This is an excerpt from a book I’ve got coming out in a few weeks, 12 Truths and a Lie: Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions. It’s a collection of the toughest (and most common) questions I’ve gotten during my last couple decades of ministry—including our purpose, the afterlife, how to handle political differences, and more. Whether you’re a new Christian or someone who has walked with God for a lifetime, 12 Truths and a Lie is for you.
Be sure to check out the new limited-run podcast where I tackle the same tough questions from the book, but in a different format. You can also pre-order the book at jdgreear.com/resources/books/ today!
I was listening to a lecture by Dr. Charles Mathewes at the University of Virginia and he said that most atheists today who have moral objections to Christianity don’t realize they are “Christian atheists,” which means that the basis for their objections usually comes from teachings that have been shaped by a Christian worldview. Friedrich Nietzsche, my favorite atheist, acknowledged that. He said: My moral objections to Christianity ultimately came from the principles I learned from Christianity. One historian notes: Atheists today aren’t like they were 1,000 years ago. They are Christian atheists.
Many atheists are confounded by the fact that if you go anywhere in the world where the need is greatest, you’re likely to run into Christians. There’s definitely something about the Christian faith that compels believers to get involved in the worst situations on the planet.
Why would people work in horrible conditions to help the most marginalized, forgotten, and helpless people on the planet? The Bible. People read the moral imperatives found in those pages, discover God’s love for the world, and go out and do something to change and save lives. Consider this: Up until a few years ago, every single hospital established in Sub-Saharan Africa was built by Christian missionaries.
Or take the issue of sex trafficking. Turning little children into sex slaves is morally repulsive, but it’s still a common practice. Today, many of those on the front lines or in the trenches to fight sex trafficking say they do so because of what they read in the Bible.
Christians are working around the world, almost always without fanfare, to eradicate poverty, to promote equity among men and women, to build infrastructure, to heal the sick, and to offer dignity to people in leper colonies. I could go on and on and on. And the point here isn’t to say that Christians are inherently good people. Nope. We’re messed up. But the book we’ve got just has a way with us: It pushes us outside of our comfort zones, leading us toward beautifully radical displays of compassion and sacrifice.
The gospel is—and always will be—the best foundation for freedom, justice, truth, and goodness.
A lot of the trouble we have with the morality of the Bible comes from reading it too sloppily. We see a rule here or there that doesn’t sit well with us, so we toss the whole thing out.
But we need to remember that the Bible is primarily a story, a story that takes place in the mess of human history, and that God’s revelation didn’t happen all in one big moment. The theological term for this is “progressive revelation.” It means that for some things, the further along in the story we go, the more clarity we gain on the morality God intends. God initially legislated his nation Israel with rules on the outside pushing in (the Old Testament pattern). Then Jesus showed up and did not advocate a new nation based on God, but rather a new way to affect nations from the inside—by planting seeds in the hearts of people that eventually grow to undo injustice and promote equality.
Take, for example, the issue of polygamy. Many critics point out that great Bible “heroes” like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David practiced polygamy, and the Bible never condemns them for it. But read it more closely. When the Bible talks about polygamy, it always ends badly. God quietly subverts the practice for two thousand years, and then Paul, in the New Testament, points out that the reason polygamy is a bad idea is because God’s original design for marriage was one man, one woman for life, as demonstrated in the first book God ever authored—Genesis.
Here’s another: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob also routinely practiced the cultural tradition of prioritizing the firstborn son. It was an unfair and unjust system, leaving the family fortune to one child at the expense of others. Where is the Bible’s strong condemnation of that, you ask? You won’t find a direct condemnation, per se, but you will see that God consistently chose the younger son, or the weaker one, for blessing. Jacob, not Esau. Joseph, not Reuben. David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, not Eliab, the tallest and strongest one. God undermined the system of primogeniture by instituting a gospel that favored the overlooked and protected the vulnerable.
Why not make the condemnations more immediate and direct, you ask? I’ve heard many say they wish Paul and the apostles had been more clear in their calls for societal reforms, of which the Roman world needed many—things like the importance of accountable government, the abolition of slavery, the principles of just war, and equitable systems of punishment. It’s true, Jesus and the apostles didn’t lead with those reforms, even though they taught the principles that would one day lead to them. Here’s why: If the apostles had made those reforms the focal point of their message, hearers might have latched onto those things at the expense of the very gospel that made those reforms possible.
God changes societies like he changes individuals—from the outside in, by changing values and worldview assumptions. So, God called his church to preach the gospel. But (and this is a big but) in that gospel were the seeds for every great and noble reform our society needed (and needs) to experience.
Two thousand years on, the gospel is still the greatest equalizing force in the world. Christ teaches that in him there’s neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither man nor woman, and neither young nor old, but that we’re all one in Jesus (Galatians 3:28). The gospel is—and always will be—the best foundation for freedom, justice, truth, and goodness.