The Reason for God – Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller’s new book The Reason for God is a fresh approach to apologetics. Many Christians fear the task of defending the faith, often due to a perceived lack of answers in the face of opposition. This is due in part to the spirit of our age which openly challenges any absolute claims and attacks those who hold such claims as narrow-minded. For many Christians these attacks are troubling and devastating. Keller, however, approaches the apologetic task with confidence. This paper will examine Keller’s approach in the book by describing the content of the text and then analyzing the approach.

The book is divided into two major parts: “The Leap of Doubt” and “The Reasons for the Faith.” While most people think of the second part as the task of the apologist, Keller does well to approach it the way he has. The arguments against the faith by skeptics, doubters, and atheists are found to be difficult for most Christians to answer. Keller addresses these arguments not by proving Christianity in light of them, but rather disproving the legitimacy of the argument itself. Having shown that the arguments against the Christian faith are invalid, he then adds the second section to prove the reasonableness of the faith.
“The Leap of Doubt” addresses the seven most common arguments against Christianity: exclusivity, the existence of suffering, reduction in freedom, violence resulting from the church, people sent to Hell, scientific opposition, and the Bible as a non-literal book. He begins by showing that all doubts are really a set of alternate beliefs that require faith in those beliefs. Therefore, those who doubt the existence of God must ask themselves what evidence they have to prove God’s non-existence. To doubt is even a leap of faith, and as Keller goes on to show, a greater leap of faith than belief in God. He argues 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 so solid as they first appeared” (xviii). As he answers each of the common arguments, he shows that the arguments cannot disprove God’s existence.
Keller first addresses the argument that no religion can understand the whole truth because that would be too exclusive. He points out the hidden contradiction in this statement: “How could you possibly know that no religion can see the whole truth unless you yourself have the superior, comprehensive knowledge of spiritual reality you just claimed none of the religions can have?”(9). Those who would argue that religions are wrong because of their exclusive claims on the truth are themselves claiming to know the truth exclusively. This argument is then self-contradictory and therefore invalid.
The second argument he addresses is the presence of pointless evil and suffering in the world. Keller shows that hidden in this premise is the belief that the speaker is the ultimate judge of the purpose of suffering and evil. If God exists and is transcendentally beyond us, it stands to reason that His purposes also may be beyond our reasoning. Further, the fact that all people have an understanding of “evil” goes a long way to prove the existence of God. Where else would an innate sense of good and evil come from?
The third argument holds that a belief in absolute truth impedes human freedom. Constraint is not necessarily opposed to freedom, rather, some constraint can actually benefit our freedom. Keller uses the example of a fish which “because it absorbs oxygen from water rather than air, is only free if it is restricted and limited to water. If we put it on grass, its freedom to move and even live is not enhanced but destroyed. The fish dies if we do not honor the reality of its nature.” (46). We should seek to understand and live according to spiritual reality instead of seeking the “freedom” to invent or discover that reality.
The fourth argument concerns the violence and injustice resulting from Christianity and other religions. A brief look at human history will show that violence and injustice is common to all men, nations, and beliefs. If anything, this argument does not disprove God but rather proves the depravity of the human heart. Christianity is not some form of moral improvement. In fact, many outside the church may be more moral. Christianity is a grace-based religion which holds that people are saved apart from their righteousness, and even in spite of their own actions.
The fifth argument deals with how a loving God can send people to Hell. First, God must respond in wrath to the corruption of His creation. We should be comforted by the fact that there is a God who will restore all things in due time. Secondly, there is a false assumption made in this kind of argument, namely that God is acting against man’s will. It is a misconception to imagine people being thrown in Hell who are screaming for repentance. God is giving to some what their freedom demands, just as C.S. Lewis described Hell as “the greatest monument to human freedom” (79).
The sixth argument is that science has disproved Christianity. The greatest problem with this is that God’s existence can neither be scientifically proved nor disproved. To be sure God does not exist is itself an article of faith and is no more feasible that to believe in God’s existence.
The seventh argument holds that the Bible can not be taken literally. Keller approaches this chapter differently than the others. The chapter is comprised of evidence to support the literalness and historicity of the Bible. Some arguments he uses are: the chronological proximity of the writings to the actual events, some content is counterproductive and would not be included if fabricated, and that the literary form is too detailed for fiction in that day. While none of these in themselves may be conclusive, the sum of them all is quite convincing.
The second section of the book is preceded by an intermission that provides some understanding of Keller’s focus. Having shown that the arguments against God are inconclusive and that God’s existence is no less probable than His non-existence, he now plans on showing evidence that supports God’s existence. If we are to know the author of the story, we should look for those clues that tell us about Him. The two main ways God has written Himself into history is in the creation in general and the scriptures in particular.
He begins the second section with the confession that there cannot be irrefutable proof for the existence of God. There are, however, many clues to God’s existence and while no one clue by itself may convince, all of them taken together may. Here, he uses some of the classic arguments for the existence of God such as: Cosmological, Teleological, Beauty, and Moral arguments for God. From these arguments, he then leads into explaining the problem of sin and ultimately presents the Gospel focusing on the cross and the resurrection.

