Reading Time: 13 minutes Gustave Doré c. 1866, Public Domain
Reading Time: 13 minutes

We’re going to sidebar for just a moment here to address a very common response that Christians make whenever anybody suggests that they maybe shouldn’t be so obnoxious with their proselytization attempts. I’ve been wanting to talk about it for a while now, but this sounds like a good place to do it because of something that happened on the last post.

This response is something I’m starting to call the Oncoming Bus Gambit. It’s a riff on the common Argument from Consequences and other such fear-based evangelism tactics. Chances are you’ve heard it many times yourself–it’s very common among Christians of an evangelistic bent, who employ it to rationalize their mistreatment of other people. And it fails just like all of their other rationalizations. Today I’ll show you what the Gambit is, how to spot its variations, why it fails, and how to defuse it.

A Game of Chicken. (Credit: Liam Chang, CC.)
A Game of Chicken. (Liam Chang, CC.)

Introducing the Oncoming Bus Gambit.

As far back as February 2015 I was talking about this topic and setting it aside for future discussion (and tangentially discussing it in other posts). But it’s always gotten on my nerves. I simply hadn’t worked out why quite yet. God’s Club made me more aware of the mindset, and then we had a visitor on the blog who really brought home what was happening.

Here’s the basic idea:

You are standing on the sidewalk when you notice a bus barreling down on some poor schmuck standing in the road. The soon-to-be-victim does not see the bus and has no chance of evading it. You rush up to the person and try to warn them, knowing they won’t be pleased at your interruption. Because that bus is still barreling down on them, you might even shove that person out of the way in order to save their life. Hopefully, once the person sees that you rescued them, they won’t be angry at all. But either way, whether they ever see the bus or not, whether they appreciate your effort or not, you can’t just stand by and allow anybody to die, now can you? It’s your responsibility, as a loving and compassionate person, to want to save someone who is in dire danger. If that person were to get run over, their misfortune would be at least partially your fault. Surely anybody could excuse you for wanting to avoid that kind of guilt! And gosh, you’d want someone to warn you if you were in some kind of danger!

The exact wording varies considerably, as one would expect of a folk-magic incantation like this one, but the essential elements are as follows.

1. A pressing threat of imminent and catastrophic harm that the soon-to-be-victim doesn’t realize exists but is perceived by the Christian.

2. The casting of the Christian as the kindly passerby rescuing someone in serious mortal danger.

3. The Christian’s full awareness that the soon-to-be-victim disagrees that a threat exists and that their victim would not welcome the warning.

4. Justification of actions that in regular circumstances would transgress social, legal, or personal boundaries.

5. An attempt to invoke “the greater good.” 

6. Enrollment of the listener in the act of “rescuing” non-believers in similar occasions. 

7. A demand to be released from blame for their transgressive behavior.

These elements come together to create one of the most toxic evangelism tactics in toxic Christians‘ entire toxic arsenal of toxic ideas. And unlike baby turtles emerging from their sand-nest, the Oncoming Bus Gambit is not there to make the world a better place. Rather, the Gambit is trotted out in order to reinforce privilege and give the Christian a permission slip which they believe allows them to mistreat others however they like as long as it’s all for a good cause (and as you can guess, they’re the ones who decide what a “good cause” looks like for everyone; our evaluations are completely irrelevant).

The idea of it being a gambit occurred to me not long ago when I was reading about chess terminology. And I finally realized what I was seeing yesterday. Just as a chess player might sacrifice a piece early in a game to gain some much greater benefit later, the Christian sacrifices credibility and goodwill in order to get an opportunity to push themselves on people who they know perfectly well don’t want to engage with them.

Even major atheists like Penn Gillette can buy into the Gambit, a fact that you may rest assured absolutely delights Christian bloggers and major church groups alike because it means their enrollment efforts have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams: even their victims are often totally on board with the “rescue” attempt!

(If the idea of “enrollment” is new to you, we’ll be going into more detail about that term in just a moment.)

Variations on a Terrible Theme in the Key of Awful.

The Oncoming Bus Gambit was in use even when I was a Christian. It’s largely how we rationalized witnessing and other interruptive and intrusive marketing tactics. Since leaving Christianity, however, I’ve noted that it’s gotten even more popular as Christians face ever-increasing criticism of their behavior.

