Tim Keller: Sin, Hell, and Homosexuality

Recently, Dr. Robert Gagnon, Associate Professor of New Testament, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, wrote a very systematic and detailed critique of some of Dr. Tim Keller’s comments on homosexuality. Dr. Keller’s comments come from an interview that he gave at Veritas Forum back in 2008. The comments have been discussed elsewhere before, but this really was the most in depth treatment that I’ve read. I highly recommend it.

For me, while Dr. Keller’s remarks on homosexuality are disappointing, it is his redefinition of sin and hell that I find much more troubling. Dr. Keller states that sin doesn’t send a person to hell, but rather self-righteousness does and that sin is just what is bad for “human flourishing.” Dr. Gagnon addresses this in two parts of his critique:

Is it the case that homosexual practice will not send anyone to hell? Rev. Keller declares categorically that homosexual practice (and sin generally) will not send anyone to hell but only the self-righteousness of thinking that ‘I am my own savior and lord.’ ‘And that is the reason why Pharisaism, moralism, Bible-believing people who are proud and think that God is going to take them into heaven because they are good, that is sending them to hell.’ But claiming to be a follower of Christ while repeatedly and unrepentantly engaging in gross sexual immorality will not send one to hell? Certainly, refusing to accept Christ as one’s Savior and Lord confirms one’s destination will not be heaven. But what is misleading in Keller’s presentation is that self-professed believers who engage unrepentantly in homosexual practice or in other ways show themselves to be slaves of sin will not inherit God’s kingdom because they show their ‘faith’ to be something other than saving faith. …

I find it hard to believe that Keller would have been so misleading in his answer if the question was about unrepentant serial killers, those who regularly defraud others of their life savings and refuse to repent, or unrepentant perpetrators of rape, incest, or pedophilia.

And,

Is the only thing bad about sin that it does not help human flourishing? Rev. Keller appears to have a reduced understanding of sin as merely something that is ‘not good for human flourishing’ but can’t send one to hell. ‘We want people to do things that are good for human flourishing but that is not what sends people to heaven and hell.’ Rev. Keller, intentionally or not, was giving the impression that homosexual practice is not so bad. It’s kind of a minor sin. It’s just not going to give a person an optimal life where ‘human flourishing’ can take place. This is incorrect. Immoral behaviors are also grave offenses to God. …

Human sin is what creates the judgment of hell in the first place. True, one is delivered from that judgment if one puts one’s faith in Christ as Savior and Lord. But if one claims to have such saving faith while continuing to live unrepentantly in egregious immorality then one is a liar.

Some might say that Dr. Keller was simply contextualizing his answers given the hostile audience he was addressing. However, his idea that sin is that which is not good for human flourishing and that people don’t go to hell because of sin are common themes that appear in a number of his books, sermons, and interviews.

In his book, The Reason for God, Dr. Keller explains his view of hell (borrowing heavily from C.S. Lewis):

Modern people inevitably think that hell works like this: God gives us time, but if we haven’t made the right choices by the end of our lives, he casts our souls into hell for all eternity. As the poor souls fall through space, they cry out for mercy, but God says, ‘Too late! You had your chance! Now you will suffer!” This caricature misunderstands the very nature of evil. The Biblical picture is that sin separates us from the presence of God, which is the source of all joy and indeed of all love, wisdom, or good things of any sort. … If we were to lose his presence totally, that would be hell — the loss of our capability for giving for receiving love or joy. …

Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life going on and on forever (76-77).

Dr. Keller goes on to say:

In short, hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity. We see this process ‘writ small’ in addictions to drugs, alcohol, gambling, and pornography. First, there is disintegration, because as time goes on you need more and more of the addictive substance to get an equal kick, which leads to less and less satisfaction. Second, there is the isolation, as increasingly you blame others and circumstances in order to justify your behavior. … Personal disintegration happens on a broader scale. In eternity, this disintegration goes on forever. There is increasing isolation, denial, delusion, and self-absorption. When you lose all humanity you are out of touch with reality. No one ever asks to leave hell. The very idea of heaven seems to them a sham (78).

This annihilistic view of hell does not seem to fit with the picture of torment that the Scriptures teach and that the Westminster Standards describe this way:

Q. 29. What are the punishments of sin in the world to come?

A. The punishments of sin in the world to come, are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell-fire forever (Larger Catechism)

And,

II. The end of God’s appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of His mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of His justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fulness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord; but the wicked who know not God, and obey not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power. (Westminster Confession of Faith, emphasis added)

Dr. Keller also gives his definition of sin in The Reason for God:

Sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from him. …

So, according to the Bible, the primary way to define sin is not just the doing of bad things, but the making of good things into ultimate things (162, emphasis original).

This redefinition of sin also seems different from the Biblical descriptions of sin. The Westminster Standards define sin as:

A. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God. (Shorter Catechism)

And,

VI. Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, does in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal. (Westminster Confession of Faith)

I understand the desire to explain Biblical concepts in new and fresh ways to gain a hearing with an especially jaded culture. However, we must be careful that our explanations are consistent with Scripture and that we aren’t simply softening the truth to make it easier to accept.