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Home » All Resources » Articles on Hell » Tim Keller, Preaching Hell in a Tolerant Age

Preaching Hell in a Tolerant Age

Tim Keller more from this author »

Redeemer Presbyterian Church

Date Published: 9/6/2010
Many today reject the idea of final judgment and hell. Tim Keller advises pastors on how to deliver the very important biblical message to those who may not want to hear it.

The young man in my office was impeccably dressed and articulate. He was an Ivy League MBA, successful in the financial world, and he had lived in three countries before the age of thirty. Raised in a family with only the loosest connections to a mainline church, he had little understanding of Christianity.

I was therefore gratified to learn of his intense spiritual interest, recently piqued as he attended our church. He said he was ready to embrace the gospel. But there was a final obstacle.

“You’ve said that if we do not believe in Christ,” he said, “we are lost and condemned. I’m sorry, I just cannot buy that. I work with some fine people who are Muslim, Jewish, or agnostic. I cannot believe they are going to hell just because they don’t believe in Jesus. In fact, I cannot reconcile the very idea of hell with a loving God—even if he is holy, too.”

This young man expressed what may be the main objection contemporary secular people make to the Christian message. (A close second, in my experience, is the problem of suffering and evil.) Many today reject the idea of final judgment and hell.

Thus, it’s tempting to avoid such topics in our preaching. But neglecting the unpleasant doctrines of the historic faith will bring about counterintuitive consequences. There is an ecological balance to scriptural truth that must not be disturbed.

If an area is rid of its predatory or undesirable animals, the balance of that environment may be so upset that the desirable plants and animals are lost—through overbreeding with a limited food supply. The nasty predator that was eliminated actually kept in balance the number of other animals and plants necessary to that particular ecosystem. In the same way, if we play down “bad” or harsh doctrines within the historic Christian faith, we will find, to our shock, that we have gutted all our pleasant and comfortable beliefs, too.

The loss of the doctrine of hell and judgment and the holiness of God does irreparable damage to our deepest comforts—our understanding of God’s grace and love and our human dignity and value to him. To preach the good news, we must preach the bad.

But in this age of tolerance, how?

How to Preach Hell to Traditionalists

Before preaching on the subject of hell, I must recognize that today, a congregation is made up of two groups: traditionalists and postmoderns. The two hear the message of hell completely differently.

People from traditional cultures and mindsets tend to have (1) a belief in God and (2) a strong sense of moral absolutes and the obligation to be good. These people tend to be older, from strong Catholic or religious Jewish backgrounds, from conservative evangelical/Pentecostal backgrounds, from the southern U.S., and first-generation immigrants from non-European countries.

The way to show traditional persons their need for the gospel is by saying, “Your sin separates you from God! You can’t be righteous enough for him.” Imperfection is the duty-worshiper’s horror. Traditionalists are motivated toward God by the idea of punishment in hell. They sense the seriousness of sin.

But traditionalists may respond to the gospel only out of fear of hell, unless I show them Jesus experienced not only pain in general on the cross but hell in particular. This must be held up until they are attracted to Christ for the beauty of the costly love of what he did. To the traditional person, hell must be preached as the only way to know how much Christ loved you.

Here is one way I have preached this:

Unless we come to grips with this terrible doctrine, we will never even begin to understand the depths of what Jesus did for us on the cross. His body was being destroyed in the worst possible way, but that was a flea bite compared to what was happening to his soul. When he cried out that his God had forsaken him, he was experiencing hell itself.

If a mild acquaintance denounces you and rejects you—that hurts. If a good friend does the same—the hurt’s far worse. However, if your spouse walks out on you, saying, “I never want to see you again,” that is far more devastating still. The longer, deeper, and more intimate the relationship, the more torturous is any separation.

But the Son’s relationship with the Father was beginning-less and infinitely greater than the most intimate and passionate human relationship. When Jesus was cut off from God, he went into the deepest pit and most powerful furnace, beyond all imagining. And he did it voluntarily, for us.

How to Preach Hell to Postmoderns

In contrast to the traditionalist, the postmodern person is hostile to the very idea of hell. People with more secular and postmodern mindsets tend to have (1) only a vague believe in the divine, if at all, and (2) little sense of moral absolutes, but rather a sense they need to be true to their dreams. They tend to be younger, from nominal Catholic or nonreligious Jewish backgrounds, from liberal mainline Protestant backgrounds, from the western and northeastern U.S., and Europeans.

