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Saturday Sermon: Before the Beginning

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May 28, 2011 Tags: Creation & Origins

Today's sermon features Tim Keller. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Though some may believe that moving the science/faith dialogue forward is best left to scientists, scholars, and theologians, we at BioLogos recognize that our pastors play an invaluable role in the conversation. Across the globe, pastors are helping their congregations work through difficult issues of science and faith with honesty, insight, and a gentle spirit. This weekend, we begin an ongoing series recognizing sermons (and the pastors who give them) that are helping to promote the harmony of science and faith. Our first sermon comes from Rev. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Click on the picture above to hear a profound and very moving excerpt. This excerpt can be downloaded here, and the full sermon can be purchased from Redeemer’s sermon store. Finally, if you know a sermon or podcast related to science and faith that has especially spoken to you, please let us know.

Dr. Timothy Keller beautifully unravels the first three verses of Genesis 1 in his sermon titled, “Before the Beginning.” From these first verses, three fundamental truths are established. Before the beginning of God’s marvelous works, there was God, there was love, and there was darkness.

Dr. Keller provides a compelling argument for the existence of God. He opens with a discussion on an essay written by John Paul Sartre. This philosopher proposed that a created object or being can only be judged as doing the right or wrong thing if there is a definite purpose it is meant to fulfill. For example, one concludes that a paper knife is great if it indeed cuts paper. However, Sartre did not believe in a creator god or in an ultimate purpose for mankind. If humans exist for no particular reason, then there is no concept of right or wrong and no moral code by which one can be judged. Therefore, he inferred that humans had complete freedom to act in whichever way they pleased. However, Sartre spent his entire life making strong moral claims, and Dr. Keller asks, “Why?”—Well, the answer is clear: God does exist, and so value claims can be made since everything has a specific niche, an intended purpose. The implications of this truth are that each person has a destiny to live out, and it is only when that role is being fulfilled that a person will truly be free. The nature of freedom, then, is not the ability to do whatever one pleases; it is the ability to discover and realize the role for which one has been made.

Next, Dr. Keller makes this necessary distinction: there is not just a God of the universe, but there is a loving God of the universe. He explains that love existed before the beginning because God is a Trinitarian being. The first verses in Genesis mention God and the Spirit of God as hovering over the deep. Then, one reads in the gospel of John that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. Therefore, Jesus is God’s word that is speaking creation into existence. Jesus’ prayer in this same gospel explains the relationship these three had before all creation. He makes it known that each distinct part of the Ttrinity was glorifying the others. It is from this glorious state of self-giving love that God’s creation is birthed. This means that love is the ultimate reality. If love is the highest goal, then relationships, not achievement or power, is what all creation was intended for.

Finally, before God acts, there is darkness and chaos. It is “under His word that there comes orderliness and light.” What is the significance of this truth? In order to find it, Dr. Keller turns his audience’s attention to the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. When God sends plagues on the Egyptians because of Pharaoh’s hard heart, the calamities are natural disasters rather than supernatural ones. God was showing humans the true effects of their sin on nature. It is sin that tears at the very fabric of His creation and causes chaos and darkness to ensue. Then, fast-forwarding thousands of years, Jesus dies on the cross. In His last moments, He cries, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” This is what was happening in those moments: the chaos and destruction and darkness that sin deserves were falling directly onto Jesus himself. In the words of Pastor Keller, “Jesus is the maker who was willing to be unmade so that we might be remade.” Thus, the result of all human actions apart from God is indeed darkness and death, and the result of all that God does is perfect light and life.

The conclusion when all has been heard is this: that God created and sustains all things in and through His self-giving love. It is in this divine love that one finds purpose, and in finding purpose, so also one finds the ultimate freedom that humanity deeply longs to experience.

ADDENDUM: Please note, although we do invite your comments as we explore the theological richness of God's word in the sermon series, the comments will be restricted to Christians who are genuinely seeking to enter into a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God. Those who are not Christians but are seriously seeking to explore the Christian faith as a possibility for their own lives are also very welcome to raise questions and make comments. However, this will not be a place to belittle Christianity. We ask that our atheist friends respect our purpose here. We realize that you think Christianity is irrational and we are willing to engage the profound rationality of our faith, but this is not the place to discuss that with you.

