THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH in
America asked Tim Keller to start Redeemer Church in Manhattan, two others
had already turned them down. The challenges of living and preaching in the
oldest and most densely populated of the five boroughs of New
York City seemed daunting, to say the least. But believing God
was in it, Keller accepted. And watched the church multiply
from 50 to over 5,000óthe bulk being urban professionals. His books
reached them too. The Reason for God, The Prodigal God,
and Counterfeit Gods became
perennial bestsellers, and like his preaching readily spoke of difficult Christian truths, stressing personal
conversion, compassion for the lost, and the full authority of the Bible.
But Kellerís ministry is notable not only for winning over skeptical New
Yorkers, but for its missional approach, planting more than 175 churches
around the world. In this interview with Servant
he talks about Islam, Rob Bell, and his love for skeptics.
Phil Callaway: Hi, Tim. Thanks for taking the time
to talk with me during lunch.
Tim Keller: No problem at
You came to faith in college, is that right?
What kept you from faith?
I donít think I was
actually holding back from faith. I was raised and confirmed in a Lutheran
church but I just hadnít connected in my heart and it had no effect on
how I lived. But when I was converted in college I looked back on the
things I learned in my confirmation class and much of it was good, sound
doctrine. The gospel just finally Ďcame homeí to me in college.
Many are referring to you as the next C.S. Lewis. How does that
If I asked you what religion you are, how would
Iíd say Iím a
If I asked if you were an evangelical, how would
Iíd say probably. It
depends on what your definition is. If you say evangelicals are people who
believe in the Rapture, Iíd say no. Iíd want to know what you meant by
it, but Iím happy to own the term in general.
can conscientious believers credibly counter the damage done by, say, the
judgment day folk back in May 21? Is that something youíve come up
No, not really. I guess to
most New Yorkers itís sort of a fringe cult, although I know that the
beliefs of the Family Radio group are orthodox Christian beliefs. I would
say that a cult is someone who doesnít believe the apostles creed or the
basic tenets of the Christian faith, like Jehovahís witnesses or
something like that. But for most people, ďcultĒ just means extreme
nutty. I actually do think that most people in New York understand the
difference between that and most of the evangelical world. But viewing
evangelicals as the ďChristian rightĒ is what has created a backlash
in most younger people. Their perception is that evangelical Christians
got involved in America in the political process and have tried to impose
heavy moral values on people and they basically see it as coercive and
totalitarian. A lot of thatís unfair but thatís the image.
New Yorkers are used to guys standing around with
Yes, Iím not sure how
that Howard Camping thing hurts all Christians. Itís just another nut.
Your book The
Reason for God was my introduction to your ministry. I was hooked,
partly because I wanted to find answers for a militantly anti-theist
friend whom I have been in touch with for about two years. Itís been
very interesting to relay some of your comments. What is your advice to
those who are dealing with someone like that in their lives? I know
thatís a very broad question, but what would you say to a guy like me if
you just had a minute?
Iíd say, donít think
in terms of what used to be called friendship evangelism. Just think in
terms of friendship. That is, your evangelism should be organic and
natural. It shouldnít be a bunch of little bullet points and agenda
items that you enter into a conversation hoping to get to so youíre
almost like a marketer. Basically you should just be trying to befriend a
person whoís not a Christian and then you just naturally talk to them
about how you see reality. If an issue comes up, just be a friend and
donít hide your Christianity. Things will go in a natural way. I think
people either try to push Christianity on others without being their
friend or they are their friend but they hide their Christianity. So if
you are a friend who doesnít hide your Christianity I think things will
go along well.
What do skeptics need most from Christians?
