Keller and Pascal’s Method

Keller’s attractive Gospel

In an article entitled ‘Pascal’s Method for Presenting the Christian Faith’ posted on Redeemer Report (January 2014)[1] and on The Gospel Coalition website (25 February 2015) [2], Tim Keller explores Pascal’s method for presenting the Christian faith, based on this statement:

Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.

Blaise Pascal (1623-62) Pensée no. 187

Simple! Keller discusses the psychology underlying Pascal’s strategy for bringing people into the fold. Keller states that ‘no one is neutral. People know instinctively that if Christianity is true they will lose control, and they will not be able to live anyway they wish. So they are rooting for it not to be true, and arepascal more than willing to accept any objections to the faith they hear.’ So winning them over is going to be a challenging task, but if a Christian ‘comes across as well-informed, thoughtful, sensible, open-minded, helpful, and generous, then this breaks stereotypes and commands a begrudging respect’. He goes on to assert, ‘We must know our culture—know its hopes—and then show others that only in Christ will their aspirations ever find fulfilment.’ But Scripture contradicts Keller. The apostle Paul preached the gospel ‘not with words of wisdom, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’ (1 Corinthians 1.17-18).

Keller begrudgingly admits that ‘we want to talk about sin and the barrier that creates between God and us’ before going on to list the attractions, concluding with ‘… a perfectly restored material world’. Only when unbelievers are convinced that this is what they really want will they ‘sit through any kind of substantial presentation of the evidence and reasons for the truth of Christianity. … But if Christianity has begun to make emotional and cultural sense they may listen to a sustained discussion of why it makes logical and rational sense.’

This is all about making Christianity attractive, making it ‘make rational sense’. This strategy, which has been popular with apologists down the centuries, may be criticised on several counts:

First, promoting religion, or, as Keller puts it, ‘presenting the Christian message’ must not be confused with preaching the Gospel. Promoting religion need be no more than an exercise in salesmanship, and good salesmen require personal skills that can overcome prejudice and win hearts and minds. Certainly they must make their merchandise attractive. Keller identifies a negative ‘lack of freedom’ issue that he counteracts with a host of benefits, all to be presented in such a way as to make emotional and cultural sense. Success in this may then lead to the Christian message being accepted by his hearer as logical and rational, i.e. an intellectual embrace. But will they be converted, born again, born from above, through the mighty working of the Holy Spirit? (John 3:3) The conviction of sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8) as wrought by the Holy Spirit, necessary for true spiritual conversion, is not to be expected from anything but Gospel preaching which is not with wisdom of words, ‘for God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise’ (1 Corinthians 1.27). This is a far cry from Keller’s ‘thoughtful, sensible, open-minded …’.

Then, did our Lord Jesus or the apostles strive to make the Gospel appear attractive? No, never! John the Baptist castigated the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him: ‘O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ (Matthew 3:7) and the Lord Jesus continued in like vain. He warned against unbelief in the strongest possible way. He said to the unbelieving Jews, ‘I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am He, ye shall die in your sins’ (John 8.24). So many times he is recorded as deterring eager sounding enquirers, such as Nicodemus (John 3) and the rich young ruler (Mark 10:21), and to a certain scribe who promised to follow him wherever he went, the Lord replied ‘The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head’ (Matthew 8:20). Peter warned his hearers ‘Save yourselves from this untoward generation’ (Acts 2:40). The message was always to first of all ‘Repent!’ and turn from your sins and turn away from the things of the world. We need to be truly convicted of our sin to do such an unattractive thing.

Also, in making light of sin, Keller is doing no more than paying lip service to the symptoms. He is not addressing the cause, the fall of mankind into a very dark and dangerous condition in its rebellion against God. Keller’s approach is to offer the benefits of the Gospel; to make unbelievers see the great and attractive promises of God in Christ; to make the Gospel sound too good to be true, without dealing with the problem of sin in the heart of man. To offer the benefits of salvation before correctly diagnosing sin and unbelief, and the need for repentance, smacks of quackery. The truth is that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1.15). Moreover, Christ warns his disciples that the world will hate them because it first hated him (John 15.18).

Finally, it is a terrible thing to offer all the benefits of eternal life falsely. Deceiving people into thinking they are Christian is to put them with the many who will be calling ‘Lord, Lord!’ at the last day, only to be told ‘I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.’ (Matthew 7:23). Indeed, offering a prosperity Gospel, whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual prosperity, is akin to what the serpent did to Eve in the Garden of Eden. He made the forbidden fruit appear very attractive.

To sum up, we should not follow Keller’s advice and seek to make the Gospel and the Christian life attractive. Neither should we seek to conceal the wickedness of the world and the offense of the cross (Galatians 5:11). The purpose of the gospel is not to meet our aspirations and provide us with emotional fulfilment; the purpose of the Gospel is to save sinners from the righteous judgment of a holy God.