Book review: “The Reason for God”

The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism

Tim Keller

Dutton, Penguin, New York, 2008. 293pp.

Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2008. 320pp.

142630.ReasonforGodUK

Tim Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Scepticism is a pleasant, readable introduction to the gospel, set in the context of responding to common objections non-believers have towards Christianity. In many ways, it is a window into the character of its author—winsome, insightful, persuasive, sympathetic to the frustrations non-Christians have towards ‘religion’, yet unafraid to tackle the hard questions often put to Christians (and, if we’re honest, questions that Christians often put to themselves).

If The Reason for God reflects Keller’s character, it certainly reflects his New York ministry context too, with its distinct feel of being aimed at younger professional workers, urban dwellers and those familiar with the American cultural context. This isn’t a problem, just a reality of his target audience. But it’s nevertheless worth keeping in mind if you’re thinking of using the book as an evangelistic gift. For instance, his diverse references to other literary works are ubiquitous, suggest­ing a more reflective readership willing to engage with philo­sophical literature. On the other hand, his assumptions of the way non-Christians think will be less compelling at times: it may work in his American context where the culture is still dominated by a ‘Christianized ethos’, but readers from cultural situations where that has eroded will find it occasionally unpersuasive.

Doubt and objections

Moving deeper into the book, one of the really helpful insights that The Reason for God imparts is the method that dominates the first part of his book, where he answers specific objections to Christianity. This section is undergirded by the recognition that “All doubts, however sceptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternate beliefs” (p. xvii).1 If I doubt the existence of God, for instance, in essence, I am weighing up whether the non-existence of God is a better belief to have. Hence Keller’s argument:

My thesis is that if you come to recognise 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. (p. xviii)

The flipside of this is Keller’s approach towards rationality. He recognizes that “the great majority [of philosophers] think that strong rationalism is nearly impossible to defend” (p. 118): if you want to find a reason to not believe something, you can usually find it. Instead, we all—Christian and non-Christian alike—ultimately build our rationalities from a set of presuppositions. And so, as Keller begins the second part of his book, where he moves on to positively commending the gospel, this undergirds his argument—that the gospel can be rationally commended even though “there is no argument that will be persuasive to everyone regardless of viewpoint” (p. 120).

Whether one takes Keller’s book on as an evangelistic tool or not, his insight about doubt is invaluable in the way we approach conversations with our non-Christian friends, let alone how Christians themselves deal with their own doubts. And most of the issues he tackles in the first part will give Christians good wisdom for themselves as well as their friends. Given its method, however, the book is probably best understood as being part of a conversation about Christianity: it’s a book to give to a friend you are evangelizing, rather than a stranger. So if you do decide to use the book, make sure you read it yourself thoughtfully, and be prepared to explore further with them!

The gospel

For all its positives, however, I’ve struggled for weeks now to pin down why I’m reluctant to recommend the book. It has to do with Keller’s presentation of the gospel, especially his chapters on hell, sin, and the cross (chapters 5, 10 and 12). It’s not so much that what he says is wrong; it’s what he is not saying that is the issue, and this is what has made my nagging doubts so difficult to identify. To complicate this further, the careful reader will note that he does mention some of the things I’m about to object to. The problem is that those references, when they occur, are passing, with little or no bearing on the weight of his argument, and they often do not make sense in the place he puts them. Space prevents going into too much detail, so I’ll make a few brief comments about his chapters on sin and the cross.

Sin

Keller’s chapter on sin is really an exposition of Kierkegaard’s definition of sin. This isn’t problematic in and of itself—so long as Kierkegaard’s definition encapsulates the biblical understanding of sin. But this is where the danger lies in using extra-biblical literature to communicate biblical truth: you potentially either import a meaning or context that obscures the biblical testimony, or else you so narrow your horizons that other key aspects are omitted. And this is what has happened—intentionally or not (more of that below).

