The Reason For God: A Critical Interactive Review Part 2

David Robertson Articles

Reason for God.JPG

A critical interactive review continued...

Chapter Two - Keller now moves on from the objection of the exclusivity of Christianity to the age-old problem of suffering.  It seems as though, whenever there is a large disaster, the media always manage to get hold of a church leader who either speaks in platitudes, or keeps telling us that God is not the traditional omnipotent, omniscient God (one wonders whether the term 'God' should be used by such people at all; they should certainly be sued under the trade descriptions act for using the name Christian!) but a nice cuddly cute God who really 'feels our pain' but sadly is not really able to do anything about it.   Keller shows no such reservations.  He starts - unexpectedly, and brilliantly - with an attack on those who claim that if they cannot understand the point of suffering then there must be no point.  Again we see lurking within supposedly hard-nosed skeptism an enormous faith in one's own cognitive faculties.  If our minds can't plumb the depths of the universe for good answers to suffering, well, then, there can't be any!  This is blind faith of a high order. (p.23).

Keller then goes on to suggest that our own experience of suffering at least provides part of the answer.  Often we experience suffering which at the time is painful and seems pointless; but later on we see the purpose and the good it has done.  If that is true of ourselves as we survey some of our suffering, then how much more can we expect God to know and have good reasons for all of it?

Having demonstrated that evil and suffering is not evidence against God, Keller now moves on to argue that they may be evidence for God.  Here he relies on CS Lewis - and Alvin Plantinga who both make the rather simple but effective point that if you recognise that there is such a thing as injustice, evil and wickedness then you have far more rational for doing so in theism than in atheism.  Someone who says they are an atheist because they cannot believe in a God who would allow injustice, evil and suffering, is not actually being logical. And on a more practical level they do not get rid of the problem of evil.  

Some Christians have no time for this kind of apologetics.  It is philosophy.  It is too 'intellectual'.  We need to feel, to empathise, to pray and to weep with those who weep.  Indeed.  But what they fail to realise is that God has made us whole beings and we need holistic responses.  We do not need cold intellectualism, but neither do we need unthinking empathy.  If we are truly to love, 'feel the pain' and minister to those who are suffering, we need to address the questions and intellect.  This is one of the great strengths of The Reason for God.  Keller excels in this kind of holistic ministry.  The examples given from his own experience of ministry amply demonstrate how this kind of apologetics connects.   

I recall in the early years of my ministry being confronted with a very angry 35-year-old man, who screamed at me that he did not believe in God because God had killed his wife.  When I pointed out that he could not blame a God who did not exist, for his wife's death we began to talk.  After six weeks of intense, and somewhat hard discussions, I felt we were getting somewhere.  However one day he told me never to return.  He told me that he wanted to be bitter.  He did not want an explanation. Life was much simpler if he could just vent his rage, bitterness and hurt against this non-existent God.  I have spent years struggling with some of the questions that he raised.  Perhaps we all have to go through those kinds of struggles and questions - but it is always good to have the wisdom of those who have gone before, to help.  I could have done with Keller in 1986.  

In another twist Keller now goes on to talk about the suffering of God.  Here we have to be very careful.  Language is often used very loosely and sometimes the impression is given that the suffering of God is experienced in every tear shed and every wound opened in every human being.  The suffering of Jesus then just becomes an example of human suffering really being God suffering.  Keller avoids this trap by teaching the biblical and orthodox doctrine of the atonement.  It was not just that Christ suffered physically, nor even that he suffered emotionally but that he bore an intensity of pain and horror, far greater than any of his followers, or any other human being, precisely because he was the sin bearer - the propitiation - the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.   Keller points out Christ as the answer to the question of suffering and evil.   And again here we see just how practical biblical doctrine is (and why should that surprise anyone?).  Those who like Steve Chalke want to rescue the Father from the accusation of 'cosmic child abuse' and thus deny the doctrine of penal substitionary atonement, are in fact robbing God of his Glory and his people of the great answer to the question of suffering.

