For a long time, I couldn’t understand how anyone would turn down God’s gift of salvation. Who wouldn’t want to be saved? But really, the answer to that question was right in front of me, and I should have seen it. I was taught that the first step of evangelism involves convincing a person that he or she is a sinner. Once you’ve convinced them that they’re sinners, then you tell them, using the Bible, that the punishment for sin is eternal torture in hell after they die. Once you’ve got them convinced that they deserve eternal damnation, then you share the gift of salvation. In other words, Christianity solves a problem that it itself creates.
Imagine you are strolling down the sidewalk and a man excitedly calls you over to his front porch to share some “great news,” Protestant minister-turned atheist author Dan Barker asked his audience on Wednesday.
The man’s got a gruesome torture chamber in his basement, Barker said, but you don’t have to go down there. Instead, you can come over, hug the man’s son, say you love him and you can all move in together in the attic and tell them how great they are forever.
“Isn’t that great news?” a sarcastic Barker asked the crowd…
The gospel message is only actually “good news” to those who have been convinced that eternal damnation awaits them and that they deserve it because they’re sinners. The thing is, even the idea of “sin” is an invention.
The Romans had no concept of sin, for example. The Romans believed that Gods were capricious things who only cared that you properly honored them (with sacrifices, for instance), but didn’t actually care how you lived your life or what you did. The concept of sin did not exist. Christianity creates that concept. (This is not to say that Christianity is the only religion to have such a concept, but rather simply that the concept itself is invented rather than universal.)
Christianity solves a problem it itself creates, and the gospel message is only good news if someone has been convinced that he or she is a sinner and doomed to hell. Personally, I don’t think there is any such thing as sin – I think people are just people, not perfect but not evil either – so trying to tell me that I am a sinner would make no sense. Similarly, I don’t believe there is a God, so trying to convince me that some doom awaits me after death wouldn’t do any good either. And finally, I don’t see the Bible as in any sense authoritative, so quoting from it wouldn’t make any difference.
I wonder sometimes if the reason that this line of evangelizing can bear fruit is because so many Americans, whether they attend church or not, have a sort of Christian background and way of viewing the world. Ideas like sin and judgement make sense to them, and they see the Bible as somehow vaguely authoritative. With this background, the one two three evangelism style (you’re a sinner, you’re going to hell, but Jesus can save you) can be very effective.
It would be easy to analogize this self created problem to parenting as well. I could tell Sally the following, for instance:
Sally, you are a selfish rotten little girl. You are always asking for things you want and getting in the way when I’m trying to work. Because you’re such a naughty, despicable girl, starting tomorrow I’m going to have to punish you by taking away all of your toys, only feeding you bread and water, and having you sit in the timeout chair every minute you’re awake. But even though this is the punishment you deserve, Sally, I love you and I’ve found a way to forgive you of your naughtiness by hurting myself. Now, if you tell me you love me, I won’t have to punish you at all. Isn’t that loving of me?
Actually, that’s not loving, that’s really bad parenting. I was taught growing up that God is our father, but it seems to me that a good father would try to earn his children’s love rather than threatening his children with horrible punishments if they won’t love him.
Weirdly, I was also told that God is loving, and I was taught to have a personal and intimate relationship with Jesus, and to make him my best friend. I think sometimes that when you’ve been raised within a belief system you cannot truly see its oddities or problems without first stepping outside of it. Now, looking back, I can see that Christianity of my youth merely solves a problem it itself creates. At the time, though, I couldn’t see that.
Note: Fundamentalists and Evangelicals do all sorts of mental gymnastics trying to make this self-created problem make sense. They set up God’s nature in such a way that he couldn’t help but send people to hell for disobeying him, for example. Then, when God finds a way to forgive humankind without sacrificing his holiness by having his son serve as a human sacrifice, he is to be praised. The problem with this, though, is that it means God cannot be all powerful. After all, if God IS all powerful, he creates the rules and sets up the systems. There are lots more rationalization attempts, but they only prove that if someone REALLY wants to believe something, they’ll find a way to do so.
Note 2: I am aware that many liberal Christians no longer believe in sin or damnation. The fact remains that the vast, vast majority of Christians today do, as have the vast, vast majority of Christians across the two thousand years of Christian history.