Keller on Hell
Continuing a series of reviews on Engaging with Keller. This is part three.
We now come on to the second chapter. A critique by Bill Schweitzer of the way that Tim Keller teaches about Hell. Schweitzer acknowledges that Keller preaches judgement and hell. He praises him for not being either Rob Bell or one of the many who just keep quiet about a subject that causes so much offense and misunderstanding in contemporary culture. So given that this is a book designed to critique Keller and warn the church where he is doctrinally sound, what could possibly be wrong? Is that the end of the chapter? Sadly no.
Firstly Schweitzer questions whether it is right to preach hell in one way for traditionalists and in another for post-moderns? Surely the answer to the question is simply yes, of course. If you preach the same way to everyone you are not communicating. Preaching is by definition two way. We are proclaiming the Word of God to people who are listening to it. The context in which we speak, the language that we use, and the understanding that we have, is not more important than the context in which people hear, the language they use and the understanding they have. If Schweitzer were to preach hell the same way to a post-modern English secularist as he would to a traditional Irish Catholic there would be something profoundly wrong.
But the real problem for Schweitzer is that he believes that Keller is in danger of presenting a different doctrine, not just that he presents the traditional doctrine in a different way. In particular he believes that Keller is far too beholden to CS Lewis and that this has resulted in him teaching false doctrine. “No doubt Lewis’s concept presents a powerful apologetic strategy; after all, how many people are going to be offended by a hell that God does not send anyone to, where the punishment is self-inflicted, and from which no-one ever asks to leave”. There are so many things wrong with this statement, not least that Schweitzer is continuing the narrative of Engaging with Keller, which assumes that Keller is prepared to compromise biblical teaching in order to make the Gospel more attractive to unbelievers. It is a charge that is at best patronising and at worst deliberately misleading. As sinful people we all have mixed motives and I wonder if there is a not a little self-justification mixed in here. After all in this day of small things how can someone be popular and ‘successful’’ unless they are compromising and watering down the message in order to make it more attractive? On the other hand if I am not doing so well it is precisely because I am preaching what is unpopular. I am faithful not successful.
Schweitzer also misrepresents Keller as teaching that God does not send anyone to Hell and does not punish anyone in Hell. It is not worthy of Schweitzer to begin his article by attacking a position which Keller does not advocate. Moreover I am intrigued by Schweitzer’s notion that a hell in which people do not ask to leave is somehow less offensive than one in which people do. Why would that be the case? In fact teaching that human beings are so stupid and sinful that they do not ask to leave Hell is to my mind much more offensive than teaching that they desire to get out and yet cannot.
After this poor beginning Schweitzer then descends into the realms of the surreal and the ridiculous. He argues that if the requisite elements of the doctrines of judgement and Hell were that a) hell was unpleasant and b) people stay forever; then all we would need to do is declare that people in Hell dress in bad uniforms and therefore people are too embarrassed to leave! It is actually even more embarrassing that this is presented as a logical and coherent argument!
Schweitzer then goes on to cite a series of biblical texts that declare that God is judge and as judge sends people to hell. None of which Keller would dispute, despite Schweitzers implication. I find this kind of strawman argument somewhat depressing. Does Keller really have a distinct ‘doctrine for postmoderns’ – a different doctrine than he would have for moderns or traditionalists? Schweitzer is misrepresenting Keller here – which is hardly the ‘irenic’, brotherly or confessional thing to do. His quotation from Keller’s sermon “isn’t the God of Christianity an Angry Judge”? Is excellent. I agree with every word of it. The trouble is that Schweitzer thinks the self-choosing of Hell is contrary to the idea of God as Judge as though they two are opposed to one another. This is not logically self-evident. Nor is it biblical. God for example in Romans 1 judges and punishes humanity by giving us over to our own desires. Will Schweitzer accuse Paul of being ‘unsound’ because he argues thus?! Schweitzer does make the assertion (without warrant) that Romans 1:24 is concerned with the limited foretaste of wrath that is experienced in this present world, not hell. Of course there is a difference in quantity and quality, but is there really a difference in substance? Surely the foretaste we have of hell here, is simply that, a foretaste of hell. Schweitzer seems to be pick ‘n’ mixing the bible. Keller is more exegetically sound, interpreting Scripture with Scripture.
