In the film “Dead Man Walking”, shortly before Matthew Poncelet (played by Sean Penn) is executed, there’s a scene where Poncelet confesses his crime of rape and murder. Up until that time, Poncelet had showed little remorse to his spiritual advisor Sister Helen Prejean (played by Susan Surandon) even though earlier he declared confidently that he knew that Jesus would take care of him on judgment day. What did Helen Prejean—a Catholic nun—tell Poncelet in his final moments that caused a hardened criminal to face the truth about his sinful condition? She called him a child of God. Tears of contrition flow, as Poncelet responds, “Nobody ever called me a child of God before.”
As touching as the movie’s climax may be, a thorny question remains. Is it theologically sound to call someone who hasn’t confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior a child of God? If we take our cues from standard evangelical theology, the answer would be a resounding no! After all, according to standard evangelical theology, there are two types of people in the world: children of God and children of the devil. It takes a conversion experience to go from the latter to the former. After all, didn’t Jesus make it clear that disbelievers are “of their father, the devil” (John 8:44)?
While it may be comforting to divide the world between “us” versus “them”, the moral implications of this worldview is nothing short of monstrous when carried to its logical conclusion. If it takes becoming one of “us” to liberate a person from their status as “child of the devil” then what we’ve effectively done is demonize—literally—everyone except “us” the saved ones. To demonize is to dehumanize, and to dehumanize is to provide a mental justification for all kinds of atrocities against those perceived as the “other.”
Think about all the crimes perpetrated in the name of Christ throughout Church history, or even the suffering inflicted on others today when Christian faith is mixed with blind nationalism. When it comes to formulating an appropriate response to Islamic terrorism, too many Christians schooled in the classic us/them dichotomy of American evangelicalism have little choice but to resort to a theology that says convert them or kill them. Is this really the best way to read the Scriptures?
I don’t think so. At the same time, I admit that I don’t have all the answers when it comes to how to formulate a theology of evangelism that’s both morally defensible and Biblically credible. I think a good start would be for evangelicals to take a closer look at the passages of Scripture that emphasize God as the Father of humanity, not just the Father of Christians. Perhaps the best known passage is Acts 17:29 where the Apostle Paul affirms a pagan quote to show that the idol worshiping Athenians are indeed the “offspring of God.”
There’s also the story of the prodigal son that Jesus told in response to the Pharisees that accused Him of “eating with sinners.” In the story, sinful humanity is portrayed as a son that has gone astray, but a son nonetheless (See Luke 15:1-2, 11-32). Jesus also taught the masses to think of God as a “Father in Heaven”, even to pray to Him as “our Father.” Clearly out of all the masses that He taught, not everyone in His audience would have fit the bill as being in the “in” crowd, yet this didn’t seem to bother Jesus as much as it might bother today’s fundamentalists.
And by the way, that passage where Jesus supposedly calls disbelievers “of their father, the devil”, He was talking to the Pharisees, the people that set themselves up as religious leaders yet were spiritually clueless enough to call Jesus a “Samaritan” and a “demon” (John 8:48). Is this really a proof-text for us/them Christianity or is Jesus addressing a specific grievance aimed at the religious leaders of His day? The answer to this question could mean the difference between a theology of love and a theology of hate. Choose wisely.