Timothy Keller: Becoming Stewards of Hope—Part 1

“Hope can set us free from both the despair of nihilism and the naivety of utopianism.”

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, and the chairman and co-founder of Redeemer City to City (CTC), which starts new churches in New York and other global cities, and produces content and training for ministry in the urban environment.

Keller’s books, including the New York Times bestselling The Reason for God and The Prodigal God, have sold over 2 million copies and been translated into 25 languages. His latest book, Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter (Viking) draws our attention to the “great reversal” present in Christ’s embrace of death, leading us to the glorious hope of new life.

In this interview, Keller talks about the book, our present wrestling for hope in a culture of fear and how the way of Jesus brings light into our darkness—including the difficulties of personal suffering and uncertainty.

The title of your book is simple: Hope in Times of Fear. Can you paint for us the contemporary landscape of fear?

W.H. Auden wrote The Age of Anxiety, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1948. Almost nobody reads it today, but it captured the spirit of the time. Imagine if you were middle-aged in 1948. You’d have lived through a worldwide influenza pandemic, two world wars and an economic depression all within the space of about 40 years. Life seemed fragile. It felt like anything could happen. Nothing seemed secure.

I was born two years after Auden’s Pulitzer, in 1950. The feeling was that even if there were, say, an economic downturn, things would be better afterward than they had been before. We just assumed that our lives and society were going to get better and better. There was a long period in the second half of the 20th century, in which the anxiety that had defined the first half went away. For a couple generations we lived largely free of insecurity about the world in which we lived.

That’s over. As only one example, the COVID-19 pandemic was something very few people ever thought could happen. Until suddenly, the reality was upon us, and things changed very quickly. Add to that whichever looming disasters you’d like: the human and environmental crisis of climate change? Global terrorism? The knowledge that there are hackers who could bring down governments, nuclear security or banking systems?

And those are just the society-level anxieties. There are plenty waiting for us at home too. Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, observes that empirically we are living healthier and longer lives. Nevertheless, people feel more culturally and emotionally dislocated than ever. Younger generations are experiencing far more depression and anxiety than those that came before them. We can feel the cultural anxiety today. There’s a real pessimism about the future that I’ve not seen in my lifetime. We find ourselves in a new age of anxiety.

It strikes me that at the center of that growing fear is the collapse of a story we once believed about ourselves. Perhaps a national or cultural story. Maybe even a theological one?

Certainly. There is a very famous book by Robert Nisbet called History of the Idea of Progress. In the last chapter of Hope in Times of Fear I engage this a bit. Nisbet wrote about our Western idea of progress. We felt that advances in science, technology and ingenuity would lead to a better world; that every generation would live a better life than the one before.

That was a very new idea, this idea of progress. It is not the way most people in history have understood their times. Most ancient peoples either saw history as cyclical or as declining from a past golden age. Nobody thought that humanity’s best years were ahead. Nisbet said that this idea came originally out of Christianity, but then during the Enlightenment it had been secularized.

Instead of seeking to ground that optimism in the fact that God has the future in his hands, we collectively said, “No, we’ve got the future in our hands.” That particular story about the human race, which is a modern and Western story, started to lose altitude in the first part of the 20th century. Although there was a small uptick, it went on life support as decades passed. I would say it’s really dying now.

It seems like we have a hole in our cultural eschatology.

Exactly. We do not have one anymore. Mark Lilla has written a couple of interesting books, one on the conservative mind and one on the liberal mind. He says conservatives have a nostalgia for the past. They feel like things are getting worse. Liberals and progressives have the opposite perspective. They see the past as being horrible. They think our hope is in the future. Even Lilla, who is not a believer, noted that Christianity had a different story than either. He observed that Saint Augustine’s book The City of God rejected both conservative and liberal perspectives.

Augustine believed that “the city of man” is bad and “the city of God” is good, and that eventually the city of God is going to supplant the city of man. He said you cannot identify any particular political order or any particular city of man with the city of God, and that our true hope lies in the new heavens and earth of the future. That gets rid of the conservative idea that that everything in the past was better and there is no hope. However, it also gets rid of the liberal idea that if we all just pull ourselves together we can bring about the city of God on earth. It gives us a chastened hope for the future rather than a utopian one.

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If the root conservative movement is to look to the past and the root liberal movement is to look to the future, is the Christian work then the work of the present?

We see ourselves being salt and light. Salt at the time of Jesus was an agent of preservation. Lacking refrigeration, you put salt in meat to keep it from spoiling. But salt only works if it’s chemically different from the meat, but at the same time is very involved in the meat.

It’s the same with the metaphor of light and darkness that Jesus used. Light can only push darkness because it’s different than it. But it’s also unveiled. It shines in the darkness.

So Christian distinctives push against culture. But then we go into the culture with our hope. We simply try to be Christians in the culture, living with integrity and compassion. The gospel creates virtues in Christians. If Christians multiply in the culture, we can work for a more just society. And even if we do not immediately bring about a perfectly just society, we have the hope that eventually that’s going to be established on earth by God.

Christian distinctives push against culture. But then we go into the culture with our hope—living with integrity and compassion.”

We do not have to become the darkness to bring this about. We do not have to say, “Well, we have to break eggs to make an omelet.” We do not have to trample on people because we think that is our only hope for a better world. It is not. We can remain faithful in our hope, even if it means that we ourselves do not necessarily see the immediate success we want. To be hopeful means to do what we are supposed to do because our eventual prospects are certain.

