Can you be a Christian without believing in Christ? (COMMENTARY)

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(RNS) A stained glass window at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral in Honolulu, Hawaii, depicts the crucifixion of Jesus. RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom.

(RNS) A stained glass window at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral in Honolulu, Hawaii, depicts the crucifixion of Jesus. RNS photo by Kevin Eckstrom.

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(RNS) Only in a world where the individual is the sole determiner of one’s identity does it makes sense to say, “I want Christianity without Christ.”

  • Mike

    If you deny Christ, you can’t yourself Christian but plenty of Christians don’t believe in Christ because they ascribe to a false gospel and false christ. You CAN, however, believe in Christ and not be a Christian.

    The two are not mutually-synonymous.

  • Larry

    Mr. Wax had to muck things up by taking cheap potshots at atheists with a quote mining attempt. Julian Barnes was not saying that atheists are somehow lesser people or somehow defective for not believing in God. The quote was meant as a prelude to a discussion by Mr. Barnes about how one can deal with the prospect of death without the easy comforting shorthands of religion. It was missing God, the same way one misses training wheels.

    “Cultural Christianity” means keeping the culture and traditions of one’s background but losing the belief behind it. I agree it is far more honest to just make a clean break one way or the other. But I don’t see Wax’s conservative Christianity being an option in such a case. Either go the “spiritual but not religious” route or atheism more likely.

    If Christian dogma/supernatural belief had something to offer Ms. Massey, she would not be on her present course. The “my way or the highway” take of Mr. Wax doesn’t paint a nice picture…

  • GeeGee

    Answer is no!

  • JR

    Articles here are getting sillier. If I live in Paraguay, and have only read about America, can I pretend I am an American? This is almost as silly as gay unions being labeled marriages. Just lunacy.

  • Greg

    It is called being Christian in name only. What did Jesus say about the lukewarm? “since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!” (Rev 3:16)

  • Doc Anthony

    Ah, but Larry, you’ve already agreed that “it is far more honest to just make a clean break one way or the other.”

    So you too, aren’t “painting a nice picture.” In fact, you ARE suggesting that it is “far less honest” (vis-a-vis the clean-break approach) to do things Massey’s way.

    And you know what? I agree with you. Make a decision.

    I remember reading a debate between the former atheist philosopher Dr. Antony Flew and a Christian philosopher (maybe it was Dr. Gary Habermas.) This was long before Flew’s public abandonment of atheism in favor of deism.

    At one point, Flew suddenly switches gears and openly thanks the Christian philosopher for the straightforward, right-or-wrong, black-or-white manner in which the Christian is debating against him.

    Flew believed the Christian was wrong, but Flew was “sick” of debating mainline or liberal Christians who wouldn’t take a firm stand on what was rationally true and what was rationally false. Rightly so.

  • Paul W.

    The author seems to be unaware that, for over 100 years, the Liberal / Progressive Christianity that now controls all the mainline denominations and large segments of the Roman Catholic Church is exactly what he is describing here: People who call themselves Christians but do not believe in the authority of the Bible as the revealed word of God or in the actual divinity of Christ.

    Sadly, this ship sailed a long, long time ago. It is the key reason that many denominations are completely ineffective at spreading the Gospel: What good is evangelism if you don’t believe in salvation? So, salvation and evangelism get redefined as “improving the human condition” and “promoting social programs”. This has been the status quo in all the mainline denominations since the 1920’s.

  • Fran

    Luther,

    More than just “believing” in Jesus is necessary to being a true Christian, since Jesus himself said “…come be my follower.” (Matthew 19:21).

    That would include preaching and teaching others the “good news of God’s kingdom” or heavenly government as the only hope for mankind of earth (Matthew 4:17; 24:14), as he himself did, before the end of this wicked generation takes place.

  • Diogenes

    Can’t add much to what has already been said here, except this, RNS seems to have an affinity for broadcasting the insights of absolute numbskulls; i.e. Alana Massey.

