Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Good News of Christmas

"So just because I don't believe in Jesus I'm going to Hell?"

This is one of those questions where answering "yes" or "no" does more harm than good. If you answer "no" you run the risk of heresy. But if you answer "yes" you might have made Christianity more offensive than it needs to be. And sadly, that's probably the case among non-believers. They ask that question, receive an apologetic "yes," get incensed at the pettiness of the religion, and then storm off into the darkness, deeper in unbelief.

There may be a better way to answer. I think most people believe in absolute morals, that there are things you ought to do and things you ought not to do, no matter the context. Murder, torture, rape, for example. These things, in and of themselves, are wrong, regardless of whether a majority thinks otherwise (like Nazi Germany) or whether we're incapable of judging someone to have committed them (like our fallible court system). They are violations of some moral law that no human ever created, and so in a real sense, can be called moral crimes that this Nonhuman will eventually exact justice for. So here comes the bad news. We've all committed moral crimes. We've all done things we know we oughtn't to have, whether it was cheating or stealing or hurting someone, in action or in thought. That's why we have pangs of guilt. We know we did something bad, that we've committed some sort of moral crime, and the only reasonable conclusion is that we deserve punishment. Just like how a murderer, unless he receives a pardon, gets jail time as punishment, so will we, unless we receive a pardon, get jail time as punishment. It's unfortunate that this latter sort of punishment is an eternity without God, but that just means God is all the more serious about moral crimes, as one can only expect from a morally perfect and just God.

By now you might see that technically the answer to the original question really is "no." You don't have to believe in Jesus to go to Heaven. You just have to never commit any moral crimes. Ever. You must be perfectly innocent on the day you die. But if you're not, if your record is blemished in the slightest, sorry to say, you will be punished. You can't pull yourself up by your moral bootstraps, cleanse your record with your own hands. The only way to avoid the punishment you deserve is for the sovereign power to offer a pardon, and equally important, for you to accept it. That's the good news. There's a pardon dangling in front of you. His name is Jesus Christ.

I understand that even this response, though in keeping with orthodoxy, may not be very palatable. And though Truth is not meant to appease any sort of palate, there is a degree to which it should at least resonate with the human condition. I'm no great writer so I probably have missed the mark for some of you. If so, I'd encourage you to read the first several chapters of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, which does a much more masterful job of conveying the message without compromising the fundamentals. Then judge for yourself how well Christianity, both rationally and intuitively, compared with your current worldview, explains the world before you.

To sum up the Good News: Grace is necessary and Grace has been given. I hope that maybe this Christmas season we can all reflect on this Grace just a little more than we normally would. After all, this Grace is the very reason for the season.

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