[Read GodSpy's interview with Eric Metaxas ]
In 1969 Woody Allen had an hour-long television special on ABC. It featured what you'd expect—some classic stand-up shtick and a couple of skits. But toward the middle of the hour, it included something so strange I will never forget it. Two chairs were set on the stage, and for ten minutes Woody Allen had a conversation with someone you wouldn't have expected to see him talking with on a TV special. The man was Billy Graham.
What possessed Woody Allen to have a conversation with the most famous evangelist of the twentieth century on national television in front of millions of people? Did he see something authentic in the man, something that, for all its foreignness, he couldn't discount? Did he see more than someone who holds certain beliefs and who spends his life trying to convince others that he's right about those beliefs? Perhaps he saw something that transcended mere religion, something that spoke of truth itself.
The following is a conversation between an imaginary skeptic, and the author, Eric Metaxas.
Q: Isn't it true that some people are just religious and others aren't? Why do I have to be religious if that's not who I am?
Some people are religious, and some aren't, but everyone is searching for the truth.
A: Well, this brings up the whole subject of what it means to be religious. So in order to answer your question, I have to address that first. Having a relationship with God is not the same as being religious. Many people are religious and have zero relationship with God. In fact, being religious can be a bad thing.
Q: I'm surprised to hear you say that.
A: It really can. The fact is that religion can be a way of hiding from God, of trying to fool him.
Q: You're losing me.
A: Think about it. Some people think that by going to church or synagogue, or by reading the scriptures regularly, or by following other rituals, or by not doing certain things, they are somehow good enough to warrant going to heaven.
Q: What's wrong with that? It sounds as if they're doing exactly what God wants them to be doing.
A: On one level, yes. But on another level they are trying to fool God with their actions. And they are totally cutting God out of the picture by saying that if they do X and Y and Z, they automatically earn heaven, as if it were a system of rules, and they could simply play the game and win. The idea of a moral structure that cuts God out of the picture is very attractive to humans because that puts us in control. But God wants us to understand that without a relationship with him, moral behavior isn't worth anything. Mere moral rectitude doesn't fool God. (The Pharisees of the first century were morally upright, but Jesus blasted them for being hypocrites) The fact is that God is offended by people who do everything right and think it somehow earns them gold stars and an automatic free pass into heaven.
Q: God is offended when we do good things? That seems totally impossible.
A: You have much to learn, grasshopper. Seriously, think about it. The Bible says that God looks at our hearts. So if you're doing good things but from a wrong motive, God sees the inward motive, not the good things you're doing. He isn't fooled. Many people are doing things that outwardly everyone sees as "good," but the only reason they are doing those things is for a bad reason. Shocking, but true.
Q: What's a bad reason to do something good?
A: One bad reason might be merely to get praise from other people. Or to feel like a big shot—or to feel that you're better than other people who aren't doing as many good things as you are. Or sometimes, people will do good things just to get God off their backs.
Q: That I don't get.
A: You know, like a kid doing a chore just to get his parents to let him do something he wants to do, or so he can get something special from them. It's a kind of manipulation. Perhaps inwardly he hates his parents but figures "if I play the game and take out the trash, they'll let me go out with my friends and do as I please." His heart is in the wrong place. Some folks refuse to give God their hearts, but they figure they don't need to, because they believe it's all about performance. So when they do certain good things, they figure God owes them something.
Q: What do they think God owes them?
A: Any number of things. A good life, a prosperous life, a happy life without pain or tragedy. Entrance to heaven...
Having a relationship with God is not the same as being religious.
A: So God doesn't owe us anything. He is our loving Father who would do anything for us; he's not some adversary we are bargaining with! He wants us to see that, and to see that if he gives us good things, it's because he loves us, not because he owes us. Big difference. How offended would any father or mother be if their children avoided them and did only what they thought could get their parents to give them an inheritance?
Q: I suppose they'd be pretty offended.
A: Parents want three things from their children more than anything else in life. They want their children's love, attention, and time. If they have that type of relationship with their children, all kinds of other good stuff comes out of it, and generally the children will want to please their parents. But sometimes children try to manipulate their parents just so they can get something in return. Parents want an honest and authentic relationship, not manipulation. If they have a real relationship, then even when the children fail, the parents still love and forgive them. But a child who deceives his parent cuts that parent out of any real relationship.
For many people, being religious and morally "good" are nothing more than fancy ways of trying to manipulate God into giving them what they want. It's just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, when they put on fig leaves to hide their nakedness from God. As if!
Q: I forgot about that.
A: They actually thought they could fool God, the Almighty, who knows everything. What a sad joke, really.
Q: So God doesn't want us to be religious. He wants us to have a relationship with him?
A: I guess it sounds a little pathetic if you put it that way. But think of it this way: Is it pathetic that your parents want a relationship with you?
Q: No, but they're not God.
A: That logic holds only if God is some aloof, distant deity, and not the loving Father described in the Bible. Jesus himself referred to God as "Father," In fact, he used the Aramaic word Abba—which is closer to "Daddy" or "Papa"—which gives us an apt picture of the great intimacy they had with each other. Someone we call "Father" might still be distant and aloof and even frightening, but how can a Papa be that? That's how Jesus referred to his Father, and he told us to do the same. I, for one, am glad he did.
Q: When did he tell us to call God "Daddy"?
A: When he gave us what is called the Lord's Prayer. Jesus' closest followers had asked him to teach them how to pray. And the Lord's Prayer was his answer. The first words of the prayer are "Our Father." But again, the real word Jesus used was Abba or "Daddy" So he was telling them (and us) to pray to their (and our) heavenly "Papa"—the intimate Father who loved them and cherished them—not some aloof deity who wanted them to perform moral feats on which he would judge them.
