The following is an Open Letter to Tim Keller presenting our questions regarding his traditional view of hell:

Dear Dr. Keller,

We were introduced to you through a mutual friend back in the early days of New Life Church and the late Jack Miller. Who we are today has been significantly shaped by your ministry. We have been sermon subscribers and have read and re-read all your books. You have shepherded us well through your preaching and example and taught us how to see Jesus and His gospel as central to the story of the Bible. This has always been done in a spirit of sincerity and humility. We have never felt manipulated but only lovingly discipled and confronted by grace. We have the same abiding respect for your wife Kathy who we know has been central to the success of your ministry and message.

In the recent debate over Rob Bell's Love Wins we have felt that many of the issues and questions in relation to the nature of hell have not been brought into the discussion or satisfactorily answered. The following observations and questions are directed to you as someone we respect and will continue to respect and learn from even if you disagree with our conclusions.

For the past 15+ years you and others, perhaps taking your lead, have been steadily helping us to reformulate and expand our understanding of the gospel from that of a personal salvation into a place called heaven to that of being "blessed to be a blessing" to the world. You directed us to Lesslie Newbigin who taught,

"God's electing grace calls into being a people charged with the responsibility of being the bearers of His universal salvation...To be chosen, to be elect, herefore does not mean that the elect are the saved and the rest are the lost. To be the elect in Christ Jesus, and there is no other election, means to be incorporated into His mission to the world, to be the bearer of God's saving purpose for His whole world, to be the sign and the agent and the firstfruit of His blessed kingdom which is for all."


The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society ("The Logic of Election" pgs 86-87)

Also you exposed the missing part of our gospel that taught redemption was primarily a spiritual one. The gospel understanding of cosmic redemption has brought about radical life changes from how we see and engage in our culture to how we spend our time and money.

But here is where we feel the need to dialogue specifically with you:
Whenever we read or hear your words regarding the glorious and breath-taking restoration of creation, we find we are unwilling to add the qualifiers needed to square it with the traditional view. If we did we would have to erase more than 90% of the hope you paint so beautifully in your summaries of gospel restoration. The truth is we desire to take it all at face value. It fills us with hope, a yearning and even a sickening desire for it to be so. What are we to do with this? Since it is, according to the traditional view, not God's will that absolutely all things will be restored, is it evil for us to desire it so much? Until now we have just kept it quiet.

But Bell's book has brought the issue of the nature of hell to the fore and we want to take this opportunity to state that we do not believe that this issue has been fully or honestly dealt with but given only minimal discussion, or often simply dismissed and the majority view assumed.

The following are the reasons for why we want to take literally the Biblical passages, as well as your words, which speak of a complete cosmic restoration of all creation...and that, "everything sad is going to come untrue":

1. When you have seen a glimpse of the incredible beauty and glory of God in Christ through His Story you yearn to have everyone see and experience Him as you have. It is as you have taught us: the natural response to anything that is glorious and brings intense joy is to share it with others in order to complete the joy.

2. When you love someone deeply and have seen their true glory it causes you much pain and sadness when someone does not love them or see their glory as you do. It hurts you to see someone you love scorned, rejected, ignored, or dismissed. The thought of billions of God's image-bearers never coming to love, honor or worship our God and Savior for who He is and what He's done is unthinkable. We deeply desire for all of creation to see and praise Him, forever. That is why Philippians 2 resonates with our hearts and why, we believe, it is often the theme of worship songs. ("At the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Jesus is Lord...")

3. It seems to be the natural response of God's people who have been undergoing transformation into the image of our Savior. We are taught and commanded by God to be lovers, forgivers, and redeemers. All our lives we are "in training" to become more like our merciful high priest learning to restore and redeem the world through our radical Christ-like love and forgiveness. In light of having the "mind of Christ", when we are told that billions of our fellow man will be hopelessly lost and tormented for all eternity we seem to instinctively reject that idea (usually by simply not thinking about it) and we want to believe God has provided a way for them to be redeemed. At funerals of unbelievers we have often heard, "they didn't trust in Christ but God is bigger..." (And this is from reformed pastors!) It is as if we intuitively respond by offering hope to the world. The question in our minds has been, are we being made into lovers, forgivers and redeemers all our lives only to do a complete 180 in the age to come as we, "judge nations" and "rule over cities". Will we be assisting in the condemning to an eternal hell most of humanity? Is that what we are being trained for in this life?

