The Reason for God, by Timothy Keller. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2008. 251 pages.
Timothy Keller is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America. He serves at Redeemer Presbyterian Church (www.redeemer.com) in Manhattan, which he and his wife started in 1989. The church currently has about six thousand regular attendees at six weekly services. He was educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. The Reason for God reached #7 on The New York Times bestseller list for non-fiction in March 2008. His other books include: King’s Cross, Generous Justice, Counterfeit Gods, and The Prodigal God.
The Christian apologist is in a position to show any rational man, particularly if he have a well-trained mind, that after all it would be more reasonable to accept the claims of Christianity as true than to reject them as false. But he must ever keep in mind that his real business is not to demonstrate the truth of the Christian religion to the unbeliever, but to uncover the insincerity of unbelief, for all who reject Christianity do so, consciously or unconsciously, because of their evil will and not because of their pretended “intellectual honesty” (Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, I, 110).
After reading Keller’s book, one gets the impression that Keller read Pieper’s quote above. Keller’s book would fall into the area of dogmatics commonly known as apologetics.
Brief Review of Book’s Content
After a little religious background about himself, Keller challenges all people to take “a second look at doubt.” Skeptics should question their own doubts about religion. Believers should also wrestle with the doubts of their friend and neighbors, as well as their own doubts in order to “come to a position of strong faith” (xvii). That leads to the format of the book, “In the first half of this volume we will review the seven biggest objections and doubts about Christianity … Then in the second half of the book we will examine the reasons underlying Christian beliefs” (xx). The first half is entitled “The Leap of Doubt” and includes the first seven chapters.
1: There Can’t Be Just One True Religion (Paustian, Prepared to Answer, 111ff, 156ff; More Prepared to Answer, 20ff)
In this chapter, Keller presents the three main ways that people have tried to address the divisiveness of religion:
- Outlaw religion
- Condemn religion
- Keep religion completely private
After summarizing each of the approaches, Keller refutes them all by presenting their faults, fallacies and non sequiturs. At the end of the chapter he argues how Christianity can do away with the divisive tendencies within the human heart. “Christianity provides a firm basis for respecting people of other faiths … it also leads them to expect that many will live lives morally superior to their own” (19).
2: How Could a Good God Allow Suffering? (Paustian, Prepared, 130ff; More Prepared, 1ff, 8ff, 113ff)
Keller comments about this objection: “the effort to demonstrate that evil disproves the existence of God ‘is now acknowledged on (almost) all sides to be completely bankrupt” (23). He gives two reasons why:
- Saying you are not able to find a reason for suffering puts great confidence in your own cognitive skills, and
- As people look back on their own suffering, they are able to see good reasons for some of that suffering
Keller even argues that evil and suffering in the world can actually show that there is a God. He contends that a person’s basis for a just and unjust act is based on some outside idea of what is right and what is wrong. (This idea of morality will be addressed in chapter nine.) He continues by saying that Jesus’ suffering gives Christians hope in their own sufferings and gives them hope for a resurrection, “not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had but a restoration of the life you always wanted. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater” (32).
3: Christianity Is a Straitjacket (Paustian, More Prepared, 128ff, 220ff)
This objection states that Christianity is exclusive and hinders everybody’s right to freedom. Keller shows how that argument is misguided and shortsighted. All cultures (not to mention any club or organization) have certain rules that people must abide by to be in that culture. Therefore such rules are not exclusive, but instead maintaining “standards for membership in accord with their beliefs” (40). Keller then uses different examples from life to prove his point that restraint can even be a means to freedom (e.g. practicing the piano to unleash your ability, loving someone else is putting them first). “Freedom is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us” (49).
