Answering Brad Pitt’s Objections to Religion

In a recent interview with Parade
magazine, Brad Pitt explains why he no longer embraces Christianity. It turns out that he was raised as a Southern Baptist, but when he got to college he came upon some stumbling blocks that led him to cast aside his faith altogether. He describes his current feelings on “religion” in this way:

“Guilt is the thing I find most evil about it. It’s the thing I rail against the most. . . Religion works. I know there’s comfort there, a crash pad. It’s something to explain the world and tell you there is something bigger than you, and it is going to be alright in the end. It works because it’s comforting. I grew up believing in it, and it worked for me in whatever my little personal high school crisis was, but it didn’t last for me. I didn’t understand this idea of a God who says, ‘You have to acknowledge me. You have to say that I’m the best, and then I’ll give you eternal happiness. If you won’t, then you don’t get it!’ It seemed to be about ego. I can’t see God operating from ego, so it made no sense to me.”

Let me say first of all that I think that Pitt raises some valid questions and that they deserve a serious answer. But I would also offer the following disclaimer. If I were to sit and talk with Brad Pitt and to hear his whole story, I’m sure that there would be much more to his journey than what comes out in this short interview. I have to assume that he is only giving a glimpse into some of his feelings about Christianity. So I’m not going to presume to speak as if I know Brad Pitt or as if I can speak definitively to all of the exceptions he takes with Christianity. Nevertheless, I would like to address the two stumbling blocks that Pitt mentions here and to argue that they need not be stumbling blocks to anyone who might be considering the claims of the Christian gospel.

Pitt says that two of his objections to Christianity are (1) that it promotes guilt and (2) that it portrays God as egocentric. There is a real irony about the first objection because it says that Christianity promotes the very thing that Christ in fact came to remove—the guilt that comes from sin. Jesus himself says that is why he came into the world in the first place, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him” (John 3:17). In other words, Jesus’ redemptive work is not about heaping more guilt upon sinners because of their sin. It’s about removing their guilt and putting it on Jesus instead. This removal of guilt is possible through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross for sinners. As the apostle Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The only guilt involved with becoming a Christian is acknowledging that you have it so that King Jesus can remove it.

The second objection is not a new one. As a matter of fact, C. S. Lewis also stumbled over the apparent “egotism” of God when he read the Psalms. When Lewis read of God calling His people to worship Him, it made God look like an old woman seeking compliments. But then Lewis had a breakthrough:

“My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value. I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation” (C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms [New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1958, pp. 93-95]).

In other words, if God is truly who He claims to be (that is, the First and Best of beings), it is not unloving for Him to call His creatures to worship Him. In reality, it’s the consummation of human joy to call them to express their love for their Redeemer. So the stumbling block that people have is not so much with the fact that God calls for His creatures to worship Him. The stumbling block is that sinners often do not see God as intrinsically worthy of the worship that He calls for. That is what Jesus faced when the Jewish leaders rejected Him. They did not see the worth of the King who stood in their presence. That is why Jesus said,

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has, and buys that field” (Matthew 13:41).

In other words, the Kingdom (including its King!) is a treasure. But people by and large are blind to the immense value of this treasure. The difference between the Christian and the non-Christian is that the former has his eyes opened to see the immeasurable worth of Christ—to know that it would be worth giving away all that he has (including his life) in order to have Christ. The Christian will lose everything joyfully in order to have Christ because He is a greater treasure.

For those who are considering Christianity and who are stumbling over the fact that God calls on His creatures to render worship to Him, would you consider the possibility that perhaps God is commanding something that no fallible creature could ever command? If a fallible creature called on others to worship him, that would be the essence of pride, arrogance, and sin. But God is not like His fallible creatures in this respect. God is the first and best of beings—infinitely holy, infinitely true to His promises, infinitely loving towards sinners, infinitely sacrificial in the death of His Son, infinitely just in the cross and resurrection and in His promise that he will one day make all things new. It is not arrogance for God to call us to worship and to know Him. It is the essence of love to invite others to come into the infinite joy of knowing so great a God.

Would that God might remove the stumbling blocks and the blinders that prevent people from being drawn into the joy of knowing Christ.

14 Responses to Answering Brad Pitt’s Objections to Religion

  1. mike October 10, 2007 at 12:15 pm #

    Amen Denny! God is worthy!

    I’m always comforted my the fact that when we enter the presance of God at judgement that we will all praise the Holy God even those who are going to eternal punishment.

