Does religion poison everything?

Religion will inevitably lead to violence. That is what Christopher Hitchins believes. He wrote a book called God is not great: how religion poisons everything. He gives personal accounts in the book of violence fuelled by religion in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad. Here are some quotes:

I leave it to the faithful to burn each other's churches and mosques and synagogues, which they can be always relied upon to do…

Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.

Religion, he argues, will always boil over into war, violence and the oppression of minorities. While he does miss out the fact that cultures that have rid themselves of all religion have been just as oppressive as those steeped in it, I think he is right. Religion will inevitably lead to violence, and we see that in our bible passage – which is John 3.22-36. Turn with me to page 888 and let me read from 3.22-24:

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison).

So it looks like there were two different religious groups (each with their different leaders) doing their religious thing. On one side we have Jesus in Judean countryside baptising, and on the other we have John (not the author of this gospel but John the Baptist, actually he’s the cousin of Jesus) at Aenon also baptising. John 3.25:

Now a discussion arose between some of John's disciples and a Jew over purification.

Ahh so here it is. Religious talk between two different religious sides - and all about purification (hard to find a more religious topic). How can I be made clean, and acceptable to God? What is the right way to do it? Their talk is described here as a discussion. Perhaps a light understatement. Some translations use ‘debate’, others ‘dispute’ or ‘argument’. No sign of any actual violence yet. Let’s read on (John 3.26):

And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”

All are going to him! John, look Jesus is attracting all the people. Jealousy, tribal suspicion, religious competitiveness. Is that the beginnings of what Hitchins is talking about? Does religion poison everything? Is this the beginnings of the well-worn path to hatred, war, violence and the oppression of minorities? The reminder that John would later be put in prison certainly shows that some of those tensions were not far away. In his excellent book The Reason for God Tim Keller considers the question of social cohesion and religions violence in society. He explains it like this; throughout our world, everybody draws lines between ‘in’ groups and ‘out’ groups. So the religious person draws line between those who have the truth of religion and those who don't. And those who don’t consider themselves religious, also draw lines between the religious people who think that they have the truth and themselves who actually have the whole truth. And new atheists (like Christopher Hitchins) draw lines between the enlightened atheists and the dangerous religious people who are the source of so much violence. And the honest skeptic draws lines between honest skepticism and dogmatism of all sorts both religious and secular. And the liberals draws lines between the bigots who draw lines and the good inclusive liberals who don't draw lines.

So, whoever you are you cannot avoid drawing lines. What Tim Keller argues, is that what we need for social cohesion is not the end of line drawing, because those who argue there are no ‘in’ groups or ‘out’ simply end up drawing the line between people who don't draw the line and people who do. Everybody draws the line that's his point. But he goes on to argue that what we need for social cohesion is people whose way of understanding their line predisposes them to treat people on the other side of it well. And that leads us to John the Baptist. Listen to how he answers the religious fanatics who came to him all upset about those from the other camp baptising converts (John 3.27)

John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.

They have just been discussing purification. How can I be made clean, and acceptable to God? Which side is right and which is wrong? Perhaps they don’t realise that both sides of this religious line have got it wrong. That a different logic is needed - a whole new way of thinking. Righteousness, God's favour, can't be earned. It is a gift from God. The whole framework of religion is that I offer something to a god (perhaps a sacrifice or good behaviour) and the god rewards me by giving me something I want. But in fact this is the dominant logic of almost all aspects of our contemporary non-religious society. Performance is followed by reward. I earn my salary at work. I merit my place on the sports team. Good performance is followed by reward. But what John says here is almost exactly the reverse. We do receive from God but God initiates the relationship himself by reaching down to me. It is unmerited grace and I respond not with a merit earning performance but with gratitude. There are many places in the Bible where this comes through, but it is particularly vividly captured in Ephesians 2.4-5:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved

We are dead and are made alive by God! (Ephesians 2.8):

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God

In fact, even the faith to believe in him is a gift from him! It’s also present in Jesus paradoxical command to the rabbi, Nicodemus just before this passage in John 3 that you must be born again. Being born is not usually an action over which we have a great deal of control. It's a gift and that is the image that Jesus choose to capture the truth of grace. Back to our passage (John 3.27):

John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.

Every way we draw lines between the ‘in’ group and the ‘out’ group, we do so on our performance, based on whatever value your view of the world uses. And the problem with all these positions, is that on whatever criterion of performance you choose, if you perform well then you're inevitably superior to those who haven't performed and that predisposes you to look down your nose at them and sets you on the slippery slope to social division and social fracture – to abuse and oppression of those who are on the other side. That’s as true of Islamic fanatics as it is of Christopher Hitchin. But the cross of Christ (which we remember as we take bread and wine this morning) introduces something new and distinctive into our culture. Jesus came to show us that we can be made righteous (we can receive God’s approval) not on the basis of our performance at all but as a free and radically undeserved gift given to me from heaven. In other words, I'm approved in spite of who I am. In spite of what I've done. And not because of who I am or because of what I've done.