There is a famous short story by J.R.R. Tolkien called “Leaf by Niggle.” Niggle is a painter who spends his entire life trying to paint a mural of a tree. By the end of his life, he has only gotten one leaf completed. Then he dies. But when he gets to heaven, he sees the tree that was always there in his mind. That is the way of the Christian. My son Jonathan is an urban planner. In his mind, he has all these exciting ideas about what a great city would look like. Well, as a Christian, he realizes that in his entire life he may only get one “leaf” done of his beautiful vision. We all face that reality. Nevertheless, we live with the hope that there will be a tree. There will be a city. There is going to be a just society. Beauty will be here. Poverty and war will be gone. We are not the saviors. Instead, hope can set us free from both the despair of nihilism and the naivety of utopianism.

The word hope in English has declined in meaning. We use it as if it were a pleasant wish. What you are describing, like the Bible’s definition, is obviously richer.

I think most people have no idea how bad the English word is serving us here. We have a translation problem. Like the word shalom, which is usually translated into English as “peace.” Now in English, peace often just means an absence of hostility. However, the Hebrew word communicates rich flourishing in every dimension. Quite a difference.

We have a similar problem with the word hope. In English, hope can mean the opposite of the biblical sense—to be uncertain. If you say, “I know it’s going to happen,” that is certainty. If you say, “I hope it will happen,” that is uncertainty. The Greek word elpis means assurance of the future—assured anticipation. You are sure of your hope. Quite the opposite of how we typically use the word in English.

One of the big themes of your most recent book is the impact of the resurrection on our life of hope.

Eventually everybody will get to the place where it matters personally whether the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened. Because if it did, then there is hope for you, no matter what happens. Reading the accounts of the resurrection brings the most surprising assurances of its reality. In the book, I spend the first chapter on the question, “Did the resurrection really happen?” The rest of the book follows the implications of that.

I did not want to try to redo what N.T. Wright did. He wrote what is in my opinion the best book on the resurrection in the last 100 years, The Resurrection of the Son of God. He traces significant evidence that the resurrection accounts were not merely made up. They have all the marks of historic eyewitness testimony—including bizarre details no one would include in a fictional account.

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If you were making up a story of a resurrection, you would draw on stories or folktales you’d already heard. Wright said there were only two ways that people had ever thought of resurrection before Jesus. The first was as resuscitation—like Lazarus. The person was dead, then something miraculous happens and he gets up out of the tomb, in which case you recognize him because he still looks the same, right? The second idea of resurrection is of the transformation of the person into an angelic or radiant being. But the idea that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead as recognizable, yet somehow different from the way he had looked before his death (so much so that even his closest friends didn’t at first recognize him) is so utterly counterintuitive. No one would have made that up.

Hope can set us free from both the despair of nihilism and the naivety of utopianism.”

The resurrected Christ looked so ordinary that he sat and ate a fish and walked along on the road and nobody thought—at first—that he was anybody special. Moreover, what is amazing about that is that our future is not something so completely alien. We are not going to be some kind of esoteric spirits. At the same time, it almost beggars belief that God would so restore us that it would be so homelike—the kind of human life we always wanted, but never had.

Nevertheless, overnight, all Christians believed this, and worshiped from the center of Christ’s resurrection. We are not talking about debate here. No, overnight, these people’s lives and intellectual worldviews changed. Counter to their Jewishness, they were worshiping a man as God. It is astounding.

Can you bring this strange-but-beautiful center of our faith back to how it touches our lives?

Why does the resurrection matter? Well, as one reason among billions, because I have cancer. Because one of the things you do when you have cancer is ask how you are going to deal with it. That experience has required that I increase my hope, by reading the Word, especially on the resurrection of Jesus.

Because if he were raised from the dead, then basically, it is going to be OK. If he were raised from the dead, then Christianity is basically right, and the hope it gives is an infallible hope.

“If I am sure of the resurrection, then basically, I am OK. I can handle anything that life—or death—throws at me.”

I am a conservative Presbyterian. When it comes right down to it, I will be very happy to argue with you about all sorts of doctrine. But as a mortal person facing his own death, the resurrection brings perspective to our theology. At this stage in my life, I am looking at the big things of which I can be sure. I’m pretty sure you should baptize infants. But you know what? I am not going to die for that belief. I do not hold to it in the face of my mortality. In fact, I might be wrong on it, though of course I don’t think I am. But when it comes to the resurrection? If I am sure of that, then I am OK. I can handle anything that life—or death—throws at me.

How is treatment? How are you?

I am … in the middle. My first months of treatment have been unusually good and effective, and the cancer has shrunk, but it is still there. I am still living with pancreatic cancer. But when I say I am in the middle, I mean not just medically, but mentally. On the one hand, things are not bad at all. From the scans I have had, my treatments have been effective. On the other, pancreatic cancer is very serious—one of the hardest cancers to treat.

What that means for me is that there is more time. It remains to be seen whether it will continue to shrink or whether the cancer turns around and advances. When you have cancer, you get in touch with many other people who have walked through it. You hear all the stories, and the common theme is that there is no certain path forward. I might continue to get better and live a lot longer, but suddenly the treatments might just stop working. I am in the middle of all those possibilities.

So, though I hope that my treatment will continue to be effective and that it will give me more time, my hope in my treatment is fallible. But my hope in the resurrection is infallible.

In Part 2 of the interview, Timothy Keller expounds on the increased sense of God’s presence he’s felt during this season, what biblical hope looks like, the dangers of self-pity, and how the resurrection changes everything.

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