4. In light of the doctrine of God's absolute sovereignty (that we hold to as Reformed believers) how could we ever consider the traditional view of an eternal hell a major part of the outcome of that absolute sovereignty? If billions of God's offspring are allowed to "stand up on the inside" hating God's guts and cycling in sin forever, how is that a definition of absolute sovereignty? Does God not say how much he "HATES" it when people say one thing (knees bowed, tongues confessing) while their hearts are far from Him?

5. Included in the story of God's redemption is the idea of justice. In your tremendous book Generous Justice you give us further reasons to yearn for the restoration of all things. We desire that "Primary Justice" be also true of the ultimate justice God has in plan for His universe. The following questions were generated by your book:

A. The beautiful vision you present from Scripture of how God views the poor and oppressed with compassion and how it is inseparable from His nature and therefore from our own personal righteousness, begs the question: If God delights in helping the poor and indeed His defense of them is a central part of His identity then please explain how the poor (majority unbelieving) are given justice at some point only to be consigned to torment in hell forever? If God has guaranteed “justice for all the oppressed” then how do those who die in their oppression, experience justice? Do the unbelieving poor and oppressed, who never see justice in this life, die in their sins, then later raised to get the justice He promised, (Psa. 103:5-6) and finally in the end thrown into the lake of fire forever, along with their oppressors?

B. How does God sort out justice among two parties of evil oppressors in the context of an eternal hell?

C. If God’s Primary Justice is “living in right relationship to everyone else” then how is that possible with a compartment in His universe filled with billions of rebel God-haters perpetually sinning against their Creator in an eternal state of death? Does that mean most of His creation will never be brought to Primary Justice and instead exist in an eternal state of Secondary Justice? How can this “rectifying justice” be the final perpetual state for most of God’s creation? Is God never going to see Primary Justice in the ultimate sense in His universe? How does an eternal state of secondary justice ever pay for anything as it never ends?

D. If as you say, "doing justice includes the righting of wrongs as well as generosity and social concern for the poor, which reflects His very character," then why is this earthly justice you propose entirely incongruous with how you believe He will end The Story? It appears that very little in the micro will be reflected in the macro even though you said these truths about God and social justice are rooted in His unchangeable (eternal) nature.

E. How will God mete out perfect justice in a place that is eternal darkness and hopelessness? How can there exist degrees of absolute abandonment of God? If God has removed Himself, the very Source of all that is good, light, life, love, peace and happiness, how can you mete out degrees of punishment in a place like this? Would not a Hilter and a Hindu teen who has never heard the gospel be forced to face exactly the same fate? And would it not need to be the very sustaining grace of God holding those in hell together (their very breath and molecules) in order to punish them forever? And in this case would He not then actually be with them forever?

F. Finally, How can I really connect with my fellow human beings as they suffer injustice if I believe what you say, that 90%+ of the world will be lost and tortured forever? And if these humans are predestined for destruction brought upon themselves by their own sin, and deserving of eternal hell, would that thought not interfere with the command to have compassion on them? It would feel as though I was working against some kind of fatalistic "karma" that was predetermined. How do you offer hope to a world in which you believe the majority is destined to be consigned to a place where all hope is abandoned?

5.You have often reminded us that sin is not breaking God's rules but breaking His heart. We would have to ask if we are more afraid of hell than sin. Are we more afraid of breaking the rules (hell, a location) or of breaking God's heart (sin, a condition)?

6. We have a question in light of your description of hell as exclusion and separation from the face or presence of God. We were surprised to find that the word "exclusion" (or "away" or "separated") has been added to the Greek in assumption that hell is eternal separation from God (II Thess.1:9). The ESV has left it out intheir footnote. The meaning has been altered from an age of destruction FROM the face of the Lord to: eternal destruction AWAY FROM the face of the Lord. Fire FROM the face of the Lord is really, really serious and scary...but not without hope.

