In “Is the light of the cross brightened by the flickering flames of hell? ” I critiqued a portion of an essay by Tim Keller defending hell as eternal conscious torment which presented the following thesis:
“The doctrine of hell is important because it is the only way to know how much he loved us and how much he did for us.”
Jerry Shepherd replied that I had failed to understand the argument because Keller’s point related not to eternal conscious torment but rather to a doctrine of hell simpliciter, a view which is also consistent with annihilationism.
I replied with two points:
Point 1: In this article Keller is defending eternal conscious torment. So when he says “The doctrine of hell” that’s what he’s referring to.
Point 2: You say “the best way to understand”. But Keller says “the only way to know”. Those are very different claims.
Let’s consider Jerry’s responses to these two points.
To begin with, Jerry observes:
Point 1: In this article, Keller is not so much defending eternal conscious torment, though he certainly does do that, as he is defending the doctrine of hell itself. And in the section that you quoted, though eternal conscious torment does occur, it is really ancillary to the main point of understanding hell as the backdrop to the cross of Christ. Keller’s point is still valid on its own, whether or not filled out by the idea of eternal conscious torment. As I said, an annihilationist could make the same point.
Unfortunately Jerry introduces a division between the “doctrine of hell” and “the doctrine of hell understood to be eternal conscious torment” which simply does not exist in Keller’s essay. And it also quickly leads to an absurdity since Christian universalists also have a doctrine of hell simpliciter as many accept some sense of posthumous punishment for sin prior to the redemption of all things. Thus, if we accepted Jerry’s claim that the essay is really concerned with the doctrine of hell simpliciter rather than hell as eternal conscious torment, then Keller’s argument would be fully consistent with the views of many Christian universalists! Needless to say it is an absurd consequence based on an invented reading of Keller’s argument.
Now let’s consider Jerry’s second point:
Point 2: Randal, what a wooden reader you have become! It is clear in context that Keller is not using “only” here in an absolute sense. Rather, “only” here does in fact correspond to “best” or “ultimately.” Note that Keller has great appreciation for Stott’s “The Cross of Christ,” and that Keller was the speaker for Stott’s US memorial service. Perhaps, if pressed, Keller would argue that if that Stott had not been an annihilationist he would have had an even greater appreciation for what Christ did, though I’m doubtful that would be the case. In any case, to think that, by “only,” Keller is trying to say that without a belief in eternal conscious torment one does not understand the cross of Christ at all, is just a few shades this side of silly.
My initial criticism of Keller is that it is absurd to suggest that actually damning some reprobates to eternal conscious torment is the only way to enable the elect to understand the atonement most fully. Jerry seems to agree that this is absurd or, as he puts it, “a few shades this side of silly”.
So how does he respond? By declaring “It is clear in context that Keller is not using “only” here in an absolute sense.” And why is it so clear that Keller doesn’t really mean what he says? Jerry’s answer seems to be two-fold. The implicit point, so far as I can see, is that such a claim is silly and presumably Keller would never make a silly claim. This, of course, is question begging.
The second reason Jerry provides is Keller’s admiration for John Stott’s book The Cross of Christ and the fact that Keller spoke at Stott’s US memorial service. Unfortunately the fact that Keller had a good relationship with Stott and that he liked a book Stott wrote on the atonement is completely irrelevant to the interpretation of Keller’s claim in this essay. It would only be relevant if Keller made a claim like this: “John Stott’s doctrine of hell as annihilation would illumine the truth of the atonement to the elect as fully as the does the doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment.” Needless to say Keller says nothing of the sort and so this leaves Jerry’s rather painful attempt to defend his erroneous reading in the realm of the comic.
Jerry calls me a “wooden reader”. I might return the favor by calling him a casuist par excellence as one who can redeem any text by introducing overly subtle and ultimately spurious distinctions. And if he thinks my critique of Keller is “just a few shades this side of silly” I must conclude that his defense is more than a few shades on the other side.