A Letter to Non-Believers

November 20, 2009

This was published in Esquire Magazine, a letter from Shane Claiborne.


To all my nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends: I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity.

Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.

The other night I headed into downtown Philly for a stroll with some friends from out of town. We walked down to Penn’s Landing along the river, where there are street performers, artists, musicians. We passed a great magician who did some pretty sweet tricks like pour change out of his iPhone, and then there was a preacher. He wasn’t quite as captivating as the magician. He stood on a box, yelling into a microphone, and beside him was a coffin with a fake dead body inside. He talked about how we are all going to die and go to hell if we don’t know Jesus.

Some folks snickered. Some told him to shut the hell up. A couple of teenagers tried to steal the dead body in the coffin. All I could do was think to myself, I want to jump up on a box beside him and yell at the top of my lungs, “God is not a monster.” Maybe next time I will.

The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating. We have given the atheists less and less to disbelieve. And the sort of Christianity many of us have seen on TV and heard on the radio looks less and less like Jesus.

At one point Gandhi was asked if he was a Christian, and he said, essentially, “I sure love Jesus, but the Christians seem so unlike their Christ.” A recent study showed that the top three perceptions of Christians in the U. S. among young non-Christians are that Christians are 1) antigay, 2) judgmental, and 3) hypocritical. So what we have here is a bit of an image crisis, and much of that reputation is well deserved. That’s the ugly stuff. And that’s why I begin by saying that I’m sorry.

Now for the good news.

I want to invite you to consider that maybe the televangelists and street preachers are wrong — and that God really is love. Maybe the fruits of the Spirit really are beautiful things like peace, patience, kindness, joy, love, goodness, and not the ugly things that have come to characterize religion, or politics, for that matter. (If there is anything I have learned from liberals and conservatives, it’s that you can have great answers and still be mean… and that just as important as being right is being nice.)

The Bible that I read says that God did not send Jesus to condemn the world but to save it… it was because “God so loved the world.” That is the God I know, and I long for others to know. I did not choose to devote my life to Jesus because I was scared to death of hell or because I wanted crowns in heaven… but because he is good. For those of you who are on a sincere spiritual journey, I hope that you do not reject Christ because of Christians. We have always been a messed-up bunch, and somehow God has survived the embarrassing things we do in His name. At the core of our “Gospel” is the message that Jesus came “not [for] the healthy… but the sick.” And if you choose Jesus, may it not be simply because of a fear of hell or hope for mansions in heaven.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in the afterlife, but too often all the church has done is promise the world that there is life after death and use it as a ticket to ignore the hells around us. I am convinced that the Christian Gospel has as much to do with this life as the next, and that the message of that Gospel is not just about going up when we die but about bringing God’s Kingdom down. It was Jesus who taught us to pray that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth.

One of Jesus’ most scandalous stories is the story of the Good Samaritan. As sentimental as we may have made it, the original story was about a man who gets beat up and left on the side of the road. A priest passes by. A Levite, the quintessential religious guy, also passes by on the other side (perhaps late for a meeting at church). And then comes the Samaritan… you can almost imagine a snicker in the Jewish crowd. Jews did not talk to Samaritans, or even walk through Samaria. But the Samaritan stops and takes care of the guy in the ditch and is lifted up as the hero of the story. I’m sure some of the listeners were ticked. According to the religious elite, Samaritans did not keep the right rules, and they did not have sound doctrine… but Jesus shows that true faith has to work itself out in a way that is Good News to the most bruised and broken person lying in the ditch.

It is so simple, but the pious forget this lesson constantly. God may indeed be evident in a priest, but God is just as likely to be at work through a Samaritan or a prostitute. In fact the Scripture is brimful of God using folks like a lying prostitute named Rahab, an adulterous king named David… at one point God even speaks to a guy named Balaam through his donkey. Some say God spoke to Balaam through his ass and has been speaking through asses ever since. So if God should choose to use us, then we should be grateful but not think too highly of ourselves. And if upon meeting someone we think God could never use, we should think again.

After all, Jesus says to the religious elite who looked down on everybody else: “The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom ahead of you.” And we wonder what got him killed?

I have a friend in the UK who talks about “dirty theology” — that we have a God who is always using dirt to bring life and healing and redemption, a God who shows up in the most unlikely and scandalous ways. After all, the whole story begins with God reaching down from heaven, picking up some dirt, and breathing life into it. At one point, Jesus takes some mud, spits in it, and wipes it on a blind man’s eyes to heal him. (The priests and producers of anointing oil were not happy that day.)

In fact, the entire story of Jesus is about a God who did not just want to stay “out there” but who moves into the neighborhood, a neighborhood where folks said, “Nothing good could come.” It is this Jesus who was accused of being a glutton and drunkard and rabble-rouser for hanging out with all of society’s rejects, and who died on the imperial cross of Rome reserved for bandits and failed messiahs. This is why the triumph over the cross was a triumph over everything ugly we do to ourselves and to others. It is the final promise that love wins.

It is this Jesus who was born in a stank manger in the middle of a genocide. That is the God that we are just as likely to find in the streets as in the sanctuary, who can redeem revolutionaries and tax collectors, the oppressed and the oppressors… a God who is saving some of us from the ghettos of poverty, and some of us from the ghettos of wealth.

In closing, to those who have closed the door on religion — I was recently asked by a non-Christian friend if I thought he was going to hell. I said, “I hope not. It will be hard to enjoy heaven without you.” If those of us who believe in God do not believe God’s grace is big enough to save the whole world… well, we should at least pray that it is.

Your brother,




  1. Thanks for posting this Josh, I reposted to my blog, hope you don’t mind. So many of my friends are non-believers, and their biggest ‘beef’ with Christianity is exactly what this letter is all about. I hope it touches some of them. Thanks again – great read!

  2. Shane Claiborne is always so great until he gets slightly shady. God’s grace is definitely big enough to save the whole world. But he’s also a holy God that cannot be in the presence of sin, which is why we need Jesus to cleanse us and make us holy before God. So, I hope that Shane wasn’t saying that unbelievers are going to heaven because God’s grace is big enough for that.
    Is that what he was saying?

  3. I didn’t see that anywhere in the letter.

  4. Also, God can’t be around unholiness, I agree. Why is that such a focal point? We, as Christians not only can be around unholiness, we are supposed to be around it.

  5. Oh, I was referring to the last paragraph. But maybe if you didn’t even notice that then it is just the way I was reading it and not how it was meant.

    And you’re right, we can and should be around unholiness, I totally agree with that. My question was just over the last paragraph was saying that we need to believe that God’s grace and love somehow outweigh his holiness and justness that everyone will be saved no matter whether they choose to follow Christ on this earth or not.

  6. Ahh, I see what you are getting at. I read that paragraph and didn’t think he was meaning that everyone will just automatically go to heaven (what is heaven anyway?). I took it as him saying there is enough grace to cover everyone, the ball is kind of in our court as to how we want to proceed.

  7. Oh good! Because that’s not heresy! Hooray!
    haha. And that’s definitely biblical.

    And heaven is a little city on top of the clouds, didn’t you know?

  8. I think to say, “God can’t be around unholiness,” or, “God [that] cannot be in the presence of sin,” is short-sighted. How can we as humans say that God can or cannot do anything?

    And, also, doesn’t the fact that Jesus came to earth and lived among us unholy fools kind of fly in the face of that statement?

  9. You bring up a good point, Christopher. I have always just kind of accepted the “God can’t be around unholiness” point, and not really given it much thought. I don’t necessarily see it as scriptural. I’d like to hear Rachel’s thoughts.

  10. I remember being 7ish, sitting in a Baptist sunday school room, with the teacher weilding a felt board with cut outs of some kids, God, and a ominous-looking cloud between them.

    “See kids? This cloud is sin! It keeps us apart from God. We can’t talk to God, He can’t talk to us. This is because He is Holy and can’t stand sin…”

    The gal would go on to say that we get rid of sin by asking God to forgive us, etc.

    I wondered how God could hear our forgiveness prayer through the sin cloud, but not the other prayers. Prayers are tagged, apparently, and handled through an efficient prayer handling machine. Like at UPS.

    How does God make us holy unless He approaches us in our un-holy state? How do our prayers for non-believers have any impact at all unless God is willing to chase them, sin and all on our (and their) behalf?

    I don’t think God cannot stand to be around unholiness. I think that we cannot fully experience His kingdom when we are in that place, and it grieves Him.

    And I say “I think” because I’m not God. Not that I haven’t tried to hold that gig.

  11. “I don’t think God cannot stand to be around unholiness. I think that we cannot fully experience His kingdom when we are in that place, and it grieves Him.”

    I feel like this is the key phrase here–like somewhere in history, we turned this thinking around and projected this on to God to say that He can’t be near us when we are in this place, instead of us not being able to draw nearer to Him.

  12. In response to the part about the “cloud” between us and God:

    “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear, but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” -Isaiah 59.1,2

    “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” -I John 1.9

    “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” -James 5.16

    Sin separates us from God. It is not that God cannot hear, but that he won’t. Kind of like, if we’re not going to take him seriously about the whole pursuing holiness thing (I Peter 1.15,16), why should he take us seriously about whatever we might ask of him? When we’re in sin, our prayers are not heard. But when we’re walking with God and obeying him, man are our prayers taken seriously!

    The distance thing is true even as Christians, it’s not that we lose our salvation, but we sort of ruin our relationship with God until we repent; he won’t hear us, and we can’t hear him (I Thess 5.19, we can quench the Spirit.)

    But though God chooses not to hear us when we are living with sin, he still knows our hearts and he can hear us when we confess and repent of it all.

    I know that doesn’t touch on the whole God-can’t-be-around-unholiness thing. But as far as the whole “cloud” thing goes… yes.

  13. I need to look into the translation of that verse. To say that He chooses to not listen to us does not fit with my understanding of who He is as He is described in full in the rest of the bible.

  14. Just my two cents below

    The last half of Exodus (not to mention a lot of Leviticus and Numbers) lays out a place (Tabernacle) and method for approaching God. This is an incredibly meticulous process, particularly the consecration rituals described in Exodus 29. What is the reason for this process? Is it because God wants to see people jump at his commands? No. God knows that He is completely pure, and any sin in His presence will surely be destroyed. Therefore, He offers this process out of love as a protection and method for a human to approach Him without dying (look at Exodus 28:35).

    God does not change (see Malachi 3:6).

    However, the part that I have not seen discussed above is that Christ, being fully God and fully man (John 1:1-18), is our intercessor to God. Isaiah 53 lays this out for us, particularly the last phrase, “[…] yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”

    Translation: Christ is the new Tabernacle. He was sent out of mercy (Isaiah 53:5) and died so that grace is available to us (Isaiah 53:10) all for the purpose of God’s glory (see John 17:4). Rather than saying “God can’t be around sin” we should say “sin can’t be around God.” This is not a limitation on God, but on sin. The incredibly life-changing good news is that God made a way for us to interact with Him that doesn’t involve years of preparation for consecration. We simply earnestly believe, confess, and ask (Ephesians 2:8-10), and Christ’s sacrifice acts as a payment that covers our sin (i.e. justification)! God then continues to make us more like Christ and less like this world (i.e. sanctification – 2 Corinthians 3:18)!

    Hope that all makes sense and that I haven’t taken any illogical liberties. I tried to provide scripture where needed. Thanks for letting me share.

    adam <

  15. I enjoyed reading that, Adam. Thank you.

  16. Yeah.
    Well said, Adam.

  17. May the false prophet Shane Claiborne repent.

  18. Thank you for your highly intelligent / well communicated point.

  19. I think you’re missing a point somewhere, Sean.

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