Synopsis of Timothy Keller's "The reason for God: Belief in an age of scepticism"

Timothy Keller, The reason for God: Belief in an age of scepticism. London: Hodder & Stoughton. 2008.

The reason for God is a work of Christian apologetics, remarkable for the fact that Keller manages to include in it most of the arguments for Christianity that are current among reasonably educated Christians today, and in Part 2 to add some trenchant and convincing theology that is less familiar (to me, at any rate).

Its capacious nature makes it hard to take in at one read, and I wrote the synopsis below partly as a guide for myself. I give it here in case it is useful to someone else. But it is inevitably a personal summary, and no real substitute for reading the book.  In places my synopsis is rather disjointed, and this reflects Keller's facility in moving rapidly from one idea to the next. I emphasise that this is only a synopsis, attempting to summarise Keller's main points. It is not a review. The original version included notes reflecting my own responses, some of them disagreeing with Keller, some of them asking questions. But I have excluded them here, as I don't think it wise to confuse a synopsis with a review.


American society and public discourse is today deeply divided between scepticism and religious faith, a situation which is not likely to change soon, as neither the atheist camp nor the Christian is likely to overrun the other numerically. Both are growing. Keller urges us to examine our own doubts and their foundations, in order to reach a clearer understanding of both our own and others' positions in the interests of civility of discourse in a pluralistic society.

This book sets out to be a Christian contribution to this discourse. The seven chapters of Part 1, ‘The leap of doubt’, are devoted to major objections to the Christian faith. The seven of Part 2, ‘The reasons for God’, are devoted to the foundations of that faith.

Early in the introduction Keller explains that he was subject in his formative years to both traditional and liberal Christian influences, from which he emerged with a traditional faith combined with social activism. He eventually founded a church in Manhattan that embodied these beliefs and by 2007 had grown to 5000 members.


Ch 1: There can't be just one true religion

The greatest difficulty many people have with Christianity is its exclusivity, the claim that it is right and other religions are wrong. Keller asserts that the differences between religions, say, between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, are indeed irreconcilable, as each has a different view of who God is. This sets up a slippery slope in the human heart whereby each group regards the others as wrong and stereotypes them as inferior.  This in turn is liable to lead to conflict, and various proposals have been made to prevent this.

One such proposal is to ban religion altogether, but history shows that this doesn't work. No government has ever succeeded in stamping out religion entirely, and such governments have proven to be oppressive.

A second method is to educate people against making exclusive religious claims. This approach has had some success, but is fundamentally self-contradictory. One variant says that all religions are equally valid ways to the truth, but it is unlikely that anyone really believes this, as they would, for example, reject a religion practised child sacrifice. Those who propound this view are in any case taking a religious position themselves by asserting that no position is valid except theirs. Another variant says that all religions are culturally and historically conditioned, and cannot therefore make a claim to the truth. But for this claim to be valid, it has to say, 'All positions except mine are culturally and historically conditioned,' exempting itself from its own claim.

A third approach to dealing with conflict between religions is to banish religion from the public domain. But if political discussion entails moral principles, and religion is a set of statements designed to make sense of the world, then there is no way that political discussion can be conducted separately from religion. To exclude religion from the public domain Is itself a sectarian position.

The final section of the chapter has the provocative title 'Christianity can save the world'. Keller argues that because Christians see all human beings as made in the image of God, capable of goodness and wisdom, and themselves as flawed and in need of salvation, they are able to respect members of other religions and groups. There is also a sufficient overlap between Christian values and those of other groups that others will be able to respect Christian behaviour (Matthew 5:16). Members of the early church were respected for looking after the poor, the marginalised, windows, and the sick, where contemporary culture did not do so (Stark 1996).

Ch. 2: How could a good God allow suffering?

For many people the problem with Christianity is not its exclusivity but the implicit claim that a good God allows evil and suffering. The classic formulation of this issue is found in David Hume's Dialogues concerning natural religion. A more recent formulation is Mackie (1982). Philosophically this argument is largely discredited (Alston 1991, Howard-Snyder 1996). Mackie's argument runs that a good God would not allow pointless evil, so there cannot be a good God. Other philosophers have criticised this argument because it contains the premise that if I think evil is pointless, it must be so. This is hard-nosed scepticism that asserts that if I can't find the reasons for evil, they can't be any, and this is an exercise of blind faith.

In support of the argument that suffering can bring about personal growth, Keller cites the Genesis story of Joseph, whose suffering let him to become a great leader.

