A few weeks ago a colleague of mine asked me why I was a Christian. “Is the evidence for God so overwhelming that you were compelled to be a Christian? Which piece of evidence is the one that makes you Christian?” Only a few days earlier, I had been reflecting on this very question. Was it the argument from fine tuning? The cosmological argument? The historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? Although philosophical, historical, and scientific arguments can be used to make a strong case for theism in general or for Christianity in particular, very few people become Christians because of these arguments. In fact, I’d argue that the arguments themselves are not the real reason -even on a human level- that a person becomes a Christian. The answer that I gave to my friend is that ultimately I am a Christian because I need salvation; a felt need for salvation is what led me -and leads people in general- to Jesus.
In this essay, I will not try to answer the question of why I believe Christianity to be objectively true, although I certainly do believe it is objectively true. Instead, the question that I will try to answer is why people become Christians in the first place and why they remain Christians in spite of trouble, suffering, and sometimes even persecution and death. Simply pointing to the evidence for Christianity as the existential or experiential basis for our belief is insufficient for at least two reasons. First, the vast majority of people have a very limited understanding of apologetics when they put their faith in Jesus. Apart from the knowledge that Jesus was a real historical figure (which -ironically- I had acquired as a non-Christian in a class at Princeton known popularly as “the Faith Buster”), my understanding of the historical evidence for Christianity was extremely limited when I became a Christian. Indeed, most people would affirm that they became a Christian through an encounter with the Jesus of the Bible rather than through a series of intellectual arguments.
Now from this fact we cannot conclude that their belief in Christianity is false or even unwarranted unless we assume that such an encounter with Jesus is impossible. This assumption is clearly not available to a truly unbiased inquirer. But from this fact, an unbiased inquirer can legitimately conclude that belief in Christianity often does not originate with apologetic arguments. A second fair question is why two very intelligent people can look at the same evidence and arrive at completely different conclusions. Why is the argument from fine tuning very compelling for some people and not for others? An atheist would answer that a Christian is biased because he or she wants God to exist. I would agree but would add that the atheist is also biased because he or she wants God to not exist. Try as we might, we cannot be disinterested observers when it comes to matters of religion. But it is this very lack of objectivity that I would like to examine since it shows us one of the fundamental reasons that some people become Christians while others do not. In fact, I would like to advance the claim that the felt need for salvation separates not only Christians from atheists, but Christianity from all other religions.
The idea that salvation is an idea unique to Christianity ought to shock us. After all, don’t the vast majority of religions center on salvation? Buddhists long for release from suffering and the illusion of the material world. Muslims seek a heavenly paradise. Hindus desire to escape the cycle of reincarnation. But what is fascinating is that when we use the word “salvation” to describe the hope of these religions, we actually use it in a way that is in utter contrast to our non-religious use of the word. Given that the etymological root of “salvation” is in the word “save” (both come from the Latin salvare), consider the following secular uses of this word: “A passing motorist dove into the icy water to save the drowning child”, “The surgeon saved my father’s life by performing open heart surgery” or even “The goalkeeper made six spectacular saves over the course of the game.” Two ideas are common to these examples. The first is the idea of rescue and the second is that of inability. When we use the word “save” in a non-religious context, we assume that the object itself is utterly incapable of some action and is rescued from the natural course of events by some external intervention. In this sense, I would argue that the word ‘salvation’ is inappropriate to describe how other religions envision our reconciliation with God. If we really take “salvation” to imply “rescue”, then it seems to me that this word can only truly be used to describe the Christian gospel. In fact, to avoid any confusion, I will substitute the word “rescue”, “rescued” and “rescuer” for the words “salvation”, “saved” and “savior” from now on to capture what Christians mean (or ought to mean!) when they use these words.
Let me then restate my claim. The principle reason that I am a Christian is that I need to be rescued. What motivates people in general to seek Jesus and to put their trust in Jesus is a felt need for rescue. Again, this felt need does not imply that Christianity is true. But I am not arguing here that Christianity is true. I am only arguing that Christians desperately feel this existential need for rescue. In what follows, I would like to go a bit farther than this. I will try to show that all thoughtful people ought to desperately desire rescue, whether or not they believe in a Rescuer. If we consider our own lives in the light of almost any common ethical standard, we quickly find that there is something terribly wrong with us. Given the terrible moral darkness that lives in all of us and the misery we see in the world around us, we ought to long for some external rescue, even if we believe none is likely or even possible.
First, if we examine our life carefully, we find that we fall horribly short of our own moral standards. For instance, consider the ethical standards that we ourselves had as children or young adults. Have we lived up to them? At one point, we probably differentiated between the kind people and the unkind people. We looked with horror on activities like drug abuse, gossip, cruelty, greed, premarital sex and materialism. How long did it take for those values to fade in the light of our adult independence? Think about the idealism and energy that permeated our early life. Many of us probably dreamed of working for world peace, of fighting evil and injustice, of righting the world’s wrongs. But as we grew older, the real concern and enthusiasm for right and wrong, for good and evil that we once had was slowly replaced by concern and enthusiasm for personal comfort. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters, we feel that we are finding our place in the world, when really the world is finding its place in us.
