In my Bible class, we've been studying Timothy Keller's book, The Reason for God. I'm going to write a critique of each chapter, though the critiques will be out of order. I'm starting with the chapter on hell:
Although this chapter brought up many important objections and made a sincere effort to address them, I continue to have many concerns about our traditional church of Christ concept of hell. Here are my concerns:
1. The punishment doesn't fit the crime. Even in our legal system we sentence people according to the severity of their crime. We don't imprison speeders for a life sentence. Why? It would be unjust. As a thought experiment, What if we could extend the lives of inmates so they could be tortured (see, we don't even officially torture here in the US prisons) with fire for an amount of time that fits their crime. How long would the worst offenders get? Would anyone be given an eternal sentence? What about someone who ran a stop sign they didn't see because it was hidden by foliage (happened to my dad)? What if he were given an eternal sentence? Would any appeals be made?
2. Some people have no way to know what the standards are for avoiding hell or are unlikely to meet the standards for avoiding hell given any number of social, cultural, biological factors. Many have just never heard the gospel and never will. Many, even if they hear it, won't be predisposed to believe it given the religion and/or culture they grew up in. How many of us leave our childhood religion even in the US where there is religious tolerance and a fair amount of religious diversity? We may switch from one protestant denomination to another, but how many of us even study and seriously consider other world religions? How many of us have read a holy book other than the Bible? There are also many individuals who are parented in such a way that they will not be open to the gospel. Being chronically abused and neglected significantly alters our brain chemistry. We are much less capable of forming meaningful relationships and being empathic. We are more likely to be abusive, mistrusting, violent. Not exactly Christian virtues. And what about children abused by religious caretakers and religious leaders who grow up wanting nothing to do with church and God? I see that problem regularly in my counseling office.
Scripture also indicates that some people may be predetermined to go there out of no choice of their own. There are examples of people in scripture who have their hearts hardened or do evil deeds, at the will of God. Pharaoh is a notable example. Though their eternal fate is not spelled out, it makes one wonder.
3. Hell seems to be a human construct developed during the intertestamental period.
If hell were part of God's plan, it seems that He would have revealed it in scripture instead of leaving it to the Greeks. What should we conclude? Why wasn't it clearly explained in the Old Testament? And why does it look so much like the pagan concept of the afterlife?
4. This concept of hell being "one's freely chosen identity apart from God", a psychological torment of one's own creation, seems to be a way of glossing over the horrors of hell, despite protests to the contrary. Keller's support comes mainly from quoting Lewis, not the Bible. Additionally, the Biblical support comes from a parable, which may not have the intent of imparting literal knowledge of hell. What's more, I think Keller is wrong in stating that the Rich man wanted to be there as he never asked to leave. I think the Rich man (if he existed) safely assumed there was no return. He didn't want his brothers there and wanted relief from his agony, so I don't think it follows that he preferred to be there himself.
The only point Keller makes that I would like to consider more fully is the one about the concept of a loving God coming from Christianity and not from any other religion. He makes the point that you can't reject hell out of hand, pointing to scripture which states that God is loving, while ignoring scripture which talks of God's justice and wrath. You have to be willing to reject the idea that God is loving to be consistent. If you are unwilling to reject that idea, you will be hard pressed to find that idea supported by any other major religion. Cherry picking is a problem for many a doctrine.Of course, if we throw out both the concept of omnibenevolence and hell, we don't have a contradiction with which to wrestle. End of problem. However, we don't have much left of Christianity do we?
Which brings me to my concern over what to do with the whole of Christianity if we throw out hell. If there is no hell, then why did Jesus need to come redeem us? Redeem us from what then? Would the contrast be between heaven and annihilation or does the fate of Christianity depend on their being a hell from which to be rescued?