  • charles hoffman

    You can be a good and decent person if you’ve been exposed to a culture filled with other good, decent, and moral people. As it turns out, most folks would identify all the attributes of good and decent with the same lifestyle and demeanor that many would call “Christian”.

    Thus, unless you define “Christian” as one who believes in the mission of Jesus, it’s hard to understand the premise of the question; and if one does so define it, then the answer is obviously “no”

    and I too am not a robot

  • Chris

    Your kids appear smarter than you, Trevin. Especially your daughter.

  • John S.

    Not true. By the definition givien a christian might be a follower without believing. Following and believing are not the same. Many follow the teachings of Jesus without believing he is God. Many believe he is God without following his teachings.

  • BenJaMun

    In my Christian community many of us believe in the transforming reality of the resurrection without necessarily believing in a historical event. There as been a disagreement on this since the beginning of Christianity. There has never been a true consensus on what is more important orthodoxy(right belief) or orthopraxy(right practice). This has been a source of constant conflict, sometimes bloodshed, between Christians for 2000 years. We should acknowledge that no one owns the name Christian and allow faith communities to define that for themselves and practice respectful disagreement amongst ourselves.

  • Larry

    “Flew believed the Christian was wrong, but Flew was “sick” of debating mainline or liberal Christians who wouldn’t take a firm stand on what was rationally true and what was rationally false. Rightly so.”

    Its far less fun to debate people who are relatively sane in their approach to religion. Too damn reasonable. Too accepting of the notion that people are entitled to different beliefs.

    Fundamentalists are delusional enough to confuse faith with rational proof. It makes for a more interesting contrast in public when dealing with atheists. Whereas the mainliner will say, “Its nice you are an atheist, but it isn’t really for me”, the fundamentalist will say, “BURN THE ATHEIST NONBELIEVER!!!!!”

    If you were looking to make an entertaining debate, which one you you chose?

  • Andy

    I remember reading her post when it came out. It seemed typical of a lot of people today. I think though that we assume sometimes that this is the end of the line of their belief. One would hope not I guess but with any ‘feel good’ system like the one she’s looking for it will inevitably fall short and will leave her and those like her wanting something more. So, they’ll move on to something else that will make them feel equally as good. Perhaps, just maybe, that will be the point in which God gets a hold of them and opens their eyes a bit wider.

  • Somnabulist

    There’s no question in my mind that Christianity is going the way of Judaism – cultural affinity shorn of dogma, and dogma replaced by tradition and symbolism. This is happening as we speak, and it’s part of an inexorable historical process: zealotry defines religions in their adolescent, or “immature” phase, which gives way to a kind of weary (wise?) resignation when the “adult” phase is reached. Notice how so many Christians are zealous and “on fire for Christ” when they are first born again, and how the vast lot of them soon slip into a more restrained, staid approach to their faith. The same can be said for entire systems of faith, as extremism and proselytizing fervor eventually burns out and is replaced by a shared sense of community. Islam will eventually follow the same path, and by then, Christians as we know them now will have all but disappeared, and the few that remain will be relegated to the fringes.

  • Larry

    @ Paul W.

    That was a fine display of sectarian arrogance and egotism.

    “People who call themselves Christians but do not believe in the authority of the Bible as the revealed word of God or in the actual divinity of Christ.”

    Which is how Christian fundamentalists describe anyone else in the same faith but different sects. Its not accurate in any way, shape or form. But it makes fundamentalists feel superior to other sects. Considering themselves the only “real Christians”. Decrying any shift from their rather nonsensical approach to scripture as being akin to lack of belief entirely.

    Alana Massey is as far from mainline Christianity as she is from your brand of it.

