I have been very surprised that what is turning out to be a common “hot button” with atheists with regard to Christianity is the concept of grace. Actually, more than surprised – I am just shocked. I never would have thought that anyone (besides those legalistic types we refer to as Pharisees) would be so angered by the thought that someone else thinks they’re getting forgiven for free. One example comes from The Great Blasphemy Challenge Debate, where one of the atheists – I think it was Brian – went off on the subject. If you find it online somewhere, it’s worth watching, just to hear the emotion when the subject is discussed.
Grace is obviously offensive. Should I be shocked? As I mentioned, I’ve known legalists – those who insist that there’s some kind of point system, or that you get saved for free, but to stay saved you’ve got to work for it – who are outright grace-haters. I understand this – it’s all explained in the famous story we call the Prodigal Son: the older son gets ticked that the prodigal gets welcomed back with open arms. However, to those who don’t believe there’s a point system in the first place, why should they care? If there’s no God to do any law-giving or forgiving in the first place, and then no absolute moral code to break, therefore there are no sins to be forgiven from. What, then, does it matter that Christians claim to be forgiven for sins that don’t exist? Interesting, isn’t it?
Of course, there also seems to be a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel; there’s apparently some belief among atheists that Christians believe that because they are forgiven, they are now free to sin. On one hand, of course, the atheists may understand this better than many Christians. Paul works through this in Romans chapter 5, where his argument for grace comes to the point where sin increases, grace increases all the more. There is no sin (except that gnarly old unforgivable one) too big for God not to forgive. However, if we turn the page to Romans 6, we get to where Paul asks the obvious question, “should we then sin more to get more grace? God forbid!” For you see, the Christian teaching is that sin is tantamount to slavery – it is the opposite of freedom (which, of course, we get along with grace). So, “free to sin” is an oxymoron. Now, we do have some oxymorons out there who can’t seem to figure this out, but they are actually quite rare.
Paul teaches this clearly, as does John in 1 John 2:3-6:
We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.
It is clear Christian teaching that yes, we are forgiven, once and for all (no indulgences or penance required). It is also clear Christian teaching that we are to “be perfect, as the Heavenly Father is perfect.” That, of course, is really what grace is all about – the power to actually live up to the forgiveness we’ve received.
So, perhaps a better presentation of the Gospel would make it less offensive… or, perhaps not. As Paul also says in 1 Cor. 18 & 19,
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
The Gospel does have that offensive aspect to it, especially the way Paul puts it:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. Romans 1:18-20
He goes on, before he gets to the grace part, to point out how we all have sinned, yada yada. Now maybe we’re getting somewhere… to get to grace, we have to get through the part where we actually need grace – and that means accepting who we are as sinners, and accepting who God is as not just the lawgiver, but as forgiver as well. It’s like accepting an Altoid from someone – it means admitting you’ve got barn breath.
So, grace is offensive… but given the option, I’d rather have it. Altoid, anyone?
Well, you know that I seem to find a lot more grace in the Bible than some do. But, the fact that faith itself is a gift doesn’t mean that this gift wouldn’t be extended to “the world.” The Holy Spirit, after all, was poured out “on all flesh.”
I do find several things interesting about this issue- one, there is very little (if anything at all) in the Old Testament about Hell or Heaven – it very much deals with life on Earth. Jewish teachings about the afterlife really came about during the 400 years or so before Jesus, and apparently were influenced by Zorastorism. This does not mean, however, that Heaven and Hell don’t exist, as Jesus certainly supported at least the realm of Heaven.
However, many of the verses in the Gospels that people presume to refer to Heaven or Hell probably (considering their Old Testament foundation) refer to how to live on Earth. It’s important to consider the point that Jesus was making as he made these references.
Also note all of the people in the Old Testament – including non-Jews – who apparently made it in to Heaven without specific knowledge of Jesus.
The concept of salvation – while including an individual element, to be sure – is really about the salvation of the world, including the Earth. In the words of NT Wright, Jesus made it possible to “put the world to rights.” The concept of the “second Adam” also has this universal aspect.
Again, that’s not to imply in the least that salvation isn’t solely through Jesus; however, it would seem that at least the extreme exclusivist positions miss the point.
Your “on the other hand” is a bigger hand than you seem to credit. Mike’s objection still looms large when, according to the book of Ephesians, even the faith to “choose” Jesus is a “gift” from God.
I guess this is especially true if you buy in to a Calvinist-oriented position of election, in which the concept of grace would only apply to those who are “chosen.” Then logically, those who are atheists were simply “not chosen.” Ouch. I’d be mad, too. That’s one reason why I’m not a Calvinist.
But, take 1 Timothy 2: “… God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men — the testimony given in its proper time.”
And don’t forget, “For God so loved the world …”
I think more analysis needs be done on the evangelism methods of Jesus. He forgave people who didn’t ask to be forgiven, he healed people without telling them “oh, by the way, I’m God.” Did the thief on the cross actually repent (by current evangelical standards)?
I’m not implying whatsoever that Jesus is not “the only way,” however perhaps evangelicals have made too many presumptions about what that means? If you analyze things from the perspective of covenants, we see that there were always broader – even universal – impacts of covenants (those with Adam and Noah are obvious examples).
On the other hand, there are major problems with any kind of universal salvation idea. From Romans 1 and elsewhere, it is clear that men have free will to reject God; however, while creation “declares the glory of God” it doesn’t speak specifically of Jesus. Rejection of God in total obviously includes the rejection of Jesus. However, what about the heart that tends toward God?
I think Mike has a point. Grace is definitely problematic, even for me, a pretend Christian. If grace is a matter of divine prerogative, then what do we make of his exclusions, especially of those who never get a shot at the Jesus thing? There is something patently offensive in that, especially if it’s true.
My problem with Grace was never related to the idea that one is forever forgiven, but that it is necessary in order to get into Heaven; and that God is “stingy” with it because it is only available to those who have been evangelized. Grace was not available outside of a limited area until perhaps 400 years after Jesus when the Romans evangelized with the sword and catapult under Constantine.
So, that one reason I find the concept of grace offensive.