Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008. 293 pp.
I noted in my last blog post that I consider Timothy Keller to be, potentially, a C. S. Lewis of our age – an apologist who has the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and literary gifts to communicate the truths and truthfulness of the Christian faith effectively to a broad audience. I have embarked on a six-part series interacting with Keller’s two most prominent apologetic works, The Reason for God (2008) and Making Sense of God (2016). Last time, I noted that The Reason for God is split into two major sections – the first half of the book dealing with ‘negative apologetics’ – that is, responding to typical objections against the Christian faith; the second half dealing with ‘positive apologetics’ – that is, setting forth reasons to believe that Christianity is true. I previously summarized and evaluated the first half of the first half of The Reason for God, analyzing Keller’s responses to charges of religious intolerance (Chapter 1), the problem of evil (Chapter 2), and the inhibition of freedom in Christianity (Chapter 3). In this post, we will cover the last half of part one, and in my final post on The Reason for God we will look at his positive arguments for Christian faith.
Along with intolerance, evil, and constraint, another significant objection against Christianity is the injustice perpetrated by individual Christians and the Church (Chapter Four, “The Church Is Responsible For So Much Injustice”). Keller notes that skepticism is often prompted initially by negative experiences with individual or corporate Christianity (52). First, Keller discusses character flaws in individual Christians, notes that common grace allows unbelievers to live morally upright lives (53), and acknowledges the very real flaws of ordinary Christians. However, Keller fails to mention the presence of ‘false believers’ within the Church—people who claim to be Christian, but are not, and are the source of much ‘Christian’-perpetrated evil in the world. Second, Keller rebuts Christopher Hitchens’ argument that religion is the source of most violence and oppression in the world. Finally, in the most fascinating section of this chapter, Keller addresses fanaticism, suggesting that the problem with most fanatics is not that they are “too Christian,” but rather “not Christian enough.” (57) Keller insists that while oppression of others is inexcusable (59), it is not true Christians who perpetrate such evils, but rather people who have an incomplete faith (60). He closes by asking the skeptic on what basis they can oppose oppression if they do not have the transcendent biblical basis from which to insist that oppression is wrong (60-61).
The doctrine of hell is particularly troublesome, not only to skeptics, but also to many Christians (Chapter Five, “How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?”). Keller uncovers the hidden presupposition that God cannot be both a God of love and a God of justice, and demonstrates that love requires wrath and anger at injustice and the ruination of lives (73). In response to the objection that eternal punishment in hell is excessive, Keller introduces the idea that “hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity.” (78) Following Lewis, Keller claims that God does not send people to hell, but rather allows us to condemn ourselves to hell in respect for our ultimate freedom (79).
Keller then tackles the prickly problem of miracles and evolution (Chapter Six, “Science Has Disproved Christianity”). While he acknowledges that miracles are difficult to believe in, and cannot be empirically tested for, Keller also insists that science simply does not have the tools to ascertain whether miracles are possible or not. To insist that science disproves the miraculous is to move from science into philosophical presupposition (86). Keller makes concessions to evolutionary theory that will trouble some conservative evangelicals (86-87), and insists that evolution and the biblical picture of creation need not be interpreted as contradictory accounts (92). I admire the apologetic strategy and heart behind Keller’s stance. Keller states: “Since Christian believers occupy different positions on both the meaning of Genesis 1 and on the nature of evolution, those who are considering Christianity as a whole should not allow themselves to be distracted by this intramural debate. The skeptical inquirer does not need to accept any one of these positions in order to embrace the Christian faith. Rather, he or she should concentrate on and weigh the central claims of Christianity.” (94) Keller is saying that since Christianity is potentially compatible with evolution, this issue cannot be held up as a reason to not become a Christian.
The final objection to Christian faith is the unreliability of the Bible (Chapter Seven, “You Can’t Take the Bible Literally”). There are two predominant objections to the Bible which Keller treats in turn: its historical fallibility and its cultural obsolescence. In response to liberal scholars’ assertions that the Bible is embellished, imagined, and untrustworthy as a historical record, Keller suggests we can trust it because of its early date and eyewitness status (101-03), the historical nature of its content (104-05), and the internal evidence of its incidental details (106). Keller’s sound defense of New Testament reliability could be strengthened by appeal to the universal early church testimony and the supporting evidence of archaeology. Keller then responds to the charges of “outmoded and regressive teaching.” (109) He first notes that many troublesome texts (e.g. Ephesians 6:5 on slavery) can be cleared up “with a decent commentary that puts the issue into historical context.” (110) But Keller admits that there will still remain some texts, properly contextualized, which will offend and trouble the modern reader. However, he warns against cultural snobbery, “the unexamined belief in the superiority of their historical moment over all others,” (111) and insists that if there is a God, He is more than likely going to have some ‘views’ which upset you (112).
Keller’s negative apologetic is necessarily cursory and brief, as he covers topics in fifteen pages which other authors have spent hundreds of pages discussing. Thus, there is a sense in which his presentation leaves one wanting more. However, Keller has provided endnotes which go into greater depth on some issues, and point the curious reader to further sources which give lengthier treatment of the issue at hand. Thus, the first half of the book is a worthy apologetic primer, getting at the heart of objections to the Christian faith, and giving the reader the tools to engage in further study.