The Reason for God, by Tim Keller, is an outstanding response to the biggest questions of our day. (In the very unlikely chance that anyone is wondering: no, there is no connection whatsoever between Tim Keller and this website).
Tim Keller is the highly regarded pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, a church with weekly attendance around 5,000. Redeemer has planted dozens of other churches and is generally considered to be one of the most influential churches in America. From the first page, then, Keller has earned substantial credibility for his excellent track record of addressing people’s toughest questions in one of the world’s great cities.
The Reason for God is divided into two major sections. Part 1 is called “The Leap of Doubt” and offers insightful responses to seven prominent doubts:
- The exclusivity of claiming to be the one true religion.
- The incompatibility of suffering and the existence of a good God.
- The dogmatic moral limitations of the Christian faith.
- The injustices caused by Christians and the church.
- The problem of hell.
- The conflict between science and Christianity.
- The absurdity of taking the Bible literally.
Part 2 is called “The Reasons for Faith” and provides seven central reasons to believe that Christianity is true:
- Various clues that point to God (the cosmological argument, the argument from fine-tuning, the regularity of nature, the existence of beauty and meaning, and a response to the challenge from evolutionary biology).
- The argument from morality.
- The Christian explanation of sin.
- The difference between religion and the gospel.
- The significance of Jesus’ crucifixion.
- The historical evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
- The dance of God – an invitation into relationship with a God of love.
As this outline of the book shows, Keller does not avoid the hard questions. Rather, he addresses them head-on, in an honest and practical manner.
Keller’s writing style is highly inviting and conversational. He maintains this agreeable tone in a variety of ways: by putting quotes from real people at the start of chapters, by retelling personal conversations he has had, by sharing the extended spiritual journeys of people in his congregation, and by opening up about his own struggles and doubts. The anecdotes from books, movies, theater and art also work to keep each chapter moving along at a brisk clip.
One of the most intriguing parts of Keller’s writing is how he chooses to be relentlessly pragmatic. There is a tendency for ‘apologetics’ books to become a bit dry, ethereal, and removed from real life. Keller’s life experience as a pastor keeps him miles away from drifting into abstractions.
For instance, in the introduction, he explains how working through our doubts can enable all of us, skeptic and believer alike, to move from the nastiness of disparagement to the cordiality of sympathetic disagreement. What a remarkable way to avoid an argumentative, shove-it-down-your-throat approach. Even as he presents reasons for the truth of Christianity, he does so in a framework designed to build understanding, goodwill, and relationship with those who continue to disagree with him.
I also appreciate how Keller avoids trying to score cheap points. By contrast, he demonstrates a great respect for skeptics, even writing at one point, “Christians, then, should expect to find nonbelievers who are much nicer, kinder, wiser, and better than they are” (19). What? I thought he was arguing that Christianity was the best religion. But of course, his graciousness not only leads him to something that is true, but also to articulate a point in line with what the Christian worldview predicts about human nature.
Likewise, in his chapter on the exclusivity of the Christian faith, he admits to being guilty as charged. But then he asks: so how can we solve the problem of religious exclusivity? When you consider the options – which historically speaking, have even included the use of violence and murder to eliminate religion altogether – it turns out that if we allow the exclusive beliefs of Christianity to flourish, given its historic and essential emphasis on caring for the poor, the sick, and the needy – then this exclusive faith can still promote the common good of all. In other words, the problem isn’t that our beliefs are always, inevitably, inherently exclusive of other, contrasting perspectives. The real problem is that we aren’t active in doing good to others, a problem that Christianity, however exclusive it might be, fundamentally solves. This is a highly pragmatic answer, but not, on that account, any less rationally satisfying.
Keller also provides wonderful twists on common questions. One of his chapters deals extensively with the troubling notion that Christianity requires a certain kind of moral rectitude. He directly answers the question, showing that it is impractical to avoid any moral limitations, and also, that Christianity has displayed a remarkable ability to adapt well to a huge variety of cultures. But his final point is quite intriguing: if you are in love with someone, you don’t mind the restrictions of the relationship. With love, the attending restrictions are not a burden but a gift that sweetens the beauty of an exclusive relationship. If all we have are grudging duties before God, this is no good. But Christianity tells us about a God who loves us, and who calls us to love him, and this is an entirely different matter. What a turn: from moral limits as a bad thing… to a good thing, to be appreciated, if they are noticed at all.
One of the best chapters is chapter thirteen, where Keller unpacks a substantial historical case for the resurrection of Jesus. I think most readers will be surprised by the actual details. In my experience, many skeptics take it for granted that we can barely know anything about the life of Jesus, and doubts about his very existence are no longer uncommon. But these are doubts very much worth doubting, as Keller would put it, and the mass of historical evidence in favor of Jesus’ resurrection is striking. This material is well organized and highly persuasive.
The book is by no means perfect. For instance, I thought that the cosmological and teleological arguments, presented in chapter eight, received far less attention than they deserved. By contrast, the chapter on “The Dance of God’ felt like an overly extended metaphor, a bit forced and rather cheesy. Is Creation itself really a dance (219)? If it isn’t, does that hurt the case for the Christian faith?
He also overstates his case when he asserts that, “Every doubt, therefore, is based on a leap of faith” (xvii). It seems a little off-putting, and contrary to his general tone, to state that people’s doubts about Christianity are based upon their own leaps of faith. The dichotomy could also imply that Christians are constantly taking leaps of faith. To take it one step further: is a Christian’s doubt, about the skeptic’s doubt, based on yet another leap of faith? However, his more central point in this section is far more reasonable:
My thesis is that if you come to recognize the beliefs on which your doubts about Christianity are based, and if you seek as much proof for those beliefs as you seek from Christians for theirs—you will discover that your doubts are not as solid as they first appeared (xviii).
A few quibbles aside, The Reason for God is simply one of the best books available on the topic. The book is carefully reasoned, intriguingly presented, and existentially satisfying. I regularly recommend this book to skeptics who are searching for God and to believers who are leaning away from faith. If you are looking for an accessible, interesting, and relatively comprehensive case for the Christian faith, then The Reason for God is an excellent choice.
You can pick up a copy of The Reason for God at Amazon.com.