Q: Isn't characterizing God as "Daddy" a bit disrespectful?
A: That's the other side of the coin. While God is our loving and intimate "Papa," he is also the infinitely powerful and all-knowing Creator of the universe. Sometimes people go too far in the direction of thinking of him as their pal, and they forget that he is the one who, in a single moment, spoke billions of vast galaxies into being out of nothing and who this moment sustains the entire universe and everything in it, including, and perhaps especially, us.
Q: So how do you reconcile seeing God as "Daddy" with this awesome "Ruler of the universe" idea?
God is offended by people who do everything right and think it somehow earns them gold stars and an automatic free pass into heaven.
A: It's right there in the Lord's Prayer. The first line is "Our Father [Abba] in heaven, hallowed be Your name."' We are talking to our cherished and loving "Papa," but Jesus said his name should he "hallowed"—which is another word for "holy" or "made holy" or "sacred." God is incredibly familiar and incredibly awesome at the same time.
Q: Okay, while you're on the subject, what exactly does "holy" mean?
A: It means "set apart," in the sense that something is set apart when it is sacred. And of course that means that whatever is holy or sacred is set apart from all that is not holy or sacred.
So in the Lord's Prayer, Jesus was saying that God's name is sacred, and we should remember that at all times, just as we should remember God's love for us at all times. Somehow we have to hold these two extremely disparate things together—the idea that God is our loving Father who wants us to climb up on his lap so he can hold us and hug us and enjoy us the way a parent enjoys spending time with a little child, and the very different idea that this loving Father is the King of kings whose slightest word can create galaxies beyond numbering.
But if you think about it, this juxtaposition of two infinitely different things is exactly what makes knowing God so glorious. Our "Daddy" is the King of the universe. It's like having a dad who is president, only multiplied by
about a billion. We've all seen those old Life magazine photos of two-year-old John-John Kennedy crawling around the floor of the Oval Office. It's the same with God, only much more so. Just as a president will allow his child to crawl into the Oval Office and take liberties that no one else would ever be allowed, so God—who has the right and the ability to make us tremble with fear—instead, lovingly welcomes us in. This is an extraordinary thing, well worth mulling over.
Q: Can we get back your statement about how religion can be a bad thing?
A: Yes, well, religion in the negative sense of simply being a bunch of rules and rituals is pretty much the same as superstition. Without a relationship with God at its core, all religion devolves to superstition. And superstition—whether or not a person calls it that—is against what God wants for us. Or to use an old-fashioned word, it's an abomination. What a word: abomination! Anyway, that's what superstition is to God..
Q: And why is that?
Without a relationship with God at its core, all religion devolves to superstition.
A: Because, again, superstition is a way of trying to manipulate God. If I wear this rabbits foot or medal, or even if I cross myself robotically, just going through the motions, I am in essence trying to "magically" force God to do good things for me. But what's really behind my superstition is fear. There's no love or joy or peace in that sort of thing, only fear. God doesn't want us to be afraid of him in that sense, to think he's really just looking for a good excuse to whack us. Too many religious people live in fear—"If I don't cross myself this way and if I don't wear this amulet and if I don't go through this ritual, I'm done for!" That's all fear. God has nothing to do with that, and one of the most harmful things in human history is when people have confused fear-based superstition with faith in God.
Q: So I can be confident that God doesn't want to whack me?
A: You can take it to the bank. He is our loving Father, and he is looking for ways to help us, to save us from trouble, not to trip us up or punish us.
God is on our side. He's the Captain of our side, the beloved Coach. If we see him for who he really is, we'll want to play our hearts out for him because we love him, not because we fear his punishment if we fail.
Q: God as Gipper, eh?
A: Actually, yes, on some level that's dead on, but don't quote me on it.
Q: Isn't religion just divisive? And haven't more people been killed in the name of religion than for any other reason?
A: Well, of course religion can be divisive. So can sports. What about it? And no, more people haven't been killed in the name of religion than for any other reason. In fact it's precisely the opposite. Still, it's a very widespread misperception. You hear it all the time.
Q: Would you care to elaborate?
A: Okay. First of all, if only one person had been killed in the name of religion, that would be one person too many. The idea of it is horrible. Let's get that out of the way right off the bat.
But if we are talking facts and figures, the precise opposite of what most people believe on this subject is actually true. History tells us that in all of the inquisitions, approximately three thousand people were killed, total. And that is over the course of several centuries. Again, one person killed is far too many, but you'd think the number would be infinitely larger than three thousand over the centuries, based on what you generally hear.
But here's where things get extremely interesting. Look at the comparison with what happened under various political regimes guided by secular and militantly atheistic ideologies. Atheistic regimes such as Stalin's, Hitler's, Pol Pot's, and Mao's murdered 100 million people in the twentieth century alone. That's a ratio of about 300,000 people killed by atheistic regimes for every one person killed in the name of Christianity. Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn't it? So from the point of view of history and statistics, by far the most dangerous ideologies on the planet—by a chilling ratio of about 300,000 to 1—are secular and atheistic ideologies. It really is frightening. And you can also say that just because someone was killed in the "name" of religion doesn't mean that the people doing the killing were doing God's will. On the contrary, they were working against God's will. It's like pacifists killing people in the name of pacifism. It makes no sense.
And no, more people haven't been killed in the name of religion than for any other reason. In fact it's precisely the opposite.