Tim Keller gave a series of talks on the biggest objections to Christianity about eight years ago. In one talk, he addresses how can we reconcile a God who is loving with a God with the idea of hell. I’m going to summarize what Keller says partly in his words and partly in my own words. I will also go off script down some side roads. I will cover the subject in several blog posts.
Before we start, I want to observe that truth and reality are not always how we would like them to be. The nature of truth is that “it is what it is”. We don’t advance in our knowledge and understanding by denying it. If we are going to take the Bible seriously, and particularly the things that Jesus said, we have to contend with the idea of hell. Jesus mentions hell more than any other person in the scripture.
Tim Keller claims that hell is crucial for understanding our own hearts, for living at peace in the world, and for knowing the love of God. The text he uses to set up the subject is Luke 16:19-31. This text is known as the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. I encourage you to read it before continuing on. I am only addressing the first point in this blog post – that hell is crucial for understanding our own hearts (because it is something we choose).
The idea of hell, of course, is a basic Christian principal. Jesus did not shy away from the subject, and neither should we. Hell is a principal that doesn’t sit well with the sentiments of modern people, but that is no reason to dismiss it anymore than we should dismiss the idea of disease just because we don’t like it. We dismiss it only to our detriment.
One interesting quirk about this parable is that two of the characters are named (Abraham and Lazarus), and one character is not named (the rich man). Keller says this parable is the only one in which Jesus named any of the characters. (I didn’t double check him on that.)
In Hebrew culture, even more than in our day, names were intimately connected to the identify of a person. In this parable, Lazarus is identified by name, but the rich man remains anonymous. He has lost his identity. Why is that? And how does that relate to understanding our own hearts?
The fact that Jesus named characters, but he didn’t name all the characters, is a window into understanding the parable and understanding our own hearts.
In the parable, Lazarus, the poor man was ignored by the rich man during his life., but we find him in heaven with Abraham, while the rich man is tormented in hell. The rich man asks Abraham to “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” Abraham responds, among other things, by saying, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things….”
Keller’s first point is that the rich man received his “good things” during his life. He had wealth and station in life. These became his identity. Station and wealth were so much his identity that he still sees himself the same way – even in hell. He says (he doesn’t even ask), “Send Lazarus to me.”
The rich man still sees himself having wealth and station in life. In spite of the obvious change of circumstances, he thinks Lazarus should be sent (ordered to go) to him.
Notice, also, that the rich man doesn’t ask to be let out of hell; he wants Lazarus to be sent to him. We only find in God’s response that there is a gap between them that cannot be crossed: “[B]etween us and you is a great chasm….” The rich man is apparently ignorant of that reality.
The rich man is disconnected from the reality of his situation. He still thinks he has the same wealth and station in hell that he had in life. The rich man still sees Lazarus as beneath him, a subservient person who should be sent to him. The rich man doesn’t understand, apparently, even that he is in hell because he doesn’t ask to get out!
And here is a key point about hell, Keller says – God doesn’t send us there – we choose hell. We choose hell when we choose anything above God.
CS Lewis describes hell similarly in the Problem of Pain:
The doors of Hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of Hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved….
This is where we see the significance of identity. The rich man has no identity in hell, but for the description (rich man). The identify he chose during life is the only identity he has in hell. His own, unique identity has been lost. His own identity as a person has disintegrated, Keller says, into “the good thing” he chose during life as his supreme desire above God and all else. This is hell.
A common biblical description for hell is fire, but, Keller says, fire is probably just a metaphor for what hell is like. The thing about fire is that it feeds on substances and disintegrates them. The substances loses their identity in the fire
Any substance that we choose as our identify, if it is other than our identity in God, is the stuff that the “fire” of hell feeds on. Over time, our actual identity is lost, disintegrated into desires that are not quenched. This is why the rich man has no identity.
He has lost his identity to the things he valued most. These things came to identify him so completely that he is consumed by them. Having been consumed by these things, he no longer even recognizes the reality of his circumstance. He is no longer free to be anything other than the identity that he has chosen, that has consumed him, and those desires are never satisfied.
The desires we have for anything other than God can’t satisfy us because they are not lasting, eternal. We are made for eternal relationship with God. We will not be satisfied with anything else. We will not find our true identity in anything other than God.
In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man wasn’t looking to escape the hell he was in. He was accustomed to it. He had chosen it. Without the doctrine of hell, Keller says, we can’t understand our own selves and the predicament of our own hearts.
Left to their natural tendencies, we tend to choose things that aren’t eternal, that cannot satisfy our deepest desires. We don’t realize the end game of choosing our “good things”, the things that we treasure most, the things with which we most identify. If those good things are anything other than God, we will ultimately loose ourselves to them. Far from finding our identity in those things, we will lose our identity.
We explore the idea that hell is something that we choose and results in the loss of our identity further in the next piece in this blog series, Can Hell Be Reconciled with a Loving God? Part II.