When preaching hell to people of this mindset, I’ve found I must make four arguments.

1. Sin is Slavery

I do not define sin as just breaking the rules but also as “making something besides God our ultimate value and worth.” These good things, which become gods, will drive us relentlessly, enslaving us mentally and spiritually, even to hell forever if we let them.

I say, “You are actually being religious, though you don’t know it—you are trying to find salvation through worshiping things that end up controlling you in a destructive way.” Slavery is the choice-worshiper’s horror.

C. S. Lewis’s depictions of hell are important for postmodern people. In The Great Divorce, Lewis describes a busload of people from hell who come to the outskirts of heaven. There they are urged to leave behind the sins that have trapped them in hell. The descriptions Lewis makes of people in hell are so striking because we recognize the denial and self-delusion of substance addictions. When addicted to alcohol, we are miserable, but we blame others and pity ourselves; we do not take responsibility for our behavior or see the roots of our problem. Lewis writes:

Hell … begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps even criticizing it … You can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.

Modern people struggle with the idea of God’s thinking up punishments to inflict on disobedient people. When sin is seen as slavery and hell as the freely chosen, eternal skid row of the universe, hell becomes much more comprehensible.

Here is an example from a recent sermon of how I try to explain this:

First, sin separates us from the presence of God (Isa. 59:2), which is the source of all joy (Ps. 16:11), love, wisdom, or good thing of any sort (James 1:17)…

Second, to understand hell we must understand sin as slavery. Romans 1:21-25 tells us that we were built to live for God supremely, but instead we live for love, work, achievement, or morality to give us meaning and worth. Thus every person, religious or not, is worshiping something—idols, pseudo-saviors—to get their worth. But these things enslave us with guilt (if we fail to attain them) or anger (if someone blocks them from us) or fear (if they are threatened) or drivenness (since we must have them). Guilt, anger, and fear are like fire that destroys us. Sin is worshiping anything but Jesus—and the wages of sin is slavery.

Perhaps the greatest paradox of all is that the people on Lewis’s bus from hell are enslaved because they freely chose to be. They would rather have their freedom (as they define it) than salvation. Their relentless delusion is that if they glorified God, they would lose their human greatness (Gen. 3:4–5), but their choice has really ruined their human greatness. Hell is, as Lewis says, “the greatest monument to human freedom.”

2. Hell is Less Exclusive Than So-Called Tolerance

Nothing is more characteristic of the modern mindset than the statement: “I think Christ is fine, but I believe a devout Muslim or Buddhist or even a good atheist will certainly find God.” A slightly different version is: “I don’t think God would send a person who lives a good life to hell just for holding the wrong belief.” This approach is seen as more inclusive.

In preaching about hell, then, I need to counter this argument:

The universal religion of humankind is: We develop a good record and give it to God, and then he owes us. The gospel is: God develops a good record and gives it to us, then we owe him (Rom. 1:17). In short, to say a good person, not just Christians, can find God is to say good works are enough to find God.

You can believe that faith in Christ is not necessary or you can believe that we are saved by grace, but you cannot believe in both at once.

So the apparently inclusive approach is really quite exclusive. It says, “The good people can find God, and the bad people do not.” But what about us moral failures? We are excluded.

The gospel says, “The people who know they aren’t good can find God, and the people who think they are good do not.” Then what about non-Christians, all of whom must, by definition, believe their moral efforts help them reach God? They are excluded.

So both approaches are exclusive, but the gospel’s is the more inclusive exclusivity. It says joyfully, “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been at the gates of hell. You can be welcomed and embraced fully and instantly through Christ.”

3. Christianity’s View of Hell is More Personal Than the Alternative View

Fairly often, I meet people who say, “I have a personal relationship with a loving God, and yet I don’t believe in Jesus Christ at all.”

“Why not?” I ask.

They reply, “My God is too loving to pour out infinite suffering for sin.”

But then a question remains: “What did it cost this kind of God to love us and embrace us? What did he endure in order to receive us? Where did this God agonize, cry out? Where were his nails and thorns?”

The only answer is: “I don’t think that was necessary.”

How ironic. In our effort to make God more loving, we have made God less loving. His love, in the end, needed to take no action. It was sentimentality, not love at all. The worship of a God like this will be impersonal, cognitive, and ethical. There will be no joyful self-abandonment, no humble boldness, no constant sense of wonder. We would not sing to such a being, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

The postmodern “sensitive” approach to the subject of hell is actually impersonal. It says, “It doesn’t matter if you believe in the person of Christ, as long as you follow his example.”

