Sunday, February 23, 2020

Are the Critics Right?

Christianity has been called a crutch, an opiate, a panacea and “wish-fulfillment”. The prevailing theory among its detractors is that we are fragile flowers who can’t cope with life and surround ourselves with comforting platitudes to escape having to face up to harsh realities like “We are all alone in the universe”, “Nobody loves me”, “There is no such thing as justice” and “Death is the end of everything”.

Additionally, we are often told people cling to Christianity because they can’t think for themselves and need to be told what to do.

These are arguments that may initially appear to hold water.

Calling All Dregs ...

After all, some people come to Christ at the end of their ropes, struggling with substance abuse, guilt, lack of self-control, a dysfunctional family life, poverty, unemployment, loss, sickness and disadvantages of every type. They know their lives are a mess, and they are looking for relief. Are they looking for someone to give them clear direction? Quite probably.

It is no accident that the Christian faith appeals to men and women who are in a very bad place in life, since these were exactly the sort of people to whom Jesus himself directed his message. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” he declared. His gospel was pitched right to them: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance,” he said, responding to establishment complaints that he frequently kept company with the dregs of Jewish society. If, therefore, many of today’s Christians also hail from the bottom level of modern social and economic hierarchies — if, to outsiders, our numbers seem padded by ne’er-do-wells, bottom feeders and weak links — we should not find ourselves terribly shocked. Historically, these have been the faith’s primary target demographic.

Put this way, our critics may have gotten hold of something.

Contradictory Evidence

On the other hand, the critics may be ignoring a fair bit of evidence that contradicts their theory. Dig down a little deeper than the average evangelical gospel pitch, which at times can sound like Salvation Lite®, and you will shortly unearth a number of reasons people who have had Jesus marketed to them only as a quick-fix solution to their immediate personal needs might eventually find the Christian faith quite unpalatable.

Here are several:
  • Jesus offers forgiveness of sins, but then commands us to stop sinning. After healing an invalid of 38 years, Jesus deliberately sought him out to tell him, “Sin no more.” The New Testament epistles do likewise. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” “[S]exual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.” These are not cozy platitudes: they are challenges to live differently; to lay aside habits and patterns of behavior with which most of the world is perfectly comfortable; to reject selfish impulses and embrace an unusual and sacrificial lifestyle.
  • Jesus taught eternal life, but he also preached hell. The actual number of times Jesus spoke about hell vs. the number of times he spoke about heaven turns out to be a hotly disputed subject. For example, D.A. Carson’s claim that he spoke “twice as often of hell as of heaven” required him to include a questionable passage or two. All the same, whatever the numbers, looming judgment formed a significant part of Jesus’ ministry. “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” “Fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.” These are not trivial statements, and they are not easily glossed over. They do not sound like the sort of thing that comforts fragile people in search of a handy crutch.
  • Jesus offers plenty of responsibility, but little obvious authority. Christians certainly share our faith as we have opportunity, and believe the Bible gives us answers to many of society’s problems. However, knowing Christ gives us no license to enforce our wills on others, even if we are correct in believing we know what’s good for them when they don’t. Activist Christians occasionally get called fascists and Nazis, but the mechanisms available to us to change society are exactly the same as those available to everyone else: casting a vote every four years, and avoiding putting our money into businesses we consider immoral. For those who think having an inside track with God might enable us to impose our will on the world, be prepared to be disappointed. As Jesus put it, “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you.” The Christian life is characteristically one of submission, not of worldly dominance. The meek will indeed inherit the earth, but don’t expect it to happen in our current era.
  • Jesus offers answers to life’s problems, but rarely takes them away. Christians are often accused of trying to escape from reality, but this is not at all what we are signing up for. This is very evident if you look at a cross-section of believers in almost any local church: some are in the process of dying of cancer, losing loved ones to a degenerative disease, or fighting life-long addictions; some are divorced or experiencing marriage troubles; some have rebellious or profoundly unsuccessful children; some have serious financial woes; some are unemployed or unemployable; many are coping with loneliness, grief and loss. This seems only reasonable: what would Christians have to offer the world if none of us ever experienced its deepest sorrows? What Jesus Christ offers his people is a way through the difficulties of this life with dignity and grace, not an end-around by which we may conveniently circumvent them.
  • The “clear direction” we get from the Christian faith is not always to our taste. It is said that people become Christians because they can’t think for themselves and like being bossed around, but even that doesn’t explain why so many of us over the course of history have engaged in behaviors that border on masochistic. It doesn’t explain why, hopefully for the sake of Christ, I have on occasion done weird, impulsive things I absolutely didn’t feel like doing at all, like walking into donut shops at 1:00 a.m. to talk about Christ to total strangers. Much more importantly, it doesn’t explain Paul, who headed for Jerusalem and imprisonment when all the local prophets warned him against it. It doesn’t explain Stephen, who, faced with a crowd of hostile religious Jews, deliberately dialed up the accusations to eleven and drove the mob into a stone-hurling frenzy. It doesn’t explain John, who was “on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” Why would anyone want to be bossed around by a Lord and Master who may send you into danger or even to death on his behalf — unless you really, truly, absolutely believe in what you’re doing and who you’re doing it for?

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