My Friend, Tim Keller

The Christian leader was an intellectual, but he possessed a pastor’s heart.

Photo of Tim Keller preaching
James Estrin / NYT / Redux

I first heard about Timothy J. Keller in the early 1990s. My future wife, Cindy, began attending Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City shortly after it was founded by Tim and his wife, Kathy, in 1989. I didn’t personally know Tim—I was living in Northern Virginia at the time—but Cindy spoke very highly of the Kellers. During car rides together we would listen to tapes of his sermons.

I was impressed enough to invite Tim and Kathy to a small gathering in Washington, D.C., to discuss faith and culture. Tim wasn’t particularly well known at the time, but it was clear to me—from how well he spoke, how well he thought, how well he reasoned—that that would change. It did.

Tim became one of the 21st century’s most influential and revered church leaders—a pastor and theologian; an author who sold an estimated 25 million copies of his books; the co-founder and driving force behind Redeemer City to City, a nonprofit that promotes church planting and gospel movements in the great cities of the world; a mentor to many and a counselor and friend to many more. It has been a gift to count myself among them.

Tim Keller died of cancer last Friday morning. He was 72 years old.

ONE OF THE THINGS that made Tim distinct was his ability to bring an ancient faith into the modern city, into the lives of busy young professionals who might otherwise have dismissed it, and to do so with quiet confidence and not hostile defensiveness. He made the discussion of faith seem relevant, and exciting.

People were understandably skeptical that Tim, having left a teaching post at Westminster Theological Seminary, could succeed in planting a new church with theologically orthodox beliefs in Manhattan. But he did.

In less than a decade, 2,000 people were attending; by the mid-2000s, attendance had increased to 5,000. The congregation was diverse, young, and cosmopolitan. Many of those attending Redeemer found liberation from the pressures of life in Manhattan. Tim named the idols of our lives, which often come in the form of striving for worldly success. He spoke about how we make the mistake of turning good things into ultimate things. It resonated.

Tim’s preaching style was cerebral, culturally sophisticated, conversational, and nonabrasive. There was a “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord” spirit to his ministry. Above all he had a passion for biblical text and was able to impart that passion to his audience.

His 2008 book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, which was written primarily for people with doubts about Christianity, sold more than 1 million copies. “I’ve talked to literally thousands of people in New York City over the years, and I found as I talked to people, so many of the doubts are passionate; they’re well thought out; and they deserve respect,” he said. “I wrote this book to respectfully engage those doubts.” He was at that point a significant figure in worldwide Christianity.

Nine years later, in 2017, Tim relinquished his position as the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian to focus on teaching and speaking, writing and mentoring, and church planting. He stayed active until the end of his life, his reputation spotless.

I CAME TO KNOW Tim in a variety of settings, as our friendly acquaintance evolved into a close and genuine friendship.

I have met few people who have delighted in discussing ideas as much as Tim; they fascinated him, formed him, vivified him. And his mind was a wonder to behold: intelligent, orderly, and insatiably curious. He was a voracious reader who possessed an amazingly retentive memory. Tim wasn’t an original scholar; his strength was synthesis and integration. It’s revealing that the book on his life that he authorized, written by Collin Hansen, wasn’t a traditional biography; it was focused on the people who shaped Tim’s spiritual and intellectual journey. I sensed it was his way of honoring those who formed him.

If you engaged Tim on a topic, either one-on-one or in a small group, he was likely to cite some combination of theologians, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, playwrights, and historians. (C. S. Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, and the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and his book A Secular Age were just a few of his favorites.)

Tim offered the references easily and unostentatiously, like a person sharing a new gift he was excited about and was sure you would be too. He wanted to understand the world—but above all, he wanted to better understand God, in order to better love God.

Tim certainly had strong convictions on matters of faith and theology. He was a Calvinist and very much a part of the Reformed tradition. But in my experience, Tim held those convictions without hard edges. Some people are temperamentally predisposed toward arrogance and conflict; Tim wasn’t. And even when he had differences with you, he was unusually open to hearing other perspectives. He listened well.

In September 2021, Tim, the political analyst Yuval Levin, and I had a Zoom call to discuss a theological topic we had been emailing one another about. I’m a question asker and have been all my life, and Tim knew it. I probed his thinking because I was trying to form my own opinions through a dialectic.

After the call, Tim sent a marvelous one-page summary of five points I had raised and invited ongoing dialogue. “My guess is that if we keep these five questions/issues in our mind, that when we get an idea or read something that addresses one of these, we’ll pass it along to each other,” he said. But here’s what’s more telling: He expressed gratitude to us because he felt our friendship and conversations like the one we had added to what he called “the richness” of his life.

Most people, and certainly those of his standing, grow defensive or dismissive when their views are challenged, even when it’s done respectfully. Tim thrived in conversations with people who had experienced life differently than he had.

