Nicholas Kristof, you are not far from the kingdom

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has been having a fascinating series of conversations with Christian leaders, beginning last Christmas with Timothy Keller and continuing this Easter with Jimmy Carter, asking “Am I a Christian?” if I don’t believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection. Here is my response to those interviews.

Nicholas Kristof

Dear Mr. Kristof,

I’ve read with great interest your recent interviews with Timothy Keller and Jimmy Carter—two men whom, like you, I respect greatly. Please allow me to share my own (completely unsolicited!) thoughts in response.

I actually disagree with the implicit premise behind your questions to these men: that the boundary around Christianity consists of beliefs. You asked Timothy Keller, for example, whether you could be a Christian if you didn’t believe in things such as the virgin birth and the resurrection. He replied at one point (granting this premise): “In general, if you don’t accept the Resurrection or other foundational beliefs as defined by the Apostles’ Creed, I’d say you are on the outside of the boundary.”

I personally believe in Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection. Like Mr. Keller and Mr. Carter, I find these to be reasonable beliefs, well substantiated in the authentic gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. I also find them vital to a coherent understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for us. I even think that if anyone chose to follow Jesus, this might well lead them to these same conclusions eventually. But all of that is different from saying that such beliefs determine who is or isn’t a Christian.

I have been a pastor myself, and in one of my churches I once preached a sermon entitled “A Wall that Lets People In.” The sermon was about Nehemiah rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem after the exile. I noted that the regathering community needed such a boundary in order to establish its own identity. But those walls, I also noted, had gates. In fact, just as much is made of the rebuilding of the gates, which were designed to let people in, as of the rebuilding of the wall that we would otherwise think was designed to keep people out. That’s just the kind of boundary that now surrounds the Christian community: one that defines the community so people can find it, but which then invites people in rather than keeping them out.

So what is that boundary? Is it a collection of beliefs? Certain regular worship practices? A set of behaviors adopted or avoided? No, because boundaries like those would simply place a barrier between those who were already in and who were not yet in.

The defining-but-inviting boundary around the Christian community is supposed to be the love that its members have for God, and as a result for all other people, out of gratitude for what Jesus has done for them. Love of the character that Jesus modeled and taught is so distinctive that it identifies the community of his followers, and at the same time it draws others in to become part of the shared life it creates. “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples,” Jesus said, “by the love that you have for one another.” Before his followers were ever known as Christians, their community was called The Way, because people recognized that they were following a certain way of life.

At one point Jesus was speaking with a scribe who asked him what the most important commandment was in the Jewish law. Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” The scribe agreed: “‘You are right, Teacher,’ he said, ‘To love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (That is, than regular worship practices.) Jesus told him in response, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

In other words, because love for God and neighbor were the truly important things, Jesus ultimately defined membership in the community of his followers not in terms of a boundary, but in terms of proximity. The issue was not out or in, but far or near. So when I hear you say, “What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world,” my response is, “If you want to love in the way that Jesus loved, then surely you, too, are not far from the kingdom of God.”

My best wishes to you in your continuing journey of faith, and a happy Easter to you!

Christopher R. Smith

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Nicholas Kristof, you are not far from the kingdom”

  1. Hi Chris – thank you for this post. Is it possible to fold into the argument the truth spoken by Paul in Rom 10:9-10, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart…you will be saved.”, and how it supports your thesis?

    1. Jesus himself said that a verbal confession of him as Lord was not the boundary that defined the community of his followers: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Presumably someone who says, like Mr. Kristof, “What I admire most about Christianity is the amazing good work it inspires people to do around the world,” would also want to join in that work, and so do the will of the Father in heaven, and in that way become part of the community. However, I also say in this post that anyone chose to follow Jesus in that sense might well soon also come to believe what Christians believe, and if so I expect that they would make a Christian confession. In this light, we might say that confessing with our mouth that Jesus is Lord is a necessary but not sufficient condition for being part of the community of his followers (since Jesus himself said you could do this without actually being part of the community). I’d add that it may not even be the first necessary condition; I also suggest in this post that rather than making belief and behavior the conditions of belonging, we should recognize that it’s belonging that sometimes leads to belief.

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