“If our hope in Christ is for this life only, we should of all mankind be the most to be pitied!” (1 Cor. 15:19)
This startling admission has been rolling around inside my head since I first read it nearly three decades ago, made all the more remarkable by the fact that it came straight from the horse’s mouth—from the apostle Paul himself. Of course, most Christians would insist that Jesus was the true founder of the Christian faith, but I’ve argued before that Paul was far more responsible for shaping this religion in its earliest days. In fact, what we know of Jesus today comes to us mostly through the companions of Paul, and the overwhelming majority of the New Testament was written either by him, about him, or by one of his cohorts.
Evidently Paul knew a couple of things that champions of the Christian faith today rarely admit: First, that this faith is oriented primarily toward things that won’t appear until after you die. In the Christian worldview, you get two lives: the preliminary one you’re living now, and another one that won’t begin until after Jesus comes back to gather all of his followers, dead or alive, from around the globe. Everything in “this” life is just getting you ready for “that” one.
Furthermore, in the mind of Paul, those who want to follow Jesus should find their current lives increasingly marked by suffering and loss since the object of their worship called them to precisely that. I can only imagine how he would react to learn that Christians would one day run the wealthiest corporations and occupy the highest offices of civic power even while claiming to be somehow persecuted by those underneath them. I doubt either Jesus or Paul would recognize what their faith has become.
In the passage quoted above, Paul wonders aloud what the implications would be if there were no second life, no resurrection from the dead. Without a significantly better afterlife to look forward to, Christians of the sort that he envisioned would be a miserable lot indeed.
But Paul is only half right about them being the most pitiable group. He overlooked one significant detail in that the here-and-now benefits of faith only disappear if you know the whole thing is made up. I think he underestimates how much the power of belief itself benefits those who possess it.
Whether or not Jesus died and rose again from the grave—or even existed in reality at all—those who believe he did can approach life with an energy and an optimism (and don’t forget a community!) that empowers them to muscle through some of the worst turns in life you can imagine. I would therefore argue that these are not the most pitiable people alive. That honor goes to those of us who once invested our lives in following Jesus but eventually decided the whole thing was just a legend.
Let me explain what I mean.
Through a Glass Darkly
Those of us who grew up Christian—evangelicals especially—learned to view ourselves through the murkiest of lenses.
I read a story the other day about a woman who looked out of her kitchen window every morning to find that the neighbor’s laundry looked filthy even as it was drying on the line. She voiced her disapproval every morning, critiquing that the neighbor wasn’t doing a good job of getting their clothes and sheets clean. Then one day she awoke to find the neighbor’s linens spotlessly brilliant, and she wondered aloud to her husband about what was different today. “I cleaned the windows,” the husband replied.
The lens you use to view yourself and those around you makes all the difference in the world. And unfortunately for us, we were taught to see ourselves as desperately wicked, unable to do a single good thing apart from the grace of God. In ourselves, we are morally helpless. Or so we were told. For evangelicals, the “good news” of salvation is unavoidably predicated upon the very bad news of human incapability.
I’ve written before that the whole of the evangelical Christian message can be distilled down to two basic premises:
- You can’t do it.
- Jesus can.
This applies to salvation of course but it also applies to the daily lives of those who subscribe to this system of belief. Every song they sing in church or on the radio, every Bible study and Facebook post they write, and every insipid movie put out by Pure Flix ultimately sticks to this same familiar template: You can’t do it—whatever “it” is—but Jesus can.
Human virtue is useless in this environment. In fact, in the evangelical worldview, being good is actually bad.
Related: “Everything You Do Is Wrong“
In order to establish that we all need “saving,” from the most hardened criminal to the most virtuous saints, even good behavior becomes “sin” because nobody is supposed to be capable of goodness except God:
- “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God.” (source)
- “Even on your best day, your best work is like soiled menstrual rags.” (source)
- “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” (source)
Ex-vangelicals like me internalized this way of viewing ourselves even before we learned how to add or subtract. We then had it reinforced in youth group and in college, and many of us went on to teach it to others once we became adults ourselves. Each of us eventually decided to leave that world behind but this fundamentally negative way of viewing ourselves remains with us to this day.We stopped believing that “Jesus can” but we are still convinced that we cannot. It’s as if the good news just faded to nothing, leaving behind only the bad news.