Or what about our own standards with regards to the behavior of others? I am certain that there are people whom we could justly accuse of hurting us deeply by their actions. But is there anyone in our lives or in our pasts who might make the same accusation to us? If I could search our pasts, is there no one who would have just cause to cry out against us? Is there an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend whose life we have damaged irreparably? Has there never been a schoolmate who in the loneliness of his room has cursed our cruelty or our bullying? Can we look back at a life that is likely strewn with betrayals, slights, and insults and truly claim that we have lived as we ought to have lived and as we wished other people lived? A moment of serious reflection on our past conduct should cause us to shudder.
Even if we consider our actions to have been unimpeachable, do we ever consider our thought life? For men, and especially for husbands and fathers, I would ask us how we would feel if another man looked at our wife or our daughter the way that we have looked at women. We may not actively hurt others, but do we murder them in our hearts through anger and jealousy? If, for even one day, all of our most private thoughts were made audible for everyone to hear, would we go to work? To school? Would we dare to leave our house? We often protest that such failings are simply part of human nature and that all people fail in similar ways. But that is precisely my point! Every human being on the face of the earth is a moral failure when we are judged by the same standards of right and wrong to which we hold others.
Second, we need to consider that the vast majority of people recognize that our own personal standards do not define ethical behavior. For instance, Neoatheist author Sam Harris argues that naturalistic ethics requires us to do as much good as possible to as many people as possible. He does not ground this requirement in the existence of any supernatural Obligator, but defends it as purely naturalistic. Let us assume for a moment that he is correct. Have we lived up to this standard of universal good will?
No. Not for a day. Not even for a hour. Assuming that many of my readers will be Americans, I would point out that our annual income probably places us in the 90th percentile of annual income worldwide. This incredibly good fortune came to us not by virtue of anyuthing we had done, but merely because we happened to be born in the richest country in the world. Given that billions of men, women, and children survive on a few dollars a day, how much do I do to alleviate their suffering? Given that our own inner cities are often filled with broken families, impoverished children, and single mothers struggling on welfare, do I joyfully donate my time and talents to share their burdens? How much time do I even spend thinking about the suffering of others in the word? Any honest reflection on the state of the world we live in and on our own response to it will force us into one of two options. Either we can acknowledge our failure to work tirelessly for the alleviation of suffering in others. Or we can try to kill our natural compassion in self-defense and attempt to ignore the world’s problems to preserve our personal happiness. When we examine ourselves honestly, we find that our problem is not simply that we have failed to alleviate the suffering of others. More significantly, we do not want to alleviate their suffering if it comes at too high a cost to us. We find in ourselves an overpowering desire to remain ignorant of their condition to protect our own happiness.
The last two points have been made without any reference to God. Based on the entirely naturalistic and atheistic ethical systems of utilitarian philosophers like Peter Singer, we find ourselves falling woefully short. But what if we consider the commands of the biblical God? Again, I am not arguing that God exists. I would simply like to look at our behavior through the ethical lens of the Bible, irrespective of our belief in the biblical God. In particular, let us consider the standard that Jesus Christ set for human beings. He summarized the entire duty of human beings towards one another in a single positive command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But it is here that we are actually most terribly exposed. In both of our previous examples, we could imagine achieving a right moral standing through extreme effort. I could radically alter my behavior to coincide with my ethical beliefs and I could radically alter my ethical beliefs to place the appropriate weight on the happiness of the poor and suffering. It is conceivably possible that through discipline, self-denial and sheer will-power I might even achieve some significant measure of improvement. However, Jesus taught that God’s commands apply primarily to our hearts and only subsequently to our actions.
It is quite possible to act ethically with regard to the poor but to do so out of grinding obligation rather than out of love. In Jesus’ exposition of his teaching to “love our neighbor as ourselves” he points out that real love is bounded not from above but from below. In other words, ethics might prescribe a minimum amount that we must give, but love motivates us to give joyfully and extravagantly, without counting the cost. When we truly love our neighbor, the question is not “how much am I required to give?” but “how much am I permitted to give?” At first, this ethic of love strikes us (rightly) as beautiful. But if we take it seriously, we will recognize that by its very goodness, it condemns us. I could conceivably force my behavior to change through will power. But I have no more power to change my heart than I have the power to fly. We are not just asking the wolf to stop eating meat; we are now asking the wolf to turn into a sheep. We might improve our behavior by a dramatic change in lifestyle and a tremendous exertion of will. But the fact that such a tremendous exertion of will would be required, only shows us more clearly how selfish our hearts naturally are. We do not naturally love our neighbor as ourselves; the harder we try, the more we show how unnatural it is.
