Conversion Controversy

  When Pope John Paul II made plans to visit India last week, Hindu groups made a bizarre demand: They insisted that the head of the Roman Catholic Church declare that Christ is NOT the only route to salvation. One Hindu leader explained why: "An ideology that condemns all others to eternal hell," he said, "is selfish, exclusionist, and promotes hatred." Since when did bearing witness of Christ turn into promoting "hatred"? We hear the same criticism here at home, as well. Last September, during the Jewish high holiday period, the Southern Baptist Convention published a booklet urging Christians to pray for the conversion of Jews everywhere. Jewish leaders and others were outraged. As one newspaper columnist wrote, "These conversion efforts are reminiscent of the Middle Ages, when the Church burned at the stake anyone who refused to convert." Praying for someone is like burning him at the stake? And it's not just Hindus and Jews who take offense these days at the very idea of Christian evangelism. The Southern Baptist Convention has also angered Muslims by suggesting that Christians pray for their conversion. How times have changed. It used to be understood that Christianity is a universalist religion, one that claims to be true for all people—in contrast to pagan religions, which were often tied to a particular place or ethnic group. And since it is a religion for all humankind, Christianity is by nature a proselytizing religion—one that seeks to convert others by sharing the Good News. But in today's intellectual climate, people are offended because they have rejected the notion of any universal truth--at least in the area of religion. Objective truth is found, if anywhere, only in science; in matters of religion and morality, all we have is subjective faith and belief. So, there can be different truths for different groups—or in the words of law professor Phillip Johnson, writing in Touchstone, knowledge is considered "relative to particular interpretive communities." Thus, to try to persuade others of universal truth claims is regarded as an insult. In today's postmodernist world, the attitude is: I have my truth, and you have yours, and for you to intrude on mine is a violation of courtesy. Christians have to understand that when we preach the Gospel today, those listening will slot our message into postmodernist mental categories: They will regard Christianity as one more non-rational, subjective belief system. Hence, to try to persuade others of our beliefs is taken as an offense against the peace. In this way, the traditional ideal of tolerance has turned into INtolerance—where Christianity's universalist claims are denounced as "selfish, exclusionist, and promot[ing] hatred." Christians face a huge apologetics task in order to preach the Gospel in today's world. Before we can persuade people that Christianity is true, we must first explain the very nature of truth. We must explain that we are not talking about a private, subjective experience, but about a truth that is universally valid and rationally defensible. Our God is a god of creation, who created every one of us in His image. It would be easy to get angry at those who would deny us our right to exercise our own faith. Instead of getting angry, we ought to gently explain that we pray for them because we love them.


Chuck Colson


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