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 more” sticker 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.”