Psychologist, author and Harvard professor Steven Pinker is one of the world’s leading atheists. In his book, Enlightenment Now (Penguin, 2018), he says:
“Few sophisticated people today profess a belief in heaven and hell, the literal truth of the Bible, or a God who flouts the laws of physics.”
Pinker is undoubtedly correct, and I say that as a person who believes in heaven and hell, in the literal truth of the Bible and in the miracles recorded in Scripture.
Stung by Pinker’s smear, Bible-believing Christians might be tempted to draw up a list of the most sophisticated Christians they can possibly think of. I suggest that’s not the answer. Why? Because if you truly understand how the gospel works, Pinker’s comment is exactly what you would expect. The Bible makes clear that God intentionally designed Christianity to repudiate human wisdom and humiliate human pride. In other words, it was never meant to appeal to a person’s sense of sophistication.
Paul explains all of this in the first 3 chapters of his first letter to the Corinthians. He contends that in the spread of Christianity God deliberately employed what sophisticated people would consider a foolish message; He included, as a majority of His followers, those considered to be foolish people; and He utilised, as His chosen vehicle of communication, a foolish method.
A Foolish Message
Just think for a moment of how foolish Christianity must have sounded to sophisticated first century Jewish and Greek ears.
“Do you want to know God? Are you seeking ultimate truth? Believe in a carpenter from Nazareth who was crucified.”
No self-respecting, well-read, intelligent 1st century Jew could ever have gone along with that! A Messiah meant glory, triumph and power; a crucifixion meant shame, humiliation and defeat. Make your choice: a Messiah or a crucifixion. You can’t have both! So, where does a crucified Messiah leave us? Enough said.
No sophisticated Greek hearer could have swallowed the ‘Jesus story’ either. Greeks knew of great gods, powerful gods and warrior gods – but a crucified god? No way. And so the Bible’s message was “to the Jews a scandal and to the Greeks foolishness”.
Little has changed in 20 centuries. When Richard Dawkins debated John Lennox in Alabama, USA, on Oct 3rd 2007, everything passed off politely until, in his closing segment, John Lennox spoke positively about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Dawkins could hardly conceal his scorn: “Yes, well, that concluding bit rather gives the game away doesn’t it…suddenly we come down to the resurrection of Jesus. It’s so petty, it’s so trivial, it’s so local, it’s so earth-bound, it’s so unworthy of the universe.”
A Foolish People
But God not only employed a foolish message, He succeeded in gathering up a large number of ‘foolish followers’. In case you hadn’t noticed, the ranks of Biblical Christianity are not bursting with the sophisticated, the powerful and the famous. On this the Bible and Pinker agree. In the Bible’s 1st epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes: “You [Corinthians] see your calling…that not many wise [people] according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called” (1 Cor 1:26-30).
What a PR disaster for Christianity! Its core message, by deliberate design, holds no appeal for the Pinkers of this world. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. Why, anybody with a brain knows that the first thing you need when starting a charity or a political party is a few famous patrons and donors on board – people marked by culture, learning and sophistication. So, what was God thinking?
A Foolish Method
As if to increase the likelihood of Christianity failing, God not only designed a foolish message, and attracted a foolish following, He also utilised a foolish method for communicating it: just plain-old public preaching. No music, no performance, no drama, no pyrotechnics. Jesus Christ simply commissioned His apostles to preach. So, in Corinth, Paul chose to do nothing but “preach Christ and Him crucified”. Not because he didn’t know any better, or couldn’t have employed more eye-catching relevant methods. Far from it. The ancient middle eastern world was saturated in drama, music and entertainment, and they loved nothing more than to listen to highly elaborate rhetoricians and debaters. But Paul studiously avoided the use of any method of communication that would have fascinated his sophisticated Greek audience.
Why on earth would God engage in this 3-fold folly? Why design a gospel knowing that Jews will stumble over it, Greeks will laugh at it, and sophisticated people everywhere will turn up their nose? Why gather up a majority of ordinary followers, by the use of a very basic method of communication?
It turns out that God has very sound reasons for His so-called folly.
Why A Foolish Message?
The reason God chose a foolish message (salvation through “Christ crucified”) was to make a mockery of human wisdom (1 Cor 1:20-21). Clever politicians, gurus, financiers, entrepreneurs and philosophers all have their ideas for human flourishing, as they “try to make the world a better place”. But God decided a long time ago that men and women would never reach utopia, never come to know ultimate truth, and never gain a knowledge of Him by their own efforts and powers of reason. Says Paul, “In the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God” (1 Cor 1:21), because over the centuries the human search for satisfaction, peace, and ultimate meaning has been relentlessly pursued hand in hand with a rejection of God’s Word and a refusal His Son, Jesus Christ. This project has failed! The net result of the wisdom of the ages – the combined energies and efforts of the most sophisticated intellects in the world – has been to leave the human race in utter ignorance of God, and in utter ignorance of itself. The world may be a better place as far as medicine and technology are concerned, but addiction, divorce, suicide, depression, domestic abuse, greed, jealousy, self-centredness and conflict remain, in the 21st century, the constant and consistent features of every community and culture on planet earth.
