Common Questions

Pastor Tim Keller gives some thoughts on Questions people are asking

September 14, 2001

1. How can you trust God after this kind of an event?

The Christian answer to issues of suffering and tragedy always has to do with the Cross. Imagine you are an admirer and companion of Jesus Christ during his ministry. He is such a powerful worker of miracles that disease and hunger are almost banished from the countryside when he is present. He is such a powerful teacher and spiritual guide that thousands of people hear him gladly and get hope. Then suddenly this man who is the one to help the whole country is cruelly, unjustly cut off in the very midst of his life--at only age 33.

What if you stood at the foot of the cross in front of this apparently senseless act of violence and tragic waste of life, and you said, "I can never, ever trust God again after an event like this!" And what if you went home and completely renounced all belief in God saying, "This proves that God is either a monster or indifferent or he doesn't exist"? If you did that, you would have been missing the greatest act of God's love and redemption in history. But of course no one at that time (and only a few for a good while afterwards) could fathom what had happened.

The Cross of Jesus Christ is the main reason I can trust God after this kind of event. First, the Cross is the best proof that God is not remote from us in our suffering. (See question #3 and #5 below.) Second, the Cross and its aftermath shows us how dangerous it is to judge God on surface appearances. His way is to work strength through weakness and bring resurrection and new power through death. (See question # below.)

2. Is this a judgment from God on our country?

I don't think we can infer from prosperity that God is pleased with us, nor can we know from disaster that he is displeased with us. In Romans 1:18ff Paul hints that the worst punishment may be to get the happy life you want! That way you never wake up to your pride, self-righteousness or need for him. On the other hand, Luke 21:16-19 is a remarkable assertion that God's loving protection of his people does not mean exemption for suffering. Jesus says, "They will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish." This is startling to us. We would think that 'not a hair of your head will perish' must mean that we can't be attacked and killed, but that is not so. Jesus is saying that God exercises the most detailed and loving control of our lives ("not a hair"), and that in the broad scope of things every event works out for our good and his glory (Romans 8:28). But our life-plan may still include terrible tragedy, just as did Jesus' life plan. (Why should servants be above their master?) What do we learn from all this?

We learn that we cannot be sure that disasters imply divine judgment nor that prosperity implies divine approval. So how can we know whether God is displeased with America or not? The only way to know that for sure is to consult the Scriptures and its standards.

But this does not mean we cannot 'hear God's voice' in a time of tragedy. We can. Jesus was also asked whether certain corporate and personal tragedies were "judgments" of God. In Luke 13 he was asked if a massacre and (ironically) a falling tower were signs of God's judgment on those killed. His answer was an unequivocal "no", but he added cryptically "you yourselves should repent". That fits with C.S. Lewis' famous statement that "in prosperity God whispers to us, but in adversity he shouts at us." God speaks to us in all troubles. So what is God saying in times of tragedy and suffering? I think the message is different depending on how touched you are by the disaster.

If you have actually lost a loved one, I think you are being called to look to the only God (so to speak) of all the faiths of the world who literally lost a child. Jesus was himself the victim of a hostile, physical attack. I don't think you will really be able to handle the brutality of life either with a) a general God who has not suffered, or with b) a universe without any God in it at all. Both of those options bring no consolation. If there is no God, then even your outrage is trivialized. This is just the way life is. There is no justice. On the other hand, if there is a general God up in the sky, how do we know he cares? But the God and Father of Jesus Christ gives us a new resource that comforts deeply. He proved his commitment to ending our suffering by getting involved in it himself.