Instead of responding to this pushback by examining themselves for error and maybe fixing the problem by addressing those concerns, Christians instead have chosen to proliferate their excuses for continuing to commit the error. They’d rather find new and inventive ways to express the permission slip than to find some other way of “warning” people of the threat that they alone perceive.

Ray Comfort very famously uses a variant of the Gambit in his apologetics that involves airplanes that are suffering some major failure; instead of pushing people out of the way of a bus, he instead thinks he is offering them parachutes that they don’t realize they need, then gaslights his victims to try to force them to accept his assessment of the situation instead of objective, observable reality. You might also hear Christians express the Gambit in terms of trains, falling off ledges, tripping into swimming pools or potholes, or consuming adulterated food. They’re nothing if not imaginative!

The other day, a self-described Christian pastor chose to drop by our community to share a response he had written regarding the most recent post. When we pushed back against what he’d written, “David” responded thusly:

Screencap of blog comment by a now-banned Christian.
Screencap of a blog comment by a now-banned Christian.

Transcript of the relevant bit: A Christian tells someone that repenting of sin and trusting in Jesus – namely what He did for you in His death on the cross and resurrection – leads to eternal life. The person then spits in the Christian’s face. Now, in the Christian’s mind, they have not told a person that they need to be forced out of their sandbox so much as they have told a person that their sandbox is actually quicksand.

Though he deserves a point for originality, David’s version of the warning shares every characteristic of the Gambit that I outlined above–and suffers from the same shortcomings.

(Diricia De Wet, CC.)
There’s no way this could end poorly. (Diricia De Wet, CC.)

The Gambit’s Fatal Flaws.

The first and major flaw in the Oncoming Bus Gambit is, simply, that nobody’s ever demonstrated the validity of the threat. 
Christians have had over 2000 years to find some conclusive evidence that there’s even life after death and have steadfastly failed to accomplish even that. In absence of evidence, Christians instead have focused on making their imaginary threats sound as lurid as possible.

The whole reason they are using metaphors is to hide their threat’s complete lack of credibility.

After all, if they had objective evidence that there is some major threat to non-believers, they’d already have offered it.

People trying to warn others of real danger can illustrate exactly why the situation requires a warning. “Don’t dive off of this cliff–there are rocks down there!” “You need to get vaccinated because it’s flu season and the disease has been detected in your area.” “Don’t visit this part of the world because there’s a revolution going on and we’re concerned that you’ll get hurt.”

Most especially: “Watch out! There’s a goddamn bus coming!

But Christians cannot offer any real reasons to heed their warnings. And we’re not supposed to wonder why they can’t. We’re supposed to be totally okay with the threats always being allegorical and metaphorical.

The Broken System: When the Greater Good and Harm Don’t Exist.
The Broken System: When the Greater Good and Harm Don’t Exist.

Secondly, the threat is nowhere near as immediate as Christians are pretending it is.
Even if someone saw a bus out of the corner of their eye, noticed that there was someone in its path, and realized that there was literally no time to say anything, the danger would still be something that any objective person of any belief system could perceive once there was time to review the situation.

Since the threat that Christians perceive is decidedly not immediately imperative, there’s no excuse whatsoever to equate the imaginary future threat with an immediate, no-time-to-explain emergency.

We should be very leery of Christians’ constant attempts to recast their threat as immediate. It isn’t. There’s plenty of time for them to demonstrate what the problem is.

They simply can’t do it, is the problem they face.

David had time to spend what must have been many hours reading my post, writing and publishing his response, and then hanging out on my blog proselytizing us savages. But despite having all that time on his hands, he never once sought or compiled objective evidence that our sandboxes contained quicksand. He never even seems to have thought that might be a good thing to do when dealing with a group that he knows, categorically, does not subscribe to his beliefs about the Bible.

We’re not supposed to notice that curious misuse of time or their self-serving mischaracterization of the threat.

Third, the threat flies in the face of Christians’ love-based marketing.
I wish Christians would pick a gear and stick with it. Are they wanting to sell us on how wonderfully loving and gracious and merciful their imaginary god is? Or are they wishing to terrorize us? Because love and terror cannot coexist, and it’s downright macabre that they keep forgetting that fact. They tend to  market with all that lovey-dovey stuff until they realize nobody’s falling for it, and then they pull out the stops making the most vicious threats they can possibly imagine.

Outsiders might suffer emotional whiplash observing Christians as they careen from one pole to the next, but people never notice this about-face. They’re that used to it.

