Author and pastor Tim Keller, who planted a church in New York City that grew to 5,000 attendees and who pioneered work in urban ministry, died Friday after a three-year battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 72.
Keller and his wife Kathy launched Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan in 1989 and watched as it grew to a weekly attendance of thousands. Keller was known for his staunch yet winsome defense of orthodoxy in the liberal bastion of New York City. He defended the exclusivity of the gospel and the biblical definition of marriage and even engaged with critics on social media who disagreed.
He stepped down in 2017 in order to lead another ministry, Redeemer City to City, which plants new churches. His sermons can be heard on the popular Gospel in Life podcast.
He was the author of more than 30 books, including The Reason for God and The Prodigal God. All total, his books sold more than 2 million copies and were translated into 25 languages.
Keller believed ministry within cities was essential to fulfilling the Great Commission.
"We need churches everywhere there are people – but the people of the world are moving into cities much faster than the church is," Keller wrote in 2017. "Jesus told us to go into the world to make disciples (Matt 28:18-20). If we fail to go where the world is going, then we aren't heeding our Lord's command."
His son, Michael Keller, shared some of his father's final words.
"Timothy J. Keller, husband, father, grandfather, mentor, friend, pastor, and scholar died this morning at home," Michael Keller wrote. "Dad waited until he was alone with Mom. She kissed him on the forehead and he breathed his last breath. We take comfort in some of his last words. 'There is no downside for me leaving, not in the slightest.' See you soon Dad."
Keller had been in and out of the hospital in recent days before entering hospice Thursday. Michael Keller said his father had prayed during his final hours, "I'm thankful for all the people who've prayed for me over the years. I'm thankful for my family, that loves me. I'm thankful for the time God has given me, but I'm ready to see Jesus. I can't wait to see Jesus. Send me home."
Just four months ago, he appeared on Premier's Unbelievable podcast, telling them the diagnosis had drawn him closer to God.
"My wife and I would never want to go to the kind of prayer life and spiritual life we had before the cancer," he said.
"Everyone knows they're going to die," Keller added. People, though, "suppress that" knowledge and "live as if they're never going to die."
Pancreatic cancer, he said, had few treatments. He said his doctor told him, "You're going to die of this, sooner or later, because we don't have a cure for it."
"The way you look at God, the way you look at your spouse, the way you look at everything just changes when you actually realize time is limited and I'm mortal," he told Unbelievable.
Although battling cancer, Keller proclaimed the gospel on social media until the final weeks before his death.
"If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn't rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead," Keller tweeted in April.
If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) April 9, 2023
"It's no more narrow to claim that one religion is the right one than to claim that your one way to think about all religions is the right one," he tweeted in March.
It's no more narrow to claim that one religion is the right one than to claim that your one way to think about all religions is the right one.— Timothy Keller (@timkellernyc) March 8, 2023
15 Influential Quotes from Pastor Tim Keller
Photo courtesy: ©Gospel in Life, used with permission.
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.