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Dallas Willard, a Man from Another 'Time Zone'

Editor's note: Dallas Willard died May 8 at age 77, days after being diagnosed with cancer. A shorter version of the following tribute from John Ortberg ran on CT's site that day.

When Dallas Willard was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late summer 2012, he said, "I think that when I die, it might be some time until I know it."

Dallas was always saying things that no one else would think to. He said that a person is a series of conscious experiences, and that for the one who trusts and follows Jesus, death itself has no power to interrupt this life, for Jesus said that the one who trusts in him will not taste death.

Dallas died on May 8, 2013. I'm not sure if anyone has told him yet. But I know that for the lives touched by his mind and heart, there is a void. A philosopher at the University of Southern California (USC) for nearly five decades, he was the smartest man I have ever known. But it was the quality of his life—the extent to which he lived in the reality of the kingdom—that shaped the people who knew him the best.

Somebody once asked Dallas if he believed in total depravity.

"I believe in sufficient depravity," he responded immediately.

What's that?

"I believe that every human being is sufficiently depraved that when we get to heaven, no one will be able to say, 'I merited this.'"

The doctrine of sufficient depravity is one of a thousand truths from Dallas that seem novel and yet, the more we reflect on them, point to the most fundamental tenets of our faith. Since he died, one of the scenes I've had in my mind is of Dallas arriving at the gates of heaven, only to be turned away with a stamp marked INSUFFICIENT DEPRAVITY. Dallas himself would have insisted he had more than his fair share of depravity. He would have insisted that what we love in a life such as his is the One to whom Dallas constantly and joyfully pointed. What we love most about Dallas is the Jesus in him.

Hey Dallas

Because Dallas wrote extensively on spiritual formation and taught philosophy, one might think he came from abundant education and culture and resources. In fact, he grew up in rural Missouri in poverty. Electricity did not come until he was mostly grown up. His mother died when he was 2 years old; her last words to her husband were, "Keep eternity before the children."

He once read a book by Jack London that described the world from an atheistic point of view. Dallas said that he'd never known books could contain such ideas, and after that encounter his mind was never the same. He was 9 years old.

He became an insatiable reader: "When I left home after graduating high school, I left as a migrant agricultural worker with a Modern Library edition of Plato in my duffel bag. It sounds kind of crazy, but I loved it. I loved the stuff. Before I knew there was a subject called philosophy, I loved it."

He attended Tennessee Temple and did graduate work at Baylor University before receiving his PhD from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He then taught for 48 years at USC, where for a time he chaired the philosophy department. He is regarded as a leading translator and authority on the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. He was, along with scholars like William Alston and Alvin Plantinga, a significant influence in a renaissance of evangelical thinkers within contemporary academic philosophy.

Like his mind, his home was furnished with books. He had a secondary library that occupied a second house, and a tertiary library that filled his office at usc. After his cancer diagnosis, a group of us packed up well over 100 boxes of books that only made it to his quaternary library in a nearby garage. They were in multiple languages and stretched from Homer to Harry Potter.

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Dallas Willard, a Man from Another 'Time Zone'