Did you know that many evangelicals think Catholics are going to Hell? Some won’t publically admit it but they believe that because Catholics don’t believe the right things about how a person is “saved,” they don’t make it into Heaven. From the Protestant point of view, Catholic theology teaches that there are certain things you have to do in order to earn admittance into paradise while Protestants themselves explicitly reject this notion. For Protestants in general and evangelicals in particular, above all salvation must be “through faith” rather than “through good works.” Believing right has always mattered more to them than acting right because in the end you can be forgiven for failing at the latter, but not the former. Having seen the darker side of evangelicalism since I left the fold, I must say I know this all too well. But you can imagine how, if they even censure Catholics for insufficiently emphasizing faith, they must save their harshest condemnation for those who reject the notion of faith altogether. What could possibly offend an evangelical more than an atheist? The difference between those two groups cuts to the heart of what an evangelical is.
Liberal and mainline Christians today don’t have this hang-up about atheists. Many of them wouldn’t bat an eye if a friend or loved one didn’t accept faith as a valid way of perceiving the world. For these subgroups, how you live matters more than what you believe, and for that reason I call these people my allies in the culture wars. For these people, love triumphs over dogma. That’s why you won’t see them out picketing and lobbying to limit the rights of whole classes of people based on the primitive biases of ancient religious texts. You won’t hear their preachers admonishing those who think differently from them to leave the country because they will not be missed. If you live in a country or a region dominated by liberal or mainline Christianity, you probably won’t get why people like me are always writing about the exclusionary nature of religious belief because you don’t see that where you live. Around where I live, though, it’s an almost daily challenge. I live in the heart of Baptist country.
I remember how, when I “got saved” at fifteen, it took me a little while to come to grips with the way evangelical theology works. Even though I had grown up in a thriving Southern Baptist megachurch with a nationally known preacher, I had still absorbed the popular Hollywood notion that as long as your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, you get to go to Heaven (see Ghost, or more comically This Is the End). After sharing about my still recent dramatic “Damascus Road” conversion experience with my youth group, my youth minister pulled me aside to educate me in the distinction between “salvation by grace through faith” and “salvation by works.” In time I came to understand that difference of theology to be so important that I even began to date my conversion from that later conversation more than from the initial emotional experience at the evangelistic youth conference. At the conference I “rededicated my life to Christ,” but after the conversation with my youth minister I came to think correctly about how salvation works. This, I came to see, was the key element to “getting saved” in evangelical theology.
Once you break it down, this theology teaches that “thinking incorrectly” is the only thing that sends anyone to Hell. Theoretically, Heaven will be full of the worst kinds of sinners who “got saved” (i.e. came to understand the plan of salvation) on their deathbeds while eternal torment awaits billions of good people who just believed in the wrong things. It’s an insult to rationality: One murderer goes to Heaven and one goes to Hell, but what made the difference? The difference is that the “saved” one at some point in time came to think correctly about how salvation works. He came to subscribe to the notion that 1) he needed saving, 2) Jesus provided a means for that, and 3) by simply believing in 1 & 2, he gets the forgiveness he needs to wipe his record clean! It turns out that in the end your eternal destiny has nothing to do with how you behave and everything to do with whether or not you believe the right things.
Evangelicals are encouraged to qualify this stance by saying that anyone who is truly saved will be changed for the better. They will submit to “the lordship of Christ” and begin living right as a result of believing right. But when pressed, they will still argue that the believing is prior, and is therefore the more important thing. In evangelical thinking, it’s the only non-negotiable. Even a “backslidden” Christian can be saved as long as he never decides to rely on his own goodness as the means for gaining access to the presence of God. The thief on the cross had nothing to show for his acceptance into the kingdom of God except his belief that Jesus was the way to get there. In the mind of that gospel writer (and therefore of evangelicals today) that’s all that really matters.
