The Gospel offends our pride, not our intellect.

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Many of us think that our intellects are offended by the Gospel of Jesus, but actually it is our pride that is offended. So many of us say we’ve rejected the old-fashioned, outdated, back-woods, ignorant, no longer needed, archaic gospel of Christ because of our education, our enlightenment, and that we’ve evolved out of our misguided, weak way of thinking, but Jesus would say you’re actually a prisoner of your own cultural and class-consciousness. Because you see, as privileged people, educated people, cultured people, we believe the lie that we’re self-made. We believe that we are where we are simply because we worked very hard and we have earned everything we have, but the poor and underprivileged know that doesn’t work that easily; the poor understand and know that it is by grace, they understand and know that we are not in complete control of our lives, they can better see all the different factors that put us in the place we are today, if we’re successful professionals, businessmen/women, artists, musicians, etc. (This is why the term “self-made millionaire” is so oxymoronic and silly.) So many of the factors that put us where we are today are not because of what we did, but because of what God gave and has allowed us by His grace.

When the successful person says they don’t need a savior, they just need an example, they don’t need what Christ did to break through any barriers between them and God, they can do it themselves, they can be good enough, and as long as they’re a good enough person according to their own standards they will feel good about themselves; what they’re really doing is creating their own religion in which they themselves are god. Jesus taught that many are blind to this because of their cultural and class-consciousness, because they don’t want to come to grips with true reality, they don’t want to lose that false sense of ownership, that illusion of control; they don’t want to believe we need intervention from any God if we desire to be saved from the brokenness of this world. Unfortunately we cannot medicate man to perfection again, nor can we legislate peace in our hearts. We can’t educate sin (or whatever word you want to use for things that you would deem not to be right and good) from our souls, it has been there from the start. The idea that we create our own standards of everything and there is absolutely no justice in any form of an afterlife is even less of an incentive and pretty much obliterates any motivation to live a better life; at least that would do so if you were to carry it through to the logical and rational implications contained in such a worldview.

Can anyone say they devised how their frame would be formed in the womb? If they’d be raised in a palace, or live out in the streets? Did anyone you know choose the place or the hour they were born? Think then, what can anyone truly claim? Not a thing, not even their name! So try to recall just one thing that is not a gift in this life? When we honestly give credit where credit is due, we see that everything’s grace after all. If there’s one thing we can know in this life: we are all beggars.

Some people claim the Christ-centered, grace saturated gospel is nothing more than a fictitious and free “Get out of Jail” card. Advocates of this conclusion usually claim Christianity does not hold people accountable for their actions; and many don’t believe in hell or the idea of hell. They criticize the silly saying “the devil made me do it” and in this they are right, because it is just that, silly and stupid. Paul goes so far as to say, “are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” or maybe better translated “Oh hell no! You’re damned if you do.”

Within the Christian worldveiw, sin is slavery. The Bible does not define sin as just breaking rules but also as “making something besides God our ultimate source of value and worth.” These good things, which become idols, enslave us mentally and spiritually and drive us relentlessly, even to hell if we let them. You are actually being religious, though you don’t seem to know it – you are seeking to find a kind of salvation through things that can end up controlling you in a destructive way. Slavery is the choice-worshiper’s horror. C. S. Lewis’ imagining of hell can be helpful in trying to understand it. In ‘The Great Divorce,’ Lewis describes a busload of people from hell who come to the outskirts of heaven. In the story, they are urged to leave behind the sins that have trapped them in hell. Lewis’ descriptions of people in hell are striking because they mirror the denial and self-delusion of substance abusers. When addicted to alcohol or an idol like success or money, we are miserable, but we blame others and pity ourselves; we do not take responsibility for our behavior or see the roots of our problem. Lewis writes:

“Hell… begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps even criticizing it… You can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.”

