The Greatness of the Sacrifice
“The doctrine of hell is important because it is the only way to know how much Jesus loved us and how much he did for us… 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” (Keller, 2009).
The above quote by Timothy Keller makes the thesis that we cannot understand the greatness of Jesus’ love and sacrifice without the doctrine of eternal conscious torment in hell. Essentially, his logic is that the extreme everlasting nature of the penalty for sin allows us to understand the depths of Jesus’ love. Generally, I have enjoyed several things that I’ve read from Timothy Keller, but this is a rather bizarre argument for several reasons.
The Greatness of Christ
First, let me submit to you that if you can only comprehend the greatness of Christ’s sacrifice if the punishment for sin is eternal and horrific, that you do not fully appreciate the greatness of Christ Himself. The One through whom all things were created died a bloody, cruel death on a cross as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world!
Why is it that this fact doesn’t awe you unless other people are eternally consciously tormented?
It is not the greatness of the punishment that should lead us to realize the awesome nature of Christ’s work, but rather the greatness of Christ Himself and His love for us. The Lord of all “who, being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” but rather “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” and “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death… on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Why does the eternal suffering of the lost make this more significant?
The simple answer is that it does not. Instead, it makes Jesus’ work much less significant. I say this because it is obviously true. If we say that Christ’s sacrifice only truly paid for a select few (as Keller’s Calvinist tradition asserts), then His sacrifice is far less significant than if it paid for all people as the Bible clearly and repeatedly states (1 John 2:2, 1 Timothy 2:6, 1 Timothy 4:10, John 6:33 etc.). If His work on the cross also atoned for His enemies and for those who denied Him, it demonstrates a far more meaningful, unconditional love, than if He only died for those who were already His friends. As Jesus Himself said:
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:32-36).
In this passage, Jesus tells us about the true love of God that extends to all people, even to His enemies, to the ungrateful and to the wicked. And we to are exhorted to be like Him by loving our enemies as well. We are to be merciful, as He is merciful. What can this mean if it does not mean that God is merciful to, and loves His enemies? The greatness of Christ’s sacrifice is evident in that His love extends even to those mockers who spat upon and beat Him, to the very men who started the riot that resulted in His crucifixion, and to those who drove the nails through His flesh. This is what is astounding and amazing. This is the unbelievable love demonstrated by God who came to earth to die for us while we were still sinners.
The Nature of Love
A second reason to doubt Keller’s claim that we cannot comprehend how much Jesus loved us and how much he did for us without eternal hell is that the concept of eternal hell actually obscures the depth of Christ’ love. It is undeniable that tormenting someone forever is inconsistent with love. For Scriptural proof of this fact, let’s now turn to 1 Corinthians 13:4-8:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails .
It is not difficult to see that torturing someone endlessly is not kind, or patient. A love that ends simply because of a cessation of metabolism does not always hope or always persevere, and so is not true agape love (God’s love) that never fails. A doctrine of eternal punishment for past sins clearly keeps a permanent, unforgiven record of wrongs and demonstrates no desire to protect those who have been unable to come to understand the gospel fully in this dark world. In summary, the doctrine of eternal conscious torment completely fails to demonstrate God’s love as described biblically. Instead, it demonstrates something far more similar to the conditional, imperfect “love” of flawed humanity. It makes one wonder from where such a doctrine truly originated.
It is also important to note that the view that eternal hell is necessary to understand God’s love is self-focused. Remember, Keller does not believe that he himself will actually experience hell. How then can he fully understand it as a penalty? The truth is that he cannot. But for some reason, knowing that other people will experience this penalty enhances his understanding of God’s love for him. If he were in the proverbial flames, it is doubtful that hell would have the same effect of convincing him of God’s great love. So, the argument is that simply knowing that others will be tormented should enhance the understanding of believers of God’s love for us. Doesn’t that seem a little self-centered? How is that consistent with loving our neighbors as ourselves as Jesus taught?
Remember, the doctrine of hell insists that eternal conscious torment is a penalty that will be actualized for most people. It is not simply the hypothetical punishment that Christ fully paid for (that no one will experience). Instead, it is thought that many billions will experience it, indeed the vast majority of humanity. Does that make us feel better about ourselves and more secure of God’s love for us? If so, why?
To be fair, this is not the way Keller frames the argument. Instead, he frames it like this:
When he cried out that his God had forsaken him he was experiencing hell itself. But consider--if our debt for sin is so great that it is never paid off there, but our hell stretches on for eternity, then what are we to conclude from the fact that Jesus said the payment was "finished" (John 19:30) after only three hours? We learn that what he felt on the cross was far worse and deeper than all of our deserved hells put together (Keller, 2009).
