Part 2 (of 3)…continued from prior blog post
Andrew’s anti-theistic resolve hadn’t wavered during lunch with Bill and his pastor. He had no reservations about making good on his promise to meet again, viewing the pastor as a worthy challenger in a battle of wits. He was armed and ready, with his only uncertainty being why the pastor had chosen, from the entire Bible, the story of the “prodigal son” as his homework assignment. Bill was more apprehensive, realizing during the first conversation how few answers he had to Andrew’s questions. Fortunately, given how adeptly his pastor had handled each objection, Bill saw his role as referee in today’s sparring match between two heavyweights.
“Great to see you, Andrew. Glad I didn’t annoy you too badly when we met last month – at least that’s my assumption since you agreed to get together again today!” Self-deprecating humor was the pastor’s go-to disarmament tactic.
“I’m a man of my word. Plus I rarely turn down a free lunch! Mind if I start with a question? Why the ‘prodigal son’? Hope the insinuation isn’t that I ran off and squandered my family’s estate? Yes, I’ve partied, gambled and had my share of fun but I don’t see any need to apologize to anyone for anything.”
“No, the prodigal son is my story. It’s Bill’s story. We’ve made more mistakes and bad decisions in our lives than you could imagine. We’re in no position to judge because we’re living in glass houses. The only difference is that we headed home with our tails between our legs, not expecting but receiving forgiveness for all our sins.” The pastor considered using a different last word in that sentence but knew progress in this conversation hinged on coming to agreement that sin exists. He had tried earlier in his ministry to reshape the Gospel message to be more palatable to secular ears, but eventually realized there is never “good news” without bad news.
“Call it what you want, but the only ‘sin’ I’m aware of is calling someone else a ‘sinner’. Atheists like me are more open-minded and less condemning than most Christians I know. No offense, Bill. If it were my son in the story, he wouldn’t need my forgiveness for pursuing whatever makes him happy. I love him so I respect his right to live however he wants.”
“God is our Father and loves us unconditionally as well. But are there no standards of behavior for your children? Do they ever break the rules? Love doesn’t mean that sin doesn’t exist. Love is not forced acceptance of all beliefs, opinions of actions of another person. These days, the world says everyone has the power to define right, wrong and ‘love’ as they see fit and anyone who disagrees with them is a ‘hater’. You accused Christians of hypocrisy and self-righteousness yet defining morality however each person wants gives carte blanche to say, ‘I’m good and anyone who sees the world differently is bad’. You say Christians are judgmental yet secular culture ‘cancels’ non-conformists, deeming them unfit for decent society. Dissent suppression is what happens when ‘love’ and ‘evil’ becomes relativistic. Therefore, I believe we both agree on the existence of sin. We just differ on what it is and who enforces the punishment.”
Andrew was biting his tongue, fighting the urge to lash out for being labeled “self-righteous” by those he considered most self-righteous – Christians. He went another route instead. “But wait a minute, sin is an offense against some higher power, so if there’s no God there’s no sin. Yes, we have rules in my house for our kids but there are no consequences for breaking laws of a god that doesn’t exist.”
“Actually, it’s the reverse. Our awareness of sin leads us to seek God. Jesus is a healer, but if we don’t know we’re sick, we won’t look for a doctor. Only when we realize we’re incapable of true, undefiled goodness will we awaken to our need for forgiveness. It’s when we’re finally humble enough to cry out for mercy that we hear His voice when He calls. Professed atheists demand proof of God yet close their eyes and ears to His presence by ignoring their God-given consciences. You’re not an atheist because you don’t believe in the Lord – you’re an anti-theist because you choose not to believe in sin.”
Andrew didn’t like being told what he is or isn’t, particularly by a guy who believed in fairy tales. “Well, I don’t have any guilt or need any salvation. My job is just to love and make the most of every day.”
