Growing up in an evangelical home, I learned early sharing the gospel was one of the most important we could do—a mandate for every believer. I was homeschooled and raised in a church community, and didn’t have much chance to interact with the unsaved until, at 18, I left home to attend a state college. Once there, I ran into some problems. For one thing, having been homeschooled in a fairly insular community, I didn’t know the culture or language of those I was supposed to proselytize.
But there was another problem as well, a more fundamental problem.
I had been taught that the first step of sharing the gospel was to convince someone that they were a sinner. There were various ways you could do this, but the one most widely used was to ask a person if they had ever lied, if they had ever stolen something, etc. Then you tell them that any sin, no matter how small, is worthy of death—that as a sinner, they are bound for hell.
The problem, I soon learned, was that most people didn’t see themselves as sinners. I had been raised to see myself as a sinner, so I certainly did, but most people aren’t. Their entire framework is different. Indeed, the term “sin” itself is becoming increasingly antiquated. Most people agree that they have sometimes done things that hurt others, things they wish the hadn’t done and things they latter had to make up, sure. But sin? What exactly is sin?
There is no universal definition of sin, but it is generally understood as a violation of God’s moral law. Just what is God’s moral law? Some might point to the Ten Commandments, but for evangelicals God’s moral law is far more than that—and the Ten Commandments is itself an odd standard; some prohibitions continue to make sense today while others that don’t. For evangelicals, though, God’s moral law includes things like not having sex before marriage—and a prohibition on homosexuality.
Outside of evangelicalism, most people tend to follow a loose harms-based system of morality. If something does not hurt anyone, it is typically not considered immoral. This includes both premarital sex and homosexuality. A growing number of Americans today—particularly young people—don’t see anything wrong with LGBTQ individuals living their lives like anyone else.
The evangelical is faced with the task of not only convincing people that they are sinners (an increasingly archaic term) but also convincing them that things innocuous things that don’t hurt anyone are sin.
The disconnect isn’t just over what counts as a sin, but also over the appropriate punishment for wrongdoing. We live in an era when people increasingly oppose the death penalty even for grievous crimes. Most of those who are “unsaved”— even if they feel bad about things they’ve done in their lives, and harm they’ve caused—will balk at the idea that eternal torture is a just punishment for, say, stealing a pack of gum as a ten-year-old. The very idea is morally repugnant.
Today, many elementary and secondary schools are trying to move beyond punitive systems for dealing with student misbehavior toward systems of “restorative justice.” Schools try to understand why a student is acting out, and to address the root causes. At the same time, rather than facing punishment as such, the student is guided through taking actions to right the wrongs they have done and be restored to the community. “Crime causes harm and justice should focus on repairing that harm,” one tutorial explains.
The evangelical Christian system functions differently. People are not capable of restoring the harm they have done, according to evangelical theology. If they think they can make it up themselves, they are deluded. The just punishment is eternal torture. But we as a society don’t think like that anymore. We increasingly question a criminal justice system focused on punishment and retribution.
To convert a person, then, an evangelical needs to first convince that person to share their system of morality—and to many people today, evangelicals’ system of morality seems profoundly immoral. What kind of God would sentence people to eternal torture for small offenses? What kind of God would damn people to eternal torture for having sex before marriage? What kind of God would forbid homosexuality? Because those things don’t make sense, most attempts to convert people are going to fall flat.
I did see one girl converted while I was at college—not by me but by some students I knew through Campus Crusade for Christ—and her conversion didn’t follow the methods or process I’d been taught. The girl in question came from a troubled and unhappy home life. She was discontent and searching for something new—something more than what she had had so far. Conversion to evangelicalism gave her a fresh start, it satisfied her feeling of searching, and it gave her access to and an in with an existing social circle.
Watching this girl convert while other students I was getting to know did not—others who were equally without the gospel or salvation—raised questions in my mind. Even then I could see that there were conditions that precipitated this girl’s conversion. Other college student friends I made, despite being unsaved, were perfectly happy where they were. They didn’t feel that something was missing, and they didn’t have a longing for something else. And they certainly didn’t believe they were sinners deserving of death.
Most evangelicals would likely respond to all of this by arguing that the unsaved have deluded themselves. At one point, I believed that too. The unsaved, I thought, lied to themselves to justify their wrongs until their lies deluded them and rendered them unable to see the truth. The problem, I thought, was that people had closed their eyes and hardened their hearts to the truth. Having seen the issue from both sides—I am no longer an evangelical myself—I no longer believe that this is the case.
Growing up, I was taught that the unsaved could not see the truth because they were hedonists who lied to themselves to justify their own sins. Indeed, I was taught that atheists denied the existence of a God because they did not want to be held accountable for their sinful actions—that they wanted to be able to sin with no consequences.
One thing I learned, upon stepping into the world outside of my home church, was that many of those who are “unsaved” practice altruism and believe passionately in causes outside of themselves. The unsaved were not all motivated by hedonism. The unsaved were not all selfish and self-centered. In many ways the unsaved were much like the saved—they invested time and energy into forming relationships, building communities, and improving the world.
Far from “wallowing in sin,” the unsaved were simply operating on a different ethical framework. In order to convert them, evangelicals must convince the unsaved to adopt their ethical framework. Doing this may become increasingly difficult as evangelicals’ ethical system itself comes across as immoral to a society that views premarital sex and homosexuality as natural and legitimate, a society that is increasingly questioning everything from capital punishment to punitive criminal justice systems.
I am no longer surprised that I had such difficulty converting anyone during my college years. I didn’t know the rules of the game I was attempting to play. I was operating on an understanding that caricatured the belief systems of those I wanted to evangelize. Ultimately, almost everything I was taught about the unsaved, growing up in an evangelical home and church, turned out to be untrue.