In the first piece in this series about hell, inspired by a talk given by Tim Keller in 2010, we explore the idea that hell isn’t a place that God sends us; it is the result of our own choosing. When we choose anything other than God as our highest and best good, our most treasured thing, the thing we identify most with, that choice becomes our ultimate aim.
If we choose anything other than God as our ultimate aim, our most treasured thing, we lose ourselves to it. What we value most consumes us and we lose our identity to it.
Keller uses the parable of Lazarus and the rich man as the backdrop. The rich man, not even realizing he is in hell, demands Abraham to send Lazarus to him to wet his lips to relieve him from his discomfort. The rich man is delusional. He still thinks he has the wealth and station he enjoyed during life, but he has completely lost his identity. Abraham and Lazarus have names in the parable, but the rich man is without any name.
Soren Kierkegaard wrote a book, Sickness Unto Death, in which he defines sin as finding our identity in anything other than God. The word for sin, in the Hebrew, means, literally, missing the mark. To find our identity in anything other than Godis missing the mark.
The first point Keller makes about the idea of hell is this: when we choose anything other than God as our highest and best good, the thing we most identify with, we lose our identity to it, and it becomes our hell. If the thing we cherish most isn’t our identify in God, we lose our intended identify (given by God who created us) to the things we have chosen over God. And this becomes our hell.
Keller says that the idea of hell is crucial in helping us to understand the problem with our own hearts. We have a tendency to want things other than the purpose for which God made us. God made us for Himself, to reflect unique facets of His nature, and to have relationship, forever, with God. If we choose as our greatest treasure something other than this purpose for which God made us, we lose our identity to those things.
In this blog piece, we will explore this idea further.
People identify with and view themselves in the context of such things as heritage, nationality, family, career, social status or wealth. Other people might identify more fundamentally with morality, physical beauty, athleticism, intelligence accomplishment, etc. Still others might identity most with intelligence, achievement, sexuality, friends or artistic ability.
The rich man in the parable identified himself with wealth and station in life, and that identify disintegrated into a nameless rich man in hell. His attitude is exhibited in the fact that he tells (he doesn’t ask) God to send Lazarus to him with water, as if the rich man enjoyed influence over Lazarus (and God). But his reality has changed now that his life is over.
I am reminded that Jesus said, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) Love and hate are relative terms. The point is that, if we hang on to what we value in this life, we will ultimately lose ourselves to it. If we “hate” those things relative to the life we are offered in Christ, we find the life we are created for. We find our unique identity, which is found in relation to God alone.
To put this another way, if we do not find our identity in Christ, if we find our identity anywhere else, we will lose it. Our unique identity is found only in God who made us. Only there can we truly be who God has made us to be. Lazarus, the poor beggar, found himself in God, but the rich man lost himself into the things he valued most.
This may seem like an odd way of looking at sin, but it makes sense, says Keller. Consider the Pharisees. They are known for their piety and ability to keep the law. They believed in God, yet Jesus called them “children of Satan” and “white-washed tombs”. Why?
The reason is that they identified themselves with their own piety and morality. They were focused on their own righteousness by which, they thought, they could to compel God to accept them. Their identity was in their piety and morality, not in God. They had the appearance of righteousness, but they missed the mark because their identify was in themselves and their own piety and righteousness, not in God.
David stands in contrast to the Pharisees. He is described as a man after God’s Own Heart, though David is hardly a man of piety and morality. He was an adulterer and a murderer, among other things, but he found his identity in God. This is what God wants – hearts that desire Him – not our piety and morality.
The Pharisees, who found their identity in their own piety and morality, were being destroyed on the inside. They were empty of eternal substance. They were filled with pride and self-righteousness and a lack of compassion for other people. They were disconnected from humanity and ultimately disconnected from God. They appeared to be perfect representatives of God, but they were hollow on the inside.
Even the good things that we embrace as our fundamental identity, rather than God, will destroy us. If we treasure morality, self-righteousness, science, career, comfort, security, the love of others, family, anything other than God, those things will eventually leave us empty because they are not where we should seek our fulfillment.
If our aim is anything other than God, we will miss the mark. This is the very definition of sin – missing the mark.
If you begin from two points adjacent to each other, but angled ever-so-slightly in different directions, the difference may be hardly noticeable at the start. The difference may be unnoticeable at 10 feet or 50 feet. It may hardly be noticeable even at a mile or 10,000 miles or 100,000 miles. Over the span of eternity, however, the difference becomes a chasm that cannot be crossed.
CS Lewis gets at this very thing in Mere Christianity:
Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live for ever. Perhaps my bad temper or my jealousy are gradually getting worse – so gradually that the increase in seventy years will not be very noticeable. But it might be absolute hell in a million years: in fact, if Christianity is true, Hell is the precisely correct technical term for what it would be.
If we have set our course and aim at anything other than God as our greatest and highest identity, we miss the mark and will be forever separated from God because of it. When we miss the mark, we end up disconnected from God, isolated, disintegrated into the things we have been aiming at.
Addiction is a good example of how this works on a much faster basis. An addict becomes consumed by his desire for the drug to which he is addicted. Heroin addicts will forgo just about anything to get heroin. Heroin addicts won’t eat. They will jeopardize the welfare of their children. They lose their careers. The addiction swallows them up. The addict loses his identity to the addiction.
The process of addiction can be rapid and can take us wholly over in much less than a lifetime. With other things, like pride, or pleasure, or jealousy, or even piety, the disintegration of self into the things that we have embraced may not be as noticeable or as rapid. Over the span of eternity, however, if we have embraced anything other than God, we will find ourselves separated from God – disintegrated into those things which we held more dearly than God.
When our lives end, if we haven’t embraced God as our highest and most valuable end, we will be consigned to that which we have chosen. It will corrupt us; it will disintegrate us and swallow us up; we will be in our own personal hell – a fire that consumes our identity.
Significantly, when the rich man in the parable asks Abraham to send someone to warn his brothers of hell, God declines. Implied in the rich man’s request is the suggestion that, if he had only been told, himself, he would not have ended up there. In effect, he is shifting the blame, implying that, if he had only known, things would have been different. But would they have been?
Abraham responds, “They have Moses and the Prophets… If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
This leads to the next point Keller makes, which is that fear is not a good motivator of right action. We have to be motivated by something more meaningful than fear. The next blog piece will pick up at this point.