To come to a saving faith in Christ, one must be convicted in his heart of “how great my sin and misery are” (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 2).
But in order for the Gospel to begin to change anything in our secular culture, I suggest that Christians must find ways to convince others of how great our sin and misery are.
I was reminded of this as I watched this sparring match from April between comedian and atheist Bill Maher and Catholic author Russ Douthat. In response to Maher’s criticisms (to put it lightly) of Christianity, Douthat argued that one’s view of human nature largely determines how one interprets religious teaching. Maher retorts that “to have a normal person commit a horrible act almost never happens without religion.”
Maher’s causal point about religion, of course, is itself a non-starter—religion being “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe.” We are all by nature religious creatures; being human means forming such beliefs.
Maher believes humans are naturally good, and spoiled by religion. The gravest consequence of this widespread point of view, according to C.S. Lewis, is that God’s Word gets muted: “It is after you have realized that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power behind the law, and that you have broken that law . . . and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk,” Lewis writes.
Our innate depravity would seem an easy assertion to prove. History presents more evidence of humanity’s depravity than one could possibly study in a lifetime. The brokenness around us today confirms it. Each of us is a living illustration of its truth. However, “human depravity is at once the most empirically verifiable reality,” Malcolm Muggeridge observed, “and at the same time the most intellectually resisted.”
Misery comes before faith, not the other way around. Careful thought on our part is required if we are to confront Maher’s arguments and those of so many others.
How great is our misery? First, a caution. Bearing witness to the reality of human sinfulness requires outright condemnation of neither individuals nor cultures. Certainly, some things deserve outright condemnation, but a posture of condemnation, as Andy Crouch explains, inevitably distorts our witness.
Explaining evil in ways our culture can understand is a necessary precursor, I believe, to explaining the hope that we have. “[T]he Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort,” C.S. Lewis said. “But it does not begin in comfort,” he adds, “it begins in the dismay I have been describing.”
Why do Christians still sin? How could an omnipotent, good God tolerate evil and suffering? When apologetics are debated, these questions are never far away. Prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens even calls belief in vicarious atonement “immoral“.
Here I do not aim for specific rebuttals. Apologists throughout time have vigorously exposed the presuppositions and logical fallacies of atheist agitators like Hitchens and Maher. Rather, I speak pedagogically to believers.
When our neighbours are made to see that the evil and dismay all around them is not the result of some ideology that must be rejected, or some mental illness in a select few that needs curing, but rather the manifestation of the very same selfishness and corruption they feel in their own hearts, only then can we speak to them credibly of Christian hope.
Human depravity has implications for Christian study of and contribution to every field of thought. Our contribution to the arts cannot be all rosy-eyed, but must be prepared to countenance human suffering. In politics we are on guard against utopian ideologies of all varieties and able to understand the legitimate role of government in restraining evil, but also the corrupting power of sin on government itself. We are alert to the fact that wonderful advances in knowledge and capabilities in science and technology also have the potential to be used for great evil.
God’s justice, mercy, and love can have no significance for a culture that denies human sinfulness. If we truly love the world God made, we desire the hope of the Gospel to shine brightly in it. If we want others to see it, however, we need to have the courage to remove their blinders.