When I was in high school, I worked under a man who for some reason didn’t like me. So he decided to sabotage my career. He spread false stories about me behind my back, saying that I wasn’t a good worker. He insulted me in front of my friends. He managed to get me written up for something I didn’t do. And every time he saw me, he smiled wide and said, “Lord bless you, brother!”
The next year, I met another man, a jovial fellow who simply exuded the joy of life. He was the sort of guy who’s impossible to dislike. Always bright and smiling, with a hearty infectious laugh, he had an uncanny knack for knowing exactly what to say to encourage someone or make them feel good. He had tremendous gifts as an artist (he’d been a professional singer with operatic training), but he didn’t ever dwell on that, preferring to listen to what you had to say. He genuinely cared.
Although these two men were about as opposite as you can imagine, they did have one thing in common. They were both very religious. Both of them told me that their religious faith was the most formative thing in making them who they were.
If these two men are the examples we have to go by, the choice seems easy. Who wouldn’t want to follow the religion that made my encouraging friend what he was? Who in their right mind would want to follow the religion of my jerk of a supervisor?
So here’s the kicker. Both of these men followed the same religion. Both of them were Christians.
As a young agnostic studying at Oxford, Sheldon Vanauken made this observation (recorded in his book A Severe Mercy):
“The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians—when they are sombre and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.”
I say he’s absolutely right. Although I’ve met lots of people of many different beliefs, the most wonderful, loving, moral people I’ve met, and the most odious creeps I’ve met, have all been Christians. Or think of some of the famous examples of Christianity:
There are great evangelists like Billy Graham, whose forthrightness and integrity makes him an object of worldwide admiration. There are televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart, who embarrass the nation with sleazy sex scandals.
There are the Anabaptists, whose doctrines include tolerance and absolute pacifism. There are the Crusaders, who waged the most infamous religious war in history.
There are people like Fred Rogers, whose message of love for their neighbors approaches the level of sainthood. There are people like Fred Phelps, who spew a message of unabashed hatred.
There was St. Francis of Assisi, who preached peace and harmony with all creation. There was Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor who tortured and executed people who disagreed with his own narrow view of orthodoxy.
And all of them claim to follow the same Jesus.
What’s up here? Maybe Christianity is an utterly bizarre phenomenon: both the greatest thing in the world and the worst thing in the world. Or maybe half of these people are very inaccurate representatives of their religion—but if so, which half?
Clearly, if the behavior of Christians is all we have to go by, we’re flummoxed. Let’s go back to the source, and see what the founder of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, had to say on this subject:
Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”
A “tare,” by the way, is a weed that looks deceptively similar to wheat. What’s that you say? How is a story about a misadventure in farming relevant to the subject? Check out the interpretation Jesus gives:
Then Jesus sent the multitude away and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.”
He answered and said to them: “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
When you plug Jesus’ symbolism into the parable, it’s astounding. Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven” is full not only of genuine articles “planted” by Jesus Himself, but of things that, although they look similar to the real thing, are phonies who come from a very different source.
Think for a moment what we have here. Skeptics often point out that many aspects of the Christian faith aren’t testable by empirical methods—things like life after death, the forgiveness of sins, even the existence of God. Broadly speaking, they’re quite right. But here’s something we can test objectively. Jesus predicted that among His followers, there would be many hypocrites, phonies, and posers. Sure enough, among His followers, there are many hypocrites, phonies, and posers. On the area that we can test objectively, Jesus’ prophecy is precisely accurate and reliable. It’s a rather embarrassing sort of proof, but there you are.
Not that Jesus was the sort of person who encourages duplicity. If you’re looking for someone whose belief system takes a dim view of religious hypocrisy, you won’t find anyone with a dimmer view than Jesus. The attacks of Dawkins, Ingersoll, and Voltaire seem half-hearted, bumbling, and shallow next to the invective Jesus unleashed on the religious hypocrites of His day. (Read Matthew 23 sometime for a sample.) This is a guy who’s clearly not giving false piety any quarter.
So Jesus (and therefore, presumably, the people who follow Him) is clearly on the side of those of us who abhor phony religious people. But if that’s the case, why does His religion seem to attract so many of the phonies instead of just the genuine articles?
Part of the answer is in Jesus’ parable. There’s no way to get rid of phonies without also damaging some of the real ones. You could try to make a rule to tell the difference between the real and the fake, but what would stop the fakers from lying or the real ones from being misunderstood?
Fortunately (also according to the parable), at the end of all things, God will judge everyone, and they all will be seen for what they are. As Jesus said on another occasion:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23)
But there’s another way to look at it. I think that many of us, whether unbelievers who got the wrong impression or believers who really should know better, have the wrong idea of what Christianity is really about. The message of Christianity is not “Follow this religion and you’ll become a paragon of superior moral virtue.” The message is, “We are all full of moral failings, but God offers forgiveness and a new beginning through Jesus.”
So of course there are people with moral failings who call themselves Christians. That’s the whole point. In the same way, there are sick people who call themselves hospital patients, and uneducated people who call themselves students. The focus should be not that they have a shortcoming but that they’ve found the right treatment for it.
Hypocrisy is a sin, no doubt about it. But Jesus came to save sinners.