Why are so many Evangelical Christians not content simply to believe what they believe, and let others believe as they will, but instead feel compelled to share and spread their beliefs to all others? Why is it such an important goal to Christians that everyone they encounter be urged to pray the “sinner’s prayer” and accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior? Why are they so driven?
The answer to these questions are pretty clear to most folks who are or have been Evangelical Christians, but can be somewhat puzzling to others.
The key, of course, is that Evangelical Christians believe absolutely in the words of the Bible, that the Bible is an absolute authority on all things, and that (at least in its original version) it contains no falsehood. Consider what your own behavior would be if you found yourself in the following scenario:
Suppose that someone were to prove absolutely to you, one-hundred-percent and beyond any reasonable doubt, that there is a God, that this God is all-knowing and all-powerful, that he is incapable of error or deception, and that every word written in the Bible was placed there by this all-knowing and inerrant Being, for our edification and instruction.
Now, given this, what would you do if you discovered that the Bible states, very simply, that everyone who does not believe in and dedicate their lives to Jesus Christ will, after their physical death, continue to exist, but be made to endure unimaginably severe pain and torture for eternity without end?
Of course, this is precisely the situation for most Evangelical Christians, who are utterly convinced that there is no reasonable doubt that the Bible is the authentic Word of God. Everything else is essentially just a logical conclusion based on this premise. Every citizen of the Earth that is not a Christian is viewed as having a horrible terminal illness (“sin”), with a straightforward cure, and if they could just tell everyone about and convince them of the truth regarding the cure, then those people would be much, much better off than they are now. From that perspective, it boils down to a matter of basic concern for one’s fellow man.
A High-Stakes Decision
As any Christian will tell you, the risk of being wrong in a decision against Christ is high: eternal torment in an unending Hell. Many Christians will also claim that the risk of being wrong in a decision for Christ is quite low, pointing out that in that event you’ve at least still had the benefits of a good and moral life. Blaise Pascal uses similar lines of thinking in his Pensées to argue that, although one might have no knowledge or evidence to decide one way or another the truth of the existence of God, yet one ought still to decide in His favor as the reward of being right is infinite and the risk in being mistaken is low, whereas deciding against him risks infinitely and rewards little.
I cannot agree with this assessment, however. It seems to me that the consequences of a false choice is a good deal more serious than Christians will typically acknowledge.
To start, Biblical teaching is clear that mere belief in the existence of God is not sufficient for Salvation, but that you must “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice… to God” (Romans 12:1). This means that your life is not yours to live, but is to be spent following God’s will. This will is made known to you from the Scriptures, from God-given spiritual authorities (and, if you are a married woman, this includes your husband), from the Holy Spirit-inspired exhortation of spiritual brothers and sisters, and from the voice of the Holy Spirit as detected in your own heart and mind. But if God should turn out not to exist, then it seems to me that it will have been something of a shame to have spent a lifetime in strictly adhering to rules that were set out by people in a very different culture and period of time, and obeying with little critical evaluation the dictates of friends and leaders who supposed themselves to be relaying the words of the Lord—or even the whims and flights of one’s own impulses and imaginations, believed to be the direct communication of the Holy Spirit. There is also the matter of the potential psychological damage involved in having made a habit of regarding as unquestionably infallible what would then have to be acknowledged as a fallible and error-prone body of teachings, and the mental gymnastics and practices of rhetoric required to reconcile them.
Still, perhaps such a loss is a mild enough disappointment as to lend some credibility to Pascal’s line of thinking. What is more concerning to me is the impact of this decision on the lives of other people; A decision in favor of the absolute and unquestionable authority of the Bible is a decision to map one’s own world-view to the teachings of the Bible. After all, one cannot hold the Bible to be infallible and perfect and yet maintain a view that is in clear contradiction with it.
The Bible has strict teachings on the limited role of women in the church and in the marital relationship. It makes no allowances for divorce for reasons of spousal abuse or habitual and harmful substance abuse. Human sexuality is obviously a major issue today and the struggle against the acceptance of homosexual relationships is based very heavily on principles from the Bible. If it were to turn out that the Bible did not originate from an all-knowing Deity, it will have been a profound disgrace to have presumed to possess the moral ground to judge what private individuals have and have not the right to practice between themselves. In fact, the Old Testament Bible having prescribed capital punishment for such activities, many have deemed the Bible’s authority sufficient justification to execute those whose practices violate it. For the people of Israel in ancient times, the given Word of God was the explicit authorization for war, destruction of nations and peoples, and even genocide. And if the Bible did not serve as so explicit an authorization in Christian history, it has nevertheless been far from absent as an excuse for such practices.
One must also take into account the risks borne by those whom each Christian converts to his own faith (being compelled to do so). Now the stakes of your one decision for yourself also includes the stakes of that decision for each one that you help to convince of the infallibility of the Bible. Add to that the lives of those who may live in countries where conversion away from the national religion is a crime punishable by execution.
It is abundantly clear, then, that if a conclusion in favor of the Deific origins of the Bible were mistaken, the loss would be of more than simply any personal disadvantages or harm; it would be the damage from a forced imposition of a particular moral viewpoint on others (and the burden of consequent guilt), the subjugation of one gender to the other, the compulsion to retain ties to harmful and sometimes life-threatening marital relationships, and even the taking of lives and/or retroactive approval thereof—all without any remaining justification.
The stakes are therefore quite high on both sides of the “wager”. If the Bible is God’s own wisdom, the risk of complacency or denial is eternal damnation for ourselves and any whose opinions we influence; if it is not, the risk of misguided conviction is one of tremendous harm to pretty much everyone.
For this reason, it is unpardonable to hold a belief in the truth of one side or the other, without having clear reasons and justification for having arrived at that conclusion. “Blind faith” is out of the question. Believing a particular way because of our parents or our friends, or because that’s just what we’ve always believed, or what we “feel” to be the truth, are also not options.
Note: there are plenty of people who consider themselves to be Christians without believing absolutely in the veracity or complete authority of the Bible; obviously, the arguments that I’ve made regarding the consequences of believing in Biblical inerrancy do not apply to these people: I’m speaking strictly of the risk taken in mapping all of one’s views of life and of the world to the teachings of the Bible, versus the risk of failing to choose Jesus Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior.