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The worst way to think about Jesus

Zimou Tan's 'Temptations' depicts Jesus' deep spiritual journey as told in Matthew 4:1–11.
Zimou Tan's "Temptations" depicts Jesus' deep spiritual journey as told in Matthew 4:1–11. | Zimou Tan

In his book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat sums up the mood of our culture by saying “narcissism has waxed” and “empathy has waned”.

I’ll buy that, how about you?

To back up his assessment, Douthat provides the following evidence: “In 2010, researchers at the University of Michigan reported that contemporary college students scored about 40% lower than their predecessors in the 1970s on tests assessing their ability to themselves in other people’s shoes. They were more likely than their parents’ generation to agree with statements like “other people’s misfortunes do not usually disturb me a great deal,” and less likely to agree with prompts like “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”  

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Douthat goes on to quote similar work by sociologists Christian Smith and Patricia Snell Herzog who found that people in their study felt, “nobody has any natural or general responsibility or obligation to help other people … they are innocent of any guilt, respondents said, if they ignore other people in need. Even when pressed — what about the victims of natural disaster or political oppression? What about helpless people who are not responsible for their poverty or disabilities? No, they replied.”

You might be tempted to say that such feelings are ones of hate, but actually, they’re something else that’s uglier — it’s indifference. Oxford defines indifference as “lack of interest, concern, or sympathy; unimportance.”

You see indifference expressed in the movie “The Equalizer” when the main bad guy summarizes how he feels about Denzel Washington’s character by saying: “I have no feelings about you one way or another. You are like lint or a bottlecap; just a thing to remove.”

With all the indifference directed toward other people, it’s not surprising to find it aimed at God and Jesus also. A research study done by George Barna found that apatheism (a don’t know/care attitude towards religion in general) is much larger than anyone thought: “slightly more than one out of four Boomers and Builders (28%) qualify as “Don’ts” — that is, people who do not know, believe, or care if God exists — and roughly the same proportion of Gen X adults can be characterized as such (31%), closer to half of all Millennials (43%) are Don’ts.”

Hate Him or love Him

In the Gospels, you don’t see a lot of indifference towards Jesus except perhaps by the Roman authorities who crucified Him. Instead, you see much more of the only two correct responses expressed by people who understood who Christ is and what He was saying to them: hate or a sense of awe/love.   

On the negative side, Jesus’ teaching sunk deep inside many of the religious leaders who hated him so much that they murdered Him. Quasi-disciples who’d had enough of His Bread of Life discourse remarked in politically correct fashion, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). Even His family, early on, thought He’d gone off the rails and tried “to take custody of Him” (Mark 3:21).

There are some today who feel the same way. For example, when Professor Virginia Stem-Owens asked her college students who’d never read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to write an essay on it, some of the responses were:  

“I did not like the Sermon on the Mount. It was not only hard to read, but it makes me feel I have to be perfect and nobody is.”

“The things asked for in the sermon are absurd. It’s ‘killing’ to have a grudge? It’s wrong to look at a woman like that? These are the most extreme un-human statements I’ve ever heard.”

“This stuff is extremely strict and allows for almost no fun in life without thinking, is this a sin, or isn’t it?”

“There is an old saying that ‘you shouldn’t believe everything you read’ and it applies in this case.”

Then you have the exact opposite response to understanding who Christ is, which I think is illustrated best by Peter who, seeing Jesus’ miracle of filling a boat with fish, initially said, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). And later, when other disciples were bailing because of Jesus’ hard teaching, Christ asked the 12 if they were leaving too, and Peter exclaimed “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life” (John 6:68).

You can hate Him or love Him, but the absolute worst thing you can do is be indifferent about Him. The hate-or-love response represents Jesus’ teaching hitting the bulls-eye of the heart, and in my opinion, there’s more hope for someone who hates Jesus now than one who is comfortably indifferent about Him. Why? Because they understand what He’s proclaiming.    

Owens agrees saying this about the student’s response to her assignment: “I find it strangely heartening that … the Bible remains offensive to honest, ignorant ears, just as it was in the first century. For me, that somehow validates its significance.”

Tim Keller puts it this way: “Any thoughtful person who comes to the Sermon on the Mount and begins to understand what God wants you to do, what kind of life we ought to live, does not walk away saying, ‘What a beautiful teaching, what wonderful thoughts.’ No — a thoughtful person looks to Heaven and says, ‘God, save me from the Sermon on the Mount!’”

Is that you?

If so, then I still think you’re closer to Heaven than the person who shrugs off Christ and is indifferent to His instruction about this life and the next. Being offended at Christ is how many Christians started, but over time God’s Spirit came upon them (John 3) and finally, they came to see the “Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

If that hasn’t occurred in your life, I hope it happens to you soon. And someday, thinking about Jesus and your past life, you’ll echo Peter and say: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life”.

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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