Book: The Reason for God, by Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a successful church in New York. He’s written a book, The Reason For God, which he says is for people doubting Christianity, and for Christians wanting to answer questions from their non-Christian friends. nlj21 lent me the book, and I read it while on holiday recently. If you’d like to see Keller in action, you can watch his talk at Google, which rehearses some of the arguments from the book.

The success of Keller’s church sounds surprising when you learn that the church is pretty evangelical in theology, because (going by the people he quotes objecting to Christianity) New York is apparently full of the American equivalent of Guardian readers. But having seen Keller’s style, I can see why he’s successful. He deals sensitively with the human problems people might have had with the church or with conservative Christians as well as the factual arguments. He admits where arguments are only suggestive rather than conclusive, and he mentions the arguments against his position. He admits that there’s no argument that will persuade everyone, so the best thing is to look for arguments that will persuade most of the people, most of the time.

Ultimately, though, I think Keller shows more good will than reason, which makes the title a bit of a misnomer. Keller shows that you can construct a Christianity that hangs together, that a belief in God isn’t completely crazy. That’s certainly necessary, but hardly sufficient, for a reasonable person to believe it. A lot of the book is assertions without evidence for them, when evidence is precisely what is required.

That said, since the book is better than most Christian attempts at evangelism I’ve read or seen lately, I thought I’d do a couple of posts on it, of which this is the first.

Arguments against God

The book is divided into two parts: one dealing with the arguments against God, which Keller wants to show are faulty; and one dealing with the arguments for God. We’ll look at his responses to objections, using the chapter headings from the book.

There can’t be just one true religion

<lj-cut>There’s no logical basis for such an argument, as Keller rightly says, because there might actually be one true religion.

What people voicing this objection really seem to be worrying about is the danger that thinking you have the Truth will make you arrogant or even violent towards those who don’t agree. Keller says that the bad stuff done by Christians was against the teachings of Christianity, that is, that those people weren’t True Scotsmen.

Someone like Keller wouldn’t have gone on a Crusade and wouldn’t shoot abortionists, so those things are certainly against Keller’s sort of Christianity. However, Keller’s assertion rests on his interpretation of Christianity being the True Christianity (or at least, Truer), a view which wasn’t shared by Crusaders. As God is silent, how can Keller persuade Crusaders of his rightness? A general caution against arrogance when you think you know the absolute truth sounds like a good idea. Perhaps we should try believing things to the extent that we have evidence for them, for example?

How could a good God allow suffering?

<lj-cut>Keller argues that modern philosophers don’t accept that evil can be used to disprove God. God might have reasons for doing stuff which we don’t currently understand, and in fact, if he’s much cleverer than us, reasons we may be unable to understand.

This is true as far as it goes, and indeed leaves some possibility that God exists and is good. But, once again, I recommend believing in stuff to the extent that we have evidence for it. To use Gareth’s analogy, if we’re told someone is a chess grandmaster, yet is is apparently playing very badly, we might at first think that he is adopting some strategy we don’t understand, but as the game goes on, as his opponent hoovers up his pieces without apparent effort, we might begin to suspect we’ve been misinformed about this so-called grandmaster.

Some Christians might respond that a dramatic reversal is on the way, but their evidence for that is poor. Even by the late New Testament period, teaching about the Second Coming is being shored up by suspicious pre-emptive excuses for why it hasn’t happened. So far, the state of the board is evidence against the idea that God is good and able to intervene.

Keller goes on to say that atheists have no moral basis for calling something evil, re-iterating the moral argument discussed in a previous entry. He’s wrong, of course: the basis is our dislike of our own suffering, and our empathy for others, two things which are basic experiences in most people. Someone without these might not have a moral basis for expecting God to do something about suffering, but if you don’t like suffering and aren’t a sociopath, you’ve got a basis for worrying about theodicy.

Christianity is a straitjacket

<lj-cut>The objection to Christianity which Keller is responding to here seems to be a sort of “The Man is keeping you down, Man” statement, with God as the ultimate party pooper/Daily Mail reader/imperialist. It seems to come from woolly relativists who turn up to Keller’s church in New York. There’s no logic to this objection, since there’s no reason why such a God couldn’t exist and disapprove of the continual debauch which makes up the life of every atheist.

The Church is responsible for so much injustice

<lj-cut>Along with C.S. Lewis, whose works Keller treats as a sort of New New Testament, Keller argues that you shouldn’t judge Christianity by Christians, because the church attracts strange and damaged people (like me, for example) and when you meet someone, you don’t know what they’ve been through in their past.

The assumption here is that there’s a good reason for changes brought about by God to take a long time. It’s odd that it does for some people and not others, though, isn’t it? If God can turn around Saul and those former drug addicts you get giving their testimonies at some churches, you’d’ve thought he wouldn’t have so much trouble making some Christians (who the Bible says have God living in them, remember) less insufferable, for example. It’s almost as if there’s no supernatural involvement at all: some people dramatically change their lives when exposed to some ideas, and others only partially absorb them and take time to move.

The rest of the chapter is the religion vs secularism murder drinking game (drink if the theist mentions Pol Pot or Stalin, drink if the atheist mentions the Crusades or 911, down your glass if anyone mentions Hitler). This can be fun and can motivate your side, but I’m not sure it moves the theist/atheist debate anywhere, so while I have engaged in it in the past, I now think is pretty pointless. I don’t see any way of showing that Christians are any better or worse than atheists, so the original objection that Keller is responding to doesn’t seem a good one. Arguably, though, if Christianity is true, Christians ought to be clearly better.

How can a loving God send people to Hell?

<lj-cut>Keller says that our problem with judgement is cultural, and that other cultures exposed to Christianity like the judgement stuff but don’t like the turning the other cheek stuff. He says he asked one person who objected to Hell whether she would say that her culture was superior to non-Western ones. The right answer to this is “Well, I think my personal morality is, otherwise what the Hell am I doing?” or possibly “Well, maybe not in general, but I’m fairly sure eternal torture is a bad thing”. Keller’s politically correct one-up-manship is a good way to make woolly relativists back down, so presumably works against the liberals who turn up at his New York church.

Keller then moves on to argue that God doesn’t send people to Hell, as such. His view of judgement owes more to the bowdlerisation of Hell in C.S. Lewis’s New New Testament than it does to the New Testament. Lewis and Keller think that Hell is a continuation of the soul’s trajectory at death, that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside, that Hell is ultimately God saying “have it your way”. Lewis says “It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us, there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud”.

To support Lewis’s ideas, Keller quotes Romans 1:24-26, a passage about God “giving people over” to their sins. This passage is actually about red-hot girl-on-girl action, not the fires of Hell. The New Testament is a bit less reticent about God’s role in sending people to Hell than Keller. Reading it, you’ll find that God has appointed a day, and a judge who will condemn people to the fire. It’s hard to fit this positive action from God into Keller’s scheme.

So where did Keller’s ideas come from? Lewis’s (and hence Keller’s) Hell is the Buddhist Hungry Ghosts realm, but without the possibility of rebirth. People in Keller’s Hell are dominated by their addictions, but these cannot satisfy them, and this continues forever. The fires of this Hell are the disintegration caused by self-centredness and addiction.

Alas, you’ll find none of this stuff in the Bible, where the fire is punishment from God (the correct evangelical term is eternal conscious torment). Keller quotes the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in support of the Hungry Ghost Hell. His exposition of the passage talks about how the Rich Man is self-centred in that he still expects Lazarus to fetch water for him, but unfortunately ignores the fact that this is because the Rich Man is being tortured by fire.

Since Keller’s Hell is the Hungry Ghosts realm, I wondered what his response would be to people attempting to avoid self-centredness by other means. Keller says that “When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing – though a good thing – becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy”. This claim is asserted without evidence.

Keller offers poor evidence for believing Lewis over the Bible about hell. The Bible’s actual view is less palatable than Lewis’s, and evangelical Christians (like the rest of us) need to face up to the parts of their beliefs which hurt to think about. Hell is torture at God’s express command. If you believe in the Bible’s version, you think your non-Christian family and friends morally deserve to be in torment forever, and you accept that they probably will be unless they convert. Somehow, in tandem with this, you must try to believe that God is loving and very intelligent. Good luck with that one. It’s no wonder that most evangelicals (with some notable exceptions) believe they should believe in Hell, but don’t actually believe in it.

