Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sin and Salvation

Here's a quick thought I've been milling about. Most modern churches are reluctant to preach the sort of fire and brimstone sermons that we associate with past eras of Christianity. There's really no 20th century equivalent to "Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God". There are some good reasons for this. After all, the Scriptures are full of positive messages, and people are far more likely to listen if you tell them what you believe in, rather than just what you disapprove of. However, this reluctance can be taken too far.

Many modern preachers, especially those of the prosperity gospel variety, want to erase negative concepts like sin and hell entirely. They want to focus on all the pretty shiny things that Christianity offers, some real (like heaven), some made entirely out of whole cloth (Like financial prosperity. Remind me again, which disciple was it that got rich? Oh yeah, NONE OF THEM!). The problem with this extreme is twofold.

The first problem is that bad stuff happens. It always has, and it happens even to the best of believers. There's a reason that Tertullian said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." It's because Christianity is a religion birthed and raised amidst persecution. 11 of the 12 disciples were executed, and John was exiled. Paul was beheaded. Stephen was stoned. The list goes on and on down to the present day. Christians are still being murdered for their faith around the world every year. Bad stuff happening to Christians is an undeniable fact of existence. When you promise people only good things for their faith, you do them the dual disservice of lying to them and robbing them of the intellectual equipment to deal with bad things when they do occur. Instead, the one inescapable conclusion they are forced to draw is that the bad things happened because their faith isn't sufficient. There is no evil event that can befall a person that won't be made worse by forcing them to accept unnecessary guilt. That's a perfect formula for creating Christians who can do nothing but fall away during hard times.

The second problem that arises from this sort of happy Christianity is that it renders the good meaningless. If there's no punishment for evil, where is the justice that Christians were denied on earth? If there is no hell, heaven cannot be appreciated, just as we would not appreciate our health in a world without sickness. Good cannot exist without evil, nor punishment without reward, nor sanctity without sin. Every good thing must have a negative counterpart in order to illustrate it's worth. Much as the modern practice of not keeping score in children's sports renders the competition meaningless, denying punishment and offering rewards to everyone equally makes the Christian life meaningless. Why be good if there's no real consequences for being bad?