While atheism posits a universe without meaning, Christianity makes of life a moral drama in which we play a starring role and in which the most ordinary events take on a grand significance.
Scholar and preacher John Stott tells the story of a man who was full of questions. Every time Stott answered his question, he had another question. One day Stott asked him, "If I were to answer your problems to your complete intellectual satisfaction, would you be willing to alter your manner of life?" The man blushed and smiled slightly. Stott realized that his resistance to God and Christianity was not intellectual. The man didn't want Christianity because he feared it would mess up his plans and disrupt his life. For many people, the reluctance to embrace Christianity is as practical as it is intellectual. They want to know what the benefits of Christianity are, or what's in it for them.
This question may shock some Christians, but it is not a bad one. In a low sense, it can be taken to mean: how will Christianity give me financial success and a problem-free life? Christianity offers no such formula. The life of Christians, far from being free of problems, is often infused with struggle and sacrifice. In a higher sense, though, the undecided person is quite right to wonder how Christianity will make his life better. After all, he is considering not only whether to believe something but whether to base his life on it. Addressing myself specifically to unbelievers who possess an open mind, I here enumerate some concrete ways in which Christianity can improve our lives.
First, Christianity makes sense of who we are in the world. All of us need a framework in which to understand reality, and part of Christianity's appeal is that it is a worldview that makes things fit together. Science and reason are seamlessly integrated in a Christian framework, because modern science emerged from a Christian framework. Christianity has always embraced both reason and faith. While reason helps us to discover things about experience, faith helps us discover things that transcend experience. For limited, fallible humans like us, Christianity provides a comprehensive and believable account of who we are and why we are here.
Christianity also infuses life with a powerful and exhilarating sense of purpose. While atheism in most of its current forms posits a universe without meaning, Christianity makes of life a moral drama in which we play a starring role and in which the most ordinary events take on a grand significance. Modern life is typically characterized by gray disillusionment. Christianity gives us a world that is enchanted once again. This is not a return to the past or a denial of modern reality; rather, it is a reinterpretation of modern reality that makes it more vivid and more meaningful. We now see in color what we previously saw in black and white.
What produces this change of orientation? Christians live sub specie aeternitatis, which means "in the shadow of eternity." Life can be terribly unfair and this is for many people a natural source of cynicism and frustration. In the Gorgias and in other Platonic dialogues, Socrates strives to prove that "it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong." The proof is a failure because there are bad people in the world who prosper and there are good people who undeservedly come to grief. But Christianity produces an enlargement of perspective that prevents us from being jaded by this realization. Christianity teaches that this life is not the only life, and there is a final judgment in which all earthly accounts are settled. The Christian knows that sub specie aeternitatis it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.
The business tycoon or law partner who cheats people and runs out on his wife may be viewed as a successful man of the world, but the Christian perceives him, sub specie aeternitatis as a truly lamentable figure. By contrast, the poor peasant who crawls to the altar on his knees -- a failure by all the world's standards -- is one who is preparing to receive his heavenly reward. Sub Specie aeternitatis, he is the truly fortunate one. Here we have the meaning of the phrase "the last shall be first." It simply means that the standards of worldly success and divine reward are quite different. Without the perspective of eternity, this necessary inversion of values would be lost to us. Seeing things in a new light, however, the Christian can face life and whatever it brings with a sense of peace and hopefulness that are rare in today's world.
Contrary to what secular critics say, the Christian does not and cannot hold our life on earth to be unimportant. Indeed, it is of the highest importance. The reason is startlingly obvious, and yet often goes completely unnoticed: it is this life that determines our status in the next life. Our fate for eternity hinges on how we live now. So living sub specie aeternitatis, far from being a way to escape the responsibilities of life in this world, is actually a way to imbue life with a meaning that will outlast it. It is to give life much greater depth and significance because it is part of a larger narrative of purpose and truth.
Christianity also offers a solution to the cosmic loneliness that we all feel. However successful the secular life, there comes to every thinking person the recognition that, in the end, we are alone. Christianity removes this existential loneliness and links our destiny with God. Our deepest relationship is with Him, and it is a relationship that is never ending and always faithful. The secular person may wonder what this relationship feels like. It is an enduring experience of the sublime. Have you ever had a moment with someone you love where you are transported into a transcendent realm that seems somehow outside of space and time? Ordinarily, such experiences are rare and never last for more than a short while. For the Christian, the sublime is a part of everyday life. Milton terms this a joy surpassing Eden, "a paradise within thee, happier far."