Science has disproved Christianity

<lj-cut>Keller, quoting Nagel, argues that naturalism is a philosophy which science uses but cannot prove. So, he says, if anyone’s arguing there can’t be a God merely because they have a prior commitment to naturalism, they’re assuming their conclusion. I wouldn’t disagree here.

Keller goes into an extensive digression about how many scientists believe in God. Like the murder drinking game, we need to be a bit careful here, both when reading Dawkins and when reading Keller. What counts as evidence for God’s activity (or lack of it) is the opinion of domain experts in areas where God is said to have acted (like, say, the opinion of biologists and geologists on creationism, or the opinion of psychologists and anthropologists on religious experiences). The rest is pretty much irrelevant: there’s nothing so stupid that you can’t find someone with a PhD who believes it.

He talks a lot about evolution, probably because creationism is an embarrassment to Christianity for scientifically educated people who turn up at his church. He says he accepts some form of evolution, but, unlike Dawkins, he doesn’t accept evolution as a worldview. The argument is quite confused at this point, and it’s not clear what he means by “evolution as a worldview”. Quotable quote: “When evolution is turned into an all-encompassing theory explaining absolutely everything we believe, feel and do as the product of natural selection, then we were not in the arena of science, but of philosophy”. Keller appears to have mixed up Dawkins’s views on evolution with Dawkins’s general belief in naturalism, since I doubt Dawkins supports the quoted position.

Keller says he himself believes that God guided some kind of process of natural selection (making it a process of supernatural selection, I suppose). Keller has effectively retrofitted Genesis to modern scientific theories. God presumably knew he used evolution to create life when he inspired Genesis, so it is a little odd that he doesn’t mention it. A Bronze Age level explanation of evolution would have been no more wacky than many other creation myths, and would have the advantage that the Bible would look a lot more impressive when a scientific culture discovered it was right.

Keller tells his readers not to worry about all this disagreement among Christians about evolution. Look at the core claims of Christianity, he says, not at this side issue. Unfortunately, some of those core claims conflict with evolution. For example, there’s the claim that, just as death entered the world through Adam’s sin, Jesus’s death for humanity’s sins conquered sin and hence death, as demonstrated by the Resurrection. Does Keller think that the Fall was an event in history, and is he arguing that nothing died before the Fall? If Keller has answers to those sorts of objections (which usually come from other Christians, namely the creationists), he doesn’t tell us what they are and how he knows they’re right.

He rightly says that the evidence for the conventional theory of evolution can’t be used to show that theistic evolution didn’t happen, which is sufficient to do away with the objection he’s responding to, if the objector specifically has evolution in mind. It’s a pretty poor objection, though, as science doesn’t really prove anything. Perhaps a more interesting objection to claims of God’s activity in the world would be to say that God is inert and ask someone like Keller to show why anyone would believe otherwise.

You can’t take the Bible literally

<lj-cut>Keller limits himself to talking about the Gospels. He says that they were written too soon after Jesus’s life to be fictionalised accounts, because their first readers could have checked up on their accuracy; their content isn’t what we’d expect of legends composed by the early church (the female witnesses to the Resurrection, Peter’s denial of Jesus when Peter went on to head the church); and that the gospels have the literary form of eye-witness accounts, but the modern novel had not been invented yet, so they are intended as reportage.

I’m no historian, so I’m not really able to check these claims out. I’d be interested to know what my readers think, and I’ll probably be looking into this stuff at some point in the future. My meta-problem with this stuff is having to rely on ancient written accounts of stuff I give very low credence to by default. Does God really want us all to become experts in ancient literature? I can think of easier ways to convince me.

Keller then addresses cultural, rather than historical, objections to the Bible, arguing, along with New New Testament author C.S. Lewis, that such objections may be assuming that older societies were “primitive”, but that our grandchildren may find some of our beliefs equally primitive. Imagine Anglo-Saxons and modern Brits reading two stories, Jesus’s claim that he will judge the world, and Peter’s denial of Jesus and later restoration. The responses to the two stories will be quite different, Keller argues, so who are we to say that judgement is bad and wrong but Jesus’s forgiveness of Peter is right.

