Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.
Blaise Pascal was a brilliant 17th-century French mathematician and physicist who had a dramatic Christian conversion experience and thereafter devoted much of his thought to Christianity and philosophy. He began to assemble notes and fragments that he hoped would be woven into a book called The Defense of the Christian Religion, but he died just two months after his 39th birthday and it was never written. Those fragments, however, were published as Pensees(“thoughts”) and it has become one of the most famous Christian books in history.
One of the most interesting of Pascal’s Pensees is the one printed above. Here Pascal looks holistically at how to present the Christian message to those who do not believe it. He begins with the psychology of nonbelief. He says that people are not objective about religion (here meaning Christianity). They really despise it and don’t want it to be true—yet fear it may be true. Now some of these are fair-minded people who see good, well-thought-out reasons that Christianity is not true. Others are not so fair-minded and they just vilify and caricature it. But no one is neutral. People know instinctively that if Christianity is true they will lose control, and they will not be able to live anyway they wish. So they are rooting for it not to be true, and are more than willing to accept any objections to the faith they hear.
How should Christians respond? Pascal thinks there are basically three stages to bringing someone on the way to faith. First, you have to disarm them and surprise them. Many people hope that Christianity does not make sense on any level. They especially enjoy hearing about professing Christians who are intemperate, irrational and hypocritical—this confirms them in their nonbelief. When, however, some presentation of Christian faith—or simply a Christian believer’s character—comes across as well-informed, thoughtful, sensible, open-minded, helpful and generous, then this breaks stereotypes and commands a begrudging respect.
After this, Pascal says, we should be somewhat more proactive. “Next make it attractive, make good men wish [Christianity] were true.” We might object to the term ‘make’ and suggest that Christianity is already attractive, but that’s to miss Pascal’s point. Of course he is not saying that we should make Christianity into something it is not—rather we should reveal, point out and expose its existing features. But the phrase “make good men wish it were true” gets across that this takes determination and ingenuity. We must know our culture—know its hopes—and then show others that only in Christ will their aspirations ever find fulfillment, that only in him will the plot lines of their lives ever have resolution and a happy ending.
I’m glad Pascal calls for this because, understandably, in these conversations we want to talk about sin and the barrier that creates between God and us. Pascal is not arguing against that. Certainly he is not telling us to hide that. But do we take time to talk about the manifold and astonishing blessings of salvation? Do we give time and effort to explaining the new birth, our new name and identity, adoption into God’s family, the experience of God’s love and beholding Christ’s glory, the slow but radical change in our character, a growing freedom from our past and peace in our present, power and meaning in the face of suffering, membership in a new universal multiracial countercultural community, a mission to do justice and mercy on the earth, guidance from and personal fellowship with God himself, relationships of love that go on forever, the promise of our own future perfection and glorious beauty, complete confidence in the face of death, and the new heavens and new earth, a perfectly restored material world?