The Observation of an Atheist Historian: What Makes Christianity Stand Out Among World Religions


The radical quality of the love of Jesus stands out over and above all other examples. I have written on this before (the Christian expression of the Golden Rule compared to other religions). Most other world religions express some concept of the Golden Rule, but not in the way that Jesus did.

Other world religions state the Golden Rule in a limited way, such as not doing things to others that you would not want them to do to you. It’s the idea of refraining from doing evil. Under that concept of the Golden Rule, we simply need to avoid doing evil to our neighbors. There is no compulsion to do good to them. Ignoring your neighbor would be perfectly acceptable on the this principal.

Most major world religions do not express Golden Rule positively, as Jesus did: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Doing unto others is an affirmative duty. Simply refraining from doing them evil is not the concept of the Golden Rule expressed by Jesus.

Jesus made this clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable begins with a man who was robbed and left injured on the road. A priest and Levite (the priestly cast of Judaism) walked by the man on the other side of the road, ignoring him, while a Samaritan (an outcast to Jews) crossed the road to tend to the injured man. The good Samaritan was the example of the person who demonstrated love for a “neighbor” because he didn’t just ignore the injured man lying in the road.  The idea of the Golden Rule that Jesus expressed includes an affirmative duty to do  good.

To be fair, some religions come close to an affirmative expression of the Golden Rule, which I affirm in the previous blog piece, but there is one additional expression of the Golden Rule that stands alone: that is the concept of loving even our enemies and doing good to those who intend evil toward us and do us harm.

I think of these things as I pause from listening to Douglas Murray in a discussion with Esther Riley on the Unbelievable? podcast with Justin Brierley, the host. (See Douglas Murray and Esther O’Reilly – Christian Atheism and the search for identity. The video is embedded below.)

Douglas Murray, an atheist and openly gay man, makes the observation that most Christian tenets can be found in other cultures, save one: that is the principal that of loving and forgiving even our enemies. Loving and forgiving our enemies is the ultimate statement of the Golden Rule. Even when we have enemies who intend to do us harm, and even when they actually do us harm, Jesus says, “Forgive them.” The conversation got into some recent examples of that expression of love and forgiveness that I will explore.

Continue reading “The Observation of an Atheist Historian: What Makes Christianity Stand Out Among World Religions”

Of Miracles & Snake Oil


As I was listening to an interview of panelists and presenters from the last Unbelievable conference in the United States[1], I was struck by something AJ Roberts[2] said in a discussion about miracles. She opined that people do not believe in miracles in the West because of the western emphasis on rationality over experience.

When she said that, I questioned in my mind whether she was right. Not that I haven’t heard that before. I have even thought that before myself. But a thought occurred to me this time as she made this assertion in the context of a broader discussion about miracles by the thoughtful panelists.

We do live in a society in which education is valued and science and rationality is emphasized at the academic level. The United States of America was built on a foundation of free public education. This is why schoolhouses were built all across the frontier, and colleges followed as the frontier expanded.

As an aside, I note that most of colleges in the US that were established before the 20th century were religiously inspired and motivated. From the Ivy League schools and across the country, most colleges and universities in the US have religious roots, but that is a subject for another day.

As I think about that fact, I am reminded of another strain to the legacy of this country, a more popular influence. That is the strain of Americanism that gave rise to the snake oil salesman[3], the huckster, people searching for the legendary fountain of youth, circus sideshows and the market for elixirs that promise happiness, long life and improvement to the digestive system.

Interestingly, our American proclivity toward quackery may have grown out of a combination of pluralism and capitalism. Pluralism brought people from all parts of the world to the shores of the New World with Old World remedies that cowboy capitalist exploited with claims of false cures. Americans have been so taken by such false claims that regulatory industries have been spawned by our gullibility, yet the “snake oil claims” live on.

I think about all the people I have known and the silly, hairbrained things they have put their faith in. There is no end to the pyramid schemes that promise health and riches. We, in the west, have even developed variations of New Age, religious elixirs that promise to deliver all of the benefits of the old snake oils in shiny, metaphysical packages that boasts none of the sticky side effects of traditional Christianity, like the need to deal with personal sin and accountability to a creator God.

It occurs to me that, maybe, the apparent dearth of miracles in the US isn’t that we have an exalted idea of rationality. Maybe God doesn’t grant us many miracles as we will believe almost anything. What’s another miracle claim among many? We might be just a little bit too inclined to believe them and to focus too much on them.

