Engaging Tim Keller, CS Lewis and the Fires of Hell
Saints and Sceptics
Not every writer at Saints and Sceptics is Reformed; none are young and few are restless. We mention this because the “Young, Restless and Reformed (YRR)” movement – essentially a conservative evangelical movement with Calvinist leanings – has become very influential in the United States. Some traditional Presbyterians have criticized the movement for being too broad, for not having planted its roots deep enough in Reformed theology.
We would like to politely excuse ourselves from this debate and would not have mentioned it at all, if it had not led to some online discussion about the nature of hell. Tim Keller, who is admired by many of the YRR, has been criticized for following CS Lewis when writing about hell.
Why is this an issue and why do we care? To explain, we’ll outline two models of Hell. According to the “Punishment Model” hell exists to punish those who deserve everlasting punishment; the punishment will be consciously experienced by some people who will not be permitted to leave or escape from hell. The “Choice Model” agrees that hell is inescapable and that it is a place of conscious experience. While it is compatible with hell being a place of punishment, the fundamental purpose of hell is to honour people’s choices.
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On the “Choice Model”, hell is simply a natural consequence of rejecting God. Heaven is (at the very least) fellowship with God. If we don’t want God to have his rightful place here and now, then we will not want him to rule our lives for all eternity. Now, if we value our own freedom more than we value God’s offer of love and forgiveness, we opt out of heaven. If life goes on past the physical grave, and if we have rejected everlasting love, all we have left is everlasting ruin and misery. On the choice model, this is the meaning of damnation.
Now, CS Lewis is sometimes perceived to reject the punishment model in favor of the choice model. Specifically, some Christian writers worry that Lewis and Keller have abandoned the Biblical doctrine of hell to promote a softer, gentler, kinder perdition. In Scripture God sends people to hell, God keeps people in hell eternally, and punishment in hell is meted out by God himself. The charge is that the “Choice Model” leaves God passively accepting human choices. Furthermore, Lewis and Keller need to ‘turn up the heat’: the flames of hell should be taken literally.
“Saints and Sceptics” has also been influenced by Lewis’s discussion of everlasting punishment, so a response seems prudent. Sceptics might worry that Keller’s theological critics have it right, and that we can only defend eternal punishment persuasively by abandoning the punitive hell-fire described in Holy Scripture. But to be blunt and plain, we think Keller’s critics wildly overstate their case, and their suspicion of CS Lewis is unwarranted…