    They will praise Him for His actions because even they will know the glory of God when they see Him face to face.

  2. Bryan L October 10, 2007 at 8:17 pm #

    Denny,
    Where do you think the guilt comes from then for these people who feel it? Obviously it’s a common sentiment about Christianity as many atheist and Christians alike feel that guilt is one of the things that Christianity is good at instilling in people.

    I think if we were honest Christianity for many of us often boils down to a list of dos and don’t (no matter how much we emphasize grace) and for those who don’t perform up to par and believe the rights stuff that they are supposed to believe (to be a “good” Christian) then they feel like a failure, a bad Christian and perhaps not even saved. That would make me feel guilty.

    When all someone has to do is not hold to what others consider a key doctrine to be considered by a whole wing of Christians to be unorthodox or heretical, and thus possibly outside the fold, then yea, I can see how Christianity might be a major source of guilt in some peoples’ lives. Or when all someone has to do is be trapped by a habitual sin (like sexual sin) that many in the church consider damnation worthy then again I can see how they would see Christianity as a guilt religion.

    I think if many people find Christianity to be a religion of guilt then much of that responsibility probably rest largely at our feet and we need t ask what we say and do to others that causes that.

    Also his objection that Christianity portrays God as egocentric seem to have to do with God being portrayed as doing everything just so he can get people to like him and tell him how great he is (as if he needs that and thrives on it or else he feels less like God). And if people don’t for whatever reason (maybe they can’t see how great God is through all the suffering and evil in the world or for whatever reason) then God gets upset and sends them to hell. Would Pitt be wrong to object to this image of God if this is what he sees Christians portraying God as? Pardon me but Pitts picture of the Christian God makes God out to seem like someone who throws temper tantrums. He does nice things for you but when you don’t say thanks he gets mad and takes it away. We wouldn’t praise a person like this, why would we praise a God like this. He says “I can’t see God operating from ego.” I can’t either. I can’t see all of his actions stemming from his ego. But I can see him operating from love.

    Anyway that’s just my thoughts and trying to understand where Pitt comes from. Thanks for sharing the article.

    Blessings,
    Bryan L

  3. Carlito October 11, 2007 at 8:35 am #

    Denny, great post!

    There is now therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! We are saved by grace through faith, not of works, so that NO ONE may boast! It was for freedom that Jesus set us free! Amazing love, how can it be?

    This is the POWER of the gospel for all who believe and draw near to the throne of grace.

    What beautiful and amazing truths.

    Bryan L – I agree legalism is indeed a horrible thing, primarily because it creates a vicious cycle of pride and condemnation. One day I’m impressed with myself, and the next I feel guilty because I haven’t *performed* well enough. Ugghh, that is a serious battle for me. My Christian walk tends to be up and down, and this is the main reason why.

    This is a good reminder to put my nose on the carpet every morning and cry out for mercy and favor to walk worthy of the gospel.
    It’s also a reminder that we can NEVER become too familiar with the mysteries of the cross and the agonies of Calvary. When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride..

    I pray that the Holy Spirit would reveal to Brad that Jesus is the only way, the only truth and the only life, and that no one comes to the Father except through Him. I pray that the Holy Spirit would show Brad that Jesus is the One Mediator between God and man – that His yoke is easy and His burden is light – and that all who come to Him in repentance and faith will know the one, true, personal, eternal, living God and worship Him forever.

    P.S. 2 Corinthians 5:21 – love that verse..

  4. Jason October 11, 2007 at 8:55 am #

    Bryan L,

    The guilt (commonly defined as the feeling of remorse that comes from committing an offence) that comes to anyone who feels it is a conviction of the Holy Spirit. I would argue that no person has the ability to make anyone feel guilt. I would also propose that no feeling of guilt is ever felt without warrant. The conviction of the Holy Spirit is to inspire acceptance of Christ, repentance of sin, and a grasping on to righteousness.

    I think if we were honest, religion often boils down to a list of do’s and dont’s. Christianity is actually quite the opposite. We are no longer slaves to the law, but are freed from the law through Christ. Does guilt still exist in the Christian life? I would admit that yes, it does, but I think it stems from a misunderstanding of Christ’s redeeming work. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.

