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A conversation with Tim Keller about “Hope in Times of Fear”

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April 2, 2021

Editor’s note: The following is a transcript from Russell Moore’s engaging conversation with prolific author and pastor, Tim Keller. They discuss fear, suffering, and how the resurrection of Jesus infuses us with a real and living hope.

Russell Moore: Hello, this is Russell Moore, and you’re listening to Signposts. And here on Signposts, I invite you every time to pull up a chair and to listen as I talk to thinkers and leaders about a whole range of issues, always looking for what Walker Percy used to call “signposts in a strange land.” And I’m really, really honored to have my friend Tim Keller on today to talk about his new book called Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter. Tim, thanks for being on Signpost today.

Tim Keller: Well, it’s an honor to be here. Thanks.

Moore: I was finishing your book last night, and as I was doing so, I was thinking about the article that you wrote for The Atlantic a couple of weeks ago that really resonated with a lot of people, talking about, sort of, the things that you learned as you were being treated for cancer. And one of the things that really struck me the most in that article, and it showed up many times in this book as well, is how you learned through this time that you could find much more joy if you didn’t try to make a heaven out of the things that could bring joy. Could you explain a little bit about what you meant by that?

Keller: Well, yes, I can. I’ll do it existentially and then also maybe a little theologically. It, basically, my wife and I, Kathy and I, recognize the fact that we set our, we rested so much of our joy in pretty material things, and they were fairly different. I tended to, in some ways, we were a little bit a little bit like gender stereotypes here. I really did rest in ministry accomplishments. Maybe a better word would be, new institutions getting started, new organizations. New, I’m a starter, I like that. And I would just find that that’s what made life meaningful. My wife actually found, a lot of different places we lived there were certain places we, especially as we got older, we went to for certain weeks of every year that were extraordinarily important to her, and also certain aspects of the actual physical environment we were in. Sights and sounds and things that we could do. And we realized that when the cancer diagnosis came that these things were being taken away from us. Not only on my side, I can read and write and do things and I can actually talk on podcasts like this. But it’s not the same thing as starting a church or starting. I can’t I can’t do those things in a way. And I shouldn’t, actually, now. 

Now, Kathy also realized that we had to sort of die to the possibility of ever going to some of the places that we have gone to every year for many years. A place where she would get respite, where she would feel like she was getting her soul renewed. And we realized it was not God, it was God’s gifts that we were really looking to. And that when you make, when you try to make God’s gifts into God, you actually don’t get as much out of them. We realized in some ways we were never really satisfied by them. And when we, we said we died to all that last summer when we first heard about the cancer, we sort of died to that, we said we may never see these things again. And we started to go really after God in prayer, we came to realize we actually did enjoy what we were getting. A lovely day. We, I do see water here. There are many things about where we live that are lovely, and we realized we were enjoying life more than we had before. Now, theologically, what Augustine means by that is you reorder your loves. And what Augustine would say, contrary to the Buddhist or the stoic, which says you detach your heart from these things so they won’t hurt you when you lose them. Or, the modern person, who says you go out and, you know, you only go around once in life, so you grab for all the gusto you can. Remember that beer commercial, Are you old enough to remember that beer commercial? But what Augustine would say is you don’t want to love anything here less because these are God’s good gifts. You don’t want to harden your heart or detach your heart from them. But your problem is you you need to love God more in relation to them. And if you do that, then, if you love first things first, you’ll love second thing second, third things third. If you love second things first or third things first, you actually lose them. They don’t give you what you want. So we were, in a way, talking about something very old, something that Augustine talked about in the Confessions 1500 years ago. But I was able to turn it into an Atlantic article, basically.

Moore: I suppose there are probably many people who haven’t yet grappled with mortality, but who might wonder, how do I know if I’m putting second things first? How do I compare love for God, which often seems sort of unquantifiable and intangible, with my loves for these secondary things?

Keller: Ok, that’s a great question. I would say that if you even ask that question, you are making progress. If you even doubt yourself, you make progress. But I do think the reality is that there are some progress that you don’t make until something goes wrong in your life. There’s some of it you can do without trouble and difficulty. 

