Timothy Keller’s “The Reason for God” — does it get any “better”?

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by Neil Godfrey

A colleague and friend, concerned over my being an atheist, invited me to read Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God so I started to do so. I had not known who Timothy Keller was so I googled and found this wikipedia entry re this particular book:

Keller’s book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism was named Book of the Year for 2008 by World Magazine, a conservative evangelical news magazine. It rose as high as #7 on the New York Times Non-Fiction Best-Seller list in March of 2008.

That looked promising, so I looked at its table of contents and then flipped to his chapter titled “The Reality of the Resurrection”. I began reading on page 203:

The first accounts of the empty tomb and the eyewitnesses are not found in the gospels, but in the letters of Paul, which every historian agrees were written just fifteen to twenty years after the death of Jesus. One of the most interesting texts is 1 Corinthians 15:3-6:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have died.

Here Paul not only speaks of the empty tomb and resurrection on the “third day” (showing he is talking of a historical event, not a symbol of metaphor) but he also lists the eyewitnesses.

Yep, that’s what Timothy Keller wrote in his award winning best seller. That the letters of Paul not only contain “accounts”, plural, of “the empty tomb”, but a passage that he quotes and that all can see contains not a thread of a whisker of a mention of an empty tomb is boldly claimed to speak of the empty tomb!

I guess this is called argument by bluff. Just hold up a piece of paper which contains the word “was buried” and declare confidently enough that what the audience sees is something else and you just might get away with it, especially if your audience wants to believe. (Anyone who is bamboozled still needs to check the meaning of burial.)

But Keller is just warming up here. On page 205 he gives readers a double whammy,

Firstly he explains that the women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. He runs through the usual commentary on this point:

  • low social status of women meant they could not testify in court
  • no advantage to the church to publicize women being the first eyewitnesses
  • to admit women were the first eyewitnesses, Christians would know would undermine their credibility

And then the usual coup de grace (or fallacy of the false dilemma): “The only possible explanation for why women were depicted as meeting Jesus first is if they really had.”

Nothing new there, but what caught my attention was the next bit:

N.T. Wright argues that there must have been enormous pressure on the early proclaimers of the Christian message to remove the women from the accounts.

Why of course! THAT’s why Paul did not mention the women in the passage Keller had just cited! Paul succumbed to the pressure to avoid reference of the women being the first witnesses because it would undermine his credibility!

Keller continues:

They felt they could not do so — the records were too well known.

Woops. So Paul was found out? The Corinthian audience laughed when they read his pretence that it was men only who first witnessed Jesus?

But wait. There’s more. And it’s all on the same page.

Keller cites Wright again with the assertion that what really convinced people about the resurrection was not simply the eyewitnesses, nor simply the empty tomb.

If there had been only an empty tomb and no sightings, no one would have concluded it was a resurrection. They would have assumed that the body had been stolen. Yet if there had been only eyewitness sightings of Jesus and no empty tomb, no one would have concluded it was a resurrection, because people’s accounts of seeing departed loved ones happen all the time. Only if the two factors were both true would anyone have concluded that Jesus was raised from the dead.

If only Paul had the hindsight of Wright and Keller! Earlier Keller had remarked on Paul’s reference to the 500 witnesses of the resurrected Jesus.

Paul was inviting anyone who doubted that Jesus had appeared to people after his death to go and talk to the eyewitnesses if they wished. It was a bold challenge and one that could easily be taken up . . . . Paul could not have made such a challenge if those eyewitnesses didn’t exist.

What chance did he have of persuading the Corinthians of the resurrection if that’s the best he could do? He should also have told them that Jesus was resurrected from an empty tomb and to not only consult the eyewitnesses but also to take a pilgrimage to see the empty cave for themselves. After all, any of the 500 could have been just imagining a vision of their beloved messiah. Even though other accounts say there were no more than 120 loyal followers remaining. Maybe 380 of them had died by the time Luke wrote Acts so that he could not in good conscience include them in his narrative by that stage. 😉

Those were the first three pages I read of this 2008 book of the year. How to break this gently to my friend . . . . 🙁

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Neil Godfrey

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18 thoughts on “Timothy Keller’s “The Reason for God” — does it get any “better”?”