But to say that is to say the essence of religion is intellectual and ethical, not personal. If any good person can find God, then the essential core of religion is understanding and following the rules.

When preaching about hell, I try to show how impersonal this view is:

To say that any good person can find God is to create a religion without tears, without experience, without contact.

The gospel certainly is not less than the understanding of truths and principles, but it is infinitely more. The essence of salvation is knowing a Person (John 17:3). As with knowing any person, there is repenting and weeping and rejoicing and encountering. The gospel calls us to a wildly passionate, intimate love relationship with Jesus Christ, and calls that “the core of true salvation.”

Two points here: (1) Know who is part of your commission, and (2) Recognize that everyone in it will always need your appropriate input and support.

4. There Is No Love Without Wrath

What rankles people is the idea of judgment and the wrath of God: “I can’t believe in a God who sends people to suffer eternally. What kind of loving God is filled with wrath?”

So in preaching about hell, we must explain that a wrathless God cannot be a loving God. Here’s how I tried to do that in one sermon:

People ask, “What kind of loving God is filled with wrath?” But any loving person is often filled with wrath. In Hope Has Its Reasons, Becky Pippert writes, “Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it … Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference.”

Pippert then quotes E. H. Gifford, “Human love here offers a true analogy: the more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor.”

She concludes, “If I, a flawed, narcissistic, sinful woman, can feel this much pain and anger over someone’s condition, how much more a morally perfect God who made them? God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.”

A God Like This

Following a recent sermon on the Parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the post-service question-and-answer session was packed with more than the usual number of attenders. The questions and comments focused on the subject of eternal judgment.

My heart sank when a young college student said, “I’ve gone to church all my life, but I don’t think I can believe in a God like this.” Her tone was more sad than defiant, but her willingness to stay and talk showed that her mind was open.

Usually all the questions are pitched to me, and I respond as best I can. But on this occasion, people began answering one another.

An older businesswoman said, “Well, I’m not much of a churchgoer, and I’m in some shock now. I always disliked the very idea of hell, but I never thought about it as a measure of what God was willing to endure in order to love me.”

Then a mature Christian made a connection with a sermon a month ago on Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb in John 11. “The text tells us that Jesus wept,” he said, “yet he was also extremely angry at evil. That helped me. He is not just an angry God or a weeping, loving God—he’s both. He doesn’t only judge evil, but he also takes the hell and judgment himself for us on the cross.”

The second woman nodded, “Yes. I always thought hell told me about how angry God was with us, but I didn’t know it also told me about how much he was willing to suffer and weep for us. I never knew how much hell told me about Jesus’ love. It’s very moving.”

It is only because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus’ proclamation of grace and love are so brilliant and astounding.


Tim Keller

Dr. Timothy Keller is founder and senior pastor of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. He is The New York Times bestselling author of The Reason for God,The Prodigal God, and Counterfeit Gods. 