  • The problem is that religions need to change due to globalization. In their current form they are exclusive – we have the right God, you have the wrong God and thus will perish. Some might soften that “you have the wrong God but God is merciful so maybe you’ll get a chance.” But everything is set up to pit believer vs. believer, faith vs. faith. The problem is that religion represents a deep sense of a greater truth beyond the material and mundane world. The teachers that give the most clear voice to this truth earn followers. Over time political leaders abuse this and appeal to the tribal “us vs. them” instincts to make religion solely about identity or “what story” you believe, rather than principle. Those core truths still speak to the believers – the religious experience of a Christian and a Muslim is equally valid. Religions need to learn humility: this is my believe, but I am not God. I will not judge or claim my way is the only way. I will respect your faith…

  • Larry

    OK, so was this article was really just a passive-aggressive attack on mainline Christian sects for being more receptive to metaphor and allegory than Fundamentalists like Mr. Wax and pals?

    The reactions seem to say so. But the article doesn’t. That is if we are honest in considering Alana Massey an atheist and not trying to conflate her with saner mainline Christian sections. Then again, I would not put it past Mr. Wax to make “dog whistle” arguments. He has a strong tendency to make fallacious and engage in false analogy arguments in his commentaries.

  • Dan the Mormon

    I’m fine if people enjoy the culture of going to church and having a religious community, but you need to believe in the divinity of Christ to be Christian. Christianity is a religion that believes in the divinity of Christ. To define “Christianity” or “Christian” in any other way may make some people feel better but is ultimately incorrect.

  • Doc Anthony

    “If you were looking to make an entertaining debate, which one you you chose?”

    Even if I were an atheist, I’d at least want to debate somebody that believed and accepted the law of non-contradiction. I’d at least want to debate somebody who believed and accepted evidence-based rationality.

    (In fact, don’t you yourself claim that the reason you’re an atheist is because you can’t find EVIDENCE that God exists? Hmm? So even YOU, just like the late Dr. Flew, insist on evidence-based rationality. There’s nothing wrong with that.)

    By the way Larry, I have yet to locate a single public debate between Dr. Antony Flew and any conservative Christian philosopher, in which the conservative Christian said anything like “Burn The Atheist Nonbeliever.”

    So do YOU have any **evidence* that any Christian debater ever said such a statement to Dr. Flew? Hmm?

  • Dan the Mormon

    Actually, religious teachers that take that approach tend to lose followers. Atheism is growing partly because it takes a firm position on what “truth” is and doesn’t mind calling other systems of belief false. More tolerant mainline protestant denominations are shrinking much more rapidly than more conservative Christian groups that take a hard line on truth.

    Religion needs to be willing to make bold truth claims, because otherwise there is no point to religion. Why go to a church that preaches that it doesn’t know if it is right or not? Wouldn’t you rather actually figure out what you believe and then choose a belief system that agrees with you?

    If you honestly believe that no religion or belief system can claim to be true then you are an agnostic. An agnostic is a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

  • EqualTime

    I certainly understand why the purists among us would say that not believing in Christ is mutually exclusive from being Christian, as would some say that believing in the New Testament is mutually exclusive with being Jewish or believing in the Book of Mormon is mutually exclusive with being Christian. On the other hand, Virginia can believe in Santa Clause because of the goodwill the concept of Santa Clause brings among us. I think there will be those who take comfort in the spirit of Christianity without believing in the mythology of the Bible.

  • Larry

    ” I’d at least want to debate somebody who believed and accepted evidence-based rationality. ”

    As to show a sharp contrast with your declarations of faith and religious fervor. Yes, we are in agreement. It is far more fun when rational people debate fanatics. A debate between reasonable people just ends up being polite discussion and respectful dialogue.

    Where is the fun in that?

    “In fact, don’t you yourself claim that the reason you’re an atheist is because you can’t find EVIDENCE that God exists? Hmm? ”

    Actually I was an atheist first. But lack of evidence that God exists is merely support for such a view. 🙂

    “in which the conservative Christian said anything like “Burn The Atheist Nonbeliever.” ”

    I guess that those debaters at odds with most of the conservative Christians here. That sort of thing is bandied about on a regular basis. Usually its a bit more polite, but the sentiment is there.

