Human Interest

Evangelical pastor and theologian Tim Keller has died at age 72

Well-known evangelical pastor Tim Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 72.

Keller’s son Michael wrote of his father’s passing on the pastor’s Facebook page on May 19: “Dad waited until he was alone with Mom. She kissed him on the forehead and he breathed his last breath. We take comfort in some of his last words, ‘There is no downside for me leaving, not in the slightest.’ See you soon Dad.”

On May 18, Michael wrote that Pastor Keller had entered hospice at home:

Today, Dad is being discharged from the hospital to receive hospice care at home. Over the past few days, he has asked us to pray with him often. He expressed many times through prayer his desire to go home to be with Jesus. His family is very sad because we all wanted more time, but we know he has very little at this point. In prayer, he said two nights ago, ‘I’m thankful for all the people who’ve prayed for me over the years. I’m thankful for my family, that loves me. I’m thankful for the time God has given me, but I’m ready to see Jesus. I can’t wait to see Jesus. Send me home.’

Keller mentioned his pro-life views on several occasions and did not shy away from controversial discussions on the subject — a rarity today among pastors. In July 2022, Keller answered several questions in an interview after returning to social media following difficulties with his cancer treatment; he was diagnosed in 2020. One of the questions was regarding his opinion of the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. He stated in response, “If you’ve read ‘How to Reach the West Again’ you know I’m pro-life. I believe the church must be too. I believe the Dobbs decision was morally and judicially right.”

Two months earlier, in April, controversy erupted on Twitter when Keller seemed to equivocate as to whether abortion — which he acknowledged as sin — should be made illegal. “The Bible tells us that idolatry, abortion, and ignoring the the poor are all grievous sins. But it doesn’t tell us exactly HOW we are to apply these norms to a pluralistic democracy…. I know abortion is a sin, but the Bible doesn’t tell me the best political policy to decrease or end abortion in this country, nor which political or legal policies are most effective to that end,” he wrote, later adding, “People are focusing on the example (abortion is physical harm) and not the principle. You can do the same object lesson about gay marriage… why codify that moral in law and not others?”

Many Twitter users pointed out that abortion is the killing of an innocent human being, and for that reason alone, it should be illegal. One user wrote, “I think the problem… is you waded into the political debate most likely to lead to civil war, and the gravest crime against humanity our country has perpetrated on innocent people since slavery—and used it as an example of a debatable issue.” Another added, “While you debate these contrivances: over 13 million babies, actual human beings, have been slaughtered this year for the cause of simple inconvenience. Should God have mercy?”

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Despite this heated discussion of abortion as a political issue, Keller believed that abortion is morally wrong and a “grievous sin” — and Christians must uphold human dignity and should oppose abortion. He wrote in the Redeemer Report in 2017 that early Christians — the early Church — “was a community committed to the sanctity of life.” He added:

It was not simply that Christians opposed abortion. Abortion was dangerous and relatively rare. A more common practice was called “infant exposure.” Unwanted infants were literally thrown out onto garbage heaps either to die or to be taken by traders into slavery and prostitution. Christians saved the infants and took them in.

In the same report, he also noted that Christians were counter-cultural in their sexual ethic as well.

Roman culture insisted that married women of social status abstain from any sex outside of marriage, but it was expected that men (even married men) would have sex with people lower on the status ladder — slaves, prostitutes, and children. This was not only allowed, but was regarded as unavoidable. This was in part because sex in that culture was always considered an expression of one’s social status. Sex was mainly seen as a mere physical appetite that was irresistible.

Christians’ sexual norms were different, of course. The church forbade any sex outside of heterosexual marriage. But the reason the older, seemingly more ‘liberated’ pagan sexual practices eventually gave way to stricter Christian norms was because the “deeper logic” of Christian sexuality was so different. It saw sex as not just an appetite but as a way to give oneself wholly to another and in doing so imitate and connect to the God who gave himself in Christ. It also was more egalitarian, treating all people as equal and rejecting the double standards of gender and social status. Finally, Christianity saw sexual self-control as an exercise of human freedom, a testimony that we are not merely the pawns of our desires or fate.

In 2021, he tweeted similar sentiments, writing that “the early church was… anti-abortion/pro-life….”

Many tributes and memories of Pastor Keller are pouring in on social media and elsewhere. He was beloved by many who learned from his theological insights, and our prayers are with his family and all those who knew and loved him. May he rest in peace.

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