Earlier this week Justin Taylor posted a 2008 interview of Pastor Tim Keller by Martin Bashir at Columbia University. The interview was spring-boarded by his then-newly released book, The Reason for God. During the interview, which was designed to ask the hardest questions about Christianity, Bashir asked Keller about the eternal destiny of those who don’t believe in Jesus Christ. You can watch part of his answer in this video, with the relevant portion being from about 13:20 to about 15:10. I’ve also transcribed that portion below:
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Bashir: So where does that leave the millions of Muslims, Sikhs and Jews? Are they sadly and completely deluded?
Keller: People who never heard about Jesus, or never really got a hearing about Jesus…
Bashir: I’m not talking about them, because some of those people have heard (about Jesus). I’m talking about the millions of Muslims, Sikhs and Jews who have heard about Jesus. Where does your thesis leave them?
Keller: Where they are right now, it means that if there’s never any change, they don’t get Jesus. If he is who he says he is, then, long term, they don’t have God. If on the other hand…all I can always say about this is God gives me, even as a minister with the Scripture, a lot of information on a need-to-know basis. And a need-to-know basis means, “Here’s all I can tell you: unless you get Jesus Christ who created you to start with, unless you are reunited with him sometime, there is no eternal future of thriving.” It just makes sense. Again, I’m trying to go back to this idea that, that, if he is who he says he is, you’ve got to have him. If right now a person doesn’t have him, he or she needs to get him. If they die and they’ve never, if they die and they don’t have Jesus Christ, I don’t know. In other words, I have a need-to-know basis, the only thing I know is you need Jesus. I certainly know that God is wiser than me, more merciful than me, and I do know that when I finally find out how God is dealing with every individual soul, I won’t have any questions about it. …
[at 16:35:] People in other religions, unless they find Christ, I don’t know any other way; but I also get information on a need-to-know basis so if there’s some , if there’s some trapdoor or something like that, I haven’t been told about it.
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Now at the outset, I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to pick a fight here. I consider Tim Keller to be a fellow laborer in the Gospel. His involvement with The Gospel Coalition and his partnership with men whom I deeply respect testify to his credibility. But it does greatly surprise and concern me that a man of such stature and credibility, to whom many in my generation look as a mentor, has handled these questions in the way that he has. Further, it has been equally disconcerting to read and hear how some of his defenders are responding to this issue. And so my goal is twofold: (1) I want to respectfully—and hopefully, humbly—voice some serious concerns with how Keller handled this question; and (2) I want to demonstrate the unhelpfulness of how some of his defenders are responding.
First Things First
“If they die and they don’t have Jesus Christ, I don’t know.”
I gotta be honest, I still scratch my head when I read that statement. I don’t want to accuse Keller of being dishonest, but I have a hard time believing that he doesn’t know the answer to that question. For one thing, this statement from his church, though it doesn’t address this specific question, seems out of sync with this rather agnostic response. In fact, if given another opportunity, I tend to think that Keller would answer differently.
But what makes this really puzzling is that Scripture answers that question as clear as day: “This is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11–12). And again, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). “I don’t know,” is not an acceptable response.
So, what can we learn from this? How should we respond?
1. A Pass Costs More than Five Points
Well for one thing, we shouldn’t brush this aside because we and Keller stand “together for the Gospel.” John MacArthur has continued to say that in today’s evangelicalism, it seems all you need to do is get the doctrine of justification right, and no matter what else you get wrong, you get a free pass. Some of the responses I’ve heard to Keller’s statement have definitely proven MacArthur correct. It seems a man can be all over the map in every other area of theology, but if he believes in the Five Points (that is, at least on paper), today’s younger evangelicals are willing to look the other way.
Now, I get that the things “of first importance” are of first importance. The Gospel is the biggest deal when it comes to defining ourselves as Christians and discerning whom we can embrace and partner with and commend to others, and whom we cannot. But as it’s recently been pointed out in slightly different contexts (here, and here), “first importance” does not and cannot mean “only importance.” There are plenty of people who get the Gospel right, whom I can recognize as brothers in Christ, yet who are desperately and egregiously wrong on other very important matters.
And friends, we have to come to terms with the fact that there’s nothing wrong with warning against those errors, particularly if they have the potential to confuse and do harm to other Christians. And the chorus of voices who would accuse me of division and disunity, I believe, misunderstands the biblical concept of unity. I’m not arguing that unity is uniformity. But neither is it to simply “agree to disagree.” Unity is based upon a common commitment to the truth. Not just to the main truth. Not just to the most important truths. But to all of the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness (1Tim 6:3), and to the pattern of sound words passed down from the Apostles as recorded in Scripture (2Tim 1:13).
So when one of our brothers, esteemed though he may be, departs from any point of that teaching, that departure is the cause of disunity. And those who take seriously the charge to guard the treasure which has been entrusted to them (2Tim 1:14) will address that. They are those who are interested in the advancement of true unity among God’s people. A faithful servant of the truth won’t pretend certain doctrinal issues don’t matter in order to save face for one of his heroes.
2. Celebrities Don’t Eat Free
And that brings me to another inappropriate response I’ve seen and heard: the digging in of the heels among devoted fans. The celebrity culture that characterizes much of the YRR movement has compelled some to just want to plug their ears. They don’t want to hear anything negative about their heroes.
Now, I’m all for esteeming our elders highly in love because of their faithfulness to Scripture and their work for the cause of Christ. But your loyalty to a man is based upon that very faithfulness. So if he abandons Scripture’s clear teaching—whatever the reason—your loyalty to the truth must supersede your loyalty to the man. If it doesn’t, you’ve turned a father in the faith into a popish idol.
