Pastor Tim Keller on cancer, death and the hope of the resurrection (exclusive)
For Pastor Tim Keller, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is more than an abstract belief that good will triumph over evil one day. It’s a powerful, life-altering truth that gives him hope, peace and comfort as he faces his own mortality.
“When you know you could die very, very soon, you realize that you basically live in denial of the fact of your death,” Keller told The Christian Post. “When it suddenly strikes you, you have to ask, ‘Do I have the faith for this? Do I believe that the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened and that if I die in faith in Jesus, I will know that resurrection too?’”
Last May, the 70-year-old founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and chairman of Redeemer City to City, was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, a particularly aggressive disease that typically claims its victims within a year — and it’s “usually a very difficult year,” he said.
But Keller is optimistic about beating those odds. Though acknowledging that his situation is “very serious,” the pastor said that thanks to his body’s positive response to chemotherapy, he likely has “years and not months left.”
“My wife Kathy and I are pretty grateful; it looks like I’ve got more time than we thought when we originally got the diagnosis,” he said.
One of the most respected Christian thinkers of the 21st century, Keller last spoke to CP in April 2020, just weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged New York City and the world, and before he received his cancer diagnosis. Around that time, the pastor was about a fourth of the way through writing a book on the resurrection, titled,Hope in Times of Fear: The Resurrection and the Meaning of Easter.
Initially, Hope in Times of Fear was meant as a companion book to his 2016 book, Hidden Christmas, a series of meditations on the meaning of Christmas and the incarnation — “but then suddenly we’re in lockdown, and then I found out I had cancer, and the book completely changed,” Keller recalled.
“Here I am, writing a book about the resurrection, and I realized I only half-believed I was going to die. I went back and realized that in some ways, I also only half-believed in the resurrection — not intellectually so much, but all the way down deep in my heart. I realized I needed to have a greater, a deeper faith in the resurrection, both intellectually and mentally,” he continued.
While undergoing treatment for cancer over the next several months, Keller said he did both “intellectual and emotional work,” looking at the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ while also immersing himself in prayer and in Scripture, asking the Holy Spirit to make it real to his heart.
“It took several months in which I had to take my abstract belief down into my heart to existentially and experientially know it and grow in assurance, and it worked,” he said. “If you are willing to embrace the truth of God's Word and immerse yourself in it day in and day out, and then ask the Holy Spirit to make it real to your heart, He will.”
Most people, Keller contended, live in denial of death. But facing one’s own mortality and spiritual reality, he said, both changes the way we view our time on Earth and magnifies the transformative power of the resurrection.
“The things of Earth become less crucial. They're not so important to you; you realize you don’t need them to be happy. Once I believe that I start to enjoy them more. I don't try to turn them into God; I don't try to turn them into Heaven, which is the only thing that can really satisfy my heart,” he explained.
“You find that you have to really have a real spiritual experience of God's reality so that the things of this Earth ‘grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace,’” Keller said, quoting the century-old hymn.
The pastor acknowledged that his cancer diagnosis puts him in a position to speak to the power of living in light of the resurrection. But the process, he said, does not need to begin with something as “shocking to the system” as the verdict of imminent death.
“It’s possible to practice this in the smaller deaths that we all experience, such as the loss of a career, friend, or loved one,” Keller said. “In those painful situations, you have to do essentially the same thing that you have to do when you're told you’re going die: You have to take something abstract that you believe about God and make it real to your heart so He becomes your consolation. You're no longer looking to the things of this world to be your salvation.”
In Hope in Times of Fear, Keller also addresses how the Bible connects the resurrection and New Creation to race, social relationships, systemic injustice, and sexuality — all issues he believes Christians have a responsibility to care about.
“The resurrection means that God has not at all given up on the world,” he writes. “But beyond that, it gives meaning to suffering and gives hope that through the suffering will come healing. The resurrection guarantees that this renewal is certain, and is also a call for Christians to work now against what is wrong and unjust.”
Out of the dozens of books he’s written over the years, Keller said he felt the “most divine guidance and help” while penning his latest.
“I really did find a great deal of help and comfort and spiritual enrichment during those months,” Keller said. “Usually, books are written after you've been through something. In this case, the book was the way in which I got through it.”
Books, Keller said, are “funny; books are like people.”
“A lot of people will praise a book, and I'll read it and I'll say, ‘It was good, but didn't grab me,’ and then I'll pick up some other books that nobody's ever talked to me about and it’s just life-changing,” he said.
But if anyone is going to "read a Tim Keller book," he said, he suggests his 2008 book Prodigal God, along with Hope in Times of Fear.
“I'm not saying they're the two best books I've ever written, but they include the message I'd like to get across about what Christianity is all about. To me, I’m giving you what I believe the essence of the Christian Gospel is in these two books.”
As he faces what he acknowledges might be the final season of his life, Keller said he’s “ready for anything, adding: “What the future holds, I don’t know. Pray that I would have years and not months left, and that the chemotherapy would continue to be effective. But we are ready for whatever God decides for me. We’re spiritually ready.”
“I do know,” he added, “that the resurrection of Jesus Christ really happened. And when I die, I will know that resurrection too.”