Tim Keller (Wikimedia Commons)

When I was in college, I was part of a campus ministry that held weekly Bible studies and worship services. Occasionally, we evangelized. One of our campaigns invited students to text late-night questions about God in exchange for grilled-cheese sandwiches delivered to their dorm rooms. Another rallied around a simple message: “You are more”more than your grades, your accolades, or your rejections. We gave out “You are more” laptop stickers and invited our peers to hear preaching on where their true value could be found. And every year, we distributed free books to students as they left the dining hall. One time—or maybe several times—that book was The Reason for God, Tim Keller’s 2008 New York Times bestseller, which argues, methodically, for the existence of God and the truth of the Gospel. Keller died on May 19 of pancreatic cancer.

I spoke up in the Bible studies, sang in the worship services, and put a You are moresticker on my laptop. I even became the student ministry’s co-president. But I never volunteered to answer late-night questions or hand out books. I never represented our faith in each year’s public debate with the college atheist society. Evangelism was a little embarrassing to me. I was worried about losing my friends, offending my classmates, and damaging my reputation. These are not good reasons to keep quiet about one’s faith. Nevertheless, these fears prevented me (often, they still do) from trying to bear witness to the Gospel. “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ,” writes the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians. Oof.

While I didn’t help distribute The Reason for God, I did take a copy for myself. I read the book over a summer break, far from campus and its associated pressures. Turns out, it was nothing to be embarrassed about. Keller, a pastor-theologian who had founded a church of thousands in Manhattan and written many other books—on the prodigal son, prayer, marriage (with his wife, Kathy), and pain—wrote with clarity and compassion. He quoted from poets and philosophers, theologians and scientists. “Tim wasn’t an original scholar,” Peter Wehner wrote in the Atlantic. “His strength was synthesis and integration.”

In The Reason for God, Keller acknowledges that the reader’s concerns about Christianity are reasonable: the problem of evil, the Church’s involvement in injustice, sin and hell. He had answers to each—never overreaching, always upfront about what he couldn’t know, nevertheless confident. On the fervor of fundamentalists: “The people who are fanatics are not so because they are too committed to the gospel, but because they’re not committed enough to it.” On judgment: “Can our passion for justice be honored in a way that does not nurture our desire for blood vengeance? Only if I’m sure that there’s a God who will right all wrongs and settle all accounts perfectly do I have the power to refrain.” 

He had answers to each—never overreaching, always upfront about what he couldn’t know, nevertheless confident.

Keller took his readers and critics seriously; he never implied that secular people were stupid or morally inferior: “No matter who performs it, every act of goodness, wisdom, justice, and beauty is empowered by God.” In fact, many people outside of the Church had identified the same problems—the existence of suffering, the need for transcendent human rights, their own enslavement to career or money or power—that Christians were concerned with. The challenge was to offer a compelling response to those problems. “We all have fundamental, unprovable faith commitments,” writes Keller. The question is: “Which set of unavoidably exclusive beliefs will lead us to humble, peace-loving behavior?” “Freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones,” and grace “is only a threat to the illusion that we are free, autonomous selves, living life as we choose.”

Nobody reading this book, I felt, could think that they were being tricked—that the real difficulties with believing in Jesus were being sidestepped. “No view of God can be proven,” Keller acknowledges as he prepares to delve into arguments for the creation of the universe, the reality of the sin, and the historical fact of the Resurrection. “But that does not mean that we cannot sift and weigh the grounds for various religious beliefs and find that some or even one is the most reasonable.” At the close of the book, after offering a presentation of the Gospel, Keller encourages readers not to pray the sinner’s prayer in a moment of ecstasy, but instead to pause. Interested in Christianity? Examine your motives, count the cost, and visit a local church in order to begin the “lifelong process” of repentance and belief. Also, take heart. “You don’t have to wait for all doubts and fears to go away to take hold of Christ,” he writes. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to banish all misgivings in order to meet God.”

