Dr. Timothy Keller

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 aftermath of the debate over Rob Bell’s Love Wins and now the movie “Hellbound?” we have felt
that many relevant 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, therefore 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 which 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, as you are often heard quoting, 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 others do 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…”) Where does this deep desire come from and what will become of it in eternity?

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 we somehow know must exist. 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 part of the outcome of that absolute sovereignty?  If billions of God’s offspring are allowed to “stand up on the inside” hating God 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? Did not Napoleon say that any despot can make you bow in obeisance but only Jesus Christ can make His enemies love 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? Further, how does an eternal state of secondary justice ever pay for or resolve 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 in their 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 whom J. I. Packer says worship “different deities”), disputing and frankly despair.

Could it perhaps be that this crisis exposed and stirred up by Rob Bell and others
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”

 

*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. (Later he praised her for this.)

Dear readers, please feel free to post any part of this letter on your sites as well as any material on this website you feel is helpful. Please link to this site if possible, Thank you.

In light of Keller’s article “The Importance of Hell” on his Redeemer website we have part one of two in response to his defense of an eternal hell.

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    14 Comments

    1. A beautiful letter. Thank you.
      May the world come to see the true heart of God.

    2. glwadmin says:

      Thank you for your feedback Jonathan. I appreciate your reading it and glad it resonated with you. Dr. Tim Keller has been a powerful influence in many of our lives and even though he gets hell wrong we find there are countless ways in which he encourages and challenges us. We find it interesting though how many things he says that go beyond his theological stance as a Reformed Presbyterian pastor which we are not really supposed to believe.

    3. Esme says:

      For what it’s worth, think you’ve communicated your viewpoint eloquently and with great sincerity and humility. A couple years ago as I was trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing with regards to this specific matter, have to say that I was deeply influenced by Dr. Keller’s book Prodigal God, liberated even. It allowed me to take a closer look at what the Scriptures actually say concerning the topic of hell and judgement, without fear. It was and still is a continuing process, but I have now let go of the traditionally received teaching (to the consternation of many) and find that what is left is truly a glorious gospel and at it`s center, a Savior who saves. Love never fails. Sorry! Just realized that this comment is overly long!

    4. glwadmin says:

      Thanks for your feedback “Esme,” Your impression is what we hope to produce…that we are being charitable. We are not taking sides for that would negate the other essential parts of the Body of Christ. We aim to be learners from all our brothers and sisters in Christ.

      It was indeed Keller who led the way for us toward a more expansive and inclusive redemption. As a Calvinist who defends an eternal hell with an Arminian defense ultimate reconciliation is the only logical conclusion for Keller out of his own “cognitive dissonance.” Conversely I am currently reading a book on the Gospel/grace written from a purely Arminian stance. Its vision of grace is quite breath-taking in a different way from the Calvinist books on the topic. But again the dissonance is palpable all through the book just begging to be resolved in universal reconciliation. (It is entitled, “The Gospel In Ten Words” by Paul Ellis).

      Again, appreciate your comment ….and it was not overly long(!) Add your thoughts anytime.

    5. Esme says:

      Thanks, will have a look at the book you mentioned. Since you’ve reassured me (seriously hope you don’t regret it), would like to also add one observation. In my experience the fruit of upholding universal reconciliation as a biblical truth has been good fruit. Ever since coming to the belief that the bible does teach universal reconciliation, it has restored a sense of confidence, joy and love to my faith life, and a greater love/awe/respect for God. Also, when sharing or even disagreeing with others, I find that I can set aside my ego, am not invested in being ‘right’ or winning an argument. It’s more like i’m excited, as if i found treasure buried in a field and i want everyone to find it too.
      I’ll give an example. During a conversation with a Muslim friend of mine recently..we were talking about something concerning the geo-politics of the Middle East (a heavy topic at the best of times)..shared Psalm 87 with her and she was really touched. Because my lens was ultimate reconciliation, she actually said, “Wow, is that what God says. That’s really good news. You should preach that.”
      Hope you don’t find this too off-topic. Thanks again!

    6. glwadmin says:

      Appreciate the comment Esme, The book I mentioned is just an example of how an Arminian who is trying to preach a more pure form of grace just can’t get away from the conclusion of ultimate reconciliation. It would be a great “stepping stone” for an Arminian to read on his/her way towards an understanding of a more inclusive gospel.

      That’s a beautiful example with your Muslim friend. My experience has been exactly the same. As Peter Hiett says often “I don’t have to judge everyone or try to save everyone anymore, I can just love them.” It’s all God and the pressure is off. No “agenda.” I have had more NATURAL conversations about my love for Jesus than ever before. And I get the same reaction you received-they want to hear more and actually feel like it is GOOD news! It has been nothing short of amazing.

