I was recently in a conversation about the value of religion in general and Christianity in particular. It was an interesting discussion, and some good questions came up. One, in particular, I want to address here: Why does anyone need religion, and why, especially, should anyone become a Christian?
I'll begin with a caveat that this is a subjective response: I am talking about why it makes sense to me that religion is necessary, and that Christianity, for good reasons, some fairly objective and others quite personal, is not only the best choice, but the only good choice. Christianity is unique, and everything else fails careful examination. Also, I have made no attempt at some logical order or arrangement. I'm writing as things come to me.
So what is the purpose of any religion or belief system?
Here's one response: "We (humanity) need to believe that all of the chaos and inconsistency in the world around us actually makes sense in a bigger picture."
I think that's a pretty good answer, for religion in general. But then there is a follow-up question that must be addressed: Is it true of Christianity as well? Or is there some fundamental difference? Is Christianity just one religion among many?
I will argue that Christianity - as presented in the Bible and understood by the earliest generations of the Church - has only a little in common with other religions. It's true that Christianity gives hope, and that's no small thing. But we might ask whether the "hope" offered by other religions is the same. That is, what is it based on? Is it something verifiable, something based in historical fact, or is it - as some accuse Christians of promoting - just "blind faith." Biblical and historical Christianity never asks for blind faith.
There are some fundamental points where Christianity differs from the crowd. One is that Christianity is a historical faith. That is, it's based in real people and real events, specifically a man who uniquely claimed to be God incarnate and who said he came that we might know the only true and living God, and that we might be forgiven of our self-centered rebellion and brought into an intimate relationship with this God.
Another difference is that the central figure of Christianity, Jesus, claimed that he was the way and the truth. He claimed he was the only way to God. Again, unique. No other major religious founder claimed to be the truth, and none of the major religions claim their founder and leader was or is God himself.
This brings another reason Christianity is unique: truth. Many of the foundational premises of the faith are verifiably true. No other religion can make that claim. Perhaps no religion or philosophy ever has been subject to such study as Christianity. Further, Christianity makes other claims and promises that no others do: that their founder lived a perfect life, was killed and rose again to life - bodily, physical life. That he left this earth, but lives and is coming back.
Closer to home is the power of the Holy Spirit, acting in and through followers of Jesus to accomplish his purposes. All sorts of arguments are put forth for and against religion and Christianity. Some have merit, many do not. But one fact hangs in my mind, unanswered by any detractor.
How does one explain events that are clearly miraculous. That is, happenings that -according to everything we know about the natural world - are impossible. Example: A small girl fell and tore her lip. The central "lobe," just below her nose, was torn off and hanging by a small piece of skin. There was great weeping and wailing, and much blood. This was not in America, and it was not possible to rush to the emergency room. In desperation, the father laid his hand on the girl and asked Jesus to heal her. She immediately stopped crying, the bleeding stopped, and in seconds, what was left of the wound was nearly invisible. In an hour, there was no trace.
How do we explain this? Halucinations? Hardly. The power of positive thinking? A good self-improvement program? These things are ludicrous. How about mass hysteria, which has actually been proposed?
It may help to know this was witnessed by nearly a dozen people, all trained American military personnel, not prone to hysteria or imagination. Further, the story was not exaggerated and passed down, becoming an urban legend. I was the father, and the little girl was my daughter.
There's another point that's important: power. This is somewhat related to what I just wrote about my daughter. The Apostle Paul wrote that the Kingdom of God was not about mere words, but about power (I Corinthians 4:20). He refers to the power to profoundly change lives, to heal, to set free, and the power to defeat the forces of evil. Again, unique. Christianity alone teaches that this world belongs to a good, morally upright God, and that he has called us to take care of it and exercise justice for him.
Some have attributed changed lives to "the result of a very structured and successful self-help program." This conclusion might be understandable if we consider what passes for changed lives and Christianity in the typical suburban American church. Too often these churches preach a "feel good gospel," and discipleship consists of all sorts of self-help groups. They frequently accept as a Christian anyone who is a "nice person," who attends church more or less regularly, and doesn't have too many obviously immoral practices. This is not universal, by any means, but common.
I recently read a line by Dallas Willard, to the effect that Americans have bought into the idea that you can be a "Christian" all your life, and never be a disciple.
When the world looks at these folks who promote this "Christianity Lite," ever "Christians" but never disciples, they see nothing different, nothing that they consider worth having. The description of a "successful self-help program" comes pretty close to many of these churches.
But that's not Christianity, no matter what they call it.
Now, some history. I have heard it said that Christianity has no special claim on wisdom or morality, that most of the same principles can be found in other religions and even in the secular world. This is sometimes followed by the assertion that Christianity has done great good in the world, but so have many other religions and organizations.
The list of historical atrocities perpetrated by religious groups, including "Christians," is longer than I like to think about. But it's there, and it's fact. Many focus on these events in their attacks on Christianity. However, there is a flip side, one that has many examples: orphanages, hospitals, schools, prosperous societies, political and religious freedom (The last - free, prosperous societies, etc. - are more common in countries with roots in the Protestant Reformation than in the rest of the world.).
Evangelical Christians give billions of dollars and uncounted hours of their time in disaster relief; in addressing the AIDS epidemic, especially in Africa; in building schools and orphanages, and supporting the children in them. And this is only a small sample.
The culture, lifestyle and moral system of a people will be determined by the dominant religion of that people. It takes only a quick glance around the world to see the truth of this principle. Compare life in the U.S. with life in nearly any other area of the world. Russia, after decades of official atheism? Not even close. France, an officially secular, humanist society? Same thing. How about any Muslim country? Is there even one country comparable in political stability, personal freedom and economic opportunity, such as we in the U.S. enjoy, anywhere in Africa? No. Asia? Well, if we stretch the standard a good deal, perhaps Japan and South Korea, though they are debatable. Perhaps in South or Central America? Nope. Only Chile comes close, and that's a recent development.
In fact, if we take a map of the world and mark the places with societies comparable to ours in America, we will find only a small handful of countries. Interestingly, if we take the same map and mark the places strongly influenced by the Protestant Reformation, we will see a strong correlation of the two areas.
The fact is, asking what benefit Christianity is to any individual can be answered in two ways. First, in the sense of personal peace, purpose, and a meaningful life. In "salvation." Second, in the sense of enjoying the benefits of living in a society that has the standard of living, the personal freedom and the opportunity we take for granted in the U.S. These proceed out of Christianity, and are not found anywhere without Christian roots.
Is there a practical purpose served by religions? Yes, in some cases. But only in some cases. Is there a practical purpose served by Christianity? Yes, in every case. Absolutely yes.
But that isn't the main point. All these things have the problem that they are focused on me and "what's in it for me." But the world is not about me.
In the final analysis, there is one reason to be a Christian: because the good news about Jesus is true! Does it benefit us? Yes, but that's not the best reason. Is it different from religions in general? Yes, but that's not the best reason.
It's true! Jesus really did live among us, suffer death at our hands, rise again to physical, bodily life, and is coming back to judge and rule over the earth. It's true.
Now, one last thing: If I believe what I have just written is true, and I absolutely do, and the rest of the world doesn't seem to know it, and they don't, then how could I, with any integrity, sit with my mouth shut and not tell everyone I can about this wonderful news? Impossible. Telling is not being exclusive, nor is it being arrogant. It's being loving, caring about others who are no different than I, except I know that Jesus has redeemed us. They don't. And I think it's criminal to sit silently as the world goes up in flames.