Keller now beautifully moves on to discuss resurrection.  This is the great hope that the Christian has. This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater (p.32).   And I love the quote from another of Keller's personal obsessions The Lord of the Rings, when Sam Gangee asks Gandalf "I thought you were dead!  But then I thought I was dead myself!  Is everything sad going to come untrue?"   The chapter ends with another quote from CS Lewis and also one from my favourite novel, Dostoevsky's The Karamazov Brothers.  

It is at this point that the antenna of the heresy hunters will be raised, because if one takes this chapter on its own then one implication might be that of universalism. There are two things to be said about this.  Firstly this book is not written for heresy hunters and it is quite unreasonable to expect Keller to put in every caveat and point of doctrine in order to appear 'sound'.  Secondly later on in the book (chapter five) he deals with the key question of how a loving God can send people to Hell.  There is no shirking away from the issue.  However the question of the goodness of God and suffering, automatically raises the issue of the goodness of God and Hell, and perhaps it would have been better to put chapter five as chapter three.

Chapter Five - In his approach to the question of a loving God and Hell, Keller begins by assessing Western culture's attitudes to the concept of a God who judges. Again Lewis (The Abolition of Man),Tolkien and personal experience are called upon to assess the claims of modernity.  In answering the objection that a God of judgement cannot be a God of love, he calls upon the brilliant work of Miroslav Volf in his Exclusion and Embrace,  to point out that a God of love must by definition be a God of judgement.  Keller then goes on to explain what Hell is, why no one never asks to leave Hell, and why Hell is necessary, before going on to deal with some of the social implications.  He relates his personal experience of being troubled by Christians who stressed hellfire and damnation and how he studied other religions in order to find answers.  This led to the conclusion that no religion in the world teaches the personal love of a personal God.  Not only is this the case but also world history and world culture today hardly lend themselves to the notion of a loving God.

He ends the chapter thus - The belief in a God of pure love - who accepts everyone and judges no one - is a powerful act of faith.  Not only is there no evidence for it in the natural order, but there is almost no historical, religious textual support for it outside of Christianity.  The more one looks at it, the less justified it appears. (p.83).   I read those words several times and still find them potentially confusing.  There is the danger that people will read them as saying that the Bible lends support to the notion that a God of pure love is one who accepts everyone and judges no one.  The Bible of course does no such thing.  It tells us that God is love (pure love) and that part of that love is that he judges and punishes sin.  The false dichotomy of justice and love is one of modernity, not of the Scripture.  Keller explains this earlier in the chapter, but the final sentence confuses and, at least to me, gives a wrong impression.

In these two chapters however this is the only fly in the ointment.  Chapter two is on a par with CS Lewis's The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed and chapter five approaches the question of Hell through the eyes of the 21st century skeptic.  The value of both these chapters is that they demonstrate and exemplify why biblical and systematic theology is essential in apologetics and evangelism.   When people ask me my favourite apologetic book (apart from the Bible) they smile when I state 'Calvin's Institutes'.  But I am not joking.  I find the depth, precision and accuracy of the Biblical teaching in The Institutes to be exactly what I need in terms of understanding the Gospel and having something to connect with the key questions our society raises.  Then, rather than reading only Christian books 'about' the culture I prefer to read non-Christian books and apply the biblical teaching and theology to them.   The doctrines of the atonement, evil, Hell, revelation, resurrection, sin, judgement, righteousness, justice and the love of God, are essential to these two chapters.

If anyone wishes to really present the Gospel to the modern world, we need to know both that world and the Gospel in all its rich fullness. The joy with Keller is that he has a tremendous understanding of the world we live in, he knows and remains faithful to the Word we proclaim, and he has a superb gift of being able to connect the two.

David Robertson
Author of The Dawkins Letters
Editor The Monthly Record
Minister of St Peters Free Church, Dundee, Scotland.