Theological FAQ

Why should I believe in the Christian faith when Christians do so many evil things in God's name?

Many people, most famously David Hume, have objected to God's existence on the basis of the existence of evil. Yours is a different (and in some ways more powerful) objection: Since the Christian faith rests on the Church's human testimonies, do not the many evil acts of Christians discredit those testimonies?

In a wider sense your objection applies too to the evil acts of Jews, Christians, and Muslims — and of all partisans, patriots, and ideologues. They claim to represent and even speak for what is right and good, yet they say and do things that seem to contradict what is right and good. Can they be trusted? Doesn't their hypocrisy at least count as evidence against the truth of their testimony?

Perhaps it does. A political science major in college, I had professors who were Marxists. (One Marxist economist was well known for driving a red Ferrari. That wasn't hypocrisy, he explained: In the absence of revolutionary conditions, there was nothing he could do to dislodge capitalism.) They described capitalist economies as inevitably exploitative, unstable, and debilitating, and socialist economies as just, peaceful, and virtuous. Some of us students compared their analyses with the concrete failures of every Marxist national experiment, and the hegemony of corrupt and hypocritical leaders wherever Marxism was proclaimed — and that was before the fall of the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union. When confronted with all that evidence — the terror famines of Lenin and Stalin, the gulag, the Chinese Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, the limos and dachas and special stores for Party brass — they would inevitably protest that the Soviet Union and the others were not really communist, but "state capitalist." Socialism had been imposed on their preindustrial societies before their economies had developed to the point where communism was the inevitable outcome. Besides, the Bolsheviks and other parties had corrupted Marx's program, not followed it.

I think we skeptical students were right and our idealistic professors were dead wrong. There are structural reasons that a Marxist political program will corrupt those who pursue it.

I teach a Church history course in which our main text describes the Church's many atrocities with brutal honesty: forced conversions, anti-Judaism, the crusades, the Inquisition, endless moneygrubbing, complicity with colonialism and slavery, oppression of women, witch hunts, ethnic warfare, capitulation to nationalism, silence during the Holocaust.... The accumulated picture is sickening. Can Jesus Christ really be leading these people? How can the Holy Spirit be taking up residence in them?

I also teach a course in which we examine the theology and history of the Muslim faith, a painful subject for Americans since September 11. Since then spokespeople for Muslims have been protesting that "real Islam" is a religion of peace that refuses to engage in forced conversions, that liberates rather than denigrates women, that dignifies humanity, and that tolerates religious differences better than Christianity historically has. The unvarnished history of the tradition suggests otherwise: "real Muslims" have indeed practiced forced conversion, though more rarely than Christians; women have been increasingly marginalized, while Christians have increasingly liberated them; Muslims engaged in African slave trade both before and after the West (though not so brutally); and Muslims have persecuted and killed apostates, minority Muslims such as Ahmadis and Shia, and occasionally even Jews and Christians, who when subservient are explicitly protected in the Quran. (These latter need only be classified as infidels in order for the Quran's rough justice to apply now to them.) Wahhabi influence continues to grow, and Osama bin Laden is still a hero throughout the Muslim world. Will the real Islam please stand up? And why should I accept as a prophet someone who denies the divinity of Jesus and the clear historicity of the crucifixion, and who condones the extermination of pagans and the domestication of Christians and Jews, many of whose followers seem to be agents not so much of enlightenment and peace as of intellectual dishonesty, cultural stagnation, and strife?

This year I have watched conservatives becoming Machiavellians, liberals becoming lunatics, Muslims apologizing for terrorism, Hindus preaching ethnic cleansing, and, worst of all, Christians scapegoating gays and secularists and covering up child sex abuse. Of course many in each of these groups are benevolent, peaceful people. But the monsters rule the headlines, and something that belongs to each tradition is producing them. It has been a tough year to believe in anything.

Except myself. For existential comfort in our world of ambiguity, we are tempted to consider only the best in ourselves, and the worst in our rivals. It works for a while — until too much contrary evidence accumulates. Then what?