So, Keller argues, rather than saying “bits of the Bible are sexist, therefore Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead” (which is, as he says, a non sequitur), we should decide whether Jesus is the Son of God, and if he is, we should have confidence in what the Bible says because the Bible tells us Jesus had such a high view of it (even of the New Testament and New New Testament, which hadn’t been written yet). This is a perfectly valid argument.

Summing up

Some of the objections Keller gets from New Yorkers are ill considered, and Keller bats them aside easily. In other cases (theodicy and Hell), his method is to argue that there’s still a chance that Christianity is true, so the objections aren’t completely conclusive. I don’t find this that impressive, because the sensible objector isn’t claiming that their objections are conclusive, merely that they’re strong evidence. To defeat that, one must produce stronger evidence, which as we’ll see in the next part, Keller fails to do.

The last enemy

A while back, robhu was looking for Bible study courses, and nlj21 recommended TEAM, a course which is run by the vicar of an offshoot of my old church (you might remember my posting about his sermon on The God Delusion).

I poked at the media site. Surprisingly, I didn’t make a bee-line for the sex one: anyone who has been in an evangelical church for any length of time has heard 1 Cor 7 preached to death, and knows that sex is a Good Thing if you’re married (but if you’re very keen on evangelism, or merely very bad at talking to girls, you can be “single for the gospel”). Instead, I picked on the evangelism one, specifically the Q&A session (that’s a link to the audio, which you may want in a minute) on how to convert your friends. Know your enemy, right? 🙂

John Richardson(edited: I got the name wrong initially, apologies to Richardson and Woodcock should either read this)Pete Woodcock, the speaker, is a straight-forward sort of bloke. He’s also pretty funny. The Q&A starts with a worked example of how to talk to various types of people about Jesus, which says sensible stuff about working out where people are coming from, sensitivity and suchlike, while also having a slightly cheeky approach (he talks about how he gave the residents of a new estate flyers saying “your foundations are crumbling“, for example).

There were a couple of bits which stood out as quick shocking. Looking at it from the evangelical viewpoint, I’d say Woodcock is being consistent with it, and that this is so much the worse for the evangelical viewpoint. See what you think.

<lj-cut text=”Pray for your well off friends to have an accident, pray for obstructive liberal vicars to be converted or to die”>To be even-handed, I’ll put these shocking statements in some context. So, at around 29:40, he’s midway through responding to the question of how you deal with people who have a good life and don’t think they need God (remind them that they’re going to die and they don’t get to decide when that’ll be, as this parable does). We then get this (my transcription for the purpose of criticism, ellipses are where he tails off and changes tack rather than where I’ve elided something):

I know people get shocked when I say this, but someone was asking me the other day about their son, who’s doing really well, and I said, why don’t you pray that he has a nasty accident? Have you ever prayed that? You know, it does sound weird, doesn’t it? Well, why not? Because, you know, we don’t want… I don’t know, I want to help that person, and if having an accident, and taking away his money, and taking away his car, and the very things that he’s put… if his gods are exposed, then I need to pray that his gods will be exposed for the false gods that they are, in order that I can teach him about the reality of God.

(The bit about “his gods” here is an occurrence of the evangelical trope that “everyone worships something”, so the gods referred to are the money, the car and so on).

A bit later, around 32:20, he’s asked about how to get your nice middle-class neighbours in to realise that going to their local village church doesn’t mean they’re saved. He recommends getting them into a Bible study group. The questioner says the local vicar is against that sort of thing (maybe because the vicar doesn’t like evangelicals, maybe because the vicar is a control freak, probably both: the politics of village churches can get pretty nasty). He recommends telling the villagers to make their own minds up about things. We get to about 37:15 and this happens:

But don’t morally worry about a dead vicar that is preaching heresy. He’s a liar, you know, if he’s not preaching the truth, that man is a liar and will be judged. He is in desperate trouble. You can pray for his soul, and pray that he’ll get converted, but do not allow him to dictate anything. He is a liar, and doing people harm, and if he’s stopping them getting into the Bible, then God, take him from this world or save him. That’s the prayer: Lord, stop him, somehow, either by killing him or saving him. That’s the prayer I have for our local vicar in Kingston. I ask the Lord to take his life or save his soul. I prefer to have his soul saved, but take him, or at least, take him away from our town, cos he’s a liar.



