Convincing people they’re not all that good.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 July 2018

Ray Comfort likes this particular evangelism trick apologetics argument. He didn’t invent it though; I’ve heard it from lots of people. Whenever he’s talking Christianity with someone, he’ll ask them, “Do you consider yourself a good person?”

In my experience, a number of people will actually answer no. Sometimes because they actually don’t consider themselves good people; their karmic balance leans way too far on the bad side of the scale. Sometimes because they’re just being contrary; they don’t know what’s coming next, but they anticipate you want ’em to say yes, so they’re preemptively throwing a monkey wrench into things. And sometimes they do know what‘s coming next, and definitely wanna sabotage it. But in order to keep this article moving, let’s say they answered yes.

PAGAN. “Yeah, I’m a pretty good person.”
APOLOGIST. [stifling that grin you get when they take the bait] “So if you stand before God on Judgment Day, he’ll be okay with you and let you in?”
PAGAN. “Probably.”
APOLOGIST. “You don’t have anything he still needs to forgive you for?”
PAGAN. “Like what?”
APOLOGIST. “Like sins. Have you ever sinned?”
PAGAN. “Well I haven’t murdered anyone.”
APOLOGIST. “That’s the only sin you can think of?”
PAGAN. “Well okay, there’s lying, cheating, stealing, stuff like that.”
APOLOGIST. “Right. God lists commandments about that in the bible, like the Ten Commandments. The bible says when you break one, it’s like you broke all of them. Jm 2.10-11 So have you ever lied?”
PAGAN. “Yeah.”
APOLOGIST. “Ever cheated on your taxes?”
PAGAN. “No.”
APOLOGIST. “So you paid your taxes when you bought something out-of-state over the internet?”
PAGAN. “Okay maybe I cheated on my taxes.”
APOLOGIST. “Ever stolen anything, like downloading a movie off the internet, or a paperclip from work?”
PAGAN. “Probably.”
APOLOGIST. “Ever lusted for somebody? The bible says that’s the same as adultery. Mt 5.27 That’s a sin.”
PAGAN. “Seriously? The bible’s strict.”
APOLOGIST. “Yes it is. It says if you hate someone that’s the same as murder. Mt 5.21-22 So, ever fantasized about murdering anyone?”
PAGAN. “Yeah, but that’s not really murder.”
APOLOGIST. “The bible says it’s just as bad, and still a sin. Like you said, the bible’s really strict. Ever taken the Lord’s name in vain?—that actually doesn’t mean cursing, but you swore to God you’d do something, and didn’t?”
PAGAN. “Yeah, I did.”
APOLOGIST. “Ever been envious of your neighbor’s house or car or wife? That‘s coveting; that’s a sin too.”
PAGAN.That’s a sin?”
APOLOGIST. “That’s a sin. God considers all these things sins, all of them violations of commands where he told people to never do them. So, do you have anything God still needs to forgive you for?”
PAGAN. “Guess so.”
APOLOGIST. “Well he wants to forgive you. But you have to ask for forgiveness.”

And from there, a brief explanation about how God made it so everyone can be forgiven and saved, a bit of the sinner’s prayer, and you’ve won another soul for God’s kingdom. And all the angels in heaven rejoiced. Lk 15.10

More bad karma than they realized.

See, most pagans believe they’re saved by karma: God lets ’em into heaven ’cause they’re good people. And on balance they are good people. They’ve done far more good things (or benign things) than evil. Or they figure they’re relatively better than other “good people,” and if those people are getting into heaven, so are they, right?

What this apologetics tactic does is wake ’em up to the reality they’re not as good as they imagine they are. None of us is. Everybody’s violated God’s standards in one way or another. All have sinned and fallen short. Ro 3.23 So all of us need forgiving. And thanks to Jesus, all of us can be forgiven. Ro 3.24 Nice, huh?

Now the way I presented this discussion is far kinder than some evangelists will do. Certain dark Christians really wanna emphasize not just how people sinned, but that they’re bound for hell because of these sins. Which, lemme tell you, isn’t wise. Because you’re gonna wind up having this kind of discussion.

