go with what you know
You find yourself in the middle of two men.
In one corner stands the first gentleman, a white male who pleasantly approaches you, holding a Bible and clutching several gospel tracts.
The man is involved in ministry, you learn, and he’s on a divinely-ordained quest. “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations!” the man has heard it said, and this is his task.
The two of you begin to converse, and you appreciate that this isn’t a particularly unreasonable man: he loves his family, fears God, gives to charity, and tries to help others whenever he can. While he does support the traditionalist view on human sexuality – that God designed marriage as a covenant to be celebrated exclusively between one man and one woman – he also has some gay friends, and he does not hate them. Though you hear that he denies some pretty basic science, he is not an objectively unintelligent person.
The man asks if he can talk to you about why you should consider converting to Christianity. You acquiesce. He explains that he evangelizes not out of hatred, but out of love, in order to save folks from hell and our rapidly deteriorating earth and to get them into heaven. He wants to save your soul for (or perhaps from) God.
The man opens a tract and lays down the “essentials” of the Christian gospel. He tells you that you have sinned – that you are not perfect, that you have “fallen short” of the righteousness of God, and that God is angry at you, and should condemn you to hell. But, remarkably, he says, God is graciously offering you a divine pardon on the condition you spiritually sanction the murder of his Son, who has died a violent death in your place. The most important thing in life is doing this and “welcoming Jesus Christ into your heart.” It is the only way to avoid hell.
You note that his tribe generally defines itself in wholesale opposition to the rest of the world. Things are either “of God” or “of evil,” either “biblical” or “worldly”. You hear from the man that – according to God – you are either in or you’re out, saved or unsaved, inexorably bound up for heaven or, alternatively, wrapped up sourly for hell.
The man remarks that “the way is narrow,” and laments that most people may not end up in heaven.
You ask him to put it a bit more bluntly, and he does:
Not only does every human deserve to burn in hell, he says, but most will, in fact, end up there.
Anyone (which, unfortunately, includes those who have never heard the name of Jesus) who does not accept this message in the right way, he affirms, will be “separated from God immediately upon death” to be physically and emotionally tortured for all of eternity (#15 down on the hyperlink).
However, the man tells you, now becoming overjoyed, a small minority of the billions of people who have ever lived will in fact make it into heaven, in peace, where they will be happy and life will finally be perfect. You can evacuate earth and become one of these few people if you convert to his faith and never leave it.
This is the core of Christianity.
Peculiarly, the man keeps calling this “the good news.”
In the opposite corner stands a second man.
As you converse with him, you learn that though he lives a life of approximately equal moral value to the first, this man simply does not believe in God. He has explored religion in general and Christianity in particular, but cannot, in good conscience, reconcile the evil that exists in this world with the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent Creator.
Without a god to discuss, you eventually begin to talk about…people. It’s an interesting shift in focus from your last conversation. This man believes that loving one another and helping others is absolutely central to what it means to be alive. He believes that although we’ve had quite the checkered past, people are mostly good, and he desires to help his fellow humans enhance their lives.
You note that this man does not expect any sort of external (or e-ternal) reward for doing this, nor does he fear the threat of everlasting torture for failing to do so. He simply serves and loves and lives for others based on the principal that all humans have innate worth. He is interested in working with you to rid the world of evils not because a god orders him to, but because he personally believes it is right and just.
The second man doesn’t offer you nearly as many threats of destruction or promises of eternal reward. To be honest, his conversation feels more…human. This man comes off as refreshingly authentic, less scripted…less agenda-d than the first. No questions are off limits and there are no easy answers. Critical thinking is encouraged. This man admits he may be wrong. Scientific fact is acknowledged and valued, not argued against.
This man simply tells you what he believes and then asks what it is you believe.
Or maybe he skips this part entirely because ultimately unprovable metaphysical concepts aren’t of particular importance to this man.
Maybe he asks you about your family. Or music. Or art.
Or what you’re doing later.
But if he does want to talk about philosophy and social justice, odds are he will want to do it now. You quickly realize that this man’s hope lies not in some far off celestial realm where someday everything will work out perfectly, but in working to aid the lives of his fellow humans here, on this earth, in this lifetime. This man doesn’t hope to disengage and escape to heaven, but seeks to build a better life and a peaceful human family on this planet, in community and partnership with all others, regardless of religious tradition or nonaffiliation.
He is convinced that life is a rare gift, and as such, it must be celebrated.
That we live and we die once, and that is it, so we must make this life count.
That’s the good news.
* * * * * * *
If you were truly stuck in the middle, which man’s “gospel” would be more appealing to you? To your family members? To your roommate? To your priest or rabbi or pastor?
Which man seems closer to the spirit of your own faith tradition?
Please don’t feel like there is a single right answer here. This is just an exercise. I can tell you that neither of these men has the complete picture – you don’t need to choose to follow one and completely forsake the other. But, in my opinion at least, it should be obvious that one of the two is a lot better off, is a lot closer to the spirit of Christ than the other.
I encourage you to talk, think, and pray about all of this.
If you’re still stuck in the middle, as a Christian myself, I’ll just say this:
go with what you know.