Consider this description of a guy. We'll call him... Guy. Guy G. Guy.
Guy's really a good person. He's as honest as the day is long. He's hard-working, a straight-shooter. He gives to charity -- and not just to formal charities: I've never seen Guy turn down a panhandler on the street. He's devoted to his wife and children, he's a regular church-attender. He drives within the speed limit, always seems neatly dressed and clean. I hardly ever see him sitting around. He's often out working on his yard, or even helping elderly neighbors work on theirs.Good guy, right? Oh wait. Left out a trait.
Guy does have this one pastime. When the mood strikes, Guy molests small children.But otherwise, a good guy, right?
Well, no. I'm pretty sure I lost you with that last, stomach-jolting little attribute. It's what we call a deal-killer. However nice the other descriptives might be, that last one counter-balances and stains them all. It's a vice so repellant, so intuitively appalling, that extended argumentation isn't necessary. Our image of this imaginary fellow does an abrupt volte-face, with one simple, specific bit of information.
So why do we, Christian and non-Christian, so regularly commit even a worse error in moral evaluation?
I just finished laboring through Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World for a class. My, that was a chore. Four sets of authors batted around the question of "the fate of the heathen." They ranged from (IMHO) the clueless (John Hick, Clark "Evangelical! Really! I Swear!" Pinnock), to the sorta cluey (Alister E. McGrath), to the considerably more clued (R. Douglas Geivett, W. Gary Phillips [no relation]).
Hick and Clark "I Am an Evangelical! Really! I Am, I Am, I Am!" Pinnock wrung their hands about the horrible injustice of God sending good, moral, decent, religious people to Hell just because they didn't believe in Jesus. McGrath stood a bit to their Biblical right, though in a muzzy way; Geivett and Phillips considerably more so.
Unless I missed it, however, no one challenged what I think is the fundamental issue. Clark "Did I Mention That I'm an Evangelical?" Pinnock stood pretty much with John "At Least I Don't Claim to Be an Evangelical" Hick in accepting the proposition that "there are pagan saints in other religions" (p. 119) So Pinnock shrinks back from the thought that God could condemn everyone except believers. Even in their responses, the other three writers did not focus on what I think is a central issue.
Which "central issue" would that be?
Well, back up with me for one second. Can a person be rightly considered moral if he does all the wonderful things I mentioned, but just has this one little recurrent indulgence that he embraces and practices, involving little kids? If you can't give me a hearty "No" on that one, further conversation probably would not be fruitful.
Why can't we say that he's basically good, though? He does more good things than bad, doesn't he? But none of that matters, because we intuitively recognize a certain hierarchy in morality. Replace the sin of pederasty with a failure to signal his right turns, and we'd relax a bit. He might be a decent fellow after all. On any hierarchy, failure to signal one's turns ranks well below the abomination of child molestation. A child is infinitely more precious and valuable than a traffic regulation.
Let's stay with the same man, then, with an alteration. Remove the pederasty, leave him with all the other virtues (and if you like throw in a score of others). Just add this one specific: he does not hold Jesus as his Lord and Savior.
What do you think now? Is he a moral man?
Your answer to that question will tell me everything about your moral hierarchy.
Someone asked Jesus once what amounted to this: What is the chief imperative of the universe (Matthew 22:36)? What is at the pinnacle of the moral hierarchy?
As you may know, the Lord Jesus answered the man's question. Plus, at no extra charge, He laid out the second imperative of the universe.
And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets." (Matthew 22:37-40, emphases added)Jesus laid down two categories: first the vertical, then the horizontal. First, the theological. Second, the social. First, love the Lord your God with everything you've got. Second, love your neighbor as you already love yourself.
When we rank a person's morality, we usually primarily judge as to whether he is kind, honest, generous, decent, giving, merciful, loving -- to people. What outrages us is pederasty, rape, murder, theft, violence -- against people. Horizontal crimes. These are, indeed, important areas. In fact, they comprise the second-most important area of morality in the universe.
Second. Not first.
The chief indicator of a person's character is his relationship to God. In other words, his theology, his doctrine, his faith.
Nor should we anachronistically imagine that by "your God" Jesus means "whoever you conceive God to be." No honest Jesus-scholar would suggest that He means any other than the living God of Israel, who reveals Himself in the Law and the Prophets. It is that God -- and, by extension, the God who reveals Himself through Jesus Christ (Matthew 11:27; 17:5; John 1:18; 17:3, etc.) -- who must be loved above all else.
Can a person be a moral person, and violate what Jesus calls "the great and first commandment," the commandment that comes before and above all others?
An affirmative answer reveals a genuinely worldly viewpoint. It indicates that we're seeing the moral universe through man-centered glasses.
But if you believe Jesus, you must answer "Of course not. It's a deal-killer."
Yet we have the odd spectacle of folks who may well confidently say of a rapist, pederast, murderer, or terrorist, "He'll burn in Hell" -- but balk at saying the same of someone who violates the ultimate moral imperative in all of creation. A good guy who rejects Jesus is, by our skewed priorities, still a good guy. But if he harms women or children -- well. That's different.
When you make yourself think it through, it's odd.
But the spectacle of folks who claim to be "really, really" evangelical, balking at the justice of laying the most severe judgment on the most heinous crime in all creation? "Odd"?
Worse than odd.