Pharisees With Low Standards

February 2009
by Tim Keller

Last year the Pew Forum re leased a survey reporting that 65% of Americans who profess Christianity agree with the statement that ‘many religions can lead to eternal life.’ (See the report at pewforum.org/docs/?DocID=380.)  When asked what determines whether someone receives eternal life, the greatest number (nearly 40%) answered that it was either our actions or a combination of belief and behavior. Half of respondents believed that atheists who were good, though they made no effort to connect to God at all, would go to heaven. 
 
When this was reported in the New York Times (‘Heaven for the Godless?’ December 26, 2008) comments at the Times website expressed amazement and relief that Christians were finally entering the tolerant, modern world. 
 
This finding should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Several years ago sociologist Christian Smith published Soul Searching, an in-depth look at the religious beliefs of American adolescents. He summarized their faith as ‘moralistic, therapeutic deism.’ Youth are moralistic because they don’t believe that to relate to God they need radical grace and forgiveness. They feel that anyone who is good and fair to others can go to heaven. This has historically been the view of Pharisees, legalists who assign themselves a strict regimen of religious duties and observances. 
 
But young Americans’ faith is also therapeutic. Most believe that: “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” (p.163.) This means, essentially, that people have to determine what is ‘good and right’ for them, and live consistently with it. So the Pharisees’ high bar has been lowered almost to ground level. 
 
Finally, American youth are deistic. They believe ‘God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.’ (p.163.) To live a good life there is no need for constant spiritual intervention and support. God has made us, but now ‘God helps those who help themselves.’
 
The findings of the Pew Forum reveal that these beliefs are becoming those of the American public as a whole. If you believe that all good people can go to heaven, not just Christians, you are moralistic. If you also believe that all the contradictory rules and teachings of the various religions don’t matter, that everyone’s personal view of right and wrong is enough, then you are therapeutic. And if you think you can get to heaven without the enlightenment of Buddhism, or the sacraments of Catholicism or the justifying faith of Protestantism, then you are a deist. We don’t really need divine intervention. We’ll climb the ladder ourselves, thank you. 
 
There are several enormous problems with this set of beliefs (which I will call MTD.) First, though it appears tolerant on the surface, MTD denies the central thesis of every major faith on the planet, namely, that there is something radically wrong with the human condition that we cannot escape without divine help. All religions differ dramatically on how to go about that, but not one believes that every individual has the right to determine for themselves how they want to live. The Dalai Lama’s popular lecture ‘Overcoming Our Differences’ seems to teach that there are ‘many paths to God,’ for in it he says Christians who learn compassion through their faith should not convert to Buddhism. But Jane Compson points out in the academic journal, Religious Studies (32, 1996, pp. 271-279), that it is essential to ultimate salvation in Tibetan Buddhism that a person come to believe in “sunyata,” that the physical world is an illusion. 
 
Why then is the Dalai Lama so ‘relaxed’ about Christianity? Because he also believes in reincarnation, that acts of compassion in this life will lead to a better incarnation in the next life, where eventually the person may learn the doctrinal truths necessary for final liberation. Neither Buddhism nor Christianity believes that salvation comes to anyone who just tries to be good. Moralistic, therapeutic deism sets up its own radically different approach to spirituality and by default assumes all the other religions to be wrong. Not very tolerant!
 
Second, though it appears to be more inclusive, MTD leaves out people who don’t live good lives. If people get to heaven by leading good lives, then what about all us bad people? The question is not facetious. Many are acutely aware that they are not living up to their own standards of right and wrong. We struggle and wonder why it is so hard to do what we know we ought to do. We also see many people who live abusive lives who have been themselves subject to cruelty, abuse, and other forms of deprivation. They don’t seem likely to be able to fully change. What about them? All the world religions make intellectually serious efforts to address the fact that human nature is inexorably prone to selfishness and violence. All of them offer some kind of divine help, by which a soul can be purged, changed, forgiven. MTD, however, is a system in which no such help is thought to be necessary. This leads those who find that it is necessary to be without hope. 
 
Third, I think MTD is fueled partly by a low view of God’s wisdom and power. In order to make it available for anyone—good or bad—Christ accomplished salvation for us. To receive a gift, you must believe it exists and receive it. Since the gift is, basically, Jesus himself, he said, ‘I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the father but through me.’ John 14:6. 
 
‘Ah,’ many say. ‘This is where I have my big problem. What about all the good people who never get the opportunity to hear about Jesus? Or what about the many good people who hear but honestly just can’t believe in him? Are they lost for making a sincere choice, even if in the end it turns out to be a mistaken one?’ 
 
This objection assumes that unless every person has an equal chance to hear about Jesus, then salvation through Christ alone would be unfair. But even if somehow every human being in the world were to get the very same, attractive, compelling 1-hourgospel presentation in their own language and cultural form, that would not make things ‘fair.’ Due to differing heredity and environment people have profoundly different abilities to understand and take in new concepts. But, as we have seen, the MTD view is no solution for this problem at all. The idea that eternal life comes through a good life is even more unfair. 
 
The Bible says that only God can truly judge the heart. (1 Samuel 16:7; Jeremiah 17:9-10) And why would an all-powerful God need to give every person an ‘equal chance’ in order to know what was in his or her character or heart? He doesn’t, of course. Does this mean that God will save some people ‘with good hearts’ that haven’t heard of or believed in Jesus? I don’t see how, when the teaching of the Bible, Old and New Testament, is that no one has such a heart. But, we feel, there seem to be some really great people out there without faith in Christ. Yes, I see them, too. But I can’t see very deeply, nor can you. God is both merciful and just. 
 
Even Jesus, when asked about this issue, gently says, ‘mind your own business.’ When Jesus told Peter something about his destiny, he pointed to his friend John and asked, “What about him?” Jesus said (perhaps smiling and shaking his head) “What is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:22.) All we know is that through God’s mercy salvation is available to all through Jesus Christ alone. No one, but no one, will be unfairly excluded. When we get to the end of time and see how he has disposed of things, no one will have any complaints. Until then, follow him.


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