“What always stood out most to me in talking to Tim was the pleasure he took in sharing his deep knowledge of scripture and theology,” Yuval told me. “It was like he was sharing a gift, something he had that he knew his friend would love. We unavoidably spoke across the line that separates Christians from Jews, and yet Tim approached that line like a low fence between friendly neighbors, the kind of fence you’d stand at for hours to chat about what matters most in life, not a high wall that divides.”

Over time, some in the Christian world came to criticize Tim’s commitment to this sort of engagement as a weakness, or at least, as an approach poorly suited to this moment. “I would argue quite the opposite,” Bill Fullilove, the executive pastor at McLean Presbyterian, told me. “His model of gracious and thoughtful engagement, even when disagreeing vehemently, is exactly what we need more of today. It is simply impermissible to pursue biblical goals while ignoring biblical ethics. And what Tim did was marry the best of intellect and argument and eloquence with a truly gracious and kind and biblical spirit, both in person and in a large room.”

LAST FEBRUARY, Tim was scheduled to talk about a document he had written, “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church,” at a book club to which we both belonged. Kathy called me that afternoon to say that Tim had been taken to the ER at New York Presbyterian Hospital because of gastrointestinal complications due to cancer. He wouldn’t be joining us. As our discussion began at 7 p.m. on Zoom, I told the others in the group about his absence. But at 7:42 p.m., Tim emailed me. “I can listen in a bit. Still in noisy er room.” Minutes later, his name popped up on the screen; he joined, but without video, listening silently.

Soon, though, I made a comment with which Tim disagreed. Suddenly he broke his silence. “What you’re describing isn’t the Gospel,” he said. “It’s moralism.”

“I don’t think what I’m describing is moralism,” I replied. “What I think I’m describing are the teachings from Paul.” And off we went.

It was a fascinating exchange; the fact that Tim so much wanted to be a part of it lifted the spirits of the entire group. For my part, I will retain in my mind a vision of Tim calling in from the noisy emergency room at New York Presbyterian to participate in a discussion about faith and to correct my heresies, of which I’m sure there are many.

I INTRODUCED MY close friend and fellow Atlantic contributor Jonathan Rauch to Tim, and Jon invited him to join us on a weekly Zoom call he hosted. Jon is Jewish, gay, and an atheist, yet our eclectic group, more often than not, discusses matters of faith and spirituality.

Jon recalls pressing Tim once on why a good God would permit unmerited suffering. If the answer was a bucket, Tim replied, he could fill it only three-quarters of the way. “I perceived his faith as a mystery and a search, not as a set of answers or rules,” Jon told me. “Outsider and unbeliever though I am, he made me feel like a member of his search party.”

“I can’t understand Tim’s world, but his gift was to give me glimpses of it,” he said. “And he made me feel loved—by him and by his God. I once asked him if God hears the prayers of an atheist. He said yes, and I hope that’s true, and in that spirit I’ll pray for him.”

Tim Keller was an intellectual, but he possessed a pastor’s heart. Cindy recalls the time he met with her at a coffee shop in Manhattan in the early 1990s to help her understand the proper theological approach to forgiveness. Tim reached out to others in times of need, during crises, to offer comfort and counsel. He would patiently meet with people as they were sorting through their faith, unsure of what they believed, while he listened to their doubts. And people reached out to him when a loved one died, as they were living in the shadow of grief, or when they were nearing death themselves. Where is God in the midst of pain and disease and death?

“THIS IS A DARK WORLD. There are many ways to keep that darkness at bay, but we cannot do it forever. Eventually the lights of our lives—love, health, home, work—will begin to go out. And when that happens, we will need something more than our understanding, competence, and power can give us.”

Tim wrote those words in his 2013 book, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering. Seven years later, in June 2020, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He knew then that it wouldn’t be long before the lights of his life would go out.

Tim admitted that, in the early months, his death sentence “felt very unfair.” In 2021 he wrote about his journey with cancer—what he called “an agent of death growing inside of me”—in The Atlantic.

“Despite my rational, conscious acknowledgment that I would die someday, the shattering reality of a fatal diagnosis provoked a remarkably strong psychological denial of mortality,” he wrote.

“When I got my cancer diagnosis, I had to look not only at my professed beliefs, which align with historical Protestant orthodoxy, but also at my actual understanding of God.”

Tim’s actual understanding of God proved to be more than enough to sustain him. He wanted to be cured, of course, and he knew that his last days were likely to be very difficult, and they were. But Tim was able to say that he was never happier, never had more days of comfort, and that his relationship with God had never been better. It was an extraordinary testimony.

Tim was also transparent, admitting that he and Kathy—his best friend, his soulmate, the co-author of his life—would often cry together. It was impossible for them to imagine life apart from each other.

“It is endlessly comforting to have a God who is both infinitely more wise and more loving than I am,” he wrote in 2021. “He has plenty of good reasons for everything he does and allows that I cannot know, and therein is my hope and strength.”

Last Friday morning, at home, while he was still alert, Kathy went into his room. They were alone. She kissed him on his forehead. He took one more breath, and then passed from this life.

“I’m thankful for all the people who’ve prayed for me over the years,” Tim said three days before he died, according to his son Michael, a pastor. “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.”