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. The “Influentials” issue of New York magazine featured Keller as “the most successful Christian evangelist in the city” for his engagement with the young professional and artist demographics. He received his bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Penn., his Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hampton, Mass., and his Doctor of Ministry from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of such New York Times bestselling books as The Reason for God and Prayer. He is also Chairman of Redeemer City to City, which has helped start over 250 churches in global cities worldwide. He lives in New York City with his wife Kathy.

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Steve Ruble - #61769

May 28th 2011

I acknowledge the warning above, so I won’t be making any “belittling” remarks about Christianity in this comment. But I hope that I may be allowed to post on the substance of Keller’s paraphrased remarks on Sartre, in the interests of all parties having a better understanding of what Sartre’s philosophy actually comprised. I feel strongly that either Keller or the person who summarized his sermon is leaving out one or two rather important aspects of Sartre’s position on value and purpose.

Firstly, for Sartre the “value” of a thing was something that belonged to the person doing the valuing, not to the thing itself, and that “value” is tightly bound to that person’s “project” or (roughly) intention to do something. Sartre would consider the idea that something could have “value” in itself to be nonsense; a thing only has “value” to someone. So if I have an object in my hand, and I want to cut some paper, and the object cuts paper well, that object has that value to me at that moment. Calling the object a “paper knife” is a way to pick out the “value” which person assigning the name thinks the object is likely to have; nevertheless, an object which is called a “paper knife” may be very poor at cutting paper but, say, excellent for spreading butter - in which case it would have “value” to a person who wants to spread butter but has no paper. All this is a very roundabout way of re-iterating that to Sartre the “value” for a given entity is something that is derived from the desires of the person ascribing the “value”, not from the desires of the creator of the entity. The desires of the creator determine only the “value” the object has to the creator as an object which he or she has created, but there is no “value” intrinsic to the object itself, nor do the desires of the creator determine the “value” the object will have to some other entity with some other desires.
Steve Ruble - #61770

May 28th 2011

If humans exist for no particular reason, then there is no concept of right or wrong and no moral code by which one can be judged. 

Sartre’s reply to this is contained within the phrase “existence precedes essence”. He thought the fact that there is no intrinsic purpose to the existence of an individual in no way prevents that individual from choosing a purpose for herself and dedicating herself to living out that purpose, making it become her essence. Another way to put it is that although a human may begin to exist for no particular reason, for their existence to continue they must continually intend for it to continue, and take actions to that end. For Sartre, this is what everyone does, consciously or unconsciously - even the person who adopts the purposes of another entity (a nation, or lover, or god) is on some level deciding that those purposes are what gives value to their continued existence: they are saying, “My life has value because I desire to contribute to the fulfillment of the desires of that power, and I am successful in that contribution.” But the underlying generator of purpose to that person is their own desire to do the thing that they think furthers the ends of the entity which they want to serve. Remember, for Sartre there is no such thing as a free-floating “value” or “purpose” - things always have value to someone, for that person’s purposes. A person can try to abdicate their choice of purposes, but to Sartre there is no escaping the fact that the person who makes the choice about what things to value is the original and final source of values for themselves.

Cal - #61789

May 29th 2011

That still does not remove the fact that there is no standard to which one is judged in a moral sort of way. In Sartre’s mind the fact there would be judgment would be ludicrous as value is derived by the one making it. Perhaps inner judgment (as to the one who made the purpose if they were driven to it “enough” (subjective)), but no independent Judge.

I’ve not read much of Sartre, so I can not say if he had made any “ought” statement, but if he had the articles point is valid. However, we are human, and ought statements of purpose seem to naturally flow from our lips (ex. To a perceived injustice we may be encouraged to say “This isn’t fair!” yet fail to take into account if there is such a thing as fairness in the first place (ie. an independent standard of justice and good)). So on that I wouldn’t hold him accountable for being a “hypocrite” since such is apart of our language, but it does, in a strange sort of way, validate the idea there is such a standard, be it God Himself, or some sort of platonic truth in the realm of the ideal. But that is just musing.

