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With only three more chapters to go in Tim Keller‘s The Reason for God, it appears the pastor of Redeemer Church in Manhattan has abandoned the central thesis of the book. Perhaps we came to this with unrealistic expectations, but halfway through the book Keller confesses he believes everyone really knows there is a God, then he pivots hard into preaching for the remainder of the book as if his readers are already convinced.

I have not tried to prove the existence of God to you. My goal has been to show you that you already know God is there. (p.162)

The last five chapters read like a series of sermons given on as many Sunday mornings. He offers little to establish why a skeptic looking in from the outside would accept each of the sweeping claims he makes. He simply trots out one evangelical Christian talking point after another as if his reader has already heard all he needs in order to embrace Keller’s faith.

There is a chapter on sin. There is a chapter on grace vs. legalism (a.k.a. relationship vs. religion). Now we’re trudging through a chapter on the substitutionary death of Jesus as payment for sin. On and on it goes, as if we’ve unknowingly signed up for a series of Sunday School lessons and we feel that nothing more needs to be proved. We asked for evidence and Keller gave us the Romans Road.*

I suppose it’s my own fault for expecting more. As a skeptic I tend to approach new inquiries with a sense of expectancy and hope that I could discover something new. It’s a part of my wiring at this point. I like being proven wrong because that’s how you learn. But one of these days it’s going to sink in for me that, at least when it comes to the defense of the Christian faith, there truly is nothing new under the sun.

No matter how hard Keller works to update his company’s sales pitch, the product is still the same: the shed blood of Jesus to atone for your sins. But why must there always be blood?

Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

Religion is an exceedingly subjective enterprise. Many wars have been fought over which faith is right, but competent historians know it’s impossible to ferret out the One True Version™ of any of them because religions don’t descend from on high, complete and intact. They grow and develop out of circumstances too complex to reduce to one single narrative.

Primitive Christianity for example evolved out of several competing traditions and communities distributed across the Roman Empire over many decades. The Judean and Syrian communities in particular had conflicting ideologies, with the former group (Team James) stressing continuity with their Mosaic forbears and the latter (Team Paul) attempting to broaden their appeal, recontextualizing the Abrahamic faith for a more international audience. Team Paul won out, not only because he successfully rebranded the Christian faith to appeal to a larger demographic, but also because the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. dispersed the earliest Jewish communities that had made Jesus famous in the first place.

Read: “Paul, the True Founder of Christianity

Since those earliest days, the Christian faith has gone through many revisions, producing offshoots so numerous it’s difficult to find C.S. Lewis‘s fabled mere Christianity. The purpose of the death of Jesus remains a hotly contested discussion among the various franchises today, with at least two major schools of thought vying for dominance in the contemporary church. There are several out there, but two of them keep rising to the top.

Catholics and Protestants typically view the death of Jesus as a vicarious punishment perpetrated on an innocent victim to atone for sins of the world. Usually called the Substitutionary Atonement theory, this view maintains that someone had to pay for the sins of the world, and that Jesus died on the cross to offer that payment.

But this raises a number of vexing questions. Why would a God who is loving and kind demand that blood be shed to appease his wrath? Isn’t killing someone a barbaric method of justice? And what kind of justice system lets an innocent person pay for another person’s misdeeds? And even if vicarious punishment were just, how would simply believing in it get you out of jail free?

Liberal and progressive branches of the Christian faith view the death of Jesus as a sacrificial demonstration of love more than a legal transaction to pay for sins. The Moral Influence theory has been around for nearly as long as the other view, but it didn’t really come of age until the heady days of the Enlightenment. And it doesn’t seem to faze a dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist like Tim Keller. He wastes no time differentiating his view from the other:

The cross is not simply a lovely example of sacrificial love. Throwing your life away needlessly is not admirable—it is wrong. Jesus’s death was only a good example if it was more than an example, if it was something absolutely necessary to rescue us. And it was. Why did Jesus have to die in order to forgive us? There was a debt to be paid—God himself paid it. (p.200, emphasis mine)

For Keller, the True Christian™ view of the cross must remain within the vocabulary the New Testament itself, and the earliest Christians interpreted the death of Jesus according the Old Testament categories of vicarious suffering to appease a wrathful deity. As John the Baptist himself first introduced him: “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”

Is This Religion Any Better?

But that means that Keller inherits all the problems that the penal substitutionary view creates. And like his forebears, he believes that the doctrine of the Trinity somehow resolves the inherent theological dilemmas it brings with it.