When Jesus sent out 72 of his followers ahead of him to go town to town proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God and healing the sick, they came back excited that “even the demons are subject to us in your name!” But Jesus admonished them: “[D]o not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”[4] Jesus also warned that many people would do miracles in His name that are not His people.[5]

I have often wondered why missionaries report so many miracles that God does in other countries, why the average American seems to have never experienced or seen a miracle. Perhaps, it’s because we are too predisposed to believe anything, not that we are disposed not to believe. We have learned well the willing suspension of disbelief that we employ in our favorite forms of entertainment, and we have turned that practice into driving desire for our lives. (Thank about the Disney themes of love at first sight and living happily ever after.)

At the pedestrian level, outside the halls of academia, we have a history of being taken by extraordinary claims as long as they are smartly and provocatively packaged. Perhaps it isn’t that we are so grounded by rationality, but that we are willing to believe almost anything that comes down the road, as long as it promises something that we want and can access on our own without the bother of accountability to a God who can’t be manipulated.

We even have our own brand of Christianity in the US that caters to our preferences – the word of faith movement. Name it and claim it! Believe it and seize it! Deposit your prayers with holy confidence into the divine slot machine and out will come your healing, cash, whatever you want. All you have to do is believe.

I used to think often that Christians in the west don’t observe or experience miracles because we are more rationally minded, but I am not so sure of that as I write this. Maybe we are too easily fooled.

Continue reading “Of Miracles & Snake Oil”

God In the Dark

We don’t expect to find God in our darkest places, and yet He is there.


Jess Lester, journalist writing for Christian Premiere Magazine out of the UK, told her story recently on the Unbelievable podcast in an interview with Justin Brierley. She is Jewish by descent and culture, but she attended a Christian school in her youth. Her parents are no-practicing Jews, but her grandparents were observant.

She grew up with exposure to the Judeo-Christian world, but God was more of an intellectual idea to her than a personal reality. As a teenager, however, she consciously turned her back on God when her very good friend suffered a brain hemorrhage that left her unable to speak. Jess spent several days a week in the hospital with her friend trying to help her speak again, only to experience her friend suffer another brain hemorrhage that left her brain dead.

After her friend’s parents took her off life support, Jess was devastated. She poured herself into her friend’s recovery and prayed along with the family for healing, and God didn’t deliver. God took her friend, she thought, and it angered her. Why would He do that to such a good person?! This experience led Jess to reject God openly and consciously. Following her friend’s death, Jess lived in open rebellion and defiance toward God.

Over the next few years, things went from bad to worse for Jess. She drank, did drugs and slept around in open hostility to the God she thought took her friend from her. She also fell into depression to the point where she had suicidal thoughts and even planned her own demise.  She got desperate, admitting to her mother that she needed help, but the turning point came in a very unlikely place.

Jess attended a concert where a favorite band of hers, the 1975s, were performing. They sang a song that that was defiant toward God. She had played it a dozen times a day and knew the lyrics well. It wasn’t a Christian song in any sense of the term, but she found herself crying out in the middle of the concert these lyrics: “Jesus, Jesus show yourself to me!”

While the lyrics are meant more as a taunt than a plea, she made it her plea from her heart. Looking back now, she says this is when God responded. Subtly at first, it became more apparent to her as time went on that God was with her in her dark times, and He was reaching out to her. I won’t recount the details, here, but they are well worth listening to, along with the other guests that were interviewed for the Christmas Special – Dean Mayes, Jess Lester and Rupert Shortt Share Their Stories.

This story reminds me that we do not always find God in the pious, religious places where we might expect Him. God is everywhere, and that means He is with us in our darkest times and in the darkest of places. While the song that prompted Jess Lester to cry out was actually anti-Christian in its intended meaning, God used that song that Jess knew well as the vehicle by which she connected with Him.

Jess makes the point in telling her story that things men might mean for evil God is able to use for good. That idea of God using bad things for good purposes comes from the Old Testament story of Joseph, who was left for dead in the bottom of a well by his own brothers and taken off into slavery.

Continue reading “God In the Dark”

The End of White Christian America?


The headline reads: White Christian America ended in the 2010s.[1] As a white evangelical (and male), the first reaction to such a headline, I admit, is to cringe. We hear so much about the white privilege, white evangelicals and white Christians, generally.

It gets old for me. But, if this time really spells the end of “white Christian America”, however that might actually be defined, then so be it.  truth is truth. Reality is reality.

Of course, the headline in the NY Times in 1966 that God is Dead[2] proved to be a bit exaggerated. Thus, I don’t necessarily concede that white Christian America ended in the 2010s. I am skeptical of statistics and statisticians. I am skeptical of sweeping statements. I am skeptical of the biases that inform the conclusions we reach.

Further, the statement implies that we can identify white Christian America (and agree on a definition). I don’t identify, myself, with the stereotypes that appear to be informing the article. My wife and I decided to live in a city and allow our children to go to public school in which white folks like us are minorities. We made that decision for the sake of giving them experience with diversity. We embrace diversity.

