People like me are like flies in the ointment of evangelical theology. We did all the things they told us to do, we gave our hearts and our lives entirely over to Jesus, yet in the end we still found their belief system lacking. It’s not supposed to happen that way. We must have done something wrong.
Defenders of the Christian faith like Tim Keller acknowledge that the belief system they’re pushing has gaps in it—places where the external evidence comes up wanting. But we are supposed to look beyond that, trusting that the path they’ve put us on will lead us into fuller lives. We’re supposed to trust that in those moments when the road seems to be taking us in the opposite direction, it’s all going to work out in the end (see: Hinds’ Feet on High Places).
We did that. We trusted, we prayed our way through the rough patches, and we learned to live without confirmation because, we were told, some things will never be validated until we reach the other side of death. The wait may take our whole lives, and even on our deathbeds we may still wonder if we got sold a bill of goods. No wonder Christians fight death just as hard as non-theists, who learn to accept the finality of death as a natural course of life.
Read: “The Christian’s Wager: Why Faith Is a Bigger Gamble than Disbelief“
They always have an excuse for people like us. They’ve had centuries to develop rationalizations for why people like me leave. Perhaps our hearts weren’t really in it. Our commitment wasn’t genuine, and it never took root “in our heart of hearts.” Those closest to us should know better, though. They know how “sold out” for Jesus we were. We held back nothing and committed every fiber of our being to loving and serving Jesus. We did everything exactly the way we were supposed to.
Somehow our departure must have been our own fault. Any other interpretation would undermine the belief system itself and that must never happen. People can make mistakes, but the beliefs themselves must remain above reproach. The whole religious enterprise depends on it.
Here at the end of The Reason for God, Keller leaves the reader with a short list of things to do which will look familiar to anyone who has been here and done this before: Repent, believe, and go to church. In unpacking these three, Keller echoes a couple of themes that he emphasized in earlier chapters, which I’ll revisit here before briefly touching on his last point.
Everything You Do Is Wrong
Keller admits that the word repent sounds archaic, and he’s right…it is. But Calvinists take pride in embracing out-of-date things. Call it a chronological snobbery of the opposite kind from the one his hero C.S. Lewis so often disparaged. Like hipsters always bragging about loving things before they were cool, Calvinists brag about loving things that stopped being cool centuries ago.
You would think that repentance means ceasing to do things that are wrong, but according to Keller’s theological tradition, even the good things you do are wrong:
The repentance that really changes your heart and your relationship to God begins when you recognize that your main sin, the sin under the rest of your sins, is your self-salvation project…in both our bad deeds and in our good deeds we are seeking to be our own Saviors and Lords. (p.244, emphasis mine)
You can’t win. This game is rigged. According to Keller, we are all being graded on a curve, only this curve disqualifies every soul who ever lived. On this assignment, you can get all of the answers right and still fail the test because while you correctly answered the questions, your heart wasn’t in the right place.
…we should repent not only for things we have done wrong…but also for the motivations beneath our good works. (p.244)
This grading scale couldn’t be more subjective. After you have redefined virtue according to terms this subject to personal interpretation, you can see everyone alive as fundamentally wicked. And before anyone says this game is peculiar to Keller’s brand of evangelicalism, note that it was Jesus who said, “Why do you call me good? There is no one good but God.”
Whatever your current view of yourself, the Christian evangelist’s job is to get you to lower it. This is because at bottom their faith is anti-humanistic. It begins with the assertion that you are so wicked you deserve to be punished forever. In such a system of belief, positive self-esteem is impossible—or worse, immoral.
We’ve been there and done that, and we know how it affected us. Most of us are still unpacking the baggage we picked up from growing up in this mindset. It robbed us of our agency and it all but ruined our ability to have truly healthy relationships. We are never going back.
Try Not to Think So Much
The second thing Keller says we must do is have faith, which he says entails not only belief toward the claims of the Bible about Jesus but also trust that even when we can’t make sense of what we’re being told, it will all work out in the end because the only alternative to trusting God is trusting ourselves. It’s a binary decision.
…you don’t have to wait for all doubts and fears to go away to take hold of Christ…that would turn your faith into one more way to be your own Savior…
Faith…begins as you recognize and reject your alternative trusts and gods and turn instead to the Father… (p. 245)
This is a false dichotomy in at least a couple of ways. First, it’s simply not true that we have only two alternatives—either the Christian narrative or an egocentric solipsism. Second, there is nothing morally inferior about demanding that things make sense, or requiring that claims be supported by external evidence. On the contrary, a strong argument can be made that anyone serious about rooting their beliefs in objective reality should expect more from them, not less.
