Tim Keller in the New York Times

December 23, 2016

kellerIn today’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristoff interviews my favorite contemporary preacher, Tim Keller. You can read the interview here. While I would have pushed back harder on the resurrection and the Bible’s alleged “fuzziness” (Luke’s virgin birth story was “written in a different kind of Greek”? Huh?)  the interview was edited, as Kristoff indicates, so we can’t know what else Keller had to say.

Still, these are not softball questions. As a useful exercise, in the spirit of 1 Peter 3:15, you might try formulating your own answers to these questions.

I want to highlight a couple of Keller’s responses. First, when asked about the alleged inconsistency between faith and science, I liked his answer. I’m including it here mostly because I want to remember that Plantinga quote, which I’ve highlighted:

I don’t see why faith should be seen as inconsistent with science. There is nothing illogical about miracles if a Creator God exists. If a God exists who is big enough to create the universe in all its complexity and vastness, why should a mere miracle be such a mental stretch? To prove that miracles could not happen, you would have to know beyond a doubt that God does not exist. But that is not something anyone can prove.

Science must always assume that an effect has a repeatable, natural cause. That is its methodology. Imagine, then, for the sake of argument that a miracle actually occurred. Science would have no way to confirm a nonrepeatable, supernatural cause. Alvin Plantinga argued that to say that there must be a scientific cause for any apparently miraculous phenomenon is like insisting that your lost keys must be under the streetlight because that’s the only place you can see.

Next, when asked about Christianity’s exclusivity (Is Gandhi in hell?), Keller gets to the heart of the matter: Who can be saved by being good? Who is good? And if being good were the criterion, wouldn’t that also be exclusive? The alternative to a works-based salvation, as Keller notes, is universalism: everyone will be saved in the end. But where does that leave justice? Should evil go unpunished?

What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world. But I’m troubled by the evangelical notion that people go to heaven only if they have a direct relationship with Jesus. Doesn’t that imply that billions of people — Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus — are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian families around the world? That Gandhi is in hell? 

The Bible makes categorical statements that you can’t be saved except through faith in Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:11-12). I’m very sympathetic to your concerns, however, because this seems so exclusive and unfair. There are many views of this issue, so my thoughts on this cannot be considered the Christian response. But here they are:

You imply that really good people (e.g., Gandhi) should also be saved, not just Christians. The problem is that Christians do not believe anyone can be saved by being good. If you don’t come to God through faith in what Christ has done, you would be approaching on the basis of your own goodness. This would, ironically, actually be more exclusive and unfair, since so often those that we tend to think of as “bad” — the abusers, the haters, the feckless and selfish — have themselves often had abusive and brutal backgrounds.

Christians believe that it is those who admit their weakness and need for a savior who get salvation. If access to God is through the grace of Jesus, then anyone can receive eternal life instantly. This is why “born again” Christianity will always give hope and spread among the “wretched of the earth.”

I can imagine someone saying, “Well, why can’t God just accept everyone — universal salvation?” Then you create a different problem with fairness. It means God wouldn’t really care about injustice and evil.

There is still the question of fairness regarding people who have grown up away from any real exposure to Christianity. The Bible is clear about two things — that salvation must be through grace and faith in Christ, and that God is always fair and just in all his dealings. What it doesn’t directly tell us is exactly how both of those things can be true together. I don’t think it is insurmountable. Just because I can’t see a way doesn’t prove there cannot be any such way. If we have a God big enough to deserve being called God, then we have a God big enough to reconcile both justice and love.

One Response to “Tim Keller in the New York Times”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I like Plantinga’s quote that you note. And I like Keller’s effort at answering that “hard question.” You probably recall my view of what I think you or some people refer to as “middle knowledge,” that God “foreknows” those who will have faith to believe and then “predestines” history to bring those faith choices to fruition. So, much as it may seem “unfair” for some people to “hear” and some not, it is only unfair if it would have “made a difference” if they had heard. And God knows that. However, we don’t. So, the obligation on our part is to assume that we need to get the message out to everyone we can, thereby being used by God to get the message out to all the “elect.” This sounds a little like “traditional” predestination, but as you know I think the “foreknowledge” is the key to the picture. God does not “choose” except on the basis of “foreknowing” something about those he chooses. Otherwise, we do have “unfairness.” (This is similar to a Facebook post I made on this issue, which I think you “liked”.)


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