How is it possible that the Good News of the Gospel can be considered a hate crime? Welcome to the 21st Century.
It’s hard to believe that a simple prayer request would create a national furor. That’s what happened, though, when the Southern Baptist Convention encouraged their congregates to "pray each day for Jewish individuals you know by name that they will find the spiritual wholeness available through the Messiah [Jesus]."
The reaction was immediate. Abraham H. Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the campaign "projects a message of spiritual narrowness that invites theological hatred."
A consortium of religious groups in Chicago, including Christian denominations, warned that the Baptists’ evangelism in their city would encourage hate crimes. Larry King devoted an entire show on national television to the complaint. Even Billy Graham distanced himself from his fellow Baptists.
On television, in the press, and on local radio shows Christians have taken three hits: Our views lead to hate crimes, we are intolerant, and our approach to evangelism represents a profound arrogance. Each deserves its own response.
A "Climate" of Hate
It has become fashionable lately to sidestep legitimate debate on religious or moral issues by simply throwing verbal rocks at the opposition. If you don’t like another view, label it as hateful, arrogant, or intolerant, no thinking required.
As soon as the terrible murder of homosexual Matthew Shepard in Wyoming hit the national press, a torrent of criticism descended upon the Christian community.
Martin Marty, a prominent religious thinker from the University of Chicago, wrote that "Christian rhetoric...stirring hate" contributed to Shepard’s death. In the LA Times, Robert Scheer said, "Trafficking in the presumed judgments of the divine is a road map to the outer limits of civic intolerance."
These voices have joined a chorus of others claiming that Christians, through their moralizing, are promoting a climate of hate. The phrase of choice is "less than." By claiming another’s beliefs or actions are wrong, Christians demote them to "less than" status. If a person is morally or spiritually "less than,” he becomes the object of scorn, hatred, and physical abuse.
This is twisted logic. As one Los Angeles talk show host put it, this kind of thinking would make Alcoholics Anonymous responsible every time a drunk gets beat up in an alley. It simply does not follow that saying someone’s conduct or religious view is wrong encourages hate.
Such a tactic is equally dangerous to those who use it. If correcting someone is an act of hate, are those who demonize Christians for their views also guilty of hate-mongering?
Columnist John Leo has noted, "The political advantage of using 'climate' arguments is that you can discredit principled opposition without bothering to engage it.” Leo concludes, "Beware of arguments based on climates or atmospheres. Most of them are simply attempts to disparage opponents and squelch legitimate debate."
The Intolerance of “Tolerance”
It’s amazing how confused people have become on the issue of tolerance. Not too long ago, the word tolerance had a completely different definition.
Tolerance is a word that applies to how we treat people we disagree with, not how we treat ideas we think false. Tolerance requires that every person be treated courteously, no matter what his view, not that all views have equal worth, merit, or truth. The perspective that one person's ideas—even religious ones—are no better or truer than another's is irrational and absurd. To argue that some views are false, immoral, or just plain silly does not violate any meaningful standard of tolerance.
According to the classical notion of tolerance, one can't tolerate someone unless he disagrees with him. We don't "tolerate" people who share our views. They're on our side. There's nothing to put up with. Tolerance is reserved for those we think are wrong, yet we still choose to treat decently and with respect..
This essential element of tolerance—disagreement—has been completely lost in the modern distortion of the concept. Nowadays, if you think someone is wrong, then you're called intolerant, not tolerant, no matter how you treat them.
The Jewish rabbi on the Larry King show was incensed that the Christians went out of their way to change another person’s religious view. Yet his entire complaint amounted to an attempt to get the Christian to abandon his religious views about evangelism and embrace the rabbi’s own view. The oddest thing was, Christians calmly sharing their faith were branded intolerant, yet the rabbi forcibly condemning Christian beliefs as evil was considered tolerant and open-minded.
Most of what passes for tolerance today is not tolerance at all, but rather intellectual cowardice. Those who hide behind it are often afraid of intelligent engagement. Unwilling to be challenged by alternate points of view, they don't grapple with contrary opinions or even consider them. It's easier to hurl an insult—“you intolerant bigot"—than to confront the idea and either refute it or be changed by it. In the modern era of semantic mysticism, "tolerance" has become intolerance.
Is Christianity Arrogant?
The third objection is it's arrogant to teach that all non-Christians—regardless of how God-fearing, moral, or kind—will suffer eternal torment, while all believers in Jesus—regardless of their behavior—will experience Heaven.
Even if this depiction were true, it escapes me how believing it makes one arrogant. Historically, this conviction has stimulated great kindness and profound self-sacrifice from Christians, whose chief motivation was the belief that people perish eternally without Christ. Believers may be mistaken here, but I fail to see how such a view makes them arrogant.
The odd thing is that Christians are labeled conceited and even self-righteous for their views about salvation. Yet they are the only ones admitting complete moral inadequacy. Christians aren’t high-minded. Quite the opposite, they know they’re bad enough to need forgiveness, and simply rejoice when it’s offered. Once a criminal receives a pardon, it’s hardly arrogant for him to celebrate his new-found freedom.
