I’ve almost finished the conversation between three Group members and Jordan Mayhew that I’ve been working on for the last month. In the last draft I was able to weave in all the dynamics I had been copying down by hand in my notebook ever since I lost my computer, with one exception: so far no one has discussed the fact that in legalistic Christianity “trying to be good” is actually the worst thing you can do. Jordan mentions it once, in passing, but it needs to be expanded on.
Presently I just keep circling around it. But Bruce Bawer has some pointed words on the subject in a section of a chapter from Stealing Jesus entitled, “A Lie Straight from the Devil.”
He notes that while Christianity still retains a connection in the popular mind with some form of goodness, “Legalistic Protestantism strongly rejects the notion . . . that an individual’s goodness or lack thereof has any ultimate value or significance. Indeed, according to many legalists, the very idea that individual virtue plays a role in determining whether one will go to heaven is an evil one, planted in people’s minds by Satan.”
As evidence of this, he cites a comic written by Jack Chick, “Happy Halloween,” the story of two boys named Bobby and Timmy. Timmy was one of the brightest boys in his Sunday school class, but when he’s hit by a car on Halloween he finds himself spending an eternity in hell. This surprising reversal of fortune is conveyed to Bobby by his teacher, Mrs. Baxter, who after informing him of his best friend’s horrible fate, warns him – and by extension the audience – “Don’t make the mistake of believing that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. That’s a LIE straight from the devil.”
I understand the fear of not wanting people to live with a smug sense of self-satisfaction. In one of the Father Brown stories, “The Eye of Apollo,” when the good priest is asked which is the greatest of all sins, he says, “Oh, thinking one is quite well.” In fact, over and over again in his fiction Chesterton warns against the natural tendency to overlook our tremendous capacity for evil.
And yet… modern, “traditional” Christianity has completely inverted this understanding – as well as the usual moral distinctions between good and evil – by saying that goodness itself is irrelevant. Better than that, it goes one further: goodness is not only irrelevant, but the pursuit of goodness is evil. Try to be virtuous, say the moral guardians, and you risk being thrown into a lake of burning sulfur (by a God whose own goodness is, from our depraved human perspective, unrecognizable).
Yes, this is what many Christians actually teach. Yes, this is what many Christians actually believe.
“The comic strip about Tommy and his friends,” writes Bawer, “is not the product of some mind that has wandered off the beaten track: What it presents is standard legalistic theology. Let there be no misunderstanding of what the theology reflected in these pamphlets says about God and Satan. Satan strives to convince people that they need not embrace Jesus in order to be saved, but need only be good; thus Satan is, in effect, a force for virtue. To Jesus, by contrast, it is infinitely less important that people be good than that they accept him as their savior; Jesus is, then, effectively not a force for virtue.”
In the fundamentalist’s haste to escape from all contamination by worldly thinking, they’ve cast off the pernicious and damnable influence of those worldly lies found in the Bible. In the process, legalistic Christianity has become satanic.