One approach just keeps piling on negatives about rivals and concentrates on positives about ourselves, and consciously ignores positives about rivals and negatives about ourselves. That was how my Marxist professors, deliberately or subconsciously, found the excuses that allowed them to discount the results of every real-life experiment in communism, to ignore the brilliant analysis of the Austrian School of economists, who showed back in the 1930's and 40's why socialism was bound to fail, and to continue teaching Marxian political economy. I could try answering your question about the Church by frantically spinning Christian history towards the positive, and finding reasons to shrug off the failures. "Those aren't really Christians," I could say, and I could pull out 1 John 3:4-10 to give my claim a biblical veneer. (Or, if I taught at a madrasa, I could spin Muslim history the same way: "Terrorists aren't real Muslims.") If you are already predisposed to believe, it won't take much of this to reassure you, at least for a while. Then again, if you are already predisposed not to believe, then this is not likely to work, as your psychology is already tending to filter out the data that doesn't match your conclusion.

In graduate school I was taught a different approach: A proper scholar should strive to correct the imbalance by focusing on the worst in "us" and the best in "them." Lately I have been growing suspicious of this well intended technique, because it seems to reflect and reinforce a tendency among Western intellectuals to become reflexive cultural contrarians. Too many academics look only at the worst in America and only the best abroad. On American campuses Christianity gets little respect, whereas Islam is treated with patronizing deference. This too is intellectually dishonest. Conservatives in particular have turned the tables on these cultural critics, deconstructing their approach to find a hermeneutic not of fairness but of nihilistic elitism. Ironically it is as self-serving as the thing it sets out to correct. Even relativists can maintain their sense of superiority over the riff-raff — by believing in nothing!

Both these ways of making sense of our world — I will label them pride and shame — are culturally powerful. The former dominates in society at large and especially on the right, while the latter holds sway in the academy and on the left. Both are sinful. Neither will really give you an honest answer to your question (if an honest answer is what you want).

All knowledge is subjective. However, both pride and shame go beyond mere self-mediation. They are self-centered. They judge all things with the subject as the ultimate criterion. The way to a honest answer to your question happens to be the antidote to both: humility. Humility avoids the biases of pride and shame without being seduced by the false promise of neutrality. Humility contains its fear of discovering the unexpected and looks honestly at whatever it sees.

(For a full definition of humility, Christians look not to Noah Webster, but to Jesus of Nazareth, "who humbled himself and became obedient unto death," and whose mind we are called to share (Phil. 2:5-11). In obedience to God, Jesus put others first. He relied not only on his own faith but on the faithful challenges of others. For instance, the challenging faith of the Roman centurion (Matt. 8:5-13) and the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21-28) may have played a role in convincing Jesus that his mission ultimately included all nations. Yet Jesus could change his mind without relinquishing the mission he had already received from the Father.)

Now back to your question about the Christian faith. (I drew an analogy with Islam to suggest that a proper answer should apply by analogy even to a rival tradition, but this is not the time to do so. That is better entrusted to Muslims anyway.) The answer lies in the Christian message itself. Do the failures of the Church contradict the gospel?

We teach that the world has gone profoundly wrong, and is truly remedied only through and in the Kingdom of God. Jesus reigns in this Kingdom, which is a realm of "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17). However, many who hear his good news twist it to fit their own expectations. Peter did this when he took Jesus' messiahship to mean freedom from persecution (Mark 8:27-33). Jesus described these so-called disciples as being "ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation," and he promised them that "the Son of Man will also be ashamed" of them at his coming (Mark 8:37-38). True discipleship takes up its cross and follows the crucified in a life that suffers evil but does not commit it (Mark 8:34-36).

Yet Peter was ashamed of Jesus, denying him when his cross was at hand (Mark 14:66-72). At the moment of truth, he sought refuge in a lie. And Peter would keep failing even after the risen Jesus restored him (Gal. 2:11-14). So is Peter "not really a Christian"?

