It’s really no secret that you can’t argue someone into a belief system. Most Christian thinkers and apologists will readily admit that there are other components that affect why faith clicks and sticks with some and doesn’t with others. But what exactly are they? What causes reading through the Bible or an apologetics book to draw some people into deeper faith and literally sends others clear away from Christianity?
Well I’m sure there are numerous factors, but I’ve got two in particular on my mind.
But first let me tell you what I think is NOT a factor. Somewhat frequently when this topic comes up among Christians I will hear this Calvinistic sentiment: “Well if people don’t believe in Jesus it’s because God didn’t predestine them to be saved. Some are chosen to be vessels for honor and others for dishonor.” It feels like a way of saying “this isn’t our problem”.
For reasons too lengthy to go into here, I think that is wrong and destructive. I think it badly misinterprets the Biblical passages referring to predestination and it tragically misrepresents the character of God. To be frank, if Calvinism is the belief that God has unilaterally predestined specific people to believe and go to everlasting heaven and specific other people to not believe and go to everlasting conscious torment- all for his “glory” and so that we in heaven would know how lucky we are to have been saved, if that is Calvinism, then you would sooner find me preferring atheism.
As I was saying, I have two components in my mind for why Christianity ‘sticks’ for some and not others:
1. Theology. The theology and doctrine people are presented with is going to effect the desire they have to embrace Christianity. Our theology is what shapes our picture of God. Some understandings of God paint a picture of God that is beautiful, just, sobering, hopeful, and inviting. Other beliefs about God paint a picture that is capricious, dominating, shallow, and terrorizing.
It’s not uncommon for me to hear a skeptic point to the troubling doctrine of traditional hell (where the vast majority of humanity is consciously tormented for all eternity) or the logically indefensible doctrine of Biblical inerrancy (speaking here of the claim that there is literally no error of any kind in the Bible- historical, scientific, numerical, etc, and often combined with the assumption of hyper-literal reading) as some primary arguments for why Christianity is poppycock. Now of course, if these beliefs are ultimately warranted and truthful then there is nothing one can do to combat the repelling effects of it. However, if they are not true, then by holding to it and teaching it we are painting an ugly and/or illogical picture of God that isn’t warranted. This has genuine and long lasting effects for how the world sees Christianity and how our own children will see God when they start to wrestle and decide for themselves if they want to buy into this Jesus thing.
2. But probably even more important than theology is Christian practice. When skeptically inclined people, myself included, look at the church and see us behaving pretty much like everyone else with just a few added rules, it’s not exactly encouraging. When we behave defensively or angrily or selfishly we are sending a clear message: that our beliefs are pretty much worthless when it comes to the transforming power we claim they have. If Christianity is true then shouldn’t Christians be marked by something beautiful instead? And some are, to be sure… But often not nearly enough to leave a clear impression that Christianity is uniquely transformative.
Starting with the most basic element of Christian teaching, shouldn’t we be known for our crazy self-giving love? For our genuine generosity, forgiveness, courage, and care for all people? I dream of the day when people look at Christians and think ‘well I don’t know if I believe what you believe but I want to be like you are!’ Most everyone- Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan, Atheist- knows and feels that genuine love is a most noble virtue. It is accessible and understandable to all. It is universally attractive. If Christianity is true then love should be a fruit growing particularly wildly in our lives because we have been particularly freed from that part of our nature that is selfish.
I’ve been reading two books. I had started the first one, Tim Keller’s “The Reason for God” but unexpectedly received a different one in the mail called “Preemptive Love” and could barely put it down. Preemptive Love is not a book about apologetics. It is a book about Christians living out the most radical, courageous, and self-giving elements of the Christian faith. It is the kind of book that might make one think “these people are nuts… But they are amazing.” In the end I believe lives lived like that make a far better case for Christianity than a cerebral ‘defense of the faith’ ever could. It is true that apologetics can meet an intellectual need… But it can never replace a beautiful picture of God and an inviting display of Christianity being lived out.