On that basis alone, I think we defy the view of “white Christians” that inform the article. More than that: I feel that we are not alone. I feel that most of the white Christians I know view the world more like me than the article suggests. Personally, I don’t think racial considerations are as much a factor as the statisticians and pundits who use them assert, nor do I associate white and Christian.

“White Christian” Europe is a ghost of what it was. Europe and Canada are decidedly “post-Christian”, and the United States is following. Meanwhile, Christianity in Latin and South America is growing at a record pace, as is Christianity in China and Iran, even amidst the oppression and persecution. Jesus was a Middle Eastern “man of color”, and most Christians in the world are non-white.

Still, the numbers in the United States tell a story. I am not sure we are very good at reading and understanding the story they tell. I would argue that the story these numbers tell is more about a seismic shift in the predominant worldviews that drive societal change in the United States than a racial divide – not that there is no racial divide.

Though I am skeptical about the story this article tells, the numbers suggest that something is going on. Some shift has occurred over the last decade or two that is revealed in these numbers, and it is a shift away from a politically conservative, Christian position (white, black or brown).

The predominantly white, evangelical movement that has rallied around Trump as a political savior is a last ditch, desperate and ill-conceived (in my opinion) attempt at clinging to a position of societal influence. It’s an attempt to exert human wisdom and strength into a flawed human system. I am not sure how much of that effort is inspired by faith in the sovereignty of God and how much it is inspired by the will of man.

Yes, God establishes authorities, like Donald Trump, and that means God establishes the authority of other leaders, like Barack Obama (or any other leader, for that matter).[3] If we believe God establishes any authority, we have to believe He establishes all of them (even the ones we don’t like, the ones that we feel are a threat to us). We can’t say with any degree of integrity that God only establishes certain authorities that we favor, and not others.

Frankly, we need to reconsider how to interpret Romans 13 on that score, starting with the fact that Paul spoke those words to the Romans who suffered greatly under a harsh and hostile Roman world that worshiped Caesar and put to death those who would not bow down to him. It can’t mean what we popularly think it means in the United States.

We also need to be careful about putting our confidence in kings. Our confidence should be grounded in God, alone. God established Saul as king when the people wanted a king (like the other nations), but that wasn’t actually a blessing; it was actually a rejection of reliance on God.[4]

God gave the people what they wanted, though they were actually rejecting God in the process. God used that circumstance, as He uses all things, to accomplish His purposes, of course. But that doesn’t mean that the people who supported having a king were on the right side of that equation.

We have to remember that our end game isn’t in this world, but in the life to come. If the numbers and the trends they reveal suggest anything, they suggest that we will need an eternal perspective all the more as we lose hold of our significance among the powers and influences of this modern US world.

And if the world hates us (for the right reasons – because we are God’s people, not necessarily because we have power or privilege), we shouldn’t be surprised. The world hated Jesus too. Our best response isn’t to cling to worldly power, but to die on the cross that God has shaped for us.

God is strong in our weakness. In this time in which Christians seem to be losing our foothold in the national power structure, we need to look to God for our strength. That isn’t a bad thing, in my opinion. That’s where we should be looking for our strength in all circumstances. It’s easier, though, to lean on God’s strength when we are weak.

And, assuming that is the case, it’s going to easier for us to lean on God. Not necessarily because we want to, or because that is our natural inclination (because it isn’t), but because we will have no other choice. And if that is the case, then so be it.

I won’t rue the end of white America, though I would glad trade the white part for the Christian part. The white part will continue to color. It’s inevitable, and frankly I think for the best in a world that is increasingly global and diverse. Every tribe and tongue is represented in Revelations, so why would Christians do anything but applaud the increasing diversity of the United States?

As for Christian, I would gladly lose cultural (American) Christianity for real spiritual renewal.  Maybe God is stripping away the impurities to expose the gold. If that is the case, we have a long way to go, and the fire is going to get hotter.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

[1] White Christian America ended in the 2010s, by Robert P. Jones, the CEO and founder of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) and the author of “The End of White Christian America,” which won the 2019 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. His forthcoming book is “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity”, published at NBCnews.com Dec. 27, 2019.

[2] God is dead, and religion dying, remembered by James Finn in the New York Times April 19, 1970

[3] For an excellent expose on the way we cite Romans 13 to support our own bias, see Misusing Romans 13 To Embrace Theocracy, by Stephen Mattson at sojo.net December 10, 2019.

[4] See Is Donald Trump the King We Wanted? at Navigatingbyfaith.com November 17, 2019.