  • Phoenix

    The funny, as in not funny but strange funny, is that this gal finds comfort in the ritual of religion when Paul, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, Judiasm defined, probably washed his hands a thousand times a day, and followed the Law to the last jot and tittle, after he encountered Jesus: rejected all of that knowing it wasn’t the following of the Law that made him holy: it was Jesus. So, it seemed, the further he moved away from the ritual of religion the closer he moved towards God/Jesus. So we want to reject Jesus but embrace the ritual of certain churches. Funny. As in weird, strange.

  • Philmonomer

    Massey assumes that the purpose of all religion is to help people become moral and good. Morality is the center of Christianity; therefore, the existence of God and the reality of miracles are not essential to Christian identity.

    But what if that assumption is wrong?

    But what if that assumption is right? Indeed, isn’t that the very argument? Massey can believe that the Christ-myth is a great story about the human experience (arguably, western experience), which teaches us about sacrifice, redemption, grace, and love. The Christ-story doesn’t have to be literally true for these things to be profoundly meaningful–indeed, I’d argue they are profoundly meaningful because we’ve had 2000 years of further human history (again, western history) to make these stories meaningful–independent of the actual historical events that took place 2000 years ago.

    Who cares if Christ really was crucified on the cross? Resonating with the story is “cultural…

  • Somnabulist

    And Muslims think that Christianity is absurd because it holds up Jesus as Messiah rather than the prophet they believe him to be. Why is your claim to Christ’s divinity better than their claim that he was a prophet? And don’t say “Because the Bible . . .” Give me an answer that does not rely upon your holy book.

  • Somnabulist

    I would love to see a peer-reviewed article that demonstrates with a reasonable degree of confidence that your claim of “100%” fulfillment is in fact true. I know that none will be forthcoming . . . Biblical prophecy has been used by Christians in the same way as followers of Nostradamus use his suitably cryptic musings. Give me one clear, irrefutable example of a fulfilled prophecy, and I’ll share the Nobel Prize with you. Please consider this: does prophecy more closely approximate superstition, or the actual words of a divine being? By the way, you used the Bible as an answer, which I asked you not to do. Are you able to give me a reason for why you believe anything outside of one book?

  • Jason

    I’m not sure many, if any, commenting here actually read the article.

  • Somnabulist

    AAAA – Where is your evidence for their fulfillment? By the way, evidence by definition is that which can be verified, and this usually involves having a claim subjected to scrutiny and tested by multiple sources. You must accept that what you believe is a matter of faith – otherwise, evidence would render your faith meaningless. I’ve read Strobel’s work. It failed. A true case for Christ would involve – once again – evidence for his divinity. Strobel’s makes a case for faith, which means he could give no evidence to support it (reference above). What it boils down to is this: you believe that a single book contains the Truth. So do the Muslims. As do myriad religions around the world . . . you’ve chosen to blindly place your faith in a what a single book tells you is true, yet you cannot answer why anyone should trust your book over the Muslim’s book. I have read both books, by the way, and I’m here to tell you that they’re equally absurd, vile and miserably bereft of any…

  • Philmonomer

    Why do you think that?

  • Philmonomer

    What defines a “Christian’ is open to interpretation. Most Evangelicals don’t think Mormons are Christian.

    A Christian is a “follower of Christ.” That’s pretty broad.

  • ame

    NO – Christian means BELIEVING IN CHRIST – one can be a secular good person with a moral and ethical core – call that a “person of character” but without belief in CHRIST, one CANNOT be a CHRISTIAN – stop all this destruction of WORDS – WORDS HAVE MEANING – stop the destruction of language – if we do not, we have no truth – WHAT A DUMB QUESTION –

  • Larry

    One major reason people turn away from religious belief is because of the conservative/orthodox hard stance on “truth”. In many cases such a stance runs counter to the world around them. It tends to reflect an intolerant, inflexible, and many times ignorant, point of view that ultimately turns people away.

