When Nicholas Kristoff of The New York Times read the finale to the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, he was shocked to see what Christians believe about the Last Judgment.
In Glorious Appearing, Jesus returns and unbelievers are judged. Mr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins present their punishment in gruesome detail: Flesh dissolves, eyeballs melt, a fiery fissure opens up in the earth and swallows up the ungodly.
Mr. Kristoff reads all of this as violence against non-Christians, as monumental intolerance that is no different than the mindset of Islamic terrorists. This view of "Jesus returning to Earth to wipe all non-Christians from the planet," Mr. Kristoff observes, is believed by millions of Christians. "It's disconcerting to find ethnic cleansing celebrated as the height of piety."
The Left Behind series is not the best representation of Christian theology. But Christians who differ with Mr. LaHaye and Mr. Jenkins on eschatology and writing style are subject to the same criticism. Mr. Kristoff is a thoughtful writer who has been urging his fellow liberals to understand the role faith plays in American life. But in the current cultural climate, the belief that there is no salvation apart from Christ will be anathema.
To think of the Last Judgment as "ethnic cleansing" suggests that a religion is what you are, rather than what you believe. This assumes that faith is ethnicity, a matter of cultural identity rather than the state of one's soul.
More importantly, seeing belief in God's wrath as "intolerance" shows the loss of a sense of sin. Christians believe that God gives to the condemned only what they deserve. Sin will be punished. Sinners cannot stand before the Holy God without being destroyed. No one will be condemned for the religion they do or do not belong to-only for their sins, so that everyone will be treated fairly.
But what about the virtuous pagan who never did anything wrong? Surely it would not be fair for him to be punished eternally. But if someone lived who never did anything wrong, he would not be condemned. Christians simply do not believe that any such person exists.
Christianity, however, is not about punishment. It is about getting out of the punishment we deserve. Christianity is not primarily about being good; rather, it tells about how to find forgiveness for those who realize they are not good.
What makes Christianity unique is not its teachings about sin, good works, and divine punishment-practically every world religion teaches that the afterlife is a realm of reckoning for one's deeds-but the teaching that Jesus took upon Himself the wrath of God that we each deserve.
Instead of admitting that they are sinners, people today keep insisting on how good they are. Many of the moral controversies today, such as abortion and homosexual marriage, are fundamentally attempts to define away sin.
Ironically, those who insist on how good they are-not just pro-abortionists and gays but corrupt politicians, shady businessmen, cheating spouses, porn fans, and everyday devotees of gossip, viciousness, lies, cruelty, anger, envy, pride-are exhibiting the trait of self-righteousness. They deal with their sins by denying that they are sins, ending up just as legalistic as the most self-righteous Pharisee.
Though postmodern relativists seem to have lost a sense of sin, they still do have a moral sensibility. Otherwise, they would not care whether or not people consider them "good."
Christians must stand up for moral truth, including in the political sphere. But the non-Christian public assumes that this is all Christianity amounts to. Christians must do a much better job of communicating-and embodying-to the world what Christianity is all about.
What the church has to offer pro-abortionists, homosexuals, liars, fakers, hypocrites, and other sinners is forgiveness. This message will not be popular, since the proclamation of forgiveness through Christ implies a sin that needs to be atoned for. "I don't need forgiveness," many will say. "I haven't done anything wrong."
But for some, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the message of forgiveness will come as the most incredible good news, giving them a new life and confidence to stand before the judgment of God, despite all of their sins, clothed in the righteousness of Christ.
The height of Christian piety is not ethnic cleansing. It is just cleansing.