As Christians, we tend to think that atheists are in the most dangerous spiritual state. Indeed, they are in a dangerous state. But not the most dangerous. The atheist is surely closer to redemption than the “Christian” who hangs onto the name but empties it of its substance. There is nothing worse than being a casual Christian who lives, and acts, and thinks, and in most every way believes just as the atheists do. It is better to be an unbeliever and know you are an unbeliever than to be an unbeliever and think you are a Christian.
Whenever the “decline of Christianity in America” is discussed, the focus is always on the dwindling number of professed believers. But that is not really the problem, nor is it the truest evidence of Christianity’s decline. If the Church had lost 5 or 10 percent over the years, but the remaining 70 to 75 were truly on fire with the faith — if they were authentically and substantially Christian — our culture would still be in fine shape. It is not in fine shape. By their fruits you shall know them, and the fruits of our “Christian country” seem strongly to suggest that we are not a Christian country at all. And if we are not a Christian country, despite our majority Christian population, then we must consider whether America’s Christians — many of them — are really so much different from her atheists.
Let’s consider two hypothetical people:
First there is Bob. Bob is not Christian and does not claim to be. If he were pressed to pick a label, he’d probably call himself an agnostic. Bob lives a normal American life. He doesn’t think much about spiritual things. He doesn’t consider his own mortality. He does what normal people do. He loves porn. He drinks too much on the weekends. He watches a lot of TV. His goal in life is to be comfortable. He seeks pleasure, not joy. He works in order to enrich himself. Whatever money he has, he spends or he hordes. He is nice to people but he will not sacrifice anything for them. He is fond of his wife but he will leave her if his feelings ever fade. He is affectionate towards his kids but he will leave them, too, if his home life becomes too boring or too difficult. He is a normal person. A nice person. An empty person.
Then there is Jim. Jim calls himself a Christian. He does not think much about what that label means. He believes, vaguely, ambiguously, that something like God probably exists. He accepts that Jesus Christ died for his sins, but he accepts it like he accepts that Bangkok is the capital of Thailand. He accepts it passively, disinterestedly. He doesn’t believe that the fact — if it is a fact — has any bearing whatsoever on his life. He thinks very little about these things at all. He doesn’t contemplate spiritual matters. He doesn’t consider his own mortality. He doesn’t pray. His inner life is mostly indistinguishable from Bob’s. His external life is entirely indistinguishable. He does everything that Bob does, indulges in all of the same vices, and feels the same lack of guilt while he indulges them. His life is spent pleasing and enriching himself. He is no more likely to sacrifice, no more likely to refrain from sinful activities, no more likely to remain faithful to his wife and his children. He is a normal person. A nice person. An empty person. He “believes,” yes, but there is scant evidence of this belief, and the belief means almost nothing to him.
Both Bob and Jim are in a dire state. Jim, I think, has it worse. Jim has the same spiritual emptiness and the same moral indifference, but he also has the false sense of security that the “Christian” tag affords him. Bob is honest about who he is and what he believes. He knows that he has rejected God. He knows that he doesn’t have God in his life, and so there is always a chance that one day he will come to feel that absence, hit rock bottom, and then begin the slow and painful climb towards the light.
But Jim has found comfort in a label. He does not feel God’s absence in his life because he is not honest about the fact that he has rejected God. He is too numb and too self-assured to notice that he has already hit rock bottom. He believes that he believes, but his belief is nothing more than mere acknowledgment.
Jim acknowledges Christ, acknowledges the Cross, causally nods towards it and says, “Oh yeah, that. Sure, I believe that. Anyway.” That is not belief. It is not Christian belief, in any case. There is a difference between “I believe that” and “I believe in.” Christ wants us to believe that He is real, but He needs us to take the next step and believe in Him. It is easy to look at a bridge and affirm that it exists. But if you will not walk across it, then you clearly do not believe in the bridge. You only believe that it is there. You have no faith in it. You will not depend on it. You will not trust it with your life.
Believing in Christ is submitting to Him, following Him, obeying Him, loving Him, walking with Him and entering into Him. If we will only believe the “that” and not graduate to the “in,” we are no better than those who will do neither. In fact, we are worse. It is one thing to deny that Christ is real. It is quite another to accept that He is real and then refuse to submit ourselves to Him. That is the worst thing of all. It is willful rejection. It is the most extreme kind of pride. It is literally the thing that got Satan kicked out of Heaven.
Satan, after all, is not an atheist. He is much closer to Jim. You might say he was the first Jim. And now Jim is following him, ever so comfortably, ever so confidently, into Hell.