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
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
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
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.
A small group of your biggest "fans"
We leave you with this testimony which is also
"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."
“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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