(A study for: The Reason for God, Chapter 4)
Many who have positive views on Christianity have often had previous encounters with loving and caring Christians. Conversely, some who find Christianity ridiculous, bad, or as something to eradicate often have this predisposition because they have experienced or observed injustices caused by people who identify as Christians. Thus, we must investigate the type of behavior associated with Christians, both as individuals and as a group, which has undermined the very credibility of Christianity.
[Discussion: What type of behavior has undermined the credibility of Christianity?]
In his book, The Reason for God (Ch. 4), Tim Keller identifies two issues that stand out:
- Fanaticism and character flaws. If Christianity is the truth, why are so many people who call themselves Christians behaving worse than many non-Christians?
- War and violence. Christianity appears to have supported various wars and injustices throughout history, such as the crusades, forceful conversions of natives, and the inquisition, in which alleged non-believers were burned alive at the stake.
First, we must distinguish between two groups of people: those who call themselves Christians and those who really are Christians. The ultimate authority of Christianity, the Bible, teaches there are many who have deluded themselves into thinking they are Christians, but they are not. If I put on the jersey of my favorite soccer team and tell others I belong to this team, does that mean that I’m actually part of the team? Of course not, and the Bible says many false teachers will come (Matt 24:11; 1. Tim. 4:1). It also constantly warns those who think and claim they are Christians to examine themselves to see if it is true (2. Cor. 13:5). Thus, based on the Bible, there’s a significant danger of people mistakenly identifying as Christians when they are not. https://www.gotquestions.org/fake-Christians.html
Many non-Christians are turned off by Christianity, because they know people who claim to have embraced Christianity yet seem to have become somewhat “crazy” and self-righteous while being very judgmental and intolerant of others. Due to this, many non-Christians reason the best type of Christian would be one who doesn’t go too far in her religion—someone who is more in the middle—who believes, but doesn’t become too devoted. After all, everything in moderation, as the saying goes. Even though this kind of thinking may sound logical at first, it has a fatal flaw.
[Discussion: What is the fatal flaw with thinking the best type of Christian is one who doesn’t go too far with her religion?]
This kind of reasoning presumes that Christianity is a moral improvement system and thus the most devoted Christians would also be the most intense moralists. This of course is nothing new since this type of mistaken thinking also existed in the time of Jesus.
[Discussion: Who were the most intense moralists of Jesus’s time?]
In the time of Jesus, the most intense moralists were Pharisees. The Pharisees assumed they were on God’s good side, because of their self-ascribed goodness and morality. They thought, like many do today, that God’s true religion is a moral improvement system. This led them to feel superior and condemning towards those who, in their eyes, did not meet the same standards. Today’s fanaticism within Christianity works the same way, but the problem is not that the fanatics are too religious. The problem is the fanatics are not religious enough.
Jesus himself was the greatest critic of the so-called hyper-religious people. In his sermon on the mount (Matthew Ch.5-7), Jesus didn’t criticize irreligious people, but rather the seemingly upright, respected, religious ones. In Matt. 21:31, Jesus said to the prostitutes, “boy it will be hard for you to get into heaven”. Oh wait, no he didn’t! Jesus said to the chief priests and elders, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”
Can you guess which group persecuted Jesus? Was it the sinners, thieves, and prostitutes or the so-called upright and religious of society? It was the hyper-religious fanatics who were literally screaming to have Jesus crucified.1
So, you condemn religious fanaticism. That’s good. Jesus condemned it as well, as should all Christians.
Second, it is true that even people who are Christians have deeply flawed characters and behavior, often even more so than non-Christians. Unlike almost every other religion in the world, in Christianity you don’t have to make yourself acceptable to God to gain his favor. You don’t have to become a good person before God accepts you—it’s the total opposite. You must admit to God that you are a horrible person and repent of your sins, and then God in his mercy accepts you in your humility in the imperfect condition you came to him.
Now, you might be thinking, “But I’m not a bad horrible person!” That’s an understandable reaction, because we are so used to judging ourselves against people who are even worse than us. Sure, you probably are a “saint” compared to Stalin, Bin Laden, Weinstein, and the like. You might even be a saint compared to many criminals in prison and you think, “Surely, if there is such a thing as Hell, it’s reserved for those very evil people and not for me.”
[Discussion: What’s the problem with this line of thinking: “If God even exists, only very evil people will be judged by him and not me.”]
The problem with this line of logic is there is no basis for it other than your wishful thinking—even our national courts don’t operate this way. Our courts don’t set you free because you have committed fewer crimes than someone else. They will still sentence you. If a judge wouldn’t sentence you, people would call him an unjust judge.
