Tim Keller and the Lies He Tells About Death

Tim Keller and the Lies He Tells About Death March 11, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Christian leaders certainly offer a lot of promises about the features and benefits of their product, which is active membership in their particular groups. But every one of these promises is false. Perhaps no promise is quite as false — or quite as cruel — as the one they make about death. Christians promise up and down that their product can give people peace of mind about death. It does not. And Tim Keller found that out the hard way, though I doubt a single one of his followers will understand his recent confession.

la dance macabre
(Death and the Woman, by Hans Baldung Grien (c. 1509). Wikipedia.)

(Obviously, cancer sucks and I’m not happy that Tim Keller has gotten this diagnosis. I wish nothing but peace and love upon his family as they face this impending loss, and I hope that Tim Keller manages to find a way to reconcile himself to reality before he wastes too much more of his remaining time with his loved ones. Also, be aware that there are Presbyterians and Presbyterians. Tim Keller is PCA, which is a conservative evangelical group, but there’s also a very progressive group called PC(USA). Clancy’s daughter is a pastor with the latter group. I strongly suspect that a PC(USA) pastor would feel a certain way about the topics in today’s post.)

Everyone, Meet Tim Keller. Again.

I honestly don’t know why Tim Keller seems to have a reputation as a nice apologist. I’ve heard people say that, but I don’t ever know where they get it. He is a huckster, through and through, a charlatan who tells lies and smears his tribal enemies every chance he gets.

Around here, we’ve talked about him before — here, here 2, and here 3. This Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) ordained pastor counts himself not only evangelical but Calvinist. So right out of the gate, nobody should expect him to be a paragon of virtue and compassion. That said, he’s come out with some out-and-out whoppers in his time.

This is just one of those times, that’s all. In a recent post in The Atlantic, he flat-out told readers that he wrote a book filled top to bottom with lies about death, and that those lies held no comfort for him at all when he faced a serious health crisis of his own.

And his response to his realization that he’d written a book full of lies might be even worse than the fact that he lied in the first place.

On Death: Tim Keller’s Little Sales Pitch.

On Death came out just this past year. You can see the preview of it on Amazon. It belongs to some series called “How to Find God.” As you might guess, the series is intended to sell Tim Keller’s product to people who don’t already belong to his tribe. In his introduction to it, he writes:

Our purpose is to give readers the Christian foundations for life’s most important and profound moments. We start with birth and baptism, move into marriage, and conclude with death. Our hope is that these slim books will provide guidance, comfort, wisdom, and above all, will help point the way to finding and knowing God all throughout your life.

Oh, I bet. The preview certainly indicates that it contains all the usual blahblah that Christians apply to important topics they can’t hand-wave away — like death. He pisses all over the secular viewpoint. It’s the one that the evidence points to as being what actually happens to us after death, so obviously he has to defeat it:

In that case, whatever gives your life meaning and purpose will have to be something within the confines of this earthly time frame. You must, as it were, rest your heart in something within the limited horizons of time and space. Whatever you decide will give meaning to your life will have to be some form of this-world happiness, comfort, or achievement. Or, at best, it might be a love relationship.

But death, of course, destroys all of these things. [. . .] Modern culture, then, is the worst in history at preparing its members for the only inevitability–death.

SO BUY HIS PRODUCT! It’ll TOTALLY prepare you for death!

Dude even includes an appendix titled “If you are facing your own possible death.” It begins:

The Christian faith gives believers unparalleled promises and hopes in the face of death.

Y’all, around here we call that a testable claim.

So how did this claim work out for its author?

Except Not Really: Tim Keller Faces Reality, Sorta.

Reality came crashing in on Tim Keller literally right after the publication of On Death. In early/mid 2020, he discovered that he has pancreatic cancer. Right after he got the news from his doctors, he writes in The Atlantic:

I spent a few harrowing minutes looking online at the dire survival statistics for pancreatic cancer, and caught a glimpse of On Death on a table nearby. I didn’t dare open it to read what I’d written.

Oh, I fookin’ bet not.