So, for example, I can, if I’m making an idol out of my career, can I really de-idolize it without something going wrong in my career? Can I actually say I’m working too hard, I’m too driven, and maybe you see some other friend of yours life blow up, perhaps, over the same thing and you say, I don’t want to go there. I see what he did, you know. He started to lie. He started to do things because it was more important that he be successful then he be honest or be virtuous. I don’t want to do that. I’m afraid of that. So is it possible for you to actually de-idolize your career without there being some big problem in your career? Maybe. Give it a shot. Because if it’s not sufficient, God will give you some problem that will force it on you

Moore: When you face those times of sort of forcing it, whether it’s mortality or something else, what about regrets? Often people will talk about looking back and seeing regrets. And I’m not talking about sins here. I’m just talking about in terms of, say, ministry accomplishments, you look back and you say, I wish I had done this or I wish I had not done that. Do you think that an experience like this clarifies those regrets in a way that it heightens them or does it does it, for you anyway, put them into perspective?

Keller: Oh, that’s a great question. I think, certainly, the perspective. I mean, I think, what I get from C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and people like that is that heaven will make amends for all. In other words, there will be no regrets when you get there. Or, another way to put it, is anything that you were actually trying to accomplish or reach in this life is just an echo of what you’re going to get in heaven. You’re going to eat it and drink it and it’ll be there. So, in a sense, there should be no regrets. Because anything you were hoping to attain you will attain. Nevertheless, it’s actually a good, I mean, Kathy and I both look back, we actually experienced quite a bit of it regrets in the situation where, in light of our mortality, which finally hit us, we look back and see all the opportunities and things that we didn’t make use of. Now, you console yourself with what I just said. That heaven will make amends for everything. And anything that you didn’t accomplish, well in God’s plan, and “all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to his purpose,” in God’s plan that wasn’t something that was part of his plan for human history. But in the end, everything’s going to be made right. Everything’s going to be made right. 

I mean, I’ll give you a quick example, I’ll be real granular here. Is that I see other people, people my age and people I know pretty well, who have been much better at mentoring a younger generation of leaders than me. And I realize, and here’s my excuse, I realize the ministry that I was running here, we got so big, that I really, it took everything I could. I mean, had a hundred full-time people reporting up to you. And when your institutions get that big, you spend so much of your time running the institution. So actually, just an example, somebody like Mark Dever. You know, Mark has almost deliberately kept their church, because it hasn’t gone to multiple services and videos and all that, I don’t know whether he had the foresight to do this, but he’s just basically kept the church kind of the size it’s been. For a long time. Which enables him to put enormous amount of capital and time over the years into raising up other leaders and putting them out there. And he’s far more, far better at that than I ever was. And it’s because my church got bigger. So you look back and you say, OK, on the other hand, out of Redeemer spun all kinds of things. City to City, which is a church planting network around the world, has worked in now thousands of churches around the world. There would be no City to City if Redeemer hadn’t gotten big. There would be no Hope for New York. There would be no Redeemer counseling services. There would be no, you know, there’s all these things that have happened. And so you look back and say, God, he knows. And yet there are times where both Kathy and I look back quite a bit and say, in light of eternity, there won’t be regrets. But right now we have quite a few.

Moore: You mention in the book subtitle fear, or well, in the actual title Hope in Times of Fear, and I was kind of surprised when I linked to your Atlantic piece in my newsletter, I was hearing back from a lot of people for whom it sort of hit home. Who were in their early 20s and people that you would think wouldn’t ordinarily be thinking about long perspective sorts of things now. But I wonder if this year of COVID has not, to some degree, forced everyone to grapple with mortality and shortness of life and so forth, and with fear. And I wonder what you would say. Hebrews 2 says that we’ve been freed from captivity to fear of death, and yet, we’re all afraid of death. We’re not in slavery to fear of death, the Bible says, but why would those of us who know Christ, who follow Christ, still have this sense of fear when we’re thinking about death?

