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preaching article Tim Keller: Preaching Hell in a Tolerant Age

Tim Keller: Preaching Hell in a Tolerant Age

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Dec 27, 2013
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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 belief 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 we 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.



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. 

Talk about it...

Stanley Florence avatar
Stanley Florence
0 days ago
This is good news! If you preach heaven to have to preach hell! How can you appreciate the good if you never experience the bad?
Jb Bryant avatar
Jb Bryant
0 days ago
Tim Keller, thank you. This is among the clearest and best thought out articles on hell I've read. It's unfortunate that few these days could defend the existence of hell, wrath, and judgment without wavering, and the opposition has become so much more articulate these days. There's not a point in this article to which I would take exception.
Lawrence Rae avatar
Lawrence Rae
0 days ago
Great article and some very creative responses to those who are kept apart from a very loving God by their lack of understanding. Thank you Tim Keller.
Rudolph Bescherer Jr avatar
Rudolph Bescherer Jr
0 days ago
I have to say that this is one of the worst articles I have seen on SermonCentral. If we are to be honest, we must admit that "hell" as it has been preached is absolutely not biblical. If, however, we are speaking of Gehenna, Sheol, Hades, or Tartarus then we can have an intelligent Bible-based conversation. If people continue preaching untrue concepts, it is only reasonable to believe that intelligent people will leave the churches far behind.
Chris Enwerem avatar
Chris Enwerem
0 days ago
Rudolph, I am quite surprise you made such comment in this post. Who are the intelligent people? Anyway, let me allow Paul to tell you about the intelligence men "For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength" - 1 Cor.1:25. It will be great for you provide alternative we examine it in the light of scripture, tradition, reason and experience
Rudolph Bescherer Jr avatar
Rudolph Bescherer Jr
0 days ago
The "intelligent people" part was regarding Dr. Keller's introduction to the piece. I can understand why he was "gratified . . . to learn of his intense spiritual interest" regarding the Ivy League-educated M.B.A. if this is the way that he preaches. If we are to continue preaching the traditions of man (e.g. "hell") instead of the ultimate message of Jesus Christ (Mat. 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31, and John 13:34-35 among others), then we have lost the focus on the most critical point of the church. Beating people over the head with Bibles does not convert hearts, but showing God's love through our actions most certainly does.
Russell Davis avatar
Russell Davis
0 days ago
I pity arrogant useful idiots like this who deceive themselves into thinking that because they heard some trash they imagined was cool, pandering to man's inherent, incessant James 4:4 whoring after the flesh, in a classroom or a book, that it's true, so gullibly fooled into pretending they thus proudly know better than others, I being the center of sIn, the same old gnosticism that dates back from ungodly perfect fools Adam
Russell Davis avatar
Russell Davis
0 days ago
please delete the above, not enough space to communicate my point.
Rudolph Bescherer Jr avatar
Rudolph Bescherer Jr
0 days ago
There is more than enough space for name-calling, I guess. If you respect the Bible as God's word, are you arrogant enough to believe that the English translation of the original texts is what He actually meant, or do you respect it enough to try to understand it in the original language and in the original context? Are we to accept "hell" as a proper translation of the ancient Hebrew place called Sheol, the town dump called Gehenna, the Greek place called Hades, or Tartarus? It cannot be all of them, because they all are different if you take the time to understand the context in which they were used.
Russell Davis avatar
Russell Davis
0 days ago
I didn't realize there was so little space. See Rudolph's delusions refuted at desiringgod.org/searches/hell and monergism.com/search?keywords=hell
Chris Enwerem avatar
Chris Enwerem
0 days ago
Great thoughts and reflection.
Chris Enwerem avatar
Chris Enwerem
0 days ago
Great thoughts and reflection.
Reed Lohrenz avatar
Reed Lohrenz
0 days ago
Some very good thoughts. Thanks
Russell Davis avatar
Russell Davis
0 days ago
As with Keller foolishly denying Biblical creation for the proven idiocy of modern pseudo-science the true Church has rejected, so too here he sadly ultimately vainly tries to present a "biblical" case for preaching while really eisegeting Scripture to prop up his bogus notions. God is merciful and he sometimes succeeds even so, but until he repents for his eisegesis it's in vain.
John Robert Magowan avatar
John Robert Magowan
0 days ago
After reading Dr Keller's lengthy article on hell, it left me wondering what he meant by the word hell. As he offered no definition for the word, do I assume that he is referring to the traditional concept I was brought up with, that the unrighteous and unrepentant sinners will ultimately be tortured in some Lake of Fire forever? Is this what hell is all about? If it is then God could be viewed as the cruelest despot in all of history! In my opinion this kind of message should never be preached! What loving parent would want to chastise their erring child forever?? Yes, God is angry with the wicked and unrepentant, and they will pay a penalty if they ultimately refuse to accept the love of God. But torture for all eternity?...I don't think so. Malachi chapter 4 speaks of the wicked being stubble and ashes under the feet of the righteous in that day. The wages of sin is death according to Paul...not eternal life in a fire that won't destroy the wicked. God truly is a God of love and mercy, and that is the message to need to emphasize...not a message of eternal punishing (Psalm103). Thankfully He will judge us all in righteousness, and He won't make any mistakes. Amen.

So, what did you think?


Thank you.