If you have not directly lost a loved one, but rather find yourself dazed, shaken, and fearful, God is saying to you: "Wake up to your need for me and wake up to what real security is. No military power or technology or human factor can make you safe. Only in the very center of my will is there any safety. You don't have the human ability to control things. You need me." C.S. Lewis pointed out that times of war or disaster don't really increase the amount of misery and death in the world, but they concentrate it and wake us from our illusion that life is manageable. "If we had foolish hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. In ordinary times only the wise realize it. Now (in war-time) the stupidest of us knows it." (C.S.Lewis, "Learning in War-Time")

3. How does vengeance not manifest itself in the Christian community?

In most people's minds there is a false "either-or" between vengeance and forgiveness. But that is a mistake. Forgiveness is not simply resignation or capitulation to evil.

In vengeance we simply pommel the enemy to hurt them worse than we were hurt. Our motivation is neither the common good nor the upholding of justice and truth per se. We simply want to assuage our own pain by seeing our enemy in worse pain than we were. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is not 'letting him off scot free'. Forgiveness is a means of giving up the hate and the desire for personal vengeance so that we can then pursue justice and maybe even reconciliation. I have personally found that I can't really confront a wrong-doer effectively about his or her sin until I've forgiven it. Then I am sometimes able to help the person see their wrong, or at least I am able to wisely pursue justice and restitution. But if I keep my heart full of hate, I never get anything done except fuel the cycle of retaliation. When I aim not to bring a person to see the truth, but rather only to hurt them, I never get anywhere. In other words, forgiveness does not 'let a person off'--rather it frees my heart to pursue justice and/or reconciliation, depending on the reaction of the wrongdoer.

At the very least, forgiveness prevents me from becoming as evil as the other party. The basic plot-dynamic of The Lord of the Rings revolves around the conundrum of the Great Ring of the Dark Lord. The 'good' people have found his ring, but they can't use his own power against him without becoming just like the one who made it. They can, as it were, defeat the Dark Lord, but only by becoming an evil Dark Lord in his place. Unless we forgive our enemies, our anger could turn us as demonic as it has turned them.

Now that we know what forgiveness is, how can we do it? I don't know how to do that without embracing the message of the cross. The Cross means at least that a) God so hates evil and injustice that he is willing to come suffer himself in order to end it, but b) we are so tainted by evil as well that Jesus had to die so that we could be forgiven. Both of these truths are absolutely essential for forgiveness. Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf puts it perfectly:

Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans and exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of [the Cross] for long without overcoming this double exclusion....When one knows that the torturer will not eternally triumph over the victim, one is freed to rediscover the torturer's humanity and imitate God's love for that person. And when one knows that the love of God is greater than [my] sin, one is free to see oneself in the light of the justice of God and so rediscover one's own sinfulness. (Volf, The Spacious Heart, p.57)

4. How do both nation and individual cope with grief?

It is interesting to see that the basic process of grief works itself out at both the individual and the corporate level. First comes numbness, shock, and an air of unreality. In the first stage it is necessary to simply express emotions together. We hold hands, cry together, and embrace. It is not a time for moralizing and instructing and looking for lessons. It is a time to "weep with those who weep" (Rom.12:15).

But second comes a stage of anger and/or creeping despair. In this stage there is a persistent need to 'make sense out of all this'. People have to find a way to think about the tragedy so that it does not make the rest of their lives meaningless. Ironically, there seems to be no way for people to deal with grief at this level without having recourse to the basic gospel dynamic of death-leading-to-resurrection. This is the basic approach that the mayor and governor have invoked and used. They say: "Out of the loss of good things will come even greater good things. We will come together as a community as never before. We will be brave as we have not been before. We will find victory through this defeat and strength through our weakness. This 'death' will lead to a resurrected city better than the one before."

I personally believe that this is the right way for NYC to deal with its grief. It must reflect the gospel dynamic of death-into-resurrection at a civic level. Through this New York could become less a place of individualistic achievement and more of a community. Through this Americans could become on the one hand humbler and more sensitive to the injustice and pain in the world and yet more committed to and (rightly) proud of our nation than ever before. In summary, we could become stronger through this weakness, not just in spite of it. That is the basic gospel dynamic.

