“Engaging With Keller” Review // Ch. 2 “Brimestone-Free’ Hell” (William Schweitzer)

The second chapter in this new book engaging the thought and practice of well-known evangelical Presbyterian pastor, Tim Keller, deals with Keller’s presentation of the doctrine of hell and judgment.

Like the previous chapter, the author acknowledges Keller’s orthodoxy and intention to uphold Christian doctrine when many are going too far in questioning the doctrine.  Yet, William Schweitzer contends that Keller’s presentation has left out key aspects of the biblical doctrine of hell.


Schweitzer begins his essay with a word about doctrine.  Schweitzer states, “More to the point, the words ‘judgment’ and ‘hell’ indicate sets of specific doctrinal content that must be conserved in our formulations.  This applies not only to systematic theologies, where doctrine is explained at length, but also to popular and apologetic works.” (68) Scweitzer continues to say that even if not everything is said about a doctrine, what is said must be consistent with the fuller explication. (Although I wonder why he doesn’t mention biblical theology?)

So, Keller, according to Schweitzer, must articulate a doctrine of hell that is, at the very least, consistent or coherent with our systematic theology of hell, the aspects of the doctrine that Schweitzer finds particularly important are that “God himself sends people to hell, that God himself keeps people in hell eternally, and that punishment in hell is meted out by God himself.” (68) Thus, Schweitzer’s job is to demonstrate how Keller’s articulation of the doctrine of hell in his publications and sermons/lectures is incoherent with these three theses.

I don’t think Schweitzer has made his case.  Beginning with the thesis that “God himself sends people to hell”, Schweitzer states that such a point “is not so clear, however, in Keller’s teaching for postmoderns.” (p. 69) This sentence is problematic since, as any philosopher knows, unclarity and incoherence are far from the being the same.

Schweitzer begins to make a stronger case with a lengthy quote from The Reason For God where Keller seems to ‘caricature’ God as one who sends people to hell.  While the particular Keller quote seems to make Schweitzer’s point, I am not sure that this is the most charitable way to read Keller.  It is very likely that the ‘caricature’ is that of a God who has a bunch of people in hell who say, “We want mercy and grace and we want heaven” but God refuses to release them from hell.  Keller’s main point is  not that it is wrong to think that God sends people to hell, but that it is wrong to think that people will be begging to leave hell and enter into the gracious presence of God.  And the Westminster Larger Catechism answer to question 89 as to what happens to the wicked at the day of judgment seems to cohere with Keller when it says that the wicked “upon clear evidence, and full conviction of their own consciences, shall have the fearful but just sentence of condemnation pronounced against them.”

The other critique from Schweitzer on this issue of God sending the wicked to hell is Keller’s notion that sinners send themselves to hell.  Schweitzer sees this ‘self-chosen’ hell as necessitating that God cannot send the wicked to hell and that the wicked must send themselves to hell.  (p.71) Unfortunately for Schweitzer, he doesn’t demonstrate how the two propositions, that God sends people to and and that people send themselves to hell, are incoherent.  Why can’t the Bible teach both truths in a complimentary fashion, as Schweitzer admits that Keller is trying to demonstrate? (p. 71) It seems that Keller is affirming moral responsibility of our choices (not necessarily libertarian free will), and such responsibility, when sin is involved, requires just punishment in hell. (Schweitzer even notes that J.I. Packer takes the same ‘self-chosen’ view as Keller.)

The second thesis of Schweitzer, that God keeps the wicked in hell for eternity, is also supposedly dismissed by Keller.  Yet, aside from Schweitzer’s critique of Keller’s exegesis (which I can grant), I think these quotes from Keller in his internet article “The Importance of Hell” are pertinent when he states that “hell cannot exist unless God upholds it” and that hell is a “prison in which the doors are first locked from the inside by us and therefore are locked from the outside by God.” (emphasis mine) So, Schweitzer needs to give us a syllogism demonstrating how it can never be the case the God is the one who keeps the wicked in hell and that the wicked also keep themselves in hell for eternity.  He has not given us such a deductive argument.

The final thesis of Schweitzer is that God is the one punishing the wicked in hell.  Schweitzer biblically shows us why this is the case, yet he again cites the ‘unclarity’ clause for Keller and not the incoherence clause. (p. 79) His demonstration that Keller doesn’t teach that God punishes the wicked is ill-informed as he doesn’t interact with Keller’s exegesis of Romans 1-2 that one of the most serious ways God judges the stubborn sinfulness of humanity is to “give them up” to their desires and idolatry, which is textually connected to the “wrath of God’ revealed against his creatures.  So, one can see how Keller presents this particular angle of hell’s punishment and how it is connected to God’s wrath and his activity of giving sinners over to their desires.  Also, Keller insists that such giving over is “God actively giving us up to what we have freely chosen-to go our own way.” (emphasis mine)

Another critique from Schweitzer is Keller’s insistence that the language of hellfire is metaphorical and points to a more painful reality than the metaphor itself. (p. 84) I won’t go into Keller’s citation of Jonathan Edwards, so I will concede Schweitzer’s interpretation of the great revivalist.  Yet, I will point out that WCF 33 and WLC 89 don’t mention fire as the specific punishment for the wicked.  Only WLC 29 mentions “hellfire” as one aspect of hell.  I am not a historical theologian and I can’t determine whether the Divines meant literal hellfire or if their position was more ambiguous.  The Belgic Confession 37 mentions fire reserved for the devil and his angels.  No other major Reformed confession or catechism mentions the specific punishment of literal fire.  Even R.C. Sproul (who is not known for his ‘preaching to postmoderns’ or attempts at ‘contextualization) takes the same position as Keller on this issue.  In addition, this article from 9Marks on this issue shows plenty of ‘traditionalists’ on hell articulating something close to Keller’s position.

