Not long ago Christian Smith in his book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, coined the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to describe the functional faith and beliefs of American adolescents. Smith and his team of researches outlined the basic doctrinal beliefs in the following way:
- A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
While this is a simplified, and perhaps overly reduced, outline of the functional beliefs of American youth, it is very telling. The central goal in life is to be happy and feel good about oneself. In this belief system God is a being that helps us achieve this goal. God does not require sacrifice, there is no talk of repentance, and the idea of conforming our lives to God’s intent is foreign. God is, to be frank, or a sort of cosmic waiter who wants to make sure we have the best experience while on earth.
The role of parents must be noted. Smith and his colleagues found that “For better or worse, most parents in fact still do profoundly influence their adolescents – often more than their peers…This influence often also includes parental influence in adolescents’ religious and spiritual lives.” If this is true, then it would be logical to assume that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not just the faith of teens, but is the faith of adults as well. Experience tells me this is accurate. I can remember having a conversation with a parent who wanted their teen to come to youth group because it would help them make better decisions when it came to friends and moral issues. While that comment seems inherently innocent, the underlying belief is that the goal of church and Christianity is to make people more moral. Morality is not the goal of Christianity. If morality is the goal, then why did Jesus ever need to go to the cross? The cross becomes irrelevant because we can, through our best white-knuckled disciplined, clean up our act enough to be deemed good by God. Isaiah 64:6 says that even our most righteous acts are considered like filthy rags before the all holy God of the universe. That is to say, we can’t be good enough to be accepted by God outside of the cross of Christ.
Nor is the goal of Christianity about us feeling better about ourselves. While it is true that understanding the unconditional love God has for us can make us feel better, it isn’t the goal. Christ didn’t come so that we may have greater self-esteem going into a job interview, or a board meeting, or in our relationships. Even the doctrine of adoption of us by God as outlined in Ephesians 1, which simply states that before the creation of the universe God chose us to be sons and daughters, is not given so we feel good about ourselves.
So what then is the goal of Christianity? To what end are we following Jesus and seeking to be obedient to him? Moralistic deism would have us believe the goal of following Jesus is being a good person, but isn’t there something more. Or maybe the better question is, “Do we really need Jesus for that?” Think for a moment of the crucifixion of Christ. Imagine the pain, physical and emotional, he went through. The betrayal of a close friend leading up to his arrest. The anxiety in the garden as he pleaded with the Father to take the cup from him. The loneliness of being abandoned by all of his friends in his greatest hour of need. The brutal agony of having the flesh torn off his back as he is scourged. The excruciating pain of having nails driven through his wrist. The heartbreak of looking down and seeing his mother weeping over the torturous death of her son. The isolation as he is separated from the Father. The desperation as he strains to breath under the suffocating weight of his own body. Imagine Jesus going through all this, and for what? So you and I can be good people? So we can feel better about ourselves? The major beliefs of Moralistic Deism as laid out by Smith do not measure up to the price Jesus had to pay. There has to more to it than that.
The disheartening reality is that, for many people who call themselves Christians, being a good person is the point of Christianity. While a life of adventure and purpose is waiting for them in Christ, they reduce Christianity to playing by the rules. You don’t need to follow Jesus to play by the rules. You don’t have to follow Jesus to be nice. Join the rotary club if that’s what you want. The life that awaits us in Christ is one we could not imagine. The life Jesus offers us is one in which we do “even greater things” by the power of the Holy Spirit. But to share in this life, to taste it, to live it one must die to themselves. One must be willing to sacrifice everything. One must be willing to go where they don’t want to go, or where they don’t they can go. One must be willing to deny themselves for the sake of another.
Which doesn’t sound much like simply being happy and being a good person.