Well, what they really
need is a Christian friend they admire. Let me give you an example: thirty
or forty years ago most of us knew gay people, but we didnít know
we knew gay people because everybody was so carefully quiet about it. And
as a result, you could believe stereotypes about them. Today, younger
people especially almost all know somebody whoís gay because the culture
has changed so that as much as possible, you come out. And because most
young people know somebody whoís gay, they realize theyíre normal
people and in many cases, admirable people. And as a result, whatever
else, they cannot believe stereotypes or blanket negative statements about
them. Most skeptics I talk to probably do have Christian friends but they
donít know that they do. Christians are like the gay people were forty
years go. They hide it. Basically, there are all sorts of smart, admirable
Christians out there but most skeptics donít know them and what they
need more than anything else is not so much an argument but an admirable
human being and to see that a big part of what makes them admirable is the
Christian faith. Having Christian friends they admire will make the faith
In a recent email I asked my friend which
Christians he admired. He mentioned some historic believers and Martin
Luther King and then he put me at the end of the sentence. I thought maybe
he was making a joke, but anyway, itís been a fun friendship. Itís
been helpful to me to see the respect you show those whose beliefs are
diametrically opposed to yours. Why is that important to you?
Oh, it seems to fit in
with a man who dies for his enemies saying, Father, forgive them. They
donít know what theyíre doing instead of saying, Father, judge these
idiots! Isnít that generous? And here are his disciples, supposed to be
his best friends, and theyíre falling asleep when heís in his hour of
greatest need. Heís asked them not to but they do. Then he says, The
spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, which is another way of finding
something good to say. He says, I know you meant well. Itís astounding
that at a time like that he could find something good to say instead of
just slashing at them. The reason why you are respectful is because of the
way Jesus was. In fact, even to Pharisees like Nicodemus he was pretty
nice, too. He was more tender with some people than with others, of
course, but in general his default was respectfulness.
Some people think youíve gone a bit too far. You
said in one of your books that on the whole churchgoers may be weaker
psychologically and morally than non-churchgoers. Come on, Tim. Is that
especially in a particular spot. In other words, there are people who know
they need God because they have had troubles or failures in their lives
and they know they need God. And then you have all the people whose lives
are going along just fine. Theyíre disciplined, their parents love them,
theyíve worked very hard. They actually do need God but they donít
know they do because their lives are going along pretty well. So very
often the people who donít feel they need God are maybe naturally
stronger people. Itís not going to be enough to take them to the end of
their lives and certainly not enough to save them, but I actually think
that people who are more able and talented very often are the last to see
their need for God. And therefore, person to person in a given town you
might actually have weaker people in the church than the people outside.
I remember reading that in The Reason for God. In the same book you address seven questions.
Has there been any shift in the questions since you wrote the book or one
thatís come to the forefront or a new one you would add?
Thatís a good question.
I havenít done any kind of sustained reflection on it, but my first
reaction is that a derivation of, say, Christians perpetrating injustice.
One of the things that is often brought up today that hasnít been
brought up since the beginning of the church is the idea of whether
Christians can believe in absolute truth and still be good citizens. I
think itís already in there (the book) but it wouldnít be bad in
future editions maybe to call it out and give it its own chapter because
there are more and more people who say, Look at Islam. People who really
are true believers of Islam are intolerant and you canít have democracy.
The only way you can have democracy is if people get very liberal and
relativistic about their beliefs. What theyíre saying very often is that
evangelical Christians are not good citizens because theyíre going to
impose their views on everybody else and what you need is a belief that
truth is relative and everybody should be free to go about doing things
their own way. Iím increasingly hearing that for the sake of democracy
religion really has to take a back seat and really strong Christians are
not good citizens. So that might one Iíd add.
What would be your answer to that?
Well, itís actually in
Chapter 1. People donít realize, of course, that they do
have faith and they do have
moral values. Even to say itís intolerant, to say your truth is wrong,
my truth is right is a view of right and wrong right there. So the point
is that everybodyís got a faith, everybodyís got a sense of moral
values that they believe is better than somebody elseís view and itís
not based on science; itís essentially a set of Ďreligiousí beliefs.