C.S. Lewis (1960:31) argues as follows. When he was an atheist he thought it unjust that there was so much suffering in the world. People ought not to suffer. But the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection depends on violence and death. It gives no basis for declaring that the world is unjust. if you are sure that this world is unjust, you presuppose an extra-natural standard by which to make this judgement. The existence of this standard is an argument for God. Plantinga (1993:73) makes a similar argument.

This, of course, doesn't get God off the hook for human suffering. However, in Jesus God deliberately put himself on the hook of human suffering, providing us with the resources to face it. Jesus did not go to the cross with the boldness of a martyr, but underwent the profound shock of separation from the infinite love of the Father with whom he had been united for eternity. Jesus' cry on the cross, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' is profoundly relational. On the cross he experienced cosmic rejection and pain to a degree that exceeds ours as immensely as his knowledge and power exceeds ours. He did this so that he could put an end to evil without putting an end to us. So although we still have no answer to the question, 'Why does God allow suffering?' we know that it is certainly not because he doesn't love us. Instead we know that he is right there with us.

But we need to know more than that God is with us in our pain. We need to know that our suffering is not in vain. The Biblical view is a future resurrection and a restoration of the world. Every bad thing that has happened will be undone and restored in a way which contributes to the eventual glory and joy (Matthew 19:28). In Tolkien's words, everything sad is going to become untrue.

Ch. 3: Christianity is a straitjacket 

People often believe that Christianity restricts personal freedom morally and culturally. Our existence is a matter of chance, they say, and we must create our own meaning for life. The French philosopher Foucault (1980:131) asserted that all claims to have the truth are attempts to gain power and control over other people.The problem with this assertion is that it is also a claim to have the truth, so, as C.S. Lewis (1978:48) observed, it also explains away itself.

Some critics say that human communities should be all-inclusive, but that Christianity is socially divisive. All that is required, they say, in a liberal democracy is that each person respect the privacy and rights of others and work for equal rights for all. A set of shared moral values is unnecessary. But this is a fallacy. A liberal democracy is based on a set of shared values which includes a preference for individual over community rights, a division between private and public morality, and the sanctity of personal choice. Every community is based on a set of shared values, and in this respect a Christian community is no different from any other community. An important test of a community's values, however, is whether it treats members of other communities with love and respect or whether it attacks those who violate its boundaries.

The claim that Christianity is culturally divisive is belied by history, as from its very beginnings in Judaism Christianity has adapted to the cultures in which it has spread (Ephesians 2). Christianity has a set of core teachings, but these are expressed in different ways in different cultures. Western secularism is more damaging to traditional cultures than is Christianity.

Immanuel Kant defined an enlightened human being as one who believes in his own power of thought rather than in authority or tradition. This idea has become embedded in our culture. People believe that defining one's own moral standards is crucial to freedom. Yet if you ask them if there are people in the world whose behaviour should change, regardless of what those people believe about the correctness of their own behaviour, the answer is always 'yes', implying that there is a moral reality that is not defined by us. 

In any case freedom is not simply the absence of constraint. Becoming an outstanding musician, for example, results from a combination of inherent aptitude and constant practice. Constant practice entails a restricting one's freedom in certain domains of life in order to unleash one's freedom as a musician. Freedom is not the absence of restriction but finding the right restrictions to live by. To love God entails restriction, but the restriction leads to a new freedom.

Ch. 4: The church is responsible for so much injustice

There are three issues here. First, why do some Christians display such glaring character flaws, often more so than people who are not Christians? Keller points to James 1:17: 'Every good and perfect gift comes down from above... from the father of lights.' This is what Christian theologians call 'common grace'. It is spread across all humanity. But good character is a matter of background and upbringing. Becoming or being a Christian does not guarantee good character. It guarantees salvation. Subsequent character growth takes time.

Second, why has the institutional church supported war and violence? History sadly shows that religion has fuelled violence on many occasions. However, secularism, e.g. the French Revolution, Communist regimes, the Cambodian regime, has been equally responsible for violence. Whatever its causes, violence is not caused by religion alone.

Third, why does Christianity include fanatics in its ranks? 'Born again' fanatics deter others by their loud disapproval of various groups and sectors of society and their self-righteousness. Sometimes people take this to be the over-practice of Christianity. But if Christianity is salvation by grace, by what God has done for us, not by what we do for him, then rather than being too committed, the fanatic is not committed enough. In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus criticises the religious (Matthew, chapters 5-7).  in John 8:7 he says, 'Let him who is without sin cast the first stone'  (see also Matthew 21:31, Luke 11:39-46, 20:47). It was the religious establishment that put Jesus to death. When religious people use moral and spiritual observance as a lever to gain power, then they act contrary to the gospel.