Ah, but, behold what God has done! After centuries of human failure, and right under the noses of the world’s failing and fallen intellectuals, God has carried out His ultimate act of wisdom. He has provided salvation for sinners – not by the wisdom of human potential and intellectual prowess – but by the wisdom of suffering, by the wisdom of the cross! That’s the master plan. “It pleased God by the foolishness of Christ crucified, to save those who believe” – and by so doing God has made foolish the wisdom of the world.
A notorious drunk in southern Brazil called Snr. Caucino had been repeatedly dried out by Alcoholics Anonymous, only to go back to drink again and again. Through attending meetings where a Christian evangelist was preaching the gospel message, Caucino was converted to Christ. His life, habits, appearance and appetites radically changed. Such was the transformation that the ladies from the AA came to see the evangelist and ask him what method he had used to help Caucino. Was it group therapy? Was it counselling? Did you give him a book? Yes, said the evangelist, we gave him a Bible. Caucino lived the rest of his life to prove the reality and power of the gospel in his life, and through his real, permanent and personal transformation, God made a fool of the world.
Why a foolish people?
Imagine what heaven would be like if it was full of people who thought they were a cut above the rest – who got there by their sophistication, their brilliance and their brains. Heaven: full of boasters! But by saving ordinary folk marked by a fear of God and a sense of need, God has swept away all the normal Corinthian and Silicon Valley grounds for boasting – smartness, status, rhetoric and the like – so that “no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Cor 1:29). In the words of Jeremiah: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: but let him who glories glory in this, that he understands and knows me” (Jer 9:23-24).
Jesus Christ made a staggering statement along these lines in Matthew 11:25. He revealed that God has hidden divine truth from “the wise and prudent” and has instead revealed it to “infants”. Counter-intuitive? Crazy? Not when you understand that by the “wise and prudent” the Lord meant people who pride themselves on their philosophical and intellectual prowess; and by “infants” He meant humble, child-like (not ‘childish’), trusting disciples.
The gospel is for those who know they are sinners, no matter how ‘intelligent’ they may be. It’s for the guilty. For those who know they are “without strength” and are unworthy of God’s mercy and grace. That’s why it doesn’t appeal to the wise, the powerful and the rich of this world. They aren’t willing to humble themselves. They are too clever by half. Too self sufficient. Too sophisticated.
A cool dude of a young man once asked me if I was a Christian. He sneeringly responded to my positive reply by saying, “So, I suppose you had a crisis in your life at some stage, and decided you needed God”. His point? Only those in trouble need God. God is a crutch for the weak. The rest of us are “alright mate”. The fact is, he was in trouble too, but he didn’t realise it. He was a sinner on the way to hell, but was too intellectually blind to see it and too proud to admit it.
Why a foolish method?
Paul correctly understood that if he had gone to Corinth and put on a great show of oratory, on a par with the finest rhetoricians of his day, the Corinthians would have ‘believed’ for all the wrong reasons. They would have accepted Christianity because Paul was greatest orator they’d ever heard. But that kind of following wouldn’t stand the test of time. Paul wanted the Corinthians’ faith to rest on a firm foundation – to stand “not in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:5).
Huge lessons emerge from the study of God’s methods in the gospel, as revealed in the Bible. Much of Christendom is currently engaged in upping the sophistication stakes in order to attract their trendy colleagues and neighbours to the gospel. Preaching is being replaced by performance, dogma with drama, and exposition with entertainment. Any ‘Christian’ who is Instagram friendly, athletic, famous or sophisticated, is pushed to the front. Whatever is necessary to make Christianity look cool is adopted at once. But once we start persuading people to accept Christianity because it – and its followers – are cool, hip and on trend, we have set out a false foundation and a false hope. Why? Because the truth is, people need to know that they cannot have Christ and retain their worldly respectability. That is to say, no one is on solid ground until they have been convicted of their sin by the preaching of the cross, have seen the folly of man’s wisdom and sophistication (what God calls ‘foolishness’) and have rested by faith alone on the crucified and risen Christ. Until then, their ‘faith’ stands in the wisdom of men, not in power of God. So, why use the foolish method of plain gospel preaching? Because it is better to have one convert on a sound foundation than 100 on a false one.
And so it is true. God-glorifyingly true. Few sophisticated people today profess a belief in heaven and hell, the literal truth of the Bible, or a God who flouts the laws of physics. Few are willing to stand at the foot of the cross, stripped of their sophistication, their prowess, and their prestige, and take their place as guilty sinners and receive Christ as Lord and Saviour. Broad is the gate, and broad is the way that leads to destruction and many are on it. Narrow is the way and narrow is the door to life, and “few there be who find it” (Matt 7:14).
Christ is, to the Pinkers of this world, foolishness; but humble, broken, repentant ‘infants’, who have seen through the empty wisdom of the world and have learned true wisdom from their Creator and Redeemer, see Christ as “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).
Michael J. Penfold (email@example.com)