The Christian religion places a tremendous premium on truth. If Christianity is not true, then it is not worth following. Indeed, that is the ultimate test as to whether a religion should be followed or not. All other reasons may well be secondary at best.
People should not just choose Christianity because it works, although it does indeed work. People should not choose Christianity because it helps us to be better people, although it certainly does do that. People should not choose Christianity because it emphasises love and peace, although it does do that.
Ultimately, one should accept or reject Christianity based on whether or not it is in fact true. That is the ultimate test, and the only vital test to pin one’s hopes on. If the gospel of Jesus Christ is not true, then it needs to be rejected entirely, and not merely trawled for any possible helpful bits.
C.S. Lewis was insistent on this: “The great difficulty is to get modern audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity solely and simply because you happen to think it true; they always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort. Now a clearly maintained distinction between what the Faith actually says and what you would like it to have said or what you understand or what you personally find helpful or think probable, forces your audience to realize that you are tied to your data just as the scientist is tied by the results of the experiments; that you are not just saying what you like. This immediately helps them realize that what is being discussed is a question about objective fact — not gas about ideals and points of view.”
The Apostle Paul made this clear when he stated that if Christ did not rise from the dead, then our faith is in vain, and we might as well give it all away. Sadly however many people do not have a clear understanding of the essence of the Christian faith, so it is often grossly misrepresented in public discourse.
Many non-believers who may have some sympathy for Christianity can easily mangle the Christian message, and end up parading a caricature of the faith. For example, often non-believers will go on about the ethics of Jesus, or what a nice loving person he was, yet seek to either ignore or play down his actual teachings.
But the truth is, we can no more separate the ethics of Jesus from the teachings of Jesus than we can separate the roof of a house from its walls. The one is based on, and no good without, the other. Yet people often want to divorce the two.
Consider a recent example of a major misreading of who Jesus was and why he came. Columnist Andrew Bolt often has a lot of good to say. As a conservative – yet non-believing – thinker, he usually makes very good sense, and I probably agree with him some 85 per cent of the time.
But when he wades into religious topics, especially Christianity, he messes things up big time. Thus when he quite brazenly chose to write about Jesus for a Christmas day column in the Herald Sun back in 2001 he really got things quite wrong. I was in fact quite disturbed by his total misrepresentation of the Christian faith, so I wrote a column-length response, and submitted it to the paper. It was not printed, so I eventually placed it on my own website: billmuehlenberg.com/2003/12/25/another-look-at-jesus/
But he was at it again this week. He wrote a piece about his time in Jerusalem, and complained about how the city is home to such deep religious differences. He complains about these glaring divisions, “As it is, it now stands as a memorial to division, and especially to the way faiths can cut us off from the rest of humanity.”
He does not want to see these sorts of divisions back here, and closes his article with these words: “We’re better off sticking to the creed we’ve developed and now demonstrate so beautifully, if imperfectly, in this country – that people are judged best by their character, and not their skin, faith, sect, origin or ancestry. Really, that was the essence of Christ’s preaching, too, or so St Paul said to the non-Jews he sought to embrace.”
Sorry Andrew, but nothing doing. This was not at all the heart of Jesus’ teaching, or Paul’s for that matter. What they both preached was a message which is much less popular: all of us are estranged from God because of our sin and selfishness. We need a mediator between ourselves and God, and Jesus claimed to be that sole mediator.
He took our sins upon himself, suffering the penalty for them, so that we can be reconciled to God. This is only achieved by agreeing with God about our condition: we are sinners heading to a lost eternity, and we need to personally appropriate what God in Christ has done on our behalf.
That is the Gospel message. Sure, out of that restored relationship with God, all sorts of good things follow. The transformed character and social harmony that Bolt desires are indeed some of the many by-products that come with Christian conversion.
But Bolt wants all the benefits and goods of Christianity, without the only way of obtaining them. Christianity is not just about trying to be nice, or pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, or moral self-reformation, or doing charitable deeds.
No, Christianity is about being made right with God through Christ. And that must take place on God’s terms, not ours. An impartial reading of the Gospels will make it clear that humanity is in dire straits; that a radical solution to our problem is needed; and that the solution is provided for by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Bolt is of course right to be concerned about global peace and social cohesion. Unity is usually preferable to divisions, and love and harmony certainly trump hatred and enmity. But what we are dealing with here are world religions that offer some very different truth claims.
I am not sure why he can expect anything other from the major religious traditions. After all, at heart they are mutually exclusive. One need not even believe in a personal God to be a Buddhist. A Hindu can believe in millions of gods. Even monotheistic religions like Islam and Christianity differ fundamentally.
For example, in the same Jerusalem that Bolt has recently been to stands the Dome of the Rock. Written on its walls are quotes from the Koran in Arabic. One of these quotes is this: “I [Allah] have no son, and whoever says he is my son is a liar.”
If Bolt would carefully read the Gospels, he would notice that time and time again Jesus claims to be God’s son. If this is true, then Islam is false. Conversely, if Islam is true, then Christianity must necessarily be false. They both cannot be true.
Thus the deep-seated religious divisions which Bolt seems uncomfortable with are simply not going to go away; not when rival truth claims are at stake. And Jesus was most insistent on proclaiming that not all roads lead to God, and that there are in fact false prophets and teachers in the world who are deceiving many.
Contrary to Bolt, the essence of the teachings of Jesus is not some feel good ecumenicism, or some baloney about how we are all one big happy religious family. Quite the opposite. Jesus warned that those who do not come to God by means of himself are doomed to a lost eternity. He said that he did not come to bring peace, but division. He talked about separating the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff.
No one objectively reading the words of Jesus as recorded in the four Gospels can come up with any sort of religious omelette, wherein differing religious eggs are nicely mixed up into one generic product. Jesus would have nothing of this sort of silliness. He did not come into the world so that we could feel good about ourselves. He did not come simply to offer sagacious ethical advice.
Lewis is again right on the money: “You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Indeed, Jesus made it clear that one’s eternal destiny depended on how one responded to his life and teachings. He told those who claimed to have God as their father, yet refused to accept him, that they were instead of their father the devil. Not very reconciliatory talk there.
That is because Jesus knew that truth was important, and that religious falsehood would lead people away from God, away from eternal life, and away from genuine community. So by all means, let us try to get along where possible.
But at the end of the day, the truth question cannot be swept under the carpet. Either Jesus was who he claimed to be, or he was not. If he was, then our response to him and his claims is of utmost importance, and nothing else in this life will measure up to the importance of this most enduring of decisions.