The Controversy Over Tim Keller’s Hell Tweet Shows Why Twitter Threads Are So Important

New York City pastor and author Timothy Keller recently posted something about hell that has sparked some impassioned responses.

The tweet is a part of a recent sermon from Keller called Hell: Is the God of Christianity an Angry Judge? and is based on the famous parable Jesus told about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. In the parable, the rich man goes to hell while Lazarus goes to live with God after they die.  In the sermon, Keller points out the personal, spiritual, and social implications of the parable, while arguing that “The Christian understanding of hell is crucial to understanding your own heart, for living at peace in the world, and for knowing the love of God. I know those are very counterintuitive…”

It is that final point that Keller tries to encapsulate in 240 characters to the chagrin of many who saw the tweet. But it may be helpful to understand the larger context of the post.

Keller’s point was that “You cannot know how much Jesus loves you unless you know how much he suffered…”

The pastor used a sermon illustration from Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones to expand the idea. Lloyd-Jones once said that if he was to come home and someone was to say, “While you were out a bill came, so I just paid it for you,” he wouldn’t know how to respond until he knew how large the bill was. If it had been some extra postage—a simple “thank you,” might do. But if it was hundreds of thousands of pounds, well, that’s another story.

Keller ties a little bow on that section of the message saying that the doctrine of hell “can be used to create a pretext for cruelty,” but that the “biblical doctrine of hell” is that Jesus came “not to bring judgment but to bear judgment and to go to hell for his enemies.” Therefore, he argues, hell demonstrates the depths of God’s love, because Jesus chose to endure it in order to save people. On that basis, he contends that “ironically, people by getting rid of the idea of judgment and hell, try to make God more loving, actually make him less.”

Okay. So the argument is not perfect, but it is way more logical and beautiful in context. Keller is arguing that hell is what Jesus experienced on the cross, and quotes the Apostles Creed that says “He descended into hell,” afterward. And that Jesus did those things to demonstrate God’s love. The problem is that the nuance and the wit of that argument are incredibly difficult to deliver in 240 characters.

Without listening to the sermon, it was easy to read this thought as a suggestion that God sending people to eternal conscious torment somehow demonstrates God’s love. And that is exactly how many people read it.

You can’t blame us for misunderstanding. When I say “golden retriever” I can safely assume that most people are going to conjure up a certain mental image. When a person says “hell” there are certain conventional ideas that many are going to immediately go to.

You know what could have solved all of this? A thread of a few more tweets. You can’t just hit us with a hot take like “Hell demonstrates the love of God,” if the tweet version is not what you actually mean. While his point is still arguable, just a couple more tweets would have been just as provocative but more eye-opening, especially if they linked back to the whole sermon.

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