Keller: Oh, well, OK, there’s two levels, to answer your question. The first level is, I’ll talk about the Christians in a second, I think the first level is the pandemic was a little bit like, it broke through the denial. I mean, I’ll get to you, in one second I’m going to say, all people basically live in denial of their mortality. And, by the way, I quoted John Calvin in the article, in The Atlantic, which hasn’t happened recently in The Atlantic, I’m sure, where he actually says when you see a dead body, you philosophize about mortality but then you go off and you basically believe in your own perpetuity. In his little section in The Institutes where he talks about, you know, he has got a section on, which has been pulled out and it’s called The Little Book on the Christian Life, and Calvin actually says that meditating on your future mortality is extremely important. And that we’re all living in denial. And as a result, we make bad choices. We don’t turn to God in the right way. We actually make bad life choices. It’s very, very interesting. I think the pandemic, in a way, was a cultural moment in which people said, wait a minute, all those dystopian movies where a plague comes and wipes out a third of the world or where somebody hacks the into the infrastructure somehow and all the, you know, there’s a there’s a complete depression because the bank, all the banking system around the world collapses and nobody knows what anybody’s worth. Or somebody sets off a dirty bomb and destroys half of a country and, wait a minute, those things can actually happen. 

Because actually the pandemic is a very, as you know, it’s a very close shave. This is nothing compared to what could happen. And we really aren’t in very good position to say, oh, OK, we’ve got things set up so this isn’t going to happen again. Nobody’s saying that. And so I think in a way, for the whole world, especially younger people, there’s been a cultural shattering of your denial about our mortality as a human race, as a civilization, that is very similar to what happens when you’re told on May 14, 2020, you know what, you have pancreatic cancer. And most pancreatic cancer people die within a year and a year and a half once they’re diagnosed. It’s the same thing. So that’s why I said you can talk at two levels about why the pandemic has created a basically an attitude of fear, in general, out there. 

Moore: And, why, I think a lot of Christians, when they do come up against that sense of fear, wonder, does this mean that I’m inadequate in faith? Shouldn’t I, if I know that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, shouldn’t I have this sense of rushing, rushing onward toward heaven without this sense of trepidation?

Keller: Sure you should. By the way, if you believed with all your heart, everything you profess with your mouth and your head, you’d be perfect. Just keep that in mind. In other words, if I fully trusted in Jesus, why would. What I always thought was fascinating about Martin Luther’s exposition of the Ten Commandments, Luther says you never break Commandments two through ten without first breaking commandment one. What he means is, he says, you would not ever lie unless you were making something more of a god than Jesus at the moment. So I lied because, oh, you know what, if I lie here, I could make a million dollars. OK, well, then money is your true God, your true security, your true success. And that means you’re breaking commandment one, which is have no other gods before me. And the reason you break commandment one all the time is because the fact is the love of God is not as real to my heart. It is not as real to, my faith is weak. My, the love of God is not as real to my heart as the love of popularity or the love of being considered a successful person. And so if I really did believe the things I profess, that I’m going to die and that I’m going to be resurrected and that Jesus’ love is what matters and all that, I’d be perfect and you’d be perfect. You would never sin, you wouldn’t have any reason to sin. So, yeah, of course. Of course, you should. Of course you should believe this, but we don’t. And that God continues to work with very broken people and people that need grace every day, every minute, every second.

Moore: I think about, often, I don’t know if you’ve ever said this or written this anywhere publicly, but in the book club that we’re in, one night, you happened to mention about, I think we were talking about Ecclesiastes, and you said if all that we had was Ecclesiastes, we would be tempted to just a sort of nihilism. Nothing matters. And if all that we had were Proverbs, we would be tempted to almost a prosperity gospel. I can do it. If I just do these things I get these results. But you need the interplay between the two that God, in his wisdom, put both of these words in the canon and they inform one another. I wonder if the same thing is true in terms of our sense of mortality. If we had a sense only that life is a vapor, we might think nothing really matters that I do. And if all that we had is redeem the day, redeem the time we might think this is all that matters is what I’m doing right now. But we have to sort of hold those things in tension. Do you think I’m on the right path there with that?