Tim Keller goes on to write about how he’s seen “a significant number of believers in God” get their faith rattled or even shot to pieces after similar diagnoses, and he frets that this might happen to him:

What would happen to me? I felt like a surgeon who was suddenly on the operating table. Would I be able to take my own advice?

Oh, one wonders indeed if a lifelong huckster of one of the very worst flavors of Christianity ever would, indeed, throw off his indoctrination in his few remaining years! I’m sure the scare-quotes “Christian love” would flow freely to support him all the same. Yes, I’m sure of it. (/s)

The post goes on to describe his shock and fear of death, and how poorly his book — and his lifetime of Jesus-ing — addressed his need.

Don’t Worry. Tim Keller’s Still an Asshole.

This post in The Atlantic functions as a sales pitch both for Tim Keller’s product and his book. As such, he has two main goals in writing it:

First, he needs to piss all over other viewpoints, especially the one that contains, again, literally every speck of the objective evidence humans have ever discovered regarding death and dying.

As Tim Keller writes in this Atlantic post:

Death, in this view, is simply nonexistence, and therefore, as the writer Julian Barnes has argued, nothing to be frightened of. These ideas are items of faith that can’t be proved, and people use them as Barnes does, to stave off fear of death. But I’ve found that nonreligious people who think such secular beliefs will be comforting often find that they crumple when confronted by the real thing.

Really? Like Keller himself did, he means? Cuz I’d like to see some statistics on this claim.

Everything I’ve ever seen of nonreligious vs Christian reactions to death indicates that it’s Christians who have the hardest time making that final journey. They resist death the most, seek the hardest to stave it off as long as they can, deny it the hardest, and ultimately fight it with everything they’ve got, even well past the point when medical intervention can provide meaningful life extension.

If Tim Keller wants to play Last Ideology Standing, he’s going to need to do a lot better than unsubstantiated hearsay and anecdotes.

Well, it’s better than those ickie ATHEISTS’ idea doesn’t rise to becoming a reason to believe his nonsense.

Monetizing Cancer and Death.

Second, Tim Keller needs to push his product as the solution to the fear he’s ginned up in readers and that he claims to feel himself.

His entire post functions as a sales pitch. In it, he offers us the idea that even a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ like him, one who literally wrote the book about facing death in the most Jesus-flavored way imaginable, could still face the terror of death and discover that all his beliefs came to nothing in coping with the stark reality of cancer. But don’t worry! He totally got over his fear and so can you! Here’s how!

(First, buy his book! Now, buy more apologetics books! Oh, and then, then, here are some Bible analysis books you’ll want to buy and study!)

It’s sickening to see someone try to monetize a cancer diagnosis like this, to use one’s own looming death as a sales pitch. But that’s what he’s done. He describes this huge long process of religious awakening and study that could only happen when he came face to face with his own mortality.

To read this post, though, one could easily be forgiven for thinking that it represents nothing less than a confession regarding the utter uselessness of everything Tim Keller has ever taught or written.

As such, it comes off as extremely dishonest. He was lying all this time about how well his religion handled death, as he himself has discovered. What stops him from lying again now?

Compare and Contrast: Permadeath Finds My Dad.

Some years ago, I wrote a post talking about death. I called it “Permadeath vs. Respawn.” In it, I talked about how one’s view of the afterlife (if any) affects how we view our actual life: how much we value it, how hard we fight to remain in it, how we feel about it ending. Most of all, the post concerned how truly valuable this life is — precisely because the evidence, once again, points to there being no sentience for humans past it.

After that post was published, a reader contacted me privately to talk about a death she’d experienced in her own close family. That permadeath post had spoken to her and resonated with her. She and I struggled together to mourn and grieve and say goodbye to this person who’d meant so much to her. I felt confident that what I’d written and what we discussed would help her find what she needed.

The very next day, a lawyer contacted me to tell me that my own father had died. We’d been estranged, so I hadn’t known.

Hey, do you know what did not happen afterward?