In conclusion, Schweitzer doesn’t accomplish his stated goal of showing that Keller’s presentation of hell  is inconsistent or coherent with our systematic theology of hell.  Indeed, Keller’s goal in his presentation is to give us a biblically balanced view of hell that includes the notion of “God’s active judgment” along with the “self-chosen” character of hell.  I don’t see any major problem with this approach.

Tomorrow I will review chapter 3, “Losing the Dance: is the ‘Divine Dance’ a Good Explanation of the Trinity?” by Kevin J. Bidwell.


3 thoughts on ““Engaging With Keller” Review // Ch. 2 “Brimestone-Free’ Hell” (William Schweitzer)

  1. Hi Daniel

    I discussed this in the comments section here – http://theweeflea.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/engaging-with-keller-a-review/#comments
    and it’s nice to see that someone has reached similar conclusions!

    Keller has been criticised for following CS Lewis. I worry that the Reformed community has overlooked a few insights that CS Lewis offers into the doctrine of Hell. We can outline two views of Hell
    (a) The (Old Fashioned? Turn or Burn?) Punishment Model,
    (b)The (More Respectable? Polite?) Choice Model.

    We can describe these in the following ways..

    The Punishment Model

    1. the purpose of hell is to punish those whose earthly lives and behavior warrant it
    2. it is metaphysically impossible to get out of hell once one has been consigned there;
    3. some people will be consigned to hell
    4. Hell is a place of conscious existence.

    The “Choice Model”

    1a. Hell may be a place where some people are punished, but the fundamental purpose of hell is not to punish people, but to honour their choices.
    2. it is metaphysically impossible to get out of hell once one has been consigned there;
    3. some people will be consigned to hell
    4. Hell is a place of conscious existence.

    Note that the “Choice Model” is caricatured if we argue that it is a “natural consequence” view. Hell is created with a purpose. In any case, Lewis had a lot to say about the use of the word ‘natural’! One way of thinking about this might be as follows. If hell is the ‘natural consequence’ of living a certain way, then it is a ‘natural consequence’ because God has ordained things to be that way. Continued existence after death in either heaven or hell can hardly be described as ‘simply what we get’ or a ‘natural consequence’ of certain actions – as if God had very little to do with it.

    Now consider what Lewis says in “The Problem of Pain”:

    “To enter Hell is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into Hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’..”

    The words that I have emphasised show that Hell is a punishment in Lewis’ view, and not merely a “natural consequence”. “Separation” is not the best word to describe Lewis’ view of Hell. ‘Expulsion’ or ‘exile’ seems more appropriate. “Exile” is the appropriate punishment for sin in Scripture. Israel was expelled from God’s land – suffered a curse – because Israel wanted nothing to do with God. Israel’s punishment follows on quite directly from Israel’s choices.
    The “punishment” and “choice” models are two sides of the same coin for Lewis. The two aspects of Hell are inextricably linked in Lewis’s mind. And Lewis also draws in the theme of “destruction”, pointing out that whatever is conscious in Hell is “not a man:it is remains..a will utterly centred in itself and passions utterly uncontrolled by the will”.
    Now if we take Sin seriously we should realise that this is not a gentler, milder hell that Lewis is proposing. Scan Michael Burleigh’s moral history of World War Two, and you will see what human passion is capable of. Left uncontrolled and turned back on itself in everlasting self-destruction, these passions would take a terrible toll.
    if Hell is a place that rebels are banished to, and if rebels want no place of the New Heavens and the New Earth (which is their natural home) then the “choice” and “punishment” models collapse into one another. To be sent away from the source of all love, and to be cast out of our ideal environment is a terrible punishment indeed; given our appetite for self-destruction, to be completely given over to our own sinful desires would be an awful fate
    God’s punishment in Romans 1 is to “give people up” to their own desires. Being “cast out” is a recurring theme in parables about the judgment of God – when being “cast out” simply confirms the unbeliever’s original choices.

    So Hell is not simply a “natural consequence” of sin on Lewis’ view (nor is it on Keller’s) . God says “thy will be done” to the damned. God acts . And it is not that anyone in Hell wants to be there. It is just that everyone in Hell would not prefer to be in Heaven. And the cost of rejecting the God of heaven is expulsion from His kingdom.
    Lewis has successfully brought together three strands -punishment, separation, destruction – of Biblical teaching on Hell. So it seems wrong (or short-sighted) to critique Keller’s use of Lewis in “The Reason for God”.
    Graham Veale
    Saints and Sceptics

    1. Thanks for your comment, Graham. You articulated what I was attempting to say in a more charitable and rational manner. 🙂

      In sum, critics of Keller and Lewis need to demonstrate how the so-called ‘Punishment’ and ‘Choice’ models of hell are contradictory. As far as I can see, what you’ve presented demonstrates that they are complementary.

      Thanks again.


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