It is crucial at this point to remember that the Christian faith has always understood that Jesus Christ is God. God did not, then, inflict pain on someone else, but rather on the Cross absorbed the pain, violence, and evil of the world into himself. Therefore, the God of the Bible is not like the primitive deities who demanded our blood for their wrath to be appeased. (p.200)

On the contrary, it makes him exactly like them.

First of all, it is patently false that Christians always saw Jesus as God. There’s a lot of selection bias at work in that statement, since the ecumenical councils who met to flesh out that question didn’t happen until 300 years into this religion’s history. It may be true that some kind of understanding of the Trinity was present, maybe even prevalent, prior to the Council of Nicea that began in 325 A.D. But the very fact that it took decades to resolve the question tells us that this was far from a settled matter for the first few hundred years of the church’s history. They were still trying to iron out the major wrinkles in their concept of the Trinity as late as 360 A.D. and then they revisited the divinity of Jesus again in the wake of the Nestorian controversy during the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D.

But Keller insists that his primitive deity is better than all the others who demanded blood be shed to appease their wrath. What exactly makes his God so much better? The primary difference seems to be over which kind of blood, or rather whose, will do the trick.

In ancient Judaism it was the blood of sheep and goats and birds that God wanted to see spilled. A priest’s job back then must have been disgusting. I like to imagine Mike Rowe going back in time to do a show on just how much blood and entrails a priest had to wash off of his own hands during a typical week of work. But then Christianity came along and insisted all those washings were metaphors, a dress rehearsal for The Real Thing which wouldn’t show up until Jesus came to shed his own blood to pay for the sins of the world.

But there still must be blood. Always the blood. The Christian church has been obsessed with this imagery for so many centuries their hymnody is saturated with it. To our modern, more civilized ears, their macabre fixation on death strikes us as unhealthy and barbaric. It’s no surprise the penal substitutionary view is falling out of favor today, but for people like Keller, it’s the one true view delivered once-for-all to the saints. It seems to me if you believe that the Bible has to be your ultimate guide for how to think about these things, you’re going to be hard pressed not to agree with him.

Three Main Problems

But for people like me, there are just too many hurdles. First of all, this ancient religious text never did a super job of discerning between what is right and what is wrong in the first place. The ethical questions it answers are inescapably conditioned by their social contexts, and the commands it issues are no exception to that rule (See: any issue at all involving women having ownership over themselves).

Related: “I Belong to Me: Learning Agency and Consent Outside Christianity

Second, remember that Keller’s target audience was supposed to be people who don’t already believe a Giant Invisible Person is behind the universe, pulling the levers and pushing the buttons to make things happen. The book attempts to address our objections, but even there he keeps misrepresenting what skeptics actually think. His pastoral sensibilities keep bleeding through the pages, truncating the discussion in order to hurry up and get to the sermon. Here at the end of the twelfth chapter I find myself wondering if there will be an invitation given. Maybe if I turn to the back I’ll find a tithing envelope glued to the last page.

Third, Keller assumes far too much of his reader, as if we’ve already agreed with him that thought crimes deserve torture and that one person can pay for another person’s wrongdoings. But is that really justice? Does it work like that in any other setting? Would we even want it to?

Keller says it fixes everything if the punisher and the punished are the same person. In reality that makes no sense at all, and it bears all the markings of a doctrine created in committee.

Truth By Committee

Do you know what I mean by that? Have you ever found it hard to follow a movie because the story can’t seem to make up its mind where it’s headed? The motivations of the characters keep changing, and it feels like multiple plots are fighting for dominance. Eventually the whole storyline will become so unraveled and messy that a deus ex machina has to swoop in and inexplicably save the day with magic. The chances are good the movie felt disjointed because it was written by too many people with too many incongruous thematic axes to grind. I imagine that’s what it’s like trying to write a screenplay for Marvel movie.

That’s how the Bible reads because it was written by a hodgepodge of diverse communities who weren’t always looking for the same things to happen. It was written over a period of hundreds of years by people trying to reconcile contradictory ideas formulated by competing traditions. No wonder this religion can’t seem to come together on much of anything at all.

Most of the biblical writers seemed convinced of one thing, though: God needs to see blood. That’s just how people thought back then. The question is why do people still believe it today?

In the next chapter, Keller will move on to the next step in the ordo salutis (i.e. plan of salvation), so you’ve got that to look forward to now.

[Image Source: Adobe Stock]

* Exvangelicals know dozens of ways to share “the plan of salvation,” but the Romans Road was always a favorite among my friends. One of these days I’d love to write little tracts about critical thinking, skeptracts if you will, and leave them in restrooms and hotel rooms everywhere.

If you’re new to this column, be sure to check out The Beginner’s Guide for 200+ articles categorized topically on a single page.

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...

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