Steve Ruble - #61804

May 30th 2011

From “Existentialism is a Humanism”, by Sartre (the lecture transcript I suspect Keller was referring to):

We can judge, nevertheless, for, as I have said, one chooses in view of others, and in view of others one chooses himself. One can judge, first – and perhaps this is not a judgment of value, but it is a logical judgment – that in certain cases choice is founded upon an error, and in others upon the truth. 
 If anyone says to me, “And what if I wish to deceive myself?” I answer, “There is no reason why you should not, but I declare that you are doing so, and that the attitude of strict consistency alone is that of good faith.” 
He also goes on to make an argument in defense of something like moral judgments, using what seems to be a modified version of the Kantian Categorical Imperative (many philosophers have respect Kant’s CI, although I don’t think it’s that helpful). In any case, Sartre certainly thinks it’s possible to make and defend judgments.

However, we are human, and ought statements of purpose seem to naturally flow from our lips ... So on that I wouldn’t hold him accountable for being a “hypocrite” since such is a part of our language, but it does, in a strange sort of way, validate the idea there is such a standard, be it God Himself, or some sort of platonic truth in the realm of the ideal. 
I’m not following your reasoning here. You move from the quite concrete fact that humans seem to share a sense of fairness to the quite speculative idea that there is a standard of “fairness” defined by something outside of humanity… but I don’t see what motivates that speculation.  Consider the fact that humans share the concept of “deliciousness”, and while persons may differ to some extent in what they think is delicious, everyone understands the idea, and there are probably many things that everyone would agree are or are not delicious. But would you say that fact validates the idea that there is some transcendent standard of deliciousness?
Cal - #61822

May 30th 2011

That’d be mixing two different standards. Deliciousness is undergirded by the assertion of pleasure/displeasure. We may like something because it is delicious because it is agreeable to our tastes, and we all have a sense of this because it’s a property of being human.

Similarly we may find a situation to our dislike because it is not pleasurable or it is painful. Yet if we’re asking, why should this situation should happen, why it is right for this to happen, why does this happen to me. that’s a whole new level. The idea of Justice is an abstract that needs transcendence to fully make sense. We can accept things as they are and learn our ways around and through them, but to question why such is the way it is, is to step into the transcendent.

I suppose you could argue the opposite, but to confirm justice/fairness we always appeal to a higher level. For pleasure/pain, the buck seems to stop at the individual for an appeal, but for justice it always looks for a step up (be it the group, a leader, an ideal or a deity, or some combination of the above but always takes on a higher meaning than the mundane).

And also my last comment on the language pointing to transcendence was just me musing, not really something concrete I wanted to raise.

Steve Ruble - #61771

May 28th 2011

Finally, I’d like to simple quote Sartre himself on the topic. Before you delete this, please consider (prayerfully, perhaps) whether you are truly comfortable with bringing Sartre into a conversation when you can twist his words into supporting your claims, but booting him out when he speaks plainly for himself. Would you really feel like you were acting in good faith?

Existentialism is not atheist in the sense that it would exhaust itself in demonstrations of the non-existence of God. It declares, rather, that even if God existed that would make no difference from its point of view. Not that we believe God does exist, but we think that the real problem is not that of His existence; what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God. In this sense existentialism is optimistic. It is a doctrine of action, and it is only by self-deception, by confining their own despair with ours that Christians can describe us as without hope.
Cal - #61790

May 29th 2011

I suppose Sartre is mentioned to institute a fine example of what an atheistic worldview may logically conclude too. A Christian is one who has Hope firmly grounded in the Creator and ultimate sustainer of reality. To a Christian, the idea of not having a Rock (source of good and justice) to stand on would be hopelessness, and some atheists would try to battle on the grounds of the ethical or moral conduct.

