My favorite conversations about Jesus have been about (1) human nature; (2) good and evil; and (3) the character of God. They’re interrelated topics, and I think you’ll see why.
Here are abbreviated examples of real conversations I’ve had. Be mindful that I’m really just giving a bare bones outline here. If you find this helpful, be more personal in actual conversation. But watch for how I keep pressing other people to have a coherent story of good and evil, a clear location for the evil, and whether they can really live in the story they’re telling me.
Social Activist: So this sounds different than what I was taught when I grew up in church. I was taught that Jesus saves us from God, who is about to throw us into hell because He’s pissed off. I thought Jesus was our ‘get out of hell’ card, our afterlife insurance.
Me: I’m aware of that kind of thing. What’s your response to that?
Social Activist: Well it makes God seem more focused on the next world, and less on this one.
Me: Yeah, that never made much sense to me, either. I think God is focused on healing this world, and healing our human nature. He is wrathful, but against the spiritual cancer in us, the corruption and brokenness in us. He loves us and wants to heal us so that we can reflect His image again.
Social Activist: Well, I think Christians waste a lot of time in church, just singing and getting their shout out. Why can’t people just get out there and do some good?
Me: Great question. On the one hand, I totally agree that Christians can be more effective. On the other hand, some of the greatest social movements were because of the church and Jesus: the Civil Rights Movement led by the Black church, the Filipino People Power Movement led by Catholics, and so on. I think that our emotional needs and spiritual needs are also important, along with our physical needs, and that Jesus calls us into relationships in which we get to practice being other-centered like he is.
Social Activist: I think we’ve just got to change laws, schools, structures, and systems. We have to empower poor people. That’s going to be more effective anyway.
Me: I’m with you when it comes to changing those things. I’m part of [a group of people giving to microfinance]. And I’m glad you’re doing your part, too. But I think what you’re doing is assuming that things external to us are the source of the problem. I think you’re missing the biggest problem, the internal factor: human nature.
Social Activist: So what’s the big deal there?
Me: Well, it’s not like poor people are only victims and not perpetrators. Look at alcoholism and domestic violence and stuff. Jesus makes a big difference in the lives of poor families and poor kids. Plus, it’s not like making people rich means that they’ll do the right thing. Rich people cheat on their spouse just like they’ll cheat on the financial system. Like Bernie Madoff or Tiger Woods. And there are plenty of students who will take that job with Goldman Sachs because of the money.
Social Activist: I see what you mean. So, do you think that Christians are better than other people?
Me: Well, I would say two things. (1) Christians have a stronger foundation for good and evil because Jesus is good and not evil. I would ask you, ‘Do you have a foundation for defining good and evil?’ And (2) we have more power to live it out because Jesus empowers us. I would ask you, ‘Are you on your own?’
Social Activist: You mean to say that atheists can’t be moral?
Me: I mean to say that a Christian can be held up against Jesus. If an atheist does something, what objective standard can you hold that person up to?
Social Activist: Hmmm. So that’s why we need a foundation for good and evil?
Me: Yes. But it’s not enough to ‘know’ what is good and what is evil. We need the power to live it out because we run out of love. I know that if I had not given my life to Jesus, I would not be [living in a high-crime, inner city neighborhood]. But because he is in my life, I do it. And there are a lot of other ways in which there is this difference that Jesus makes in my life, to make me less selfish and more loving. I’ve got a long way to go. But I do think every Christian would say the same thing. So one answer to your question is: Jesus makes a big difference. The first comparison has to be between who we are with him vs. who we would be without him.
Social Activist: So you think that Christians are better than who they would be without Jesus. I guess if you add up that difference across lots of people, it becomes a lot.
Me: Yeah, but also this radically loving God is making us a fit for Himself.
Social Activist: So why do you think God is good? There’s a lot of evil in the world.
Me: God is still good, even though there is evil, because He gives all of who He is to deal with the evil in each one of us. Evil is not just out there. It’s in here. And God loves us while He wants to surgically remove the evil. The question for each of us is the same: Will I let Him remove the evil in me? Will you let Him remove the evil in you? Do you want to talk more about that?