  1. Sorry friend you are misinformed. The two Marys saw Jesus first. They thought that He was the gardener. And then He asked them”Why do you look for the living among the dead?”(Mark chapter 16)Then Jesus told them to go and tell Peter and the desciples that He would see them in Galille.If you are looking for a good book i suggest The case for Christ, its a great book written by a former athiest. It may help in your search for the truth.

  2. I flipped through a copy of “Luke’s Story” by Jenkins and LaHaye in an airport earlier this year, and starting laughing so hard I was worried security was going to show up. Paul as top student in his Greek rhetorical school (with Luke as a fellow student), Luke interviewing Mary, who relates her story verbatim as found in the Gospel of Luke, etc, etc.

  3. Ghost: The Case for Christ was recommended to me. I managed to get through it. The author claims to be a former atheist journalist – the former part applies to journalist as much as atheist. The rigor of his questioning is laughable – he only interviews Christian apologists and explicitly decides to avoid the tough follow ups.

    I am still waiting for the quality apologist book that will do more than placate the faithful.

  4. Also notice the flagrant disingenuousness of Keller’s comment that “Paul was inviting anyone who doubted that Jesus had appeared to people after his death to go and talk to the eyewitnesses if they wished. It was a bold challenge and one that could easily be taken up . . . . Paul could not have made such a challenge if those eyewitnesses didn’t exist.”

    Paul’s mention of the 500 witnesses to the resurrected Jesus in 1 Corinthians is a model of unconfirmable vagueness. Paul does not say where this appearance took place, nor does he provide so much as the name of a single one of the 500 alleged witnesses. Would it _really_ have been “easily” undertaken for a skeptical Corinthian to abandon their daily livelihood and spend months combing through every city, town, and backwater village in Galilee, the Decapolis, Judaea, etc. asking everybody they met for verification of this story? Moreover, since this “proof” was offered in a _letter_, skeptics in the original audience would not have been able to press Paul for further details.

  5. ‘Just hold up a piece of paper which contains the word “was buried” and declare confidently enough that what the audience sees is something else and you just might get away with it, especially if your audience wants to believe.’

    I once read a testimony by an ex-fundamentalist who said that while he was a fundie , he just could not read the text. What he read on the page was his dogma.

    I’m sure Keller literally does believe Paul mentions an empty tomb in 1 Corinthians 15.

    And who were these 500+ brethren who gathered in one time and place in the short interval between the discovery of the empty tomb and Jesus ascending into the sky?

    I thought this movement had been crushed by the crucifixion, and yet hundreds and hundreds gathered together to await sightings.

    When could 500+ Christians have gathered together?# That is a big number.

    The Romans kill a person they believe was a Messianic candidate.

    Just weeks later , 500+ of the followers of this Messianic candidate are gathering together.

    What are the Romans going to do?

    There is no way the Gospel stories up to the Ascension are consistent with vast crowds of Christians gathering together to see Jesus.

    1. As an ex fundamamentalist myself I can confirm that many are incapable of reading the text. I was one, too. I can look back and date the seed of my departure from the bible when, seeking a fresh way to study the bible, I decided to read each book in its own right, with the intent to study it quite apart from any other book in the bible — just to see what its author and audience might have been thinking before it was ever part of a larger collection. It was not an overnight slide from there, but that was the beginning of my reading the bible as it is, apart from any outside doctrine. Only from that time did I begin to know more about the bible than our ministers, and it was not long before they decided I had joined the ranks of Satan and had to be cast out. 🙂

  6. Millions of people saw the Virgin Mary appear on an office building in Pensacola, Florida.

    The pictures were broadcast on national TV. The Virgin Mary appeared to literally millions of eyewitnesses.

    Of course, if you go up and ask any of those people, they might well deny that it really was the Virgin Mary who had appeared to them.

    But they are simply in denial. It really is true that the Virgin Mary appeared to them, even if they themselves say it was no more than an optical illusion.

    Believers can easily say and really believe that Jesus did appear to person X, even if person X will then deny it.

    The fact that person X denies the reality of the appearance is hardly proof to a believer that it never happened.

  7. ‘The two Marys saw Jesus first. They thought that He was the gardener. ‘

    No wonder women’s testimony was not considered credible.

    Were these appearances a case of mistaken identity? Hardly. That would be the sort of blunder a woman might make.