“Even when it comes to what we call ‘love’, our motives are impure. Most interactions with family, colleagues, customers, neighbors and friends are infused with facades and agendas. Our feelings about them are conditional, based on their behaviors. Greed messes up partnerships, infidelity breaks up marriages, and pride ruins friendships. Repentance and forgiveness are the only ways to reconcile those relationships. Like the prodigal son, our connection with God is broken due to sin but Jesus, the only sinless source of pure love, died to offer the path to reconciliation with our Father. Andrew, is your life really sinless and your love totally pure?”
As referee for the main event, Bill felt obligated to step in before this conversation actually turned into a prize fight over Andrew’s objections to being accused of “sin”. “Andrew is a nice guy and a great neighbor. Are you really saying Pastor that there’s no good in anyone apart from God?”
The pastor was disappointed that a long-time church member like Bill didn’t understand one of the core tenets of his own faith. He blamed himself for not building discipleship into the fabric of the church’s mission. “Yes, but it’s the Bible that confirms what each of us already knows deep down – we’re never free from the shackles of ‘sin’ no matter how unselfish we try to be.”
That word “freedom” pushed Andrew’s button, hitting on the aspect of his “religion” he cherished most. “I’m not a slave to anyone or anything! I’m free to do whatever I want whenever I want. I don’t need Jesus to liberate me. Christians are the ones in chains.”
”So if human nature is free not to sin, why do we have so many courts, police, jails, legislators, lawyers, judges and regulators? Why are discrimination and favoritism so rampant? Why does crime skyrocket during natural disasters when law enforcement is nowhere in sight? We look out for ourselves, take advantage of people, and rarely help those who can’t return the favor. Societies without restraints don’t head toward utopia but entropy. Power becomes control, not freedom. Socialism becomes dependence, not liberty.”
Andrew had a far more optimistic picture of mankind. “How can you be so negative? I know what you’re against, but what are you for? Look at all the world’s advancements, innovations and discoveries. We’re making tremendous progress but are being held back by arcane religious thinking, trusting in invisible deities rather than tangible, proven scientific facts.”
Bill needed to get back to work soon and had an idea to bring the discussion around toward a conclusion. “So does this sacred versus secular debate essentially boil down to trusting in humans or in God – either our adequacy or His provision?”
“Well said, Bill. I became a pastor because I’ve seen the evil men are capable of and I’ve seen the goodness of God. I don’t claim to have all the answers, nor do I think science ever will, but I’ve found far more hope in the Bible and my relationship with Jesus than the world can offer.”
“I have all I need without using faith as a crutch to avoid understanding truth in the real world.” Andrew was still playing the same cards he’d held close to the vest in prior conversations with Christians. “A job, family, education, health and wealth are enough for me.”
“What if you lose your health? Do you trust medical science to heal you? Steve Jobs’ wealth couldn’t save him.” The pastor knew several anti-theists who never questioned their faith in atheism until they faced imminent death.
“Is God going to heal me? Christians die too. Am I supposed to turn to churches for answers? Most churches I’ve seen are run like businesses, accusing the world of sin and asking for money in exchange for forgiveness.”
That accusation hit home with the pastor, who felt led to conclude the conversation with a confession. “Yes, churches are to blame for leaving you with that impression. We were the food bank and homeless shelter, but separated evangelism from compassion. We started the hospitals and schools, but now complain about culture without engaging in it. We used to transform more lives, but now treat churchgoers more like customers to be retained than disciples to be trained. We historically confronted sin in the church, but now point fingers at those who can’t be expected to obey laws of a God they don’t acknowledge. But the sins of church leaders are not God’s fault…”
It’s Your Turn
Is it possible to share the Gospel without talking about sin? Jesus, Peter, Paul and John the Baptist all came out of the gates preaching repentance, but today the word “sin” is taboo in secular social circles – and even in many churches. Has our hesitation to hold ourselves accountable for sin inside the church cost us our voice to speak about sin outside the church?