    Now because Christians are free from the law and there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ, should habitual sin, perpetual sin, continue? May it never be! As Christians mature in faith, there comes a realization that freedom from the law exists because life comes from Christ and the crucifixtion of self with Christ. The church is called to hold brothers and sisters in Christ accountable and discipline if the case warrants for those who are unrepentantly sinful.

    Concerning Pitt’s portrait of God as egocentric, I think the problem therein lies in his misunderstanding of who God truly is. It points out a lack of knowledge through his own accord, and perhaps through the misperceptions of others of what God is like. It represents a God that is nothing like the God of the Bible. Would I want to praise a God that does nice things for me but takes them away when he’s angry? No, but God is not like that. Would want to praise a God who offered up what was most valuable to Him, for me, in exchange for the punishment I deserve? The answer to that question is a resounding YES!

    Until then,

    Jason O

  5. Carlito October 11, 2007 at 9:35 am #

    Jason – good thoughts. And I would also add that Paul makes it clear in Romans that we are no longer slaves to sin, but slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification…

    Rom. 6:16-18
    Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?

    But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

  6. Bryan L October 11, 2007 at 9:55 am #

    Hey Jason,

    You said,
    “The guilt (commonly defined as the feeling of remorse that comes from committing an offence) that comes to anyone who feels it is a conviction of the Holy Spirit.”

    It still sounds like guilt, even if is from the Holy Spirit. All you seem to be saying is “Yeah we feel guilty, but it’s from God so it’s ok.” But that isn’t saying anything different from what people like Pitt are saying. Instead it just sounds like you’re saying guilt is ok because it’s from God.

    “I would argue that no person has the ability to make anyone feel guilt. I would also propose that no feeling of guilt is ever felt without warrant.”

    That’d be a hard sell as many people make others feel guilty about things that have nothing to do with the things of God or that mask themselves as things of God. People are good at manipulation and guilt is one of the primary tools that people (including Christians) use to manipulate others to get them to do what they want. Guilt is really effective.

    “The conviction of the Holy Spirit is to inspire acceptance of Christ, repentance of sin, and a grasping on to righteousness.”

    Jason you seem to be trying to replace the word “guilt” with “conviction” to make it more palatable since conviction is apparently from God. But this just seems like Christian word play. It feels the same no matter what and those who aren’t initiated in Christian speak see them both as the same thing. I had never heard the word conviction used so much until I became a Christian.

    “I think if we were honest, religion often boils down to a list of do’s and dont’s. Christianity is actually quite the opposite.”

    But you see it still works out in practice as the same thing. There’s plenty of do and don’t lists in the Bible.

    “We are no longer slaves to the law, but are freed from the law through Christ. Does guilt still exist in the Christian life? I would admit that yes, it does, but I think it stems from a misunderstanding of Christ’s redeeming work. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.”

    But the problem stems from the fact that if you don’t perform and believe the right way then you are told that you aren’t in Christ and therefore there is still condemnation for you until you get your act together. We are no longer slaves to sin but there are plenty who feel they are still trapped by it after they get “saved” which they feel disqualifies them.

    Jason I hear what you are saying but in practice much of this all works out quite differently in a way that just translates to Christianity is a religion of guilt for those who aren’t good enough, who don’t perform well enough and who don’t believe the right thing. I don’t think it is supposed to be that way and I think we can try to spin it or market it differently but in practice it often lives up to its rep.

    BTW I agree with you on Pitt’s misunderstanding of God being egocentric and who God truly is, but then you have plenty of Christians arguing that God is egocentric and that he has the right to be egocentric. Many Christians (maybe even here) would listen to Pitt’s objections about God’s egocentricism and say “Well he has the right to be that way because He’s God and your problem is you just don’t understand that yet.”

    Thanks Jason.

    Blessings,
    Bryan L

    BTW – until when? 🙂

  7. Jason October 11, 2007 at 10:46 am #

    Bryan L,

    “All you seem to be saying is ‘Yeah we feel guilty, but it’s from God so it’s ok.'”

    I think the point that is missed by most is how grave sin really is without Christ. The wages of sin is death. Because God is pure, holy, righteous, and much more, and sin is the total opposite, the two cannot coexist in the same place. When we feel guilty for doing something wrong, the the true essence of guilt, it is because the Holy Spirit is telling our being that we have grieved the heart of God. We are allowing barriers into our lives that prevent us from fully abiding in the abundant life God wants for us. It is in effect an instructional tool because as humans we are not capable of grasping the gravity of sin on our own. It is a tool used to, hopefully, draw people to Him.