I did not writhe and twist against my previous words, or find them mockeries, or think them inadequate in dealing with my sudden grief.

My beliefs — stated as they were in public and private — were completely adequate to this sudden sharp need. I definitely mourned, yes. I mourned hard. After all, my dad wasn’t the easiest person to love! But I did not feel like a liar or imposter.

You know, like Tim Keller admits to being in his Atlantic post.

Tim Keller: Selling a Product, Still and Always.

Ultimately, Tim Keller sells a product to Calvinist evangelicals. And they want that product, and they buy it, and they embrace it based on the claims their leaders make about it. The claims those leaders make about peace in the face of horror and fear might be some of the most potent ones in their arsenal.

And they are false claims.

In his book, Tim Keller writes:

Over forty-five years of ministry, my wife, Kathy, and I have seen that people are particularly open to exploring a relationship with God at times of major transition.

Oh, I know they do. That’s why evangelists prey hardest on victims in the midst of major transitions: prisoners, people in old folks’ homes, etc. They feed these victims promises galore about what buy-in will give them.

And these promises still represent false claims.

In this age of pandemic, deaths abound. Indeed, most of us have experienced the death of a loved one in the past year or so. Doubtless, the topic lingers on many people’s minds. So the publication of this book and this Atlantic post come at a most opportune time for someone who wants desperately to sell Christianity’s only product.

I’m sure he thinks that his claims now will result in many sales. But then, he also predicted a year ago that the pandemic would lead to a massive influx of new customers to churches. I’ve seen no sign at all of that predicted revival!

Tim Keller Needs to Spend His Time More Lovingly.

I wouldn’t wish cancer on my worst enemy. It’s a really awful way to go. And thus, I’d rather Tim Keller spend his remaining months and years on this good dark earth connecting with his loved ones and ensuring that he leaves a good legacy behind when he goes.

Cuz with these two written works, this dying apologist is just making an anti-case for buying his product. It’s embarrassing. If his beliefs really granted him an adequate preparation for death, he would not have embarked on all the “head work” and “heart work” he says he did. Those beliefs would have done for him what mine did for me when my dad died (and for that matter, when I briefly worried after my first mammogram).

Yes, they would have provided him a smooth ramp to slide down toward closure and reconciliation with reality, so that he could spend his final days doing what I describe above. Instead, how much time has he had to waste to build a sloppy, bumpy sorta-ramp for himself? All that “head work” and “heart work” have taken away from his brief remaining allotment of time.

I don’t know that I’d say he needs to spend his remaining time more wisely, but he definitely needs to spend it more lovingly.

Aww, What’s the Harm? Tim Keller Edition.

Tim Keller’s unfortunate situation illustrates perfectly why religion is not a net positive:

There’s an opportunity cost involved in holding beliefs that are not based in reality.

Very few of the activities and devotions involved in Christianity are actually intrinsically helpful. Sometimes prayer functions as meditation, yes. Sometimes group devotions act as a social outlet, if one is lucky and finds a decent church group. And sometimes churches perform charity that is useful to their communities. I’m not saying all religious activity is bad, of course.

I am saying that overall, the time people waste on busy-work religious devotions is time they can’t spend doing something that can really help them or someone else. Many devotions function as a substitution for genuinely, intrinsically helpful actions. And most Christians have trouble distinguishing between intrinsically helpful and busy-work actions. Tim Keller’s “head work” and “heart work” sound like the latter — perhaps yet another way of avoiding that last confrontation with his own mortality.

I really, really hope that Tim Keller isn’t wasting as much time as he says he is on this religious blahblah. It’s clear that he still hasn’t come to grips with his own coming death. I hope he does before he wastes much more time. Tim Keller will never be here again. None of us will.

That’s exactly what makes our brief lifetimes so precious.

For all this huckster’s stomping on secular people’s sense of meaning and purpose, I’ll take a reality-based one over what he offers — any day. I’ve just got no more time to waste like he is now.

NEXT UP: Speaking of which, the Christian love flows in the wake of Beth Moore’s defection from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Of course it does. See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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