Similarly, God must punish every sin that has ever been committed or he would be unjust. That’s a problem for you since, at the very least, you, like every other person in history (except for Jesus), has lied, has had evil thoughts about others, has treated others badly, etc. Furthermore, every time you have engaged in this type of bad behavior, you have not only sinned against other people but also you have sinned against God. Ultimately, every bad thing you do is an offense and crime against God which he must punish or he would deny his very character of being a just god, which would make him imperfect and would mean he is not God. (See the comic, “Am I a good person”)2
“Well”, you say, “this sounds like bad news for everyone!” and you would be right. This is very bad news for everyone. According to the Bible, everyone, by default, is heading towards a guilty verdict in God’s heavenly court (Rom. 3:23). However, there is good news, called the gospel. (The word gospel literally means “good news”.)
[Discussion: What is the good news, this “gospel”?]
The gospel, the “good news”, is that you don’t have to be or become a good person for God to accept you. You must simply accept the plea deal God is offering you. You must admit and repent of your sins, pledge allegiance to God, and then he will let you free. More than that, he will adopt you as his child.
You might now be wondering, ”How can God do this, because, as mentioned, justice must be served?” A just judge can’t set criminals free or justice won’t be served. God can do this, because God, in the form of Jesus, volunteered to pay for your punishment on the cross. Jesus volunteered to take your sins upon himself, pay for them, and credit you with his perfect life.
However, you must accept it. You must repent of your sins and ask for mercy. You must agree to this plea deal or get judged and sentenced by God for all the sins you have committed. That’s the deal.
This brings us back to the flawed character of real Christians.
[Discussion: Which kind of people are usually more likely to take a plea deal: those who know they have committed some serious crimes or those who think that they are practically innocent?]
Usually, it’s the hardcore career criminals who are desperate for a plea deal. You have these people, who know they are guilty of all sorts or crimes, with the evidence against them being both overwhelming and obvious. They have given up on all hope and are just waiting for their life sentence.
Then, they hear about a plea deal that both the prosecutor and judge (God) is offering. Full of curiosity, and now with a faint glimmer of hope in their eyes, the criminals cautiously ask for more details. Maybe they are hoping to cut their life sentences to 30 or 40 years.
Imagine their surprise when the prosecutor tells them that the prosecutor himself is volunteering to suffer the punishment for not only the criminals” past crimes but also future ones! If they agree to the plea deal, there won’t be any sentence and their criminal records will be wiped clean as well. The criminals can hardly believe it.
“I must be dreaming!” each says to himself. “Give me that plea agreement right now”, he says. “I need to sign it immediately before it’s too late!!” and boy, will this man be full of joy after that moment. This amazing turn of events is enough to turn anyone’s life around!
[Discussion: Does this mean the career criminal, who has lived a life of crime, will suddenly become a perfect father, son, husband, friend, and citizen?]
No, transformation is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight, but now, empowered by the Holy Spirit and the love he now has for the judge/prosecutor—God, his savior—transformation will start happening. Gradually, the amount of sin in a new believer’s life will decrease, as every time he sins he feels very bad about it—thinking about the generous deal he got from God—and yet here he is again committing a crime against him for which Jesus had to suffer more for on the cross.
Now, imagine that some time later, this pardoned criminal has an encounter with an average citizen, who has lived a relatively normal life. This average citizen might be shocked by some unbecoming behavior from the pardoned criminal. “He calls himself a Christian,” says the average citizen.
What the average citizen doesn’t see is how much the love of God has already changed this pardoned criminal. Sure, the pardoned criminal might still behave worse than the average citizen, but he’s behaving ten times better than before plus doing better overall each year. However, what that average citizen doesn’t realize is that he himself is in grave danger.
[Discussion: What grave danger is the average citizen in?]
The average citizen sees himself a “pretty good guy overall”, so the danger is he doesn’t feel the need to enter into a plea deal with the prosecutor. “Surely my crimes are very small in nature, and don’t warrant a day in court. And even if such an unlikely event were to happen, surely the judge would let me free since there are way worse people than me to be judged. Besides, if the judge were to convict me, he would have to convict everyone, and surely he wouldn’t do that.”
Thus, very rarely does the average citizen seek a plea deal. They are counting on their own perceived goodness and do not see the need to humble themselves in front of God. This is exactly what usually happened around Jesus.
What kind of people were mostly seeking him out—the upright and generally respected citizens of society? No, it was the prostitutes and Jewish traitors working for Rome (tax collectors), the extortioners, and thieves. Conversely, the so called “respected” citizens looked down upon Jesus for associating with these known sinners:
Luk. 5:30: And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
Luk. 5:31: And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.