It’s lucky this chap isn’t a Muslim, or he’d have his own Channel 4 documentary team doing a programme on him. We’re not quite in Undercover Mosque territory, as there’s no suggestion of giving God a helping hand with the brake lines (not worrying about a “dead vicar” here probably refers to a spiritually dead vicar, i.e., one who is not an evangelical Christian): at least praying for something gives God the option of saying no.

These are off the cuff responses to questions. I imagine the poor chap never thought they would turn up on some atheist’s blog. But the important thing to realise is that, as far as I can tell, Woodcock is perfectly consistent with evangelicalism, consistent in a way which even many evangelicals are not (the lack of consistency in the other evangelicals is possibly a manifestation of belief in belief: they think it’s good to believe in hell, so they say they believe in hell, but they don’t anticipate-as-if there’s a hell). If you ask your evangelical friends where you’re going when you die, if you’re not a Christian, they’ll tell you’re going to Hell. Hell is the worst thing ever, so keeping you out of it is pretty important. What are horrific injuries in the temporal world compared to an eternity in hell? What is the death of one man if it leads to the salvation of many?

One might quibble about the advice to pray for this stuff, rather than, say, praying for God to convert the person or get the vicar out of the way and letting God sort it out. For some reason, it’s usually thought to be better to pray for specific stuff rather than generalities. If we concede that it would be right for God to do this stuff, it’s surely right to pray for it. So would it be right for God to do it? Recalling that whatever God does is right, that the Bible is inerrant, and that the Bible says that God isn’t averse to killing people that get in the way of his chosen people, it’s hard to say that smiting recalcitrant vicars isn’t something God might do (it’s right to pray that the vicar gets converted, but recall also that God doesn’t force himself on people to make them converted, so the smiting is a useful backup plan if the vicar won’t become a real Christian). In the case of the car accident, we know from C.S. Lewis that pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

Speaking of car accidents, this sort of thing does make you want to have a Barlet moment, doesn’t it?

TGGD

In the comments on a recent posting of mine, there are several discussions on the subjects of consciousness, Hell, whether a choice is free if the chooser is subject to threats, and a whole bunch of other stuff. robhu is speaking for the “we sinners all deserve to burn, but God is so super that he saves some people” side, gjm11 for the opposition. I’ve been busy all day so haven’t had much chance to contribute. I think it’s shaping up to be the post of mine with the most comments. Have fun.

Praise the Lord and pass the Abolish the Death Tax bill

Channel 4 recently screened a documentary called God’s Next Army about Patrick Henry College, an evangelical Christian college in America. You can watch it over at Google Video. Why not download it using the Google Video Player thingy so you can still watch it when Channel 4 finds out?

Channel 4 also brought us Richard Dawkins and the Root of all Evil (why not get part 1 and part 2?) God’s Next Army lacks the pugnacious presenter, preferring instead to give the ropefloor to the college’s staff and students. The college aims to produce people who will take part in some sort of Christian version of The West Wing, where the staff of the White House will successfully battle to prevent gay marriage while engaging in snappy but incomprehensible dialogue. Luckily, it seems that evil contains the seeds of its own undoing.

While I was reading Rilstone on Dr Who (I am firmly in the “Fear Her was crap, less soap and more science fiction, please” camp), I ran across Helen Louise, a Christian wrestling with the idea of Hell. She’d linked to The Gobbledygook Gospel, which pretty well describes the dissonance at the heart of the evangelical gospel (but which then goes on to argue that God is like a big friendly dog: it takes all sorts, I suppose).

I also found The Shock of Your Life and downloaded the first chapter, which is about what non-Christians can expect when we die, told in the first person by a non-Christian who is about to be unpleasantly surprised. It’s sort of really bad Christian fan-fiction. The author gets special extra bonus points for juxtaposing a partial quote of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats with an assertion from the narrator’s angelic guide that it’s not what you do that gets you into heaven; unfortunately the partial quote is one that leaves out the bit where Jesus says that it is what you do that gets you into heaven. It’s a good thing that Revelation 22:19 strictly only applies to the Book of Revelation itself, I suppose. One cannot judge the canon (geddit?) by the fan fiction, but I find myself slightly worried that this sort of stuff is being marketed to teenagers. Why can’t they read more wholesome stories about Snape having sex with Hermione instead?

