By Al Serrato
Your son walks in test paper in hand. You glance over and wince, seeing the big “60” in red ink at the top.
“Don’t worry,” he says, “I did good on this test.”
You ignore the faulty grammar. One problem at a time, you think, mulling over in your mind just how long you will ground him.
“No, really,” he persists, “you should have seen the other scores. Mine was really good!”
“Good,” you think out loud, “how can you call a sixty good?”
“Check it out,” he calls out over his shoulder as he walks away, “you’ll see.”
He’s seems confident, and he may have a point, so you call the teacher. After all, without knowing more about the class and the test, how can you really know?
After the call, you head to the family room, where you find your son on the couch, legs propped up while he’s staring at the tube.
“I’ve got good news and bad news,” you begin. “The good news is that you did, indeed, get the highest score in the class. Congratulations. The bad news is that you all flunked!”
What does this little parent’s nightmare have to do with apologetics? Well, the young man in this story bears a pretty strong resemblance to many of the secularists you will encounter today. They have a pretty strong intuitive notion that they’re doing pretty “good” on this little test called life, so if there is a God – and they’re not granting there is, mind you – well, they’re just not that worried about it. After all, they think they’re not doing anything really bad, like killing people or stealing, and more importantly, they’re just like the rest of the “class” – all of their role models, their friends, their acquaintances. Each of them can think of a gazillion others who would be much worse than themselves.
If you are trying to present the Good News of salvation to such a person, you might find them a bit less than interested in hearing what you have to say. Even if you are presenting an intellectually solid case, you may not get much traction. After all, you are in essence offering to tutor him when he thinks he’s already getting an A. Or, more precisely, you’re asking him to study harder, maybe do some extra credit homework, when he thinks he is simply auditing the class, or that everyone passes. He doesn’t need your answers, your solution to the problem, until he first begins to realize that he may well be “flunking” the class. This analogy, and others like it, can be a starting point to get the modern-day secularist thinking about what he may not have thought about before:
Just where did you get this notion that you will be graded on a curve?
The answer, no doubt, is that grading on a curve is particularly common in today’s culture. If it works for school – indeed, if it forms a part of the upbringing of most young people today – then why wouldn’t it also apply to life generally, and to the consideration of not just the next test but life’s ultimate test?
Let’s consider for a moment what lies behind such thinking. Generally, a teacher who grades on a curve is taking into consideration the difficulty of the subject matter and adjusting downward the grading scale. If most of the class gets a 60 on the test, and if the test is particularly difficult, then what would otherwise be an F might, in fact, become an A. This downward adjustment in grading seems to be increasingly common these days; it’s called “grade inflation.” We can also see it in children’s sports, where an increasing number of kids receive trophies simply for showing up; where games that can only be won or lost by totaling up the points earned are no longer being scored; where, in short, young people are given the impression that holding themselves to a standard of excellence is not only unimportant, it isn’t even necessary. The focus has shifted from building skills and judging outcomes to shoring up what are believed to be fragile egos always in need of enhanced self-esteem.
But on a deeper level, this readjustment of what constitutes a “good” outcome has an intuitive appeal to most people. After all, we are not perfect, so why should we expect ourselves to live up to perfect expectations? Isn’t that just a recipe for disappointment, depression, and despair? Isn’t it better instead to just be happy with ourselves regardless of what we actually accomplish with our time here on Earth?
Now I’m not saying that this way of thinking is always wrong. Being overly focused on success can be detrimental, both to the person who sets unrealistic goals of perfection for himself and for those with whom he collides in his effort to “be the best.” The issue, really, is to figure out which situation is which.
Consider: there are indeed some settings in life in which grade inflation makes no sense, in which a moment’s reflection should make us thankful that it does not. The Navy runs a nuclear power school for its next generation of officers who will handle one of the most dangerous activities known to man. If a particular class of students just isn’t up to snuff, flunking them and starting fresh with a new class makes perfect sense. Similarly, would anyone want to fly with a pilot, or be operated upon by a surgeon, who really didn’t master the subject matter but got an A anyway? In these areas, even if no one in the class can perform up to what is required, wouldn’t common sense still dictate that grading on a curve would be a very bad idea?
So what kind of class, then, is this thing we call human life, what test will we be taking, and what exactly does the “teacher” expect of us? The “bad news” of Christianity, of course, is that a perfect God has some pretty high standards. Far from grading on a curve, we are told that though many are invited, few are chosen. In short, God is not adjusting downward when we fall short but is instead expecting – no, requiring – us to have a perfect score. That’s why standing before God trying to impress him with your accomplishments and trumpeting your “goodness” is such a bad idea. We’re dealing with a schoolmaster who not only is perfection; he also demands it. Any deviation, however trivial in our view, is an eternal offense against Him.
These reflections may make God seem… well, rather horrible. Does he take delight in catching each of our transgressions, like some sadistic teacher who, with rod in hand, is looking for any excuse to beat his students? That’s how the message of Christianity comes across to an increasing percentage of the population today.
But it is not that way. To understand why, one must consider the underlying philosophy that helps us make sense of God and his attributes of love, justice, and mercy. God maintains all three despite the fact that, to us, these virtues seem to be irreconcilably in conflict. To maintain perfect justice, God cannot simply ignore our transgressions. These transgressions are not “mistakes” on our part; they are instead the use of our wills to think and act in ways that violate His laws. What we call “sin” are not those occasions in which we lack the skills or abilities to do a particular job, or to pass a particular test. No, they are those instances in which we intentionally do wrong, knowing that we are doing wrong because of the conscience that God imbedded within us. The punishment we face – the prospect of eternal separation from God – is a necessary consequence of his justice. He cannot simply accept us “just as we are,” because allowing lawbreakers to escape accountability and punishment for their misdeeds is unjust.
But we need not insist on having things our way. The good news of Christianity is that God, in His perfect love and mercy, provided us a solution. By taking the form of Man, He arranged a method through which justice and mercy could both be satisfied. Jesus, as both God and man, was the only being who could stand before God and not be in need of forgiveness, as he lived a perfect life. He then traded his righteousness for our sin, balancing the books in an eternal transaction that allows us to become pure again. More precisely, by accepting Christ into our hearts and lives, we ask God to do what he will not otherwise do and what we lack the capacity to do – fix the corruption of our will so that we can live in harmony with Him. God will not take away our free will, so he awaits our response to his gift of renewed life in His presence. He will do a transforming work in us, making us ready and able to reunite with Him. Or, we can continue to shake our fist at God, die in our rebellion, and face eternal separation from him.
Either way, he will respect our choice.
Thankfully for us, we need not fear the final exam. We need not worry about the grading curve. God, the Son, has already taken the test for us and passed with a perfect score. It is simply for us to place our trust in Him.
Recommended resources related to the topic:
Jesus, You and the Essentials of Christianity – Episode 14 Video DOWNLOAD by Frank Turek (DVD)
What About Those Who Have Never Heard the Gospel? mp3 by Richard Howe
Reaching Atheists for Christ by Greg Koukl (Mp3)
Free CrossExamined.org Resource
Get the first chapter of "Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case" in PDF.