And therefore if that is the basis of my life, if it's drawn according to grace then I have no criterion at all to look down on anyone because my approval didn't come from being more moral or more rational or more humane or more anything than other people to begin with And this (in Keller's argument) makes Christianity the way to be most inclusive and for two reasons. First of all because you don't need to pass an intelligence test or to have lived in a moral way to become a Christian. You're not saved by performing the truth but you're saved precisely by admitting that you can't perform the truth. Your only fitness is to admit that you're not fit and therefore Jesus is the great leveller. He allows the weakest to come - so the young and the old, the educated and the uneducated, the rich and the poor, the upright and the criminal can all come on exactly the same basis. So I can gladly acknowledge that my Hindu or Muslim or atheist neighbour might very well be a lot smarter or a better person than I am. I simply have no legitimate basis whatsoever to look down on them because my in-group has absolutely no implications for their inferiority in any way whatsoever. Everything I have, I have because it has been given to me from heaven.

The second reason why Christianity is the most inclusive is this Jesus didn't just refuse to look down his nose that those on the other side of the line, Jesus actually died for those on the other side of the line. At the heart of the Christian faith is a man who sacrifices for people who are not good, who are not loving him, who are on the other side of his line. This is why grace empowers and propels Christians to be agents of radical reconciliation in the world. Not just tolerating our enemies but loving our enemies. Grace will shape our lives and our relationships and it will stand in stark contrast to today's political and cultural landscape. Here’s Tim Keller:

What if, however, the essence of Christianity is salvation by grace, salvation not because of what we do but because of what Christ has done for us? Belief that you are accepted by God is profoundly humbling. The people who are fanatics, then, are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but because they are not committed enough. [Reason for God, p57]

We see this in John the Baptist’s response, which stands in contrast to the performance driven reaction of the religious men who approached him. (John 3.26-28):

And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him. John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

John’s response is humble, and godly. He does not think he is better than others. In fact he’s not thinking about himself, or his performance. John was focused on Jesus. Just as it would be off for the best man at the wedding to make it all about him (rather than the groom and his bride) so John says it’s all about Jesus. Like this whole gospel, John here points us to who Jesus is. He is from above, compared to John who is from the earth. So he deserves all honour and our worship. John was a prophet – he came to pass on God’s words. But Jesus is the word (he speaks about what he himself has seen and heard), he is God’s word come among us. John could ask God for what he needed, but Jesus had the Spirit without measure and all things had been given into his hand. (John 3.31-35):

He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.

Let me end then with a few ways this makes a difference. The first is from John 3.36 (the last verse of our passage). Listen to this:

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

If we stop and think about it, we likely have a sense that the world is not the way it ought to be, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world. The problem is not out there – over the line. Violence and prejudice is found everywhere – among the poor and the rich, in the atheist and the most ardent believer in God. The problem in inside every one of us and this is Christian concept of sin. Sin has disastrous consequences. It enslaves us and leaves us empty. It turns us inward and against each other. And the Bible always teaches us that unless it is dealt with it will rob us of life and we face the wrath of God. But the Christian hope is that through Jesus, God has taken action to deal with the consequences of our sin.

So what is sin? It has to do with whether we recognise who Jesus is. John tells us that He who comes from above is above all. To believe that is what John tells us we need to do – so he shows us who Jesus is. And his call on our lives is simple: to reject trying to seek God’s approval by our performance. Instead, we are to believe that we can be accepted, not because of what we have or have not done, but because of what Jesus has done on our behalf. Righteousness, God's favour, can't be earned. It is a gift from God. So this morning, will you pray perhaps for the first time and ask Jesus for the gift of life which you cannot earn – which can only be given to you from God.

Secondly, those of already following Jesus need to stop and say sorry to god for the way we so often fall back into thinking we earn our purification by what we do, and who may therefore be tempted to look down on others. So let us confess, in the light of this passage, the times when we slip back into a subtle form of religion and depend on our performance and not on God’s grace. How do we know we may have done that? Here’s a diagnostic question: do we look down on other people who haven't received grace? It sounds wrong when I put it like that doesn’t it? But lacking humility is a sign that we need to come back and dwell on the precious truth of grace. We need to remind ourselves again of John 3.27:

A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.

Belief that you are accepted by God is profoundly humbling. And stands in in sharp contrast religion which inevitably leads to violence, in all its forms. I found myself coming back to John 3.30, and with this I will finish. John said:

He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.

That’s true of the walk of faith – the focus is not on what we do, but what Jesus has done. And it’s also precious truth for the works of faith that God has prepared for each one is us to do. Bruce Milne in his commentary on John says:

Few greater texts for ministry have ever been uttered.

May all we do point people to Jesus. And may all we do come from a heart of gratitude for all he has done for us.

Back to top