Keller says that when we find gaps in the story he’s telling us, we should learn to trust it anyway because the Bible is the word of God. But if we don’t already think gods are real, why would we trust what people tell us they’ve said? This is an impossibly circular line of reasoning, and I don’t know how to make people like him see it. See if you can spot the circularity of the story he tells at the beginning of this chapter:
A man once said to a pastor that he would be happy to believe in Christianity if the cleric could only give him a watertight argument for its truth. The pastor replied, “What if God hasn’t given us a watertight argument, but rather a watertight person?” Jesus is saying “I am that person. Come to me. Look at who I am. Look at my Cross. Look at my resurrection. No one could have made this up!” (p.242)
Keller feels that our need for evidential support is asking too much of his belief system. He exaggerates the demand, characterizing is as a need for proof that is “airtight,” like he did in his Intermission chapter when he represented the perspectives of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens. He then passes judgement on this straw man as unacceptably high maintenance:
…we should not expect conclusive proof, and to demand it is unfair. (p.125)
You’re not going to persuade anyone of anything if you keep misrepresenting what they believe. But back to that earlier quote…
If we haven’t yet been given sufficient reason to believe that the story of Jesus is based in reality, what good would it do to encourage us to trust that Jesus wouldn’t lead us astray? How would we even know what Jesus says in the first place if not for the book that we’ve just finished telling you we haven’t been convinced tells the truth? Keller seems incapable of putting himself in the shoes of a person who doesn’t esteem the Bible the way he does. Watch how he explains his own belief in the infallibility of the Bible toward the end of the book:
Speaking personally, I take the whole Bible to be reliable not because I can somehow “prove” it all to be factual. I accept it because I believe in Jesus and that was his view of the Bible. (p. 277 n.4)
Wait, what? How do you know that Jesus subscribed to the infallibility of the Bible? Because the Bible says he did?
The apostle Paul did say the Christian message would look like foolishness—he knew what he claimed was absurd, he simply believed it anyway. But at least he was self-aware about it, which put him light years ahead of those today who so desperately want to make the Christian faith look intellectually respectable. I can’t say I fault them for that, but doing so flies in the face of what the founders of this religion taught its earliest adherents.
One Final Step to Take
Finally, Keller says the final step to becoming a real Christian is to join a church. He argues, as I once did myself, that the Christian life was never meant to be lived out in solitude. This religion was developed by communities from the very beginning, and the books and letters that make up its sacred text were addressed not to individuals but to a collective people group. They were written to be read aloud to a room full of people.
But even as he advises this, experience compels him to admit how routinely Christian community falls short. Just in the past few years, since the publishing of this book we’ve seen a number of high profile debacles involving the very same tradition to which Keller belongs.
Testosterone-addled Reformed pastor Mark Driscoll had to leave his own church and his church planting network both because of his own authoritarian leadership style and because of a misuse of church funds for promotional purposes. Likewise, Reformed pastors C.J. Mahaney and Joshua Harris had to resign from their own positions of leadership following the disclosure of a cover up of sexual abuse within the ranks of their staff. Harris eventually left the faith entirely.
Keller acknowledges that many who find the claims of his message unbelievable do so because they’ve known too many Christians to believe the message does what it says it does. Keller embraces this, and argues that it’s an integral feature to the message itself:
I will grant that, on the whole, churchgoers may be weaker psychologically and morally than non-churchgoers. That should be no more surprising than the fact that people sitting in a doctor’s office are on the whole sicker than those who are not there. Churches rightly draw a higher proportion of needy people. (p.247)
This explanation is plausible enough, although it is predicated on their most core belief: That people are fundamentally broken and they need saving from themselves. The starting point guarantees the ending like a self-fulfilling prophecy, which incidentally is the only kind you can count on. If you keep telling people they are scum, in time they’ll decide they can’t do any better.
Remember that scene in Little Shop of Horrors when the sadistic dentist (played on screen by Steve Martin) finally met a masochistic patient (played by Bill Murray) who welcomed every sharp object with self-immolating glee? Being an evangelical Christian is kind of like that. In time you learn to love being told how unworthy you are. It makes the offering of forgiveness so much sweeter the more you rehearse your own neediness.
No thanks. We’ve been there and done that, so we know exactly what we’re leaving behind. And we didn’t leave it because we did it wrong. We left because we did it right, but then discovered it was the belief system itself that was broken, not we ourselves.
Read: “Our Biggest Mistake: We Did As We Were Told“
(Other Posts in this Series)
- Introduction: “Revisiting Tim Keller’s The Reason for God“
- Chapter One: “Christian History, Revised“
- Chapter Two: “The Problem of Evil in The Reason for God“
- Chapter Three: “Straw Skepticism and The Reason for God“
- Chapter Four: “Whitewashing Christian History in The Reason for God“
- Chapter Five: “The Evolution of Hell in The Reason for God“
- Chapter Six: “Believing in Evolution, But Not Too Much“
- Bonus: “What’s Wrong with Asking for a Miracle?“
- Chapter Seven: “For the Bible Tells Me? No.“
- Intermission: “Changing Gods Midstream“
- Chapter Eight: “Four (Bad) Reasons for God“
- Bonus: “The Argument from Misunderstanding Evolution“
- Chapter Nine: “Tim Keller and the Argument from Morality“
- Chapter Ten: “Why Everything You Do Is Wrong“
- Chapter Eleven: “Your Religion Is Special, Just Like All the Others“
- Chapter Twelve: “But Why Does There Have to Be Blood?“
- Chapter Thirteen: “Seven Bad Arguments for the Resurrection of Jesus“
- Chapter Fourteen: “Four Ways Tim Keller’s Gospel Falls Flat“
- Epilogue: “Why the Gospel Doesn’t Work on Exvangelicals“
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