Book Review: The Reason for God by Tim Keller

Book Review: The Reason for God by Tim Keller

Last night, I successfully completed Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller’s apologetics book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. I find it fascinating to read through various apologetics books (like The Case for a Creator, Emails to a Young Seeker, and this), and see how they differ and how they don’t. There were a lot of topics in The Reason for God that were familiar, but as with most apologetics books, the author tweaked a thing or two to try to refresh the tired arguments and make them his own.

The Reason for God is split up into two sections: “The Leap of Doubt” and “The Reasons for Faith”. The first is a list of objections that someone might give in regards to the Christian faith. They are:

  1. There Can’t Be Just One True Religion
  2. How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?
  3. Christianity is a Straightjacket
  4. The Church is Responsible for So Much Injustice
  5. How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?
  6. Science Has Disproved Christianity
  7. You Can’t Take the Bible Literally

Keller compiled these questions throughout his years as the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church of Manhattan, which he often describes as somewhat of a church for misfits, skeptics, and those who are typically turned off by traditional orthodox Christianity. I believe that these really are popular questions that he gets a lot, but if I may nitpick, they’re not all necessarily the questions I’m asking. Of course, Keller doesn’t know me, and didn’t have my specific questions in mind when writing this in 2008 when I wasn’t even truly an atheist yet, so I have to let it slide.

That being said, Objection #3 in particular is something I’ve never really had contention with. In fact, I know that Christianity is an inconceivably varied religion, with thousands of denominations as well as beliefs that people stretch to mean practically anything they want it to. Keller’s Christianity is pretty open, extremely culturally diverse, but still primarily worships the deity of Jesus Christ.
Tellingly, Keller writes in his response to Objection #7,

We should make sure that we distinguish between the major themes of the Bible and its less primary teachings. The Bible talks about the person and work of Christ and also about how widows should be regarded in the church. The first of these subjects is much more foundational. Without it the secondary teachings don’t make sense. We should therefore consider the Bible’s teachings in their proper order.

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, pp. 116-117

I’m sure Keller wrote this book to save souls for God, but I can’t shake that feeling that it is all one big tract for skeptics and doubters to join his church (now, churches). You can bring dozens of objections to Christianity to the table, like the historicity of the creation accounts, the Bible’s teachings on slavery, or its disdain for women or sexual minorities, but Keller essentially says, “That’s fine, you can still join my church as long as you believe that Jesus died and rose. I won’t let the minutiae of the Bible’s abhorrence stop you from donating to my collection plate every week.”

Anyways, for the most part, I think Keller represented The Skeptic’s questions well. I might word some of them differently, especially “How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?” and “Science Has Disproved Christianity”. These two questions/objections are much easier to answer than what I might have said, which are “Why would a perfect and omnipotent god sometimes allow and sometimes (in the Old Testament) cause such a great amount of suffering?” and “The creation accounts in Genesis directly contradict what we know about the history of humanity, life, the earth, and the universe at large.”

Keller’s responses were what you might typically expect, which were along the lines of “We are mere broken humans without the capacity to know the mind of an all-knowing God” and a similar quote to the one I gave earlier in which Keller tells the skeptic that “only after drawing conclusions about the person of Christ, the resurrection, and the central tenets of the Christian message should one think through the various options with regard to creation and evolution” (97).

It is fine to get a potential Christian to focus first on Jesus, but eventually they should come back around to whether or not the bible makes sense historically. The only possible conclusions are that they will avoid the question forever, discover that the two are not compatible in which they will either abandon the faith or become a deluded young-earth creationist, or give up their belief in the historical bible and become a theistic evolutionist.

I found myself significantly more engaged by the second half of The Reason for God, “The Reasons for Faith”. It consisted of seven arguments for Christianity. I had great objections to each chapter, but my greatest qualm arose in the first, “The Clues of God”. Keller essentially took some of the best-known arguments for the existence of a deity and rebranded them as clues. He reasoned,

The philosopher Alvin Plantinga believes that there are no proofs of God that will convince all rational persons. However, he believes that there at least two or three dozen very good arguments for the existence of God (source). Most readers who take the time to think through Plantinga’s list will find some items compelling and others not. However, the accumulated weight of the ones you find appealing can be formidable.

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, p. 132

Spoiler alert: they were not formidable. His (well, Plantinga’s) arguments were, essentially: the Kalam cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, uniformitarianism, the argument from beauty, and a final argument that’s hard to explain but can be summed up by saying that we can’t trust our senses if they evolved naturally. Last week’s post is a rebuttal specifically to Keller’s last argument, so I won’t be covering that here.