The basis of much of western values remains Christian. The hIstorian C. John Sommerville (2006:63) used to ask his students to imagine seeing a little old lady coming down the street at night with a big purse. Why not knock her over and steal money? In an honour-based culture, you would not do it because it would be despicable to pick on the weak, and you would lose respect. In a culture with a Christian history you would think of how she and her dependents would suffer, and, identifying with her, you would desist. The first ethic is self-regarding, the second other-regarding. Over the years the majority of Somerville's students chose the second ethic. The standard criticisms of Christianity's oppressiveness and injustice actually come from Christianity itself. The response to the devastating criticisms of Christianity is not to abandon it, but to gain a deeper grasp of what it is.

Christians have been responsible for acts of justice, for example the abolition of the slave trade. The New World slave trade started despite the efforts of the Catholic church, as Christians had opposed slavery since the early church (Stark 2004:291). The abolition of New World slavery happened at terrible cost to the British economy because abolitionists thought it was morally right. The roots of the Civil Rights movement in the USA lay firmly in its leaders' Christian beliefs. They appealed to white Christians to act in accordance with their own values. Desmond Tutu's 1990s Commission for Truth and Reconciliation brought a Christian form of justice to South Africa, avoiding bloodshed. The Polish Catholic priest Jerzy Popieluszko lead the 1990s movement for a free trade union in Poland, and was murdered by agents of the Communist government.  The conservative Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero opposed the corruption  of the El Salvador government and paid with his life in 1980. Dietrich Bonhoeffer returned to Germany from pastoring German-speaking churches in London to head an illegal seminary and to oppose the Nazi government, and was eventually put to death.

Ch.5: How can a loving God send people to hell?

In American culture many people regard divine judgement as the most offensive of Christian doctrines, as it implies that those who are going to hell have less human dignity and worth than those who are saved, Thus it transgresses the right of each person to decide for himself what he believes. This assumed right has arisen from the Enlightenment shift away from a world in which the question was how to conform the soul to reality towards a world in which the question is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men (Lewis 1978:46), and this has spilt over into a desire to control the metaphysical realm as well. The offence at judgement is culturally determined. A westerner is not offended by the concept of a God of love and of turning the other cheek, whereas someone from a shame-based traditional society is offended by turning the other cheek but not by judgement.

People often ask how a God of love can also be angry. Keller points out that someone who loves can also be angry not despite their love but because of it, because of what they see happening to the one they love. Miroslav Volf (1996:303–304) writes that for many people foregoing violence and being reconciled with one's enemies depends on believing that there is a God of justice. The alternative is a continuing cycle of a vengeance. 

The thought that hell cannot be reconciled with a loving God misunderstands its nature. Hell is the trajectory of one's freely chosen identity in this life continued into eternity. This is how Jesus depicts it in Luke 16:24-31, where the rich man continues to blame-shift for his situation. Similarly C.S. Lewis describes the self-delusion of sin, locked in a prison of self-centredness, in The Great Divorce.

No major religion other than Christianity believes in a God of love, and particularly not in a God with whom one can have a personal relationship. The idea that God is loving it not evidenced by our environment. It has its origin in the Bible, which also tells us that God is a God of judgement.

Ch. 6: Science has disproved Christianity

Richard Dawkins and others have claimed that modern science, especially evolutionary science, has rendered belief in God obsolete and unnecessary. 

It is often claimed that science and religion are in conflict, because science supports evolution and the Bible doesn't. But this ignores the fact that many Christians, e.g. Francis Collins (2006), head of the Human Genome Project, accept evolution as a series of events without accepting the philosophical naturalism that is often associated with it. Plenty of scientists believe in God.

Barbour (2000) proposes four different ways in which science and religion may be ideologically related to each other: conflict, dialogue, integration and independence. The creation scientists and the new atheists exemplify conflict. However, a good many non-Christian philosophers have questioned Dawkins' position, doubting, for example, whether philosophical naturalism can explain human intuitions such as that genocide is wrong. At the other end of Barbour's spectrum are those who believe that faith is private and personal and has nothing to say about the empirical realm. Barbour himself prefers integration, in which science and religious faith recognise their different spheres of authority.

Smith (2003) argues that conflict was deliberately exploited by scientists and educational leaders in the USA at the end of the 19th century in order to undermine the control of the churches over their institutions and to gain total power. 