PAGAN. “Wait, I’m going to hell for lying?”
APOLOGIST. “You lied. Lying’s a sin. Sin causes eternal separation from God…”
PAGAN. “Yeah but little white lies? Like ‘I gotta get up early tomorrow’ instead of ‘You’re boring so I’m outta here.’ I’m going to hell for being nice and trying to spare someone’s feelings?”
APOLOGIST. “Lying is lying.”
PAGAN. “Well your God’s not fair. I can’t believe God would send somebody to hell for that.”
APOLOGIST. “The bible says…”
PAGAN. “I don’t care what the bible says. Fair is fair.”

Karma’s a double-edged sword, y’see. If people think their sins shouldn’t count as sins, or are so small they can’t possibly merit hell, your argument isn’t gonna work on them at all. By their standards God sounds unfair, and pagans can’t believe God is unfair. ’Cause karma.

(That’s why pagans often struggle with grace. Grace is entirely unfair: Everything can be forgiven. Anyone can be forgiven. It entirely undermines karma. People tend to ignore this when they’re on the receiving end of all God’s grace… but you notice they have a big problem when God forgives certain other people. But that’s a topic for another time.)

So if we resort to the dark-Christian practice of saying, “You dishonored your parents, so that’ll send you to hell; you didn’t rest on Sabbath, so that’ll send you to hell; you committed idolatry, so that’ll send you to hell…” it’s not actually gonna convict pagans as much as we imagine. Just the opposite. Their self-defense instincts will kick in, and they’ll try to justify themselves: “What, for that? That shouldn’t send me to hell.” They’ll actually believe less and less that they’re going to hell—and more and more that we’re looney.

True, the Holy Spirit might get ’em to repent anyway. But we won’t have helped him any.

Yeah, at this point the dark Christians complain, “So you want us to not talk about how they’re bound for hell? You want us to hide that important part of the gospel?” Hell is not part of the gospel. The gospel is good news, not “I have bad news and good news; now lemme tell you the bad news first.” (And spend way too much time on the bad news.) The gospel isn’t “You’re going to hell unless you repent,” but “God’s kingdom has come near.” Mk 1.15 It’s that God loves people and wants to save them, not “God’s gonna send you to hell unless you love him back.” Stop preaching your f---ed-up “gospel” and preach Jesus’s.

We don‘t have to tell pagans they‘re bound for hell. They already know if they’re not getting into heaven, they’re not gonna like the alternatives. And the path to heaven requires they recognize they don’t have the karma to get in. But that’s okay; karma doesn’t save anyway. God saves. So put your trust in God. Ask his forgiveness. He’ll grant it.

No, it’s not about making people feel guilty.

One of the other mistakes Christians make with this tactic is they think its purpose is to convict people of sin. People think they’re not sinners; this proves they totally are sinners. It’ll burst their balloon, make ’em feel bad, make ’em cry out to Jesus in repentance… and he’ll forgive them, so it’s all good.

That too isn’t wise. Not just because it’s not our job to convict people of sin; it’s God’s. Ju 1.14-15 We’re not to condemn but forgive. Lk 6.37 We use this method only to inform people how what they consider a “good person,” and what God considers a “good person,” are two different things—and anyway, Jesus didn’t come to rescue “good people,” but sinners. Lk 5.32

Making pagans feel guilty also has its risks. Namely that they won’t turn to Jesus to get rid of their guilt: They’ll try some other route. Like more good deeds, so they can really tip the karmic balance in the good direction. Like some other religion which promises them the Law doesn’t count anymore, or tells them nothing’s a sin. Or otherwise offers its own, very different path to salvation, which doesn’t require them to trust God to do all the saving.

In my experience, guilt tends to manufacture legalists more often than not. We have plenty enough of them in Christendom as it is. We need more Christians who understand and appreciate God’s grace—and demonstrate it to others.

Especially when they’re trying out this apologetics method. We’re not saying, “You commit more sins than you realize” to make ’em feel bad; we trying to make ’em stop trusting karma to save them. Because it saves no one. God isn’t gonna weigh our good deeds against our bad: He’s gonna forgive the bad. Christians aren’t meant to do good deeds to make up for our evil: We do them purely out of love and gratitude for God. We don’t need to feel guilty—we’re forgiven! The gospel is good news, remember?

So when you inform people they’re not as good as they imagine, remember to be gracious about it. They sinned?—so did we. They screwed up?—some of us have done worse. God’s standards are too high?—maybe, but y’know he helps us actually achieve them when we turn to him for help. There’s no point in feeling bad about this news. God’s kingdom has come near, and all are welcome. Even not-so-“good people.”

Christian apologetics.