In chapter five, “How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?” Keller addresses the common objection that a loving God cannot also be a God of judgment. He argues that this objection is based on very specific, alternate beliefs. For one, he locates this objection within the context of Western individualism. He does this to show that our disdain for the idea of judgment often comes from our deep belief in personal rights. We insist that the individual is the ultimate determiner of right and wrong and that no one is in a position to condemn me for what I believe. Naturally, the teaching on divine judgment is very foreign and even offensive in this cultural milieu. For this reason Keller requests that we consider our cultural location when we are offended by the teaching on hell. The concept of God as judge is no problem for many non-Western cultures. In fact, many of these cultures find the Western objection to divine judgment odd. He therefore admonishes us not to be so quick to allow Western cultural sensibilities to be the final arbiter in judging whether Christianity is vaild or not.

Keller goes on to emphasize that the God of Christianity is a God of both love and justice, and that these are in no way at odds with one another. He argues that “all loving persons are sometimes filled with wrath, not just despite of but because of their love.” In other words, God’s wrath points us to his opposition to sin – the cancer which eats aways at his good creation. Understood in this way, God’s wrath flows from his love for what is good, beautiful and right since God himself is all of these things. Further, the fact that we were made to be in relationship with this God means that our capability to thrive, flourish, and achieve our highest potential is lost when we forsake relationship with him.

With this in mind, here’s how Keller defines hell: “Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever…it is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.” What makes Keller’s explanation of hell so helpful is that he places it within the context of a comprehensive understanding of sin. Sin is not primarily breaking God’s laws (that is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem). Sin, most basically, is building our identity, our very lives, on anything other than God. Since we were not made to live like this, we experience personal disintegration which results ultimately in self-absorption. C.S. Lewis said this: “It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE HELL unless it is nipped in the bud.” God does not send people to hell kicking and screaming. Hell is the freely chosen destination for those who prefer to live apart from God. God exercises wrath by removing his presence from them and abandoning them to themselves. It is a prison of eternal self-centeredness, misery, and torture. To quote Lewis again, “There are only two kinds of people – those who say ‘Thy will be done’ to God or those to whom God in the end says, ‘Thy will be done.'”

Keller brings the chapter to a close by asking where we get our notion that God is a God of love in the first place. He argues that it is not deduced by simply looking at the natural order, nor is it found in other religious texts like it is in Christianity. He suggests that the ultimate source of this idea is the Bible itself, and since the Bible claims that God is both a God of love and judgment, we shouldn’t be so fast to conclude that they are contradictory.

The conversation continues