The Problem with Evangelism

I came across this video from Penn Jillette which I found very compelling. Penn Jillette is the “Penn” of the comic/illusionist team Penn and Teller, both of whom are avowed atheists who use their platform as comedians and magicians to promote atheism.

In this video Penn talks about how after a show he was approached by a very polite and sincere man who gave him a Bible as a gift and sought to evangelize him.

Rather than being upset or offended by this, Penn says this:

“I’ve always said, you know, that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell, or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…

How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that…

This guy cared enough about me to proselytize.”

Here’s the whole video:

I respect Penn for having the intellectual integrity to say this.

Because the problem with evangelism is that in Western society it is considered extremely presumptuous to claim that other people need to change what they believe and believe what you believe or else they will be lost. But the problem is, that this belief is inherent to Christianity. To remove it would be to remove its very heart.

If Jesus came to be a “Savior” who “saves” the “lost,” and to be a disciple of Jesus is to be sent on His mission, which is to seek and to save the lost, then to not evangelize is to betray the very heart of Christianity.

There are a lot of people who look at Christianity and say: “That’s a nice religion with a lot of really nice teachings and great principles. I love the community aspect of it; I respect the teachings about family, and morality and putting others first. But the one part I don’t like is how narrow it is. How presumptuous to claim that you are on a mission from God to save the world by converting people to believe what you believe!
When it comes to mission, I’m okay with you going to help poor people in developing countries by improving their standard of living — but why do you have to try to proselytize them?!”

There are even many Christians who would say, “I love learning about the Bible, and taking the sacraments and worshiping — but I don’t like that part about Christianity where we are always being told to go out and convert the world to what we believe!”

The problem with evangelism is that there are so many voices in our society today which tell us that the idea that you can be on a mission from God to change and save the world is at best: naive, and at worst: terribly arrogant. So instead, you should just privatize your beliefs: focus on your own life and leave everybody else alone.

But the problem with evangelism is that you cannot be a Christian and not care about evangelism, because the command to be on this mission comes straight from the mouth of Jesus.

“As the Father sent me, now I send you!   Go into all the world!  Preach the Gospel!   Make disciples of all nations — teach everybody to obey all that I have commanded you!”

That may not be popular – but it’s straight from the mouth of Jesus. And, to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ means you can’t ignore what he says.

It is encouraging to me to hear this coming from a person, in Penn Jillette, who does not (yet) believe, but has the intellectual integrity to admit that in order to live according to one’s beliefs, a Christian should share the gospel with others.