Schweitzer then does the favourite trick of reformed heresy hunters – condemnation for what is not said. “To say that hell is self-chosen without making it clear that this choice is fully subordinate to God’s sovereignty would also be misleading”. Really? Do we need to qualify every sentence and every sermon with DV? It is not Arminian to state that people choose to sin, hate and go to hell. In fact it is the good old-fashioned Calvinist doctrine of human responsibility. The dead are judged according to what they have done. Keller does not, as a Westminster Calvinist, exclude or subordinate God’s sovereignty. It is disingenuous for Schweitzer to imply that is the case simply because Keller does not qualify every statement. Writing or preaching for non-Christians, whether traditional or post-modern, should not mean that we have to cross every t or dot every i, just to ensure that the heresy hunters in our pews, sessions or networks, will be satisfied that we are not straying from the path!
It seems important to Schweitzer that the damned in Hell do not decide to stay there but want to get out. He condemns Keller for his exegesis of Lazarus and the rich man by setting up a series of non ‘contradictions’. I will not deal with these just now because as Schweitzer seems to think that Holst has in a later chapter in the book, dealt with Keller’s ‘misuse’ of Scripture, I will leave it to the review of that chapter.
I am not sure if Schweitzer grew up in the Reformed tradition or how much he knows about it, but his attempt to suggest that Keller is inventing a new doctrine of Hell for postmoderns because he talks about people not wanting to get out of Hell fails miserably. I have heard several sermons that make this point. I remember hearing one sermon many years ago on Revelation 6:16 where it was pointed out that people called not for God to have mercy on them but for the rocks to fall on them, to save them from the wrath to come. I remember another classic (it must have been because I remember it!) from Professor Donald Macleod when talking about the eternity of Hell. He answered the question of the fairness of punishing someone in an eternal hell because of a relatively short period of sinning, by suggesting that people in Hell continue to sin. At the time it struck me as a rather obvious answer. The notion that those in Hell are non-sinning beings, who are just being punished for all eternity for what they did on earth, is absurd. Once again it looks as though Keller’s teaching about sinful human beings remaining sinful and choosing to be without God, is more biblical than the limited and narrow approach of Schweitzer.
The next approach Schweitzer uses, is to give another list of biblical quotations on the question of who metes out the punishment in hell. He seems to be suggesting that Keller in his attempt to modernise and teach different doctrine for post-moderns would actually deny these verses. Yet having read Keller for many years I can find nothing that indicates that he either rejects these verses or seeks to water them down for the sake of communicating the Gospel. Of course God ‘punishes’ in hell, but it is not inconsistent with that at all to suggest, as the Bible does, that hell was made for the devil and his angels, not human beings, and that anyone in hell is there because they have chosen to be.
Schweitzer is on more solid ground when he suggests that hell is more than just the absence of God. He cites JI Packer who argues strongly that hell is the wrathful presence of God. But Packer also largely agrees with Keller that hell is self-chosen.
At this point in the chapter I was really beginning to lose the will to live. It just all seems to be so petty and trivial. None more so when we move on to a discussion of whether Jonathan Edwards thought the language of fire and outer darkness was symbolic or not. To be honest I don’t really care. As Keller points out “to say that the Scriptural image of hell-fire is not wholly literal is of no comfort whatsoever. The reality will be far worse than the image.” Indeed. So why spend even more time on disputing the use of words? Edwards was famous for his speculative language and his use of words. This may be akin to heresy in some Reformed circles but I don’t really care what Edwards did or did not say, I care what the Bible says. Edwards can be incredibly helpful in understanding that, but at times he wanders off into philosophical minefields that are not helpful at all.
After several pages of Edwards analysis, we return to CS Lewis, who Schweitzer correctly acknowledges as a major influence on Keller (and on yours truly!). In turn a major influence on Lewis was the Scottish storywriter George MacDonald who did not believe in penal substutionary atonement. Schweitzer thinks that Keller is ignorant of this: “Now we know that Keller received the ‘postmodern’ doctrine of hell from an intermediate source, unaware that it was hardwired to function within a heretical system”. What strikes me about this is the sheer arrogance of it. ‘We’ know nothing of the sort. Keller is nothing if not through and I find it impossible to believe that someone who has read all of Lewis would miss out on Lewis’s own acknowledgement of MacDonald as a major influence. Given that Keller also cites MacDonald it is difficult to see how Schweitzer comes to the conclusion that he is bringing us some startlingly new information. Schweitzer in trying to appear ‘nice’ is really saying ‘poor Keller, he means well in trying to reach out to post-moderns but he does not realise that he has been duped. Lucky for him I am on the case and I can now exclusively reveal that he is using the writings of a minor heretic who was in turn being used by a major heretic”.