I donít know that I mentioned it in the book but there are two kinds of
secularism: programmatic and procedural. Programmatic secularism is saying
that there is such a thing as a neutral view of life and religious people
need to learn how to keep their religion private but in the
public, secular world we can only argue from reason and science. Thatís
the older approach to secularism. Itís called programmaticóweíre
going to put our secular program into place everywhere. Procedural
secularism says that the government is neutral with regard to these
various actors who are putting forth their particular view of right and
wrong in the public sphere and may the best man win, may the one who gets
the most votes win. But thereís no neutrality. Procedural secularism is
basically saying that the government is a neutral umpire that makes sure
everybodyís civil, that makes sure that nobody tries to make the
marketplace of ideas no longer free, but that in the marketplace of ideas,
everybody is selling something. And that something is always a set of
moral views that are not completely empirical or rational, but theyíre
based on essentially religious assumptions and worldviews. So procedural
secularism is very, very different from programmatic secularism. I would
definitely pull that out and make it a chapter in the future because I
think that once you lay the difference out, it gets very hard to argue for
the older totalitarian, programmatic secularism and yet a lot of people
still want to do it. I know in Canada they still do, thatís for sure.
You mentioned Muslims. Have you had any general or
apologetic interaction with Muslims about Christianity? And if so, what
have you found about the gospel that you could appeal to in them?
Well, not recently.
Weirdly enough, I had a lot of heavy apologetic involvement with Muslims
in Philadelphia before I moved up here. There are lots of Muslims in New
York City but it just hasnít been one of the fronts that Redeemer has
been involved with. We actually have baptized Muslim converts here but in
general itís just because people who were Muslim have been brought to
church and theyíve found faith and often they werenít strong Muslims
anyway. But in Philadelphia I learned that it worked better when you came
in the front door and were willing to talk with the whole mosque about
Christianity in open dialogue. Theyíre not at all happy if you go after
individual members and pick them off or take them off to a Starbucks and
twist their arm and alienate them from their families.
So did they allow you a platform?
Yes, I was part of a
ministry that took one mosque and one church and paired them together and
they had what were called ďMeetings for better understanding.Ē You
would meet in the mosque then in the church and invite members of both
congregations to come and just have discussions. And I have to tell you,
generally speaking, if you have speakers from Christianity and Islam both
talking about what we believe about the mercy of God, about salvation,
about life, Christianity looks pretty good. The place where they really
press you is the Trinity because itís a very hard thing to explain. You
need some good comebacks. But in most every other area, Christianity seems
so much more happy, frankly.
Iíve been reading your new book, Kingís
Cross, and you talk about the Trinity. How much of that came out
of your experiences with Muslims?
A little, I guess. The
Augustinian argument says that if God was uni-personal, then there
wouldnít have been love until he created somebody. Therefore love would
not actually be intrinsic to God. Itís not the essence of God and
therefore not the foundation of life. It comes in later as sort of an
optional thing. Sovereignty, power, that kind of thing is more basic than
love. And love is not really one of Godís perfections because itís not
intrinsic, it comes in later on. But if you have a God who is tri-personal
and therefore is in a loving community of relationships from the
beginning, then love is at the foundation of everything and itís the
reason why we find love to be so important and why relationships are more
vital than anything else. And also to say God is love is not possible
unless you have a triune God. Not just that God is loving now, thatís
one thing. But to say, God IS love in his very essence, thatís another.
I donít know how persuasive any Christian argument is to most Muslims,
but to some people when you talk about it like that, they say, ďAh.Ē
Did you read the Time
cover story ďWhat if thereís no hell?Ē and their write-up on Rob
Bellís book Love Wins?
I did, I read part of it
How would you answer the question, Tim? What if
thereís no hell?
It would mean Jesus
didnít love me as much as I thought he did. Thatís my answer. I
thought God loved me but if thereís no hell, I guess he didnít love me
as much as I thought. On the other hand, if there is a hell, then Godís
love for me is absolutely infinite and costly and sacrificial. If there is
no hell then Godís love has cost him nothing. Thatís the answer.