This argument, however, is based on unsupported philosophical assumptions. First, it is acknowledged that Jesus’ payment on the cross for sins was finished after only three hours, but it is then assumed, without any biblical or philosophical reason, that this three-hour experience must equate to billions of eternal experiences. Why? Is this the only reasonable conclusion we can draw from Jesus’ statement, “it is finished” in John 19:30? Could we not instead believe that He meant to convey the completion of His sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, and that the ransom for all people was paid in full?
Is it necessary to invent the idea that Christ suffered multiple eternities worth of punishment on the cross? There is no biblical support for such an idea; it relies entirely on the faulty assumption that aionios must mean eternal (which has already been debunked). Would it not make more sense to believe that Christ was able to pay the debt of all people in three hours because of His greatness? As Romans 6:23 tells us: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Christ died and His death paid for the death that we earned because He is the eternal God and His power is mighty to save. Saying that He experienced billions of eternities in a few hours is simply made up. His death alone was sufficient to atone for everyone.
It also must be acknowledged that if Christ truly experienced everyone’s hell, that He has in fact atoned for everyone. Why would it be necessary to pay a debt that is already paid? If the eternal God, as Christ, paid your eternal debt, why would you still owe it? The typical Calvinist answer is that Christ did not really pay for everyone but only for the elect, a doctrine known as limited atonement. This doctrine is deeply unbiblical and can be refuted by a number of verses, but I will just mention the one that most specifically contradicts it: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
So now we have the choice of either believing the clear Scriptural teaching that Christ atoned for the sins of the whole world, or believing an unbiblical principle that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was very limited in scope. If we believe the former, it must be admitted that individual sinners no longer need to atone for their sins; they are already paid for. This isn't to say that purification or sanctification is no longer necessary. Indeed, this still must occur for all people, even believers. As 1 Peter 4:17 tells us "judgment must begin at the house of God" (KJV). The purpose of such judgment is clearly refining, and makes us more like Christ. But the atonement for sin is complete. Since this debt has been paid in full by Christ, it is no longer owed by anyone. It therefore makes no sense to force billions of people to pay a debt that was already paid.
If, on the other hand, we decide that Christ did not pay for the sins of the whole world, we are left with an unbiblical principle that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was only for some people. It must be pointed out again that such a limited scope of atonement (besides being contrary to multiple biblical texts) lessens the impact, love, and power of Jesus, suggesting that He was unwilling (or unable) to save most of humanity. So, which is it? Is God a cheat who behaves like a tax-collector of old, collecting more than His due? Or is He unwilling or unable to save?
I believe, of course, that there is a better option. We can accept the clear scriptural teaching that Jesus is the Savior and atoning sacrifice for all people, acknowledging that we do not see the fullness of that reality yet. As Hebrews 2:8 tells us:
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
He tasted death for everyone because he is the Savior of all people and the atoning sacrifice for the whole world. Just because everyone has not already accepted Christ yet, does not mean that it will not occur. The Scriptures assure us that it will and that every knee will bow and every tongue confess His Lordship. We are inherently short-sighted and limit God's power when we assume that His will couldn't possibly be accomplished. It might seem too difficult to us to bring about willing repentance in all hearts, but there is nothing outside His control and he will succeed in His purpose to unite all things in Christ.
An Attempt to Explain the Lack of Parity
Now, getting back to Keller’s rationale for why three hours on the cross equates to the eternal suffering of billions, this is what he says:
And this makes emotional sense when we consider the relationship he lost. If a mild acquaintance denounces you and rejects you--that hurts. If a good friend does the same--that hurts 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 tortuous is any separation. But the Son's relationship with the Father was beginningless 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. He experienced the full wrath of the Father. And he did it voluntarily, for us (Keller, 2009).
The clear problem with this reasoning is that Christ knew full well that his separation from the Father was temporary. He had prophesied of His own resurrection on multiple occasions. There was no possibility of eternal separation and so He experienced the agony of temporary separation. If the payment that Christ paid was temporary, this provides further evidence that the payment required of individual human beings is also temporary.
You see, the analogy given of a spouse walking out and saying “I never want to see you again,” is a false one. God never said such a thing to Jesus, nor did Jesus believe that this was the case. He knew that He would rise again on the third day, conquering death for everyone. His restoration to the Father was assured, just as the restoration of all to God is assured to us by His word. Every knee and every tongue, united, subjected, and reconciled to Him. These are truths that are testified to again and again and must not be ignored.
None of this minimizes the significance of Christ’s suffering or His love. He still voluntarily suffered and died a literally excruciating death to demonstrate his love for us. As His words tell us: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” We don’t need to add billions of eternal hell sentences to His words in a vain attempt to make His work more significant. It already is the most significant and greatest love imaginable. The perfect atoning sacrifice of God Himself needs no embellishment.
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Keller, Timothy. “The Importance of Hell - Redeemer Report.” Redeemer Churches and Ministries, Aug. 2009, www.redeemer.com/redeemer-report/article/the_importance_of_hell . (Retrieved March 1st 2018)