Gary Just
October 10, 2010
@ Thomas Donelan is Faith the gift or Grace. [delete comment]
T. Barron
October 10, 2010
In my comment below, the sentence should read: "If it were not true, God's Word would not tell us so." [delete comment]
T. Barron
October 10, 2010
I find it very interesting that there is such discussion about the very reason Jesus Christ is. That is, the reconcilation of sinful man to the Heavenly Father and Himself. Sin is sin. Tolerance does not make room for it-we are all sinners-we all have no righteous of ourselves-and it it only through the shed blood of Jesus in our place for our sin that we have life. The Scriptures are very clear there is heaven and there is hell. No in-between. We all have the choice to make if we remain sinners or if we become sinners-saved-by-His-grace, and shed blood of Jesus Christ. Scripture also tells us that many will be offended, yet offense may sometimes lead others to the reconcilation with God, their Creator and Sustainer. The Truth of God's Word does not replace our opinions or thoughts. There can be no separation of His Word-it is one Covenant through-out the Old & New Testament. My heart bleeds for those that do not know Him and aches for those who water down His Words, for fear of offending. Either what His Word states is true, or it is not. I know that I know that I know Hell is a real place, and Heaven is as well. If it were true, God's Word would not tell us so. I am so looking forward to the day when I will get to see all my sisters and brothers in Christ, as we fall on our faces before our Most Holy, Almight, God and Lord. Blessings to you all. [delete comment]
Gary Bisaga
October 6, 2010
Jerry, I respectfully submit that you're depending too much on philosophy and your ideas of "fairness" and not enough on the Biblical texts. The idea of hell as a place where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched, the very image of gehenna as the Valley of Hinnom is pretty clear. Your treatment of the Biblical texts is all dependent on this previous philosophical decision. [delete comment]
Moving discussion, and quite true we cannot be good enough to earn heaven. It is by grace we are saved through faith, it is a gift of God not of works lest any boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9) We need to preach the whole council of God, the entire Bible. Heaven and Hell, but always loving the sinner, not condeming him. My job is to preach, The Holy Spirit will do the convicting. [delete comment]
Pete Perez
September 7, 2010
Charles Spurgeon one of many quotes while preaching,"There are some of you standing in the aisles and sitting in the pews,who i fel in my soul will never have another invitation, and if this be rejected today, i feel a solemn motion in my soul-I think it is the Holy Ghost-that you will never hear another faithful sermon,but you shall go down to Hell impentient,unsaved,except you trust in Jesus now.I speak not as a man, but I speak as God's ambassador to your souls,and I command you,in God's name ,trust Jesus,trust now. At your peril, reject the voice that speaks from Heaven, for "he that believeth not shall be damned."How shall you escape if you neglect so great salvation? When it comes comes right home to you, when it thrusts itself in tour way,oh,if you will neglect it,how can you escape?With tears, i would invite you,and,if i could ,would compel youto come in.Why will you not? O souls, if you will be damned,if you make up your mind that no mrcyshall ever woo you, and no warnings shall ever move you,then, sirs,what chains of vengence must you feel that slight these bonds of love. You have deserved the deepest Hell, for you slight the joys above.God save you. He will save you, if you trust in Jesus. God help you to trust Him now,for Jesus sake amen. We must remember as we preach God's wor d we preach among the wheat and the tares,among the true and false converts who need to Know that their is a consequence for rejecting Christ and that consequnce is Hell when you reject the son of God.Ask yorself this question in this senario, it's 9-11-2001 your on floor 100 on tower one 15 minutes before the first plane hits there is 1000 people in front of you that are going to die in shortly what kind of message are you going to preach? Is it one of prosperity, one of a feel good message or are you going to tell the about Hell as well as heaven something to think about we never know who were going to influence and we may be that last person they hear from. some thing to think about God Bless Pastor Pete perez [delete comment]
Rick Moorefield
September 6, 2010
Paul said in 2 Corimthians 5:11 that knowing the TERROR of THE LORD we persuade men, and the way to that persuasion is to preach God's Holiness and His absolute hatred of sin. God's Wrath will fall upon the wicked, and it will be horrifying to see the final judgment carried out on them. God is not mocked, and there is only one way out of His judgment, and that is through the Free Gift of His Son, and through His Atoning Blood. [delete comment]
Maureen Lide
September 6, 2010
I believe it was Bishop Desmond Tutu who once said, "God will not drag a man kicking and screaming into heaven, but will allow a man to slide into hell on his own power." The Word tells us in Ephesians 2:8 "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith----and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God...." We can pray for God to give the gift of faith to an unbeliever when the Word is preached. [delete comment]
Pastor Nathan Francis
September 6, 2010
The gospel is a mystery and only true disciples have access to that store. God created us in his image. One of the many images God has is that of immortality. We are therefore immortal.The issue is not our immortal status but where are we spending Eternity. The Bible records HEAVEN and HELL as the two possible destination of all humans.There is therefore eternal Heaven and Eternal Hell. The choice is yours. The problem with non disciples is that they tend to use their FINITE brain to explain what the INFINITE God says on alot of issues. As a true disciple, i have learned to always accept whatever my master God says concerning and issue-Heaven and hell inclusive [delete comment]
