In the previous installment of this series I pointed out how Keller endorses C.S. Lewis’ dubious account of hell as self-inflicted torment. As Keller says, “hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.” (80) What this view lacks in biblical support it more than makes up for in pastoral and apologetic appeal. In short, it is much easier to conceive of God allowing people to torment themselves rather than being the one who torments them.
However, the pastoral and apologetic value of this conception of hell can certainly be over-rated. Keep in mind that the biblical writers describe the torment of those in hell not as a endless seminar in a rainy city in the Midlands (as Lewis pictured it in The Great Divorce). Rather, hell is depicted with unimaginably horrifying images like a lake of fire and a roaring furnace. Let’s try to get some perspective on what this kind of self-inflicted torment might really look like.
Imagine that Dave comes to hate himself so much that he begins to mutilate himself, cutting and burning his own flesh even as he screams and curses in agony. “Stop Dave!” you shout, but instead he continues on with even greater intensity. At what point would you intervene in the situation to restrain Dave from his tormented, all consuming self-loathing?
The picture of hell that Keller presents us is of individuals choosing to reject God even as they inflict unimaginable suffering on themselves eternally in a way that parallels Dave’s tormented self-mutilation. Why would God allow this to occur? Why wouldn’t he intervene? Why wouldn’t he restrain them?
The only answer Keller seems to give in the chapter is that “souls don’t die” (83). But that’s not quite right. Instead, you could correctly say that on the classic view of hell people resurrected to eternal damnation won’t die. In other words, God intervenes in the course of time to bring the reprobate back to life precisely so that by giving them an immortal resurrection body they can now subject themselves to the most unimaginable torments eternally. But again, to what end?
As I said, the pastoral and apologetic value of this conception of hell can certainly be over-rated.