While Keller’s book is not intended as an Apologetics textbook, there is nonetheless much that can be learned from his approach. While admittedly approaching this book from a Christian perspective, I find the first part of the book to be very effective. Often Christians picture themselves on the defense against all attacks to the faith. Keller takes a completely different approach. Instead of devoting the book to answering any one objection, he systematically and consistently attacks the seven most common arguments. With each argument he begins by showing the argument invalid due to its inherent self-contradiction. Atheists, skeptics, and doubters cannot stand up to their own arguments. It would be easy to stop here, but Keller continues. Having shown the argument invalid he then precedes to give a response to each one.
The second part of the book, though treated briefly in the description, is essential to any good apologetic. Having placed the religious and the skeptics on fair ground he then precedes to preach the gospel. This must never be neglected in apologetics and should, rather, be seen as the goal for which we strive.
There are some foundational beliefs behind the author’s approach in this book. The author would definitely hold to a pre-suppositional view, as proven by statements like: “I think people in our culture know unavoidably that there is a God, but they are repressing what they know” (146). This causes Keller to understand that the only way to prove God’s existence to a person is for God to change their heart. Arguing God’s existence is, then, never the end; it is rather penultimate to the gospel. What is especially refreshing is that he does not write a book about the gospel and end there. He attempts to deal logically, philosophically, and intellectually with many of the arguments proposed in recent popular books against the Christian faith by men like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.
Another assumption by the author is that all people have innate moral standard. Biblically, I find this to be supported by the law written on the heart of all men which is later given expression in writing in the form of the Ten Commandments. Evolution and all other beliefs apart from God cannot explain this. Morality does not lead to survival of the fittest. What standard do we have that leads all humans to the belief that some things are right while others are wrong? Along with this is the understanding that people find things beautiful and are often moved by beauty. Where could this standard come from if not from God? Romans chapter one says that the creation testifies to us that God exists.
Authorities play a major role in Keller’s treatment of the arguments. He very often appeals to the writings of Lewis and Plantinga, as might be expected, but does not stop with well known Christians. He makes extensive use of secular philosophers, liberals, and atheists while very rarely referencing the scriptures. At times, it is apparent to the Christian that Keller is pulling something from the scriptures, but in the first part theses instances are not referenced. For all of theses reasons it is clear that Keller has a specific audience in mind, namely atheists, skeptics and doubters. The book is also written on a level that is very attainable, as evidenced by the simplicity of the language despite the philosophical nature of the writing. While it would be easy to pile each chapter full of intellectual and philosophical authorities, Keller resists the temptation. He instead begins many chapters with quotes from people he has encountered in his pastoral ministry. It becomes clear that this book is an outpouring of the pastoral ministry lived out on a day to day basis over a couple of decades in the tough city of Manhattan, New York. He approaches apologetics with the heart of the shepherd and finds a great balance with authorities and real life testimonies.
Keller’s attitude is refreshing in a book of this nature. He describes the difference between Christianity and other belief systems. Christianity is the only belief system based on grace and not works. Christians, therefore, have no right or incentive to believe themselves superior to others. Even atheists have a superiority complex in believing that they are right while all others fumble around in the dark. While Christians should affirm that their belief is correct, they should not find themselves superior to others because all they have they received is a gift. Christians are not more intelligent; if anything the scriptures would argue the opposite: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Cor. 1:27-29). Keller presents an attitude we should all aim for in apologetics: humility before a gracious God and concern for the souls of those we may oppose.
If there is any point at which I can offer real criticism it is over Keller, at times, giving up too much ground. At one point he makes the plea that evolution as a theory is not contrary to Christianity, only as an all-encompassing belief system. While I understand his perspective, I worry over the necessity of giving so much ground. At other times he is intentionally vague about Christian beliefs to avoid presenting controversy in the book. In the end, I believe he is okay with giving some ground and a little intentional vagueness due to his confidence in the truth of the Christian faith.

The Reason for God is a great example of how apologetics can and should be practiced. Though many Apologetics books are written for the Christian, this one is not. The book approaches apologetics humbly with an end goal of the conversion of souls. At the same time, the book is solid philosophically and theologically. While, as Keller confesses, there is no perfect argument for the existence of God that will convince all people this book is thorough and convincing in its support for God. I recommend anyone who struggles with the reasonableness of the Christian faith to give this book a sincere read. While intended primarily for non-believers this book would serve the believer well to help establish a more reasonable basis for the Christian faith. It is enlightening, edifying, and encouraging while at the same time being culturally relevant; a truly rare combination.