4: The Church Is Responsible for So Much Injustice (Paustian Prepared, 99ff, 136ff, 192ff)
Keller now confronts the three main issues that have undermined Christianity for most people:
- A Christian’s character flaws
- The connection between religion and violence
After addressing each issue, Keller makes the interesting observation that people’s criticism of Christianity is based on moral ideals taken from Christianity. If we were to abandon these Christian standards, then we would be left with no basis for the criticism. In response to the injustice claim, he gives two prime examples of how Christianity has changed the world for the better:
- The abolitionists of the 1800’s
- The Civil Rights movement of the 1900’s
Keller summarizes his answer to this objection as follows: “When people have done injustice in the name of Christ they are not being true to the spirit of the one who himself died as a victim of injustice and who called for the forgiveness of his enemies. When people give their lives to liberate others as Jesus did, they are realizing the true Christianity that Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and other Christian voices have called for” (69).
5: How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell? (Paustian, More Prepared, 183ff)
Keller discusses three specific beliefs underlying this objection:
- A God of judgment simply cannot exist
- A God of judgment cannot be a God of love
- A loving God would not allow hell
After answering those beliefs, he ends with a discussion on the idea of a God of love. If people do not believe a God of love would send someone to hell, from where did the idea of a God of love come? It is not found in the world, in history, or other religious texts, but only in the pages of Scripture. “And the Bible tells us that the God of love is also a God of judgment who will put all things in the world to rights in the end” (85). If people take the idea of a God of love from the Bible, why not also the idea of a God of judgment, which is also in the Bible?
6: Science Has Disproved Christianity (Paustian, Prepared 15ff; More Prepared 36ff)
In this chapter, Keller specifically addresses the issues between:
- Miracles and science
- Science and Christianity
- Evolution and the Bible
To the first issue, he shows how the argument against miracles is based on two unsubstantiated assumptions: since science cannot prove a miracle, miracles are impossible and “there cannot be a God who does miracles” (89). To the second issue, he says that the conflict between science and Christianity has been more played up in the media than is actually present today. To the third issue, he discusses that different Christians have different ways of reconciling evolution and the Bible. Keller states his own personal opinion, “I think God guided some kind of process of natural selection, and yet I reject the concept of evolution as All-encompassing Theory” (98). In the end he downplays the conflict between science and the Bible. He points the skeptical inquirers to the “central claims of Christianity” first, then deal with the options between science and the Bible (97).
7: You Can’t Take the Bible Literally (Paustian Prepared, 26ff; More Prepared 27ff, 135ff)
This objection would say “the Bible is not entirely trustworthy because some parts – maybe many or most parts – are scientifically impossible, historically unreliable, and culturally regressive” (103). Having dealt with the scientific objection in the previous chapter, Keller now deals with the historical and cultural objections. For his points, Keller uses the gospels as an example. Against the historical questions, Keller contends on three fronts: the gospels were written too early to be legends; the gospels present people “warts and all” unlike legends; and the literary form of the gospels is too detailed to be legend. Against the cultural issues, Keller advises people to try and understand statements on slavery and women in its own cultural and historical context. In the same vein, he asks people who still have cultural issues with the Bible to understand our own culture (and its assumptions on life) in the world’s historical context.
Before continuing, Keller defines Christianity as:
The body of believers who assent to these great ecumenical creeds. They believe that the triune God created the world, that humanity has fallen into sin and evil, that God has returned to rescue us in Jesus Christ, that in his death and resurrection Jesus accomplished our salvation for us so we can be received by grace, that he established the church, his people, as the vehicle through which he continues his mission of rescue, reconciliation, and salvation, and that at the end of time Jesus will return to renew the heavens and the earth, removing all evil, injustice, sin and death from the world. (121)
This then is the introduction to the second half of his book “The Reasons for Faith,” which includes the final seven chapters.
8: The Clues of God (Paustian, Prepared, 7ff)
Keller admits with philosopher Alvin Plantinga “there are no proofs of God that will convince all rational persons. However [Plantinga] believes that there are at least two to three dozen very good arguments for the existence of God” (132). The first clue is the cosmological argument for God’s existence, the “prime mover” as Aristotle put it. (cf. Seminary Dogmatics Notes, Theology, Revelation of God, part II, point 3) Keller also points to the fine-tuned design of the universe, the regularity of nature, and the beauty in nature.