Further, this objection is largely a straw man; the depiction is not true. Christianity does not teach that all who claim to believe in Christ, no matter what their behavior, have eternal salvation. In the Bible, words are cheap and behavior is critical. Mere professions of faith are worthless. The Apostle John says explicitly, "He who says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar," and "Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God." Jesus Himself said, "You will know them by their fruits.”
The Problem of Goodness
No, goodness is not irrelevant to God on the Christian view. In fact, goodness is so critical it turns out to be the central problem.
The Old Testament puts the issue of human goodness in perspective. The prophet Isaiah says, "For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away."
The Psalmist adds, "They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds. There is no one who does good. The Lord has looked down from Heaven upon the sons of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside. Together they have become corrupt. There is no one who does good, not even one."
These are strong words. The prophet affirms that our iniquity overwhelms our goodness. The Psalmist declares that our corruption consumes us. God's perspective is that we are all guilty, from the least to the greatest.
This is precisely the Christian testimony. The New Testament does not teach that good deeds are of no value. It teaches that good deeds cannot pay for bad deeds. This is a critical point of misunderstanding.
Good and Bad Deeds in the Balance
God demands we live ethically. But what about those times when we don't? The most vital issue Christianity answers is "How can we be right with God when we are not thoroughly good?"
There is profound misunderstanding on this point. Part of the confusion is because many err in defining goodness according to human standards. God, on this view, is concerned with what kind of individual one is "on average." If the good outweighs the bad—if good is predominant—then God winks at the occasional moral lapse.
But justice never works like that, does it? The law demands that each person obey every law always, not most laws usually. You can be an upstanding citizen all your life, but one single crime is still going to bring you before the court.
Further—and this is absolutely critical—no amount of good behavior pays for bad behavior. Period. Law requires consistent obedience, and that which is already owed cannot be used to pay for past errors.
God, like all lawgivers, requires nothing less than moral perfection. "But that's impossible," you say. You're right. That's why we need a Savior.
Why One Way Is the Only Way
There is a second point of misunderstanding, and Christians are at fault here. We have consistently fumbled when confronted with the question, “Do you mean to tell me that a really good Jew, Hindu, or Muslim is going to Hell just because he doesn’t believe in Jesus?” We say yes, but the real answer is no.
The biblical answer is simple: The good Jew goes straight to Heaven, along with every other good person. Why shouldn’t he? Good people aren’t lost, so they don’t need a savior. Jesus Himself said, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."
Good people are safe, but sinners are in deep trouble.
Recently while doing a book promotion at Barnes & Noble, I was approached by a pleasant Jewish man who had been browsing in the Judaica aisle. Recognizing my voice from my past participation on a radio show, he wanted to get a clear understanding of why he, a Jew, needed Jesus.
“Let me ask you a question,” I said. “Do you think people who commit moral crimes ought to be punished?”
“Since I’m a prosecuting attorney,” he chuckled, “I guess I do.”
“Good. So do I. Now, a second question: Have you ever committed any moral crimes?”
He paused for a moment, then nodded, “Yes, I guess I have.”
“So have I,” I offered candidly. “Now look at our situation. We both believe people who commit moral crimes should be punished, and we both believe we’re guilty of moral crimes.” I waited a moment for it to sink in. “Do you know what I call that? I call that bad news.”
The Christian claim is simply this: Every person stands guilty before God in some measure. Good deeds cannot atone for bad deeds because one already owes God obedient, righteous, moral behavior. Instead, we must seek forgiveness, and since God is the one offended, we must seek forgiveness from Him on His terms.
The New Testament teaching is that God's terms involve Jesus, and a rejection of Jesus is a rejection of God's forgiveness. One who rejects forgiveness is still in his sin; he's still under judgment.
Here's a simple way of putting it. One day every single one of us, the morally great and small alike, will stand before God to be judged for his or her crimes, such as they are—some more, some less. Either we pay for them ourselves, or we let Jesus pay for them for us. That's it. If we refuse forgiveness through Jesus, then we stand alone to endure God's penalty. That won’t be God’s fault, but ours.
That's the New Testament teaching. There's nothing bizarre, unfair, outlandish, arrogant, intolerant, or hateful about it. The only cruelty would be knowing the truth and not being allowed to share it.
 Jeffery L. Sheler, “Unwelcome Prayers,” U.S. News & World Report, 9/20/99.
 Martin Marty, "The Desecration of Civic Discourse," LA Times, 10/18/98, M-1.
 Robert Scheer, "Hate Rhetoric Opened Door for a Murder," LA Times, 10/14/98.
 John Leo, "Avoid 'Climate' Control," U.S. News & World Report, 11/9/98, 20.
 1 John 2:4, 3:10.
 Matthew 7:20.
 Isaiah 64:6-7.
 Psalm 14:1-3.
 Luke 5:32.