The Age of Secular Pharisees

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If statistics are to be believed (which is a big “if”), the vast majority of adults in the United States believe in the existence of God. Despite all the hubbub about New Atheism and the rise of the Nones (those with no religious affiliation), between eighty and ninety percent of us still think God is real. For those committed to the mission of the gospel, this would appear to be good news. After all, having to convince people of God’s existence before persuading them to follow Jesus Christ is an uphill slog.

If belief in God remains so high, why are fewer of us attending churches or identifying with a religious tradition?  There are many answers to that question, and I’ve addressed many of them in other articles, talks, and videos. Here, I want to address just one.

A few years ago, Julia Duin wrote an insightful piece in The Washington Times about the religious questions being asked by young adults. A generation ago, the central question was, “Is there a God?” While the question still fuels the books of popular atheist writers, Duin reported that the issue of God’s existence is not on the mind of most Millennials. Most of them, as the surveys reveal, do not question whether God is real. Instead, they question whether he is good. Duin wrote:

The current 20-something…may believe God exists but is not worthy of his or her worship or devotion, much less obedience. The God who gets communicated to the young sounds vengeful and angry and over-anxious to consign people to hell, plus he gets all wrought up about divorce, homosexuality and whether people sleep together before marriage — which are non-issues to them. Plus, the typical Gospel presentation of God becoming a human and dying for the sins of the world does not reach these students. No court of law would punish an innocent person for the sins of the guilty, they reason. Why kill off an innocent man for the trespasses of a world that didn’t ask to be saved in the first place?

One pastor near the University of Virginia confirmed Duin’s report. He described the young adults he tries to engage as turned off by what they know about God. “Their biggest complaint,” he said, “is that God acts in morally inferior ways compared to us.” In other words, young adults formed by a tolerant, open-minded culture without sexual boundaries or limitations on self-expression, believe they are more moral than God.

Much has been written about the inflated self-esteem of Millennials—a generation coddled by helicopter parents and taught by social media that narcissism is a virtue—but could their self-image really be so high that even God is below them? Do they really believe they are all that and a bag of chips?

Scot McKnight thinks so. He has taught college students for decades and has recognized a shift in the latest generation to come through his classroom. He calls them “iGens” and believes their self-esteem is a significant barrier to Christianity. In the past, the gospel had been received by people who felt guilt for their transgressions; they recognized a gap between their sinfulness and God’s righteousness. Into this gap was inserted the Good News of Jesus Christ because they felt the need for a savior.

When asked why he shared a table with tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Awareness of their own depravity is what made sinners receptive to Jesus; they recognized their illness and need for healing. The Pharisees, on the other hand, rejected Jesus because they were convinced of their own righteousness; they were perfectly healthy (or so they thought). Today, we increasingly live in a culture of secular Pharisees—non-religious people convinced of their own righteousness who view Jesus as a morally inferior kook followed only by simpletons. Will we be more effective at reaching today’s Pharisees than Jesus was?

I doubt it, but that doesn’t mean there is not hope. Some of Jesus’ most devoted disciples had been Pharisees—the Apostle Paul being the most famous. Paul hated Christians and despised their message, and it was only a great display of Jesus’ power and presence that opened him to the gospel. Because our culture lacks the basic ethical framework into which the gospel can be received both traditional apologetics (arguing for God’s existence) and traditional evangelism (arguing for our guiltiness) are very difficult endeavors. Like Paul, today’s secular Pharisees need an encounter with God not to convince them of his existence but to awaken them to his goodness.

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7 Comments

  • Reply January 14, 2016

    Joshua Noel

    People are blind to the goodness of God, for sure. I think we have a society where it’s unacceptable to say that you don’t believe in God and that is actually a stumbling block for ministry. If people were honest about what they believed or at least tried to inform themselves about what they claimed to believe then maybe there would be less “secular pharisees” in the world. Too many people claim to believe God but don’t know Him nor have they ever read the Bible through. This shouldn’t be acceptable

  • […] The Age of Secular Pharisees –Skye Jethani “When asked why he shared a table with tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Awareness of their own depravity is what made sinners receptive to Jesus; they recognized their illness and need for healing. The Pharisees, on the other hand, rejected Jesus because they were convinced of their own righteousness; they were perfectly healthy (or so they thought). Today, we increasingly live in a culture of secular Pharisees—non-religious people convinced of their own righteousness who view Jesus as a morally inferior kook followed only by simpletons. Will we be more effective at reaching today’s Pharisees than Jesus was?” […]

  • […] Skye Jethani […]

  • Reply January 17, 2016

    Anonymous-1

    I live with one foot in each world. I’m an Evangelical leader (which is why I’m posting anonymously), but also have close relationships and dealings with people of other faiths, and many with no faith at all.

    Some people who are atheists and agnostics have strict moral codes for their lives that are significantly higher than the Christians around them. They do this because (a) they were brought up in moral homes, (b) they are personally deeply ethical, and (c) they are tired of being told no one can be moral without God.

    They see Evangelical Christians cheating on their taxes, manipulating the accounting in their businesses, judging those who’ve done them no harm, acting self-righteous, being cold-hearted toward the needs of the less fortunate, and turning a blind eye to injustice.

    This self-deception of Evangelicals (especially) is what keeps these wonderful unbelievers from letting down their guard and sharing their lives with us.

    We can claim unbelievers are arrogant Pharisees, and sure, some are. But the majority of them see us as blind guides, judgmental, fixated on rules that keep us from acting in love, putting elbow grease into shining God’s unconditional love to the darkest corners of the world.

    We know this because of the huge number of atheists and agnostics who have fallen in love with Pope Francis. In him they see the love they are hungering for…love we Evangelicals don’t show.

    They are awake to God’s goodness and they long for it. But we Evangelicals are the ones who are arrogant and keep them away.

    My solution: Rules, formulas, and labels are important, but don’t fixate on them. Loving God and loving people are the higher priorities. Love opens doors more than dogma, doctrine, and theology.

    By loving them, I find they open their hearts to me and together we seek God. In the past 5 years, I’ve had hours of discussions with atheists/agnostics and I firmly believe many of them are on a relentless pursuit of God. They have no one to talk with because we Christians put a lot of barriers in the way.

  • […] The Age of Secular Pharisees: Today, we increasingly live in a culture of secular Pharisees—non-religious people convinced of their own righteousness who view Jesus as a morally inferior kook followed only by simpletons. Will we be more effective at reaching today’s Pharisees than Jesus was? (Skye Jethani) […]

  • […] The Age of Secular Pharisees […]

  • Reply January 28, 2016

    Ben Gumness

    As a Millennial myself, I can relate to this in my peers. It really does come down to those personal encounters. The hard part I feel is giving God a chance. God is willing to speak.
    “Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear…”
    Thanks for the post…
    -Ben

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