Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Keller on Hell

Michael K, a friend and a reader of this blog, sent me a link to an article by Tim Keller on hell and why it is such an important part of the Christian faith:

It is important because Jesus taught about it more than all other Biblical authors put together. Jesus speaks of "eternal fire and punishment" as the final abode of the angels and human beings who have rejected God (Matthew 25:41,46) He says that those who give into sin will be in danger of the "fire of hell" (Matthew 5:22; 18:8-9.) The word Jesus uses for 'hell' is Gehenna, a valley in which piles of garbage were daily burned as well as the corpses of those without families who could bury them. In Mark 9:43 Jesus speaks of a person going to "hell [gehenna], where 'their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.' " Jesus is referring to the maggots that live in the corpses on the garbage heap. When all the flesh is consumed, the maggots die. Jesus is saying, however, that the spiritual decomposition of hell never ends, and that is why 'their worm does not die.'

If Jesus, the Lord of Love and Author of Grace spoke about hell more often, and in a more vivid, blood-curdling manner than anyone else, it must be a crucial truth.

You can find the whole article here.

Tim Keller is a reasonable, gracious and thoughtful man, which means that someone like me (who is none of those three) will inevitably disagree with some bits of what he says, while loving other bits. If there is a risk in Tim's approach, it's that he is too attentive to the sociological vagaries of the people that he is trying to address. But Tim Keller's judgement is that, looking at the people he is ministering to in New York, the time is overdue for better and clearer and more pungent preaching about hell.

If he had come to this conclusion simply through surveying his audience, then there would be difficulties; for the time might come when someone in such a situation might decide to tone down speaking of hell in all its terror for the fear of driving your audience deeper into a pit of depression and low self-esteem.

But Keller's basic point—make sure you read the article—is that we teach about hell because Jesus taught about hell. Tim's conclusion:

We must come to grips with the fact that Jesus said more about hell than Daniel, Isaiah, Paul, John, Peter put together. Before we dismiss this, we have to realize we are saying to Jesus, the pre-eminent teacher of love and grace in history, "I am less barbaric than you, Jesus--I am more compassionate and wiser than you." Surely that should give us pause! Indeed, upon reflection, it is because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus' proclamations of grace and love are so astounding.

Preach hell, and you end up preaching grace. Lose hell, and you lose grace as well.


The Pook said...

I agree. And I think those who drift into softening the terrible truth of eternal punishment with things like the doctrine of finite hellism, etc are mistaken.

However, I do think there HAVE come times in history when the line is crossed by people at the other end of the spectrum, who preached almost exclusively about the terrors of hell but almost never gave people the true knowlege of how to avoid it through faith in Christ. This was especially true in the Middle Ages. Lots of hellfire and brimstone, but no grace. It has also been true in some severe sects of Presbyterianism and Puritanism.

Furthermore, it does vary from person to person. Just as there are individuals who don't need to be convinced that God made the world and everything in it, so there ARE individuals who already believe in hell and are convicted of their sin and afraid that they are going there. Some Catholics for instance are like this. These people need less preaching about hell and more about the cross than some others who are complacent and unconvinced about their sin and the need for salvation. It's not a matter of self esteem, has nothing to do with pandering to people's sense of self worth, but to the emphasis of the wonder of God's grace in Christ, and the way that we can be freed from condemnation and fear to the "glorious freedom of the children of God."

Having said that, I agree with Phillip's idea that if you don't know where a person stands, you should make 'the charitable assumption' that they do need to know about hell and preach the gospel from beginning to end, including judgment.

We need to be careful also about making a one to one correspondence between the number of times something is mentioned and its relative importance. It is true that Jesus used the word hell in (from memory) 11 out of 13 times it appears in the New Testement, and that the popular misconception that Jesus was meek and mild and all about God's love but Paul was the one who brought in all that nasty judgement stuff is simply wrong. But it is also true that hell is not mentioned much at all in the New Testament relative to the space devoted to other subjects. Even subjects like what to do and not to do in observing the Lord's Supper, or Speaking in Tongues, or Eating with Gentiles or collecting money for famine relief receive more space in the New Testament than hell does.

The subject Jesus spoke most of all about was... money! Now maybe that's because wealth is the major thing that drags people down to hell (humanly speaking). But my point is that it is not necessarily just the volume of words spoken or written on a subject that determines its relative importance. Hell would be eternally important even were it mentioned only once, because of its terrible reality, regardless of how often it appears in the pages of the bible.

Monkeywrenchmel said...

You like a lot of the American preachers I like Gordon! I just saw your post on Between Two Worlds!

Hell is my least favorite subject of the bible. I don't honestly have a good hold on it.