Keller: Yeah. Yeah, not only are you on the right path and that, by the way, that idea from the Old Testament came from my friend Tremper Longman, who, you know, is an Old Testament professor who actually said that the canon was put together by God so that we would have these balancing acts. But in the New Testament, the balance comes between, which is a big part of my book, by the way, is that when Jesus rose from the dead, he brought the future kingdom into the present partially, but not fully. And I think that already, but not yet, that we are redeemed, but we’re not fully redeemed, that we should not be cynical and think that we can’t see great things happening, but at the same time, we shouldn’t be naive and utopian. And so I think that balance what, you’re talking about, is not only in the New Testament, but it’s right in the centre of the New Testament, because the kingdom of God is already, but not yet.

Moore: One of the things you emphasized in the book is that by resurrection you’re not talking about metaphor. This isn’t wellness. It isn’t, sort of, the cycles of renewal in nature, but bodily historical resurrection from the dead. You interact with N.T. Wright’s great The Resurrection of the Son of God book a little bit at the beginning. And I’m wondering, if you’re talking to a skeptic, to someone who’s an unbeliever who doesn’t accept the claims of Christianity, would you start there with the historical reality of the resurrection and work outward? Or would you make that decision sort of case by case as you’re talking to the person?

Keller: Yeah, the second. Skepticism, you know, I was just talking to my sister, who’s got a grandson who’s, I guess 16, 17, who’s starting to go into skepticism. But his mother just died last year. And so he’s talking a lot about, the resurrection can’t really happen. He’s talking to his grandmother, and my sister is a Christian. He’s trying to say, oh, you know what, the resurrection just can’t happen. So, this is a pretty obvious example. No, I don’t think you give this guy, you don’t go after him too much on the intellectual side. You do some work, but you also realize his mom died last year and he’s having real questions about those things. And so I do think you have to be careful. If I see somebody who’s just pretty, pretty confident. It does look like the skepticism is pretty much just intellectual, mostly. That they’ve been around a lot of smart skeptics, but they haven’t been around a lot of smart believers. And it doesn’t look like their skepticism is being fueled by abuse in the past or bad church experiences and things like that, I would probably, yes, I would go, I think the resurrection is, especially in light of not only Tom Wright, but other people, there’s an awful lot of interesting stuff to give thoughtful folks right now. So if the person seems to be kind of fair minded and not being driven in their doubts by other things, yes, I would go there.

Moore: You mentioned the already not yet tension. And one of the things that you said in the book is explaining what regeneration is as a fundamental, I’m trying to think of how you worded it, a radical reorientation of life. And one of the things that I’ve sort of noticed anecdotally, at the beginning of my ministry, I think I met more people who were skeptical of the possibility of regeneration because they couldn’t believe in the resurrection. And now I tend to meet more people who are the reverse. They have trouble believing in the resurrection of Jesus because they’ve lost faith that regeneration could be true, for some of the reasons that you mentioned a few minutes ago. They’ve seen institutions fail that they trusted. They’ve seen people that they really trusted as spiritual leaders fall. And then they look at themselves and they say, how do I have newness of life when I seem to be so unchanged. What word would you have to someone who’s having difficulty there?

Keller: Yeah, that’s good. I mean, there’s no doubt that, Russ, I would always say to people that faith is a mixture of reason and experience. That, I say, for example, if somebody, let’s say I’m hiring an assistant and, mainly the way I hire somebody is I interview them. I look at their references. I see what everybody else is saying about them. And there’s a sense in which my decision to choose a candidate B over A and C is pretty rational. It’s baseless. But it’s mainly a probability, frankly. It’s like saying, well, it’s likely that this is the right person. But then I actually have to, I have to actually have faith enough to hire the person. And then in a year or two, if the person really works out, then I’m actually totally sure this was the right person. Though I have an experience that takes the kind of risk, of course, and commitment. Now, Tom Wright actually says that that outside of things you can you can prove in a laboratory, you know, like, you know, compound A boils at this temperature, at this, you know, barometric pressure and that kind of thing, is that apart from that, we really can’t prove anything. We can’t prove anything in history at all, if you want to talk about proof like that. But, he says, when it comes to the resurrection, there are, there’s tons of great evidence, as much evidence to believe in it as any other historical event.