But what Sartre is saying is there is no such ethical or moral conduct, independent of the one who experiences and exists. This could all be some mad dream, all of us shades of the mind of something greater, and it wouldn’t make a difference. We exist to make our own standard to fulfill and the fact that humans shape their own destiny and purpose is the grounds for hope. But this delivers you from certain arguments and sets a gulf between what a Christian would argue and an atheist (of an existential variety but extrapolated to all as the logical conclusion) would argue and thus neither would have grounds to say to the other “You’re wrong and this is why”. One supposes the grounds for reality, the other doesn’t.

Steve Ruble - #61805

May 30th 2011

...neither [atheist nor Christian] would have grounds to say to the other “You’re wrong and this is why”. One supposes the grounds for reality, the other doesn’t.

To quote Sartre yet again, from the same text:

The self-deception is evidently a falsehood, because it is a dissimulation of man’s complete liberty of commitment. Upon this same level, I say that it is also a self-deception if I choose to declare that certain values are incumbent upon me; I am in contradiction with myself if I will these values and at the same time say that they impose themselves upon me.
To me, the argument Sartre is touching on here is the most helpful contribution made by Existentialism. Fundamentally, each person chooses for herself what she will value and what she will do, at each moment of her life; no one can escape that choice. The only way to avoid thinking about the fact that you are always responsible for making this choice is to pretend that the choice has been made for you, that because of some aspect of the world, you must have certain values. This is the “self-deception” Sartre refers to above.

Therefore I think there is, on Existentialism, a way to say, “You’re wrong and this is why,” and it rests on the insistence that each person must recognize their own subjectivity and responsibility before they can take an honest position regarding values and purposes. This is a need that the Existentialist sees part of what it means to be a subject at all, so it’s not something that can be escaped by any thinking entity, whatever their beliefs and presuppositions.
Roger A. Sawtelle - #61810

May 30th 2011


Are you saying that according to Sartre, both Hitler and Stalin would have been right if they lived their lives in an “authenitic” honest manner, that is they believed in what they were doing.

Cal - #61823

May 30th 2011

Yet the the position one takes will be all subjective. One alone must will his/her values and purposes and accept them, otherwise stand in “bad faith” (I believe I’m using Sartre’s term correctly?). But beyond confronting, in the mind of the existential atheist, one on his/her honesty to understanding one wills these things to be, my essential point was once that person draws the conclusions, how could another say, “No, no, dear friend, those are the wrong purposes to will!”?

Really one could not without presupposing a standard to which purposes and values should derive. A Christian would argue from a standard, namely God as in seen in Jesus Christ, but an existential atheist would reject the standard, not needing to confront the arguments posed because the belief under-riding it is that each person is the standard, each purpose and value subjective.

Also, couldn’t one suppose that the standard of good/bad faith is objective? That honesty, being true to your self and understanding what you are, is supposing a reality by an objective measure (namely, who you are and what you believe). Perhaps Sartre dealt with this, or I’m missing something and the question is void.

Steve Ruble - #61835

May 31st 2011

Roger, I suspect that Sartre would see the actions of Hitler and Stalin as evidence that they were not living authentically, because a vital prt of authenticity is the recognition of freedom in yourself and - by extension - each other person; Hitler and Stalin dedicated their lives to stamping out the concept of freedom, from opposite ends of the spectrum, so they could not have had, Sartre might say, an understanding of their own freedom.

Steve Ruble - #61837

May 31st 2011

Right, you can’t tell rationally compel someone to have certain purposes by arguing in terms of your own purposes and values, if they don’t share those purposes and values. This, I think, is less of a normative claim from Existentialism and more of a descriptive claim about how reason and values/morals/desires work in general. If I don’t share your values, your “oughts” will have no force to me; “You ought not do X, because it causes pain,” has no power to compel an entity which does not empathize with suffering or care that it happens. But note that the fact that we lack the means to rationally compel an entity to assume our values does not mean that we ourselves are constrained from holding those values and holding others to them; indeed, Sartre would say that by holding values yourself you are implicitly claiming that those are the valuesz everyone should hold.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #61841

May 31st 2011


I expect that Hitler and Stalin saw things differently.  I would expect that they would have argued that their ideologies were to maximize freedom for the greater good.  