9: The Knowledge of God (Paustian Prepared, 51ff)
In this chapter, Keller makes the argument for God based on people’s sense of moral values and moral obligations. (This is a point he has brought up also in chapters two and four.) From where does that concept of morality (i.e. right and wrong, just and unjust, good and evil) come? If people are to find their own truth, how can anyone tell someone else they are wrong? Keller concludes our ideals of morality ultimately would have to come from God. “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” (159).
10: The Problem of Sin (Paustian More Prepared, 169ff)
Sin shows that God does exist. Keller gleans from Kierkegaard this definition of sin; “Sin is 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 … It is seeking to establish a sense of self by making something else more central to your significance, purpose, and happiness than your relationship with God” (168). Keller says that sin leads people to an unstable identity, deep addiction, and emptiness. It also then destroys the social fabric of life. Keller’s solution to sin is this: “Sin is not simply doing bad things, it is putting good things in the place of God. So the only solution is not simply to change our behavior, but to reorient and center the entire heart and life on God” (178).
11: Religion and the Gospel (Paustian More Prepared, 66ff)
In this chapter, Keller points out the differences between what other religions and the gospel “salvation through grace” does in a person’s life (181). There is a difference in:
- A person’s identity and self-regard
- How people treat other people and their faiths
- How they handle troubles and suffering
Salvation by sheer grace means that people are no longer their own, “[they] would joyfully, gratefully belong to Jesus, who provided all this for [them] at infinite cost to himself” (190).
12: The (True) Story of the Cross
Keller discusses the real reasons for Jesus suffering on the cross. He gives two:
- Real forgiveness has costly suffering
- Real love is a personal exchange, “In the real world of relationships it is impossible to love people with a problem or a need without in some sense sharing or even changing places with them” (201).
Keller uses human examples to support these reasons (e.g. Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Keller summarizes this chapter; “To understand why Jesus had to die it is important to remember both the result of the Cross (costly forgiveness of sins) and the pattern of the Cross (reversal of the world’s values)” (204).
13: The Reality of the Resurrection
Keller now turns to the validity of the resurrection. Keller gives several proofs for its veracity:
- The empty tomb and the unique eyewitnesses
- The different views on a resurrection of the body prevalent in the first century AD
- The rapid growth of the early Christian Church
14: The Dance of God
In this chapter, Keller’s term “the dance of God” is his way of talking about God’s love (internal and external). “When we delight and serve someone else, we enter into a dynamic orbit around him or her, we center on the interests and desires of the other. That creates a dance …” (224). The Trinity “dances” around each other, showing love to each other. This same loving Trinity is the God who showed that love in creation, in creating people to share in this love. “And the only way that we, who have been created in his image, can have this same joy, is if we center our entire lives around him instead of ourselves” (227). Keller finishes this chapter with how this dance changes our lives and then how we change the world around us. As a side note, this chapter has Keller’s most extensive use of Bible passages. We would agree with just about all his exegetical conclusions, even if the words he uses are not what our Lutheran ears are accustomed to hearing.
In conclusion, Keller addresses those people who have been made more certain that Christianity is plausible through his book. He now tells them what to do: examine the motives, count the cost, take inventory, make the move, and commit to community. In short, know what and why you now feel this way and then act on it.
Evaluation of Author’s Arguments/Main Points
Keller does a magnificent job of presenting the opponents’ objections and his case for Christianity. In fact, Keller does not shy away from his opponents. He also does not set up straw men and then knock them down. Each chapter of the first half begins with a few quotes from an email survey Keller conducted among New Yorkers. The names are changed, but people were asked to articulate what their biggest doubts and objections were to Christianity.
As a writer, Keller is a very well-read and well-educated author and pastor. In this book, he quotes everyone from the ancient Greeks to modern theologians, from C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien to Star Wars and an example from Angels with Dirty Faces. As an observation, Keller does quote more extensively from these other sources (theological or otherwise) than the Bible (e.g. his definition of sin is from Kierkegaard).