On the contrary, he is our ultimate representative. Christians have long aspired to Mary's standard of discipleship, but over the years I have repeatedly heard Christians identify with both Peter and doubting Thomas. We evangelicals hold these sorry apostles up more often then all the rest (including Mary). That's not pride talking, and it's not shame. It's humility. In our hearts, we know that we are no better. In fact, we know that we probably would not have followed Jesus in the first place, if not for God's extraordinary mercy.

The Old Testament testifies abundantly to Israel's repeated failures to obey God's commandments or do his will, let alone live up to his hopes and promises. Even its heroes — Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, David, Elijah — have deep flaws. People who interpret Jewish talk of being "the chosen people" as snobbery haven't read the story. Likewise, from beginning to end, the New Testament never shrinks back from remembering the apostles and their flocks as flawed, triumphalistic, weak, power-hungry, bigoted, petty, quarrelsome, immature, fickle, apathetic, greedy, idolatrous, hypocritical, legalistic, libertine, ignorant, foolish, hardhearted, jealous, adulterous, torpid, cowardly, blind, elitist, unreliable.... The Bible's cultural humility is staggering. (Incidentally, you won't find it in the Quran.) It is why I could not avoid assigning that text in my Church history class. To sugarcoat my people's story is to betray it.

Yet the Scriptures never sink into shame. The same two testaments portray the prophets, the apostles, and their followers as recipients of divine grace that lifts them up precisely in their weakness, granting them favor they do not deserve and standing before God himself. The story of Jesus is the story of unparalleled grace offered a depraved world, offered anew when the offer is first rejected at Calvary, and offered again and again through the very witnesses who sometimes betray it. In the meantime Jesus waits to return, in the hope that all should repent (2 Pet. 3:9). Alongside — no, among — the mass of hypocrites who contradict the very gospel they bear is a cloud of witnesses whose faith receives divine approval. In both their hypocrisy and their faithfulness these people point not to themselves or each other, but to Jesus, faith's source and destination (Hebrews 11:1-12:2).

That's why churches full of total jerks can gather on Sunday morning and proclaim Jesus as Lord. We know the wickedness that surrounds and pervades us. And still we have hope, because Jesus died, and he is alive forevermore, and he has the keys to death and the grave (Rev. 1:18). The Christian faith has a built-in explanation for Christian failure. It is a result of the depth of human depravity, which is deep indeed. In conquering sin, he conquers us. Yet by sheer grace he treats us as victors.

Hypocrisy does not strengthen the faith, but "God's name is blasphemed among the nations because of you" (Isaiah 52:5 in Rom. 2:24). Neither does depravity excuse sin (Rom. 6:1-4), for Christ's forgiveness frees us from its power (Rom. 7:1-6). Sinning utterly contradicts who God has made us to be. When he returns, Jesus expects of us God's perfection (Matt. 5:48), perfect holiness (2 Cor. 7:1). (I am proud to belong to a Christian tradition, Pentecostalism, which refuses to return this gift unopened.) Nevertheless, hypocrisy and sin do throw God's grace into a stark contrast that makes it that much more awesome. "Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!" Those of us who are not (yet?) holy can at least be thankful that the gospel still shines through our brokenness.

Moreover, there are people whose lives are so full of the fruit of the Holy Spirit that the Church literally cannot forget them. Catholics call them saints ("holy ones") and seek their help. Protestants just call them brothers and sisters and tell their stories. Under the scandalous headlines, these faithful disciples are the real story of the Holy Spirit's power. There are many of them (1 Kings 19:20, Acts 2:39, Rev. 7:1-12), and if you know even a few, you know their lives speak volumes.

Questioning the Christian faith because of the hypocrisy of God's people — Jewish and Muslim as well as Christian — is understandable. In fact, I've spent the last few weeks doing it. But it results from a basic failure to understand that faith. Hypocrisy is already part of the story we tell. That is one of the great strengths of the good news: It describes the real world. We hate to contemplate our own failure, but we cannot let pride force it offstage. Nor can we let shame give it center stage, for the spotlight belongs to the only worthy one, Jesus Christ (Rev. 5). Let him be the one on whom your confidence in the Christian faith finally stands or falls.

Grace and peace, Telford