When I learned of Keller’s death, I thought about my encounters with his books and sermons, and found them, as I always had, comforting. They were both intelligent and invitational, serious and warm. Never bombastic, never frenzied, never making an altar call they hadn’t earned. There are so many pastor scandals, so many faith-mongering hypocrites. Here was a trustworthy “celebrity” Christian who seemed to deserve his reputation. I was proud to be in the community he represented.

Keller’s impact was quantifiably enormous: his multi-site Manhattan congregation, which attracted thousands of young professionals; the hundreds of other churches supported by his organization, City to City, including the church I attended when I lived in New York; his best-selling books; his irenic presentation of Christian beliefs in secular publications like the New York Times and the Atlantic and the New Yorker. He was a public intellectual. But his impact was also personal, for nearly every evangelical I know. I can’t count how many references to his teaching I’ve heard from the mouths of other pastors on Sunday mornings, always with a tone of respect, even deference: Tim Keller said this, so chances are, it’s right.

Here was a trustworthy “celebrity” Christian who seemed to deserve his reputation. I was proud to be in the community he represented.

His style of argumentation also resonated with secular people, and with people from other faith traditions. He wrote and preached assuming that they were in his audience; he stayed after his sermons for question-and-answer sessions. “I cannot despise those who do not believe as I do,” he writes in The Reason for God

Since I am not saved by my correct doctrine or practice, then this person before me, even with his or her wrong beliefs, might be morally superior to me in many ways…. The Christian’s identity is not based on the need to be perceived as a good person, but on God’s valuing of you in Christ.

That message was appealing to outsiders, and sobering for those of us already in the Church. We “older brothers” of the prodigal son story were too assured of our own righteousness—or in my case, too timid about the truth of what we believed. Rereading The Reason for God this week, almost a decade later, I’m still impressed by passages like this one: 

The Christian gospel is that I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued and that Jesus was glad to die for me. This leads to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time…. I cannot feel superior to anyone, and yet I have nothing to prove to anyone. I do not think more of myself nor less of myself. Instead, I think of myself less. I don’t need to notice myself—how I’m doing, how I’m being regarded—so often.

I’m doing better at this. I’m more confident in my friendships, more anchored in my faith, and less anxious about my reputation. But sometimes telling strangers at a party that I work for a publication called Christianity Today is still an exercise in self-mortification.

I’ve also recognized that not all my resistance to “evangelism”—in-the-moment evangelism, quick-fix evangelism, confrontational evangelism—is bad. Some of my aversion is temperamental, but most of it is practical. Some people have their conversion experiences in a single worship service after receiving a cool laptop sticker; others need just a single one of their late-night questions answered correctly. But many, perhaps most, of us need to weigh our motives and count the costs, again and again. Many need not just one sermon, or one conversation, but dozens, hundreds: patient engagement, and personal affection, relationship above all else.

This is where Tim Keller really triumphed—not just as a thinker, but as a pastor characterized by kindness. He valued dialogue; he respected those who disagreed with him; he cared about people as people, not as names he could add to a list of saved souls. In the aftermath of his death, some of his critics have called his signature “winsomeness” a weakness. They say he avoided the culture wars too assiduously; he wasn’t willing to fight the right fights, or at least, to fight them aggressively enough. 

Nothing could be further from the truth, as Tim Keller himself helped me understand. “The real culture war,” he wrote, “is taking place inside our own disordered hearts, wracked by inordinate desires for things that control us, that lead us to feel superior and exclude those without them, and that fail to satisfy us even when we get them.” In the world as Keller understood it, weakness was strength and meekness was power and children entered the kingdom first. The King died on a cross and rose again; the new heavens and earth were at hand. The battle had already been won, and Keller wasn’t here to fight it anew. He was simply here to share the good news.

Kate Lucky ​is an editor at Christianity Today.

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Published in the July/August 2023 issue: View Contents
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