The overwhelming sense of what sin is in the chapter is this: sin is seeking to find my identity in anything other than God. In one sense, this is quite helpful since it seemingly picks up on the ideas in Romans 1:18-32. Sin involves an exchange—the worship of created things in the place of the creator. But as the chapter unfolds, this understanding of sin is discussed in very horizontal terms: it’s a problem because of its social consequences: sin hurts me, society and the world. It sounds like Two Ways to Live, but it’s not, because the essence of sin as rebellion against God is downplayed and the offensiveness of sin toward God is muted.

Furthermore, the definition is in­adequate in that sin is primarily not my refusal to serve God, but my failure to find my identity in God. Keller recognizes the fundamental selfishness of seeking self-identity in the service of anything other than God: it means I’m making that person or object about me (p. 168). But under this understanding of life, I can’t see how my worship of God is selfless either: serving God is still about me finding my identity.

It feels somewhat churlish to take such a man as Keller to task on this. But the problem is that his chapters on hell and the cross reflect a similar muting of the offence of sin to God, and God’s retributive justice because of that sin.

The cross

Keller’s chapter on the cross is largely an exposition of substitution—and this theological language of the cross is much more familiar to the Christian rather than Kierkegaard. Yet, unfortunately, the language is where the familiarity ends. In this chapter, the substitution that is talked about is that of suffering and sorrow. Forgiveness hurts the wrong party since they have to bear the pain of forgiving the wrongdoer. And so Jesus absorbs the pain of forgiveness. On the other hand, in taking on flesh, Jesus shares in our suffering and experience of this fallen world—substitution, of a kind.

In other words, in a chapter about the cross as substitution, it is neither penal, nor atoning. Jesus bears the pain of forgiving my sin, rather than bearing my sin itself; Jesus identifies with my suffering, rather than suffering the wrath of God in my place. In no sense is God retributively just; in no sense does the cross deal with my sin except insofar as the cross inspires me to live differently. Keller makes—quite overtly—death and resurrection a general metaphor of our emotional pain in forgiveness and resolution out of that pain, and, in turn, re-reads that back into the gospel event.

I do want a God who can sympathize with my plight. I do want a God who is willing to bear the pain of forgiveness (of course!) But I really need a God who solves my problem of sin. Furthermore, I need a God who teaches me on the cross what my sin actually is and what it means for God to solve it (including satisfaction for sin).

I’m loathe to raise such significant reservations about the book. But there is clear deliberation in this method, and is reflected in some other literature Keller has written. It’s his use of Stott’s classic work on the cross that clinched it for me, however. In a book where he is content to quote whole slabs of material on every other page, note the two brief omissions in his use of Stott (highlighted in italics in the second quotation):

The essence of sin is we human beings substituting ourselves for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for us. We … put ourselves where only God deserves to be; God … puts himself where we deserve to be. (p. 195)

For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be.2

In other words, especially given the quote’s original context in Stott’s book, Keller has steered us away from all that Stott was arguing for: he’s replaced penal substitutionary atonement with a substitution of another kind. In the context of The Reason for God, it’s a substitution of sorrow and suffering.

Of course, all this raises the thorny issue of ‘contextualization’ and whether we always need to preach penal substitutionary atonement. Perhaps not; we have a wealth of metaphors of the cross. But penal substitutionary atonement ought always to undergird and inform those images of what I’m redeemed or reconciled from. I think The Reason for God is quite weak here. The claim that when evangelizing people of our ‘post-everything’ generation, they simply don’t understand forensic categories of the cross just doesn’t cut it: doesn’t the cross teach me what I am before God? In a conversation about Christianity, isn’t this the best place to let the cross teach us what our plight is?

~

In summary, The Reason for God commends itself as a helpful book in gently, yet firmly, unveiling the assumptions that doubts entail, and inviting Christianity as a more commendable rationality (world view) than the world view implicit in religious scepticism. As a defence, its tone isn’t defensive; on the offence, its tone isn’t offensive. But my significant reservation about recommending the book remains: why, in a book so fearless about confronting the most offensive and scandalous aspects of Christianity, does Keller deliberately mute the offence of sin to God and the scandal of penal substitutionary atonement?

  1. All page numbers have been taken from the Hodder edition.
  2. John Stott, The Cross of Christ, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 1986, p. 160.