Unless you believe in Hell, you will never know how much Jesus loves you.
— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) June 2, 2014
Not too long ago I would have disregarded Keller's tweet here as exaggerated and mistaken. In recent times, however, I've come to appreciate the sentiment more and more, and to a great extent I believe in it. Of course, this may sound strange coming from someone who argues for and defends a dogmatic universalism, so I will try to explain myself here.
I remember when somebody posed the question to me once: "If there isn't a hell, an eternal damnation from the presence of God forever, then why would God require or even allow that Jesus be sacrificed? He's got to be a violent, sadistic god if there weren't something overwhelmingly more horrific being avoided!" Almost right away I saw the force in the argument, and even these days the impression grows more and more on me that a healthy and rational universalism, one that makes salvation something worth thanking God for, requires also a strong picture of hell.
Jesus spoke about those at the final judgment who will be thrown into the outer darkness (Mt 25.30), and not long afterward he is crucified outside the city of Jerusalem (Heb 13.12), and at Jesus' crucifixion darkness came over the whole land (Mark 15.33), after which Jesus cries out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (v. 34) Through these parallels God wants us to understand that in his death, Jesus had undergone that eschatological punishment to which unrepentant humanity was doomed. In the agony of the cross and his death, Jesus takes upon himself the agonies and pains of the damned who've been abandoned by God; in nuce, the crucifixion is hell.
In Jesus' crucifixion, in his beating and rejection by those around him, in the mocking laughter of those who watched his bruised and beaten body hanging naked upon a cross, we see what hell is, what utter abandonment by God is. Our waking life, at least for many, is not this kind of hellish, accursed darkness, but that is because God's grace keeps us. Hell is supposed to be the removal of that grace, that goodness which God puts in us to keep us from going overboard. I imagine that even those persons who object to Keller's language here would agree that, apart from God's goodness in keeping the sinfulness and evil of humanity constrained, life would be hell. If not, then it is hard to see what Christ is supposed to save us from, and why that salvation means anything, why it is worth giving our lives and dying for him.
So then life apart from God's grace is hell, and this is what Jesus underwent; it is what we see happening all around him. But Jesus suffers this for all, and Paul concludes that therefore all persons have died in this way in him (2 Cor 5.14). More than that, he suffers this death precisely so that this death will not fall upon the persons to whom it was previously destined; he dies for them so that they might live for him (v. 15). I believe that through his taking hell upon himself, he transformed human nature and hell in such a way that his resurrection will be the end result of all people. In a way, through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God in Jesus Christ, the Holy Trinity has changed the trajectory of humanity from down into hell to up into the fellowship of God. Thus in the canonical gospels, we have two pictures of how Jesus dies: abandoned by God in desperation, per Mark and Matthew, or triumphant in martyriological obedience, per John and Luke. These signify the two ways people will go into glorious resurrection and return to God -- either through the pains of hell, or in confident and trusting obedience to their Father. But the end result is the same, even if the experience is not.
In a way, then, I believe in hell, but I also thank Jesus deeply for transforming hell. Gregory of Nyssa talks about how the Logos' union with human nature has infused it with a kind of immortality, and therefore it will not die or be destroyed. Likewise Athanasius speaks of Jesus Christ as the savior of all men because through his incarnation and substitutionary death, he has guaranteed immortality for all of humanity. This in itself must be the proof of the temporal finitude of hell: human beings will not be destroyed utterly, because they have been cloaked with immortality by the Logos, but hell will purify and destroy the false sinful self which has been created in opposition to God.
In saying this I suppose I am proposing also an emphasis on the phenomenology of salvation. The end result of sin is utter abandonment by God, which ultimately would entail annihilation, not eternal conscious torment, since God conserves everything in being by his will; if God utterly abandons anything at all, then he likewise does not even conserve it in being any longer. This would be hell, if anything. But, as Athanasius writes in De Incarnatione 6, it is beneath God's goodness and worthiness as creator to allow his handiwork to be undone, and therefore he saves it. For those who believe the gospel, this process of salvation is one in which we gladly participate, voluntarily undergoing to difficulties and pains of death to our old selves (cf. Eph 4.22-4; Col 3.9-10) -- a death which Christ's death shows us is necessary, but is not necessarily hellish. But for unbelievers, this inevitable death and transformation will seem like nothing less than pure hell and annihilation, torture, because they don't want it to happen and they cannot stop it. In either case, though, there is a death of the former self, and necessarily so. But it is important to emphasize: apart from Christ's vicarious work, we would all have been destined for ultimate death and annihilation.
Therefore as a universalist, I fully agree with Keller: apart from the threat of hell, Christ's salvation means next to nothing; therefore we thank him for having saved us and all! It is not necessary to suppose that Christ's salvation means nothing if some persons will be in hell forever; but it is necessary to suppose that, apart from Christ's saving work, everybody would be in hell forever.