You are a sinner who deserves to die because you have violated God’s law. Because his holiness requires someone to die for sin, God sent Jesus Christ to die for you on the cross. If you accept Jesus Christ God welcomes you to heaven. If you reject this offer, you will be tormented forever in hell.
When I first became a Christian, the statements above outlined my basic understanding of Christianity. Thinking over my early beliefs all these years later, the many difficulties of Christian belief are clear to me in a way they were not clear at that time. If I was to defend the rationality of my choice to become a Christian in 1994 in the light of my current understanding, I would not try and defend my limited understanding of Christianity at all. Rather, I would argue that at the time I had come face to face with the fact of my own inadequacy and accepted God’s offer of help to become a loving person. What can be more rational than to accept God’s help when you cannot live a love-based life on your own strength? What can be more rational than to start a journey of truth by recognizing your own weakness, fallibility and flaws?
The reason I would not defend the rationality of these early beliefs is that these statements are phrased in such a way as to be repellent to modern people. Telling modern people that they are sinners who are going to burn in hell unless they accept Jesus Christ and believe that the Bible is the Word of God sounds entirely alien to them. It sounds as if we are saying that they must believe that Tinkerbell actually flew around Neverland and that 2 + 2 = 5 if they want to eat pie in the sky with flying unicorns. Christian theology sounds ridiculous to the modern mind and we must present a more sophisticated understanding of the Bible if we are to appeal to our contemporaries. The relationship between the irrational sounding version of Christianity above and this more refined Christian vision is the relationship between the negative of a photograph and the photograph itself. Both the photograph and its negative share the same information, but one is much more comprehensible to the human eye.
How do we translate from the negative image of Christianity outlined above to the positive image that we need to appeal to modern people? We examine difficult Christian doctrines one at a time and attempt to make sense of them from a human perspective. To see the basics of how this works, let us consider the positive and negative formulations of a few statements from Christian theology.
You are a sinner and God has pronounced you worthy of death.
Now this statement seems very harsh, negative and brutal. Not only that, but a person presented with this truth will immediately respond defensively. “Sure, I am not perfect, but I haven’t committed any capital crimes. Why is God so harsh?” But the positive statement that corresponds to this statement is much more reasonable and does not cause the defensive response. “You have not loved God or others perfectly and God has determined that you are not worthy of the incomprehensible amount of work that he does on your behalf on a daily basis.” (See my post “Examining God’s Provision” for a longer discussion on God’s provision.)
These two statements sound radically different, but the important thing to understand is that both the negative and positive statements are conveying the same basic truths. “You do not deserve the immeasurable amount of divine labour necessary to allow you to live because you have loved imperfectly.” is equivalent to “You deserve to die because you are a sinner.” The positive phrasing requires a better understanding of God’s provision and the nature of sin, but it will be fairly easy for anyone who is interested to demonstrate that the positive and negative statements are Biblically equivalent. (See “The Nature of the Law” for more on sin being imperfect love.) While the negative statement is harsh and brutal and horrible, the positive statement is perfectly reasonable.
You will burn in eternal fire if you reject the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Now this is the most harsh and negative Christian statement that is possible. If we understand that eternity is a long time and have an honest view of how horrible the imperfect love of this world really is, on the other hand, it becomes clear that God is warning human beings of the consequences of rejecting his help to love other human beings and the unimaginable gifts he offers us in Christ. (see “An Artifact of Eternity“, “The Nature of Hell” and “Hell: Punishment or Consequences” for more thoughts on the issue of hell.) Once again, the negative statement sounds brutal and harsh, but the positive statement is reasonable and makes sense.
Jesus was tortured to death for your sins that you might live.
Why is God so harsh as to require an innocent to be tortured to death in order to forgive sins? The negative formulation of this Christian truth makes God sound terrible. If we consider that what God was doing through the Atonement was reconciling his loving nature to our horrific failures, on the other hand, the gospel is revealed to be exceptionally beautiful. (see my post “The Nature of the Atonement” for more on this idea.)
While Christians are rightly leery of compromising the basic truths of Christianity, if we are to appeal to modern people we simply must refine our presentation of Biblical truth. The only way to do this is to replace the negative image of Christian beliefs with the positive image as described above. As I have attempted to demonstrate on this site, once we do this Christian beliefs are the most rational and beautiful beliefs that are available to human beings.