Acts 1:8 of the New Testament records that, shortly before his ascension to heaven, the Risen Lord Jesus Christ spoke these words to his apostles:
but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.
Non-Christians are all-too-familiar with the Christian compulsion to “witness,” to “share their faith,” to “give their testimonies” to anyone within earshot. I’m sure that all of us have, at one time or another, dealt with Jehovah’s Witnesses on our doorsteps, Mormon missionaries on their bicycles, Salvation Army bands in our parks… (full disclosure: I played in such bands on more occasions than I can possibly enumerate). Sometimes these people are offensive, sometimes they are merely annoying, sometimes they are mildly entertaining. One thing all such groups have in common is their conviction that they have access to a truth that non-believers lack. They believe that they have higher moral standards than non-believers. And they believe that the lives of non-believers will be enriched if only they will accept the gospel they present and join the Christian fellowship to which they belong.
Many believers of these and other Christian faiths do, for the most part, live the lives they profess to live: they are generous with family, friends and strangers; they are ethical in all of their personal and business relationships; they actually do believe the things they say they believe. Unfortunately for the church at large, it seems that, every week, such “testimonies” are contradicted by examples of profoundly wicked behavior on the part of Christian leaders and/or their followers. Recent examples that come to mind are Earl Paulk, Richard and Lindsey Roberts, Don LaRose/Ken Williams and Ted Haggard. Dozens of other examples great and small can be found by the truckload at Deep Thoughts.
Whenever stories like these erupt, Christians everywhere are quick to ask non-Christians not to judge the whole body by the misdeeds of a few and to consider the substance of their doctrines rather than the content of their characters. This plea is not entirely misplaced, for any group contains subsets of those who deviate from group norms. But there is another group of believers that, with regard to the persuasive power of their witness, is far more problematic for the Body of Christ than the egregious examples cited above. These are the believers with whom people rub shoulders every day: the gossips, the hypocrites, the domineering, the selfish….
LeoPardus recently completed a series at De-Conversion.com entitled, Reasons I Can No Longer Believe. The final installment of that series was subtitled: Unchanged Lives. Throughout this post, the author discussed his disappointment that, when observing the lives of ordinary believers, supposedly empowered by the Holy Spirit of God himself, it is difficult to distinguish between the faithful and the non-faithul. He quoted a comment that Karen, another contributor at that site, had written sometime earlier, in which she said:
The bible tells us that Christians who believe in Jesus and have received the Holy Spirit have access to God’s guidance, comfort and presence. If that’s true, it seems to me that there should be some way to detect that special influence in individual lives and in the corporate “life” of the church and history of Christianity. After all, people who have a member of the trinity living in their hearts should manifest that at least somewhat consistently – right?
And yet it seems like the history of the church, and the individual lives of believers, bears no distinctive stamp of that indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The atrocities, the horrors, the corruption, the wars fought in the name of Christ, the individual selfishness, suffering, immorality – where’s the divine spark that separates Christians from followers of other religions, or from non-believers?
I don’t see it. There are great churches doing good, and great individual believers living sacrificial lives. There are also great secular organizations doing much good, and great atheists living sacrificial lives. There’s not a pervasive difference that I can see, and it seems if the promises of the NT are true, there should be.”
Karen articulated beautifully one of the reasons why LeoPardus no longer believes in Christianity. The comment that I added to that post was this:
I know believers don’t like non-believers to point to their imperfections as reason to question the validity of faith, but they can’t have it both ways. Either their religion and the indwelling presence of a Holy Spirit make a difference in the way they live or they don’t. Whether believers like it or not, their lives are the most significant points in this world in which the work of God can be displayed. Those of us who question religion have a right to say, “Show me the money. Show me indisputably how God’s activity makes any difference in this world.” If he makes little or no difference in the lives of his followers, one has to question either his power or their faith. After all, if he can’t even significantly affect the lives of people who have surrendered completely to his will, what possible chance can he have against overt rebels like Satan or the impersonal forces of nature, which don’t yield to anything except stronger natural forces? If the problem is not God’s weakness, than it has to be flaws in Christian’s faith. Another option, of course, is to question whether there is any “there” there.
I, for one, am not insisting that believers must bat 1.000 on issues of morality and lifestyle. It is not out of line, however, to expect that believers will be consistently above average when compared with non-believers who don’t have the advantage of perfect, supernatural guidance. Some believers are above average in integrity, etc. So are some non-believers. Some non-believers are below average in morality, etc., So are some believers. Overall, however, the lives of believers should be noticeably different than the lives of non-believers. Alas, that is not the case at all.
I am not suggesting that one should reject Christianity solely on the evidence of failed Christian lives. There are oceans of scriptural, historical and creedal documents that one should also examine when evaluating Christianity. But, whether they like it or not, Christians themselves have established the twin standards by which their claims should be evaluated. They claim that, in addition to their scriptures and doctrinal traditions, God’s providential influence in human affairs has been evident historically and continues to be evident in the holy lives of the faithful. That being the case, it is not wrong, when evaluating Christianity’s truth claims, to consider the strength of the correlations between believers’ spoken and lived testimonies, and their written testaments and creeds. I have examined textual and lived evidences for Christianity, and I have found them insufficient to justify faith beyond a reasonable doubt.