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Tim Keller: People will say ‘I came to Christ during the virus’

We ask the New York based pastor and author Tim Keller why God is allowing coronavirus and what the pandemic means for the Church and the world

What has the church's response been like so far?

I’ve noticed here in New York City, in a lot of the working class and poorer churches, they don't have people who've got wifi at home. So they can’t go online. It's really difficult for them. Even for the churches which are more middle class who are able to go online, it’s fun at first, but you still feel the lack of real contact.

A lot of non-believing people are tuning into the live-stream broadcasts the churches are doing and that's encouraging. Churches that would ordinarily have 200 people in a service, when they live-stream, they'll realise a thousand people heard the sermon. But I do think it remains to be seen when the shutdown either stops or starts to go away in stages, what it means to be a witness in your neighbourhood when you've got so many unemployed people around. That'll take a lot of ingenuity.

Why has God allowed Coronavirus to happen?

There's three things to say. The first thing is: why weren't you asking that question before? In other words, when something bad happens to me, that's when I start wondering about God, when actually bad things have been happening for centuries. The Bible is filled with discussions about it. The book of Job is all about that. Job had a terrible life, way worse than anybody I know.

Secondly, there's a philosophical answer. The philosophical answer is, if you have a God big and powerful enough to be mad at for not stopping suffering, then you also have a God big and powerful enough who has some good reasons – that you can’t think of - for why he hasn't stopped it. You can't say 'because I can't think of any reason why God hasn't stopped all the suffering, there can't be one'. That doesn't make sense. If you have a God big enough to be mad at, you've a God a big enough to be wiser than you. Philosophically that works, but it's cold comfort to a person who's actually in pain.

Thirdly, the more personal answer is, I don’t know the reason for your suffering. But I do know what it's not. It's not that God doesn't love you. Christianity, uniquely among all the religions of the world, says that God actually came to earth and got involved in our suffering in order to someday end it without ending us.

Over the years, as a pastor and a sufferer, that has been the thing that's helped my heart. Jesus suffers, he understands. I don't have a God who's remote. He must have a good reason why he hasn't stopped it yet. It can't be that he doesn't love me, because look what he did on the cross.

Is it correct to say God “caused” or he “allowed” all this to happen?

God did not create a world with suffering in it. Genesis says that was not his original design. The suffering and evil in the world is due to our turning away from him, and he's going to end it at some point. We don’t know when that's going to be, but he says he's committed to wiping every tear away. Everything is happening according to his plan, but that doesn't mean that he has any pleasure in the suffering of people. Yes, God is not out of control, but that doesn't mean that he actually enjoys or directly causes anybody to suffer. I think that's the balance you have to strike.

What do you think God might be teaching the Church? And what is he teaching the world?

Well, I think it's easier to know what he's teaching the world, because every time a disaster strikes, it's basically God saying to the world, “look, you're not in charge. You always feel like 'if I just do everything right, I can actually master human life.' But you can't. You need me.”

God is always telling the world, ‘You need me. You are not self sufficient. You're not captain of your own fate.’

All my Christian friends are telling me that their non-Christian friends are tuning in to live-streams of worship services.

We had about 3,000 people come into our church the Sunday before 9/11. The Sunday after 9/11 we had 5,400 people in church. There's quite a number of folks who are Christians today because they started coming to church right after 9/11 just because they were scared. They wouldn't have normally gone to church. Right now, that's happening again online, and it's less effective than when you actually show up in the body, but nevertheless, something like that is happening now and there will be fruit. People will say 'I came to Christ during the virus'.

When it comes to what the Church is being called to, I'm not sure yet. It's too soon. After 9/11, it took several weeks, at least, for us to figure out at our church 'what does this mean for us in the future?' We can't go on with business as usual. We have to find out 'what is God calling us to be?' and it can't be the same.

Do you think the church will get will change permanently because of this, whether that's online or doing community better?

I don't know. It's possible that this reflects my age, but I think that the online visiting with each other can enhance, but it can't start or sustain a relationship.

I don't know if you've ever done computer dating - if you're trying to have a romantic relationship with somebody over Skype, there's a limit to it. I think it's the same thing for us. We'll probably become a little more adept but I don't think it will revolutionise. I do think after this is all over, we'll say “why don't we do those Zoom calls more often?” But those are minor changes.

The first month after 9/11 there were articles in the New York Times saying, 'Maybe there really is evil. Maybe this postmodern irony stuff - saying everything is a social construction – has to end? Maybe there really is evil, maybe we need to get serious?' And within a year, it was gone. The culture did not change. I do think there's something about modern Western culture and the hubris we have, that we think we can handle things with our own intelligence and human reason. So the church will probably change in minor ways, and world probably will not. That's just my guess.

Do you think the fact that death is now around us, is going to prompt people to look into church more?

For the time being, yes. It's brought death a little closer no doubt.

I'm on an island between Manhattan and Queens, and Queens is particularly hard hit. Out there people are saying that on every block they know of older people who have died and been taken out in body bags. And I know there's more people tuning into Christian things. There’s more sceptics tuning in and seeing whether there's something there for them. But I don't know how long that's gonna last. I do think Christians ought to be very, very open about the way Christianity gives you resources for handling times like this. So it is definitely an evangelistic moment. But it’ll be here for months, not years. 

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