In closing, we must say that your preaching in the prophets like Isaiah 19 where Egypt is named "My beloved" and Assyria is called "the work of My hands" has literally taken our breath away and left us undone. You have always made sweeping statements (like many pastors) about how "God is going to restore everything to it's original glory," or that He is going to "make all things new." You've ended sermons with "everything sad is going to come untrue." You never qualify those statements. But we honestly never wanted you to. And we have never heard anyone challenge those statements in any church. The theme of restoration is on Reformed, Missional and various non-denominational websites and the subject of many recent books. But why is it when someone reaches out their hand to grasp these vast, amazing, and inclusive promises at face value they are severely reprimanded and possibly dis-fellowshipped?

Dr. Keller, can you consider that maybe we have misinterpreted this one part of the Story? You have said yourself that we need to see the Bible as a Story with principles sprinkled throughout as opposed to a book of doctrines sprinkled with stories. It seems like the church has been moving toward this for some time now with the development of the understanding of "missional" and "blessed to be a blessing" and the realization that God's Story of redemption is more than about my personal salvation but about being chosen for the world. We have been steadily "reforming" to see the Gospel as an all-encompassing restoration of every atom of God's universe. The left and right are giving up their sides for a "gospel third way"; it just seems to be getting bigger and grander. Does it have to stop short of what the Bible seems to tease us with..."The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Christ will be all in all...He will reconcile all things through Christ...Every knee will bow...Behold, I am making all things new"? To be honest Dr. Keller, you have brought many of us to this very brink by your expansive and hopeful preaching and we are looking over the edge and we really want to jump. (Many of us already have.) There doesn't seem like any valid reason not to and looking back is a swirl of contradictions, the irreconcilable doctrines (of the Calvinists and Arminians), disputing and frankly despair.

Could it perhaps be that this crisis exposed and stirred up by Rob Bell is God's way of "smashing plates," trying to break into our thinking and perhaps exposing some "traditions of men"? *

We place these thoughts and questions before you with much prayer and with all due respect to you as a man of integrity upholding the honor of God. Again, even if you disagree with our position we will not cease to respect you or continue to learn from you.

Sincerely,

A small group of your biggest "fans"

We leave you with this testimony which is also a question:

"Dear Dr. Keller,

I have continually thanked God for your ministry over the years. The truth is you have been extremely instrumental in preparing me for my encounter with Ultimate Restoration a few years ago. My expanded view of the gospel generated by Redeemer's missional teaching prepared me for this understanding. And now the Ultimate Restoration view has made so much sense of the polarity between the Calvinists and the Arminians. The tensions are now gone. You helped me see the Story underneath the story, how "everything sad is going to become untrue," how God is going to restore everything and make, not all new things, but "all things new." So much of the Scripture makes sense to me now. The God who is willing but can't has been reconciled with the God who is able but has chosen not to. Now I see God as the One who is both willing AND able. I can even worship with both Arminians AND Calvinists because they are simply two parts of a whole, not the “heretics” they call one another.

Also the fruit of the Spirit is no longer an abstract because I am actually experiencing it in a way never before. Because the fear and doubt are removed completely I am experiencing so much more "the expulsive power of a new affection." I am so in love with Christ that I am overwhelmed at times. This love has naturally produced love for His kingdom; to do justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with my God. Worship flows. Repentance is joy. I have lost my over-desire for things. I feel a greater power to forgive my enemies. My heart breaks for this world because I now believe that Christ's atonement and love were effectual for all. This has given me hope for all because I now believe that, "Every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord" …someday.

HERE IS MY QUESTION: If what I am saying about the fruit in my life is actually true and I believe what is represented in the historical Creeds (which do not mention an eternal hell) then would you say as a minister of the Gospel that it's possible to be a Christian AND believe in a picture of Ultimate Restoration? If it is possible to be a real Christian while holding to The Greater Hope view, then since this is where I have been flourishing and most obedient to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I must remain here. I can do no other."

Sincerely,

“A More Hopeful and Holy Christian”

*Note: The "smashing plates" is an allusion to a sermon illustration. His wife Kathy was trying to get his attention regarding his over-scheduling in the early years of the NY church plant. Apparently he wasn't listening. She took their wedding china plates (later he learned they were odd pieces) and began to calmly and systematically smash them with a hammer until she "broke into his world" and got his attention. (He praised her for this.)

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