Another great benefit of Christianity is that it helps us to cope well with suffering and death. Time magazine reported on the case of a woman who suffered a series of tragedies. Her husband was laid off. She had a miscarriage. A month later her first cousin was diagnosed with cancer. Then two hurricanes struck her home town in Florida. Finally, one of her best friends died from a brain tumor. Here is the woman's reaction: "We're putting our lives in God's hands and trusting He has our best interests at heart. I've clung to my faith more than ever this year. As a consequence, I haven't lost my joy."
Joy under these conditions simply isn't natural, and that is this woman's point -- only the supernatural can produce enduring joy in the face of life's tragedies. When we are in pain and feeling hopeless, Christianity raises our spirits. We don't know why we are in this situation, but we have faith that there is a reason, even if only God knows what it is. Perhaps God is trying to teach us something, or to draw us closer to Him. Christianity also gives us the hope that when someone dies, we will see that person again.
Then there is the matter of our own death. Ordinarily we do our best to avoid thinking about mortality, and many of us resist going to funerals. Funerals remind us of our own extinction, and the notion that we will one day cease to exist is a source of anxiety and terror. But Paul writes, "Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory?" For Christians, death is a temporal end but not a final end. The secular person thinks there are two stages for humans: life and death. For the Christian, there are three: life, death, and the life to come. This is why, for the Christian, death is not so terrifying.
Finally, Christianity enables us to become the better persons we want to be. The decent and honorable things that we do are no longer a matter of thankless routine. This isn't just the morality that we made up for ourselves. Rather, we are pursuing our higher destiny as human beings. We are becoming what we were meant to be. And Christianity not only makes us aspire to be better, but it also shows us how to be better.
In marriage, for example, Christianity teaches that marriage is not merely a contract. If we treat it that way and use it for our own benefit, it doesn't work very well. For Christians, marriage is a covenant not merely between the two parties but also between them and God. The operating principle of Christian marriage is agape or sacrificial love. This means that marriage functions best when each partner focuses primarily on the happiness of the other.
This can be attempted as a secular proposition but human selfishness makes it very difficult. Christian marriage is much easier, because God is now a central part of the relationship. So when there are hardships in marriage, we pray to God and He gives us grace. Agape is not so much human love as it is God's love shining through us. This is a bountiful resource that is available for the asking, and when we make agape the ground of our marriages and relationships, we find that the whole system works and we are much happier as a result.
We want to be better parents, and what better examples can we provide for our children than that of the Christian dad and mom practicing the sacrificial love of agape? We want to be good citizens, and can we find a more inspiring model of genuine compassion and charity than Mother Teresa? A man who saw her embrace a leper told her he wouldn't do that for all the money in the world. She replied that she wouldn't either; she was doing it for the love of Christ. This is the same motive that seems to have propelled humanity's greatest acts of heroism and sacrifice.
We want to raise the level of our personal lives, bringing conscience into harmony with the way we actually live. Christianity gives us a reason to follow this interior guide: it is not simply our innermost desire but the voice of God speaking through us. We want to be good because virtue is God's stamp in our hearts and one way we relate to Him is by following His ways. As Thomas More said, in the final analysis we are good not because we have to be but because we want to be.
Seemingly incorrigible criminals, alcoholics and drug addicts have reformed their life by becoming Christians. The physicist and atheist Steven Weinberg's once said that "good people will do good things and bad people will do bad things but for good people to do bad things -- that takes religion." Whatever the merits of Weinberg's observation, it clearly requires this corollary: "For bad people to do good things -- that takes religion."
Ultimately we are called not only to happiness and goodness but also to holiness. Christ says in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." What counts for God is not only our external conduct but also our inward disposition. Holiness does not mean merely performing the obligatory rituals on the outside but staying pure on the inside. Yet holiness is not something that we do for God. It is something we do with God. We couldn't do it without Him.
In order for us to be more like Christ, we need Christ within us. In the words of that disheveled prophet John the Baptist, standing waist-deep in the river: "He must increase and I must decrease." Paul says the same thing in Galatians 2:20: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." This is Christ's countercultural challenge to us. In a society based on self-fulfillment and self-esteem, on looking after yourself and advancing yourself, Christ calls us to a heroic task of self-emptying. He must increase and we must decrease. This we do by allowing his empire an ever greater domain in our hearts. Goodness and happiness flow from this.
For the Christian, human joys are a small foreshadowing of those that are in store. Terrestrial happiness is only a foretaste of eternity. As the book of Revelation 21:4 puts it, "God will wipe away every tear, and there will be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away." It is in this spirit that the Christian awaits this final moment of destiny, relishing the gift of life while every day proclaiming, "Even so, come Lord Jesus. We are ready."