But then, he would agree, that it’s putting your faith in it and going to Jesus Christ on the basis of it that creates that commitment and experience where you go from, I really think there’s really good reasons to believe this to, I know it’s true. I just absolutely know it’s true. And so I do think that when people are finding that their experience of the resurrected life is not very strong in them, in a way, Russ, when I was told I had pancreatic cancer, I would say I did feel a certain wavering in my faith. Why wouldn’t I? And at that point, I did go back to the, you might say, the rational and reread a lot of what Tom Wright said. And it was hugely helpful. So I guess I would say, you know, if the existential is flagging a little bit, shore up the rational. If the rational doesn’t take you all the way there, it can’t, take up the existential. But I really do want to say, by the way, I want to say and I have done this, I’ve had people say to me that I’ve walked away from Christianity because I had this very, I had these, you know, I was going to this church and I found out that the pastor who I really looked up to was having an affair, and was a total hypocrite, and was abusive, and I just walked away. And I said, look, I don’t want to be a, you know, I have to be careful here, if the person himself or herself was a victim of abuse, then I wouldn’t say this. But if the person was just disillusioned, I would say, OK, let me ask you a question. Does that person’s adultery mean that Jesus Christ couldn’t have been raised from the dead? And they’ll say, well, no. I said no, of course not. I mean, in other words, that’s a non sequitur to say, well, because my pastor was a hypocrite, Jesus couldn’t have been raised from the dead. The reasons for Jesus being raised from the dead are not ultimately, you know, the quality of life of every one of his followers. And I said, you really do have to go and ask yourself the question, why was I a Christian or why did I go to that church? Did I say, did you do the hard work of thinking these things out or were you just taken up with the social, you know, the social community? And so I think you have to go back and forth and it depends. Again, like, I’m glad you’re pointing this out, case by case

Moore: When we’re talking about fear, one of the things that comes up, of course, is just cultural sorts of fear. And I’m sure you saw yesterday Gallup released a survey showing that for the first time in their recorded polling, church membership is less than 50 percent of the American public, or in any house of worship, membership down to 47 percent. And that’s a dramatic fall over over 20 years. Things seem to be kind of cracking apart for a lot of Christians when they’re looking at this. If you had to predict, sort of, where this is going in terms of secularization and what is the church in America going to look like, say, 20 years from now? Of course, you’re not psychic, we know that. But what would you guess?

Keller: Ok, you know what, I, I really feel like you need to get Ross Douthat or somebody like that on to talk about the future of the Catholic Church. I just don’t feel like I can speak to that. And they are a pretty major part. You know, when we talk about Christianity in America, sorry, they are, they’re a big piece of it. But when it comes to Protestantism, here’s what I think is going to happen over the next 20 or 30 years. First of all, the number of nominal believers, that is, people who believe and are part of churches, mainly through cultural and social pressure or benefit. Which is how an awful lot of people in this country have been part of the church, In other words, there was either social pressure or social benefit to just being part of the church or family tradition. What happens is more nominal believers, they are being shed. And we’re going to get down to people who, basically, the religion is not inherited but chosen and it’s thought out. Now, when you get down to that group, you can have attrition there, too, but there’s much more retention. So a kind of a nominal Methodist who, family, who goes to the Methodist church every so often and they were historically Methodist, but nobody’s really all that strong in their beliefs. The idea that their children will grow up and say, I’m not Methodist, I’m not a Christian, the chances of that are very high. So the retention rate of a nominal is not very high. The retention rate of more conservative and orthodox of their children is way, way, way higher. So first of all, you’re going to shrink. Secondly, white people are far more secular and individualistic than non white people. Non white people are more religious and they’re more communitarian or communal. And non-white people’s birth rates are lower, immigration is going to come in and you’re going to see, I think, a shrinking of the church down to I don’t know where it’s going to be. It could be down to like 20 to 30 percent. And then it’ll start to grow again. It’ll be far more multiethnic and it’ll be far more orthodox. 

