When preaching on Psalm 19 or Romans 1 or many other psalms of the creation telling of the existence and glory of God, you could quote Leonard Bernstein [1918-1990, American conductor and composer] who admitted that, when he was in the presence of great music and great beauty, he sensed “heaven,” an order behind things, “something we can trust, that will never let us down.” If you are teaching on virtually any passage on human sin and rebellion – but especially texts, like Romans 8.7, that speak of our hearts’ natural hostility to God – you would do well to quote a remarkable passage by the atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel [born in 1937], who candidly confessed, “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God. I don’t want the universe to be like that…This cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition.”
If you are preaching on Satan, you can be sure your listeners will begin to roll their eyes. You can quote Andrew Delbanco [born in 1952], a secular scholar at Columbia University, whose book The Death of Satan argues that “a gulf has opened up in our culture between the visibility of evil and the intellectual resources available for coping with it.” He argues that many secular people understandably attribute all human cruelty to psychological deprivation or social conditioning and, in so doing, trivialize the terrible wrongs people are capable of. Delbanco recounts the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt [1882-1945, president of the US, 1933-1945] who, along with many of the American elites during the Holocaust, gave “no priority to the rescue” of the victims. Late in the war, after the evidence for the atrocities became too great to disbelieve, the president was given [Soren] Kierkegaard 1813-1855, Danish] philosopher to read and said that, for the first time, the Christian philosopher gave him “an understanding of what it is in man that makes it possible…to be so evil.” Delbanco avers that secular liberals (a group of which he considers himself a member) had lost any concept of “radical evil.” If you speak of the devil to a secular audience, you must use sources such as this to dislodge the posture of ironic incredulity that they would otherwise assume when hearing this biblical teaching.
If you are preaching on original sin, you could cite C. E. M. Joad [1891-1953], a British atheist intellectual who came to belief in God after World War II. “It was because we rejected the doctrine of original sin that we on the Left were always being so disappointed, disappointed by the refusal of people to be reasonable…by the behavior of nations and politicians…above all, by the recurrent fact of war.”
This is a crucial part of preaching to the heart of the culture. It is no guarantee of persuading a skeptical audience, but it will go a long way toward keeping them from tuning you out almost immediately. It often results in their increased respect for the wisdom – and, eventually, the authority – of the Bible.
From: Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller (New York: Viking, 2015), pp. 108-110. All material in square brackets added by me.