    And was the body stolen? Well, if you were a woman, you might leap to that conclusion, because let’s face it, that is the sort of silly thing that might occur to a woman.

    Happily, there were men present who had the sense to go to the tomb and check out that story.

    If you wanted to discredit alternative theories of the resurrection, surely you would write something like John’s Gospel, where the women are made to jump to all the wrong conclusions.

  8. The basic error of Keller (and Christianity) here is his analytical Perspective. We can be certain that the point of the Resurrection narrative, that Jesus was resurrected, is fiction. Anyone trying to prove that it was history is not a historian anyway. Even if you grant that the Impossible is possible (like Ehrman), the Impossible is still the least likely explanation, so everything I say here still applies.

    Since we know that the point of the narrative is fiction our perspective here in analyzing other elements of the narrative should primarily be Literary and not historical.

    Note that the earliest known Christian author, Paul, has no resurrection narrative. This is consistent with the observation above that there was no historical resurrection. Paul also has an anti-historical (pro-Faith) attitude which is again consistent with a resurrection that had no historical support.

    The original resurrection narrative appears to have been created by “Mark” c. 130 as no Father refers to it before than and Marcion is the first attributed user of a Gospel. c. 130 is yet again support for no historical resurrection as by 100 years later no historical witness would be left to dispute a non-historical resurrection.

    The point of all this is that in order to have a historical perspective Keller is forced to have unlikely explanations that conflict with each other while the Literary perspective above is likely and consistent.

  9. There will always be arguments about Christianity. It’s built-in, even in the Bible, that we are skeptical, even when we see the miracles before our eyes. We believe through faith, not proof. Because even if the proof were there, we still wouldn’t believe. If you are reading this and searching for the truth, get down on your knees, ask your Maker to help you see the Truth, then believe (have faith) that He will. And He will. Peace.

  10. Matthew is the only Gospel that mentions guards at the tomb. John’s Gospel says nothing about guards. If John was an eyewitness, as Christians claim, isn’t that a pretty important detail to leave out of your story? The missing Roman guards in the Book of John raises an important issue. Christians often contend that it would have been impossible for anyone to have surreptitiously removed Jesus’ corpse from the tomb because there were guards posted at the tomb who would have prevented such an occurrence. Therefore, they argue, without any possibility for the body to have been quietly whisked away, the only other logical conclusion is that Jesus must have truly arisen from the dead. A stolen body hypothesis is impossible.

    This argument completely collapses in John’s account, however, because according to the fourth Gospel, this is precisely what Mary thought had occurred! Mary clearly didn’t feel as though the scenario of Jesus’ body being removed was unlikely. In fact, according to John, that was her only logical conclusion. Clearly, Matthew’s guards didn’t dissuade John’s Mary from concluding that someone had taken Jesus’ body because Roman guards do not exist in John’s story.

    To further compound the problem of the conflicting resurrection accounts, John’s Gospel continues to unfold with Mary returning to the tomb a second time, only to find two angels sitting inside the tomb. Mary is still unaware of any resurrection as she complains to the angels that someone had removed Jesus’ corpse. As far as John’s Mary is concerned, the only explanation for the missing body was that someone must have removed it, and she was determined to locate it.

    But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying12 , one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

    (John 20:11-13)

    Although in Matthew’s account the angel emphatically tells Mary about the resurrection (Matthew 28:5-7), in John’s Gospel the angels do not mention that anyone rose from the dead. The angels only ask Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary responds by inquiring whether the angels removed Jesus’ body. Then, Mary turns and sees Jesus standing before her, but mistakes him for the gardener. Mary is still completely unaware of any resurrection, and therefore asks the “gardener” if he was the one who carried away Jesus’ body. It is only then that Mary realizes that she was speaking to the resurrected Jesus.

    When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” which means Teacher.

    (John 20:14-16)

    It is at this final juncture of the narrative that the accounts of Matthew and John become hopelessly irreconcilable. The question every Christian must answer is the following: When Mary met Jesus for the first time after the resurrection, had the angel(s) already informed her that Jesus had arisen from the dead? According to Matthew, the angels did inform Mary of the resurrection, but in John’s account they did not. As we survey the divergent New Testament accounts of the resurrection, we see that we are not just looking at contradictory versions, we are reading two entirely different stories!

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