How does one offer Jesus to a world that does not know God?
For those of us who believe in the atoning work of Jesus, it’s sometimes difficult to see how the meaning of the cross is not at all apparent to the people around us. As we proclaim the power of the cross to save, unbelievers are scratching their heads, wondering how the death of a man two thousand years ago makes a hill of beans difference in the postmodern world. And it saves? Saves from what?
I believe this was central to the controversy surrounding the Passion of the Christ. Christians perceived in the film a universal significance that has the power to change every man, woman and child. Unbelievers saw a man brutalized for two and half hours.
Jesus Saves Us From God
Historically evangelicals have looked to a person’s recognition of sin as the starting point for sharing the good news. Jonathan Edward’s famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is the model. Edward’s described in graphic detail the wrath of God waiting to be poured out on sinners. It was so powerful that when he first read it (yes read it) in his Massachusetts church, people fainted and cried out with grief at the recognition of their condition.
This has been our approach ever sense. Introduce people to the wrath of God against sinners and the hope that is found in Jesus and nonchristians will accept Jesus as the means of their salvation every time.
Of course this worked well in Edward’s small puritan community where the belief in Judeo-Christian God was axiomatic and like Hester Pririm in the Scarlet Letter, people had to wear their sin on their sleeve.
The Death of God
But what happens when people cease to believe in God or at least a god that is concerned with matters such as right and wrong?
Since the Enlightenment, the world has been increasingly moving in that direction. With cosmological discoveries such as those made by Copernicus and Newton, Western civilization’s image of God shifted from an active present spiritual force which moved the heavens each and every day to a distant clockmaker who wound up his creation and left it to run.
Deism was the intellectual halfway house between theism and atheism. With the advent of Darwin’s theory of evolution, scholars were at last allowed to be, as Richard Dawkins has said, “intellectually fulfilled atheists.” Invisible deities began to be regarded like Santa Clause. True reality was found in the five senses – tangible empirical experience.
The remarkable achievements of science rooted in the senses have created today a world that trusts empirical evidence and distrusts things that cannot be tangibly verified. Today whether or not one says they believe in God, for most he has become an absent landlord or a harmless projection of the imagination.
As a result, people are simply no longer concerned about God’s moral law.
Living in the New World
So what has become of our evangelical witness?
It’s increasingly shrill.
Witnessing no longer has the ease of placing bread before a hungry man. Without a sense of guilt, people just don’t see the need for the cross. So instead of simply offering the hope of Jesus, the Church has become the finger by which society is made aware of its sin. Instead of simply bearing the message of the one who can free us from guilt the Church has become the sole voice of guilt in a society that by and large no longer feels guilty.
And thus nonchristians avoid us like the plague.
Sadly we don’t realize that in abandoning belief in God, unbelievers have begun to suffer from another disease, hopelessness, purposelessness, nihilism. The death of God is the death of meaning. Society ran from the God of absolute truth in part to alleviate itself from guilt but in the process it became mired in an equally depressing reality.
If there is no wrong then there is no right. If there is no sin then there is no purity. In denying the one they have denied the other. If one cannot error then there is no point, no meaning for ones own existence.
People still suffer for their sin they just don’t recognize it in the way that we have traditionally approached it.
So how should we respond? How do we share Jesus with our culture? How does He meet the felt needs our community and friends?