How Should We Respond? When non-Christians ask us about faith …

Last week Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times reporter for whom I have a great deal of respect, published an interview he had with Tim Keller, a theologian and pastor I also respect greatly.  In it, Kristof says “… I deeply admire Jesus and his message, but am also skeptical of themes that have been integral to Christianity — the virgin birth, the Resurrection, the miracles and so on …  [are these] essential belief[s], or can I mix and match?”  Kristof goes on to raise fairly-common questions about the possibility that the gospels aren’t such open-and-shut historical documents as some might suggest.  He goes on to say “What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world. But I’m troubled by the evangelical notion that people go to heaven only if they have a direct relationship with Jesus. Doesn’t that imply that billions of people — Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus — are consigned to hell because they grew up in non-Christian families around the world? That Gandhi is in hell?”

I don’t agree with Tim Keller across the board, but I’m mostly happy with his overall manner in discussing these topics with Kristoff.  He comes across gentle and humble … he’s frank about the fact that he and many Christians have doubts, and at the same point he points out (and Kristof acknowledges) that even secular concepts like human rights and morality are more based on something like faith, than they are on logic.  While I would quibble on particulars (I agree that the resurrection is indispensable to Christianity, while I really have no dog in the fight over the virgin birth), in large measure I think Keller’s spot-on when he says “If I’m a member of the board of Greenpeace and I come out and say climate change is a hoax, they will ask me to resign. I could call them narrow-minded, but they would rightly say that there have to be some boundaries for dissent or you couldn’t have a cohesive, integrated organization. And they’d be right. It’s the same with any religious faith.”   As readers of this blog will know, I draw a fairly wide boundary around Christianity, but even I acknowledge that there are people who are Christians, and people who are not.

Keller’s even more open-handed than most Evangelical Christians on the question of who goes to heaven or hell.  He’s honest enough to acknowledge the apparent unfairness of an exclusive claim to salvation through Christ.  While I’m not comfortable with his fairly-typical Reformed position that universal salvation would be unfair because it “means God wouldn’t really care about injustice and evil,” I am pleased that he leaves room for the possibility — particularly with those who never get the chance to hear the gospel — that God’s got means to achieve justice and salvation that we just don’t understand.  As Keller says, “The Bible is clear about two things — that salvation must be through grace and faith in Christ, and that God is always fair and just in all his dealings. What it doesn’t directly tell us is exactly how both of those things can be true together. I don’t think it is insurmountable. Just because I can’t see a way doesn’t prove there cannot be any such way.”   (for further thoughts on a middle ground between Universal Salvation and Eternal Conscious Torment, see my article Burn Them All vs. Universalism — A False Choice)

But there’s one statement that Keller makes to which I must object in the strongest possible terms.  In response to Kristof’s question about whether believing in the resurrection is optional, Keller says “Jesus’ teaching was not the main point of his mission. He came to save people through his death for sin and his resurrection. So his important ethical teaching only makes sense when you don’t separate it from these historic doctrines. If the Resurrection is a genuine reality, it explains why Jesus can say that the poor and the meek will “inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). St. Paul said without a real resurrection, Christianity is useless (1 Corinthians 15:19).”   Keller’s partly right that without the power of the resurrection, some of Jesus’ teachings may make no sense, and it’s absolutely biblical that without the resurrection we are “still in our sins” as the apostle Paul says.  And I unreservedly applaud Keller for including the resurrection in his reply here … far too many Christians seem to wallow in Jesus death with bare mention of the resurrection.  But the idea that Jesus’ death — even with the resurrection — is more important than his life is, in my view, one of the most damnably false teachings of which Christianity is guilty.  Jesus’ teachings aren’t secondary.  Generations of armchair theologians notwithstanding, “the Gospel” is contained primarily in The Gospels, not in Romans.  If our Christology is at all correct about Jesus’ divinity, then the very words of the incarnate Christ are the most important words in all of literature, let alone in our own scriptures.  Jesus himself said that his words have life (John 6:63), and for us to discount them as anything less is heresy of the highest degree.  Keller, and all of us Christians, should know better.

There is one final point I think merits our thoughts.  I see it partly in Kristof’s question mid-interview “So where does that leave people like me? Am I a Christian? A Jesus follower? A secular Christian? Can I be a Christian while doubting the Resurrection?”  And here, I think Keller misses an important chance even as his answer (“no resurrection” really means “not Christian”) is, strictly speaking, accurate.  If we really believe that Jesus’ words are imbued with Spirit and Life, if we trust that God’s Spirit works in ways outside of our own efforts, then it seems to me we should encourage anyone, anywhere, at any time, to be closer to Jesus rather than further from him.  As Carl Medearis said in his brilliant little book Speaking of Jesus – the Art of Not-evangelism, “The gospel is not a what.  It is not a howThe gospel is a Who.  The gospel is literally the good news of Jesus.  Jesus is the gospel.” (emphasis in original)  It seems to me, Keller’s answer to Kristof should have been–and our answer to anyone who asks us SHOULD be–“it’s not mine to determine, but anything that has you looking at Jesus is better than anything that has you looking away from Jesus.  If Jesus’ teaching is the only thing that compels you, well, by all means pay attention to his teaching!”

The rest, if there is to be any “rest,” is up to Jesus anyway.

2 thoughts on “How Should We Respond? When non-Christians ask us about faith …”

  1. Todd Williams

    At the same time, though, you acknowledge that a denial of the Resurrection means “not Christian”. When asked directly, Keller seems to say the same, and yet in your last paragraph, you suggest he shouldn’t. I have no problem with pointing others to the very words of Jesus, but, at the end of the day, if asked “I love the words of Jesus but I don’t accept the Resurrection, am I still a Christian?” What would you say?

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I think I make it pretty clear above, Todd, that I agree with Keller on the point that one is not “Christian” if one denies the resurrection. I said so earlier in the post. What I disagree with is the notion that somehow Jesus’ teachings are somehow secondary to his death and resurrection.

      But as I tried to say in that last paragraph, I think Keller missed an opportunity to point Kristoff on a towards-Jesus trajectory. My answer to the question would be “no, you’re not a Christian till you can accept the resurrection, but keep on loving the words of Jesus. That’s always better than despising or ignoring them. And who knows? You may one day discover the resurrection after all.”

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