Dutton, 2008. (Available in Australia at Koorong Books)
Subtitled “Belief in an Age of Skepticism,” this very important book is a welcome antidote to the many atheist titles which have appeared lately. It very admirably fulfils the twin tasks of apologetics: dealing with objections to, and misunderstandings of, the Christian faith, and presenting the attractiveness of it.
The first seven chapters deal with the most common objections and criticisms of Christianity that Keller, a New York City pastor, has encountered, while the last seven chapters very nicely lay out the case for the Christian worldview.
Ministering to secular, sceptical New Yorkers has meant Keller has had to answer thousands of questions about the faith. He is very well read, quite intelligent, and has a heart to reach out to the seeker and the sceptic. Thus this book is a great blend of dealing with matters of both head and heart.
Consider how he deals with some of the objections. The problem of suffering and evil is always near the top of such a list, and Keller does a good job in providing biblical responses to this issue. And he reminds us that unbelievers also have to deal with the problem.
Modern “objections to God are based on a sense of fair play and justice,” says Keller. People strongly believe we ought not to suffer, die of oppression and hunger, and so on. Yet in the evolutionary worldview, death, destruction and suffering are fully natural – they are part of the mechanism of natural selection and survival of the fittest. Crap just happens, in other words, in a secular scheme of things.
Indeed, where does the sense of justice and fair play even come from, in such a dog-eat-dog world, where only matter matters? The believer, on the other hand, can account for both evil (we live in a fallen world) and goodness (we are made in the image of a good God).
Moreover, our God is not aloof from suffering, but has entered into the very heart of the human condition, experiencing to the full our pain and suffering. God does not abandon us in our suffering, but is in a very real sense present with us.
Related to this is the objection of how a loving God could send people to hell. But hell is ultimately a destination that people choose for themselves. Says Keller, “hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity”. People who seek to be free of God, – who is the only source of love, goodness, beauty and kindness – can follow that path. And that path does lead to hell, which is the place where God is not. As C.S. Lewis said, hell is the “greatest monument to human freedom”.
And love and judgement are not opposites, but two sides of the same coin. If you really love someone, you get angry at whatever hurts and destroys him or her. One can rightly hate cancer for what it does to people. And sin is a spiritual cancer that destroys people. God’s love for us must entail hating our sin which separates us from his love.
Keller also offers some positives of the Christian faith. Probably the most basic and fundamental good is the cross of Christ. It is here that justice and mercy fully meet. The demands of justice are fully met at Calvary, but in a way in which the grace of God can be freely extended to us, undeserving as we are.
Sin demands a payment. Letting criminals go scot-free is not justice. God did not let sin go unpunished, but allowed his own son to take our punishment, so that he might offer us forgiveness and hope. God himself absorbed the debt, so that we might be freely forgiven. But a huge cost was still paid.
God becomes human in order to “honor moral justice and merciful love,” says Keller, “so that someday he can destroy all evil without destroying us”. That last phrase is a tremendously profound Christian truth. As Solzhenitsyn reminded us, good and evil runs through every human heart. So how can a just and holy God eradicate evil without eradicating us?
The glorious exchange that took place at Calvary is the answer. “All real life-changing love involves some form of this kind of exchange”. There can be no God of love, Keller reminds us, if we take away the cross. This is indeed the good news of the Christian worldview.
Keller also deals with the issue of human relationships, and the alienation and selfishness that destroys such relationships because of sin. God is above all a relational God. The three persons of the Godhead are involved in a free, loving relationship.
We were created to be part of that love relationship. The joy and love found in the Godhead has been extended to us. But that can only be received as we have relationship with God. But sin and selfishness destroy that joy and love, and trap us in alienation and despair.
God wants that love relationship restored, not just in the sweet by and by, but here and now. In this, Christianity is unique among all the world religions in offering hope and wholeness in this material world. Biblical salvation lies not in escape from the world, but in its transformation.
The Christian story is bigger than just having our individual sins forgiven. It is about putting “the whole world right, to renew and restore the creation, not to escape it”.
A short review like this cannot do justice to the riches found in this volume. In 250 pages a very articulate, rational and compassionate case is made for Christian truth claims. This is a book to both strengthen the faith of believers, and help answer many of the nagging questions of sceptics and seekers. I heartily recommend it.