Why should we believe that Christianity is true? Part 4 - the Gospel
If someone asked you to explain to them the most fundamental reason that you were a Christian, what would you say?
This is part four in a four-part series which provides a few foundational apologetic arguments for the truth of Christianity. In part one, we looked at the Lord, Liar, Lunatic argument that can be formulated from the life of Jesus in the gospels. In part two, we looked at the strength of the historical evidence for the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. In part three, we examined several pieces of evidence for the existence of God drawn from science and philosophy. In this fourth essay, I'd like to outline one final argument for Christianity: the gospel. It may strike you as odd to think of 'the gospel' as the basis for an apologetic argument. We usually assume that apologetic arguments are meant to remove intellectual obstacles prior to an explanation of the gospel. But I believe that the gospel itself give us an independent reason to think that Christianity is true. My claim is that Christianity provides the best answer two crucial questions that each of us must face: "What is our fundamental problem?" and "What is the solution to that problem?"
What is our fundamental problem as humans?
First, the gospel provides a unique answer to the question: what is our fundamental problem? Almost all religions and philosophies recognize that there is something wrong with the world and with human beings in general. It is impossible to look around us and to claim that everything is as it should be. Several years ago, I visited the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. One of the last rooms in the museum is covered wall-to-wall with shoes: men's shoes, women's shoes, children's shoes. They are the shoes of Jews whom the Nazis gassed before heaping their bodies into mass graves to be burned. Similar horrors have occurred all over the world and throughout history: in Ukraine, Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia. But we don't need to look far to find examples of human depravity. A trip into any inner city, away from its polished suburbs, will reveal heart-wrenching stories of despair and loss. And even in the most wealthy neighborhoods, behind the closed doors and well-maintained facades, people struggle with depression, addiction, loneliness, abuse and neglect.
There are only two
So what can explain the world we live in? Answers vary. Buddhists believe that our fundamental problem is desire. Human beings have a desire for comfort, for happiness, for love and friendship and these desires inevitably lead to misery. In Islam, our fundamental problem is a failure to submit to God's commands. Humans are naturally inclined to seek God and do what is good and but can be corrupted by society and tempted by evil. In Hinduism, our fundamental problem is that we have lost touch with our true divine nature. But religions are not alone in seeing some fundamental problem at the root of our misery; secular movements and philosophies also offer alternatives. Classic Marxism saw modern man's fundamental problem as the exploitation of the working class by the bourgeois elite. Much of modern psychology is derived from the belief that our problems come from a lack of self-acceptance. The optimistic secular humanism of the pre-war era assumed that ignorance and superstition were the main cause of mankind's sorrows.
There is some truth in many of these assessments. Excessive desire can cause us a great deal of pain. The poor are often exploited by the rich. Sickness, disease, and suffering can be the result of ignorance and superstition. But the Bible sees all of these phenomena as symptoms of a much more fundamental disease: sin. Sin is not just 'breaking the rules.' Sin, at its heart, is our rebellion against God, our enmity towards him, our flight from his presence. Islam comes closest to the Bible's assessment of our problem but it takes a far more optimistic view of mankind. Whereas Islam sees the human heart as naturally good and innocent, the Bible sees the human heart as innately corrupt. Consider a few of the depressing, but candid, assessments of the biblical authors:
According to the Bible, the problem is not primarily the presence of desire, or a lack of self-affirmation or even material poverty. The primarily problem is our deep, hopeless, irremediable sin.
"The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." - Gen. 6:5
"Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me." - Psalm 51:4-5
"None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one." - Rom. 3:10-12
Many people find the biblical understanding of sin to be very difficult to accept. While they may recognize that they aren't perfect, they reject the idea that they have some pervasive inclination towards evil that affects every area of their lives. So do we have good reason to think that we are all moral failures radically infected by sin?
Are we really that bad?
To begin answering that question, let's start not with anyone else's moral standards, but with the ethical standards that we ourselves had as children. Have we lived up to them? At one point, many of us probably dreamed of working for world peace, of fighting evil and injustice, of righting the world's wrongs. But as we grew older, our concern for right and wrong was slowly replaced by concern for personal comfort. We could similarly consider the standards we expect of other people. We want to be treated with love and generosity and are upset when we feel that others have transgressed this standard. But do we fulfill it ourselves? Can we look back at our lives and truly claim that we have lived as we ought to have lived? Even if we consider our actions to have been unimpeachable, do we ever consider our thought life? If, for even one day, all of our most private thoughts were made audible for everyone to hear, would we dare to even leave our house? A moment of serious reflection on our past conduct should cause us to shudder.
