Mission to the Skeptics: Reflections on Timothy Keller’s ‘The Reason for God’

Billy Graham peppered his sermons with the phrase, “The Bible says.” A direct appeal to the authority of the Christian Scriptures made sense when his listeners came from cultures that respected Christianity. But times are changing. Timothy Keller – pastor of an vibrant church of six thousand in multi-cultural Manhattan, New York – realizes that to reach an urban audience, today’s missionary must first clear away a pile of stumbling blocks. In The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (Riverhead Books, 2008), Keller addresses seven common doubts about Christian faith, followed by seven “reasons for faith.” At least three topics raised by Keller impact our theology of mission, namely, religious pluralism, hell, and the resurrection.

Religious pluralism

Many of Timothy Keller’s sophisticated New York City listeners would identify with what Wes Tracy called “the scandal of particularity.” In a world filled with many religions, how could Peter claim boldly concerning Jesus that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, TNIV)? One student lamented to a panel of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clerics: “We will never come to know peace on earth if religious leaders keep on making such exclusive claims!” (Reason for God, 4).

Civic leaders have used various tactics to lessen the turmoil that they think religious pluralism will inevitably produce. These include condemning or even outlawing religion, or else insisting it must be kept private and never influence a culture’s public dialogue. Keller argues that these efforts are doomed to failure: “Religion is not just a temporary thing that helped us adapt to our environment. Rather it is a permanent and central aspect of the human condition” (Reason for God, 6). Because religion – whether theistic or atheistic – is a “worldview” or “narrative identity,” no one can just check it at the door.

The question then becomes: Which religion, if adopted, will result in a more peaceful and tolerant world? Keller replies that Christian faith is uniquely suited to fill this role since its tenets instill humility. We are not saved, after all, because of something that we have done, but because of something that Jesus Christ has done for us (Ephesians 2:8-10). Keller (Ibid., 21) observes:

Why would such an exclusive belief system lead to behavior that was so open to others? It was because Christians had within their belief system the strongest possible resource for practicing sacrificial giving, generosity, and peace-making. At the very heart of their view of reality was a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness. Reflection on this could only lead to a radically different way of dealing with those who were different from them. It meant they could not act in violence and oppression toward their opponents.

As Keller notes (p. 19), Christianity recognizes that all human beings are made in the image of God and therefore are sacred. Wesleyans go further than Keller. With John Wesley, we believe in the reality of prevenient (or preceding) grace, that God is active in all persons, even those not yet Christian. In Wesley’s sermon, The Scripture Way of Salvation, he spoke of the “drawings” of the Father, the “enlightening” of the Son, and the “convictions” of the Holy Spirit. For Christians to demonize those of other faiths is to trample upon the nascent work of God in their hearts, a work that – if unresisted – will ultimately lead them to Christ.

Hell

Besides religious pluralism, a second topic with ramifications for missions is hell, yet the biblical doctrine of hell has fallen on hard times. Many today reject the concept of eternal punishment as unworthy of a God of love. Timothy Keller frames his response first in terms of divine justice. The same Bible that presents the love of God for all people also depicts the judgment of God upon the wrongdoer. God’s wrath “flows from his love and delight in creation” (Reason for God, 76). Miroslav Wolf observes that only a God who is capable of getting angry at injustice is worthy of our worship (Ibid.). The concept of God punishing wrongdoers – far from condoning violence on our part – acts as a check against humans taking things into their own hands. Only confidence in a judge of all the earth who will do right (Gen. 18:25) can allow us to avoid what Keller calls the “endless vortex of retaliation” (p. 77).

Apart from divine justice, a second argument in favor of hell is free-will. Though a Calvinist, Keller departs from a rigid interpretation of predestination, making room for eternal consequences resulting from the here-and-now pattern of our habitual choices. Hell – from  Keller’s perspective – is nothing more than “one’s freely chosen identify apart from God on a trajectory into infinity” (p. 80). Citing the lesson of C.S. Lewis’ parable in The Great Divorce, many if given the chance to visit heaven would prefer residing in hell. Those who all their life have stubbornly refused to say to God “Thy will be done” shall one day hear God’s final pronouncement to them: “Thy will be done” (Lewis, cited by Keller, 82).

Yet the missionary spirit cannot be content with a que sera sera attitude. Ours is the heart of Jesus, who – seeing the crowds – “had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36, NIV). This sentiment was expressed by the late Keith Green who pleaded in a song : “Don’t you see? Don’t you see all the people sinking down? Don’t you care? Don’t you care? Are you going to let them drown?” Evangelism – whether to those of our own people group or cross-culturally – includes announcing the Gospel, even as we feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit prisoners and perform a myriad of other tasks (Matthew 25:31-46). It is a “rescue mission” in word and deed, a response to God’s question to Jonah: “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11). The mission impulse exists in part because we believe something important is at-stake, consequences occurring in both the here-and-now and the hereafter, a heaven to be gained and a hell to be avoided.

The Resurrection

Beyond the question of religious pluralism and hell is that of the resurrection. At first, it is not obvious how Easter relates to the Great Commission, yet to neglect the former will inevitably impoverish the latter. To effectively engage in the missionary enterprise, one must first be captured by the vision of the risen Christ. Timothy Keller – following N.T. Wright – concludes: “If Jesus rose from the dead, it changes everything” (Reason for God, p. 210). The first Christians had a “resurrection-centered view of reality” (Ibid., 217). Because they were convinced that God had raised Jesus from the dead, they were emboldened to spread this Good News near and far, often at the cost of their own lives. Peter’s first sermon on the Day of Pentecost reflects this resurrection focus, boldly speaking of “Jesus, whom God raised from the dead,” asserting that “we are all witnesses of this” (Acts 2:32, NLT).

Keller does an admirable job of summarizing the traditional arguments in favor of the resurrection. While conceding that arguments alone rarely convince the hardened skeptic, he argues that even the altruistic non-believer should want to believe in the resurrection because of the positive results such a belief produces: “If the resurrection of Jesus happened, however, that means there’s infinite hope and reason to pour ourselves out for the needs of the world” (Reason for God, 220).

Conclusion: A blueprint for urban mission

 Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God is not flawless. The first half of the book (“The Leap of Doubt”) is stronger than the second half (“The Reasons for Faith”) which strangely is quiet on the subject of sanctification. From the Wesleyan perspective, this is a crucial oversight. Nonetheless, there is much to admire in Keller’s book, not the least of which is the way it provides a blueprint for working in large cities. To engage people’s hearts we must engage their minds, and that means fearlessly tackling tough questions. The missionary enterprise must include teaching people to love God with all their minds. Thankfully, Pastor Keller has made that daunting task a little easier.

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This review was published here by Engage magazine, the global missions magazine of the Church of the Nazarene.

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