    You would like to think that it is the purity of your belief which is the reason for the difference. It is also telling that sectarian sniping is a major component to supporting your belief. Also a big reason people turn away from faith. But like many things fundamentalist, it is a belief more out of personal comfort than reality.

    Conservative sects are still losing members at a steady rate. But they are also far more willing to bolster their numbers demographically. Being groups which encourage large families and discourage sane family planning, they tend to slow down the hemorrhage of followers by having more of them at a time.

  • cken

    Gandhi once said Christianity is the best of all the theological philosophies but he couldn’t find anybody who lived it. Christianity has long since abandon true Christianity and simply gives lip service to a “follower of Christ”. There are of course individual exceptions, but for the most part man-made dogma and the organization have become more important than the way the truth and the life.

  • Paladin13

    The Lord will find them luke warm and spew them out of his mouth.

  • Greg

    Paul W., though it might be true that many in the Catholic Church are present in name only, and have not fallen in Love with Jesus. However, those people have departed far from the Catholic Faith. The Faith of the Church has not changed, and can never change, but the disease of infidelity has certainly taken a foothold. And those people do not represent the Church.

  • Augustinian

    I concur. Since the earliest recorded Christianity (i.e. Pauline writings), belief in the divinity of Jesus was the fault line for defining a “Christian”. If one only finds the teachings of the prophet Jesus palatable, that is fine but it’s not Christianity. Those teachings are easily politicized and may go in directions never intended: Witness the advent of “liberation theology” in Latin America.

  • Augustinian

    “Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has described our secular age as a ‘disenchanted’ world that leaves people longing for transcendence, something more than the ‘this-world-is-all-there-is’ dogma of unbelief.”
    Those are compelling words. I wish I knew how many non-believers truly feel that way.
    I just perused the NYT readers’ comments on the Pew Poll’s recent announcement of the “crumbling of Christianity in America”. It was none too surprising that the majority of reader comments were dancing on the grave of traditional Christianity with smug proclamations of “It’s about time”; “Bad karma” or “The future belongs to us, the enlightened”. Then again, the more militant the atheist, the more outspoken they are.

  • Paul W.

    Larry, I suggest you are reading your biases into my comments. I am a member of a mainline denomination (UMC) and am quite familiar with the theological views of those who control the bureaucracy and agencies of the mainline denominations.

    Liberal theology by definition is a “spiritualized” rather than an historical view of Christianity. All but a handful of mainline seminaries actively promote various forms of liberal theology exclusively with orthodoxy relegated to an historical context.

    The average Joe in the pews is often fairly orthodox in his beliefs but the clergy and bureaucracy is much less so. I have encountered many who do not believe in the divinity of Christ or only believe it because they have redefined the meaning of “divinity”. I have also heard many sermons by active clergy who openly question the existence of God, Jesus, resurrection, sin, and/or salvation. Many openly admit they are in the church primarily for the purpose of “social justice”…

  • Jonathan J. Turner

    To quote Quaker founder George Fox (ca. 1650):

    The world would have a Christ, but not to rule over them.

  • Larry

    One thing that becomes more than apparent is there is a regular habit of people describing Christian sects besides their own as having a monopoly on the “real authority” of scripture and all others are somehow inferior in their approach. It always bespeaks to a level of sectarian arrogance and little else.

    Who is to say “social justice” is somehow “Un-Christian”? Some alleged authority figure, speaking from personal bias.

    You may consider Liberal theologies to be “less rigorous” in their acceptance of Christianity, but that doesn’t make it so. Many adherents to those theologies consider themselves to be the more accurate and pure form of Christianity and those “orthodox” types being inauthentic.

    Who is “right”? The honest answer is always, “its a matter of personal taste”.

    The drawback to belief based on faith is you have no means of convincing others of the “correctness” of your position, except through emotional appeals.

  • Fran

    Jesus is the son of God, as God himself confirmed at Jesus’ baptism
    (Matthew 3:17).