Keller declines to adjudicate between views, but says that whatever one's view of Scripture, interpretation in accordance with literary genre is unavoidable, Luke, for example,  claims to be an eyewitness account (1:1-4), whereas the Psalms are unmistakably poetry. The difficulty with Genesis 1-11 is to determine the genre. But it is false logic to argue that if one part of Scripture can't be taken literally, then none of it can. 

Many people think that the Bible is unreliable because it describes miracles, but this assumption entails a leap of faith. Science assumes that all events have natural causes, but it has no means of testing for supernatural causes. To say that one cannot test for supernatural causes is not to say that they cannot exist (often with the hidden premise that God does not exist either). Plantinga (2000:406) says this is like the drunk who looked for his keys under the streetlight on the grounds that the light was brighter there, but it goes one better: it insists that the keys must be under the light because they are too hard to find anywhere else.

People sometimes claim that miracles cannot occur. This is rather obviously based on the premise that God does not exist, since, if there is a creator God, it is a reasonable inference that he can make adjustments in his creation if he chooses. Miracles are nonetheless hard to believe in because they contradict everyday experience. The idea that Jesus' witnesses found miracles easier to believe in because they lived in a pre-scientific age is historically incorrect, as evinced in the fact that some of the disciples had doubts about the resurrection (Matthew 28:17). Keller's view is that Jesus' miracles did not entail a suspension of the natural order but its restoration. They looked forward to the day when the whole natural order is restored.

Ch.7: You can't take the Bible literally

(Keller has alluded to this topic in chapter 6.)

When Keller was a student in the 1960s, he was taught that the Gospels were the outcomes of various Mediterranean oral traditions about a human 'historical' Jesus, and that among these traditions the 'Divine Jesus' tradition had won out. The so-called gnostic gospels (Thomas, Judas) allegedly showed that early Christian traditions were very diverse. If this were true, it would challenge Christianity's basic claims, but there is very little evidence for such a historical reconstruction, despite the popularity bestowed on it by the novel The Da Vinci code (on the philosophical underpinnings of this position see Evans 1996 and Plantinga 2002). Instead, recent scholarship has strengthened the case for the authenticity of the Gospels (Blomberg 1987, 2002; Wright 1998, 2003).

The New Testament does not, as sometimes claimed, consist of documents written later to strengthen the power of the church. The gospels were written at most 40–60 years after Jesus' death and resurrection, and Paul's letters were written only 15-25 years after that event (Bruce 2003). Thus the Biblical accounts were circulating within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses to Jesus' life (Bauckham 2006), and would have been challenged if they were fabrications. The Gospel of Thomas, however, dates from AD 175. We have Irenaeus of Lyon telling us already in AD 160 that there are just four gospels (Metzger 1987). Within twenty years of Jesus' death he is being worshipped as God (Philippians 2), giving the lie to claims that his divinity was proclaimed much later.

It is sometimes argued that the Gospels were written by leaders of the early church to bolster their positions, but if this were so, we would expect the words of Jesus to support one position or the other, e.g. in the circumcision controversy, but they don't (the gnostic gospels do, however). Instead the gospels are laden with events that are potentially disadvantageous to the church. Jesus was crucified, labelling him as a criminal. The eyewitnesses to the resurrection are women, not men and pillars of local society. The disciples are depicted as slow-witted and sometimes quarrelsome. Peter is shown denying his master and even calling down a curse on him (Mark 14:71). The only reason for including these details is that they are what happened. C.S. Lewis (1967:155), a literary critic, notes that the gospels are too detailed to read like contemporary fiction. They read like eyewitness accounts (Bauckham 2006).

Some people find portions of the Bible culturally acceptable. Four example, they are offended by Paul's advice that slaves should obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5). But such offence ignores the cultural setting in which Paul was writing, in particular the fact that Roman slavery was not chattel slavery like that of 19th-century America. A slave was paid a wage, could accumulate capital, and could buy himself out. And we should not assume that we have reached the ultimate historical moment from which we can declare what is regressive and what is progressive. Modern Westerners find Jesus' claim that he will judge the world (Mark 14:62) repugnant, but  love the story of Peter being forgiven for denying Jesus three times (Mark 14:71, 16:7). Anglo-Saxon readers' reactions would have been the reverse. Judgement was fine, but disloyalty wasn't. In any case, the difficulties we encounter in the Bible can sometimes challenge our position usefully.


Keller writes, 'It is one thing to argue that there are no sufficient reasons for disbelieving Christianity,' as he has done in the first seven chapters, 'It is another to argue that there are sufficient reasons for believing it,' as he does in the second half of the book.

