Tim Keller has written more than 20 books, including several bestsellers. But he’s never felt more “divine guidance and help” than while writing his latest.
Then again, he’s never written on death and resurrection in between treatments for pancreatic cancer.
Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter (Viking, 2021) is more than an Easter book (though it would make a great holiday gift). It is a wide-ranging journey into the practical implications of Christ’s resurrection. This explosive event brought heaven to earth and also the future into the present. Christian hope, then, is not just for the future but from it. And reckoning with this truth just might revolutionize your life. Keller shows how the empty tomb touches on it all: theology and mission, justice and race, relationships and sex, present pain and endless hope.
I corresponded with TGC’s co-founder about whether this book is his “thematic capstone,” where both secular conservatives and progressives go wrong, advice for a social-media age, and more.
You reveal in the acknowledgments of that, of all the books you have written, “it is this one in which I felt the most divine guidance and help.” That’s a pretty remarkable statement. No doubt your pancreatic cancer—from the bleak prognosis to the taxing treatment—has been a big factor, but a life-threatening illness doesn’t magically yield spiritual fervor. Tell us more about how (and perhaps why) the writing process this time felt so unique.
You are right that life-threatening illness doesn’t automatically yield spiritual fervor. If I was working on a book on auto repair—or even, perhaps, a book on some theological topic like the Sabbath—I’m sure my cancer would have been a distraction. But this book was on death and resurrection. So every time I wrote it was like having a wrestling-with-God prayer session. It was hard and great—but I always felt God dealing with me and helping me as I wrote.
In his review of the book, Matt McCullough writes:
It’s as if Keller uses this book to put the test of 1 Corinthians 15 to the core insights he’s spent the last decade recommending to us. “If Christ is not raised” . . . he’s a counterfeit god too. You’re still in your sin, not secure in the prodigal grace of a loving Father. There’s no hope for justice, and your work may as well be pointless because we’re all heading for oblivion anyway. If Christ is not raised, Christianity is not intellectually credible or existentially satisfying.
Is Matt on to something, and is there anything you’d add to his analysis? Even if you publish more books in the future, is this one a “thematic capstone” of sorts?
Yes, he is on to something. There is a sense in which The Prodigal God is still my main “thematic capstone.” But you might say The Prodigal God and its grace-not-works message is the Bible read through a more systematic-theology lens. If, on the other hand, you read the Bible with a more biblical-theology lens, you get a creation-fall-redemption-restoration message, which highlights the now-but-not-yet kingdom.
Matt is right that over the last 15 years or so, I’ve been trying to stress the now-but-not-yet kingdom with an equal emphasis as on the grace-not-works. I think they are both right. And they are seldom held together. People usually go off into a two-kingdoms (grace-not-works and doing evangelism) or a transformationist (now-but-not-yet kingdom and doing justice) direction. To me, the key to “keeping them together” is getting a robust biblical understanding of what happened when Jesus was raised. The powers of the age to come were brought into the present when Christ rose and ascended.
After distinguishing between good things, hard things, and best things, you conclude: “The Bible’s teaching is that the road to the best things is not through the good things but usually through the hard things.” How does this difficult message—a prime example of the Bible’s pervasive “Great Reversal” theme—subvert the world’s values? And how can we communicate it in a sensitive and attractive way?
That contrast between the good things and the hard things comes from an exposition of Luke 6, where Jesus says “blessed” are those who are poor, hungry, grieving, and marginalized; and “woe” (or “curses”) to those who get power, comfort, success (the word for “laugh” in verse 25 means to gloat in victory), and popular recognition.
What can Jesus mean? In light of the rest of the Bible he can’t mean that anyone who is successful (regardless of the state of their heart) is cursed, and anyone who is poor and marginalized is automatically blessed. But read in light of the entire canon it means that, in general, God brings strength out of weakness. He loves to work through the outsiders, the rejected, the unloved. And he so often brings strength, wisdom, and salvation itself into our lives through suffering. This pattern of divine dealing is a reflection of the ultimate accomplishment of glory and power out of suffering and weakness—the cross and resurrection.
The world—and especially our modern Western culture—has no understanding of how suffering and weakness can bring blessing. How do we communicate it in a sensitive and attractive way? I’m not sure there’s a better approach than, first, applying this to our own lives (so we don’t melt down under weakness like so many others in our time) and then, second, just being transparent.
Understood in light of the Great Reversal, how is the Bible’s understanding of liberation radically different from both secular conservatism and progressivism?
A fish is designed for water. It is meant to breathe and move in water. Only in water is it free to realize all its inner potentials. But if it is not confined to the water, it cannot realize this freedom. If it is “free” from any restrictions—free to go up on land—then it will die.
True freedom, then, is not the absence of constraints or restrictions. It is finding and complying with the right restrictions, the ones that fit the givens of your nature and being. Since we were created in the image of God—we were designed to live and love as the triune God lives and loves. We were created for self-giving, for glorifying and enjoying God, not for selfishness and independence.
Think of it like this. Each time we obey God, it is like a “death.” We die to our own will, and that hurts. But with the help of the Holy Spirit, such little deaths lead us to become more Christlike—a resurrection. If someone wrongs you, you will want to go to them and claw their eyes out, as it were. If instead you forgive them in your heart, it will feel like a death. It will be hard. But it is the only way to get to a “resurrected,” reconciled relationship. Of course, the greatest example of this is how the “death” of repentance leads to the resurrection of the new birth.
Real freedom, then, comes through dying to one’s self-will and being raised up to new life.
“When you create an identity by despising other groups, it makes you dependent in many ways on them.” How do you see this tendency manifesting itself in the evangelical world? And what’s the solution—or at least what’s your counsel—for Christian leaders and institutions who feel newly embattled in our social-media age?
The evangelical world has always been tribal. There have always been parties across and within denominations, traditions, and Christian organizations. There’s always been boundary-drawing. (See Brad Vermurlen’s book Reformed Resurgence.) At one level this is fine and right. But read about the war of words between Kierkegaard and P. L. Moller in The Corsair Affair. It was terribly damaging to both men.
Tribal toxicity between Christians over doctrine and politics (in the example above, within the Danish Lutheran church) is not new. But social media magnifies it thousands of times over. Now everyone on social media must be identified tribally, and the lines get drawn more and more tightly. The tribes are splintering fast. There are now three to four identifiable Christian tribes in places where there was only one just three years ago.
Many people these days are exhausted and disillusioned. Cultural hope is running thin. How can Christians seize this moment to advance a view of history—and of progress—marked by sober, resolute hope?
If Jesus was really and truly raised from the dead (and he was!), then everything will, finally, be all right.
If we don’t let the cynicism and despair of the surrounding culture seep into our hearts and sour us—if we simply go about doing the things Scripture calls us to do, making melody in our hearts (Eph. 5:19) with gratitude for a sure and certain hope in the resurrection—imagine how weird we will look.