I recently posted a meme that — in an obviously playful way — suggested that Christians should block romantic partners who don’t share their faith. I was amazed that some people took serious offense to the post, believing that it encouraged Christians to shun nonbelievers. This erroneous conclusion is based on their discomfort with, or misunderstanding of, Christian doctrine.
Importantly, I acknowledge that such discomfort and misunderstanding are often based on unpleasant interactions with Christians, who can be poor ambassadors of our religion. Yet, most atheists and agnostics agree with me that people should not judge a belief system based upon its worst adherents. Further, the plain fact is that most Christians actively cultivate friendships with people who don’t share our faith.
Most Christians focus on eternal life. Conversely, most people who identify as spiritual focus on temporal life. Thus, while Christians have friendships with nonbelievers, being “unequally yoked” is another matter — practically and theologically. Indeed, a core biblical dictum is that only Christians will spend eternity in heaven. It is nearly impossible to overstate this point. Thus, some Christians reject nonbelievers as potential spouses because, according to Scripture, they will not “inherit the kingdom of God.”
In the immortal words of that great psalmist, Prince: “I’m here to tell you that there’s a better way. Would our Lord be happy if He came today? I ain’t sayin’ I’m better, no better than you. But if you want to play with me, you better learn the rules.” Critics of Christianity would be vindicated if we rejected all relationships with nonbelievers; they are completely wrong to argue that not selecting a mate who you believe will not spend eternity with us constitutes shunning.
Consider Pascal’s wager: If Christians are wrong about eternal life, the worst outcome is that we would forego life on Earth with a loving, but nonbelieving, spouse. But, if we’re right, the worst outcome is that we will spend eternity without our nonbelieving spouse. In the words of avowed atheist Woody Allen, “Eternity is very long, especially near the end.”
Inclusion tends to be a core value of people who identify as spiritual; there are no admissions requirements. Not race. Not class. Not gender. Not geography. Not education. Not perceived beauty. Not physical ability. In short, few human traits that we use to separate ourselves — or to subjugate others — prevent people from being spiritual.
There is another belief system that has the same admissions requirements: Christianity. Consider, for example, John 3:16. It is perhaps the best known biblical passage, even among nonbelievers. God’s invitation to eternal life through faith in Jesus is open to everyone. Still, it is conditional. Most people focus on “For God so loved the world” but often forget about “whoever believes in (Jesus).” As theologians have long observed, God is sovereign, but he gave mankind free will (or “agency” in contemporary parlance). Of all the criticisms regarding Christianity, the notion that it is exclusionary is perhaps the oddest.
Similarly, all people are equally subject to the same punishment for rejecting Christ. Given our free will, many Christians argue that God doesn’t send anyone to Hell; if we find ourselves there after death, it is of our own accord. (I recognize the crucial question of what happens to those who never hear about Jesus during their lifetime. I might address that issue in a future column.)
Consider the following analogy. Someone invites you to an unbelievably lavish — and free — banquet. You choose instead to eat leftovers. Is it reasonable for you to be angry with the host (or those who accepted the invitation)? While analogies are imperfect, this is in essence the mindset of many who knowingly reject Christianity, yet are angry with God and/or Christians.
No one forces anyone to become a Christian. Likewise, no one prevents anyone from becoming a Christian. I respect the agency of those who reject Christ. But they should not criticize Christians who adhere to what our faith teaches. It is intellectually — not to mention spiritually — dishonest to consciously reject faith in Jesus and yet be angry for missing out on his rewards.
In resigning from the Friars Club, legendary comedian Groucho Marx wrote, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” Fortunately, Christianity is not a club. It is a religion that accepts anyone, irrespective of their characteristics, circumstances or past. The choice to believe Jesus is yours alone.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.