Born Again

As a religion major at Bucknell University, Keller took courses that covered Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. He especially wanted to find an alternative to Christian views of eternal judgment, of damnation and eternal conscious torment in the fires of hell. He searched for a religion that would not judge anyone, whatever they might do or believe. He knew he believed in a God of love. He just didn’t know which religion, or whether any religion at all, could best introduce him to that God.

Keller appreciated the Buddhist emphasis on selflessness and detached service to others, but Buddhism didn’t allow for any kind of personal God, and he concluded that love is something only a person can do. Pagan religions didn’t offer this loving God, with their creation myths full of capricious and even malicious gods fighting each other. Only in the Bible did Tim encounter a God who created the world for his own enjoyment, for the sake of love. Studying other religions helped Tim see that not all religious views include a loving God.

So he turned his attention to the historical arguments against Christianity and, in particular, in the trustworthiness of the New Testament. He realized that Christianity is rather unusual in its assertion that its core beliefs stand or fall on the historical accuracy of its claims. As Tim investigated what he was learning in class, he wasn’t persuaded by the evidence against the earliest written accounts of Christianity. He concluded that his Bucknell professors and the revolutionary books they assigned were wrong.

Keller may have disagreed with Time magazine’s assertion that God was dead, but he didn’t yet feel as though Jesus was alive. Years in church had not led him to a personal experience of God. He didn’t pray with any sense of God’s presence and felt trapped in a crisis of identity. He sensed the intense expectations of his mother but lacked the desire to fulfill them. Long before the days of the smartphone, Tim spoke to his parents no more than once or twice per month. And when his mother sent him letters, he typically didn’t respond. He felt little personal attachment to the Christianity he knew in his teen years and was still searching for a place to fit, a place to belong. He valued the philosophical objectivity of the classroom, but it was only in hindsight that he could he recognize his true need—that he cared less about truth and more about belonging. At the time he just felt lonely and unloved.

During their sophomore year, Tim’s friend Bruce Henderson lived off campus on the third floor of an apartment with low ceilings. They were so low that Tim, because of his height, couldn’t stand comfortably. So he often lingered outside the apartment at the top of the stairs with his back against the wall. Tim, described by Bruce as “master of the pop in,” often engaged him in heated debates, even growing animated to the point that Bruce feared Tim’s large arms and hands would dent the apartment hallway’s walls. Bruce, working three jobs as a student, often backed down because he didn’t want to pay for the damage. But he didn’t back down from the fight entirely, as the two young men debated identity in ways that only college sophomores can—discontented with authority but not experienced enough to find their own way forward.

Bruce and Tim had met and become friends through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Tim had attended the spring retreat in 1969 during his freshman year. Jim Cummings, a student on the same floor in Tim’s freshman dorm, had invited Tim to the InterVarsity meetings. With his Lutheran background and his study as a religion major, Tim was an inviting contact for these evangelistically minded students. Tim could speak the language of InterVarsity because of his experience in the Evangelical Congregational Church. He would even act like a Christian because he so desperately wanted friends. It wasn’t long before the InterVarsity students got a copy of some C. S. Lewis books into his hands. Soon after, the works of John Stott brought Tim back to Martin Luther’s distinction between law and gospel, between saving oneself through good works and receiving salvation as a gift of grace. What Tim had previously recited for a confirmation exam at age four- teen now appeared revolutionary at age twenty. He began to see that the rigid religion of his mother wasn’t the only path to being an orthodox, Bible-believing Christian.

Even though Keller had participated in several InterVarsity events, he wasn’t part of the chapter’s inner ring during the spring retreat, held at a barn converted into a Bucknell faculty member’s summer home. Not that InterVarsity had much of an “outer” ring. There were no more than fifteen active students in the Bucknell chapter in the spring and fall of 1969. And even that small group was never all together at one time. Tim wasn’t yet ready to join the group, but he had found a community that would help him in his search for answers to his many questions. At the very least, these were students willing to debate him, helping him refine his own beliefs. As older students took interest in him, Tim reciprocated. But he didn’t tell them that outside InterVarsity he was living another life—a life apart from the Christianity he adopted for the InterVarsity crowd.

By January 1970, during his sophomore year, Tim knew he could no longer continue his double life. He’d been reading the InterVarsity books and befriending InterVarsity students. Only one hurdle remained. What if he met someone he loved—someone who made life worth living—but Christianity said they couldn’t be together? Wouldn’t that rejection make a lonely young man somehow even lonelier?

Bruce Henderson remembers a decisive moment on his twentieth birthday, April 21, 1970, when he woke up to find Tim sitting on the floor at the foot of his bed, silently waiting for him. Bruce knew something was different, that something significant had changed in Tim. His wrestling was over. Tim had repented of his sin and believed in Jesus. He had put his heart’s faith and trust in Christ alone for salvation.

So, what happened? Why did he change? His intellectual concerns about evil, suffering, and judgment didn’t suddenly disappear. But after looking for answers in other religions and after debating with Christians, Tim finally came to experience his personal need for God. It wasn’t a new method of spiritual enlightenment. Instead, he finally reached the end of himself. Overwhelmed by his sin, face-to-face with his failures and flaws, Tim found the God of love who revealed himself in Jesus Christ and his Word. No longer would he presume to judge God. Now he would follow the God who is just and at the same time is the one who justifies sinners. The Just One had forgiven his sin. The student of religion had become the disciple of Jesus.

“During college the Bible came alive in a way that was hard to describe,” he remembered in his book Jesus the King. “The best way I can put it is that, before the change, I pored over the Bible, questioning and analyzing it. But after the change it was as if the Bible, or maybe Someone through the Bible, began poring over me, questioning and analyzing me.” He’d been taught by his mother and the church of his youth that the Bible is God’s Word. But until this personal encounter, the good news of the Gospels didn’t strike him as the ultimate reality.

Keller doesn’t recall any dramatic changes accompanying his conversion. He sensed a new reality in his prayer life, though, and he gave up his double life of “freedom” without God. But his friends certainly witnessed a change.

“If you ask about whether there was a change in Tim, there sure was in college,” Bruce Henderson said. “He was a heck of a lot kinder, and you could reach him emotionally. All of a sudden he was present. He was there.”

Excerpted from Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation by Collin Hansen. Copyright ©2023 by Collin Hansen. Used by permission of Zondervan.