God doesn’t exist. Christianity has a violent history. The Bible can’t be trusted. We hear phrases like this more and more from those who are challenging the Christian faith. In his book The Problem of God: Answering A Skeptic’s Challenges to Christianity, pastor Mark Clark addresses the top ten questions doubters are asking.
In today’s excerpt, we learn about one of the biggest hurdles keeping people from embracing the faith: Christians themselves.
The Problem of HYPOCRISY
The greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no further occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect.
–Jonathan Swift, The Examiner
In 2007, the Barna Group did an extensive research project in which they asked non-Christian people why they rejected Christianity. Many Christian leaders were surprised to learn that none of the top six answers were evidential reasons. They rejected Christianity for moralistic reasons. The top three problems people had with Christianity were that it was viewed as (1) anti homosexual (91 percent of responders), (2) judgmental (87 percent), and (3) hypocritical (85 percent).
Modern people contend that the greatest proof that God does not exist is the behavior of Christians themselves! In short, the way Christians live and act is solid proof in their minds that what Christians believe is not true. Besides the view that we are mean-spirited and judgmental, as cited above, skeptics also point out the atrocities throughout history the Christian church has carried out, including killing and torturing those who disagree with them, the Crusades, etc. These realities and perceptions are enough to keep many people from believing in Christ.
For some, it is the Christian faith in particular that is the problem; for others, it is a broader objection to religion in general. “Good people will do good things,” Steven Weinberg cynically quips, “bad people will do bad things, but for good people to do bad things—that takes religion.” Some believe that religious people are dangerous because their beliefs are not reasonable. The beliefs are informed by and originate with God and cannot be opposed, thus leading to the demonization of others and frequent violence. Religion has fueled wars, oppression, witch hunts, murder, homophobia, crusades, inquisitions, jihads, and fatwas all through history and ongoing. More recently, one can point to 9/11, ISIS, the Orlando shootings, and the bombing of abortion clinics by Christian extremists.
A common challenge I often hear when talking with skeptics is the more specific historical record as well. “The Crusades slaughtered millions in the name of Jesus. The Inquisition brought about the torture and murder of millions more,” as Robert Kuttner says. During the witch trials, the church in Europe killed “more than five million women,” skeptics popularly claim, informed by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, not to mention all of the social judgment, exclusion, and slavery the church has supported throughout history. Why would anyone want to align themselves with a faith like this? How does one respond?
The First Step Is Admitting It
The first thing is to admit that some of these charges are absolutely true, of course. Many who call themselves Christians throughout history and today have done, and are doing, horrible things in the name of Christ. This is especially true when religion becomes a systematized, institutionalized, and politicized organization that wields political and military power over others (all of which, as we will see, Jesus was against). Horrific acts have been committed in the name of Christ, and Christians should not take the challenge of these injustices naively. We must approach them humbly, admitting that people have hurt others in the name of Christianity, and we should apologize for and repent of those actions.
In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller tells the story of how he and his friends built a confessional booth on the campus of their liberal university. When people entered to confess their sins, Miller would instead confess to them the sins of the church, apologizing for the pain it has caused throughout history—its mistreatment of homosexuals and women, burning people at the stake, etc. Among the students on campus, this helped Christianity gain credibility and a hearing. That’s where our response to these charges needs to begin, and the model for this is Jesus. Jesus began his ministry with a call to “repent” (Mark 1:15), but as historians point out, he was not talking to irreligious people. He was speaking to many of the most religious people of the day. Every person needs to start with a humble admission of his or her mistakes and sins, starting with us as followers of Jesus. As Christians we need to take responsibility for institutions that carry the name of Jesus. But we also need to clarify that these institutions do not always represent Jesus or reflect what he taught.
Fake Disciples and Hypocrisy
There are two major reasons for the existence of hypocritical, judgmental, and mean-spirited people in the church, both throughout history and in modern times. The first reason is because the church is filled with people who aren’t actually Christians. I know this seems like an obvious point, but it needs to be understood by armchair critics of the church who hold Christians responsible for every act done by any crazy person who has a Jesus bumper sticker on their car. Jesus clearly taught that there are not only false teachers in the world who lead people astray into false doctrine and behavior (Matthew 7:15–20), but false disciples in the world who lead themselves astray into false beliefs and false lives (vv. 21–23). This is why Jesus warns people not to judge Christianity by the morality of the people who try to follow it, but to focus attention on Jesus himself—on his life, teachings, and actions. Christianity is not good advice to help good people lead moral lives. It’s good news about Jesus—who he was and what he did.
Churches are filled with people who attend every Sunday service, don’t say bad words, don’t watch bad movies, and make sure to give their offering every week. However, they don’t actually know, love, or walk with God at all. They have simply adopted a cultural Christianity, an exoskeleton of religious trappings. They are people whom Jesus called “lukewarm” (Revelation 3:16) and “hypocrites” (Matthew 23:13), who say one thing but behave contrary to the ways of Christ. Jesus reserved his most scathing critique for these people (Matthew 23:1–39). Jesus warns us that at the end of days, a group of religious people will say to him, “Lord, Lord,” but he will cast them out and say, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:22–23). It is a scary thing to think about, but nonetheless true: there will always be those who deceive others, sure, but there are also those who deceive themselves.
My point is the atrocities done in the name of Christianity are often (most often?) not done because the teachings of Christianity are bad but because some people who claim to follow Christ don’t actually know him or follow him. They do not produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit, the virtues of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23).
It is often those who have adopted this cultural form of Christianity who create the image problem for Christianity. For instance, several years ago a poll was taken that showed that the lifestyle activities of Christians were statistically the same as those of people claiming not to be Christians when it came to the following list: gambling, visiting pornographic websites, taking something that didn’t belong to them, saying mean things behind someone’s back, consulting a medium or a psychic, having a physical fight or abusing someone, using illegal or nonprescription drugs, saying something to someone that’s not true, getting back at someone for something they did, and consuming enough alcohol to be considered legally drunk.
There was no statistical difference between a Christian and a non-Christian in these ten areas of their lives. The only activity that was less common for Christians (and this is not a joke) was recycling (68 percent vs. 79 percent)! This exemplifies what people mean when they say Christians are hypocrites. They see people who claim to be morally upright yet look, sound, act, and live no different than anyone else in the world. According to the Bible, though, if there is no outward change in behavior, allegiances, loves, and passions, Jesus would question whether these people are actually Christians at all. The problem, though, is that their lives misrepresent Christianity to the world.
To read about how we can fruitfully address the problem of hypocrisy, purchase your copy of The Problem of God: Answering a Skeptic’s Challenges to Christianity today on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Christian Book.
Professors, if you think this might be the right book for your class, request an exam copy here.