Ears to hear, &etc. (Screencap from DuckDuckGo search engine and here’s a very nice post from a Christian about his own search term adventure.)

These threats might work on people who are primed to be afraid–and many are, don’t make any mistake about that. In a very real sense, Christianity is about fear and it always has beenSome people are just more susceptible to fear-based marketing tactics. Without serious personal work they’ll always be at risk of falling for those tactics even if they eventually leave Christianity. But that work cannot even begin while their butts are parked in pews.

If someone does get sucked into the religion because of threats like the Oncoming Bus Gambit, the fear won’t end there, of course. Their leaders play a lot of catch-up around the topic of helping their flocks feel a little less fear–even while pursuing a theology and doctrines that fan the flames of fear to a fever pitch.

On that note, in this bus analogy of theirs, their god is actually the bus driver. He is also the one who put the pothole there, who distributed the adulterated food, who arranged the ledge, and who set the quicksand into the playground sandbox. Christians are in effect saying, “Jesus is so loving that he wants to save you from the fate that he specifically set up for people who refuse to blow kisses at his ass like we do.”

We’re not supposed to call attention to that fact either.

Fourth, this is an incredibly self-serving, self-flattering little fantasy.
The Gambit plays into a lot of the most insufferable traits of toxic Christians: their unwarranted self-importance, their vision of themselves as the heroes in the movie about their lives they have playing in their heads at all times, their perception of having underdog status as the unheeded prophets and disdained rescuers of humanity, and their insistence that they possess greater powers of discernment and judgment than anybody else. Worst of all, this fantasy puts the Christian into a decidedly superior position over the person they are “rescuing.”

That’s why David saw what he was doing as “[going] out on a limb.” To him, in his mind, his tribemates are big brave evangelists trying to rescue people from mortal danger–and getting “spat on” for it by nasty evil ungrateful non-believers who will get what’s coming to them one day if they don’t listen. (This attitude is completely shared by the main character in God’s Club–it’s not uncommon at all.)

We should be wary of any characterization that puts us into such an exalted position over another person. Generally, such a characterization is not only false but serves as an excuse to mistreat others. Toxic Christians like to imagine that they’re the wise teachers and gentle guides for everyone–and that they are parental figures and Designated Adults to the whole world. The Gambit helps them visualize this fantasy and puts words to how they see themselves in relation to others.

This ain’t a hard-and-fast 100% correlation or anything, but I’ve noticed that when a fantasy of ours makes us sound really superior to others or rationalizes away being unkind to them, it’s usually got some serious factual problems.

Fifth, the Gambit puts the Christian’s needs way above those of their victims.
In the same way that Nice Guys™ put their personal needs and desires ahead of their victims’ desire to feel safe or go about their business without being harassed, Christians place their own feelings (of guilt if they don’t proselytize; of fear for the eternal fate of their victim; of urgency over the threat) above the needs and desires of their own victims.

As far as they’re concerned, their need to issue an immediate warning takes precedence over anything that their victims are doing, any and all social courtesies, and even legal boundaries standing between them and their movie-moment of heroic rescue.

Whatever way the victim responds, the Nice Guy™ and Christian alike both win. If the victim actually ends up buying into the threat or at least appreciating it for whatever misguided reason, then obviously that’s a critical success–a natural 20 if ever there was one. If the victim at least allows the abuse to occur, then the Christian gets the thrill of having dominated someone. And if the victim seriously pushes back or mocks the Christian, they get to nurse their injured pride by fantasizing about the punishment coming that person’s way for defying their warning and even to use it as an example of how very persecuted Christians in America are (as David and Squinty did!).

Last, the Gambit denies personal sovereignty and tramples consent.
And this is the Big Kahuna of all flaws. The Gambit assumes that there are times when someone’s sovereignty must be hand-waved away, when consent just isn’t important, and when it’s okay to transgress against another person’s boundaries, the law, or common courtesy. It further assumes that the Christian buying into the Gambit is personally able to responsibly discern when one of those occasions has cropped up.

At its heart, the Oncoming Bus Gambit isn’t much different from an unwanted  dick pic or catcalling. It’s a way for someone in a dominant group to harass and bother someone in a marginalized group in a way that that victim will not be able to gainsay or stop without significant risk.

So yes. It’s a demonstration of privilege.

Little wonder Christians can’t stop themselves from doing it even at a time when every single one of their evangelism tactics is a demonstrable failure on every single conceivable level. If they really wanted to be successful salespeople, they certainly could be; in that case I’d at least expect to see more pushback from Christian themselves when their more belligerent peers act out. They aren’t pushing back or learning how to market themselves effectively, and it’s hard not to think that maybe that’s because they’re not really in it to “save” anybody. This form of “witnessing” isn’t about really conversion. It’s about flaunting privilege, relishing the near-sexual thrill of fighting with people in the enemy tribe, and rubbing non-Christians’ noses in their lesser status (to keep that status quo in place while they still can).

Our Christian visitor displayed that mindset in spades. I don’t think he realized just how glaringly obvious he was making his utter contempt for us.

But we noticed.

We always notice.


Getting You Enrolled.

Enrollment is a psychological term meaning roughly “to get someone to buy into and invest in the speaker’s ideas.” It’s not just stoking interest or getting people curious. It’s not even simply to persuade someone of an idea. It’s getting someone to start taking part in the idea themselves: to enroll themselves into its reasoning to become an active part of the enrolling team. In this context, it’s inducing victims to envision themselves in the abuser’s situation, doing what the abuser is doing. It’s a form of proselytization all its own. As these personal coaches put it, “enrollment is more than a simple yes–it’s a committed yes.”

Here, the Christian implies (or even flat-out states) that anybody would rescue a person facing serious, immediate danger. In fact, the Christian goes on to imply, anybody would transgress boundaries in order to accomplish a rescue. The Gambit asks, all kittenish and wide-eyed, Gee guys, haven’t we all been there? and it expects the answer to be a resounding yes. It expects us not to have ever thought of the situation in quite that way–and now that we’ve been confronted with this recasting of events in that light, it expects us to “go and sin no more” by accepting this treatment in the future and maybe even repeat it ourselves should the occasion arise.

This effort to persuade listeners to sign on to the mission has an even more important motivation. The Gambit always ends with a demand: even in the event someone doesn’t agree that the threat is valid, the Christian must still be absolved of all blame for any transgressions that they committed in issuing their warning. Gosh darn it, bless their little cotton socks, they’re jus’ tryin’ sooooo hard!

But as we’ve covered, nothing could be further from the truth.

Defusing the Gambit.

To defuse the Gambit, refuse to engage with what-ifs and metaphors or to cut Christians slack for “trying” if their version of “trying” necessarily means us getting trampled. Expect them to behave like adults, not little children telling scary stories around a campfire late at night.

Remind the Christian in question that there’s no immediate danger at all, so there’s plenty of time for them to credibly demonstrate the validity of their threat–if they can. Make clear that you do not buy into their attempt to create fear or stoke terror in you–and that you will not excuse their mistreatment just because they’re mistreating you for what they believe to be a good cause. If you want to, you can show them what kinds of evidence you’d consider persuasive, which might make them wonder, if they try to summon that evidence, why it does not actually exist. Feel free to withdraw from the conversation if they refuse to stop mistreating you or if they continue to offer scary stories and threats in lieu of what you’ve told them you’d consider valid reasons to accept their warnings.

Remember, Christians live in a never-never-land of ANY DAY NOW, a state of worked-up terror that has existed for them since the day some anonymous scribe decided to mess with his pals put pen to parchment to describe Christianity’s myths for the first time. To them, the threat of Hell is immediate. Any second now, any moment at all now, their god could get off his ass and finally kick-start the end of the world. Or we could drop dead. Or some hideous natural catastrophe could totally wreck our week.

By making clear that we will not be enrolling in their worldview, we can–if not get them to re-evaluate their tactics–at least get them to stop bugging us.

The Gambit is nothing less than a manifestation–a symptom, in a sense–of the major problem facing Christianity.

As you can guess, in that movie we’ve been talking about, God’s Club, the Gambit is obliquely referenced. We’ll be taking up there next time as we discuss the main character’s self-conceptualization as a hero who’s just trying to “be nice” to his neighbors by illegally proselytizing their kids without their permission. He’s wrong, but he’s wrong in a way that’s so common nowadays among Christians that one could be excused for thinking that this attitude is an essential core belief in the religion!

See you then! And here’s a video of Bother jumping really high–I probably should have gotten Mr. Captain to helm the camera, but he was busy playing his big stompy robot games–c’mon, Botherlet, you can do it!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...