What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? How Can the Dark Side and the Bright Side of Christianity Co-exist? (What If– 5)

Some people see only the positives of Christianity and find in it a source of pride and a sense of superiority over others. Others see only the negatives of Christianity and find it a curse to humanity that would be best eliminated. In this series I am trying to be honest with both aspects. But seeing the negatives in all their horror (in contrast to the transforming power of Christ’s life and teachings) raises the question, how can the same religion be so powerful for good and so evil at the same time?

You see, religion is a human response to the perception that God is at work in a particular context. To celebrate God’s actions and teachings in a particular context, and to create a context in which others can learn about these, humans beings create a religion. And as a response to the perception of God’s presence in the world, religion is a beautiful thing. But over time, religions tend to become less and less focused on the original mission and more and more focused on preserving the institution. And so every religion has a beautiful side and a dark side. The overall biblical explanation for this is that all religious institutions, including Christianity, are a battleground in the universal conflict between Christ and Satan. God is at work in Christians and in Christian institutions. But Satan is also at work in the same. History is the evidence that both forces have been and are at work among the followers of Jesus. So the broader, biblical answer to the problem is that Christianity is an arena in the cosmic conflict between Christ and Satan over the character and government of God.

In the New Testament, more specifically, there are a number of considerations that address this issue. One of them is the concept of the two ages (Mark 10:29-31; Luke 20:34-35), the now and the not yet. Jesus brought in the new age of the Kingdom (Matt 4:23; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43), but the old age of sin and suffering is still with us (Rom 8:18-23). So the New Testament speaks of the same things as present realities (the now—Heb 6:5), yet not fully so (the not yet—Heb 9:26-28). The life of heaven has been realized yet not fully realized (I Cor 10:11 and 15:22-24; 1 Pet 1:20 and 1:5). So the life of the church was expected to be a struggle more than a foretaste of heaven. There would be tares among the wheat, even in the church (Matt 13:24-20). There would be a Judas, even among the disciples. So the New Testament predicted in advance that the church would include people of all kinds, some of them teaching things contrary to the teachings of Jesus (Luke 12:51-53; Acts 20:29-30; Rom 2:24; 1 Tim 4:1). The founding document of the Christian faith was very clear that the future church would portray a very mixed picture (while very symbolic, Revelation 13 seems to offer a similar prediction about the church).

The mixed picture of the church can also be understood in terms of behavioral science. Sociologists speak of two types of religion that people may embrace. Intrinsic religion is freely chosen as a good in itself, worth pursuing on its own merits. One goes to church because one wants to, not because of outside factors. Extrinsic religion is a means to another end. One goes to church to please others, to keep a job, or to look good within a particular community. From a Christian perspective one might distinguish between genuinely converted and those who are there for other reasons, whether or not they realize that. Christian faith as a whole should not be judged on the basis of those who are not truly committed or do not truly understand the implications of Jesus’ teachings. So there needs to be a distinction between “Christianity” (as the faith of Jesus) and “Christendom” (the institutional version that is often compromised by the desire for wealth and power in this world. For many the faith goes no deeper than commitment to a football team. Not everyone who identifies themselves as Christian has been transformed by the gospel. While the history of the Christian church is very disappointing, it should not be surprising.

In today’s world the only church that will have positive influence on society is a church that goes back to the basics of Jesus’ teaching. It will avoid worldly forms of church government.
It will renounce political power and influence. It will root out corruption (enhancing wealth and worldy power) within itself (both systemic corruption and individual corruption). It will renounce intimidation in religion or church politics. In short it will be a church that embraces weakness out of an overwhelming focus on the character of God that embraced the cross. Those who truly know God will not settle for less.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.