      (You may want to check out Carl Medearis and his ministry to the Muslims. It is quite astounding really…like the books of Acts. He is not UR but he preaches a Gospel that is full of love and certainly void of condemnation. We did an article on him here on this blog and his thoughts on “universalism.”)

      BTW, the subject of more love for Christ and others is never “off-topic” anywhere here!

      • Esme says:

        Yes! Exactly that, what you said. No agenda. Organic, natural conversations. Full-on GOOD news. The best.
        Will check him out and your article.

    7. berean says:

      I spent a year in a new church plant where I was increasingly troubled by the teachings and mindset of the pastor, who was enamored with the teachings and writings of Tim Keller. I decided to look into Keller and found out quickly where these dangerous ideas were coming from. Keller intentionally straddles the fence in an effort to keep his position in the PCA denomination- you see, one cannot infiltrate and slowly change the convictions of Bible believers if they get the boot! He is definitely one of you but don’t hold your breath waiting on a full confession- he cannot do that until he feels it is safe. (Saul Alinsky)
      Please seek God’s truth through His Word that He will regenerate you and bring you out of the darkness of your own mind and emotions…your “feelings” will damn you in this continued ignorance.
      God help the professing church, Tim Keller and you all.

      I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. 2 Timothy 4:1-4

    8. Catherine says:

      Assuming Dr Keller has never replied to the ‘open letter’, does anyone know what his position is regarding hopeful universal reconciliation?

      • glwadmin says:

        Hi Catherine, At this point it is hard to say what Dr Keller’s position is regarding ultimate Restoration. I imagine he is at least hopeful as most believers are. In speaking with many folks around the world for the past 10 years it is so very often a faith one holds in secret for fear of rejection by their church family.

        For Keller to openly come to the conclusion that this can be a confidence would incur some very serious scrutiny by the PCA and most surely his dismissal (as it did for Presbyterian pastor Peter Hiett). So it may be difficult to ever know if UR is something Keller embraces because any view that contradicts the traditional “eternal conscious torment” (via the Westminster Standards) is considered heresy and therefore the cost would be enormous. His Redeemer Presbyterian congregation is upwards of 10,000 with myriads of church plants. He is a role model for so many pastors around the globe that a confession of this magnitude declaring that he was wrong about the nature of hell would be quite remarkable to say the least. BUT we are not without hope that it could happen(!)based upon his integrity and humility as he honestly looks at the theological, philosophical and historical data. Perhaps it would be not unlike the major theological move the late John Stott made from the traditional view of hell to that annihilation without losing his esteemed position as pastor and theologian.

    9. Brother Befuddled says:

      As a free grace believer whose soteriology was most systematically espoused by the late Lewis Sperry Chafer, I wonder sometimes if Calvinists and Arminians think that I worship a different God.

      Free grace theology holds that Christ Jesus is the ELECT ONE and all who in union with Christ are elected to eternal life. We also believe both people and groups are elected to service, whether that service be noble (i.e. Saul of Tarsus or ignoble (i.e. Judas Iscariot). We believe that all who are born from above are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

      Like our Arminian brethren, we believe that eternal is the birthright of all believers, and like our Calvinist brethren we believe that we are eternally kept by God. Most of us do not pretend to understand the exact mechanism by which we are wooed by our Father. I personally believe that the mechanism is something like John Wesley’s concept of prevenient grace.

      I am a huge fan of Paul Ellis, but I would definitely classify him as a free grace thinker– not a classical Arminian and certainly not a Wesleyan Arminian. Unlike Calvinists and Arminians, we reject the concept of lordship salvation. Free grace believers agree with St. Paul’s contention that we are justified by believing God– not by a commitment to follow Jesus or to behold him and thereby be transformed into His image. Parenthetically, I know no free grace believer who is not so in love with
      Jesus that he or she does not desire to obey Him and become more like Him
      every day.

      During my first visit to your wonderful web site, I read the article contending that numerous theological trends in the Body of Christ(including the free grace movement)are leading toward ultimate reconciliation. I agree completely. And my recently renewed study of patristics has enabled me to seriously entertain the hope that all who were made in His image will ultimately be reconciled to Abba. I have always thought that anyone with a heart of flesh would desire that all be saved. Please keep up the good work, and maybe my hope will someday become dogma.

      Grace peace and love to all,

      Bro. Befuddled.

      • glwadmin says:

        Brother B.
        Thanks for stopping by and commenting …and for the encouraging words! Thanks for enlightening us with how free-grace theology views the gospel. I don’t doubt that there are many who do not feel they fit into either a classic Arminian or Calvinistic mindset. Perhaps there are as many variations of faith as there are Christians (represented by 40K denominations!). So defining a group’s or even individual believer’s position is a very elusive endeavor. That is why I like the emphasis on the faith being that OF God not IN God. If it is God’s faith then we can lock into what He believes about us which informs the direction of our faith: “We love because He first loved us” etc., If it is our faith in God that saves then we each invent what we think that faith consists of (or, the set of works we believe prove it is indeed “saving faith” if you are of that persuasion). So as a friend has said, “It is not your thoughts about God that define Him but rather His thoughts about you that define you” (Psa 139). In this way what He believes about us becomes the reference and substance of our faith. I believe this understanding creates unity in the Body as it discovers that the Scriptures speak more about the faith OF God than our faith IN God. (See for instance the Greek rendering of Gal 2:20.)

        I know no free grace believer who is not so in love with
        Jesus that he or she does not desire to obey Him and become more like Him
        every day.

        I know this is true and as one old saint put it, “we have received the expulsive power of a new affection.” An encounter with true love expels all that is inferior in us. You can’t help it when you fall in love with the Lord!

        Grace and peace!
        Phillip

    10. Brother Befuddled says:

      Hi Phillip,

      Thank you very much for your kind words and your thoughtful and sensitive response to my comments. Your friend’s point is well taken: God’s thoughts about us truly do define us. A comment included in the Logos 21 translation of John’s Gospel stated something to the effect that all of God’s requirements of man were satisfied by God at the cross. The phrase is elegant in its simplicity and profundity, and although the statement seems to express the sine quo non of free grace soteriology, I questioned the accuracy of the proposition for the obvious reason that if one must believe God in order to benefit from His finished work, then all requirements of man were not satisfied at Calvary. And I understand both Jesus and Paul to teach that that justification and eternal life come through believing God.

      Although I am in no wise a Greek scholar (my academic background is in modern intellectual history, jurisprudence, political theory and biochemical sciences) and I work in the Security Division of a large company, I am trying (with very limited success) to teach myself to read Greek, and I am well satisfied that Jesus taught that simple child like confidence in God’s promises regarding justification and eternal life results in the new birth from above, I am equally convinced that it is Messiah’s faith–the faith that led Him to voluntarily lay down His life for us– that resulted in His overpayment for the justification of all. I read Galatians 2:16 to mean that we believe in order to be justified by the faith of Christ. I read Galatians 2:20 to mean that since we were crucified with Christ we are dead but for Christ who lives in us and that we live in His faith. My skills in Greek exegesis are almost non-existent, but the majority of Greek scholars I have read seem to confirm the gist of my findings regarding these verses.

      With you I would much rather trust in Messiah’s faith than my own, and I seem to recall that John Crowder wrote that an increasing number of Greek scholars opine that most of the verses rendered faith in Christ should be translated as faith of Christ.

      As a free grace believer, I do not look to myself for evidence of good works Calvinistic manner for evidence of regeneration. And Since I believe that I an saved by the faith of Christ, I do not wonder if the quantity, quality, intensity or constancy of my faith is sufficient. I have at times questioned the sufficiency of my belief, but Daddy has always reassured me that I am His child.

      My befuddlement results from the strong sense that I get from Paul’s writing that God loves everyone so much that He will ultimately exclude no one in contra opposition to the seemingly clear Biblical teaching that one must believe God in order to enter into the salvation that God has so graciously provided.

      Grace, peace and love to all

      Bro. Befuddled

      • glwadmin says:

        Thank you again Brother B,
        I think your “befuddlement” is quite universal and something the Church has argued over since almost the beginning. I say almost because I believe we lost sight of the finished work and began putting conditions upon salvation somewhere beginning with Constantine. Some of these conditions were the result of man’s confusion and others were created in order to place control into the hands of the religious leaders.

        Have you read any Thomas Torrance? He was a more recent theologian who studied under Karl Barth and taught the inclusive gospel put forth by Athanasius (the author of the Nicene Creed). Here is a quote:

        “God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.”
        (T. F. Torrance, “The Mediation of Christ,” 94)

        The only mystery that remains is whether a person can resist the love of God indefinitely. Theoretically I believe they can or else they are not truly free. But God may know that all the alternatives to Himself will someday be seen for what they are and finally exhausted and “God will be all in all.”

        grace and peace!

        Phillip

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