Which Christianity? Christianity takes many cultural forms, but its core, shared by all Christians, is in the creeds. In Keller's words

'[Christians] 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.'

All Christians also believe more than this, but they have different ideas about how these things are accomplished.

Which rationality? Keller calls the position of the new atheists 'strong rationalism'. This is a refusal to believe anything that cannot be in empirically verified. Keller points out that in any case science does not operate with proof, but with hypotheses that fit observations. But his key point is that the philosophical basis of strong rationalism is very weak. He writes, 'How could you empirically prove that no one should believe something without empirical proof?' Instead Keller takes the position he labels 'critical rationality'. By this he means providing a good explanation for the things we observe. He argues that Christianity provides a better explanation for them than atheism does.

Keller writes, 'When a Russian cosmonaut returned from space and reported that he had not found God, C. S. Lewis responded that this was like Hamlet going into the attic of his castle looking for Shakespeare.' The characters know about the playwright only to the degree to which he reveals himself in his play.

In another metaphor Lewis says that he believes in God ‘as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else’ (Lewis 1980:140). We cannot demand irrefutable proofs of God's existence, but we are aware of things of which his existence gives the best account. We have the sense that things are not the way they ought to be. We have an insatiable longing for love and beauty. We have a deep need for a sense of meaning and purpose.  Christianity gives an account of these, but we will never find the playwright through rationality alone, only through personal revelation.  The best piece of evidence for God is Jesus himself.


Ch.8: The clues of God

'Strong rationalism' itself lacks an empirical base and cannot 'prove' God's existence, but Plantinga believes there are numerous clues to His existence. (A survey can be found in Plantinga n.d.)

The very existence of our universe points to its creation by an intelligent being, and it looks very much as if it was finetuned to support life. The basis of inductive reasoning is the regularity of nature, but philosophers (Hume, Russell) have been troubled by the origin of this regularity, which most of us assume as an article if faith. Great art or a beautiful landscape can give us an obscure sense of meaning or rightness. Either this sense, along with love, is a meaningless biochemical response, or it represents a real unfulfilled desire for a rightness beyond this world (Augustine, Confessions). 

Evolutionists think that everything about us is the result of natural selection, enabling us to adapt to the environment. This includes belief in God. What we see as clues to God are then clues to nothing. But this means that our cognitive faculties can only be trusted to help us live, not to give us an accurate picture of the world. The philosopher and atheist Thomas Nagel (1997:134-135) writes that to be sure my mind is telling me what is really, truly out there in the world, I must ‘follow the rules of logic because they are correct – not merely because I am biologically programmed to do so’. Evolutionists say, after all, that people believe in God not because he is there but because this belief has helped humanity to survive, i.e. they are saying that our faculties cannot be relied upon to tell us the truth. Keller writes, 'What is not fair is to do what so many evolutionary scientists are doing now. They are applying the scalpel of their scepticism to what our minds tell us about God but not to what our minds are telling us about evolutionary science itself.'

Plantinga (Warrant and Proper Function, chs 11-12) writes that it is ultimately irrational to accept evolutionary ‘naturalism’, the theory that everything in us is caused only by natural selection. If it were true, we couldn’t trust the methods by which we arrived at it or any scientific theory at all.

So if there is no God, our cognitive faculties are not to be trusted. But if there is a God, then they are!

Ch. 9: The knowledge of God

In our culture people have strong moral convictions, but no obvious basis for them. Keller writes, 'Aren’t there people in the world who are doing things you believe are wrong – things that they should stop doing no matter what they personally believe about the correctness of their behaviour? If you do ..., doesn’t that mean you do believe that there is some kind of moral standard that people should abide by regardless of their individual convictions?'

Where do these convictions come from? The evolutionist position is that unselfish and cooperative people have survived better than selfish, and we have inherited their genes. But for evolutionary purposes hostility to people outside one's own group would surely serve better. 

Anthropologists tend to believe in cultural relativism, yet can find it hard to tolerate, say, oppression of women in the cultures they study, despite their supposed knowledge that their own moral beliefs originate in western individualism.

Where do human rights come from? Not from nature, which thrives on violence and predation. Not from majority opinion, which can deny them. If God is dead, then the morality of human rights is baseless. Who says that the majority has the obligation not to kill the minority? Either we can refuse to think through the implications of this, or we can accept that deep within ourselves we have a sense that God is there and that he loves us.

