Lance Armstrong, Splitting, and Our Only Hope

The fall of cyclist Lance Armstrong has captured the attention of Americans like few other sports stories I can remember. (Even the bizarre tale of Manti Te’o only briefly distracted us from Armstrong’s Oprah interview last week).

Many people are wondering, “Who is this guy? How did a man construct such a heroic narrative about himself and tell it successfully for decades, when in reality it was largely an illusion?” Is Lance Armstrong good or bad, noble or evil? How do we reconcile the philanthropist and disciplined cyclist with the lying and cheating bully who has emerged in the past few weeks and months?

At one point during the interview, Oprah actually asked Armstrong whether the “real Lance” is a humanitarian or a jerk. Armstrong’s response was telling: Both, he said. I am the philanthropist, but lately everybody has seen that I’m also a big jerk.

Nearly every news story I’ve read about Armstrong engages in what psychologists call “splitting.” Splitting is the tendency we have to reduce complex issues to black-and-white categories. We view people as entirely good or evil, and place them in a box accordingly. It’s more comforting to us than accepting the reality that we all act like angels and devils at varying times and for varying reasons.

From a theological perspective, of course, we are all sinners — we are all evil (Romans 3:9-20 is a classic passage on that topic). On the other hand, we have also been created in the image of God and given attributes that reflect his beauty and purity and goodness (Gen 1:26-27, 31). Even the “Gentiles,” Paul says, have an instinctive understanding of right and wrong — the Law of God is written on our hearts from birth, and sometimes we even obey it (Romans 2:14-15). So it’s accurate to say that all of us — Lance included — are humanitarians and jerks.

Armstrong mentioned at one point that his story was so “perfect” for so long. He was a victorious athlete, a cancer survivor, and a generous philanthropist. When the story was perfect, we categorized him as good. We wore our LiveStrong bracelets and repaired our old bicycles in an attempt to imitate him. When the story turned sour, we placed him in a different box — the evil one. We created funny Facebook memes about him, clucked our tongues at his sin, and felt good because we had never injected ourselves with another person’s blood.

In truth, a person’s sin is often simply the dark side of his strengths. Armstrong’s drive to win, his desire to make a name for himself, and his fighting spirit all contributed to this long and complicated narrative. The same impulse that led him to win seven Tour de France titles and to establish his own cancer charity also led him to lie and cover up the fact that he cheated his way to the top.

At its core, Lance’s story is our story. Our story started so perfectly — in a Garden, walking with God, made in His image, bearing His beauty. The story turned terribly sour when we sinned and covered it up. For thousands of years, the cycle has been repeated billions of times, every moment of every day. We sin, we hide, we’re found out. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

And at the end of the day, Lance’s hope is our only hope, as well. We look to the grace and forgiveness of a God who sees all, who knows that we are created to be good and yet are terribly broken and rebellious. He sees what we’re hiding. For most of us our sin will never be an international news story. But God knows. And through Jesus, God offers forgiveness to liars, bullies, cheaters, and sinners. People like Lance Armstrong. People like you and me.

The story was so perfect, and one day it will be perfect again. Sin will be gone, the earth will be restored, and we will walk with God once more. Just as He always has done, God extends His hand to you and me, offering us a way out of the devastation of sin. Jesus died. Jesus rose. He promises true redemption and restoration. It’s the only true redemption for Lance Armstrong, and it’s the only true redemption for you and me.

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C.S. Lewis, Inclusivism, and Scripture (Part 2)

Last week I began to address Jordan’s questions regarding C.S. Lewis’s views on inclusivism. I concluded that C.S. Lewis was indeed an inclusivist who held that although Jesus is the only way to eternal life, explicit faith in Christ is not necessary for salvation. Lewis’s views are echoed by other theologians and pastors — most notably, Billy Graham has endorsed a form of inclusivism in recent years.

So does the Scripture support inclusivism?

I’ll be arguing my position from the Bible, but my intent is not to label those who disagree with me as heretics or heathens. I’ll talk more about that issue in my final post on this subject, but my hope is to simply lay down the biblical facts as I see them.

That having been said, I strongly believe that the Bible supports Christian exclusivism, the belief that explicit faith in Christ is necessary for eternal life. Here’s why:

The Scripture consistently states that faith in Christ is necessary to receive salvation. Although you could argue that “faith in Christ” includes unconscious belief, this isn’t the most natural way to read the passages in question. For example, John 3:16-18 repeatedly talks about faith in Christ as necessary for salvation — it’s hard for me to imagine the original readers understanding that in any way other than explicit belief in what Jesus had accomplished through His death and resurrection. Romans 3 is another example. After declaring that nobody achieves eternal life through his own righteousness — because everybody is wicked — Paul states that justification comes only through belief in Christ. In other words, I think he directly contradicts the inclusivist position here by saying that no amount of sincerity or piety is enough to receive salvation apart from exercising faith in Christ.

Most of the apostles died trying to evangelize the world. Why would they do this if they felt that a sincere person could be saved apart from knowing about Jesus? Why not leave well enough alone? Why insist upon the worship of Jesus alone (and face terrible consequences for doing so) if it wasn’t really necessary? From what I see in the Scripture (particularly the book of Acts), they strongly believed in the exclusivity of salvation through faith in Christ.

Romans 1, in particular, eliminates the myth of the “righteous pagan.” In Romans 1 Paul states that worship of false gods is the way that people run away from God, not a way that they seek to know Him. As I stated above, his premise is that general revelation leads to condemnation, not to salvation. What we often call “seeking for God” is in fact a way of avoiding Him and rejecting Him. So the idea of an idolater in Africa who has never heard of Jesus but worships Him nonetheless is a myth, according to Romans 1.

For those who do sincerely want to know God, He provides further revelation leading to an understanding of the Gospel. I have biblical evidence of this and anecdotal evidence. From the Scripture, we see the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), who genuinely wants to understand the Old Testament but has nobody to tell him what it means. He is the paradigm of the “righteous pagan.” How does God respond? He sends Philip to the man, and Philip clearly explains the Gospel of Christ! Cornelius is another example (Acts 10). God sent Peter to this God-fearing Gentile, just so he could know about Jesus and be saved.

Anecdotally (from people I know personally), I’ve heard of Muslims having dreams instructing them to listen to a particular missionary who would tell them about Jesus. I know of a formerly Hindu man who had a vision of Jesus that led to his salvation. I strongly believe that God is gracious, and He can get the message of the Gospel to whomever He pleases, assuming those individuals are prepared to hear it.

And this is critical to explain about exclusivism — we don’t believe that everybody in the Middle East is going to hell because they happen to be born in a particular place with particular parents. To the contrary, God is very capable of penetrating those lands with the Gospel in any way He pleases, and He does it all the time. God is deeply gracious and concerned with the salvation of the entire world. And I think we will be surprised to see many people from all over the world with us in heaven because God in His mercy revealed the Gospel to them in amazing ways.

There’s obviously not enough space to answer every question on this topic here, so I’ll leave it to your comments. My next post will address the question of how we ought to respond to the writings of Lewis, and others who hold his view. What should we think about a brilliant Christian theologian who held a view with which many of us strongly disagree?

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