January 15, 2009
by Patrick Lafferty
In your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
1 Peter 3:15-16
Heather Mac Donald is a professed atheist, but not as strident as the Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens type. She takes issue with inconsistencies she sees in the faith of most Christians. But she also distances herself from the New Atheism’s antipathy toward Christians. In a recent blog post, she said:
Do modern Christians still believe with the same fervor as in the past all those unyielding doctrines of eternal damnation for the unbaptised and unconverted? They sure don’t act as if they do. If they really were convinced that their friends, co-workers, neighbors, and in-laws were going to hell because they possessed the wrong or no religious belief, I would think that the knowledge would be unbearable. Christians surely see that most of their wrong-believing personal acquaintances are just as moral and deserving as themselves. How, then, do they live with the knowledge that their friends and loved ones face an eternity of torment? I would expect a frenzy of proselytizing, by word or by sword. . . . Either believers live with an extraordinary degree of cognitive dissonance between the inclusive values of their society and the dictates of their religion, or they unconsciously mitigate those bloody-minded dictates as atavistic vestiges from a more primitive time.
Sunday we were reminded of Peter’s teaching that if Christ is in you, you will likely be exposed to harm. Yet, Mac Donald’s comments mean no harm; in fact they may bear something salutary in them—even where her conceptions and conclusions are misshapen.
Christians ought to be more energized to make Christ known and understood. If, as Peter says, Jesus is to be honored in our heart for His holiness, then a right regard for Him would issue in a more concerted effort to explain Him. Mac Donald’s reduction of the gospel to “doctrines of eternal damnation” associates all Christians with the bloviating (and usually unemployed) doomsayers you find on the edges of college campuses. Jesus does warn of eternal judgment (Luke 13:1-5). But He invites us to believe in what He offers for this life as much as what He offers in the next. Consider the woman at the well (John 4:1-42), or consult His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The gospel isn’t exclusively a message of warning, as Mac Donald suggests. It is an offer of hope—for both eternal joy and present endurance.
Mac Donald is also right to expect a distinctiveness in where Christians place their hope. If what we invest in, where our priorities are, and how we respond to life are indistinguishable from the investments, priorities, and responses of those without faith, no wonder the gospel at face value seems insipid to them. But what makes someone a Christian is not her “morality” or that she is “deserving.” It is her love and devotion to the only One who was morally deserving of honor and praise. (And we should expect to find some non-Christians who are morally more praiseworthy because they view the favor of God as contingent upon their own holiness.)
Finally, Mac Donald is right to notice the inner turbulence Christians face at their call to evangelize. What we offer in love may in fact be interpreted as anything but, and that can be unsettling for the messenger. To preach “Christ and Him crucified” is to cut across the grain of a culture that responds to universal claims couched in spiritual truths with almost conditioned skepticism. That requires a step of faith, a risk whose outcome we cannot predict. So rather than ascribing to our hesitancy a subconscious ambivalence that our faith is an atavistic vestige from a more primitive time, Mac Donald might ask herself this question: who hasn’t hesitated in the risky act of expressing love?
Therefore both Peter and Heather Mac Donald leave us with two questions:
Have you prepared your defense? Not a jargon-filled, book-length exposition of the gospel, but a succinct explanation for why you place your trust in Christ.
And does the way you live before others show them where your hope is placed?
About 500 years ago, John Calvin said of the Christian, “It is not the mere fear of punishment that restrains him from sin. Loving and revering God as his father, honouring and obeying Him as his master—[even if] there were no hell, he would revolt at the very idea of offending Him” (Institutes of the Christian Religion). It may not be too strong a fear of others that explains our diffidence in witness; rather, it may be too little a love for the One who loved us first and most. Perhaps it’s time to pray that our explanation and demonstration of our hope would rest on nothing less than our love for Jesus’ blood and righteousness.