But most of us recognize that each person's personal standards do not define ethical behavior. For instance, Neoatheist author Sam Harris or atheist ethicist Peter Singer would argue that morality requires us to do as much good as possible to as many people as possible every moment of our lives. They do not invoke God to ground this moral duty, but claim that it follows from a purely atheistic view of the universe. Let us assume for a moment that they are correct. Have we lived up to this standard of universal good will? No, we haven't. Assuming that many of my readers will be Americans, I would point out that our annual income probably places us in the 90th percentile of annual income worldwide. Given that billions of men, women, and children survive on a few dollars a day, how much do we do to alleviate their suffering? Given that our own inner cities are often filled with broken families, impoverished children, and single mothers struggling on welfare, do we joyfully donate our time and talents to share their burdens? When we examine ourselves honestly, we find in ourselves an overpowering desire to remain ignorant of their condition to protect our own happiness.
In all of this discussion, I have not invoked religion or God. I have just demonstrated that even by wholly secular standards, we can see that there is something seriously wrong with us. There are depths of our pride, selfishness, pettiness, lust, anger and self-obsession that we hide from ourselves because we cannot bear what they reveal about us. Where our affections should have been focused on God and other people, they have been curved back in on ourselves. This fact explains why no amount of education, no amount of governmental or even religious coercion can fix us. History is strewn with the wreckage of attempts to cure of our problems. Communist regimes meant to bring equality and dignity to the poor, collapsed in totalitarianism, poverty and corruption. The attainment of money and fame has led celebrity after celebrity to isolation, despair and even suicide. The material prosperity of the American dream has done nothing to fill our inner emptiness. So we numb ourselves with alcohol, drugs, sex, and entertainment to hide ourselves from the excruciating reality. When we take an honest look at our own hearts, the misery we have inflicted on ourselves and others, and the state of our world, the Christian explanation becomes not only plausible but unavoidable: something is deeply, radically, irremediably wrong with us.
What is the solution to our problem?
But second, Christianity is unique in its identification of what we most need as human beings. As we outlined above, there are many different explanations of our fundamental problem and just as many solutions. Secular philosophies say that we can solve our problems through better education, through better government, through a return to traditional values, through social activism. World religions say that we can solve our problems through good deeds, through obedience to God's law, through meditation. But in spite of the vast differences, all of these prescriptions have one thing in common: they all assume that we can save ourselves. Christianity alone claims that what we need most is a Savior, a rescuer, someone who will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The idea of a gracious, free, and radical salvation that comes to us from outside of ourselves is just as alien and unintuitive to most religious people as it is to most secular people. So do we have objective reasons to think that we need a salvation that comes to us freely and entirely unmerited?
I believe that we do. Almost all other systems of thought, whether secular or religious, are based on the premise that we can atone for our moral failures. In other words, if we accumulate enough moral credit, we can offset our moral liabilities. But any reflection on the actual nature of moral failure shows that such reasoning is deeply erroneous. To make the situation as clear as possible, consider a serious offense, like the rape and murder of a young woman. Does anyone really believe that the rapist and murderer can offset his offense by devoting his life to charity? Think of the dead girl, whose life ended in agony, or the weeping parents remembering the child they loved and cherished. What we intuitively recognize is that the only acceptable response from the murderer is the acknowledgment of his guilt and a recognition that nothing he can do could make up for his crime. But if this reasoning applies even to human notions of justice and forgiveness, how much more so would it apply to reconciliation with a morally perfect God? If anyone at all is going to be saved, it must be only on the basis of God's mercy, not on the basis of our merit. And that is exactly why the cross of Jesus offers us what no other religion does: a perfect atonement for our sins not achieved by us, but given to us as a free gift. When we see how indelible our moral failures are, we realize that a wholly gracious salvation is the only possible solution.
The necessity of grace is also seen in the inadequacy of our attempts at reformation. For example, in reading the previous section, we may have become convicted about our level of financial giving, our involvement with the poor, or our sexual purity and may have resolved to give more or try harder. Yet it is more than likely that, within a few days or a few weeks, all our resolutions will have faded beneath the far greater desire for our own pleasure and comfort. Even more troubling is the realization that our very attempts to live a morally exemplary life are often tainted and sustained by pride. The more successful we are in living up to our moral standards, the more we tend to look down on others whom we regard as moral failures. Whether these others are 'moral degenerates' who fail to live up to our standards of religious devotion and sexual purity or 'hate-filled bigots' who fail to live up to our standards of tolerance and acceptance, in either case we are exalting ourselves and our own performance. Pride is the rock on which the hopes of the self-achieving moralist are perennially dashed. The only cure for pride is not more resolute attempts at humility -which is itself simply an expression of our pride- but grace. Grace alone can save us from our pride because grace alone leaves no room for boasting. Only if salvation is an entirely free gift can we be set free from the insufficiency of our own efforts and the deadly burden of our own pride.
