Dr. Timothy Keller, facing his own death, knew the resurrection brought perspective to his theology.
Keller was a pastor, theologian, and prolific author. He passed away May 19, 2023. The following are his insights on life matters.
“All death can do to Christians is make their lives infinitely better.”
Free Of Insecurity
W.H. Auden wrote The Age of Anxiety, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1948. Almost nobody reads it today, but it captured the spirit of the time. Imagine if you were middle-aged in 1948. You’d have lived through a worldwide influenza pandemic, two world wars and an economic depression all within the space of about 40 years. Life seemed fragile. It felt like anything could happen. Nothing seemed secure.
I was born two years after Auden’s Pulitzer, in 1950. The feeling was that even if there were, say, an economic downturn, things would be better afterward than they had been before. We just assumed that our lives and society were going to get better and better.
There was a long period in the second half of the 20th century, in which the anxiety that had defined the first half went away. For a couple generations we lived largely free of insecurity about the world in which we lived.
That’s over. As only one example, the COVID-19 pandemic was something very few people ever thought could happen. Until suddenly, the reality was upon us, and things changed very quickly. Add to that whichever looming disasters you’d like: the human and environmental crisis of climate change? Global terrorism? The knowledge that there are hackers who could bring down governments, nuclear security or banking systems?
And those are just the society-level anxieties. There are plenty waiting for us at home too. Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, observes that empirically we are living healthier and longer lives. Nevertheless, people feel more culturally and emotionally dislocated than ever. Younger generations are experiencing far more depression and anxiety than those that came before them. We can feel the cultural anxiety today. There’s a real pessimism about the future that I’ve not seen in my lifetime. We find ourselves in a new age of anxiety.
I think most people have no idea how bad the English word is serving us here. We have a translation problem. Like the word shalom, which is usually translated into English as “peace.” Now in English, peace often just means an absence of hostility. However, the Hebrew word communicates rich flourishing in every dimension. Quite a difference.
We have a similar problem with the word hope. In English, hope can mean the opposite of the biblical sense—to be uncertain. If you say, “I know it’s going to happen,” that is certainty. If you say, “I hope it will happen,” that is uncertainty. The Greek word elpis means assurance of the future—assured anticipation. You are sure of your hope. Quite the opposite of how we typically use the word in English.
Why The Resurrection of Jesus Matters
Eventually everybody will get to the place where it matters personally whether the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened. Because if it did, then there is hope for you, no matter what happens. Reading the accounts of the resurrection brings the most surprising assurances of its reality. In the book, I spend the first chapter on the question, “Did the resurrection really happen?” The rest of the book follows the implications of that.
I did not want to try to redo what N.T. Wright did. He wrote what is in my opinion the best book on the resurrection in the last 100 years, The Resurrection of the Son of God. He traces significant evidence that the resurrection accounts were not merely made up. They have all the marks of historic eyewitness testimony—including bizarre details no one would include in a fictional account.
Free From Despair
If you were making up a story of a resurrection, you would draw on stories or folktales you’d already heard. Wright said there were only two ways that people had ever thought of resurrection before Jesus. The first was as resuscitation—like Lazarus. The person was dead, then something miraculous happens and he gets up out of the tomb, in which case you recognize him because he still looks the same, right? The second idea of resurrection is of the transformation of the person into an angelic or radiant being. But the idea that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead as recognizable, yet somehow different from the way he had looked before his death (so much so that even his closest friends didn’t at first recognize him) is so utterly counterintuitive. No one would have made that up.
Hope can set us free from both the despair of nihilism and the naivety of utopianism.
The resurrected Christ looked so ordinary that he sat and ate a fish and walked along on the road and nobody thought—at first—that he was anybody special. Moreover, what is amazing about that is that our future is not something so completely alien. We are not going to be some kind of esoteric spirits. At the same time, it almost beggars belief that God would so restore us that it would be so homelike—the kind of human life we always wanted, but never had.
Nevertheless, overnight, all Christians believed this, and worshiped from the center of Christ’s resurrection. We are not talking about debate here. No, overnight, these people’s lives and intellectual worldviews changed. Counter to their Jewishness, they were worshiping a man as God. It is astounding.
Why does the resurrection matter? Well, as one reason among billions, because I have cancer. Because one of the things you do when you have cancer is ask how you are going to deal with it. That experience has required that I increase my hope, by reading the Word, especially on the resurrection of Jesus.
It Is Going To Be OK
Because if he were raised from the dead, then basically, it is going to be OK. If he were raised from the dead, then Christianity is basically right, and the hope it gives is an infallible hope.
If I am sure of the resurrection, then basically, I am OK. I can handle anything that life—or death—throws at me.
I am a conservative Presbyterian. When it comes right down to it, I will be very happy to argue with you about all sorts of doctrine. But as a mortal person facing his own death, the resurrection brings perspective to our theology. At this stage in my life, I am looking at the big things of which I can be sure. I’m pretty sure you should baptize infants. But you know what? I am not going to die for that belief. I do not hold to it in the face of my mortality. In fact, I might be wrong on it, though of course I don’t think I am. But when it comes to the resurrection? If I am sure of that, then I am OK. I can handle anything that life—or death—throws at me.
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