Ch.10: The problem of sin

Dorothy Sayers (1947) wrote about the disillusionment of many British intellectuals after the second World War at totalitarian genocide and capitalist selfishness and greed, and attributed it to their loss of Christian faith and the doctrine of original sin. Their mystic belief in progress and enlightenment had let them down. Christians, on the other hand, are accustomed to the idea that ‘there is a deep interior dislocation in the very center of human personality’ (Sayers 1947). In The nature of true virtue Jonathan Edwards argues that sin destroys the social fabric. If we put family first, we will tend to care less for other families.   If we put nation or race first, the result is nationalism or racism. If we put personal happiness first, we will put our economic and power and interests before those of others.

Sin also has a mysterious cosmic effect, as the Fall put the world out of divine order.

Basing himself on Kierkegaard (1849), Keller describes sin as 'seeking to establish a sense of self by making something else more central to your significance, purpose and happiness than your relationship to God.'  If I build my identity on anything other than God, that something becomes an idol, a substitute is for God, and if that something, e.g. career, children, comes under threat, my very identity is threatened. The only way to be the people we know we should be is to hand our lives over to Christ totally. If I fail in my relationship with him, I can seek forgiveness, but if something else dominates my life, it won't forgive me.

Ch.11: Religion and the Gospel

Religions other than Christianity point the way to salvation through moral effort. Keller labels these 'religion'. Christianity, on the other hand, has Jesus, who claimed to be the way to salvation himself. Keller labels this 'the gospel''. He points out that the churchgoer who tries through his own effort to lead a morally good life Is practising a Christianised form of religion, essentially Pharisaism, which leads to self-righteousness, pride, exclusiveness, judgementalism and, through one's failure to live up to one's standards, insecurity. It also leads to the kind of church which others don't want to be part of.

Religion says, 'I obey, therefore I am accepted by God,' but the gospel says, 'I am accepted by God through what Christ has done, therefore I obey.'   One is motivated by fear, the other by gratitude. 'The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me.' There is another side to this, though. If I obey in order to be accepted by God, it feels as if there is a limit to what God asks, but if I am a sinner saved by sheer grace, God can ask anything of me. 

This seems potentially threatening. Keller mentions Victor Hugo's character Javert in Les misérables who, having lived a life of self-righteousness based on reward and punishment, is unable to receive Jean Valjean's act of grace in not killing him and instead drowns himself in the Seine. But we are all slaves to whatever dominates our lives and gives us purpose, and only grace sets us free from its power.

Ch.12: The (true) story of the Cross

People sometimes ask, 'Why couldn't God just forgive us? Why did Jesus have to die?''

If someone wrongs me, I have two options. One is to seek vengeance on the wrongdoer, to make him suffer. But this means that the evil he has done spreads to me in the shape of bitterness and cynicism. The other option is to forgive him. Real forgiveness is costly, and means that I suffer, sometimes over a long period of time. Keller writes, 'You are absorbing the debt, taking the cost of it completely on yourself instead of taking it out of the other person. It hurts terribly.' But it means that finally I have peace, and the spread of evil is stopped.

People sometimes ask whether one should not confront the wrongdoer. The answer is yes, but only from a position of forgiveness and love. Only then will I not need to see him hurt, and start a process that leads to change, reconciliation, and healing. Bonhoeffer understood how costly forgiveness is. He wrote in The cost of discipleship (1937) that true forgiveness is always a form of suffering. 

My brother’s burden which I must bear is not only his outward lot, his natural characteristics and gifts, but quite literally his sin. And the only way to bear that sin is by forgiving it in the power of the cross of Christ in which I now share. . . . Forgiveness is the Christlike suffering which it is the Christian’s duty to bear.

God cannot 'just forgive' us, because forgiveness is costly. Instead he bore the cost himself. 

When we set out to help emotionally wounded people there is no way we can remain emotionally intact ourselves. Real love is a personal exchange. 

When Jesus suffered on the cross, he identified with the oppressed, not the oppressors. Keller writes,

This pattern of the cross means that the world’s glorification of power, might and status is exposed and defeated. On the cross Christ wins through losing, triumphs through defeat, achieves power through weakness and service, comes to wealth via giving all away. Jesus Christ turns the values of the world upside down.

In so doing, he creates an alternative kingdom, in which power, recognition, status and wealth are turned upside down. Keller writes, 'So the cross creates a counterculture in which sex, money and power cease to control us and are used in life-giving and community-building rather than destructive ways.'

The chapter ends, 'The fear and pride that captured my heart was finally dislodged. The fact that Jesus had to die for me humbled me out of my pride. The fact that Jesus was glad to die for me assured me out of my fear.'