3. Missional Missteps
Some people are suggesting that Keller’s gaffe is to be explained away by the fact that he was simply adapting his message to suit his particular audience. In other words, don’t get your blood pressure up: he was only contextualizing. He was in a hostile environment, among people who were just looking for an excuse to tune him out and lump him with the rest of us knuckle-dragging, intolerant, fundamentalist Christians. And so if he was going to gain a hearing, he had to respond this way.
If this was the reasoning behind Keller’s response, I believe that kind of thinking is seriously misguided. Dear brothers and sisters: We have not been commissioned to gain a hearing with unbelieving culture. It is not our job to repackage the message in just such a way that it will be attractive to the world. It will never be attractive to the world. If it is, it’s not the message we’ve received. The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing (1Cor 1:18). We are heralds, not orators; our commission is simply to deliver the message we’ve received. Because that very same word that is foolishness to the perishing is the power of God unto salvation for those who are being saved (1Cor 1:18, 24). If we believe in the total depravity of man, and that by the preaching of the foolish word of the cross (Jas 1:18; Rom 10:17) the Holy Spirit effectually calls to salvation those whom the Father has unconditionally elected in eternity past (Eph 1:4), and that Christ will lose none whom the Father has given Him (John 6:39; 10:28–29), contextualization makes absolutely no sense. Unbelievers do not get saved because the message is made more acceptable to them in their fallen nature. They get saved when God sovereignly grants them a new nature by means of His preached Word (1Pet 1:23–25).
Now, I know that advocates of contextualization stress that we must adapt our methods, and not our message. But if this video proves anything, it’s that our message and our methods are not as distinct as our missional friends would like to think. The difference between the accommodation of our methods and the accommodation of our message is a difference of degree, not kind.
Keller has not simply adapted his methodology here. He wasn’t merely being careful in how he worded the truth about what Jesus said regarding the fate of those who perish without faith in Him, which he certainly could have done. He actually altered the message. It is simply not true that we don’t know the destiny of those who perish without faith in Christ. “This is the testimony,” says the Apostle John, “that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11–12). There is no room there for a “trap door.” This is not a matter of a “need-to-know basis.”
We either believe that or we don’t. And if we believe that, we must preach it to everyone who will listen, whether they’re blue collar laborers or Ivy League collegians. We must beg them on behalf of Christ to be reconciled to God (2Cor 5:20). But if they don’t want to listen, we are not to adapt the method or the message; we’re to shake the dust off our feet and go on preaching the message we’ve received. It is neither beneficial to the lost nor faithful to the Savior to do otherwise.
4. Don’t Write Him Off
Having said all that, I do think it would be a mistake to write Keller off entirely. I can see how that would be quite tempting for some, because, frankly, it’s just easier and a lot less messy to cast him aside. But that honestly would not be the brotherly thing to do. Keller is a brother in Christ, and he is genuinely committed to the proclamation of the Gospel. Our goal here is not to cast shame unnecessarily upon a fellow Christian, but to see the truth vindicated. I hope and pray for a response from Keller that acknowledges this as a moment of weakness, and that reaffirms the biblical teaching on hell and unbelief.
The fact of the matter is that even mature, godly leaders are human. That doesn’t excuse this kind of wishy-washy response; to whom much is given, much is required. But this blunder does not by itself warrant a wholesale dismissal of Keller.
5. Take Heed Lest You Fall
Finally, it would be a huge mistake to mockingly lob grenades at him, or just roll our eyes in disgust. Rather, we should learn humility from his error. It’s easy to think from the sidelines that we would have been the paragon of steadfastness in such a situation. I really hope that’s true. I really hope, given even such a pressure-filled environment as Keller was in, that I would have stood steadfastly on the Word of God without compromise. But the reality is that none of us is above squandering an opportunity for the Gospel. How many times I’ve mourned over not taking an opportunity to evangelize! After all, who makes me to differ? I certainly don’t. What do I have that I haven’t received? Absolutely nothing. By the grace of God I am what I am.
So let this be a lesson to all of us: let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall (1Cor 10:12). Take this as a challenge to know and love the Truth so well—so inside and out—that if the occasion should come that you are asked to explain what God’s Word says on any subject, you will answer faithfully by God’s great grace.
So where does that leave us? I think we should disagree strongly and resolutely with both the way Tim Keller handled this question and with what he said. We do, in fact, know what happens to those who leave this life without faith in Christ. We shouldn’t naively brush this aside because he gets the Gospel right or because we’re a big fan of his. We shouldn’t try to explain it away by appealing to some misguided notion of contextualization; rather, we should take this as a case-in-point of the logical end (what I might say is the logical failure) of contextualization. And I think that this is significant enough of a failure that it calls for a heightened sense of discernment when evaluating Keller’s teachings.
Yet neither should we dismiss the entirety of his ministry, nor hold ourselves out as his judge while foolishly presuming that we would have done better. In all of this, even while disagreeing strongly and resolutely, we should do so respectfully, seeking the benefit and edification of all involved.
We should hope, pray, and call for repentance on Keller’s part. But in the meantime we should believe the best about the situation, even if we believe him to have been sincerely wrong. And in all things, our main goal should be that God’s glory be magnified in the vindication of the Truth of His Word.
Disclaimer: I’d be very appreciative if we could leave the uninvited guests at home today.
UPDATE: The folks at The Gospel Coalition have posted a response by Tim Keller regarding this issue. This is extremely encouraging. As I said in the post, my aim was the benefit and edification of all involved, a retraction/clarification, and God’s glory magnified in the vindication of the truth of His word. I believe that’s happened. This kind of clarification and reconciliation is exactly the kind of outcome we should all hope for in situations like these. I am thankful to Tim Keller for his gracious response.