The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.
This quote by Brennan Manning is pretty famous. If you were a DC Talk fan in the ’90s, you’ve probably heard it so often you’ve memorized it. It’s famous for a reason – it plays so well in our moralistic, works-oriented culture. It’s a good bit of public self-flagellation for the church, a solid mea culpa. If the Church would just get right with God, get out house in order, and start acting more like Jesus, we’d see so many conversions that all the churches we already have couldn’t hold the new Christians. This quote has emotional and spiritual punch.
But before we repeat it, put it on Facebook or Twitter, or write a blog post about Christians who don’t act like Christians, let’s ask a simple question – is it true?
To answer that question, and all other questions of theology, we must turn to the Bible.
Romans 1:18-23 :
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
Paul’s argument here is simple – everyone has rejected God. Everyone knows about God because He has not hidden Himself, and yet all have rejected Him. No one has any excuse for rejecting Him that would let them escape judgement. Further, those who rejected God (which, again, is everyone) reaped darkened hearts and minds which cannot understand the things of God but rather have idols – animals in Paul’s time, other things in ours, but idols just the same.
2 Corinthians 4:2-4 :
We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
Here, Paul’s argument is a little different but just as straightforward – unbelievers don’t believe because the devil (the god of this world) has blinded them to the truth of the gospel. They cannot see the glory of Christ on their own. This dovetails nicely with the above passage out of Romans. After the sin of our first father Adam, everyone who has ever lived has been blinded to the gospel by the devil because of original sin – the original rejection of God and His ways because Adam thought he knew better.
No where in the Bible are we promised that living a good life will bring people to Jesus. In fact, the Bible promises the opposite – that people will hate Christians because we live good lives (2 Tim 3:12). “Try harder” is the voice of legalism, not of grace, and it should not be a loud voice in the church.
This is not to say that it doesn’t matter how Christians act. When we were washed and regenerated by the Holy Spirit, we were also given the power to live lives that are pleasing to God. We should follow the example of Jesus (1 Pet 2:21-25). To not do this is to give unbelievers opportunity to blaspheme and profane the name of our Lord (Rom 2:23-24). Christians are to do good (1 Jn 1:11), imitate the faith of those who went before us (Heb 13:7), put off our sin and clothe ourselves with Christ (Eph 4:22-24). We are to live peaceable lives (Rom 12:17-18) and have such good conduct that, even when we are reviled, unbelievers see that we have good deeds (1 Pet 2:12).
Christians who do not live out what they profess are absolutely going to be used as an excuse for unbelief. While no man can stand before God and say “my Christian neighbor was a poor example, so I deserve to get into heaven,” it is tragic that so many people believe they are justified in their unbelief by those who profess Christ but live a life that doesn’t line up with that profession. But to say that Christians behaving badly are the greatest single cause of atheism is to reject what the Bible teaches about unbelievers. It is to take much more responsibility for other people’s regeneration than we need or deserve.