Tom Gilson

A Dying Man’s Demand for Definite Answers

A Dying Man’s Demand for Definite Answers

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This ER clip on a dying patient’s intense spiritual questions has gone viral, according to, which ranks it at number 11 on their list this afternoon. (The list is apparently generated by the number of blogs referencing each video.)

This patient was asking for–no, demanding–straight answers to straight questions. The chaplain couldn’t answer (SteveK showed us additional context in support of that conclusion). The patient didn’t want maybe, didn’t want doubts, didn’t want what-ifs; he wanted certainty. What do we make of that kind of demand? Is it legitimate? Most believers in Christ would say “yes, absolutely!” We think there are real answers to his questions.

It’s terribly counter-cultural, though, to talk in terms of spiritual certainty* and “yes, absolutely.” We’re a pluralistic culture, especially in regards to religion and values. If the chaplain had told him, “You can find forgiveness only by placing your faith in Jesus Christ and His death for you,” she would have been violating one of the Western world’s cardinal rules: Never claim one religion is better than any other.

That’s a rule we followers of Christ break all the time. It’s one reason Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins think we’re so dangerous. We’re exclusivistic.

This is a great time to introduce Timothy Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. It’s a seriously New York kind of church. They have two classical worship-style services every Sunday, and three jazz services. Did I mention they have five services every Sunday? Close observers point out that the church has grown primarily by Keller’s taking New Yorkers seriously, especially intellectual New Yorkers. He has just published a book handling their most serious questions, and from the book’s website you can connect to a message (mp3)he gave on the first of those objections: Christian exclusivity.

Keller displays a C.S. Lewis-like ability to explain complex topics clearly and cleanly. My summary here will not do his message justice, so I urge you to listen to it yourself. It boils down to these points:

  1. Religious exclusivisity can indeed be extremely odious, if not dangerous: it typically leads to the belief in one’s moral and intellectual superiority, which leads to de-humanizing others who disagree.
  2. Christianity is not the only exclusivist belief system; in fact, all spiritual belief systems are exclusivistic.
  3. Christianity is the one belief system that (if practiced for what it truly is) leads to peace rather than to a de-humanizing belief in one’s moral superiority.

I’ll take these up in turn. Please continue to bear in mind this is just a brief version.

  1. Religions generally teach that one attains one’s spiritual goal (however defined) by doing what’s right. If I believe I’m on the right spiritual path, then, I must also believe I have a better sense of what’s moral and ethical and right than you do, if you’ve chosen a different spiritual path. If I think I’m making any progress at all on that path, I’m bound to believe that I’m behaving more morally and ethically and rightly than you are. Now, if evangelical Christianity is the first thing to pop into your mind when you hear that, please consider 2:
  2. Every spiritual belief is exclusivistic. Evangelical Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the one answer. Muslims believe theirs is the one answer. Hindus do too, at least in the home of Hinduism–the apparently pluralistic version we know in the West is considered heretical back in India. But what if you take a more inclusivist view? Then you are bound to believe that we Christians and Muslims and Hindus are all wrong–and that you’re right! The chaplain on this ER episode considered it wrong to take a definite spiritual position–but in so saying, she was taking a definite spiritual position.

Furthermore, your belief system entails an ethical system to go with it, for example, “It’s rude and odious and wrong for Christians to say Jesus Christ is the one answer.”

I could go on, but I’m really just trying to whet your appetite to listen to Keller, whose next point is:

  1. Given that all spiritual belief systems are exclusivistic, which one is most likely to produce peace in human relationships? The true uniqueness of Christianity shows its importance now. First, let’s take honest note of the moral exclusivisity of pluralism. It is genuinely a sin–and frequently punished–to deny pluralism. Try disagreeing with homosexual practice on a modern campus if you doubt this. The hammer will fall.

