Keller’s Six Defeaters

The following is the text of the end of a sermon given by Tim Keller at Covenant Seminary. You can download the rest of the sermon here. The topic of the sermon is preaching and this section deals with how to talk with people about our culture’s six biggest objections to Christianity. I have found it very helpful and think it’s worth reading or listening to.

“Every culture has a set of defeater beliefs. A defeater is “Belief A” that if true then “Belief B” can’t be true. For example, if it is really true that there can’t be just one true religion, then I don’t really have to listen to Christianity. In a culture in which people hold a defeater belief, when you try to talk to them about Christianity their eyes glaze over and they stop listening. Every culture has a different set of defeater beliefs. For example in America one of the defeater beliefs is there can’t just be one true religion, or that all religions are equally valid. This is a kind of common sense thing now in our culture, but if you go over to the Middle East that’s not a defeater belief at all. Go there and say “There can’t just be one true religion” they will all look at you and say “Why not?” In the Middle East the defeater is that Christianity can’t be true because so many Americans believe it. When you see this you immediately begin to realize that your objections to Christianity are culturally relative.
Now, what are these objections?

I did a survey two years ago of young 20-somethings who had just come out of Yale, asking them their biggest objections to Christianity. Many of them worked in the city, had never been Christians, were raised secular, many of them were Jewish, many of them were lapsed Catholics or mainline Protestants. We distilled it down to six objections and here they are:
1. The Other Religions: There cannot just be one true religion.
2. Evil and suffering: This is going to continue to be a problem for people because we live in a consumer society where we think we should have designer lives. There has never been a bigger group of crybabies then Americans. We are so set on the idea that “I have rights to a happy life” that the question of why God allows the things to happen that he does will increasingly be a problem for people.
3. The Sacredness of Choice: One of the things that came out in my survey was that many young people not only feel that it is important to have personal choice, they believe that if I obey the ten commandments simply because I am told I have to then I am just a zombie and a robot. You are not a human being unless you decide what is right or wrong. There is the belief that unless it is my choice what is right or wrong I am not an authentic person and therefore any institutionalized religion is by definition ruled out.
4. The Record of Christians: The injustice and the genocides and the corruption that the church or Christians have been involved in throughout history.
5. The Problem of Anger: In spite of the fact that we live in a culture where anger is more affirmed than in any culture that has ever been (we demand to have our rights and needs, and to be outraged and angered is considered a great sign of authentic personhood) the idea of a God being angry is absolutely problematic for people, particularly the Cross. I would say that my biggest question I get from non-Christians is “If God wants to forgive me why can’t He just forgive me” and “Any God who has to have blood in order to forgive me I don’t want any part of.”
6. Untrustworthiness of the Bible: This is the idea that the Bible is socially regressive. If we follow the Bible we will never get away from social oppression and the putting down of other races. The Bible is seen as promoting holy war and genocide. It is seen as promoting the subjugation of women and the subjugation of homosexuals and so on.

Now what you have got to do is find ways of undermining these six all the time. You have got to help people understand just how to deal with those six or they will never talk to their non-Christian friends because they will throw these up and they will not know what to say. Let me give some ideas about each one.

