Posted by: gmscan | August 31, 2011

A “Mere Christianity” for Our Times?

The Reason for God

By Timothy Keller

2008, 310 pp.

Riverhead Books, New York, NY

Tim Keller is the head pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City. He founded Redeemer over 20 years ago as a sort of ministry to the yuppies. Today it attracts about 6,000 worshippers every Sunday to various services on Manhattan.

This book is the product of all those years of explaining Christianity to the well-educated, young professionals of New York City. It is a sort of “Mere Christianity” for our age.

The book is arranged in two sections. The first, “The Leap of Doubt” answers the questions and charges we all hear every day –

  • There can’t be just one true religion.
  • How could a good God allow suffering?
  • Christianity is a straitjacket.
  • The church is responsible for so much injustice.
  • Science has disproved Christianity.
  • You can’t take the Bible literally.

Dr. Keller takes each point seriously and provides a serious answer. He doesn’t assume that the questioner is just being provocative or disrespectful. He knows from experience that the people who ask these questions and make these arguments are often lost and empty. They really are looking for answers or they wouldn’t even bother asking the question.

Sometimes his answers are merely clever, and turn the question around on the asker. One example of this technique is his answer to people who say all religions are somewhat valid but each sees only part of the truth, like the blind men and the elephant. Each has a bit of it right, but none see the whole elephant.

He responds —

“How could you know that each blind man only sees part of the elephant unless you claim to see the whole elephant? How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of the spiritual reality you just claimed that none of these religions have?”

That is more of a debating point than a real answer, but still it must rattle the questioner, and get him to stop and re-examine his assumptions.

Other responses are often like this:

Q, Christianity imposes too many restrictions on people.

A. No, Christianity is love.  When you are in love you willingly sacrifice your comfort and your time to please your lover. It is not a burden, but a joy.

These arguments are fun and worth keeping in mind, but I’m not sure they really do the trick. In dealing with evolution, for instance, Keller says that many Christians agree that evolution played a role in God’s work, but to think of natural selection as an all-encompassing explanation for everything is actually turning it into a religion itself. Evolution may explain some things, but it hardly explains everything.

I’m not sure that answers people who think that belief in God is held only by frightened, superstitious people who don’t have the courage to face the truth – that eternity is a mirage. There is no hope, there is no heaven, and there is no final justice. There is only a short and brutal life and the best we can do is strive to make it as pleasant and comfortable as we can in the few days we have here.

I think there is a stronger answer to the Darwinians on their own terms. That is that a belief in God is an evolutionary triumph because people who believe survive better than those who don’t. Having hope is at least as important to survival as food and shelter. Believers are likely to be happier and more likely to reproduce than non-believers. Atheists are doomed in Darwinian terms.  They should run, not walk, to the nearest church and start praying for salvation before they become an endangered species.

More compelling are his arguments in the second half of the book, “The Reasons for Faith.” This is broken into eight chapters –

  • The Clues of God.
  • The Knowledge of God.
  • The Problem of Sin.
  • Religion and the Gospel.
  • The (True) Story of the Cross.
  • The Reality of the Resurrection.
  • The Dance of God.
  • Where do We Go from Here

Here Keller really hits a home run. Perhaps the first part of the book is simply to get skeptics to think and question their glib assumptions. That may open their minds to hearing the real story. And what a story it is. Keller doesn’t back down a bit.

The Clues of God

In the first chapter he lays out the “clues” that point to there being a God, starting with the Big Bang (see my take on this in an earlier post.) Next is the regularity and order (not randomness) of nature, then comes our recognition of and response to beauty which gives us hints of the Heavenly kingdom.

The Knowledge of God

In the next chapter he argues that we all know there is a God, even when we argue there is not. God’s existence is the basis of our sense of right and wrong, of moral behavior versus immoral behavior, of human rights. That sense does not come from nature, since nature rewards only the strong and crushes the weak. He writes –

“If there is no God, then there is no way to say any one action is moral and another immoral, but only ‘I like this.’”

Perhaps the majority should determine what is moral? But then what prevents the majority from simply killing the pesky minority? Who is to say it is wrong to do so? Only God, who has put his stamp an all humans.

The Problem of Sin

He says that the knowledge of sin is actually liberating. It explains why we never quite get it right no matter how hard we try. Nor can we look to other people – spouses, work relationships, politics – to save us. We are all flawed and so is everybody else. They will disappoint us every time.

