“How can I know everything about everything?”
Students often ask this question when I speak with them about apologetics. It’s a fair one: defending your faith can seem a daunting task. What if I’m talking with a Mormon? How can I possibly know everything about Mormonism? What about a Muslim? Are they Sunni or Shi’ite? I can’t be expected to know about every other faith!
Thankfully, succeeding at apologetics doesn’t require you to know everything about everything. All you really must know are the things that make Christianity distinct from every other worldview.
If there are certain doctrines unique to Christianity, then you actually can know something significant about a multitude of worldviews—from Rastafarianism to the Baha’i faith to Zoroastrianism—because you know that, whatever they say, they don’t say the thing that is unique to our faith. Christians, for example, believe in a triune God—something that no other faith, not even Mormonism or Jehovah’s Witnesses, articulates. So when you meet someone with a worldview you’ve never encountered before, you still know something about their faith: they will deny the Trinity.
This is also the reason I like to ask my students what kind of monster they are.
It’s an odd starting place, I know, but it allows me to tell two classic stories: the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the story of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. After I tell these stories, I ask my students which monster they are more like. It’s a rather transparent attempt to get them to think about the nature of man.
These two classic monster stories provide the two possible answers to the fundamental question about man. The Jekyll and Hyde story provides the biblical answer that we are inherently sinful. A man enslaved by his sin nature cannot evade that sin by occasionally giving in to it; the more we sin, the more we become entangled in sinfulness (Rom. 6:16). Dr. Jekyll’s attempts to occasionally succumb to his sin nature result in his being trapped in Mr. Hyde’s body. His sin is not liberating, but captivating.
The story of Frankenstein’s monster provides the other possible answer: we are basically good. Forget about the old black-and-white movies—in the original book, Mary Shelley describes a monster who begins as an innocent before being corrupted by his environment. To justify his behavior, he says things like: “Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all humankind sinned against me?” (204). And elsewhere: “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous” (84). The root cause of the monster’s evil actions, it seems, lies outside the monster’s innocent heart.
So our choice is simple. When we consider our nature—something Blaise Pascal believed was our “true and proper study”—we may conclude one of two things: either we are inherently sinful, or we are basically good.
Incredibly, only the Christian worldview asserts the former. Every other worldview—even Islam, even modern Judaism—asserts that man is basically good. This is one of the most crucial distinctives of the Christian faith.
It’s easier to see this distinction when you understand that saying man is basically good is tantamount to saying that man can save himself. If you’re good enough to muster up enough good works, then you ought to be able to achieve your own salvation.
Saying that man is basically good is tantamount to saying that man can save himself.
That’s how Islam works: adhere often enough to the five pillars—fasting, praying, confessing, making a pilgrimage, giving alms—and you can make yourself acceptable to Allah. You are good enough to save yourself. This is why the Muslim author of Islam in Focus can assert so confidently:
The idea of Original Sin or hereditary criminality has no room in the teachings of Islam. Man, according to the Qur’an (30:30) and to the Prophet, is born in a natural state of purity. (32)
Surprisingly, this holds true with Orthodox Judaism as well. Although the Old Testament certainly teaches the doctrine of original sin, Orthodox Jews interpret the Pentateuch through the lens of the Talmud, a book that asserts the basic goodness of man. The following passage from the Talmud is attributed to God himself:
Behold, I am pure, My abode is pure, My ministers are pure, and the soul I give you is pure. If you return it to me in the same state of purity that I give it to you, well and good; if not, I will destroy it before you. (22–23)
The teaching is clear: we are good enough to maintain purity and earn redemption.
We find this idea repeated again and again in non-Christian worldviews. Only Christianity asserts that man is inherently sinful and completely incapable of effecting his own salvation. Only Christianity says that man can’t save himself.
Which leads us to the good news of the gospel: Jesus can accomplish what we cannot. Although no one deserves to be saved, God made a way through the sacrifice of his perfect Son. Though we are, as Pascal says, a “monster that passes all understanding,” we can also be born again—made new—and adopted into the family of God.