This would seem to be the problem with existentialism.  If reality is real, then ideas must conform to reality to be effective.  “Authenticity” certainly does not guarantee effectiveness.  Otherwise the Hippies would govern the USA.  On the other hand if reality is subjective as many seem to think, it really doesn’t matter what we do or think. 

While God allows people to decide for and against God, and atheism does not allow for people to make that decision, since it denies the reality of God, doesn’t theism allow for more freedom than atheism? 
While authenticity is a positive value, the real goal is to maximize freedom with the greatest good for the maximum number of people.  How to do this is the biggest challenge we have as human beings. 

Cal - #61881

June 1st 2011

So I wonder, does Sartre understand the paradoxical nature of what he perceives to be reality? So on one hand he says, “You are the generator of your purposes, your desires, and your will. You set your own standard” but on the other, if said person were to derive other conclusions and thus other values (perhaps opposite to what Sartre derived) you would think that the other should abandon that certain will and adopt a plan of values that accords with your own? I do know he wrote about the contest of wills in the objectifying of another, one subsumes the other by strength (especially in the context of relationships, usually romantic ones), does this wire back into this line of thinking? Does it, in the end, become a contest of strength, an existential ‘might makes right’?

As for your comment to Roger, what if Stalin and Hitler had embraced the subjective standard of purposes and values of atheistic Existentialism but had come to the conclusion that no other minds exist. One can never really know if there are any other minds besides his/her own, it is an innate faith in the belief. If Stalin or Hitler had come to reject this and generated the standard, “There is only one mind, myself, and therefore all values relate to my enhancement”, then who is to say they are wrong? If they don’t think they’re dealing with people because they’ve erected that value, how could anyone ever convince them otherwise? I do suppose the argument would then slip from the atheistic existentialists hand and he/she would no longer be capable of any rational dialogue with said Hitler or Stalin.

Steve Ruble - #61889

June 1st 2011

If Stalin or Hitler had come to reject this and generated the standard, “There is only one mind, myself, and therefore all values relate to my enhancement”, then who is to say they are wrong?

Well, since I have a mind, and I’m neither Stalin nor Hitler, I could say they’re wrong. So could you, I suspect.

More generally, what you seem to be pointing out is that Existentialism can’t convert a universal skeptic/solipsist by means of rational argument… but that’s true of all philosophies, ideologies, and world views, so it’s not much of a critique of Existentialism to point it out. If a person rejects reason, or rejects all moral values, you’re not going to be able to appeal to their reason or their moral values, and that’s that. You can’t convince a rock, either.

Steve Ruble - #61890

June 1st 2011

With regard to the “paradoxical nature” of what Sartre perceives to be reality: there’s no paradox in recognizing that each individual lives in a society of other individuals. It’s just in the nature of things that purposes and values will conflict, and that some persons will subsume their purposes into the purposes of other persons. The only alternative to such subsuming is a Hobbesian “war of all against all”. 

You could describe it as “might makes right”, but since “might” in this case is “degree to which others perceive one’s purposes to be desirable for themselves” you might as easily say “right makes might” (Of course, this assumes a society where people are free to choose their associates and lifestyles without coercion - in other societies “might makes right” might be a good description of how people choose their morality… but that doesn’t have anything to do with Existentialism).
Cal - #61896

June 1st 2011

My point was rather from what I’ve read when discussing the objectification of a will in a romantic relationship. To me it had a streak of “war of all against all” because in that relationship you were always under pressure of becoming the object of your lover and unless you tipped the power struggle and objectified the other, you would lose. Maybe a certain context, but it seemed one must constantly be asserting his/her purposes and will and values otherwise being absorbed by another who might state his/her values are supreme. So the strength of the personality and strength of the will would determine if you could maintain your generated values or you would become an object to another.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #61895

June 1st 2011

It appears to me that Sartre used existentialism as the basis for his rejection of tradition and convention.  He was not really interested in the contents of Marxism as much as its opposition to the traditional order.

Of course there are many forms of existentialism, including those of Soren Kierkegaarde, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich who found that existential freedom and authenticity are fully compatible with Christianity and Judaism. 

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