Many people today struggle with the idea of God punishing disobedient people. When sin is seen as slavery, and hell – in one sense – as the freely chosen, eternal slum of the universe, hell becomes much more comprehensible. Here is an example of this: First, sin separates us from the presence of God (Isaiah 59:2), which is the source of all joy (Psalm 16:11), love, wisdom, or good thing of any sort (James 1:17). Second, to understand hell we must understand sin as slavery. Romans 1:21-25 tells us that we were built to live for God supremely, but instead we live for love, work, achievement, or morality to give us meaning and worth. Thus every person, religious or not, is worshiping something (idols, pseudo-saviors) to get their worth. But these things enslave us with guilt (if we fail to attain them) or anger (if someone blocks them from us) or fear (if they are threatened) or exhaustion and drivenness (since we must have them). Guilt, anger, fear, and drivenness are like fire that destroys us. Sin is worshiping anything but Jesus – and the wages of sin is slavery and death… it’s hell.

Perhaps the greatest paradox of all is that the people on Lewis’ bus from hell are enslaved because they freely choose to be. They would rather have their freedom (as they define it) than salvation. Their tragic delusion is that if they glorified God, they would lose their human greatness (Genesis 3:4-5), but in reality their choice has ruined their human greatness. Hell is, as Lewis says, “the greatest monument to human freedom.”

Hell is no more exclusive than tolerance. Nothing is more characteristic of the contemporary mindset than the statement: “I think Christ is fine, but I also believe a devout Muslim or Buddhist or even a good atheist will certainly find God in the end.” A slightly different version is: “I don’t think God would send a person who lives a good life to hell just for holding the wrong belief.” This view is generally seen as inclusive.

The universal religion of humankind is: We develop a good record and give it to God, and then He owes us. The gospel is: God develops a good record and gives it to us, and then we owe Him (Romans 1:17). In short, to say a good person can find God is to say good behavior is the way to God. In essence this view says, “Good people can find God, but bad people cannot.” But what happens to us moral failures? We are excluded. You see, you can believe that people are saved by goodness or you can believe that people are saved by God’s grace, but you cannot believe both at once – and the approach that appears inclusive at first glance is really equally exclusive. The gospel says, “People who know they aren’t good can find God, and people who think they are good cannot.” Those who believe their moral efforts can help them reach God are excluded.

So both the gospel and the secularist’s approach are exclusive, but the gospel’s is the more inclusive exclusivity. It says joyfully, “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been at the gates of hell. You can be welcomed and embraced fully and instantly through Christ.”

Christianity’s view of hell is more personal than the alternative view. Fairly often these days, people say something along the lines of, “I have a personal relationship with a loving God and I’m very spiritual, but I don’t believe in Jesus Christ as the only answer or path at all.” One could ask them why and get a response along these lines, “Because God is too loving to pour out infinite suffering on anyone for sin.” But their answer raises another set of questions, namely: Did it cost God anything to love us and embrace us? Did He agonize or cry out for us? What else is lost if we lose Jesus’ nails, thorns, and the cross? Their answer is usually something like: “I don’t think any of that was necessary.”

How unsatisfying this is in the end. In an effort to make God more loving, we often make God less loving. His love, in this understanding, required no action. It was sentimentality, not love at all. The worship of a God (or something seen as ultimate) like this will always end up being impersonal, cognitive, and ethical. There will be no joyful self-abandonment, no humble boldness, no constant sense of wonder.

This more “sensitive” approach to the subject of hell is actually impersonal. It says, “It doesn’t matter if you believe in the person of Christ, as long as you follow His example and/or live a good life.” But to say that is to say the essence of religion is intellectual and ethical, not personal. To say that any good person can find God or whatever they see as ultimate is to create a religion without tears, without experience, without contact.

The gospel is not less than an understanding of biblical truths and principles, but it is infinitely more. The essence of salvation is knowing a Person (John 17:3). As with knowing any person, there is repenting and weeping and rejoicing and encountering. The gospel calls us to a wildly passionate, intimate love relationship with Jesus Christ, and it calls that “the core of true salvation.”

There is no love without wrath. What infuriates many people today is the wrath of God: “I can’t believe in a God who sends people to suffer eternally. What kind of a loving God is filled with wrath?” We must understand that a God without wrath is a God without love. Many people ask, “What kind of a loving God could be filled with wrath?” But any loving person is often filled with wrath. In the book “Hope Has Its Reasons,” Becky Pippert writes, “Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it… Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference.”

