“If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy.”
“Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
This wretched exchange of dialogue between Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi is only a small part of the disaster that Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith brought to the childhood favorite saga of tens of millions. Unfortunately, though, the ill-advised reasoning behind the supposedly wise Jedi Obi-Wan (because isn’t Obi-Wan himself speaking an absolute with his word choice of “only”?) is all-too-common in the increasingly progressive thinking found in the twenty-first century, both in and outside the church.
The gospel of Jesus Christ, if shared according to how the Bible describes it, is downright offensive. Listen merely to this one passage from the apostle Paul, given to us in Romans 3: “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.” Well, sign me up! I love being told by a stranger that I am not righteous, I don’t understand, I am useless, and I don’t do any good.
And then there’s Jesus’ statement in John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” So I’m a horrible person, even though you don’t know me, and one man who lived thousands of years ago is the only one who can save me?
It isn’t hard to see why today’s free-thinking, open-minded, universalistic culture can be turned off by the absolutes of the gospel. But we must remember that, though the gospel is offensive, you should not be. That’s why the first step to reaching them and allowing the gospel to pierce their hardened hearts is being empathetic with them and not being so hardened yourself in the opposite extreme that you can’t understand their reluctance to open up to the truth of their sin and the salvation they can receive only through Jesus.
At some point in your life before Jesus, you probably thought you were a “good” person doing “good enough” to go to heaven. Maybe you saw the appeal to other religions and respected them for their beliefs, not really thinking too hard about if it was even possible for more than one of them to be right. Why can’t eternity be different for multiple people, depending on their belief? Or perhaps you can’t remember a day when you didn’t believe in the Jesus you learned about in Sunday school. But surely there was a time later in life when the absolutes of sin and the gospel came to light in a new way for you and you realized just what it truly means for Jesus to be the only way.
Remember your past, your doubts, your previous beliefs. Remember all the work that the Holy Spirit has done in your heart to bring you to where you are now. This is where your unchurched audience is at right now. Put yourself in their shoes, hearing scriptures like Romans 3 and John 14 for the first time, as opposed to some of the non-condemning, universalistic “sales pitches” of other religions. And most importantly, pray for the Holy Spirit to convict their hearts in the same way he once did yours.
But secondly, while being empathetic toward a culture that isn’t comfortable dealing in absolutes, it is equally important to not allow your empathy to be mistaken as confirmation of their wrongly held beliefs. The gospel versus other beliefs is not the same as capitalism versus socialism, deportation versus amnesty, Yankees versus Red Sox. While everyone has the God-given right to whatever their opinion is, any belief outside the core of the gospel is not debatable; it’s wrong. So be empathetic, understanding, loving, a good conversationalist. But do not give the impression of compromising from what you know to be true. Maybe this could help you gain a friend on earth for a short time. But it will not gain a soul for eternity in heaven.
Kevin Harvey is the author of two books, his most recent being All You Want to Know about the Bible in Pop Culture. He also writes at BibleInPopCulture.com and can be found on Twitter under the handle @PopCultureKevin.