The single thing in this entire book that made me the most frustrated and angry occurred in Keller’s summary of the “clue” of fine-tuning, specifically on page 134. He writes,

It seems extremely unlikely that this would happen by chance. Stephen Hawking concludes: “The odds against a universe like ours emerging out of something like the Big Bang are enormous. I think there are clearly religious implications.” Elsewhere [Hawking] says, “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe would have begun in just this way except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.”7

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, p. 134

Now, I’m not calling Tim Keller a liar, but in the words of Josh Peck on Drake and Josh, “I ain’t callin’ you a truther!” There was just something very weird about both of these quotes. It’s entirely possible that Stephen Hawking said both of those things, but I wanted to know where. So naturally, I flipped to the back of the book to find the only citation following both quotes. Citation 7 lead to a bibliographical entry telling me that it was quoted within Francis Collins’ The Language of God on page 75.

Luckily, I had The Language of God on my shelf next to me (and it’s one of the few that I’ve already read and reviewed), so I picked it up and flipped to page 75. Collins writes,

Hawking, quoted by Ian Barbour,7 writes, “The odds against . . . clearly religious implications.”

. . .

Going even further, in A Brief History of Time, Hawking states: “It would be very difficult . . . beings like us.”8

Francis Collins, The Language of God, p. 75

The trail of bread crumbs from the first quote, “It would be very difficult . . . “, ended on page 127 of my copy of Hawking’s bestseller. Predictably, no, this quote is not Hawking’s confession of religious faith, but rather an introduction to several possibilities to scientifically explain that which he says is very difficult. No one ever said science was easy, but Hawking knew it wasn’t impossible.

The other quote, “The odds against a universe . . . ” was much harder to track down. Citation 7 from Ian Barbour lead me to his book When Science Meets Religion. This is when I got really frustrated, because this was the first book in the trail that I did not own. However, I immediately ordered it from Thriftbooks for $3.99 and waited for a few days until I could finally have my questions answered.

When Barbour’s book finally arrived, and I dug through with no reference from the citation as to which page the quote would be on, I was again disappointed. On page 58 of When Science Meets Religion, Barbour states,

Some physicists see evidence of design in the early universe. Stephen Hawking, for example, writes, “The odds against a universe like ours emerging out of something like the Big Bang are enormous. I think there are clearly religious implications.”36

Ian Barbour, When Science Meets Religion, p. 58

I was sick of the quote trail. I was tired. I had waited eight days for this book to come in the mail. Collins’ citation had had no indication that this quote did not originate in Ian Barbour’s book. And I was running out of time to solve this mystery before writing this review to tell you what happened. So I turned to Amazon to get Prime delivery and pay $6 for a tiny, thirty-year-old, coffee-stained Mass Market Paperback that Ian Barbour had quoted called Stephen Hawking’s Universe by John Boslough.

Two days later, the saga finally ended on page 109 of Boslough’s book, in a chapter called “The Anthropic Principle”:

It may soon become evident that science will never be able to take us to the exact moment of creation—only up to that point where philosophy, metaphysics, and theology begin. Stephen Hawking has made a tentative foray into this uncertain area. “The odds against a universe like ours emerging out of something like the Big Bang are enormous,” [Hawking] told me. “I think there are clearly religious implications whenever you start to discuss the origins of the universe. There must be religious overtones. But I think most scientists prefer to shy away from the religious side of it.”

John Boslough, Stephen Hawking’s Universe, p. 109

There. Now you know what Hawking really said. Neither Keller nor Collins probably had any idea, but Ian Barbour must have read the quote within Stephen Hawking’s Universe and decided that he wanted not only to include half of what was actually said, but he had the audacity to go so far as to say that this implies that Stephen Hawking saw “evidence of design.”

Whether or not this quote supports my own point of view any more than the poorly-sourced half-quote in the three apologetics books is irrelevant. Hawking is admitting that the anthropic principle is a hard topic, and following this quote is a summary of various scientific work that Hawking and others did to learn about why the universe appeared to be fine-tuned.

I don’t think that Tim Keller had bad intentions in including this quote that he found in The Language of God, but it certainly looks sloppy and makes me wonder how much else in The Reason for God was quote-mined or taken out of context. Ironically, after addressing skeptics and their doubts about God, Keller has made me even more skeptical of trusting Christian arguments than I ever was before.

On an entirely different note, I met Jaclyn Glenn this week, so that was really amazing! She was one of the first people that convinced me that I was not crazy to be an atheist when I was at a Christian college, so I’m thankful that I got to meet such an inspiration in person. 🙂

0 thoughts on “Book Review: The Reason for God by Tim Keller

  • September 1, 2019 at 9:17 am

    I’m glad you do these reviews (research and evidentiary analysis), Rebekah. I will never read the books, but your reviews give me all (or exactly what) I need. As you imply, they are heavy on bias (if not lies), weak on proof, and manipulated for the believer. In my mind, you reveal that the Emperor still has no cloths, no matter how many books they write to sell. Thanks. Love the photo.