God Told Me To Do It

“Hell is an outrage on humanity. When you tell me that your Deity made you in his own image, I reply that he must have been very ugly.” -Victor Hugo

I’ve been emailing one of my Christunfrends on the subject of hell. Hell is the dark underbelly of orthodox Christian belief. Christians are, with some notable exceptions, a nice bunch. Remember the natives of the planet Krikkit? In Life, the Universe and Everything they believe in “peace, justice, morality, culture, sport, family life, and the obliteration of all other life forms.” As I’ve said before, evangelicals are sometimes a bit like that. Only instead of the obliteration of all other life forms, we have the eternal conscious torment of non-believers in Hell (annihilationism being viewed as suspiciously liberal by people like Reform).

<lj-cut> When I was a Christian, if asked, I’d have said that my non-Christian friends were going to Hell. But, like my correspondant, I’d not really faced what that meant. Most Christians consider Medieval pictures of fire and pitchforks a little passé these days, but regardless of that, Hell is conceived by Christians as the total absence of anything good. Choose your own favourite candidate for the worst thing that’s ever happened, and it’s worse than that. Forever.

The justification for an infinite punishment for a finite crime is supposedly that it’s not really a finite crime at all. God is so perfect that the smallest offence against him is as bad as the largest. Or he’s so good that nothing sinful can come into his presence. The latter explanation of the mechanics of damnation absolves God of personal involvement in sending people to Hell, as it’s logical necessity which means that nobody can join God in heaven without the aid of Jesus.

My friend, and presumably other Christians, respond to the thought that their friends are damned with gratitude that Christians are saved, and also with an increased zeal for evangelism. What’s missing from this is a question about how their friends’ fate can possibly be just. If the latter explanation is true, why does God sustain consciousness in the damned? And if he doesn’t deliberately sustain it, why are the damned conscious, as we’re told that in him we live and move and have our being?

And if the former explanation is true, why is he so goddamned tetchy? We have Christians who are supposed to be longsuffering, patient and kind, serving a God who is second to none in his sociopathic perfectionism (“Using an adaption of Anselm’s Ontological Argument, or otherwise, prove this statement about God is true. [20 marks]”). As Terry Pratchett points out in Small Gods, the prophets are better than the gods they serve.

I was attempting to understand how someone can thank God for salvation in the face of the knowledge of the fate of their loved ones. There are a couple of possible explanations. One is that Christians just haven’t thought about it very much. That was my experience. As Andrew Rilstone writes about another unpalatable evangelical belief, the fact that my nonchristunfrends were going to hell was just “one of the three impossible things you had to believe before breakfast in order to hang out with a nice group of people, sing songs and occasionally get a faith-based-buzz”.

The other explanation is somewhat darker. If a Christian honestly faces the reality of hell and thanks God anyway, my impression is that it’s rather like the Stockholm Syndrome, where people who are kidnapped, held hostage or otherwise placed under extreme duress come to love their captors and thank them for any small act of kindness (I’m not the first to have come up with this idea, of course).

S (who, ironically, usually plays God’s Advocate in these discussions 🙂 points out that the true history of the Stockholm bank robbery doesn’t reflect the Stockholm Syndrome as described, and that accusing someone of suffering from the syndrome is a convenient way of dissing your political opponents. I suppose the penultimate paragraph of this article is what I’m talking about. Call it what you like, but, as alluded to by the paragraph beginning “I trust my master”, “Normally, when people say things like ‘You are His possession, he can do whatever He likes with you’, the next sentence is ‘What is the safety word?'” (quote from Steven Carr in uk.religion.christian. I must say I rather like Gareth’s response. And don’t look so innocent, you’ve been around LiveJournal for long enough now.)

Alas, if these Christians are right, this is not a game and there’s no way out. I might be vainglorious, but I’d prefer the Miltonesque “Satan” over such a God any day.

Speaking of which, The Torygraph has a transcript of a discussion between Archbishop Rowan Williams and Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy. Williams is a counterweight to the sort of Christianity which makes me glad I left the church. Perhaps there’s hope for us all yet.