1. No other religions: Basically the way you have to talk and preach about this objection is you have to point out that western inclusivism is really covert exclusivism. You hear people something like this, “No one should insist their view of God is better than all the rest” or “Every religion is equally valid” But that can only be true if there is no God or there is a God who is an impersonal force and who doesn’t care what your doctrinal beliefs about him are. That is a very particular view of God and you are basing your entire life on it, and you are asking me to change my view of God to your view of God. That is the very thing you just told me I am not allowed to do to you. That is absolutely inconsistent. What looks like inclusivism is basically a covert exclusivism. What you’ve actually done is to say that all religions are equally valid is itself assuming a particular view of God (which is a leap of faith) and you are insisting that everybody out there must believe your view of God or else they will be unenlightened. William Willamon says this, “To say that all religions are equally valid is itself a very white, western view based on the Europeans enlightenment’s idea of knowledge and values…” Why should this view be privileged over everybody elses?
Of all the objections that are out there it is by far the weakest. It makes no sense at all. There is a place in one of Alvin Plantinga’s essays where someone comes up to him and says, “If you were born in Madagascar you wouldn’t even be a Christian” and he said, “That’s probably right. Are you telling me that therefore Christianity can’t be true? If you were born in Madagascar you wouldn’t be a religious relativist. Does that mean what you are saying isn’t true?” There is no intellectual integrity to the idea that all religions are equally true.
2. Evil and suffering: Here is a brief response to the idea: If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world then you have to have at the very same moment a God who is great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue which you do not know. You can’t have it both ways. If you are talking to a non-suffering person who just thrown the problem of suffering at you that is probably the best answer, provided you unpack it a little bit. If you are talking to a suffering person that would be very cruel. Here is what you have to say: Eastern religions say that suffering is an illusion, other western religions say that God is up there and he has his reasons but only Christianity has a God who has himself come into the world of suffering. If God himself has suffered then he must have reasons for allowing it to continue that aren’t a matter of remoteness and distance. If God has himself experienced suffering then he can be with in you in the suffering. You just have to say that Christianity has better resources for believing that God is involved and cares about our suffering than any other worldview. In the secular worldview who cares about suffering? The strong eat the weak and it doesn’t matter. If you are morally outraged by it, so what? If you go to every other religion the view of suffering is less poignant and immediate than the idea that God would come and get involved in this worlds suffering. You should always talk about evil and suffering in terms of the Cross.
3. The sacredness of choice, or the ethical straightjacket: For those who say “I have got to make this decision for myself” or “Nobody can tell me what is right or wrong for me” You basically have to do two things. First ask if is there anybody anywhere in the world doing something that you think is wrong whether they believe it or not? Well, yes, of course, those people over there murdering those other people. Oh you are saying they are wrong even though in their heart of heart they think it is ok? In other words you do believe there is a moral standard above us that we are being held accountable to? What happens, then, to your sacredness of choice? What you really want is choice for you and not for everybody else. That is just not fair. The other thing to point out is something very important to say, that everybody has to live for something. Whatever you are living for is your master and lord and therefore you are not free. This is a Becky Pippert quote from out of the salt shaker, she says, “If you live for people’s approval then you are enslaved to what they think of you. If you live for power you are enslaved to power. If you live for your own independence then you are enslaved to you independence and you can’t commit to anybody, but what you need to realize is that none of you belong to yourselves.” What ever you live for is your master, and here is the advantage of Jesus Christ, he is the only lord and master who if you get him will fulfill you and if you fail him he has died on the cross for you. Human power can’t do that, your job can’t do that, romance and love can’t do that, the boys at school can’t do that.
4. The record of Christians: I have to tell you that all I ever try to go for on this one is a tie. I’ll give you my trump card on this. When people say what about all the injustices Christians have done, if you start to say well look at all the good we have done (ex. The abolition of slavery in the British Empire and William Wilberforce), well then they can come back with all these other evil things Christians have done. Here is what I suggest doing: when Martin Luther King Jr. confronted injustice in the white Christian church in the south what did he say? Let’s loosen our Christianity? Let’s get rid of our Christianity? Did he say that the reason that injustice is wrong is that everybody should be free to say what is right or wrong for him or her? No. He used the Bible’s provision for self-critique and called them to truer, firmer, deeper Christians. He says that the solution for the bad record of Christians is not to get rid of Christianty but to be true to it, to be true to the gospel to be true to what the Bible really teaches.
5. The Angry God: On the cross God does not demand our blood but he offers his own. That is the answer. Here is the best way I try to explain why the cross was necessary when people say to me “Why can’t God just forgive.” If somebody has really wronged you you can’t just forgive either. Don’t be ridiculous. You can’t just forgive. You can either pay back or you can forgive, but forgiveness is painful. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The forgiveness of real wrongs is always a form of suffering.” To not pay back when you want to, to not cut them down when you want to, to not think nasty thoughts when you want to hurts. You can pay them back and then evil wins, or you can forgive them in which case there is suffering. And on the cross all you see is a cosmic example of what happens in our hearts even for us little flawed human beings. God had to suffer in order to forgive us. On the cross he is not demanding our blood he is giving his own and anyone who is really forgiven understands that. Jesus had to die. God had to suffer in some way to forgive us.
6. The unreliable Bible: When people say things like “We now know that the Bible is socially regressive” here is my best answer. I say what do you mean “we now”? You mean in the year 2004 we’ve hit the ultimate year? 60 years from now we will all look back and say “back in 2004 we had it just right and ever since then it has been downhill”? Do you realize that your grandchildren are going to be incredibly upset by many things you think everybody knows? Do you want to miss out in the gospel and the possibility of eternal life with God on the basis of some problems you have with parts of the Bible that are going to be obsolete? Be very careful! Don’t let that happen. Did you ever see the original Stepford Wives movie? It was about men who wanted wives who never talked back to them. So they had their wives killed and then they created these robots and the robots always said “yes dear” and never talked back. There are advantages to that, but you can’t have a personal relationship with a robot. If you have a God who can never contradict you… If you look through the Bible and say “This part I like, but this part is no good. This part is ok but this part we can’t believe anymore” how will you ever have a God that you haven’t created yourself? How will God ever be able to say something to you that totally offends your cultural sensibilities? If you get rid of the parts of the Bible you don’t like, you have absolutely no way to have a personal relationship with God. You have a Stepford God. The only possibility of being sure you haven’t created a God in your own image is to take the word of God as it lay and let it come after you.

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