Ch.13: The reality of the resurrection

Either Jesus' resurrection happened and changes everything, or it didn't happen, and Christian faith is void. There is no consistent midway position, no Christianity without the resurrection. Keller draws the arguments that follow from Wright (2003). One argument against the resurrection says that the resurrection is a fabrication that gradually arose in the early church, but this account neglects the fact that the earliest accounts--Paul's letters--were written only 15-20 years after the resurrection and appeal to eyewitnesses who were still alive (1Cor 15:3-6). It also assumes that premodern societies deal with historical facts as though they were Chinese whispers, but anthropological studies deny this. In any case, if the resurrection story were fabricated, it would presumably seek to convince. Using female witnesses whose testimony was not acceptable in a court of law was hardly convincing. On the other hand the combination of the empty tomb and the reports of Jesus' appearances rendered the resurrection convincing in a way that neither could have done singly. It is clear from Paul's writings that  Christians proclaimed the empty tomb from the very beginning. He is hardly likely to have written in a public document that there were many eyewitnesses alive if there weren't.

People who don't believe in the resurrection tend to attribute it to the credulity of Jesus' contemporaries, but this doesn't hold water: they knew perfectly well that resurrections are not part of normal life. Jesus' resurrection was unthinkable in both the Jewish and the Greek worldviews, yet the entire Christian community rapidly adopted a set of unprecendented beliefs that depended on it, beliefs unique in the world up to that time. Such a community-wide change in beliefs is highly unusual and can only have emerged from the stories told by eyewitnesses. Jews were horrified by the idea of worshipping a human being, yet not long after Jesus' death, thousands of Jews were doing just that, an occurrence that can only be explained if they believed the resurrection was real. The martyrdom of most of the apostles and of others demands the same explanation.

Ch.14: The dance of God

Keller emphasises the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who love and serve each other eternally. He argues that God would not be a God of love and of relationship if it were not for the infinite relationship among the Trinity, the perichoresis described by the early church Fathers. An impersonal God cannot love, but unlike Eastern religions, which treat the personality as an illusion, the reality of personality and of relationship is central to Christianity: 'Unless you are willing to experience the loss of options and the individual limitation that comes from being in committed relationships, you will remain out of touch with your own nature and the nature of things.’

In Jonathan Edwards' theology God is infinitely happy because of his infinite self-giving love. God created us not because of some lack in himself but in order to extend his triune love beyond himself. The ultimate goal of the universe is union in love between God and his creations. Keller writes, 'We were made to centre our lives upon him, to make the purpose and passion of our lives knowing, serving, delighting and resembling him. This growth in happiness will go on eternally, increasing unimaginably (1 Corinthians 2:7-10).'

Keller comments that we do not know why Adam and Eve were not allowed to eat the fruit of the tree. We only know that they were supposed to obey God because they loved him. As a result of the disobedience, their relationship with God unravelled and all their other relationships fell apart too. Life became self-centred rather than God-centred. Jesus came to reverse the situation. Just as Adam was tested in the garden of Eden, so Jesus was tested in the garden of Gethsemane. He knew that he would be crushed if he obeyed his father, but he still did, in the ultimate act of self-giving love, an act which invites us into the relationship among the trinity, invites us to centre our identity on God and his renewing love. This in turn leads to the healing of our relationships, as we stop using them to bolster our efforts at self-justification and self-creation. We will be able to move out towards others as Jesus has moved towards us. 

Where is this leading? Keller answers, 

At the end of the final book of the Bible, we see the very opposite of what other religions predict. We do not see the illusion of the world melt away nor do we see spiritual souls escaping the physical world into heaven. Rather, we see heaven descending into our world to unite with it and purify it of all its brokenness and imperfection. . . . At the end of time, nature will be restored to its full glory and we with it. "Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).

The whole world will be healed as it is drawn into the fullness of God’s glory.' A Sri Lankan Christian, Ramachandra (2001), comments that this vision is unique to Christianity. Keller summarises it: 

We glorify and enjoy [God] only as we worship him, serve the human community, and care for the created environment. . . The world and our hearts are broken. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was an infinitely costly rescue operation to restore justice to the oppressed and marginalised, physical wholeness to the diseased and dying, community to the isolated and lonely, and spiritual joy and connection to those alienated from God.

Epilogue: Where do we go from here?

Becoming a Christian is not a matter of what God can do for us, it is a matter of self-surrender. Either Jesus was a lunatic, and we can ignore him, or he is who he says he is, and our only alternative is to accept his claims and centre our entire lives around him. There is no such thing as a mild response to Jesus. 