But there is a way out – cling to the one who is sinless, Jesus Christ. Jesus knows how sinful we are and he loves us anyway. He has already saved us. All we have to do is acknowledge that.

Religion and the Gospel

Here Keller makes a distinction between religion and Christianity. He writes –

“It is critical for anyone reading this book to recognize this fundamental difference between the Gospel and religion. Christianity’s basic message differs at root with the assumptions of traditional religions. The founders of every other major religion essentially came as teachers, not as saviors. They came to say, “Do this and you will find the divine.” But Jesus came essentially as a savior rather than a teacher (though he was that as well.) Jesus says, “I am the divine come to you, to do what you could not do for yourselves.” The Christian message is that we are saved not by our record, but by Christ’s record.”

Keller illustrates this difference with examples of pious people who work very hard to do good in the world. But this effort often leads to the sin of pride and self-righteousness, feeling superior to others. It is far better to say, “Lord, I am broken and I have no hope other than you,” than, “Lord, see all the good I have done. Aren’t you proud of me?”

The (True) Story of the Cross.

Keller says he often encounters people who think the story of the crucifixion makes God seem like a blood-thirsty tyrant. Why would a loving God demand a human sacrifice? He responds by reminding these doubters that Jesus is God. God did not sacrifice someone else, he sacrificed himself. And this was the greatest love of all.

Whenever we love someone, we accept and absorb their flaws. That is the nature of love – the other person’s problems become our problems. We share in their joys, but also in their misery. A relationship without that level of intimacy is not love. So it was with Jesus. He loves us and so he has absorbed our sins into himself. We are too weak to carry the burden so he carried it for us.

Similarly with forgiveness. To forgive a wrong means absorbing the cost of the wrong yourself. Keller says if someone wrecks your car you may forgive him for it, but the car still needs to be fixed. The cost doesn’t disappear, it must still be paid. But if the wrongdoer is unable to pay for the damage you will absorb the cost yourself.

We are unable to pay for our wrongdoings, so Jesus Christ has paid the bill for us.

The Reality of the Resurrection

Here Keller starts getting to the heart of the matter. Jesus Christ was killed by man, buried in a tomb, and rose from the dead, not as a spirit or a ghost, but as a flesh and blood man. Keller writes  —

If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.

Did he? Keller walks through the evidence and concludes —

“Nothing in history can be proven the way we can prove something in a laboratory. However, the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact much more fully attested to than most other events of ancient history we take for granted.”

A word on “proof.” There are all kinds of proof. There is scientific proof (although even there theories are rarely considered proven, they are just verified or supported until other evidence disproves them) and there is legal proof, which in the case of criminal law is “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and in civil law is “the preponderance of the evidence.”  Almost everything we believe to be true is based on one of these standards.

I don’t “know” for certain that Africa exists but I believe it does because of all the people I have met or read about who have been there and say it does. I am relying on their testimony and they have no reason to lie. And so it was with the Resurrection. There were hundreds of witnesses who testified to it, and even then there were doubters. Thomas said:

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:25)

And so he did, and this too was witnessed. Like my friends who have seen Africa, these witnesses had no reason to lie. In fact, they had ample reason to deny what they had seen. The resurrection is as “proven” as anything can be.

Dance of God

In this chapter Keller discusses the Trinity. He says no other faith sees God as a triune. Being a Trinity means God is relational to the core. He has always been the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and always will be. The three elements of the Godhead love and exalt in each other, and have invited us to join in that loving relationship. Keller writes –

“Imagine there is someone you love more than anyone else in the world. You would do anything for him or her. Now imagine you discover that this person feels exactly the same way about you, and you enter into either a lifetime friendship or a romantic relationship and marriage. Sound like heaven? Yes, because it comes from heaven….”

And this is God’s antidote to our misery of self-absorption and self-centeredness.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Here Keller discusses the importance of, first, repentance, and second belief. Once we have secured those, we need fellowship. God did not intend us to worship in solitude but to join with other believers to love and exalt in one another as He does in his triune relationship.

Finally Keller notes that we have not found God, God has found us. He is the good shepherd looking for his lost sheep. All we need do is answer his call.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing your walk with Christ. I look forward to reading Keller’s book. If you haven;t read it yet, please check out Francis Collin’s “The language of God.” It addresses the existence of God from a the perspective of one of the world’s leading Nobel winning scientists who headed up the genome project (he was formerly an atheist).


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