Tim Keller and the Exclusivity of Christ

The celebrity culture that characterizes much of the YRR movement has compelled some to just want to plug their ears. They don’t want to hear anything negative about their heroes

(Last) week Justin Taylor posted a 2008 interview of Pastor Tim Keller by Martin Bashir at Columbia University. The interview was spring-boarded by his then-newly released book, The Reason for God.

During the interview, which was designed to ask the hardest questions about Christianity, Bashir asked Keller about the eternal destiny of those who don’t believe in Jesus Christ. You can watch part of his answer in this video, with the relevant portion being from about 13:20 to about 15:10. I’ve also transcribed that portion below:
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Bashir: So where does that leave the millions of Muslims, Sikhs and Jews? Are they sadly and completely deluded?

Keller: People who never heard about Jesus, or never really got a hearing about Jesus…

Bashir: I’m not talking about them, because some of those people have heard (about Jesus). I’m talking about the millions of Muslims, Sikhs and Jews who have heard about Jesus. Where does your thesis leave them?

Keller: Where they are right now, it means that if there’s never any change, they don’t get Jesus. If he is who he says he is, then, long term, they don’t have God. If on the other hand…all I can always say about this is God gives me, even as a minister with the Scripture, a lot of information on a need-to-know basis. And a need-to-know basis means, “Here’s all I can tell you: unless you get Jesus Christ who created you to start with, unless you are reunited with him sometime, there is no eternal future of thriving.” It just makes sense. Again, I’m trying to go back to this idea that, that, if he is who he says he is, you’ve got to have him. If right now a person doesn’t have him, he or she needs to get him. If they die and they’ve never, if they die and they don’t have Jesus Christ, I don’t know. In other words, I have a need-to-know basis, the only thing I know is you need Jesus. I certainly know that God is wiser than me, more merciful than me, and I do know that when I finally find out how God is dealing with every individual soul, I won’t have any questions about it. …

[at 16:35:] People in other religions, unless they find Christ, I don’t know any other way; but I also get information on a need-to-know basis so if there’s some , if there’s some trapdoor or something like that, I haven’t been told about it.

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Now at the outset, I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to pick a fight here. I consider Tim Keller to be a fellow laborer in the Gospel. His involvement with The Gospel Coalition and his partnership with men whom I deeply respect testify to his credibility. But it does greatly surprise and concern me that a man of such stature and credibility, to whom many in my generation look as a mentor, has handled these questions in the way that he has. Further, it has been equally disconcerting to read and hear how some of his defenders are responding to this issue. And so my goal is twofold: (1) I want to respectfully—and hopefully, humbly—voice some serious concerns with how Keller handled this question; and (2) I want to demonstrate the unhelpfulness of how some of his defenders are responding.

First Things First

“If they die and they don’t have Jesus Christ, I don’t know.”

I gotta be honest, I still scratch my head when I read that statement. I don’t want to accuse Keller of being dishonest, but I have a hard time believing that he doesn’t know the answer to that question. For one thing, this statement from his church, though it doesn’t address this specific question, seems out of sync with this rather agnostic response. In fact, if given another opportunity, I tend to think that Keller would answer differently.

But what makes this really puzzling is that Scripture answers that question as clear as day: “This is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11–12). And again, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). “I don’t know,” is not an acceptable response.

So, what can we learn from this? How should we respond?

1. A Pass Costs More than Five Points

Well for one thing, we shouldn’t brush this aside because we and Keller stand “together for the Gospel.” John MacArthur has continued to say that in today’s evangelicalism, it seems all you need to do is get the doctrine of justification right, and no matter what else you get wrong, you get a free pass.

Some of the responses I’ve heard to Keller’s statement have definitely proven MacArthur correct. It seems a man can be all over the map in every other area of theology, but if he believes in the Five Points (that is, at least on paper), today’s younger evangelicals are willing to look the other way.

Now, I get that the things “of first importance” are of first importance. The Gospel is the biggest deal when it comes to defining ourselves as Christians and discerning whom we can embrace and partner with and commend to others, and whom we cannot. But as it’s recently been pointed out in slightly different contexts (here, and here), “first importance” does not and cannot mean “only importance.” There are plenty of people who get the Gospel right, whom I can recognize as brothers in Christ, yet who are desperately and egregiously wrong on other very important matters.

And friends, we have to come to terms with the fact that there’s nothing wrong with warning against those errors, particularly if they have the potential to confuse and do harm to other Christians. And the chorus of voices who would accuse me of division and disunity, I believe, misunderstands the biblical concept of unity.

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[Editor’s note: An original URL (link) referenced in this article is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.]