However, the very deepest and best way to handle grief is to believe and use the gospel itself on the heart. Unlike any other religion, Christianity has at its very heart an act of tragic and unjust suffering and death. It has at its heart a man literally abandoned by God, crying out and unheard, yet this is the way God brings his salvation and hope into the world! How does this help us?

First, when we trust in his death on our behalf, it takes away fear for ourselves. We know that now even death can't harm us. "Death used to be an executioner, but the gospel has made him just a gardener." (George Herbert) This frees us to love and sacrifice for others in such a way that makes the broken world more livable. We don't need to amass power and wealth in order to prove ourselves. Second, when we see how the very best man who ever lived had to suffer, it undermines our own self-pity or bitterness. If God could bring life and good out of the tragedy of the cross, then he can work through other suffering as well. Third, the cross gives us hope for the whole future. The Cross means that God is so committed to ending the suffering and brokenness of the world that he would himself become embroiled in it and pay the ultimate cost! And if we ask: "Why isn't the suffering over yet?" the answer is: "We don't know, but here's the proof that he's committed to it! The cross!" Only Christianity has a God who has suffered, proving his commitment to us in our brokenness. "To our wounds only thy wounds can speak, and no God has wounds but thou alone." (Edward Shillito)

If I have hope like that--not just for a slightly stronger city, but for a literal new creation--then I can face anything. In The Lord of the Rings, one character is facing terrible evil, and suddenly he looks at a star in the sky. "Like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now for a moment his own fate...ceased to trouble him...putting away all fear..." Hope is not the same as defiance. Many people will turn to defiance to deal with their grief and pain rather than to hope. Hope comes from a certainty that there is a Judge and a Redeemer. The Cross proves that God is both.

5. Should America retaliate?

Under question #4 we looked at the problem with simple cries for vengeance. But what should America do now? This question moves outside of my area of competence and wisdom. But here are a few observations that should be kept in mind as we move forward.

This is 'post-modern' war, and it is different than anything we have seen before. a) First, there are no rules. (We can kill civilians, children, whatever.) b) Second, it is not nation-on-nation. It is an international network of world terrorism attacking the multi-national corporations of world capitalism. c) Third, it is 'semiotic', aimed not at factories and air bases but at our icons and symbols in order psychologically debilitate and demoralize. d) Fourth, it is deliberately and bitterly ironic. It uses no bombs or guns, but our own technology against us. It is the very picture of Neitzschean ressentiment.

This is a new chapter in history. A knee-jerk 'warfare as usual' reaction will not likely be effective. Instead, I think that what is called for is a deeper change in the way America thinks about itself and the relationship to the rest of the world. When commentators say that the frivolous, me-centered decade of the 90's is officially over, that rings true to me. But I am not able to see what lies ahead. That's beyond my expertise.

6. What are Christian people to do?

In The City of God St.Augustine contrasts the "City of Man" (which is the nexus of human systems based on power and pride) and the "City of God" (which is God's Spirit working through the message of the Cross to create new human communities based on love, service, and giving.) Augustine tells Christians to love the human city in which they live but to remember how it is distinct from the coming City. The City of God does not respond to an 'attack' with the firepower of guns but with greater and more sacrificial service in word and deed. And this is the way it 'wins' over the world. The hymn goes: For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums, but deeds of love and mercy the heav'nly kingdom comes. Christianity is unique because its central reality is that real influence comes not to those who take but those who give, not to those who rule but those who serve, not to those who accrue power but to those who sacrifice.

This is a tremendous moment for the "City of God" to show Jesus' love in more powerful ways. We should be available to our neighbors and friends spiritually to listen and pray with and for them, not to preach at them. We should also be available to our whole city to meet material needs. Christians should not sit back and wait for the phone to ring--we should pro-actively fan out through the city and look for ways to help. After all, nobody asked Jesus to give himself for us. He came to us and gave us what we needed.

