Comedian Quentin Crisp once said: "When I told the people of Northern Ireland that I was an atheist, a woman in the audience stood up and said, 'Yes, but is it the God of the Catholics or the God of the Protestants in whom you don't believe?"'
His humor was actually a sad commentary on the depth of sectarian strife in that land. Through the centuries, the world has seen plenty of acrimony and violence over differences in the way people view God. Disgusted by religious bickering, some people have thrown up their hands and said the world would be a much better place if people simply stopped arguing over doctrinal disputes and instead focused on living in peace with each other.
"There are moral-living Muslims, Jews, Christians, Mormons, and Hindus," I pointed out to Zacharias. "Isn't how a person lives and treats his neighbor more important than what he believes theologically?"
"How a person lives and how he treats his neighbor is very important," came his reply. "But it is not more important than what he believes, because the way he lives is reflective of what he believes. Regardless of whether he has ever signed a doctrinal statement, what he really and truly believes is what he will ultimately live out. But this question makes the assumption that morality is what life is all about."
"If life isn't about being moral," I said, "then what is it about?"
"Jesus Christ didn't come into this world to make bad people good," he said. "He came into this world to make dead people live. He came so that those who are dead to God can come alive to God. If this life were only about morality, then how you live would be the most important thing, although it would still be connected to what you believe. But that misunderstands the Christian concept, which is no matter how well we live, we cannot live up to the standard and character of God.
"The word 'sin' means missing the mark. And if that is a correct definition, then the grace of God becomes the most important truth. Apart from him, we cannot even believe what is right, let alone live the right way.
"So, yes, living kindly and morally good lives is important, if purely for survival. But philosophers from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, all the way to the Enlightenment thinkers like Immanuel Kant were unable to even define what morality is. Ultimately, they could only give us what morality did for society.
"When I did a study of options by which people can live good lives, I came down to six or seven of them, such as Joseph Fletcher's situation ethics, Ayn Rand's egocentric humanism, Kant's idea of duty, and so forth. But they contradicted one another pretty heavily, and the reason is that there was no transcendent, compelling moral reason. It was all reduced to mere survival. So I believe goodness or badness is the wrong starting point; life and death, spiritually, is where you begin."
"But as you conceded, it is important how people live," I said. "People say Gandhi lived a more virtuous life than most Christians. Why should he be sent to hell just because he wasn't a follower of Jesus?"
"That's a tough issue. When I get that question before big audiences, that's the time I want to take a break!" he said with a smile. "But the Bible does give us some guidance in answering this.
"First and foremost, it's important to know that no human being consigns anybody to heaven or hell. In fact, God himself does not send anybody to heaven or to hell; the person chooses to respond to the grace of God or to reject the grace of God, although even that decision is enabled by his grace.
"Second, Abraham asked God in the case of Sodom and Gomorrah whether he was going to let the righteous die with the unrighteous, and it was wonderful how Abraham answered his own question. He said, 'Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?'i7 This means we can be absolutely confident that whatever God does in the case of Gandhi or any other person, he will do what is right.
"Now, think about this: the Bible says anyone spending eternity with God in heaven is there because of the grace and provision of Jesus Christ, which the person has trusted and received. If the person has rejected that grace, then was he a good man or a bad man? That's an interesting question, because Scripture tells us nobody is really good until he or she is first redeemed."
"Elaborate on that," I said.
"The pattern in Exodus is threefold: God brought the people out of Egypt, he gave them the moral law, and then he gave them the tabernacle. In other words, redemption, righteousness, worship. You can never violate that sequence. Unless you are redeemed, you cannot be righteous. Unless you are redeemed and righteous, you cannot worship, 'for who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord,' says the Bible, 'but he who has clean hands and a pure heart?'i8
"So redemption is the most important step toward righteousness. If I try to work myself toward goodness, I am essentially saying I don't need to be redeemed by God. I am my own redeemer. Any person, good or bad in our eyes, who says that is in violation of a fundamental principle of God's revelation, which is that redemption is the first step."
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