August 22, 2021by: Michael J. Kruger; THE GOSPEL COALITION
Some people stop believing Christianity not so much because they think it’s false but because they think it just doesn’t work. As they look around, they might begin to think that other groups or ideas or religions just work better. These groups might seem to be rich, deep, and full of life, even offering a better community, a deeper purpose, and a more compelling vision for the world. On top of this, other groups might just seem, well, more fun.
In short, people don’t always stop following Christ for intellectual reasons. Some people stop because they enjoy other things more than Jesus. To them, Christianity just isn’t satisfying anymore. So how should you deal with this important issue? Here are a few thoughts.
Nothing but the Truth
First, we must remember that Christianity is worthy of our belief not because it always feels better—or even seems to work better than other systems—but because it is true. If Jesus is really the Son of God, if he really rose from the dead, if there really is eternal life only through him, then that is enough to make him worthy of following. And that won’t change even if the Christian life proves more difficult and more challenging than the other alternatives on the table.
After all, there are some false beliefs and false systems that may, at least for a while, give a greater level of emotional satisfaction than true beliefs and systems. I am reminded of the sci-fi film The Matrix, in which the machines have trapped millions of people in a digital dream world so that the machines can live off the bioelectricity produced by their bodies. There is little doubt that the dream world is much more satisfying and fulfilling for these people than the real world would be. Indeed, the latter is harsh, cold, and unpleasant. But the dream world is all a lie. And the theme of the movie is that it is better to know the truth and follow the truth—no matter how unpleasant—than it is to live a lie. In fact, when Neo is deciding to take the red pill or the blue pill, Morpheus is very clear about his promise: “Remember, all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.” He knows Neo will wake up to a less pleasant life. But that’s okay because the truth is what matters.
Here’s the point: we don’t follow Christianity merely because it makes us feel good or because it is emotionally satisfying but because it is true. This doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t pragmatic, practical, and even emotional benefits to Christianity. There are many, and we will talk more about these below. But we have to get the order right. As Os Guinness observes, “The Christian faith is not true because it works. It works because it is true.”1
If we reverse the order and begin to think that truth is determined by whatever works for us, then we will run into some serious problems. For one, such an approach would mean that everyone gets to create his own “truth.” After all, people differ—often quite significantly—over what they think “works” for them. For instance, if someone said she found Brazil’s Sunrise Valley religion—whose adherents believe they are aliens in human form—to be the most existentially compelling, then we would be forced to conclude that it is “true.” Indeed, such an approach would force us to conclude that just about any worldview were “true” as long as someone somewhere found that it worked for him.
Beyond this, if we think truth is determined by what is emotionally or pragmatically satisfying, then we will find ourselves always chasing the next great, wonderful thing that comes along—at least for the moment. In such a case, our life would be marked by an endless quest for personal fulfillment, hopping from idea to idea and from religion to religion. Since our emotions and feelings often change, our “truth” would perpetually change along with it.
We don’t follow Christianity merely because it makes us feel good or because it is emotionally satisfying but because it is true.
This problem is particularly acute for Christianity because the Bible teaches that it is a religion that is often accompanied by great sufferings, persecutions, and tribulations. The only way people would stick with Christianity in the midst of such challenges is if they believed it because it was true, not because it always improved their situation. After all, sometimes Christianity doesn’t make you feel good. Sometimes Christianity makes life harder, not easier.
Now that we understand that the truth of Christianity is foundational, we can turn our attention to the fact that it really does provide a satisfying and fulfilling vision for life. In other words, it really does “work.” And this should not surprise us. If God is real, and he made all things, then we would expect that following him would lead to a blessed life (as long as we carefully define “blessed”).
There is much to be said in this regard, but let me just mention a couple of things about Christianity that make it personally satisfying. First, Christianity is able to provide our lives with real meaning and purpose. Of course, everyone craves these things. Humans want to know that they exist for some reason and that all their efforts, labors, and activities are significant in the end. This may be especially true for university students. They want to believe that they are “making a difference” and serving some good end beyond themselves.
But this is precisely where the problem lies. In a world without God, there is no inherent meaning in anything we do. Indeed, many modern scientists and philosophers have admitted as much. Carl Sagan, after reflecting on the vastness of the universe, drew this conclusion, “We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We would prefer it to be otherwise, of course, but there is no compelling evidence for a cosmic Parent who will care for us and save us from ourselves. It is up to us.”2 In other words, we assign our own meaning to a meaningless universe.
Now, many of your fellow students will resonate with this approach. The world is what we make of it, they might think. So they might come up with a self-declared purpose for their life that makes them feel good. Maybe that purpose is to protect the environment or to fight world hunger or to stop sex trafficking. But does this “make your own meaning” approach really work? Not at all. No matter how passionately one engages these tasks, in the end they make no sense in a world without God. And they make absolutely no difference in a world without God. After all, why protect the environment? One might answer: To slow pollution. But why slow pollution? To preserve our natural resources. Why should we preserve our resources? To help future generations. What happens if we help future generations? They will live longer, more comfortable lives. And why does that matter? Because . . .
In the end, there’s no satisfying secular answer to this question. Without God, there’s no reason to think humans matter any more than cockroaches or squirrels. Moreover, everyone we’ve helped will eventually die in the end anyway. Even if some are slightly happier while alive, we’ve made no real difference in the grand scope of things. And eventually the sun will die out, the earth will perish, and all our environmental efforts will have been for nothing. Without God, nothing has eternal significance.
In contrast, this is precisely why the Christian worldview is so satisfying. We have a clear purpose: to serve God, glorify him, and build his kingdom. Moreover, helping other people really does matter because they are eternal beings made in God’s image and they have dignity and worth. On top of this, everything we do for God has everlasting value because we serve an eternal being who sees all that we do.
- Os Guinness, God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith beyond a Shadow of Doubt (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1996), 77.
- Carl Sagan, in The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here, ed. David Friend (Boston: Little, Brown, 1991), 73; emphasis his.
This article is adapted from Surviving Religion 101: Letters to a Christian Student on Keeping the Faith in College by Michael J. Kruger.
Michael J. Kruger (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is the president and Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a leading scholar on the origins and development of the New Testament canon. He blogs regularly at michaeljkruger.com.