Ricky Gervais isn’t a Christian. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his work. It’s not simply that Gervais has a propensity towards the harsh or the mean-spirited; he’s gone to great lengths to make his lack of faith clear. He first gained international acclaim for the BBC version of The Office (whose American counterpart stars Steve Carrell), where he pioneered the kind of painfully awkward humor for which he’s now known. In 2009, he wrote and directed The Invention of Lying, a film set in a world without lies. In it, one man discovers the power of the lie and uses it to invent the existence of God and religious law, manipulating everyone around him. It’s Gervais’s not-so-subtle commentary on the function of religion in society.
At Christmas time, he wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal titled “Why I’m an Atheist.” He closed the article with the summary statement, “You won’t burn in hell, but be nice anyway.” Later he answered questions in a separate post, “Does God Exist.” Gervais’s arguments are not particularly sophisticated or original, and he wears his presuppositions on his sleeve. One person questioned, “Does science really have an objective agenda?” to which he only replied, “Yes.” Any good student of epistemology (or economics, for that matter) could deconstruct that statement.
Most recently he posted an op-ed, “An (Atheist) Easter Message from Ricky Gervais,” which is subtitled, “Why I’m an Excellent Christian.” Once again, it’s familiar territory for those who know apologetics. His argument is built around the idea that most Christians aren’t particularly nice people. His criticisms are poor echoes of arguments that were better articulated by people like Christopher Hitchens and George Bernard Shaw. It’s surprising, because Gervais strikes me as a sharp thinker in his comedy writing. But in his atheism, though he bites and snarls, he lacks strong reasoning or consistency.
For instance, in one passage he says:
Jesus was a man. (And if you forget all that rubbish about being half God, and believe the non-supernatural acts accredited to him, he was a man whose wise words many other men would still follow.) His message was usually one of forgiveness and kindness.
These are wonderful virtues but I have seen them discarded by many so-called God-fearers when it suits them. They cherry pick from their “rulebook” basically. I have seen such cruelty and prejudice performed in the name of Christianity (and many other religions for that matter) that it makes me wonder if there has been a bit too much selective reading and reinterpretation of the doctrines.
Notice that in the first paragraph, he tells us to discard (cherry-picks) “all that rubbish” about the supernatural, then in the second paragraph, attacks Christians for “cherry-picking from their ‘rulebook.’” I doubt that argument would stand up to scrutiny in a first-year persuasive writing or philosophy course, but that’s not Gervais’s point. His goal is not constructive.
Calling Us to Repentance
This article comes as Lent (the season before Easter) draws to a close, and I’m reminded of Merold Westphal’s recommendation that Christians should read atheists for Lent. He argues in Suspicion and Faith that Christians should take seriously the criticism of modern atheists—not to call core doctrine into question, but to hear the voice of our critics, and look for where faith and practice aren’t in sync. Perhaps, in the voices of people like Hitchens, Nietzche, Marx, or even Gervais, there is something that can call us to repentance—a place where what we do fails to testify and illustrate what we believe.
There’s an obvious way in which this is true with Gervais’s most recent article. As he says near the opening, “It’s not that I don’t believe that the teachings of Jesus wouldn’t make this a better world if they were followed. It’s just that they are rarely followed.” This, of course, is true in many cases. Gervais is speaking in terms of kindness and forgiveness, and I’m sure we all know some very unpleasant Christians. It may well be true that you or I am one of them. So we should all attempt to be a little less unpleasant.
But there’s a less obvious way in which we can learn from the Gervais article. He seems appalled at the notion that unpleasant Christians’ faith in God results in eternal life, so he insists on measuring himself against them. He goes on to assess his own life against the Ten Commandments (and gives himself a perfect score). This, he says, is why he is a good Christian, and probably a better Christian than most Christians.
This passage shows us that Gervais, actually, is quite religious, and the lack of religiosity in the gospel is what he finds so offensive. Religion is a way of looking at the world that tells us, “If you behave, you’ll be rewarded, and if you misbehave, you’ll be punished.” The gospel turns that message on its head. “You’re an absolute mess,” it says, “and an innocent Savior (the only one who ‘behaved’) was punished in your place so that you can belong regardless of how unpleasant you may be.”
It should remind us that part of the offense of the gospel is its insistence upon our depravity. As Augustus Toplady put it:
Not the labors of my hands can fulfill thy law’s commands; could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow, all for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone.
To a religious person, this is an incredibly offensive message. Gervais is appealing to his own superior moralism, supposing that it should be sufficient, whether there’s a God or not. He’s right to point out that Christians are often unkind and unforgiving, but the gospel anticipates that we’re a mess.
Start Where God Starts
Also, in appealing to the Ten Commandments, Gervais starts in the wrong place. The Decalogue doesn’t begin with “Thou shalt not.” It begins with “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Gervais comes to the Ten Commandments to find rules whereby to justify himself and condemn Christians. But the Scriptures place the Ten Commandments inside the context of a redemption story. God didn’t appear to the Hebrew slaves and tell them, “Do these things and I’ll rescue you.” Instead, he rescued them and invited them into a life lived in covenant community. As Marva Dawn once put it, the Ten Commandments begin with grace. “I’m your God. I’m the one who rescued you.” The Exodus story foreshadows the gospel, showing that at the heart of law, at its origins, is God’s grace. It’s the opposite of religion—even in the Ten Commandments.
In his abundant mercy, God looks upon the broken, the downtrodden, those crushed by the burdens of Satan, sin, and death, and provides scandalous mercy in Jesus Christ. That’s the starting place of the gospel, and the starting place of any conversation about what it means to be a Christian. Ricky Gervais looks at the Scriptures and sees only law, not grace, and responds with appeals to legal obedience.
There are millions like him, both inside and outside the church. They believe that the essential message of the Bible is, “If you behave, then you belong.” We have a better message and a much richer story, one drenched in grace and mercy. Remember, as many Christians before us have understood, the gospel tells us that we’re far worse off than we ever imagined . . . and far more loved than we ever dared to dream.