Jerry Nelson
September 6, 2010
The doctrine of an eternally burning hellfire is at odds with Scripture's essential teaching and God's character of love. Period. The cruelest person in the world would stop shy of punishing someone for trillions of years. However, it is fair and just for God to punish and remove sin from the world and that is exactly what He will do. Hell fire that comes from heaven and destroys and devours the wicked (Rev. 20:9) is the means God will use to rid the universe of sin eternally. The wages of sin is death--not eternal life in hell. The word "eternal" is used in conjunction with fire in the Bible in the same way it's used in Hebrews 6:2 when referring to eternal judgment--it is not an eternal process but rather has an eternal effect. God promises eternal "punishment" not eternal "punishing"(Matthew 25:46). And the punishment is death not eternal life in hellfire. The wicked die the second death in hellfire (Rev. 21:8). If the wicked lived forever being tortured in hell, they would be immortal. But this is impossible, because the Bible says God “only has immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16). When Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden, and angel was posted to guard the tree of life so that sinners would not eat of the tree and “live forever.” (Gen. 3:22-24). [delete comment]
This passage comes to mind: Romans 5:8-10 "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!" [delete comment]
Jeff, I certainly agree with you regarding the statements against C. S. Lewis. This atheist turned Christian had tremendous spiritual insight and expressed them in allegorical ways which revealed truth. As a Wesleyan - Arminian, I do take issue with the idea of "predestination" expresses by Michael. Free will gives each of us the opportunity to either choose or reject the love of God and the decision to shun that love falls clearly on the individual. However, if there is no Hell what difference would our choice make? What is completely necessary today is that, as Christians, we not adopt the view that "all roads lead to God." Jesus said: "I am the WAY, the TRUTH, and the Life." The only other road "the wide road" leads directly to Hell. It is God's love and our love of others that compels us to sound out the warning from the watchtowers so that people can respond and defeat the enemy of their souls. [delete comment]
There were some intriguing insights in this article. I was especially impressed with his comment: "The universal religion of humankind is: We develop a good record and give it to God, and then he owes us. The gospel is: God develops a good record and gives it to us, then we owe him." Incidentally, addressing Mr. Lyman's comments: having read many of C.S. Lewis' works I'm inclined to doubt the accusations of heresy this man accuses Lewis of. [delete comment]
Dan Ott
September 6, 2010
In response Allan Dyssel, the only flaw in the analogy that Pippert quoted was that God doesn't fully treat us and accept us as sons until we turn to him in repentance from our sin and accept Jesus Christ and his work on the cross for us. It is then that we move from being his creation to his child. And the act of our turning to him is him at work in us by his grace. [delete comment]
Keith Beverley
September 6, 2010
Why would our heavenly Father even bother sacrificing His Son if there is no hell? [delete comment]
Frank Gough
September 6, 2010
Allan Dyssel's comment works well if God is not also Holy. Most of us are comfortable with a God who is loving and forgiving. We're not so comfortable with a God who is also Holy. The analogy of a father freely forgiving a drunken son has two flaws: 1st, the option of the drunken son rejecting the father's offer of love and forgiveness; 2nd, a loving father who is Holy and cannot abide the presence of sin. Michael Lyman's comment about God choosing some of us for hell makes the Bible a lie, particularly 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4. While God has certainly chosen some for eternal life, He has not arbitrarily chosen some for hell and damnation. Concerning some being predestined for eternal life, even John Calvin said, "We can say thus, and no more". God is both loving, full of grace and mercy; and Holy, righteous in his wrath and indignation towards us. Our understanding of God must include both of these truths. [delete comment]
Allan Dyssel
September 6, 2010
I find both the following quote from Gifford as well as Pippert's response flawed, “Human love here offers a true analogy: the more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor.” She concludes, “If I, a flawed, narcissistic, sinful woman, can feel this much pain and anger over someone’s condition, how much more a morally perfect God who made them? God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.” If my son was a a drunkard, a traitor and a liar, I will not condemn him to a few thousand trillion years (a little shorter than eternity) in a burning furnace of hell! I will forgive him even if he never ask forgiveness from me - why? Because he is my son! And if I as a mere mortal possess the capacity in my sinful nature to forgive rather than to condemn, I expect my God, the creator of heavens and earth, to be even more forgiving and loving. [delete comment]
Michael Lyman of City On A Hill Sovereign Grace Baptist Chapel
September 6, 2010
How about reading Romans 9, what Jesus said about hell, and other biblical texts, you don't even have to explain them, they are so clear. God saves who He wants to, we all deserve hell. God has chosen some of us for mercy and some of us for hell. Preach all of the truth to everyone God enables you to and let God sort it out. C.S. Lewis didn't believe in the inspiration of the scriptures, the biblical doctrine of hell or justification by faith alone, among many other things, yet he is quoted by people like Keller as though his teaching is better equipped to teach this generation what is true about the bible and hell. Very sad. [delete comment]

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