As he walked up to get another box from my hand, he said, “It seems to me that all religions do is constantly argue over whose god is the biggest.” Most of my deep theological discussions take place not in ivory towers or musty libraries, but at the tail end of a semi. This was no different. I was delivering to a cabinet shop. We had two pallets to break down. So I pulled away the shrink wrap, cut the straps, handed down the boxes, and talked God with a young atheist.
Our conversation had—as conversations are wont to do—meandered. We drifted from video games to fantasy books to dragons to Satan to the Bible, all the way to the time his mother slapped him for questioning something in the New Testament. Part of his backstory involves his ex-wife’s parents—a “devout Christian family”—hampering all of his efforts to reconnect with his children. Bad experiences with believers and growing up in a legalistic church have largely formed his view of Christianity.
“Not my God,” I replied. “My God is the smallest.” He stopped midway to the warehouse and turned to look at me. “He came down from heaven and became a baby in Mary’s womb.” He smiled. He knew the story. “I don’t argue over whose god is the biggest. Listen, my God loves you so much he was willing to die for you. That’s the simple message of Christianity: You are forgiven in Jesus Christ—the God who died for you.”
My atheist friend said, “I wish more Christians thought like you do.”There is a christianity that Jesus doesn’t believe in. It surfaces in cathedrals of stone and store-front tabernacles of praise, all the way from the papacy to the pentecostals. It has oozed its way through all Christianity. It masquerades as the child of truth, but it’s nothing more than the offspring of a hook-up between religiosity and reason. It’s the christianity my young atheist friend grew up with.
The goal of this christianity is to keep folks on the straight and narrow by poking and prodding them with the cross. Its creed is: “Jesus died for you so that you’d live for him.” The blood of Jesus is fuel in the tank of your soul for a life lived to the glory of God. The focus of this christianity is to get you saved and then for the real work to begin—the work of gradually transforming you into a law-keeping, sin-avoiding, Bible-toting, tithe-giving member of the kingdom of good people that God applauds. At its essence, this christianity arises from the perceived need to get right with God; the belief that Jesus came to show us how to do that; the view of the Bible as the instruction book for life; and the understanding of the church as the temple of moral formation.
All that’s missing from this christianity is everything that’s important. When Paul summarized his ministry, he didn’t say, “I determined to know nothing among you except the Ten Commandments and right living.” He said, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” (1 Cor 2:1). Did Paul preach the law? Of course he did. Should pastors today preach the law? Of course they should (and do).
But if Jesus Christ and him crucified are tacked on to the end of sermons like a P.S. to a letter, then most of the ink on that page is not the crimson of grace. If Jesus Christ and him crucified does not permeate the Bible classes and Sunday School rooms of a congregation; provide the content for all pastoral care and counseling; and trumpet forth from the hymns and songs; then what is there? You know what’s there: admonitions to holy living, lists of spiritual principles, goals of a godly life. No wonder that when young people grow up in a law-saturated, grace-dry church, they leave the faith by droves for all they’ve heard their whole life is a life they can never live up to.
That’s the full story of what happened to my young friend, who labels himself as an atheist but I suspect is merely one more victim of a church in which the true Jesus is unwelcome. So I try, conversation by conversation, to show him that Christ doesn’t believe in the christianity that he grew up with. Jesus himself doesn’t believe in the god who tells people that they must somehow win heaven’s approval by toeing the line.
Christianity is Jesus Christ. It is not a body of doctrine but a body crucified and risen for you. It is the God who became small, died, and rose again to make you right with his Father. That’s a Christianity worth believing in.