  • JP

    When you label atheists as “rational” and christians as “fanatical lunatics”, you do so through the lens of your experiences, which is fair enough. I make labels too, albeit with a lot more respect and patience for the arguments of the other side. How can we know which side of the fence of the insane asylum we are actually standing? We can only make sense of the world we see, and at some level it will take faith to both believe and to not believe.

    We owe it to ourselves to collect every shred of evidence and information, listen as much as possible to both sides, and put our faith in either side with fear and trembling. At this point you may be thinking “Atheists have all the evidence and Christians distort it”. I challenge you to read “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist” by Frank Turek. That way at least your objections can be informed, and you won’t have to refer to us as lunatics who wish death upon atheists, when in fact it’s the exact opposite.

  • Paul W.

    Larry, we seem to be talking past each other. Alana Massey’s article is actually quite nuanced and I believe she accurately represents the views of many “cultural Christians” — while not a believer, she likes the ceremonial, social, and moral aspects as well as the liberal “social activism” aspects from some quarters, suggesting that she could fit in easily simply using humanism as her motivation. I think we can all agree that “cultural Christians” already make up a large percentage of those occupying the pews and pulpits regardless of the denomination.

    In the mainline denominations, leaders are much more public about how they have radically “re-imagined” Christianity. If Ms. Massey were to simply go one extra step and define her own view of “Christ” (e.g., a good moral teacher / social activist) and God (e.g., the personification of the forces of the universe), her theology would become indistinguishable from much of the liberal theology that dominates the…

  • Cee

    People make it complicated when it’s so simple, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. That is just the beginning of your life as a Christian.

  • Billysees

    Fran,
    “More than just “believing” in Jesus is necessary to being a true Christian…”

    You can say that again.

    Faith without works is dead we are told and rightly so.

    None of us can see what others believe, but we can ‘see’ and ‘feel’ the works they do.

    Works are the ‘only things’ that will make life better for as many people as possible.

    Can I suggest some ‘great’ works?

    Go here — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scout_Law

  • Billysees

    BenJaMun,

    ” There has never been a true consensus on what is more important orthodoxy(right belief) or orthopraxy(right practice). ”

    Can I help answer your comment?

    A duplicate of an earlier comment —

    Faith without works is dead we are told and rightly so.

    None of us can see what others believe, but we can ‘see’ and ‘feel’ the works they do.

    Works are the ‘only things’ that will make life better for as many people as possible.

    Can I suggest some ‘great’ works?

    Go here — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scout_Law

    Can’t we easily agree that those laws are as good or even better than anything from the Bible as an example of ‘instructions in righteousness’?

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  • Larry

    People who pretend faith is objectively credible are not rational.

    People who ignore over a century of research and accumulated knowledge because it doesn’t gel with religious scripture are not rational

    People who think their religious views must have color of law are not rational.

    People who attack rational discourse and methods because they can’t shoehorn their mythology into it are by their nature not rational.

    Most of these describe your average Christian fundamentalist. Virtually none apply to atheists. 🙂

  • Thecla

    I’m led to reflect: what does Christianity come to for me—really?

    Something like this: there may be some supernatural or other, and post-mortem survival would be nice but I’m not counting on it. I love religion! I like church buildings and ceremonies, the music, art, architecture and literature. I enjoy playing with the metaphysics, but don’t think anything hangs on getting it right—if there is a right. Christianity is our culture-religion, and the alternative to Christian myths, ceremonies and buildings and wish religiosity were all-pervasive. The alternative is an ephemeral mishmash of commercial products: shopping malls, professional sports, and the liturgy of advertising—tasteless, crass rubbish. Religion is a source of pleasure.

    Ethics is no part of religion strictly speaking: ethics is a secular discipline. Churches have wisely given up claims to special revelations about cosmology, the origin of species and Middle Easter history. It’s time they gave up the…

  • Fran

    Jonathan,

    That’s just what Jesus will soon do… his upcoming millennial rule over man on earth (Isaiah 11:1-9) from God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44).

    It will be very interesting to see how many on earth will reject his rule.