Pippert then quotes E. H. Gifford, “Human love here offers a true analogy: the more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor.” She concludes: “If I, a flawed, narcissistic, sinful woman, can feel this much pain and anger over someone’s condition, how much more a morally perfect God who made them? God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but His settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race He loves with His whole being.” The Christian understanding of hell is that it is both the result of a human choice (as “the greatest monument to human freedom”) and of divine judgment. God must, and does, actively judge and reject those who have rejected Him. To ignore, mock, and belittle God and His existence only sadly and ironically results in hell and the further exclusion of knowing Him.

Growing up I always disliked the very idea of hell, but I had never thought about it as a measure of what God was willing to endure in order to love me until years later. The old cliché of “turn or burn” is stupid because heaven isn’t a place for those who are afraid of hell, but a place, a reality for those who love God. In the Gospel of John, in chapter 11, Jesus goes to Lazarus’ tomb and the text tells us that Jesus wept. Yet God is also extremely angry at evil. He is not just an angry God or a weeping, loving God – He’s both. He doesn’t only judge evil, but He also takes the hell and judgment Himself for us on the cross. Before I had always thought hell told me about how angry God was with us, but I didn’t know it also told us about how much He was willing to suffer and weep for us. I never knew how much hell told me about Jesus’ love. Indeed, it is only because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus’ proclamation of grace and love are so brilliant and astounding.

But then again, a naturalistic, relativistic humanist who believes we can only know what we can know empirically, would claim that nobody can truly know they are right, and therefore nobody can truly be wrong. Right? However, in saying that we all believe what we believe based on where we were born and what we were taught as children seems to be implying that we don’t really have freedom to believe in truth, but rather whatever the dice land on. (And by you saying that, your own statement and logic is then based merely on your own culture and is relative; and negates anything you say from being universal truth.) That it is not grace and human freedom intermingled, but rather impersonal fate that decides our lives. If it is arrogant for someone to claim to know something is true, how can it be humble to claim that they actually cannot know truth, but that rather truth is relative.

It is still a “power play” or “truth claim” to make the assertion that one cannot know truth, because you know this to be true how? What someone with this worldview seems to be saying is that Christianity belongs to a particular culture or maybe even to some cultures, but not to all. Dr. Lamin Sanneh, African scholar and professor at Yale, wrote a profound and important book called “Whose Religion is Christianity?: The Gospel Beyond the West.” In that book he addresses the question of what culture does Christianity really belong to. The answer is that no one culture, no single demographic really owns Christianity. He mentions the fact that Africa has gone from having about a 9% Christian population to 50% in the past 100 years, that Korea has gone from somewhere around 2% to about 50% in the past 100 years, and that Japan and China have also seen exponential growth in the Christian faith within the past 100 years. According to many scholarly sources the Christian faith is growing twice as fast as Islam or Buddhism, and it is not isolated to a particular continent, culture, age group, financial class, people group, or any single measurable demographic.

Dr. Sanneh says that he is very tired (and I share his feelings here) of people saying that Christians must not impose their culture on others or try to convert Africans because they are destroying their culture. (For one thing, this would assume that Christianity itself has a culture and that some actually assume it is a white, middle-class American culture… but that is to ignore or revise much of history. We forget Christianity is an “Eastern Religion” in that it began in the Middle East amongst Jews and Gentiles alike, and it has grown to include all nations and peoples as time continues to move forward.) Because in other words, they are saying Christianity belongs to them, or a certain type of person, but it doesn’t belongs to Africans. Dr. Sanneh replies, how dare you?! He explains how every culture has a baseline narrative. Paul talked about it in the cultures of his day in how the Jews wanted power and the Greeks wanted knowledge/wisdom. Every culture has a theme, every culture has certain things they are after.

Dr. Sanneh says that African culture understands that the world is filled with spiritual forces, and especially lots and lots of dark spiritual forces. So how are they going to address that? He writes that while the tribal religions believed in those spiritual forces, they had no true answer in how to overcome them. And then they looked at the modern secularism that was coming and they realized that modern secularism just laughed at their Africaness, because it said you can’t believe in miracles or spiritual forces, especially not demons; the secular worldview just laughed at and mocked their Africaness, it belittled them and their culture. Which is really what cultural totalitarianism looks like. He goes on to say that they then looked at Christianity, and Dr. Sanneh says this is what has been happening: that Christianity answered the great cultural challenge of their hearts. People sensed in their hearts that Jesus did not mock their respect for the sacred, and Christianity did not mock or belittle their clamor for an invincible savior; and so they beat their sacred drums for Him until the stars skipped and danced in the skies. And after the dance, the stars weren’t little anymore; because Christianity helped Africans become renewed Africans, not remade Europeans or westerners. There is a true cultural diversity among Christianity, for God does not want homogeneity, He wants us all to come to Him. And then the great grace He has given us, and to every single culture, the plot-line will only find its happy ending in Him.

