Book Review: ON DEATH by Timothy Keller

Book Review: ON DEATH by Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller, ON DEATH. New York: Penguin Random House Books, 2020. 97pp.

            Timothy J. Keller (1950-     ) is a pastor, theologian and Christian Apologist. He is most well-known for having planted and pastored Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and his work with City-to-City, a ministry that helps to strategically plant churches in major population centers around the world. As a New York Times best-selling author, each of his published books comes with a high level of expectation from the reader. His newest three works (as of 2020) are: On Death, On Marriage, and On Birth. All three are rather small and are meant to be short helps for people during these big three transitions in their lives.

The reason for this set of small books is stated in the introduction: “Over forty-five years of ministry, my wife, Kathy, and I have seen that people are particularly open to exploring a relationship with God at times of major life transition” (pg. xii). These three areas: marriage, death and birth, are certainly major life-transition points.

In this short book on a subject that most people try to avoid, Tim Keller calls death the “great interruption, tearing loved ones away from us, or us from them” (pg. 1). He reminds the reader that the Western world tries to push death away and have as little to do with it as possible. Yet throughout history, people were used to seeing it up close. Generally, people died at or near home and the bodies would be taken care of by the family until they could be buried. This made death a present reality for all. Yet our society likes to deny death. We wish to never consider the matter unless it is in the couple hours it takes to attend a funeral of a close friend or relative. As Keller points out: “All this means that modern people are more unrealistic and unprepared for death than any people in history (pg. 8). . . “Rather than accept and prepare for the inevitable, we only avert and deny it” (pg. 13).

All readers would agree with Keller that “death takes away the significance and joy” of the things that we often fill our lives with (pg. 17). If we truly considered that death was around the corner, it would make us live in a radically different way. Indeed, this is what Keller suggests: “we should see it [death] as spiritual smelling salts that will awaken us out of our false belief that we will live forever” (pg. 25). Only with this realization and clear head will we then be able to consider what is to be done and who to turn to for help.

The reader is then encouraged to look to Jesus who came and died in our place. Jesus allowed death to fully envelop Him and yet He also came out the other side. Because of this reality, Keller says, if we will trust Jesus and His sacrifice for us, we will not be enveloped by death. Rather, we will only have the shadow of death pass over us because Jesus already took the full measure upon Himself (pg. 33). The reader is then shown how the New Testament tells Christians to be sorrowful about death in a different way than everyone else because Christians know something about death that no one else does. Christians truly have hope, not in themselves, but in Jesus. If He defeated death and its cause, sin, then anyone who believes in Him can claim His promise and experience His salvation. He will take them through death and out the other side as well.

Keller summarizes the Christian hope well by referencing George Herbert: “Death used to be an executioner, but the Gospel makes him just a gardener.” Death already did its worst to Jesus and He triumphed, so anyone who places their life and death in His hands has nothing to worry about. The reader is helpfully drawn to the reality that only Jesus offers an assured hope to faith death.

Perhaps most surprising about the book is the appendix. There is an excellent resource for those who are immanently facing their own death or the death of a loved one. For both, Tim Keller provides a week’s worth of readings and explanations from Scripture to help. This small book is compact but very thoughtful. It is clear how much ministry experiences and Biblical consideration has been placed into it. Indeed, the observant reader can sense the many funerals and deaths with which Tim Keller has dealt as a pastor.

All readers will be helped by this book and it is an ideal resource for anyone facing death or dealing with the loss of a loved-one. It also serves as a resource for many pastors who are perhaps struggling to know what to say to someone going through such a time.