I recently stumbled across an older article by Tim Keller titled Preaching Hell in a Tolerant Age. Keller is something of a celebrity in many circles, and his recent The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism is causing a good bit of blogbuzz. So I thought I'd see how he handled this tense and controversial issue.
Keller begins thus:
The young man in my office was impeccably dressed and articulate. He was an Ivy League MBA, successful in the financial world, and had lived in three countries before age 30. Raised in a family with only the loosest connections to a mainline church, he had little understanding of Christianity.The rest of the article deals with how Keller responds to that question, that issue — the issue of Hell. (Note: "Hell" should be capitalized; it is a place-name, a proper noun.)
I was therefore gratified to learn of his intense spiritual interest, recently piqued as he attended our church. He said he was ready to embrace the gospel. But there was a final obstacle.
"You've said that if we do not believe in Christ," he said, "we are lost and condemned. I'm sorry, I just cannot buy that. I work with some fine people who are Muslim, Jewish, or agnostic. I cannot believe they are going to hell just because they don't believe in Jesus. In fact, I cannot reconcile the very idea of hell with a loving God—even if he is holy too."
What Keller does. So Keller sets out to make the idea of Hell more reasonable to this man, and to others. It's quite a readable and thoughtful article, and I commend it to your consideration.
First, Keller provides a section subtitled "How to preach hell [sic] to traditionalists." These sorts of folks already have a moral framework, and may not struggle against the idea of Hell per se; the problem may be that it is their prime motivation for faith. And it is an inadequate motivation.
The way to show traditional persons their need for the gospel is by saying, "Your sin separates you from God! You can't be righteous enough for him." Imperfection is the duty-worshiper's horror. Traditionalists are motivated toward God by the idea of punishment in hell. They sense the seriousness of sin.To postmoderns, Keller says he makes these arguments:
But traditionalists may respond to the gospel only out of fear of hell, unless I show them Jesus experienced not only pain in general on the cross but hell in particular. This must be held up until they are attracted to Christ for the beauty of the costly love of what he did. To the traditional person, hell must be preached as the only way to know how much Christ loved you.
- Sin is slavery.
- Hell is less exclusive than so-called tolerance.
- Christianity's view of hell is more personal than the alternative view.
- There is no love without wrath.
It just isn't the way I'd respond.
What I do. Let's go back to the beginning, and lift out the challenge laid down by the man who opens Keller's article:
"You've said that if we do not believe in Christ," he said, "we are lost and condemned. I'm sorry, I just cannot buy that. I work with some fine people who are Muslim, Jewish, or agnostic. I cannot believe they are going to hell just because they don't believe in Jesus. In fact, I cannot reconcile the very idea of hell with a loving God—even if he is holy too."I think I'd respond this way:
Suppose you and I were having a conversation about the American system of law and justice. You are making the argument that, on the whole, it's a just system.Then, I would proceed from there to speak further of God's holiness, our sin, Christ's salvation — the Gospel.
Suppose I were to reply, "You've said that if someone molests children sexually, he should go to jail for a long, long time. I just cannot buy that. I work with some fine people who molest children. I cannot believe they are going to jail just because they molest children. In fact, I cannot reconcile the very idea of jail with a loving society — even if it is just too."
How would you respond to me?
You're a decent person. I bet you'd recoil in disgust. You'd quickly and heatedly respond, "Then your idea of justice is completely screwed up!"
Which is exactly my response: your idea of justice, holiness, sin and punishment, is completely screwed up.
God tells us what his moral hierarchy is. God tells us how sins rank, ethically. God says that the pressing moral imperative of the entire universe is to love Him with all one's being (Mark 12:28-30). That is the highest imperative. Therefore, the highest crime is to refuse to love God as he deserves.
What's more, the God who makes this command, also specifically demands that we worship His Son just as we worship Him (John 5:23). Therefore, anyone who refuses to worship Christ as God is not worshiping God — and is guilty of the worst moral crime in all creation.
Like many people, you put man at the center of the universe. God puts God at the center of the universe.
Child molesting is among the most horrible moral monstrosities I can imagine. I share your revulsion for it.
But rejection of Christ is even worse.
(In an earlier post, I made this same case from a different angle.)
Why I do it. First, I'd approach it that way for what I think are Biblical reasons. For instance, Proverbs 21:22 says, "A wise man scales the city of the mighty and brings down the stronghold in which they trust." Apologetics necessarily involves a lot of demolition-work (cf. Proverbs 26:5; Jeremiah 1:10, etc.).
Second, my ultimate goal in apologetics or evangelism is to proclaim the Lordship of Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:5; 1 Peter 3:15). As I just explained to my twelve-year-old, "apologetics" is not the practice of saying you're sorry that you believe in Christ. Apologetics is making a reasoned defense of the Christian faith, giving a grounded answer.
In fact, I think the problem with apologetics today is that too much apologetics is too apologetic. Too often, we actually come across as if we're saying, "Yeah, sorry... but I do believe this. Sorry. I know it's lame. It's true for me. You don't have to believe, if you don't want to. That's cool. But there you have it. Uh... Sorry!"
Well, I'm not sorry, and I don't think it's lame. In fact, I think unbelief is lame. Or I wouldn't bother with this whole take-up-your-cross and deny-yourself business of walking after Jesus. And there you have it.
Now, I'm about to fault Keller's approach specifically, but let me undo myself before I do it. I'm not really accusing Keller of anything bad, truly I'm not. And I'm not saying there's anything evil or anti-Christian or sinister about it — or about you, if that's how you choose to approach the question. Hats off to Keller for preaching the truth of Hell, and for not backing down on a very unpopular issue.
But that approach makes me uncomfortable, and I'd not employ it, myself.
Because to me it feels like that approach says, "You have a right to challenge God, and oppose your judgment over His. My job is to make God seem reasonable to you, in your judgment, by your standards."
And so the person who accepts Keller's line of reasoning may be saying, "Okay, now that makes sense to me, so I can accept it. It's okay with me if God is God in that area. He has my permission." (And then I guess God says "Cool!", and goes on being God.)
But what if this person later doesn't find our reasoning so persuasive, or if he's not initially caught up in Keller's chain of reasons? Well, then, he has the freedom to disagree with God and reject God's ways.
So since the ultimate issue is going to be the clash between (if you will) God's autonomy and mine, why not start the discussion out right there?
Then some of Keller's other arguments can well be brought in to demonstrate the wisdom of God — but not to get the rebel's permission for God to be God. In his topsy-turvy, chaotic, rebellious moral universe, God's ways will never "make sense" to Joe Autonom — because he has the foundational equation wrong.
Remember what Keller said about the man with whose words he began the article: "He said he was ready to embrace the gospel. But there was a final obstacle." So the man was convinced that he was lost in sin, helpless under the deserved wrath of a holy God; convinced that Jesus was truth incarnate, God incarnate, and Lord of Lords; convinced that his only hope was to come out with his hands up, and bow the knee to the Lordship of Christ as his only hope for life, forgiveness, reconciliation to God — but he still feels his judgment is superior to Jesus'? He's negotiating with God? And Keller's going to help? Obviously Keller can't tell the whole story, but something doesn't fit here. It's that aspect that niggles at me.
Remember: the unbeliever's starting point is, "I am Lord." He's wrong about that, dead-wrong. So that's where the heavy artillery needs to be directed.
My approach, then — and, yes, it probably rhymes with sman Smilian — is not, "Lord Pagan, is it okay with you that God is Lord, too? Can I negotiate a treaty between you and God as among equals?" My approach is, "Here's why and how the boat you're in is sinking, and why you need to bail out; and here's what God the true Lord says."