That’s why we of all people are the most to be pitied. It’s not the still-believing folks who lose everything if the Christian message is just another social construct, it’s the no-longer-believing ones like me who get rawest deal of all. We successfully learned to deconstruct our own capabilities, viewing them in the worst light possible, only now we no longer have the second half of that formula that makes it all better.
Just read the poetry or listen to the music of anyone who grew up evangelical but later left that subculture. It’s dark, torturous stuff, full of cynicism and self-loathing even when the instrumentation itself sounds upbeat and lively (see Mumford and Sons).
Flannery O’Connor once said of the American South that it may not be Christ-centered, but it is certainly “Christ-haunted.” I love that metaphor because it captures precisely what I am trying to say about all of us. Ghosts in popular culture are rarely ever good or pleasant to have around. It’s as if all the good things about them were buried with their bodies, leaving behind only the worst aspects of who they were to torment the living.
In the same way, those of us who “gave up the Ghost” are still pestered by only the negative elements of our former faith which taunt us every day, compelling us to view even our best moments in the worst of lights. It’s no wonder that we apostates speak so negatively about our former faith. The downsides are all that’s left.
For Goodness’ Sake
What makes this so bad is that after leaving the faith we have to relearn what virtue looks like in the real world…but we’ve spent so many years learning how to find fault with every form of human goodness that it becomes virtually impossible to appreciate what “being good” looks like, much less being good just for goodness’ sake.
I’m reminded of a scene from one of my favorite films during my Christian days, The Prince of Egypt. After rescuing his future sisters-in-law from some unsavory characters, Moses attempts to dismiss the gratitude expressed by their father Jethro by insisting he himself has done nothing in his life worth honoring. Jethro rebutted, “You think that is nothing? It seems you do not know what is worthy of honor!”
And that right there ^^ is the problem with spending your formative years deconstructing human virtue in the service of a religious ideology which requires perpetually lowering people’s view of themselves. If you never learn to appreciate what human goodness looks like, how will you ever learn how to be a better person?
To the devout evangelical mind, trying to become “a better person” is tantamount to idolatry. It is so contrary to their way of seeing the world that even after you leave it behind, you will still forever be struggling with giving yourself credit for anything you do that is right. Ask me how I know this.
The thing is…we must learn how to do this at some point or we will never rise above the miserable state that Paul mentions in the passage above. We will never move beyond the elementary school phase of our religious past as a species, nor will my culture in particular survive its post-Christian phase without reverting back to the worst of its own religious ways. There has to be something that comes after which provides a sufficient foundation for the next thousand years of human existence. But what will that look like?
Learning to Juggle
I can’t predict what comes next for humanity, what follows our obsession with projecting our hopes and fears onto imaginary deities or else onto the universe itself. But I do believe it will include a balance between two opposite impulses I see in people around me:
Growing up Christian, I was taught that you should always put the needs of others above your own. Selflessness is the highest virtue in this way of thinking, and ultimately it was expressed in Jesus’s crucifixion (assuming Jesus really meant to be executed in the first place). You can’t get any more selfless than literally giving up your life for others. This certainly would seem to be an antidote for the malady of self-centeredness that consumerism has wrought in modern life.
But neglecting self for the sake of others eventually catches up with you as well. It always does. In time, resentment builds and begins to express itself through passive-aggressive ways of which the perpetrator is rarely even aware. Selves cannot be neglected forever without damaging the ones trying to deny their own needs, and it’s only a matter of time before someone comes along to exploit this vulnerability until there’s not much left of the victim. Sometimes it’s an entire church that does it, or perhaps a political state.
What is needed most for Christ-haunted people like me is to learn to find a balance between the needs of self and the needs of others. It can’t always be just one of them at the expense of the others. A sustainable moral framework requires learning to juggle the two demands, keeping them in tension with each other. I think that’s true on the individual level, and it’s also true for the population as a whole.
We must also learn to give ourselves credit for the things we get right, even if it takes us years to become okay with it. If we only acknowledge the places we go wrong, those will always be the moments that define us. That kind of existence leaves you ripe for manipulation by others, and it’s long past time to put that way of thinking to bed.
[Featured Image: “Christ Marchant Sur la Mer” by Amédée Varint – Wikimedia]
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