Luk. 5:32: I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
There of course isn’t any such thing as a righteous person without God (Rom. 3:23), but Jesus was making the point that the reason why he came to earth was to call sinners to repentance as opposed to some fictional perfect people. Everyone who humbles themselves and admits their need gets the plea deal, regardless if you are an average citizen or a career criminal.
Again, Christians are not perfect—not by a long shot! The church is composed of immature and broken people, physical and spiritual career criminals, who accepted a plea deal from God. We Christians have many character flaws, and we will never stop sinning completely on this side of heaven.
However, when we, and those closest to us, compare ourselves to what we were in the past, we see the changes God has brought about in us and continues to do so every day. Imperfect and deeply-flawed Christians don’t invalidate the core Christian message, but confirm it. God, as Jesus, came down to call sinners to repentance, not the so called righteous and perfect people. As the saying goes, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”
This is a common assertion, but, as we discovered in the first part of this series (Everyone, Atheists included, is religious), the statement, “Religion causes wars and therefore religion is bad,” has a fundamental problem. We discovered that anyone who wants to make any sort of moral reasoning must be religious, regardless if they want to admit it. Thus, religion causes wars, because people start wars, regardless of their worldview or religion.
However, most times when people make the statement that religion causes wars, they are referring to one of the main religions such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Since we are now discussing Christianity, the question we should ask is, “Does Christianity cause less or more violence and wars than other religions or worldviews?”
[Discussion: Does Christianity cause more violence and wars than other worldviews?]
It is true that when a religion or worldview tells its followers they have the “truth”, it can lead them to feel superior compared to those who believe differently. This can spiral into oppression and violence. However, remember what we have already covered: Not everyone who claims to be Christian is a Christian, and those who are lack perfection.
Even so, the violence and injustices that have been are being committed in the name of Christianity must be unequivocally condemned. There is no excuse for it. The most common references I hear about Christian violence are the crusades and the inquisition. In the inquisition, from 1478 to 1834, between 3,000 and 5,000 people were killed.
The crusades were wars between Christians and Muslims that lasted from 1095 to 1291, during which 1.7 million people were killed. Now, compare this to another military campaign that happened about the same time in history: During the 13th century, nearly 5% of the world’s population died because of Mongol military campaigns—not mention the mass slaughter of civilians in Baghdad wherein 600,000 were killed in a month. The deathtolls of the inquisition and crusades, significant and sad as they were, paled in comparison to the number of deaths caused by non-Christian worldviews around the same time.
Now, you might think in the past people were simply barbaric, and if there were more modern societies without religion, everyone could have lived in peace and harmony. On the contrary, it appears the grossest acts of violence in the modern age have been inspired by secularism and atheism:
- Stalin’s genocides between 1922 and 1953 in the atheist3 Soviet Union: 14 million dead;
- Mass killings in atheist4 China during the Chinese Nationalist Government and Mao between 1928 and 1976: 18 million dead;
- Khmer Rouge killings under religious persecution5 by Pol Pot between 1975 and 1979: 2 million dead;
- Killings in irreligious North Korea6 from 1948 : 1.5 million dead and counting;
The deathtolls from these four irreligious examples amount to more than 35 million dead, and note how these deaths were mostly internal killings, not wars between nations. In the 20th century, the greatest violence and intolerance was ironically practiced by those who believed religion causes it.7 Religions do cause violence, because people, even Christians, are sinners and violent. Yet, the most violent and intolerant religion or worldview of the 20th century seems to have been atheism.
[Discussion: All these societies were rational and secular, yet produced massive violence and intolerance towards their own. Why?]
In a sad way, this is somehow logical. As we remember from the first part of this series (Everyone, Atheists included, is religious), if one is irreligious, doesn’t believe in the innate value of human beings, and we are here via evolution—survival of the fittest—why not help nature advance by eradicating those who are a drain on society, either mentally due to their beliefs or physically due to their conditions. Who’s prove that wrong?
Furthermore, as Alister McGrath points out in his book, The Dawkins Delusion8, when a society rejects the idea of God, it tends to transcend alternatives, which become quasi-divine authorities that none are permitted to challenge. All ideals— divine, transcendent, human, or invented—are capable of being abused. That’s human nature. It seems deep within human nature, there is a sinister and dark impulse which will express itself regardless of the belief system of any particular society.
What then is the answer? The answer is not to abandon Christianity, but to embrace it more fully. As mentioned earlier, the issue with fanatics and imperfect Christians is not their over-religiousness, but their lack of religion. Christianity has with-in itself the inherent command for self-correction and the formula for peace.
[Discussion: What does the Bible say about how Christians ought to live among each other and non-Christians?]