Some claim you hold to the same view as Rob Bell
but that heís being criticized and you arenít.
Iíve heard that too.
Would you please tell me how that could possibly be?
Is it a fair critique?
only thing I can think of is like this: if my ten-year-old tells a lie and
I say to the child, Because you have lied I canít trust you and
therefore I canít trust you to do this thing I was going to let you do.
I was going to let you go off and do this with your friends but that takes
trust and I donít have it and therefore I will not let you go. Now what
is that? One the one hand Iím saying, youíre guilty and Iím
punishing you. On the other hand itís also a kind of natural consequence
as well. Itís an active punishment on my part and yet at the same time
thereís also a certain amount of natural consequence as well. Sometimes
things go wrong. For example, if you eat fatty foods you have a heart
attack. And thatís a punishment thatís only a natural consequence.
Nobody has fined you or pronounced you guilty, right? So some punishments
have only natural consequences and some punishments are actually
artificial. You ate fatty foods so hereís your fine. Do you see the
difference between the two? But when Iím punishing my children, Iím
punishing them actively and yet at the same time giving them a natural
consequence. So hell is an active punishment from God by his wrath, but
itís also a natural consequence of losing Godís
presence. Itís like God says, If you do not want me in your life, then
Iíll leave. So itís both a combination of both a natural consequence
and itís an act of wrath. C.S. Lewis loves to talk about hell as the
natural consequence. Heíll say ďa person who grumbled and grumbled and
grumbled in the end becomes nothing but a grumble.Ē I love to play that
up. Rob Bell, thatís all heís got. In his book he says that there are
natural consequences to sin but in the end Godís not really angry at you
and therefore hell is more like a purgatory. So what he would say is there
are natural consequences but thereís no active wrath on Godís part.
C.S. Lewis did not believe that. He believed there were natural
consequences AND that it was an appointment from God in his wrath. But Rob
Bell says itís only a natural consequence and eventually you sort of
purge yourself out and Godís not really angry at you. So if there is a
hell itís not really permanent. I have never
said that or anything like it. So when Rob Bell thinks that if there
is a hell itís not permanent and Godís not mad at you and I believe
that there is a hell and it is
permanent and God is angry at you, I donít see how itís the same at
all. Itís just because in my book The
Reason for God I like to bring out, for non-Christians, if you show
them that hell is a natural consequence, it makes sense to them and scares
them. But of course, thatís not the whole picture. Itís also that
Godís actually appointing you to that in his wrath.
The source of the idea
that God is love is the Bible. The Bible tells us that the same God is a
God of judgment who will set things right in the end.
In two weeks my daughter marries a youth pastor.
Any advice youíd offer a young minister of the gospel, anything you wish
you had learned a little sooner when you were starting out in ministry?
This is not the only thing
by any means, but maybe two things. One is that prayer is more important
than you think. And the other thing is that once youíre in leadership,
thereís always somebody mad at you. Get used to it.
[Laughs.] A book youíre enjoying right now that
may surprise me?
I read a new book by
Michael Allen called Reformed
Theology, which I really liked. And a book by David Mamet called Theatre. Itís basically his take on plays and theatre. Itís
really, really good.
A movie youíre glad you watched in the past year
I donít knowÖmaybe
BBC. They put out an updated version of Sherlock Holmes in three 90-minute
episodes. Theyíre terrific. The new BBC Sherlock
You and Kathy have been married 36 years. A few
reasons youíre still married?
forgiveness. Itís simple. As long as you can do that, you can stay
What would you like to be remembered for?
As an evangelist and a man
of prayer, if I can.
appreciate you very much, Tim. You are a
blessingókeep it up.
Youíre very kind, Phil,
thatís all I can say.
Read more of Phil's Interviews.
Request a complimentary subscription to Servant Magazine. Just email us.