    • September 1, 2019 at 10:22 am

      Who needs proof when just the right, clever wording can make us feel warm in belief? Proof is for the weak

      • September 1, 2019 at 11:06 am

        Like she said, all the arguments (and proofs) are the same old nonsense. Happy September, Y’all.

        • September 1, 2019 at 11:09 am

          Wow. We’ve barely had summer yet. Overnight lows never reached 60°..50° this morning.

          • September 1, 2019 at 11:12 am

            101 here a couple days ago. Highs now in 90s and morning lows mid 70-ish.

          • September 1, 2019 at 11:13 am

            I guess I won’t complain…

          • September 3, 2019 at 2:15 pm

            Jim, that WAS summer. Cheer up, there’ll another one next year. (Winter lasts six months (getting, giving and going), spring turns into summer and by the time that happens it’s time for fall (almost winter) again.
            Something I never really managed to articulate before: if there was a God, why would he even bother with people? The standard excuse is, ‘so we can worship him” which means He needs US. Not very godlike, I’d say. And why bother with free will, which is the equivalent for humans of running with scissors…

  • September 1, 2019 at 9:30 am

    I agree with Bill. Great post. Thank you for your hard work and determination to find the original quote. Sort of puts a different light on things, doesn’t it?!!

  • September 1, 2019 at 9:33 am

    Thank you for reading and reviewing that book — so that I won’t have to read it.

  • September 1, 2019 at 11:24 am

    Love the review Rebekah.
    One of the my bugbears from books like ‘The Reason for God’ is simply how comforting for Christians and tired for none believers these arguments are.
    The same thoughts, revelations and explanations are re-worded and dropped into the pages to move a few books and make a few bucks.
    They are selling comfort for a profit.
    That’s that they are written for though right? To help those on the Christian fringe to come back into the fold with reminders of made up comfort and purpose. Because what makes us feel better is easier to trust in…
    Keep writing 🙌

  • September 1, 2019 at 12:20 pm

    Yes, Thanks for the review, an Neil said, “so that I won’t have to read it.” –
    Ugh, the constant rehashing of the old arguments is tiresome. The apologists know the arguments don’t work anymore so they put their own spin on them.

    • September 1, 2019 at 6:29 pm

      I went through a number of these kind of books while writing my own. I’m so done with them!

  • September 4, 2019 at 12:10 pm

    Re “Keller’s responses were what you might typically expect, which were along the lines of ‘We are mere broken humans without the capacity to know the mind of an all-knowing God'” This is typical blame the victim fare from an apologist, but if you hearken back to the “Fall” Adam and Eve were cursed because the learned how to distinguish good from evil and were expelled from the garden of Eden so that they would eat from the tree of Life, and thus become immortal and like the gods. (The original manuscript mentions “gods” by the way, not just “God.” So, what if they hadn’t eaten the fruit, and then did not know the difference between good and evil, how were they supposed to “know the mind of God?”
    Were we created so flawed? Whose fault is that? What do all of “God’s” creations rebel?
    regarding the mis-quoting and quote mining of the likes of Stephen Hawking. I should like to point out that far from ““The odds against a universe like ours emerging out of something like the Big Bang are enormous,” the odds are exactly 100%, 1:1, perfect. The Big Bang (or something like it) happened and we ended up with … this! Ta da. How would someone calculate the odds for something else happening and, the fact that it didn’t happen means exactly what? Something has to happen. I am afraid we are failing to think here. We are confusing meanings with actual phenomena.

    • September 4, 2019 at 12:12 pm

      So many typos! I do apologize, but when I expanded the reply box, much of the text extended out of the white box!

  • March 21, 2020 at 2:30 am

    I am looking forward to reading Keller’s book asap. I disagree with the writers above who say “now they won’t have to read it” I want to find out if
    Keller is as “sloppy” in his research as other readers of her article seem to believe it implies.
    Why do people who have found comfort in the religion of Atheism try to dissuade Christians from the comfort they have found in Christ?

    • March 21, 2020 at 9:39 am

      I appreciate you investigating the boom for yourself. Why do you think atheism is a religion?

  • September 7, 2020 at 11:07 pm

    This thread being a year old, I was reluctant to respond to it. I’m glad you had the determination and patience to verify some of the more grievous statements.
    I noted your mention of Thriftbooks. They have helped me with my reading habit I could not afford at normal prices. During my searches for certain books, no Christian apologetics, I found Out of print books; books in the public domain, things I was not able to find except maybe at those exorbitant ‘collectors’ prices.
    I thank you for the work you do and that you share it here. I’m waiting, patiently, for a report on your adventures with AIG, and any others you choose to tackle.
    The freethinking of one age is the common sense of the next.
    Matthew Arnold
    And remember what B. Franklin said about Christian apologists:
    “Half a truth is often a great lie.”
    B. Franklin
    Oh. That wasn’t about apologists? My bad.


What do you think?