Tim Keller is one of my favourite preachers. He’s insightful, wise and connected to his city’s culture in astounding ways.
This interview reveals his astute ability to present gospel truths in palatable yet uncompromising terms.
What does it mean to be a Christian in the 21st century? Can one be a Christian and yet doubt the virgin birth or the Resurrection?
I put these questions to the Rev. Timothy Keller, an evangelical Christian pastor and best-selling author who is among the most prominent evangelical thinkers today.
Our conversation has been edited for space and clarity.
KRISTOF Tim, 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. Since this is the Christmas season, let’s start with the virgin birth. Is that an essential belief, or can I mix and match?
KELLER If something is truly integral to a body of thought, you can’t remove it without destabilizing the whole thing. A religion can’t be whatever we desire it to be. 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.
But the earliest accounts of Jesus’ life, like the Gospel of Mark and Paul’s letter to the Galatians, don’t even mention the virgin birth. And the reference in Luke to the virgin birth was written in a different kind of Greek and was probably added later. So isn’t there room for skepticism?
If it were simply a legend that could be dismissed, it would damage the fabric of the Christian message. Luc Ferry, looking at the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus’ birth into the world, said this taught that the power behind the whole universe was not just an impersonal cosmic principle but a real person who could be known and loved. That scandalized Greek and Roman philosophers but was revolutionary in the history of human thought. It led to a new emphasis on the importance of the individual person and on love as the supreme virtue, because Jesus was not just a great human being, but the pre-existing Creator God, miraculously come to earth as a human being.
And the Resurrection? Must it really be taken literally?
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).