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Re-Thinking Our Assumptions of Non-Believers

A friend recently sent me a photo of a t-shirt with the words printed on it: “Life without God is like an unsharpened pencil: It has no point.”

I’m sure there is a Christian bookstore somewhere that has the shirt available for purchase. No doubt along with an array of other shirts, sweaters and accessories adorned with equally cutesy declarations. Sellers of shirts like these probably think buyers will want to wear the shirts as a Christian witness to the world. Perhaps they hope the message will shame or shock a person into believing in God. What impact do these messages have? Does the act of wearing that kind of shirt have its own message? 

I can’t imagine most non-believers would find such a statement to be demeaning. What I do think with some certainty is that they would chalk up the ill-advised sloganeering as another example of the Christian majority’s insensitivity. What’s wrong with the t-shirt message? There are a few arguments.

Members of the Rotary Club promote something called The Four-Way Test. The website calls it “a nonpartisan and nonsectarian ethical guide for Rotarians to use for their personal and professional relationships.” The Four-Way Test states: Of the things I think, say or do:

  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

In the case of the t-shirt sloganeering, the answers are no across the board. Perhaps I’m too narrow in my thinking or have been corrupted by my non-believing friends. But, I can’t imagine any of them thinking the message on the shirt is intended as a gesture of friendship. To start, the shirt’s message isn’t true, fair, or good for building better friendships because it makes a negative statement about the value of other people’s lives. The slogan doesn’t satisfy the Four-Way Test, nor does it follow the approach advocated by Dale Carnegie in his book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Most important for Christians, the shirt’s statement ignores what is likely the most widely revered comment Jesus ever made—the golden rule, asking us to treat others as we would like to be treated. 

Jesus said he has other sheep residing in different pens. Could non-believers be some of those sheep? If so, shouldn’t we be slow to judge the importance of their lives? Declaring a person’s life as pointless is a heavy assumption. We need to recognize that it’s beyond our pay grade to make such statements. We read in Hebrews 1:2-3 that Jesus is the creator of everything and He is the sustainer of everything. Jesus gave life to humans at creation and He is the one who keeps life going. For the Christian, there is no such thing as life apart from Christ. 

Let’s assume that the propounder of the shirt slogan was just trying to convey the idea that any life lived in spiritual disconnect from God “has no point.” Once again, we hit a wall. In 1 Peter 3:9, it reads that God is patient. He is not willing that any should perish but all should come to repentance. While the non-believer’s life may seem pointless to believers who suffer from a spiritual superiority complex, from the divine perspective, God sees great value in the non-believer’s life. Where there is life, there is hope. And God hopes His patience will yield positive results eventually.

Maybe I’m overreaching. Perhaps all the writer was trying to get across is that non-believers go through life devoid of fulfillment because they don’t have a big picture worldview. Nor do they have a sense of obligation to God. It’s naive to assume that non-believers don’t do many good things. They do what they do purely because it needs to be done and feels right. Believe it or not, what they do may be quite rewarding for them. Future rewards or punishments don’t enter the picture. Of course, I admit that not all non-believers are helpful and altruistic. Some can be mean-spirited and self-serving just like believers can. 

In Micah 6:8 we find a simple formula for how believers should live:  Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God. What I don’t read in that verse, “But when it comes to demeaning non-believers, it’s always open season.” 

About the author

James (Jim) Coffin is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. After retiring from denominational employment in 2011, he served for nearly 12 years as Executive Director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Advent Health’s Central Florida Division. During his ministerial career, he worked in both the United States (26 years) and Australia (10 years), serving 9 years as a youth pastor, 4 years as assistant editor of the Adventist Review, 5 years as senior editor at Signs Publishing Company in Australia, and 18 years as senior pastor at Markham Woods Church in Longwood, Florida. He has authored three books, written some 100 op-eds for the Orlando Sentinel (usually addressing religious or social/ethical topics), and has written widely for an array of Adventist publications and websites. He and his wife, Leonie, have three adult sons. More from James Coffin.
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