The Difference Is In What We Do


These were the words I read this morning when I opened my Bible app:

“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:10 ESV)

As I think about this exhortation from Paul, I realize that our faith is meant to be manifested in doing good. It also occurs to me that, maybe, we have gotten the emphasis wrong.

I can understand how it happened. Common people didn’t have the Scripture to read for themselves. The church had gotten corrupted by power and wealth. Priests sold indulgences and turned faith into a religion of required observances and superstitious piety.

John Wycliffe and others made Scripture available to the common people, and Martin Luther and the people he inspired rediscovered the that salvation is received by faith. It’s a matter of grace, not of works, lest any man boast.

These things were inspired by the Holy Spirit at the time, but we always flirt with the danger of settling into religious ruts that prevent us from appreciating and considering the whole counsel of God. Western Protestantism has tended for centuries to accept the stuffy air of an academic, heady faith that gets too little exercise in the “good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them”.[1]

This is the progression: We are “saved through faith”; this is not our own doing; “it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast”.[2] But we can’t stop there. We have to realize the truth of the very next statement: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”[3]

We are saved by faith, not by works, in order for us to do the good works God prepared for us to do.

We are saved by faith, not by works, in order for us to do the good works God prepared for us to do.

Paul’s words in Galatians and the entire thrust of Scripture suggest that the hallmark of Christian faith is the good that we do that flows out of the salvation we received by faith.

Continue reading “The Difference Is In What We Do”

To Us a Child Was Born

We have good reason to be expectant that God will do, and is doing, what He said He would do.


“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone…. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:2, 6 ESV)

These words that are repeated often at Christmas time were spoken originally by Isaiah, the prophet, hundreds of years before Jesus. “For unto us a child is born….” These words are so ubiquitous in our western culture today that we may miss the significance of them.

At one time, people doubted the dating of Isaiah because it so accurately describes Jesus who was born around 4 BC. Isaiah lived purportedly in the 8th Century BC. Because Isaiah predates Jesus and the span of time from Isaiah to Jesus, an increasingly skeptical world that seriously doubted the predictive nature of those words begin to think that the Isaiah text was written after Jesus, perhaps in the 1st Century after his death.

People no longer doubt when Isaiah wrote those words, however, not since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. One of the most significant discoveries among the Dead Scrolls was the Isaiah Scroll. It has been dated hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, and it is nearly word for word the same as the more recent manuscripts of Isaiah that we had until that time.[1]

Isaiah contains, perhaps, the clearest and most amazing prophecies in the whole OT of the coming of Jesus.[2] For this reason, Isaiah is quoted every Christmas. Particularly the statements stating that the Messiah would come as a child.

At least one aspect of what Isaiah wrote gets lost in wonder of the predictions he spoke. We look back on them now with wonder and amazement that God inspired Isaiah to speak those words so long ago, but when Isaiah spoke them, no one listened. No one believed him.

Continue reading “To Us a Child Was Born”

Did the Golden Rule Result from the Evolutionary Process?

The truest expression of the Golden Rule is the expression in which there is no self-interest at all

illiI have a friend who likes to assert that the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) is not unique to Christianity or to religion. He believes that the Golden Rule is a result of the evolutionary process and can be seen in nature. His conclusion is that the Golden doesn’t come from God or religion, but from the evolutionary process.

I don’t subscribe to that (obviously), but I haven’t really set out to test the hypothesis. I have done much thinking on the Golden Rule as the “second greatest commandment”, as Jesus called it. I have compared the Golden Rule that was invoked, encouraged and demonstrated by Jesus in his own life to the expressions of a golden-like rule in other religious traditions.

I am not shocked or surprised to find expressions of an ethic like the Golden Rule in all (or nearly all) world religions. Truth is truth, right? Shouldn’t we expect to find it or expressions of it wherever we look? We wouldn’t we expect to find some expression of the Golden Rule in nature too? If the world was created by God, shouldn’t the world exhibit the character of God that is expressed in the Golden Rule?

Ok, does anyone really think that the world expresses God’s love as summarized in the Golden Rule? I have heard many atheists say they don’t believe in God precisely because the world doesn’t exhibit God’s love. Christians, of course, find reasons for this reality expressed in the Scripture. I don’t intend to address them here, but I think the point is a good one: that the demonstration of the Golden Rule is difficult to find in nature.

In the end, we can see something of the Golden Rule in nature, but the demonstration of it leaves something to be desired. It doesn’t explain why the Golden Rule exists. It doesn’t prove the evolutionary paradigm, and it doesn’t negate the existence of a creator God in whose nature and character the Golden Rule finds its source.

Continue reading “Did the Golden Rule Result from the Evolutionary Process?”