7. Doesn't this just show how dangerous it is to believe too strongly that your religion is 'right'?

It has been widely stated that the terrorist attacks show us that religion is only good for us in moderate amounts. The argument goes something like this: 'This proves that religious fundamentalists of all sorts are a great danger. They believe that God is on their side, and that they therefore have the right to conquer or kill others who don't believe." One writer even said, "It seems almost as if there is something inherent in religious monotheism that lends itself to this kind of terrorist temptation" because "in a world of absolute truth, in matters graver than life and death, there is no room for dissent and no room for theological doubt." (Andrew Sullivan, "This is a Religious War", New York Time Magazine, October 7, 2001) So the question is--does 'religious fundamentalism' inevitably lead to oppression and even violence?

The right answer is--it all depends on what your 'Fundamental' is. Let me give you two examples. First there is the Khymer Rouge, a Marxist movement that did not believe in God or any transcendent moral absolutes of any sort. Yet it was one of the most genocidal regimes in history. The second example is the Amish, who are an extremely conservative religious sect. They even refuse to wear modern western dress. They are by modern standards very patriarchal. They believe the Bible very literally and believe it is the absolute truth. If the Amish are such absolutists in their beliefs, why aren't we afraid of Amish terrorists?

The answer has to do with what the Amish "Fundamental" is. It is the same fundamental that all Christians share. Only Christianity (of the major religions) tells us that God came to earth and that when he did, he came not with a sword in his hand but with nails in his hands. He came not to accrue power, not to be served, but to serve and give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). And not only that, Jesus Christ did not pay the price of sin and die just for "good" people who were wisely following him, but also for people who were rejecting him and abandoning him. If that is the fundamental at the heart of your faith, at the heart of your self-identity, and at the heart of your relationship with God--then it will make you (like Jesus) want to 'win' people to God by serving them, not conquering them. "For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums, but deeds of love and mercy the heavn'ly kingdom comes." (Ernest W. Shurtleff, "Lead On O King Eternal", 1888).If you believe very strongly in the absolute truth of the gospel of the cross and grace of God, it will only serve to drain you of superiority and self-righteousness.

8. Doesn't this show how dangerous it is to think you have 'the truth'? We can't have a free society unless we all agree that no one knows the truth.

In the aftermath of September 11 many have written along the following lines: "The whole problem comes from the violence that accompanies a belief that you have the truth. The best way to have a free society is to insist that there is no (or that no one knows) 'absolute truth'."

This position is very shortsighted. First, it is intellectually contradictory. "There is an appearance of humility in the protestation that the truth is much greater than any one of us can grasp, is in fact an arrogant claim to a kind of knowledge which is superior to [all others]...We have to ask: 'What is the vantage ground from which you claim to be able to relativize all the absolute claims which these different scriptures and religions make?'" (Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society)To say "I don't know which religion is true" is a statement of humility. But if you say, "No one can know which religion has the truth" you are making a very dogmatic assertion which assumes the very superior 'religious knowledge' and certainty you just insisted that no one else had. For example, if you say to religious persons, "you must not insist that others modify their beliefs to bring them more into line with yours", you are asking them to modify their beliefs to bring them more into line with yours. You are doing the very thing you are forbidding. The contradiction is blatant.

Secondly, this approach does not really lead to as much tolerance within society as it often claims. "Efforts to craft a public square from which religious conversation is absent, no matter how thoughtfully worked out, will always in the end say to the religious that they alone, unlike everybody else, must enter public dialogue only after leaving behind that part of themselves that they may consider most vital." (Stephen L. Carter, The Dissent of the Governed) Our core 'identities' are always moral and quasi-religious. Consider people with a passion for the poor arising out of Marxist convictions. They are basing their lives not on the findings of empirical science, but on a view of human nature and history that they accept through faith. Why then should people with formally religious commitments (like Christianity or Islam) not be allowed to bring their beliefs to bear on public issues?

