A remarkable conversation took place on ABC’s The View last week.
It began with an American Atheists billboard featuring a picture of Santa Claus that says, “Go ahead and skip church. Be good for goodness’ sake.” One of the hosts, Joy Behar, wondered if religious people would take offense at such a statement.
In the conversation that followed, we catch a glimpse of how people view the role and place of religion in society, as well as the counter-intuitive nature of the gospel of God’s grace.
Approach #1: “Let’s Talk”
Should Christians be offended by the atheist’s billboard? Not at all, claimed Candace Cameron Bure, an evangelical Christian. On the contrary, she mentioned how grateful she was for the billboard because it leads naturally to conversations about the gospel.
“Go be good,” she said, summarizing the billboard. “What is good? What is the standard of goodness? What is God’s standard of goodness?”
Candace’s approach is to use the atheist’s statement as a springboard for exploring what “goodness” really means. She sees this as a great way of presenting God’s Law as a prelude to the good news of Christianity.
Candace’s response demonstrates confidence in the power in the gospel. That’s why she looks at the atheist’s statement and says, “Great! Let’s talk.”
Approach #2: “Live and Let Live”
Sunny Hostin, the pro-life, church-going Catholic on the panel, disagreed with Candace. She doesn’t like the billboard because it reminds her of the Christians who put up “Repent or go to hell” signs.
Joy Behar, certainly no friend to evangelical beliefs, seemed to agree with Sunny, even if evangelicals were the target of this particular sign. “Why don’t they mind their own business?” she asks. Joy and Sunny seem to think that these atheists are a little too active; they are causing trouble when, instead, they should just leave people alone.
We could sum up this view as “live and let live.” It’s the idea that religion is off limits for proselytism or persuasion. Believe what you want to believe, let others believe what they want to believe, and heaven forbid anyone try to change anyone else’s views.
Approach #3: “Be who you are.”
Paula Faris presents a third view. In a world in which everyone is on edge and easily offended, we should take a deep breath. Why? Because no one can change what Christmas means to you.
Why get bent out of shape over messages you disagree with? Just be confident in whatever you believe the Christmas spirit to be. A billboard shouldn’t threaten who you are and what you feel deep down inside.
Analyzing the Approaches
The third option – “be who you are” – is right to remind us that we shouldn’t give in to the outrage culture. Why be threatened by an opposing viewpoint? But this approach could be misconstrued as if to say that the meaning of Christmas is something we decide, rather than what truly happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago.
The second option – “live and let live” – only works if you believe religion is a private matter and not a question of public truth. Our culture thrives on debate and discussion in so many spheres. But, for many, in the area of religion, we suddenly get sensitive and the conversation stops. It’s ironic to see the “live and let live” perspective advocated so strongly on a show, aptly titled The View, where the premise is that the cohosts will banter back and forth and try to persuade.
So, now we’re back to Candace Cameron Bure’s evangelistic approach. I appreciate her lack of defensiveness and her willingness to look for opportunities to proclaim the core message of Christianity. And that’s when this conversation takes a remarkable turn.
“Being Good” vs. “The Gospel”
Raven-Symone speaks up and says the atheist billboard is not offensive or threatening because its message promotes goodness. After all, the whole point of religion is being good.
According to Raven’s worldview, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in Jesus or in Allah or Hindu gods or in no god at all. What matters is that you try to be a good person. “That’s what all religions are about anyway.”
Candace and Paula immediately push back: “That’s not true.”
Raven is taken aback by the disagreement. “You don’t think all religions are about being a good person?” she asks.
“Not Christianity,” explains Paula. “It’s by grace through faith.”
Suddenly, both Joy and Raven are puzzled. It’s as if the announcement of grace has stunned the panel. It’s a “Wait – what?” moment.
“It’s by grace through faith you have been saved,” Paula says. “It’s nothing that we can do.”
Seeking the Safety of Self-Justification
In response to the message of sheer grace, Joy decides to steer the conversation back to the safer territory of being a good person. “I’m a good girl,” she says. “I don’t know what they’re worried about.”
That’s when Candace raises the issue of God’s standard to show that simply being “a good person” isn’t safe ground either. The good news of grace rises only after the hammer of God’s law falls. Candace turns the conversation back to God’s standard of goodness – the Ten Commandments. “If you disobey one commandment, it’s as if you disobeyed all of them,” she says, paraphrasing James, the brother of Jesus. That, after all, is why we need the gospel.
As the hosts begin to check off the commandments, Joy admits that she has lied before and that she does indeed covet. Suddenly, she’s not “a good girl” when compared to the standard of God’s law.
Right before the video ends, Raven retreats from her earlier comments about goodness and the real meaning of Christmas to the safer ground of relativism. What about when you need to tell “a white lie?” Or when circumstances lead you to break a rule?
Appealing to “goodness” hasn’t softened the judgment of God’s law or the startling nature of God’s grace. The only other place to turn is to run down the path of self-justification. Well, goodness must be relative, not absolute! There is a good reason for my not being a good person.
Tidings of Comfort and Joy
In just a few minutes on The View, we’ve seen three different ways of viewing religion, as well as the counter-intuitive nature of the gospel.
Across the country, millions of people will ignore the billboard from the American Atheists and will attend worship services this Christmas. For many of these people, their Christmas visit may be the first and last visit to church all year.
Perhaps these rare churchgoers expect to hear a message from the Bible that sounds a lot like Santa Claus: “Just be good for goodness’ sake.” They may expect to hear a personal message of private faith, not a public announcement about the world’s true King. They may expect their views on faith and society to be confirmed and their consciences to be consoled.
I’m praying they will have their own “Wait – what?” moment in church this year.
I’m praying this will be the year they hear the counter-intuitive, grace-filled call to repentance and faith we find in the New Testament.
I’m praying that, in sermons across America, the wrecking ball of God’s standard of goodness will demolish our self-justifying attempts to be “good” and bulldoze the way for the scandalous flood of God’s grace in Christ.
Here’s hoping that, this Christmas, thousands of people will hear true “tidings of comfort and joy” and discover that salvation isn’t because we’ve been good for God, but because God’s been good to us.