We all need to realize and admit there are layers of emotion, motivation, and rationality that everyone has built on top of their first principles for their particular worldview. In one sense, this puts us all on a level playing field: there is no neutrality, as everyone has a worldview. In another sense, not all worldviews are created equal, and each one obviously has different consequences.

In his lecture “The Question of a Weltanschauung,” atheist Sigmund Freud described a worldview as:

“. . . an intellectual construction which solves all the problems of our existence uniformly on the basis of one overriding hypothesis, which, accordingly, leaves no question unanswered and in which everything that interests us finds its fixed place.”

Whether we are aware of it or not, all of us have decided on a set of assumptions about the way the universe works that helps us rationalize our existence and explain the “fixed place” of everything. What you think about cultural topics like food, music, movies, politics, religion, art, etc. is inevitably related to your “overriding hypothesis” that you build your life upon. Socially, people with similar worldviews tend to be your friends and those competing worldviews tend to be your “enemies.” Philosophically, where you’ve landed on the answers to life’s greatest questions (meaning, purpose, evil, justice, etc.) guides your emotional and physical responses to everything.

At its core, the debate among philosophers about the nature of rationality, at least with regard to scientific knowledge, lies in the problem of justifying the term “uniformity.” For example, on what basis can we expect that gravity will act on a ball the same way in two similar places? Or at similar times? Believe it or not, this problem has caused extreme anxiety for many philosophers.

Additionally, serious problems arise in justifying objective reality (metaphysics – How can we know anything?), values (What is good science?), conceptual categories (Why can we define things as objects, rocks, galaxies, etc.?), and the reliability of the mind (epistemology – Why can we trust what we observe?). In fact, one of the biggest puzzles in the philosophy of science is justifying at least 93 finely tuned constants, or “brute givens,” that exist in the universe to hold things together and make everything work. Just reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics will have you questioning how fast “science” would have really progressed without philosophy aiding it along the way.

A rational worldview requires a basis to explain not only all of these philosophical conundrums, but also a basis to understand the scientific, personal, and cultural systems we build on top of them. At the end of the day, the root cause of irrationality is a faulty worldview. If your first principles cannot hold their ground, then you’ll never be restful. Your life will be built upon what Bertrand Russell calls “the firm foundation of unyielding despair.”

The first step toward getting out of this line of irrational thought is to understand that you need not be enslaved to define your own identity and nature of reality. There’s more to life than just you. We’re all used to being influenced by outside sources (family, friends, society, culture, books, movies, etc.), so why not carefully consider what those sources are as we establish our core principles? The second step is to find a worldview that meets all of the intellectual criteria described above. I’m convinced the only worldview that meets all of them is Jesus. He exists outside of nature to define reality, justify uniformity, give us values, and provide a foundation upon which to think reasonably about everything (although admittingly, many of us that call ourselves Christians still think with fallen minds).

Jesus allows us rest in a form of knowledge called revelation, which He has given us generally in nature and specifically in scripture:

“For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” – Romans 1:20

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” – Colossians 1:15-17

“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the Founder and Perfecter of our faith, Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.” – Hebrews 12:1–2

This is how we get out of irrationality. The worldview of faith is a gift that Jesus gives freely to anyone willing to receive it (1st Corinthians 2:12; Matthew 7:7). With our minds we understand that science is not the enemy of faith, rather it needs the Christian worldview and with our hearts we rejoice in the gracious rescue from just being accidental atoms beating air, carrying on and on, unwittingly as orphans of an unyielding despair.

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2 thoughts on “The Gospel offends our pride, not our intellect.

  1. Pingback: How to Rationally Choose a Religion | ajrogersphilosophy

  2. Pingback: The Traditionalist Meets the Secularist- A Conversation | The Best of Jayopsis.com

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