But thirdly, this approach reduces every conflict to a simple naked struggle for power. Stanley Fish wrote: "There can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations is the true one" and so we should not justify our response to the attacks "invoking the abstract notions of truth and justice" but "instead we can and should invoke the particular lived values that unite us and inform the institutions we cherish and wish to defend." ("Condemnation without Absolutes", New York Times, October 15, 2001) What is he saying? He is saying that we should fight not because we are right but because it is advantageous to us to win. Ironically, he is adopting the offensive old Vietnam War slogan "My country--right or wrong!" That slogan was repugnant because it meant, "I will defend America whether it is crushing and oppressing the poor or not. It doesn't matter whether we are right or wrong. We fight simply to keep power and defend our interests." That is exactly what this erudite and intelligent man is saying.

If there is no way to know the truth or who is right, then there is never such a thing as an unjust or wrong military action. But we all know in our hearts that napalming babies (in Viet Nam) is wrong, and that crushing thousands of unarmed unwitting people (in the World Trade Center) is wrong. It is not impractical or uncongenial to our economic and political interests. It is wrong. So if you have a premise ("no one knows the truth") that leads you to a premise which you know isn't true, ("there is no way to tell that the WTC attack was wrong") then why not change the premise?

9. All this does not make me believe more in God, but less. Isn't all this unjust suffering evidence against the existence of God?

The president of American Atheist, the country's oldest organization for nonbelievers in God, said to reporters, "If that [September 11] wasn't a wake up call to a religious nation, I don't know what is. That said to me, 'There is no God.' Where was he, on a coffee break?" ("Atheists Decry Post-Attack Focus on God", Los Angeles Times, October 12, 2001) There are two ways to answer this.

The skeptic says: "If there is a God, he would have stopped such an evil thing from happening." But how does the skeptic know that this event was evil? All of evolution is based on the survival of the fittest. Violence of the stronger and more adaptive organisms over the weaker and less adaptive is utterly natural in this world. Why is it wrong, then, when humans do what the rest of nature is doing? How could you know if our part of the natural world was unnatural or bad? "If God does not exist...there is no longer any possibility of an a priori good existing. It is nowhere written that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now on the plane where there are only human beings. Doestoevksy once wrote: 'If God did not exist, everything would be permitted'... If God does not exist, we have neither behind us nor before us a luminous realm of values, nor any means of justification of any behavior whatever. (Jean-Paul Sartre "Existentialism and Humanism") So evil and suffering are major problems for people who believe in God, but they are actually even bigger problems for people who don't believe in God. If there is no God, what is your basis for being outraged at violence and oppression? How can you insist that something utterly natural to this world is somehow unnatural? And if you are sure that the World Trade Center is an evil, doesn't that comprise some evidence for the existence of God?

But there is a second way to respond to the question: "why would a good and powerful God allow evil and suffering?" There is a hidden train of logic deep in this protest. I think it goes like this:

"1. God would have to have a good reason for allowing evil and suffering to keep going on.

2. I can't think or perceive of any good reason.

3. Therefore, there cannot be any."

Of course, when you lay it out like that you can see how fallacious this reasoning is. If you have a God infinite and great enough to be mad at for not preventing evil and suffering, you have to (at the same time) have a God infinite and great enough to have reasons for allowing evil and suffering that we can't discern. (You can't have it both ways).

But how can we know if he has a good reason? [Christ] the god-man suffers too, with patience. Evil and death can no longer be entirely imputed to him since he suffers and dies. The night on Golgotha is so important in the history of man only because, in its shadows, the divinity ostensibly abandoned its traditional privilege, lived through to the end, despair included, the agony of death. Thus is explained the 'Lama sabachthani' and the frightful doubt of Christ in agony -- (Albert Camus, Essais)

Camus is saying that though we cannot discern the reasons that God might have for allowing evil, we have a remarkable assurance that he does have them. He himself has suffered infinitely with us, for us, on the cross. Surely this proves he is not indifferent to our suffering.