Anyone who’s familiar with Christianity knows that, in the last few decades alone, the Christian church has seen an astounding number of its powerful preachers exposed as blatant hypocrites. The most famous example, of course, is Ted Haggard, former president of the National Association of Evangelicals and a fervent opponent of gay marriage, who fell spectacularly from grace after revelations of a three-year sexual relationship with a male prostitute.
But he’s not the only one. There’s Jim Bakker, a once-powerful televangelist who was found guilty of fraud for running a phony investment scheme, and Jimmy Swaggart, who exposed the sexual indiscretions of several powerful preachers and was later caught patronizing a prostitute himself. The list could further be extended to include Peter Popoff, a faith healer whose “miraculous” knowledge of audience members’ illnesses came through a covert radio receiver in his ear; Richard Roberts, who resigned as president of the college founded by his father Oral Roberts after a lawsuit alleging misuse of school funds; Randall Terry, the anti-abortion activist who was censured by his own church for adultery; the secret anti-Semite Billy Graham; the turbulent and violent life of Francis Schaeffer; recent revelations about Todd Bentley; and many, many more.
The charge of hypocrisy in the church has become so pervasive that even Christian apologist sites feel obligated to address it. In this post, I’ll address the common apologist replies and show how they unintentionally illuminate the depth of the problem, as well as discussing what it does and does not prove.
To start off, it’s quite true what most apologists say: that the existence of hypocrites within the church does not prove that Christianity’s claims about the existence of God are false. There is no logical connection between those two propositions. But all these hypocrites, I think, do undermine a different supernatural claim: the alleged ability of Christian belief to transform people’s lives in a uniquely effective and beneficial way.
The apologist site ChristianAnswers.net unintentionally points this out when it insists that many Christians have unequivocally condemned hypocrisy:
Addressing 10,000 itinerant preachers and evangelists in Amsterdam in the summer of 2000, Dr. [Ravi] Zacharias then went on to challenge his listeners with these words: “Why is it that a community that talks so much about supernatural transformation shows so little of that transformation?”
Why indeed? Zacharias’ point is a good one, although that probably isn’t the message he intended to convey. For a religion that so frequently touts its life-changing powers, it seems Christianity has more than its fair share of frauds who gleefully engage in the private acts that they loudly condemn in public. And this hypocrisy occurs not just in lay believers, but among the very leaders of the church: the ones who were believed to be godly and virtuous by millions of followers, the ones who had by far the most to lose if they were caught. If Christianity can’t change the hearts of these people, shouldn’t we take that as an indication of how well it will work for the rest of us?
And where would you go anyway? With what faith would you ever align yourself? Certainly there are also hypocritical Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. Even atheists.
No doubt of that. Then again, atheists, unlike Christians, don’t claim to have privileged access to the sole font of moral virtue. On the contrary, we believe that every sect will have both good and bad people among its membership. Nor do we claim to enjoy supernatural protection from temptation, as Christians do.
But what’s interesting about this excerpt is that it’s essentially admitting that Christians are no different from everyone else! This defense of “well, everyone else does it too” is a tacit concession that Christians as a whole display no special virtue that sets them apart from everyone else. If that were the case, this apologist site could argue that, despite occasional hypocrisy, Christians as a whole are still morally superior to other faiths. It’s notable that they make no attempt to claim this.
No one can escape the charge of “hypocrite” — no one except Jesus Himself.
And here’s the crux of the matter: the claim that human beings may be fallible, but God is not. But what evidence do they offer to support this? There is no God manifesting himself in the world and displaying his moral perfection. (And the Bible and other texts supposedly dictated by this being contain many verses of highly dubious morality.) If Christians could point to a morally perfect deity giving them instructions, that would be one thing. But they can’t: they ask us to take his existence on faith. And when they concede that, morally speaking, they are as a whole no better than the rest of us, this does suggest that they have no privileged link to such a being.