I also find it a rather silly game to play. An even more influential 19th Century Scottish writer, Macleod Campbell, wrote a book called ‘The Nature of the Atonement”. This book argues not only for a universal atonement, but also by implication a universal salvation. It is a poorly written and to be quite frank dreadful book which would have been lost in the mists of time if it were not for the fact that Macleod Campbell was deposed for heresy and became a hero for liberal theologians. In the 20th Century his cause was championed by the Torrance clan in Scotland with Tom Torrance declaring that On the Nature of the Atonement was the greatest book since Athanasius On the Incarnation! The semi-Barthian movement within Reformed circles in the UK and US, which in my view has caused so much harm, has been greatly influenced by the Torrances (who are brilliant academic theologians). The Torrances have been a strong influence on Prof Doug Kelly, a thoroughly sound Reformed theologian. Should we write off Doug Kelly because he benefited from teaching from people who admired and accepted a heretical theologian? Worse still Macleod Campbell claimed that he got his teaching from Jonathan Edwards’s views on the vicarious repentance of Christ. Should we now be wary of Edwards? If we carry on playing this kind of game we will end up with a world where there are only a couple of theologians we can cite! Personally I don’t agree with a lot of what Tom Torrance in particular has written, but I have also benefited considerably from some of his works. Neither life nor theology is as simple as Schweitzer seems to be suggesting.
Schweitzer concludes by stating that Keller’s teaching that hell is largely self-chosen, and the traditional teaching that hell is about Gods punishment of sinners, are ‘mutually incompatible’. Yet despite this assertion he has offered no evidence for this – other than a bit of quote mining and a series of assertions. An inexperienced younger Christian might read this and think, ‘oh dear, there is something wrong with Keller, I’d better not read or recommend his books in case they infect anyone’. That is the danger with Schweitzer’s poorly argued, unproven and illogical assertions.
Schweitzer uses the analogy of the canary in the mine. When it dies it is a warning. He regards the teaching about hell as being this kind of ‘canary’ issue and warns that Keller is dressing up an ‘urban seagull’ to look like a canary. Furthermore he warns that Keller is not speaking clearly to sinners about hell and is not communicating the ‘whole gospel’. He sarcastically notes that if Jonah had been Keller he would have declared, “Yet 40 days, and you Ninevites will be left to your freely-chosen identities apart from God”. Or that he would have said, “The Lord is about to give the Sodomites what they most want, separation from him!” These are cheap, nasty and arrogant shots and sadly reflect the tone and style of the whole chapter.
I think what saddens me even more, is the coldness and callousness of the whole discussion in this chapter about hell. It comes across as though it were some kind of theological exam given as a doctrinal litmus test. I am reminded of McCheyne’s words to his friend Andrew Bonar, ‘if you cannot preach hell with tears, don’t preach it’.
I have a confession to make. I don’t get hell. I hate it. I don’t understand it. It remains one of the great-unanswered questions I have. I preach it. I believe in it. Because Jesus did. I believe that my unsaved neighbours, friends and family are hell bound. And I cannot abide the thought. It is a burden almost beyond bearing. Which is why I preach the Good news of Jesus Christ that he came to be the Saviour of people from hell. And why I rejoice and love the teaching and writing of Tim Keller, who has been privileged to see many people being turned from darkness to light and who is a great help to me as I seek to communicate the Good News that there is a way back from hell.
I am sorry if I have come across as frustrated and saddened in this essay. That’s because I am. When yours truly and Schweitzer have preached the gospel as effectively as Keller; when we write books that we would willingly give into the hands of those who are bound for hell, then, and only then, will we have earned the right to offer a constructive critique of Keller’s writings. Meanwhile it would be better to stop wasting time on attacking others people’s proclamation of the Gospel and putting people off one of the most effective communicators of Gods Word, and instead get on with what God has called us to – getting the Good news out to the millions in England and Scotland who have never heard. Campaigning against one of the most effective and faithful evangelists today is not proclaiming the Good news of Jesus Christ. On the other hand the people we are responsible for would benefit greatly from reading Keller’s works. It would help them in their own souls and understanding, and would equip them better for communicating the Gospel in today’s age. Keller’s writings are being used to turn many away from hell. Can we say the same about what we are doing?