can be such a thing--but yes, the fact that, as Bonhoeffer wrote, "Christ bore in himself the whole burden of the flesh, under the curse, under condemnation" does serve as one of the key notions in working towards one.

Well, I don't think Keller was dealing with THEODICY here. Yes, the fact that Christ "bore" things in solidarity with us is a key component of any remotely interesting theodicy, but that isn't what Keller is talking about here.

opus wrote:

: Forgive me if this has been covered elsewhere -- if it has, please point me to it -- but how does Orthodoxy's views on hell, God's judgment, etc. differ from what Keller describes?

I haven't had a chance to trawl through the archives yet (maybe Jeff could link to some of the old threads he found before starting this one?), but suffice it to say that, for me, one of the key problems with the evangelical approach to damnation and salvation has been aptly caricatured in the Jack T. Chick parody below, which I first came across in the late 1990s. I don't agree with the caption, not least because it casually tosses aside any notion of human free will, but the panel itself sums things up succinctly.

Some time after I first came into contact with this parody, I came across Robert Jewett's Saint Paul Returns to the Movies: Triumph over Shame, which takes aim at the dominant western interpretation of Romans and what it has to say about some of these issues. (Among other things, Jewett traces this dominant interpretation all the way back to Augustine, who was famously obsessed with his own feelings of guilt etc.) And it was several months later, when discussing these issues with some friends online, that one of them piped up and said the Orthodox church (of which he was a member) wasn't particularly fond of Augustine's views on these issues either (to say nothing of Anselm's views, which came several centuries after Augustine).

I didn't actually visit an Orthodox church until a few years later, but it was heartening just to hear that a church existed which had more-or-less avoided falling into this Augustinian error -- that I wasn't forced to venture into post-evangelicalism or some other form of rootless make-it-up-as-you-go Christianity.

That doesn't really answer your question, I guess, but what I'm getting at here is that working through some of these issues was a process that took me several years and I'm not sure how to summarize them all that pithily.

I will say this, though: Evangelicals, despite their scripture-centricity, are awfully fond of the expression "Jesus paid the penalty for my sins" -- despite the fact that neither this statement nor anything resembling it appear anywhere in scripture itself.

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Well, I don't think Keller was dealing with THEODICY here. Yes, the fact that Christ "bore" things in solidarity with us is a key component of any remotely interesting theodicy, but that isn't what Keller is talking about here.

Not quite, no, but there's an obvious overlap.

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I've read one of Tim Keller's books and a number of his sermons. I respect him deeply.

What I appreciate most about Keller's teaching on Hell is the emphasis on its self-chosen nature. This is something that Christians of many theological stripes have spoken on in similar terms. Keller has already mentioned C. S. Lewis; you can find more from Keller on the subject here or in chapter 5 of The Reason for God. Let me give a few other illustrations.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (aka Timothy Ware) in The Orthodox Church (concluding with a quotation from Vladimir Lossky's The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church):

Hell is not so much a place where God imprisons man, as a place where man, by misusing his free will, chooses to imprison himself. And even in Hell the wicked are not deprived of the love of God, but by their own choice they experience as suffering what the saints experience as joy. "The love of God will be an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves."

Elsewhere, Ware considers Saint Isaac of Syria:

According to Isaac, those who endure torment in gehenna are chastised, not by divine anger, not by any desire on God’s part to exact retribution – for there is no cruelty or vindictiveness in God – but "with the scourge of love." "The sorrow which takes hold of the heart that has sinned against love is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God... But love acts in a double way, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed."

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation:

Our God also is a consuming fire. And if we, by love, become transformed into Him and burn as He burns, His fire will be our everlasting joy. But if we refuse His love and remain in the coldness of sin and opposition to Him and to other men then His fire (by our own choice rather than His) becomes our everlasting enemy and Love, instead of being our joy, will become our torment and destruction.

