A Performance-Based Christianity Leads to Atheism

Performance-based Christianity is killing the church. Do better and be better sermons, Sunday School lessons, and small groups eventually exhaust people and cause them to head for the exits. Atheism is on the rise in our country and we can attribute this phenomenon to lots of different reasons, but today we look within our hearts, within our churches, and within our Christian schools. Upon a casual glance, we must concur with G.K. Chesterton who quipped long ago: “What’s wrong with the world? … I am.” We have met the enemy and it truly is us. Only upon acknowledging this can we then run to the only place of safety, true love, and acceptance… the strong arms of Jesus.

What got me thinking about this recently was an insightful quote from Peter Kreeft in his book Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing. It challenges us regarding our view of Jesus Christ. Is he fundamentally a condemner or a redeemer? It urges us who are ministers to diligently proclaim the free and pardoning grace of God revealed in the cross. It reminds us who are parents to guard against a natural tendency towards performance-based (aka conditional) love and acceptance.

Performance anxiety often leads to atheism. For atheism is not merely a belief; it is a choice, an act, in fact an act of deicide. When we can’t stand the pressure of living up to his expectations, we kill the Expecter. When the mirror mercilessly shows up all your warts, you want to break the mirror. That is the real point of the Oedipus complex; the primal parricide is not against our human father but God, not the image but the archetype.

Sartre is a case in point. In his autobiography, The Words,  he tells how he became an atheist: “Only once did I have the feeling that he existed. I had been playing with matches and  burned a small rug. I as in the process of covering up my crime when suddenly God saw me. I felt his gaze inside my head and on my hands. I whirled about in the bathroom, horribly visible, a live target. Indignation saved me. I flew into a rage… I blasphemed, I muttered like my grandfather: ‘God damn it, God damn it, God damn it. He never looked at me again.’

But God is not Sartre’s baleful eye. He doesn’t say “Look at your pimples” (except to unrepentant fools who think they have none) but “Look at me in Christ” and then “look at yourself in Christ.” God in Christ is not condemner but Redeemer (“God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him” – John 3:17). We in Christ are not the condemned but the redeemed, no pimply Adam but “all fair” bride. That’s the Gospel, the good news that’s too good to be true yet is true. Not to believe it is to believe the even more unbelievable bad news that God is a liar. God is either a lover or a liar. The Gospel is a sign blocking the commonsensical middle road of justice. The sign says, “Road closed because of flood” — the flood of God’s unconditional love. There are only two roads. If God loves us even in our sin, earth is heaven. If he’s a liar, earth is hell. “All that seems earth is hell or heaven.”

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