A Divisive Doctrine from the Start
At some point evangelicals will usually cite the book of James as their balance for this idiosyncrasy, not realizing that Paul and James bitterly opposed each other over this very issue. Most Bible-loving Christians are blissfully unaware that the early Church was split over whether or not Paul’s notion of “salvation by faith” was really legit. The Judean church based in Jerusalem taught that only Jews and converts to Judaism could be saved, but Paul ingeniously re-envisioned the message of Christianity to include anyone who simply believed the right things—no dietary laws required, and nobody has to go “under the knife,” so to speak. Both Paul and James hinged their respective arguments on the same story of Abraham, with James saying Abraham was righteous for following orders and Paul arguing that it was Abraham’s faith that made him righteous, irrespective of what he would later do.
In Acts 15 we are told of an emergency conference called to settle the dispute, but James’s resolution and Paul’s were polar opposites. If you read between the lines of Luke’s efforts to gloss over the conflict, making these two competing Christianities appear more harmoniously compatible than they really were, you’ll see that these two men never came to see eye to eye on this matter.* For years to come, the Pauline churches would be targets for the proselytizing of evangelists from Jerusalem trying to convince the Gentiles they must convert to Judaism, and Paul would have to spend letter after letter countering their theology right up until his death. The “judaizers” might have even won and Pauline theology would have died out if it weren’t for the Great Revolt which began in Jerusalem in the year 66 CE and
the subsequent demolition of the focal point of the Jewish faith, the Temple, in 70 CE. Paul’s version of Christianity won out, and that’s why we’re still discussing these things today. If the Jewish-Roman wars hadn’t scattered Judean Christianity the way that it did, privileging Pauline Christianity in the process, the New Testament canon would look dramatically different from how it looks today. In fact, it’s highly likely that this new religion would have gone the way of the Essenes or some other obscure Jewish sect of the period. It would have become yet another curious footnote of history, having little to no impact on world history.
Believing in Belief Itself
Today, however, Paul’s innovative emphasis on “faith” instead of “dead works” characterizes those traditions most committed to being “New Testament.” Occasionally baptism gets thrown in as a requirement (if you’re Church of Christ), plus an argument can be made that when you make “believing” a condition for salvation, that makes it a “work” of a different kind—call it cerebral legalism. But the watershed issue is: Do you believe the right things? If you do, you’re in. If you don’t, you’re out. In other words, for many evangelicals, it’s not just about believing in Jesus, it’s about believing in believing in Jesus. Catholics and mainline Protestants may have faith in Jesus, but evangelicals have faith in faith itself. That was what I learned the night I addressed my youth group and gave my dramatic testimony. The most important thing, I was told, is to believe the right things about salvation and about faith itself and how it works.
This is why atheists are so frightening to evangelicals. Baptists may dislike Muslims and Hindus but at least they believe in some kind of god(s). Atheists reject the very notion of faith itself, and that, it would seem, is the unpardonable sin. Wayward sinners have their place in evangelical churches. Shoot, even prostitutes and criminals can find a place in church because their kind are featured prominently in the story of Jesus. But someone who doesn’t even see validity in faith at all? That scares the living daylights out of most evangelicals. That cuts to the core of what evangelical Christianity is about. That makes atheists the most viscerally repulsive people of all.
Hopefully this will explain why you see so much of the culture wars playing out between evangelicals and atheists in the United States. I hear my friends from other countries (and from regions in the US where evangelicalism is underrepresented) questioning: “Why the fuss? What gives?” The reason why people like me keep writing about religion is because it continues to drive people in my region to do oppressive, marginalizing things to people who are outside their faith. They feel the vulnerability of their worldview in the face of ever-encroaching reason and scientific progress, and it makes them act out, often targeting people like me. We threaten their faith by our very existence, and they’d really rather we went away entirely. But since we won’t, they’ll use whatever means they can find to protect their place of privilege in the public sphere, trusting us least of all. It’s all about protecting faith, which makes us their greatest enemy.
* After the Jerusalem conference of Acts 15, the leaders of Jerusalem (evidently led by James) sent a letter to be read in all the churches, instructing them to stay kosher; but when Paul tells the exact same story, he says, “They added nothing to my message…all they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor.” Not a word about dietary laws, which is significant. Paul never accepted the supposed resolution of the conflict, and his competing version of Christianity eventually overtook the Judean version and has subsequently dominated Christian theology ever since.