A reader sent me the following excerpt from an article by Tim Keller on the doctrine of hell and asked me to comment. (The full article is available here.) So here’s the excerpt with my comments to follow:
4. 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. In Matthew 10:28 Jesus says that no physical destruction can be compared with the spiritual destruction of hell, of losing the presence of God. But this is exactly what happened to Jesus on the cross-he was forsaken by the Father (Matthew 27:46.) In Luke 16:24 the rich man in hell is desperately thirsty (v.24) and on the cross Jesus said “I thirst” (John 19:28.) The water of life, the presence of God, was taken from him. The point is 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. 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.
I begin with the opening thesis: “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.” In other words, at least one reason hell exists is to provide a fuller understanding for the elect of what Christ experienced while atoning for their sins.
According to this view, Christ literally experienced the infinite suffering of hell in those three hours on the cross while enduring the wrath of God. But this creates a dilemma for the elected person since it seems impossible to grasp the full significance of infinite suffering since we are finite beings. God seeks to overcome this problem by justly allowing some creates to be reprobated so that they may serve as objects of wrath that suffer for their sins forever.
Of course, there is a crucial asymmetry here. The suffering of Jesus constituted an actually infinite degree of physical, mental and spiritual anguish. By contrast, the physical, mental and spiritual suffering of the reprobate in hell is only potentially infinite and actually finite. That is, it goes on forever (and thus is potentially infinite) but it never achieves suffering to an infinite degree of intensity and/or duration (and thus is actually finite). This is admittedly not a perfect demonstration of what it is Christ spared us from and thus what he endured, but it does provide a deeper, broader and wider illumination of it than we would be able to have otherwise. Or so Keller believes.
(Let me note at this point a problem for this view. According to classical theism God the Son suffers in his humanity but not his divinity because God is impassible and thus unable to suffer. However, the suffering posited of Christ on this model is qualitatively and quantitatively infinite. This creates a problem because no finite human being could suffer to an infinite degree. Thus, this view of atonement seems to require the surrendering of impassibility in favor of the postulation that God the Son suffered in his divine nature. This has many unintended consequences I won’t go into here.)
I hope we understand what is being proposed here. God has the option of freely electing all to salvation (Keller’s theology is Calvinist) but he opts justly to reprobate some in part so that their eternal justly deserved suffering may illumine the degree of suffering experienced by Christ on the cross.
For a person who believes God is omnipotent it is extraordinary to claim that this is “the only way to know how much Jesus loved us and how much he did for us.” Really? There is no other possible way God could have illumined the nature of Christ’s atoning work for us than to ensure that some people are damned eternally? This seems to be clearly false. Surely it would be quite simple for an omnipotent being to secure this understanding of the atonement without actually damning some people.
How so? Here’s one example: the virtual lake of fire. God could create a hell that is populated with human-like creatures which are in fact non-conscious but look and act in a manner indistinguishable from real human beings. Indeed, he could readily make them look exactly like specific individuals (if a wax museum can do that, surely God can too!). So, for example, God could create a scene in which a virtual Randal is writhing in the flames, wailing and moaning, clawing its flesh and eyes, screaming and cursing and doing whatever else for eternally. And I could look on that image and gain an immediate knowledge of acquaintance of what I would have experienced had I not been saved. Consequently, Keller’s defense of eternal conscious torment as necessary for the elect to understand the atonement is clearly false.