Are atheists better Christians than Christians are today? Famous comedian and English actor Ricky Gervais likes to think so.
Posting a holiday message for Easter entitled “Why I’m A Good Christian” in The Wall Street Journal, Gervais, a professing atheist, revealed that he is a “good Christian” compared to a lot of Christians.
To prove his point, he outlined the Ten Commandments and analyzed how he faired against each law. Giving himself a 10 out of 10 – passing all counts of murder, idolatry, and blasphemy – Gervais considered his perfect score “not bad for an atheist.”
The thrust of his message, however, was not focused on his own tallied “goodness,” but rather the lack of goodness in Christians today.
“It’s not that I don’t believe that the teachings of Jesus wouldn’t make this a better world if they were followed,” the 49-year-old actor stated. “It’s just that they are rarely followed.”
Agreeing with Gandhi’s words – “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians” – Gervais admitted that he too held this opinion of Christianity even when he used to believe in God as a child.
“Jesus was a man. His message was usually one of forgiveness and kindness. These are wonderful virtues but I have seen them discarded by many so-called God-fearers when it suits them.”
“They cherry pick from their ‘rulebook’ basically,” he added. “I have seen such cruelty and prejudice performed in the name of Christianity (and many other religions for that matter) that it makes me wonder if there has been a bit too much selective reading and reinterpretation of the doctrines.”
Preaching what seemed like a resounding message towards Christians today, Gervais echoed Gandhi’s words: “Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Dr. Robert Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary responded to Gervais’ message, stating that sadly, he was correct.
“Many non-Christians in their conduct are better people than Christians,” Johnston told The Christian Post. “[But] perhaps, though I’m sure he knows it, Ricky has chosen to be reductive in defining Christianity as an ethic rather than a relationship with God that includes ethic but is much broader and wider than that.”
“Having said that,” he continued, “we need to with James, affirm with Ricky that faith without works is dead to the degree that we are guilty of his assessment of us. If to the degree that he is right, that he is a better person in how he lives within the human community, then for many who name the name of Jesus, it’s a call for us to repent and follow Jesus.”
In agreement with Gervais’ point that part of the message of Jesus was about kindness and forgiveness, the professor stated, “If in the world we live in, Christians are increasingly being perceived as unkind, unforgiving, intolerant, and legalistic, and to the degree that this is true, we have failed to be followers of Jesus.”
“Ricky Gervais probably has a truth that you and I don’t want to recognize.”
Addressing the issue of why Christians were increasingly straying from the image of Christ like Gervais highlighted, the Fuller professor stated, “Christians have always continued to be sinners. We are new people and yet we wait our final redemption, so this is not a new question.”
“I think that unfortunately, in some quarters today, as the culture no longer reflects our understanding or a particular understanding of Christian values, we think it is our obligation to force everyone to agree with our position.”
“Jesus did not do that. Nor did the New Testament writers,” Johnston stressed. “And so the task is to recognize that we live in a pluralistic context, [and] the task for us is to model the way of Jesus and to proclaim the truth and beauty and goodness that Jesus embodied and taught.”
But to proclaim is something different than to seek to legislate or seek to impose our standards on others, he noted.
So is it right for Gervais and many others like him to judge Christians and those who profess to follow Christ?
Johnston replied, “I think Christians have unfortunately positioned themselves too often as the judge of other people and their actions. We are simply getting what we have given.”
“In that sense, Ricky’s article though tongue and cheek and obviously meant to be provocative and written by a humorist, is nevertheless the occasion for Christians to say ‘I’m sorry that we have modeled for you a legalism rather than show you the compelling power of Jesus’ love.’”
“If our Gospel is heard as judgmental, intolerant and exclusive, then we have a problem and the finger needs to be pointed back at us,” Johnston emphasized to CP.
Not wanting to judge Gervais’ own beliefs and his 10 out of 10 commandment score, the Fuller professor did, however, mention that perhaps the English actor would also like to read the Beatitudes, in which Jesus radicalized the meaning of the Ten Commandments “in a way that brings humility to all of us.”
“He might want to rethink some of his tally scores,” Johnston disclosed.
“But I’m not in the business of judging Ricky … I think we need to have a generous spirit and to the degree that he’s calling all of us to take more seriously the external expression of our faith.”
“His challenge can be a good reminder … a sermon to come in surprising places.”
Deeming Gervais as perhaps God’s own spokesman, Johnston told CP how God sometimes used unbelievers to reprimand His people and bring them back to His purpose.
Advising all believers “to be extravagant in grace” while proclaiming God’s truth, Johnston explained how Christians could appropriately balance both truth and grace.
“When you communicate with your children, you need to be both honest and forthright as to what is expected. And you need to be extravagant in putting it within the context of your love and grace and acceptance and good will. Children know when you do that, and when you don’t.”
“It’s evident and to the degree you simply become over concerned with truth, you lose your ability to be heard. And what is true in regards to our children is true in regards to our conversation with others as well,” he resolved.
“However much we disagree, it can only be in the context of radical extravagance and personal acceptance if we’re to be Christ-like.”
Whether or not Gervais’ observations are completely valid or not, ironically he and many others continue to remind Christians what Christianity should really look like.
Perhaps just like the actor stated in his Easter Holiday Message, “maybe we should all go back to the basics to find out where it all got confused.”