Many of the theological tenets, to which Keller holds, we would too. His own church has as basic doctrines “the deity of Christ, the infallibility of the Bible, the necessity of spiritual rebirth through faith in Christ’s atoning death” (43) He understands marriage (48), the Trinity (200 and footnote 5; 223), God is love (225), the purpose of the tree in the garden of Eden (229), and the church is for sinners (247).
That being said, there are a few points, on which WELS Lutherans could not agree with Keller. First, we would not agree with his idea that creation was God guiding some kind of natural selection. That appears to be a compromise between the Bible and certain aspects of the evolutionary theory.
Secondly, he states:
I am making a case in this book for the truth of Christianity in general – not for one particular strand of it. Some sharp-eyed Presbyterian readers will notice that I am staying quiet about some of my particular theological beliefs in the interest of doing everything I can to represent all Christians. Yet when I come to describe the Christian gospel of sin and grace, I will necessarily be doing it as a Protestant Christian, and I won’t be sounding notes that a Catholic author would sound. (121-122)
With that as his premise, Keller must obviously be ambiguous on some points e.g. salvation. He goes back and forth between words that could be understood as if salvation is something we do (247), and words that show salvation is an act of God (248).
Thirdly, he concludes about Christianity, “This gospel identity gives us a new basis for harmonious and just social arrangements … That means that I cannot despise those who do not believe as I do. Since I am not saved by my correct doctrine or practice, then this person before me, even with his or her wrong beliefs, might be morally superior to me in many ways” (188). In reality, we are to stand up against wrong beliefs (i.e. non-biblical beliefs) to point to the clear teaching of Holy Scripture.
I would definitely read this book with a critical eye. With some of the above quotes I cited, we would agree; others, we could not. With his use of ambiguous language, there are other subtle points where we would at least ask the question, “What does this mean?” However the parts with which we would agree do far outweigh the parts with which we would not.
Thoughts on How This Book Could Be Used in Ministry
All of the above being said, this book’s strengths are its apologetics. Keller does an excellent job of showing the errors in the main objections against Christianity. He uses the same logic and reasoning that opponents use against the Bible to show how those objections are also faulty, especially if applied to other aspects of life or carried through to their logical conclusions.
Franz Pieper has this two-sided warning about apologetics: overestimation and underestimation. “It would be overestimation if we imagined that any one could be converted by such rational arguments … the arguments which call forth only a human faith would be underestimated if we declared them to be utterly worthless.” (Christian Dogmatics, I, 310f) Keeping that in mind, I especially found the first half of The Reason for God to be extremely helpful. It made me think through some of the common arguments used against Christianity in a new light. It has given me a few new apologetical arrows in my pastoral quiver. I would also use this book alongside similar chapters in Paustian’s books Prepared to Answer and More Prepared the Answer. (I have added the relevant pages from his books to the similar chapters in Keller’s book.) I found myself reading Keller’s book for the good apologetics and arguments; Paustian’s for its clearly solid, Scriptural foundation.
This book was very refreshing to read. It was nice to read a book from an author with such a high view of Scripture. “I believe that Christianity makes the most sense out of our individual life stories and out of what we see in the world’s history” (222). This book gives very good and valid responses to objections against Christianity and also very good and valid reasons for Christianity. I found this book most worthwhile, when read in tandem with Paustian’s books.
So with a few of the above caveats, I would recommend this book for any pastor. Timothy Keller is a great apologist. His points are very well thought-out and very well argued. Keller does this all in a very kind, quiet and humble writing style. One definitely gets the impression that he does not write with animosity, but with a love for Christ and those who do not yet believe in him. He gives us an example of apologetics that is not also polemics.
[N.B. Keller also released a DVD and discussion guide in 2010 with the same title as this book. (http://timothykeller.com/study/the_reason_for_god/) In the DVD, he meets with a group of people and discusses their doubts and objections to Christianity. For a short history of apologetics in Christianity, read Hoenecke’s Dogmatics, I, 273-278. Pieper has more to say on apologetics in general in his Dogmatics, I, 307-315, esp. 310ff]