A Tribute to my Friend, Tim Keller
Francis Collins reflects on his friendship with Tim Keller, offering a tribute in his honor.
I first met Tim Keller fifteen years ago when I stopped by his church office in New York City one Saturday afternoon. I had heard about his remarkable ministry at Redeemer Church from young friends who would literally travel from Washington, DC to New York for a church service, but I didn’t know how our encounter would go. After all, there was considerable animosity between science and religion in those days, especially about human origins, and I wondered how Tim—one of the country’s leading pastors and theologians—would receive me, a scientist who was a committed Christian but could not fit the findings of modern genetics together with a literal six-day creation.
I’m happy to report that we hit it off really well in that initial meeting. He indicated that perceived conflicts between science and faith were a common source of concern for seekers at his church, and I saw at once that I could learn a great deal from his intellectually inspired reading of Scripture. Our friendship began almost at once, and grew deeper and more meaningful over the years.
In those early days of BioLogos, Tim graciously and rather courageously agreed to host gatherings of Christian leaders in New York City to explore how science and faith could work together. It was his credibility that convinced many people to come and hear about this upstart organization (though quite a few asked that their presence not be made public, for fear of reprisal). But it was also Tim’s keen theological mind and commitment to the truth of Scripture that helped us work through some of the tension points so many people believe there are between science and the Bible.
In Tim’s words from a BioLogos podcast, “The Bible is…filled with all kinds of reasons to trust science, not scientism, but science. So we ought to push back on the people who show a lack of humility before a discipline that actually grew up out of Christian soil.” The Bible was so much more than an ancient theological textbook for Tim. It spoke in relevant ways to our lives today, including science, and it was the guidebook by which he encouraged others to live, and by which he lived his life—a life that profoundly influenced me and countless others.
“The Bible is…filled with all kinds of reasons to trust science, not scientism, but science. So we ought to push back on the people who show a lack of humility before a discipline that actually grew up out of Christian soil.
There are still widely accessed resources on the BioLogos website that Tim wrote for us. Creation, Evolution, and Christian Laypeople is a long whitepaper he wrote for one of those New York City meetings. It considers the kinds of questions church laypeople ask their pastors when first introduced to the idea that evolution and Christian faith can be compatible. The answers to some of those questions, like whether science can explain everything, we wholeheartedly agree on: no, science can’t explain everything; it is one way of knowing some things about the world, but it can’t tell us everything, like what is right and wrong, or why is there something rather than nothing. Other questions we didn’t completely agree on, like whether a historical Adam and Eve, created de novo from the dust with no biological relationship to any other living things, are necessary for the Gospel story. Tim and I had long email correspondence on that one, and never quite agreed, but I learned much from him.
Tim remained a thoughtful contributor to BioLogos over these years. During the pandemic, Tim and I participated in a livestream conversation with BioLogos called “Where is God in a Pandemic?” These were the early days when we didn’t yet have a vaccine, and the epicenter of the COVID outbreak was in Tim’s home city of New York, where thousands of people were dying. We didn’t know what was going to happen, and there was a lot of fear and suspicion. Characteristically, Tim gave wise reflection on the role of science and the role of the church during such times: yes, we should pray and ask God to heal us and heal our land, but we should also encourage scientists as they use their God-given gifts to develop tools that can relieve suffering through natural processes. When we were asked for that livestream, “Where is God in a Pandemic?” Tim’s answer was that God is where he has always been—right here among us, alongside us in the midst of it all. God is here. He was there with us then, he is here with us now.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Tim Keller and Francis Collins discuss what it means to care for the most vulnerable among us. In this clip, they talk about their friendship and how it developed over time.
When Tim first told me he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer three years ago, we knew the usual outlook for long term survival was bleak—maybe just a few months. As Director of the National Institutes of Health, I knew of a few very bold clinical trials that sought to use a combination of cutting-edge genomics and immunology to teach the patient’s own immune cells to recognize and destroy the cancer cells. Tim and his wife Kathy knew this was highly experimental, likely toxic, and had no guarantee of response—this approach had only ever been tried on a few patients with pancreatic cancer. What was very important to Tim, however, was to know whether this might help others in the future, even if it failed to help him.
He entered a cancer immunotherapy trial at the Clinical Center of the NIH. Over many visits to Bethesda, I had the chance to spend some truly memorable times at his bedside. He never really wanted to talk much about cancer. Instead he wanted to discuss other pressing topics: the crisis of truth and trust in our society, a recent book we had both read, or new insights he had developed on suffering. He told me at one point that the diagnosis of a fatal disease had profoundly intensified his appreciation of beauty in all things, and given him a different and richer kind of happiness than he had known before.
He told me at one point that the diagnosis of a fatal disease had profoundly intensified his appreciation of beauty in all things, and given him a different and richer kind of happiness than he had known before.
A year ago the cancer was advancing very rapidly and Tim’s chance of surviving past the summer of 2022 looked slim. But prayers were answered: given appropriate instruction, the well-schooled immune cells found and demolished their target. That experience was grueling for Tim and Kathy, but we were all gifted with another stretch of many months for Tim to be with us. He used that time well—writing a particularly powerful and convicting article on “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church”, an essay that all who care about the future of our faith should read and reflect on.
The cancer returned around Christmas, but this time there was no dramatic response from a new immunotherapy protocol, re-engineered and delivered on Good Friday. I prayed fervently that God would heal Tim—either miraculously or through the tools of science. But this time, God had another plan.
It was a Sunday afternoon in mid-April when I was last with Tim and Kathy. His final admission to the NIH Clinical Center was coming to a close after three intense weeks. I thought a chance to sing some hymns together might provide an opportunity to share our faith and confidence in God’s love and grace. I made the suggestion to Tim and Kathy, and Tim immediately engaged as only the Reverend Keller would do. Yes, he said, let’s do this—but let me propose six hymns that will lay out the full foundation of the Christian faith, from the Creation, to our confidence in joining the saints at the end of our days. I reached out to about ten other believers who dropped everything to join, and there in the atrium of the world’s largest research hospital, we gathered around the grand piano to sing and pray. It was incredibly sweet and poignant. Kathy said this was the first time she and Tim had been able to worship in-person with others in three years.
Always the preacher and teacher, Tim explained the significance of the choice of the hymns before we sang each one. One of them was unfamiliar to me, but I will remember it forever. The final verse had particular significance:
Jesus lives, and death is now
But my entrance into glory.
Courage, then, my soul, for thou
Hast a crown of life before thee;
Thou shalt find thy hopes were just:
Jesus is the Christian’s trust.
Well done, Tim Keller, my friend and spiritual mentor. Death is now indeed your entrance into glory. We will mourn your absence here, but celebrate with the hosts of Heaven as you join the throng to sing new hymns of praise that we cannot even imagine.