The first step to self-surrender is repentance. Repentance involves behavioural change, but above all it means abandoning the project of self-salvation. 'Repentance, then, is confessing the things besides God himself that you have been relying on for your hope, significance and security.'

Repentance alone, however, is not enough. 'We must believe [Jesus] was who he said he was, that we require salvation, that on the cross he secured that salvation, that he rose from the dead.' This is a matter of trust, of faith.

Keller adds a third act to becoming a Christian, namely joining a community of believers, but he emphasises that it is of a different order from repentance and faith. It is part of the way that one does repentance and faith. Westerners underestimate the degree to which they are shaped by their family, community and culture. Because of this shaping, a Christian needs to be part of a Christian community.

Finally, however, one looks back and realises that it is God's grace but has sought one out. 'In some way that you would never expect, the reality of your own fallen nature and God’s radical grace breaks through.' Keller concludes: 

During a dark time in her life, a woman in my congregation complained that she had prayed over and over, "God, help me find you," but had got nowhere. A Christian friend suggested to her that she might change her prayer to, "God, come and find me. After all, you are the Good Shepherd who goes looking for the lost sheep.’" She concluded when she was recounting this to me, "The only reason I can tell you this story is – he did.”


Alston, W. P., 1991. The inductive argument from evil and the human cognitive condition. Philosophical Perspectives 5:30–67.

Barbour, Ian, 2000. When science meets religion: Enemies, strangers, or partners? Harper Collins.

Bauckham, Richard, 2006. Jesus and the eyewitnesses. Eerdmans.

Blomberg, Craig L. 1987. The historical reliability of the Gospels. IVP.

Blomberg, Craig L. 2002. The historical reliability of John’s Gospel. IVP.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. [1937] 1966. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan.

Bruce, F.F., 2003. The New Testament documents: Are they reliable?  Reissued with foreword by Tom Wright. Eerdmans.

Collins, Francis, 2006. The language of God: A scientist presents evidence for belief. Free Press.

Davis, William C., 1999. Theistic Arguments. In Murray, Reason for the hope within. Eerdmans. 

Evans, C. Stephen, 1996. The historical Christ and the Jesus of faith. Oxford University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1980. Truth and power. In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and other writing 1972–1977, ed. Colin Gordon. Pantheon.

Howard-Snyder, Daniel, ed., 1996. The evidential argument from evil. Indiana University Press.

Kierkegaard, Sõren, 1849. The sickness unto death.

Lewis, C.S., 1960. Mere Christianity. Macmillan.

Lewis, C.S., 1978. The abolition of man. London: Collins.

Lewis, C.S., 1967. Christian reflections, Ed. by Walter Hooper. Eerdmans

Lewis, C.S., 1980.  Is Theology poetry?, In The weight of glory and other addresses. HarperCollins.

Mackie, J.L., 1982. The miracle of theism. Oxford.

Metzger, Bruce M., 1987.The canon of the New Testament: Its origin, development, and significance. Oxford University Press.

Nagel, Thomas, 1997. The last word. New York: Oxford University Press.

Plantinga, Alvin, 1993. A Christian life partly lived, Philosophers who believe, ed. by Kelly James Clark. IVP.

Plantinga, Alvin, 2000. Warranted Christian belief. Oxford.

Plantinga, Alvin, 2000. Warrant and proper function. Oxford University Press.

Plantinga, Alvin, 2002. Two (or more) kinds of scripture scholarship. Lecture notes. See also: Two (or more) kinds of scripture scholarship. Modern Theology 14 (1998):243–278.

Plantinga, Alvin, n.d. Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments. Lecture notes.

Ramachandra, Vinoth, 2001. The scandal of Jesus. IVP.

Sayers, Dorothy L., 1947. Creed or chaos? Why Christians must choose either dogma or disaster (or, why it really does matter what you believe). Republished 1995, Sophia Institute Press.

Smith, Christian, ed., 2003. The secular revolution: Power, interests, and conflict in the secularization of American public life. University of California Press.

Sommerville, C. John, 2006. The decline of the secular university. Oxford University Press.

Stark, Rodney, 1996. The rise of Christianity. Princeton University Press.  

Stark, Rodney, 2004. For the glory of God: How monotheism led to reformations, science, witch-hunts, and the end of slavery. Princeton University Press.

Volf, Miroslav, 1996. Exclusion and embrace: A theological exploration of identity, otherness, and reconciliation. Abingdon Press.

Wright, N.T. 1998. Jesus and the victory of God. Fortress.

Wright, N.T., 2003. The resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress.