Christians are all hypocrites!
How often do apologists for the faith encounter that objection? Jim discussed it last week as he hosted the Stand to Reason radio broadcast, and his comments got me thinking about the subject. He said a couple of things: that yes, there are hypocrites in the church, at least in the sense that none of us can actually and fully live up to what the Christian faith commands. But more significantly, hypocrisy isn’t about simply failing to live up to the rules; it’s about being duplicitous about it. It’s about celebrating the things we shouldn’t do, about not properly regretting the sins that we commit. What my reflections brought into focus was that this prevalence of hypocrisy – and the recognition that it is wrong - are actually more consistent with the existence of God than with atheism.
Hypocrisy is not a modern phenomenon. Jesus himself condemned it repeatedly in addressing the religious leaders of his day. They sought power and influence by using their elevated status to suppress and burden people. I would venture to say that every culture in the world, and throughout all periods of time, has recognized, and reviled, hypocrites. The root of the word provides some explanation: the Greek word from which it derives meant a “stage actor,” a person who is not what he appears to be. In modern usage, it carries of course a very negative connotation: “a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs” or “a person who feigns some desirable or publicly approved attitude, especially one whose private life, opinions, or statements belie his or her public statements.”
So, hypocrisy is not simply failing to live up to a set of expectations. As Jim pointed out, that is inherent in human nature. No, hypocrisy involves something more calculated: a desire to exploit this feigned persona in order to accomplish some other purpose. It is, at its core, deception.
If secular humanism is true, and man is simply an accidental product of evolution, then it stands to reason that those traits which provide the most survival potential would be favored. The basis of hypocrisy is not difficult to understand. Like any form of deception, it confers an advantage on the one who employs it. By promoting virtue, but secretly not bound by it, the hypocrite can - at least in the short run - profit by his behavior. Virtue, of course, involves self-discipline and often self-denial. It is the process of saying no to what I want at present because I recognize that simply wanting it is not a sufficient reason, that competing interests are at stake that must be considered. But why must they be considered? If man is the measure of all things, and I am a man, why can I not decide that what is in my immediate best interest is what I should pursue? Over time, shouldn’t it be the case that we would simply recognize that we all act in our own self interest? There is, therefore, nothing to revile about hypocrisy, just as we don’t condemn the lion for devouring its prey. It is simply in the “nature” of things.
But virtue persists, as does the recognition that it is a better way – a more noble way – in which to live. Virtue manifests itself in acts of self-sacrifice, altruism and concern for others. While these things tend to benefit a society, they confer little, if any, immediate reward to the one who does them. This, of course, is what makes such conduct virtuous, and worthy of our admiration and respect. They are difficult to do.
Over time, then, the survival advantage hypocrisy provides should make hypocrisy a staple in society. And since it confers an advantage, it would be valued… and accepted as something that everyone does. But that is not how we view it. Deep down, we know that such behavior is wrong, and worthy of condemnation. It is wrong because it is inconsistent with truth and honesty, and the way things “ought” to be. And if we are impacted by a hypocrite, we feel it viscerally. It makes us angry.
To borrow from CS Lewis, when we consider hypocrisy, it is hard not to see that it appears to be a law of behavior. It is not a descriptive law, as in the law of gravity, which describes how a rock will fall if released from a height. It is instead a moral law – a law that says we should not act that way, that acting that way is “wrong” on a very basic level.
But natural selection cannot explain moral laws. It may explain the evolution of preferences and opinions, perhaps, but not laws that all cultures and all people seem to intuitively recognize. But if there is a God, by contrast, it begins to make sense. Having left his law written into the fabric of our minds, we should expect to have some sense of right and wrong. Because this eternal God grounds truth in a transcendental and unchanging way, it makes sense too that this love of virtue is itself timeless and without boundary.
So, the next time you encounter the challenge, it might be worth reminding the skeptic where the hypocrisy challenge actually leads.