What about Christianity? We are committed to a belief in the goodness of Christ, a conviction from which we cannot budge. We are not, however, committed to believing in our own moral or intellectual superiority. Far from it. We believe that Jesus Christ had to die just because of our moral weakness, that we were enemies of God, that intellect has nothing to do with salvation, that one of our chief callings is to love those with whom we differ and disagree, and to treat them well. The apostle Paul summarizes it (emphasis added):

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit,serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord. To the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

No one has lived up fully to this ideal since Jesus Christ himself. Keller is very forthright on this, both here and in other messages in this series of his. I could point out, with tears, many examples of our failure. The greatest Christian heresy down the ages has been legalism, the belief that one’s own actions actually can lead one to the goal, and that one actually can some kind of moral superiority over others.

This is where the beliefs of Christianity essentially aim, however. Jesus Christ took such a strong stand against legalism (or moralism) that the ones He was opposing had Him executed to get Him out of their way. (It didn’t work.) The more thoroughly one adopts the exclusive message of Jesus Christ, the more peace his or her life will display. The fully believing Christian will contend for the greatness of Jesus Christ and for the unworthiness of self. Humility, not superiority, is written deep into Christian exclusivity.

What about Christians’ calls for Biblical morality? I did not say we believe that no moral beliefs are better than any other. I said that we believe no one of us is more morally qualified before God than anyone else is. We stand for what we believe in. By God’s grace, we also strive to act accordingly. We fail. Often. We rely on God’s grace to pick us up from there.

So to summarize my summary, all belief systems are exclusivistic. One of them, though, at its very core, leads to humility rather than de-humanizing superiority. And for the man on ER, the same one could have showed him how to be forgiven.

Keller (need I say it again?) covers it all far more thoroughly. His talk will be well worth the time you spend listening to it.

*I must qualify what I mean by “certainty.” It’s not that I can prove my beliefs are true, or that they are as demonstrably certain as the fact that George Bush is the current President of the United States. For me, they are certain enough that I can feel confident and comfortable staking my whole life on them. I know I could be wrong; but I’m certain of it enough that if I had to, I would be willing to die for my beliefs.

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5 thoughts on “A Dying Man’s Demand for Definite Answers

  1. Are you sure that Christianity is the only one that leads to peace? I’m told that Buddhism is specifically the search for peace, and it is all inclusive.

    At least, that is what I was told by an American Buddhist.

    I guess what I am wondering, is why does the presence of peace make something true?

  2. The presence of peace is certainly not what makes something true–otherwise Valium would be the road to truth.

    Christianity is both true and the road to peace with God; but the peace that comes with it depends on its being true.

    Buddhism’s peace is not peace with God; it is (typically) the “peace” that comes from renouncing desire. Biblical Christianity affirms our desires, recognizing however that they get sidetracked into counterfeit forms of attempted fulfillment. The peace that comes through forgiveness in Christ is one that takes life at its fullest.

  3. I suppose I see it a little differently since I am dying. Right now, the meds are keeping me looking nice and healthy, but I also know that they are wearing down my kidneys and liver. The only evidence that something is wrong is that I have a progressive weakness in my legs which forces me to talk with a cane. Otherwise, it’s hard for people to realize that my body (and meds) are in a constant fight.

    I try not to use the word dying – but people forget that I will often be fatigued from both the illness and the meds. As a Christian, it’s hard for me to pray for healing because my disease (HIV) is the natural consequences of my former lifestyle. Now that I have left the lifestyle, it seems hypocritical to ask for healing when there are so many people who are sick for no reason at all or born with an illness.

    I do have lingering anger, but sometimes I don’t know if it is really about my circumstances or just at myself. Still, I joke about leaving this world because there are no canes or wheelchairs (or meds) in heaven. I have even thought about the Rapture. If it happens before I die, I want to fly once around the world just to enjoy the freedom.

    I hope that my funeral will be a celebration of a lifestyle left, with jazz music and balloons and jelly beans and everyone dressed in orange. Let it be silly, my life certainly was. So many times I was at death’s door and made it this far. I hope that people realize that, while I wasn’t destined for greatness, I was also not destined for Hell.

    Crying is just about thinking of me not coming back. That’s just silly, everyone will be meeting me there in Heaven. Although I don’t want to die because there are so many things left to do, at least I will be someplace better and I will know the love of G-d. While peace is certainly a precept of Christianity, I find more comfort in being in a state of love – and hopefully lots of artistic things to do.

    I don’t even know if this makes sense.

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