Those who follow Christianity’s teachings accurately are peacemakers. Christianity commands us to honor everyone, even those of different faiths. Just look at Jesus and his apostles.
During their time, Israel was under hostile Roman occupation. Jesus and the Apostles must have told their followers to resist and fight, right? No, absolutely not!
For example, when the Romans came to arrest Jesus and Peter wanted to start fighting with them, what did Jesus say? “Go for it, Peter. Teach them a lesson. I’ll back you up!” No, Jesus told Peter to put away his sword.9 Furthermore, some years later, Peter wrote that Christians should behave so non-Christians will recognize their good behavior:
1 Peter 2:12-17: Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Yes, that is the pagan Roman emperor Peter is commanding Christians to honor—the same emperor who was persecuting Christians. Do you think if people obey these writings of Peter, they would be troublemakers and violent oppressors? Is that how Jesus and his apostles were?
Do they sound like people who would start inquisitions and crusades in the name of their religion? Do they sound like people who, based on their beliefs and teachings, would mock, shame, and abuse others who don’t share their beliefs? No, because Christians who follow the teachings of the Bible are less likely to have any kind of superiority complex compared those of many other religions and worldviews.
[Discussion: Why are Christians who follow the teachings of the Bible less likely to have any kind of superiority complex compared to those of many other religions and worldviews?]
Unlike most other religions in the world that say you must do something to merit God’s approval, Christianity teaches that God’s approval doesn’t come to those who are somehow better than others. On the contrary, Rom. 3:23 teaches that all have fallen short of the glory of God and deserve eternal punishment for our crimes (sins) against him. However, due to Jesus’s having volunteered to suffer our punishment, we can approach a holy god with our crimes against him cleared. Our salvation has nothing to do with our own awesomeness or accomplishments, which could have led to some feeling of superiority. Instead, our salvation depends upon the grace and mercy of God which is available to those who admit their crimes against him, repent, and plead for his salvation.
How will I, a vile sinner, who was on his way to eternal punishment, turn around and feel superior to others? Did God save me, because I was good? No. He saved me because I was bad, but he was merciful. He offers this same mercy to you, too. If you have never repented of your sins, repent. Today can be the day of your salvation!
Maybe you are a Christian already. At least, you thought and hoped you were, but some sin has distanced you from God. You feel ashamed. You’re doing self-inflicted penance or trying to get your life sorted before approaching God again.
Stop that nonsense. Your thinking is faulty and not biblical. Does the Bible say when you became saved, you also became perfect and stopped sinning?
Does it say that you stopped needing God’s mercy and grace? After you were saved, is it up to you to keep your “good status” before God by your good works? Do you think you’re somehow better than the heroes of faith listed in Hebrews—none of whom had very good [good is overused (22 times in this document). Your vocabulary is more extensive.] track records—David and even Samson included?
Yes, that’s right, even Samson is listed in the heroes of faith. Do you think God wouldn’t accept you back into his presence because you committed the same sin for the thousandth time? Do you think Jesus commanded Peter to forgive someone an unlimited number of times10, but God wouldn’t be ready to forgive you 1,000 or even 10,000 times if need be? God didn’t only cover your past sins when you became saved, but also your present plus future sins. He saved you, is saving you, and will keep you saved.
Christian: Stop running from God and confess your sin—for the ten-thousandth time if need be. Admit your weakness—that you need his grace every day —and run to him. As the wicked prodigal son’s father saw him returning home from the distance11, likewise God—your father—will see you coming home and run to meet you with an embrace of joy and eternal love.
For those of you battling persistent and addictive sins, I urge you to find a fellow believer to whom you could safely confess your struggle and from whom you could get encouragement. Don’t live your Christian life alone—it was not meant to be so.12 If you have nobody, then email even me. Additionally, I highly recommend the book, Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, by John Freeman, about the struggles of addictive sexual sins, although the content applies to any recurring or addictive sin.
[Discussion: Any comments, questions, reactions, or further insight into the content covered?]
I made this document as a study guide for my small group as we read through and discuss Tim Keller’s book, Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, which is highly recommended for deeper study: https://www.amazon.com/Reason-God-Belief-Age-Skepticism-ebook/dp/B000XPNUZE/ref=sr_1_1_twi_kin_3
Most of the content in this document was derived from chapters 1 and 4.
Feel free to use this document in your own group studies, but kindly provide a link back to this page.
1 Luke 23:21
8 5. Alister McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, p. 81.
As seen in Keller, Timothy, The Reason for God (p. xvi), Kindle Edition.
9 Matt. 26:52
10 Matt. 18:22
11 Luke 15:11-32
12 Proverbs 27:17