Reflections re: Tim Keller’s views on suffering, part 2

In my previous post, I explored Tim Keller’s distinction between secularism and ancient religions and Christianity in how they dealt with suffering. Keller argued that suffering offers Christ followers the opportunity to exalt him in the midst of it. I agreed with that stance while connecting Keller’s views and my own with the passage in Philippians 1:27-30. Now it’s time to address the second point. Here’s the question by Smethurst, followed by Keller’s reply:

Smethurst: “How does Christian belief in Judgment Day keep us from being too passive or too violently aggressive in our pursuit of truth and justice?”

Keller: “On the one hand, Judgment Day shows us that God hates sin, evil, and injustice and therefore we should hate it too. That prevents mere acquiescence in the status quo. But Judgment Day also assures us God and truth will eventually triumph, and that means it’s not all up to us. We can’t bring about complete justice by any human initiative. This discourages utopianism and the cruelty that so often accompanies such a false hope.”

Some might wonder why I chose this particular question and answer. Well, it has to do with eschatology, which refers to the end times. Of all the areas of systematic theology, the study of last things tends to be characterized by two extremes: obsession and negligence. For whatever the reason, the church in America contains pockets given over to relentless date-setting, newspaper exegesis, and an unhealthy, pop mindset toward biblical prophecy. I’m referring to The Left Behind Series of novels written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins in addition to the writings of Hal Lindsey.

Because the entertainment field loves subjects that are wild and crazy, it’s no surprise that popular culture in America takes its eschatological cues from writers like Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, and Hal Lindsey. The prophetic imagery does capture the imaginations of the average citizen, but it definitely draws the attention of those in film and television. One of the consequences attributed to the prophecy craze has been a knee-jerk reaction by modern-day pastors to dance around Bible prophecy. All denominations have churches, leaders, and congregants that avoid studying the prophetic portions of scripture. One of the popular sayings within the American church today is that I’m a panmillennialist because everything will pan out in the end.

I’m not advocating a return to the prophecy craze by any stretch of the imagination. What I want to see take place within the church is a genuine return to studying the biblical texts in relation to eschatology. What do the prophetic passages actually say about the end times? Instead of allowing prophecy quacks and the secular media to interpret the bible, the church and her leaders and her congregants need to be reading, studying, and interpreting the bible. It’s dangerous for the church to allow other outlets to co-opt the bible for its own ends. At that point, the church’s testimony starts diminishing like a flame.

Of course, Keller’s answer to Smethurst doesn’t touch upon anything that I said. That’s ok because it needed to be said. Keller’s reply asserts the unstated notion that one’s view of eschatology provides a necessary check against either social gospel tendencies or creating an earthly utopia or heaven on earth. This comes about for the Christ follower by knowing how things will end. The only way to know how things will end is by reading and studying and wrestling with the prophetic passages in scripture. Keller is on target in his assertion that understanding the inevitability of Judgment Day has a way of sobering a person. It speaks to the longing within every human being of wrongs being righted, injustices being overturned by justice, and that her or his own actions will not go unnoticed. It might sound a little abstract of Keller to say that Judgment Day de-emphasizes my notions of responsibility toward setting things right.

From my perspective, Keller’s point has to do with the need to control the uncontrollable. The scope of injustice throughout world is overwhelming at times. All one needs to do is attend a fundraiser for some justice initiative, and you’ll know what I mean by the term overwhelming. The needs are so great, and they emphasize the smallness of humanity in being able to address them. For the Christ follower, Judgment Day offers the hope and the assurance that all will be set aright by a good and just king. Regardless of how one views the book of Revelation, the constant theme in that book is the true and just reign of Christ over all things whether in heaven, on earth, or under the earth. He will set things right, and for that reason, he gets the glory and the honor and the power and the worship. Forever and ever. Amen.

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