This year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Protestant Reformation. For 500 years Protestants and Catholics have been shouting across the table at each other over the nature of salvation, the merit of good works in the Christian life, and what happens after a person dies.
Sometimes debate between Protestants and Catholics is healthy; it can lead to clarity and common ground. However, most of the time there is no real debate, only arrogance, straw men arguments, bitterness, and solidifying stereotypes.
The Pope’s recent comments on atheism stirred up the debate once again.
No matter our views on which side is right and which one is wrong though, if we give any weight to the Bible’s teaching, then we must bless and not curse people, rejoice with those rejoicing, weep with those weeping, live in harmony with one another, do what is honorable, and — as much as we can — live peaceably with all (Romans 12:14-18). “All” includes all, even high profile religious leaders who lead others into confusion.
For us Protestants, that’s not always easy to do when we believe the Pope, himself, is the one confusing people. And he did it again recently by suggesting it might be better to be an atheist than a hypocritical Christian. In a reflection during a recent Mass reading from the Gospel of Mark, the Pope took aim at Christians who cause scandal.
“But what is scandal? Scandal is saying one thing and doing another; it is a double life….” Catholics leading a double life may say, “I am very Catholic, I always go to Mass, I belong to this association and that one; but my life is not Christian, I don’t pay my workers a just wage, I exploit people, I am dirty in my business, I launder money….”
In the reading (Mark 9:41-50), Jesus teaches that it’s better for a person to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea, than to cause another person to sin. He goes on to teach that if your hand or eye causes you to sin, you should cut it off or pluck it out.
This is a hard teaching, indeed, about the nature of sin and the seriousness of it. From that teaching, though, and the way many Christians lead a double life, the Pope suggested people may be correct in saying it’s better to be an atheist than that kind of Christian.
“And so many Christians are like this, and these people scandalize others,” Pope Francis said. “How many times have we heard – all of us, around the neighbourhood and elsewhere – ‘but to be a Catholic like that, it’s better to be an atheist.’ It is that, scandal.”
Now, every Christian agrees it’s good not to be a hypocritical Christian. If you say you believe a thing is true, you should act like it. But these two words “hypocritical Christian” are not a contradiction in terms. It is possible to be a Christian, and to not act like it. Not recommended, but possible.
At the heart of Pope Francis’s reflection is the question, How good is good enough to be a Christian? Or perhaps, How bad is bad enough to not be a Christian? The Pope imagines this exchange between a scandalous Christian and Jesus at the gates of heaven:
“’Here I am, Lord! But don’t you remember? I went to Church, I was close to you, I belong to this association, I did this… Don’t you remember all the offerings I made?’
‘Yes, I remember. The offerings, I remember them: All dirty. All stolen from the poor. I don’t know you.’ That will be Jesus’ response to these scandalous people who live a double life.”
The age-old problem here is that the Pope suggests our very salvation (our “being a Christian”) is dependent on our good works — or at least not doing bad works after becoming a Christian. But the glorious truth is, our salvation is dependent on the works of one man only — Jesus.
That’s the only scandal here. That the only perfect man who ever lived, was made a hypocrite for me. He was made a liar, a thief, a murderer. He was made a sinner. For me. So that I could become righteous, holy, and blameless in him. And one day when I stand at the gates of heaven, Jesus will welcome me because of his works — not mine.
Is it better to be an honest Christian with integrity, who lives in a way consistent with his beliefs? Of course! But is it better to be an atheist than a Christian, hypocrite or not? This hardly seems like a question that really needs an answer. The biggest question of all is, why would anyone ever even insinuate it?
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