In summary, my claim is that Christianity provides a better answer to two extremely important questions: "What is our fundamental problem as human beings?" and "What is the solution to that problem?" On the one hand, Christianity has what is perhaps the most radically pessimistic view of mankind of any religion or worldview. We are fallen and hopelessly corrupt. The tragedies we see across the world, throughout history and in our own lives, are not aberrations but symptoms of the evil that lives in all of our hearts. On the other hand, Christianity has a radically optimistic view of God's grace. Although we are all equally fallen, we are all equally redeemable. If salvation were based on our goodness, effort, or ability, then some people would be more deserving of salvation than others. But if salvation is based not on our merit, but only on God's mercy, then no one is outside of its scope and no one can boast in his or her own goodness. These two doctrines that lie at the very heart of Christianity have incredible explanatory power. They explain why we see such misery in the world today. They explain why even the best of us are stained with evil. They explain why many of us have an insatiable longing for reconciliation and acceptance that we seek to fill with money, careers, or human relationships. And they explain how we can receive a salvation which does not make us proud and self-righteous, but humble and gentle towards others.
First, in today's climate of religious pluralism, any objective comparison of world religions, especially on matters of doctrine, can often come across as hopelessly arrogant. But that need not be the case. Certainly, there are some objective statements that can be made about various religions without implying that one is 'better' or 'worse' than another. For instance, while Muslims believe that Jesus was a great prophet, they do not believe that he was God incarnate. Christians do believe that Jesus was God incarnate. To make this observation is not to denigrate Islam. In the same way, to claim that the universality or sin or salvation by grace alone are uniquely Christian doctrines is not to claim that Christianity is 'better' than all other religions. Because such strong emotional reactions can be elicited by any comparison of religions, it might help to approach the issue by asking questions like "Do all religions teach that we're all basically good?" or "If we try our hardest to obey God, will He take us to heaven?" You could then explore what the Bible has to say in response. While a non-Christian might legitimately object to you making claims about what other religions teach, they presumably would not object to you making claims about what your own religion teaches.
Second, it is extremely important to use first-person pronouns when talking about human sinfulness. The biblical claim is not that "they" are all sinners who need a Savior, but that "we" are all sinners who need a Savior. The entire message of the gospel will be undermined if it is presented in a way that exalts our own righteousness and denigrates the other person.
Third, don't be discouraged if this final argument is met with far more resistance than the other three I've discussed in previous posts. One of the main barriers between us and God is our refusal to recognize our own sinfulness. Ultimately, it takes the work of the Holy Spirit to truly convince us of our need for a Savior. In this regard, Scripture will be one of our most powerful tools. Suggest that people read through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-8 or Jesus' teaching in the gospel of Luke. Let God use the Bible to demonstrate how far short we fall of what He requires and to point us towards the forgiveness He offers.
Finally, although this essay presents the 'argument from the gospel' as an objective case for the plausibility of the Christian worldview, it needs to also be the existential, personal reality on which we build our faith. I cannot stress this last point enough. It is possible to give intellectual assent to any number of propositions about God and even about Christianity, without ever internalizing them. It is possible to acknowledge that man is hopelessly sinful without confessing that you are a hopeless sinner. It is possible to affirm that Jesus is the Savior, without trusting in Jesus as your Savior. I have spoken with numerous ex-Christians who insisted that they had truly believed, listing their spiritual accomplishments, gifts, and zeal as evidence of their faith. But what was always absent was any recognition that they realized that they were a sinner who needed a Savior. What is more, they seemed wholly unaware that such a recognition is the very core of Christianity. In these four posts, I have provided what I think are many compelling reasons to believe that Christianity is true. But as important as these arguments are, I believe that the gospel should be even more central to our faith as Christians. The call of the gospel is to 'repent and believe the good news,' to recognize and turn away from our rebellion against God and to believe the good news that God has provided a Savior. The gospel is the heart of the biblical message and it needs to be the heart of our personal faith as well.
If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.