Based on the above arguments, we should be able to recognize that our actions and ultimately our hearts are desperately sick. We are not living as we should. We do not love others as we ought. This realization is something that almost everyone I know (including myself) is constantly trying to suppress. We want to think of ourselves as basically good and generous people who occasionally do bad things. But a minor amount of introspection shows how false this idea is. We hide from ourselves the sickness and bitterness and pettiness of our own heart. We willingly and gladly distract ourselves from the problems of others and the problems of this world, to keep them from ruining our own personal contentment and complacency. The wickedness of our indifference towards the evil and suffering in the world is not only a Christian idea. Some of my atheist friends agree that the only rational response of a compassionate person to the suffering in the world is personal, perpetual unhappiness and a despairing acknowledgement of our own moral failure.
Some people believe that God’s existence is the solution to the problem of our moral failure. However, I would like to show you that -biblically speaking- this is not true. The existence of a good, holy, and transcendent God is actually terrible news to moral failures like ourselves. If moral absolutes are grounded not in our own perceptions, but in our obligation to our Creator then we have a serious problem. As terrible as our indifference and callousness and hatred towards other human beings is, these actions are primarily directed against God Himself. It is God’s command to love Him and to love others that we have broken. We have not merely failed to live up to our flawed and imperfect standards, but to His beautiful and perfect standards. And as we said, our problem is not only our behavior but our hearts. We do not sin accidentally. We sin because there is, deep in our hearts, a terrible self-centeredness that cannot be displaced by any amount of moral improvement or reform.
It is essentially here that Christianity differs from all other religions. Christians believe in salvation in the original sense of the word. Secular humanism and many other world religions would affirm our obligation to love others and may even affirm our failure to live up to this standard. But their remedy is ultimately some kind of self-improvement through alms-giving, prayer, meditation, fasting, volunteer work. None of these practices is wrong. But Christianity believes that they will never solve either the problem of our objective guilt before God or the thorough corruption of our hearts.
Christians believe in a God who rescues. God does not rescue those who are basically good or basically kind or basically loving. He rescues the evil, the wicked, and the ungodly. God does not rescue you because you are good, but because He is good. The message of the gospel is the message of substitution. God did not send Jesus to teach good people how to earn their way to heaven. Rather, God sent Jesus to live the perfect life we ought to have lived and to die the death that we -as rebels- deserve to die. He freely sent Jesus as a substitute, “the righteous for the unrighteous”. And He just as freely sends the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and renew us. It is when we truly grasp and understand the nature of the gospel – the radical evil in our hearts and the radical grace of God – that we find our desires radically changed. The moral obligation of God’s law tells us that we ought to love God and love our neighbor. But the grace of God in the gospel makes us want to love God and love our neighbor.
In the end, there are only two kinds of people: those who know they need rescue and those who don’t. I’ve tried to show in this essay that every thoughtful person ought to be in the former category. Deep inside, we all know that we are failures. Popular psychology and modern culture and our own ego would tell us to suppress this knowledge. Admitting that we were failures, they would tell us, would be the end of everything. Admitting that we needed rescue would leave us naked and exposed and unprotected. We would lose all our hope. We would lose all our self-respect. But that is a lie. The only thing we have to lose is our pride. God calls us to the safety and security and hope of the gospel. Jesus Christ came to seek and save what was lost. He came to rescue sinners and to die for the ungodly, the filthy and the wicked. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst. That is why I am a Christian.
 By “an encounter with Jesus”, I do not mean some kind of vision or audible voice. Although I think such things can and probably do occur, most people encounter Jesus primarily through the biblical accounts of his life, death, and Resurrection. It is possible to read the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and to become acquainted with Jesus of Nazareth just as we might become acquainted with any character -historical or fictional- through reading their biographies. However, unlike any other historical character, the person of Jesus begins to “leap off the page” and become real to us. When Jesus begins to become real, begins to challenge us, begins to offend us, and begins to attract us all at the same time, it is then that we are beginning to encounter Jesus.
 Consider the following quote from my agnostic friend Patrick: “On the grand scheme of things, people should really just not be that happy. When we are happy, we are deluding ourselves. However, when we talk about atheists and the utter lack of long term happiness, my response is: so? If that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is. I also have to say, that if a person is happier spending their money on drinking than on feeding the poor, that’s a failure of that person. I think that [Sam] Harris deals with it pretty well when he talks about a sociopath who gains pleasure from killing people. Basically, no one should be happy until the situation and conditions of all people is improved. However, because we are animals who live on a limited scale, [we] have limited perception of the world and [a limited] capacity for empathy. It is one of the sadder qualities that we posses.”