Many of the world’s religions are a response to what has been called “The Dilemma of Man”. We see ourselves as micro examples of the dilemma of our observation that there exists both good and evil in the world.
Even in the age where we have swallowed the idea of “what’s right for me may not be right for you” we only carry that concept to comfortable limits. It is a philosophy well suited to excusing our own peculiar non-conformities. But few people would be willing to carry that thesis to the conclusion that Hitler can execute Jews if it is “right for him”. We collectively participate in a recognition of evil when that behavior is beyond the bounds of the wiggle room we have created for our own behaviors. Even in this age when our thinking on ethics . . . who am I kidding? Who is really thinking about ethics? But there is still deep in most of us a sense that there is indeed evil in the world and that it includes evil that was born in a human’s spirit. History is fraught with lessons on our capacity for both individual and collective evil.
Fred Rogers recounts that ““When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” The wonderful dilemma is that we are not entirely evil. Regardless of our personal struggles to see good in ourselves, when we look past that little circle of excused behaviors we have created, we not only see what is clearly evil but what is clearly and wonderfully good. Across many cultures, to an extent virtually universal, while we accept that there are behaviors clearly evil and clearly good, our cultures believe that we should aspire to the good. This dilemma of good and evil inside ourselves and visible in our society is broadly visible and generally accepted even among those that count themselves as relativists.
Many of the world’s religions attempt to explain the dilemma and provide conceptual constructs by which we can understand the existence of both good and evil. Most of them go further and provide principles or rules or methods by which we can become better, “more good” if you will. But even in theistic religious systems, we become the stars in our pilgrimage from less good to more good. It is on us to find a way to achieve goodness and ultimately become one with the Ideal Goodness.
But Christianity is a radical departure from that broad approach. How so? God is holy and just. The word translated ‘holy’ from the Hebrew ‘qadosh’ means “set apart” or “separate” or “sacred”. There is a chasm between the goodness of humans and the goodness of God. God is just. Evil must be punished. Isn’t that consistent with what people today mean when they argue that “justice was served” after hearing a verdict in a trial? Californians recalled Judge Persky because he was perceived to have withheld justice when he sentenced a former Stanford swimmer to only six months in jail for raping an unconscious student outside a fraternity. Few people that rail against God punishing evil would want to live in a world where there was no justice in society.
The Bible says that left to ourselves we are “separate from Christ” (Ephesians 2:12). In our post-post-Christian1 age, a lot of people are quite okay with the concept of being separate from Christ. So what? What’s important is that I’m happy or I’m rich or I’m loved or I have a lot of followers on social media or I’m better than an axe murderer.
But the Bible describes the state of being separated from God by the evil within us as “to perish” (John 3:16) and to be “condemned” (Romans 6:23).
That, however, is not the radical Christian departure of Christianity from other religions. The departure comes at the point of grace. In most world religions or philosophies, we must pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps – up high enough to put ourselves on a par with God or their concept of Ideal Goodness. I believe the seed for this approach lies in our desire to be the center of our own story.
This temptation to exalt our own importance lies at the root of Eve’s temptation. She protests to the serpent that she shouldn’t eat of the fruit of the tree in the center of the garden. The serpent responds, “when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” At some level, it is only human to want to be the protagonist in the story. Religions often give us a way to recognize the dilemma of good and evil and then, through perseverance and sacrifice or becoming super chill or some other quest, we rise above ourselves and become one with God.
Let me put it this way. Most religions are about finding a way that we can bridge the gap with God or Ideal Goodness. Where Christianity breaks this mold is that it is God who bridges the gap. Jesus crosses the bridge from God to us. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God,” (1 Peter 3:18). The righteous one suffers and dies for the sins of we who are unrighteous. He doesn’t wait for us to make a move to improve ourselves. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” (Romans 5:8).
He doesn’t wait for us to come to His house but comes to our door and knocks. “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me,” (Revelation 3:20).
The Holy Spirit of God is described as a Comforter or Advocate (John 14:16). Those are possible translations for the Greek word ‘paraclete’. A paraclete is one who draws alongside. This could be in a legal defense or to comfort someone but notice that it is God the Holy Spirit who draws alongside us, we who are unable to draw ourselves alongside God.
One more. Jesus is called Immanuel (Matthew 1:23) which means ‘God with us’.
And, when Jesus notoriously does bid us come to him, pay attention to why. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” (Matthew 11:28). We don’t come to Jesus by making ourselves holy or better but by accepting that we are weary and burdened. We come to Jesus not by completing a heroic quest that proves our worthiness but to rest from all the striving we naturally seek to raise ourselves up to God’s level.
Christians who understand the radical departure of this grace from human religious systems cannot become tribal about their religion. What I mean by that is, we didn’t become better than others to become Christians. In fact, one can’t become a Christian in the biblical sense until one recognizes that one needs help. Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners,” (Mark 2:17). If “I’ve got this” is our mindset, we will not be able to enter into Christ’s rest.
It will not be the haters and crusaders who inherit the earth. It will be the meek, the poor in spirit, the weary, the burdened, the sick, the sinner who rests in Christ alone. Christ came to rescue us and did. There is no glory for us in this story beyond this, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish <be cut off from His manifest presence> but have eternal life,” (John 3:16). While we were sinners Jesus came for us, died and rose for us, rescues us, and draws alongside us. Why? Because he loves us.
The quest was never ours to pursue. The quest, born of God’s love for us, was always God coming for us, to us, alongside us, so that we could find our rest in Him. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast,” Ephesians 2:8,9.
1 Post-Christian refers to that period after Christian faith dominated the western world view. Post-post-Christian refers to the period after Judeo-Christian values dominated the western world view. These terms were popularized by the late Francis Schaeffer.