W. H. Auden, “Anger.” In The Seven Deadly Sins, various authors (with a Foreword by Ian Fleming, of all people):

I wish the clergy today — I am thinking of the Anglican Church because She is the one I know best — would not avoid, as they seem to, explaining to us what the Church means by Hell and the Wrath of God. The public is left with the impression, either that She no longer believes in them or that She holds a doctrine which is a moral monstrosity no decent person could believe. […]

To think of God’s laws as imposed leads to absurdities. Thus, the popular conception of what the Church means by Hell could not unfairly be described as follows. God is an omniscient policeman who is not only aware of every sin we have committed but also of every sin we are going to commit. But for seventy years or so He does nothing, but lets every human being commit any sin he chooses. Then, suddenly, He makes an arrest and, in the majority of cases, the sinner is sentenced to eternal torture.

Such a picture is not without its appeal; none of us likes to see his enemies, righteous or unrighteous, flourishing on earth like a green bay tree. But it cannot be called Christian.

[…] To speak of the Wrath of God cannot mean that God is Himself angry. It is the unpleasant experience of a creature, created to love and be happy, when he defies the laws of his spiritual nature. To believe in Hell as a possibility is to believe that God cannot or will not ever compel us to love and be happy.

[…] If there are any souls in Hell, it is not because they have been sent there, but because Hell is where they insist upon being.

When you really consider it, the Hell-as-torture-chamber model is comparatively easy to swallow and easy to reject. Easy to reject because nothing puffs up righteous indignation like the prospect of blatantly unjust victimization, the "moral monstrosity no decent person could believe"; easy to swallow because unjust victimization is, in fact, the perpetual fantasy of many sinners, lending as it does a certain pretext of justification sufficient to our idolatrous predilections and purposes. The consolations of theological victimhood are undeniable. The Torture Chamber model flatters the two mutually reinforcing self-conceptions between which we sinners are all prone to vacillate: that we are utterly worthless and without value and beyond redemption, and that everything else is worthless except in relation to us.

For those who surrender the burden of creaturehood and give themselves over to one of these two lies--i.e., despair and pride--capricious torture is precisely the form divine punishment would be expected to take. Once you accept that this is the Christian proposition, Christianity is a piece of cake...to reject or to accept. The really hard pill to swallow is the proposition that we are "created to love and be happy" and are promised the desire of our heart. That our freedom means something in the scope of eternity and divine love can be terrifying to someone culturally predisposed to think of choice in strictly arbitrary terms, bearing no intrinsic relation to what is. That we were so created for and by love without our consent is something of a paradoxical offense. But in my view the freedom to stand and reject that paradox hinges on its (the paradox's) solidity, which is the very branch beneath our feet.

Edited by du Garbandier

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The "free will" defense, when applied to Hell, doesn't do us Reformed folk much good. :P

Edited by Ryan H.

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The "free will" defense, when applied to Hell, doesn't do us Reformed folk much good. :P

Oh, I don't know. I know of similar statements by Reformed folk. For instance, note the J. I. Packer quotation here:

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.

Here is Edwin Palmer in The Five Points of Calvinism:

Let it be firmly stated that everybody gets precisely what he wants. To put it in the most blunt way possible: hellians are glad they are in hell. Nobody is in hell against his will. Everyone there is glad that he is there. Do no misread that previous statement. [...] In hell there is only agony always. It is hellish. So hellians do not like being there. But [...] the last place they want to be is in heaven. They do not want to be in hell, but when they know that the alternative to hell is to go to heaven with a pure heart, they would much rather stay in hell. So it is true that everyone gets what he wants: Christians are glad they are with God, and hellians are glad they are not with God.

Palmer does not frame this as a "free will" defense, which of course he says no man has; rather he uses the term "free agency," designating mankind's freedom "to do exactly what he wants."

And of course Keller himself is Reformed.

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Well, I don't think Keller was dealing with THEODICY here. Yes, the fact that Christ "bore" things in solidarity with us is a key component of any remotely interesting theodicy, but that isn't what Keller is talking about here.

Isn't the problem of hell merely a special case of theodicy? The ultimate case, in fact?

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