So, when I was growing up, there was a kind of evangelical conservative sliver. The majority of people who went to church were mainline Protestant. That mainline Protestant will be the sliver and the majority of people will be evangelical or Pentecostal or something like that, and it’ll be at least more than half non-white. My guess is, if the population is, say, 50 percent white 20 years from now or forty five percent white, the church will be more like 60 or 70 percent non-white and 30 percent white. That’s like it is in New York. If you come to New York, we’ve been planting churches. I mean, literally, the evangelical church in New York City has grown from about one hundred churches to over two hundred and fifty churches in the center part in the last twenty five years, which is amazing. But probably no more than a third of the people in those churches are white. So, my guess is that what I’m seeing in New York will be the future here. You’ll shrink down. You’re not going to see 75 percent, 50 percent church membership or church attendance and that sort of thing. But it’ll get down to like, it’ll get down to twenty five to thirty five percent. It’ll be, largely, it’ll start growing again. Secularization will actually bottom out in about 20 or 30 years. Islam will grow here too. So, because, for a lot of reasons. I don’t know if you find that interesting.

Moore: Yeah. But not to this inevitable sense of secularizing everything, the future is disenchanted.

Keller: No, no, no. As a matter of fact, I mean, ask anybody in demographics, the world is actually going to get less secular as time goes on. A lot of that has to do with birth rate and things like that. But also evangelism, you know, and that sort of thing.

Moore: If you were going to give a word to, I mentioned a few minutes ago how surprised I was at all the 21, 22 year olds who really resonated with with The Atlantic article, if you had to give a word of advice to that 22 year old Christian who’s a little scared, a little nervous about the future. And you said, here’s one thing you should really concentrate on as you go forward, what would you advise?

Keller: Well, you know what, this entire podcast I’ve sort of dodged all of your questions by saying case by case. I don’t know I can quite do that on this one. Well, OK, let me just say something that Kathy and I have talked to each other about in the last year. If Jesus Christ was actually raised from the dead, if he really got up, walked out, was seen by hundreds of people, talked to them. If he was raised from the dead, then you know what? Everything’s going to be all right. Whatever you’re worried about right now, whatever you’re afraid of, everything is actually going to be OK. Because you got to remember, we’re not just talking about resurrected people. Jesus Christ is, and this is where Christianity is unique, we’re talking about a resurrected world. Meaning, there’s plenty of other religions that talk about a future afterlife, which is a nonmaterial world. In other words, you get a consolation for the world we’ve lost. Christianity says it’s not just your bodies are being resurrected, but the world is actually going to be a material world that’s cleansed from all evil and suffering and sin. If Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, then the whole world is going to be, in a sense, resurrected and everything is going to be OK. Everything. You don’t know how. I don’t know how, but it will be. So, and you know what? Actually, right now, I couldn’t possibly be convinced that Jesus was not raised from the dead, either intellectually or existentially. So whenever, and by the way, Kathy and I, listen, we cry. We cried a lot last night. Sometimes the reality of the shortness of what we have left here just overwhelms us. And we were just weeping together and crying. And then you say, if Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, it is going to be OK. And then you can wipe your tears, but you don’t stop crying. It’s like salt in the wound that keeps the wound from going bad. That keeps the wound from getting infected. But it doesn’t mean that until the end of, you know, until we actually meet Jesus Christ we still have our wounds. So they are going to be healed, but they’ll be healed by his. So, I think, I still could, yeah, I would still go back to if Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and he was, you’re going to be OK.

Moore: Well, that’s a good word on which to end. The book is called Hope in Times of Fear by Tim Keller. And I’m really thankful for you, Tim, and for the way that God uses you in my life. And I encourage everybody to read this book in a time of fear. Thanks for being with us today.

Keller: It was great to be with you, Russ.

Moore: And I would encourage you, if you would like more information on this book or other resources, just tap the cover art here or swipe it up. And there will be some show notes on that. And be sure also to send me your ethical questions that you’re grappling with, maybe something in your family or your church, and we’ll deal with it over on the solo podcast. And also be sure to send this along to someone you think would benefit from. This is Russell Moore and you’re listening to Signposts.

Russell Moore

Russell Moore is President of the ERLC. In this role, he leads the organization in all its efforts to connect the agenda of the kingdom of Christ to the cultures of local congregations for the sake of the mission of the gospel in the world. He holds a Ph.D. in … Read More