    Again, anyone who truly understands Christ’s redeeming work will be able to see through what is manipulation and what is true conviction of guilt. You argue that in practice Christian’s guilt people into feeling a certain way. I don’t disagree with you on that point. But the point I am trying to make is that Christianity is often misinterpreted by its own followers. It is the dilemma of trying to protray the traits of an infallible God through fallible human beings. The more we get out of the way of ourselves and allow Christ to love and live through us, the label of a religion of guilt will be pronounced dead.

    I’m not replacing the word “guilt” with conviction to make it more palatable. I was referencing John 16 (I pray this doesn’t set off a debate about translation because I don’t have the background for that, maybe Denny can help if the NIV isn’t the best wording). Sorry I did not include the quote, but I will add it here. “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.” It wasn’t Christian word play, it was the Word.

    “We are no longer slaves to sin but there are plenty who feel they are still trapped by it after they get “saved” which they feel disqualifies them.”

    Again, I think the answer to this question is one of education and knowledge of God’s word. The truth of the matter is, those who feel trapped by sin, are not fully realizing the finality and accomplishment of Christ’s redeeming work. It is a difficult concept to grasp, but once it sinks in, it is glorious.

    Until then,

    Jason O

  8. jeremy z October 11, 2007 at 10:55 am #

    or maybe a better prayer, Deny, would be, would the Southern Baptist stop preaching guilt and preach grace.

    Brad Pitt is one of many examples who dislike religion because they had a bad experience. Notice Brad did not say he has problem with God, but problems with how God’s people made him feel guilt. God was not stirring the guilt, but His people were.

    Also I would like to comment Brad never used the word Christian in his interview. He kept referring to the words of religion or God. Last time I check there were some other “religions” out there.

    It is funny. Critiques of Christianity never use the words Christianity, but religion. The always refer to it as “religion”.

  9. Carlito October 11, 2007 at 11:23 am #

    JZ – to your point, there is a time and a place for both messages of grace and guilt.

    For the lost person who is acutely aware of their guilt that comes with sin, definitely preach grace and preach it strong!

    However, for the one who is not aware of their offending God and do not have a clue as to the need of a Savior, we must preach the law to show people that if they have committed even one small sin, they are cut off from God because of His holiness and purity.

    Once the person is broken-hearted and sees that they have indeed fallen short of the glory of God(Rom. 3:23), then preach the grace and mercy and love found in Christ!

    Herein lies the problem: many people simply don’t understand the weight of their sin and the knowledge that in their sin they are cut off from a holy God. They must see their need for a Savior! i.e. He who has been forgiven much loves much, but he who has been forgiven little loves little.

    Not only this, but if you tell someone “Jesus loves you” without explaining the guilt that comes from breaking God’s commandments and the severity of their unbelieving state, they might just come back and say “Well, my Mom loves me and my friends love me and my dog loves me, so who really cares?”.

    Until people come to the awareness by the Holy Spirit that they are not in a right standing with God, they will go on living their lives blind to their need for reconciliation with a God who, apart from and Christ, demands perfection.

    How many times have you shared the gospel with someone and their response is “Well, I’ve never killed anyone and I try to help people, so I’m a pretty good person and don’t really have a need for that.”?

    I’ve heard it a lot, and, as Jason said above, ultimately the person who is under condemnation because of unbelief will not come to faith and repentance until they have a desperate awaraness that the wages of their sin are death and destruction, but the free gift of God is eternal life.

    My ultimate point here is that there needs to be a balance in the evangelistic message. Preach guilt to demonstrate the need for reconciliation (if necessary), but then follow that up with the steadfast love found in Christ and Christ alone.

  10. MatthewS October 11, 2007 at 11:35 am #

    Denny,

    Great post. I appreciate your approach in the opening paragraph of your answer.

    I agree with your assessment of the irony in the first point. Someone at work recently recounted that as a child he attended a Catholic school where guilt was served up in ways that would be considered cruel or even abusive today. He felt that their main goal at the school was to control everyone through guilt. My immediate thought was along the lines of your answer here. Jesus came to bear our guilt and take it away. We can stand before God and our fellow man unashamed because of the atonement. How sad when “religion” drowns out Christ in a flood of guilt.

    {I am switching from Matthew to MatthewS when I post. Also, only Denny sees the email address, but I am changing that, too.}

  11. Carlito October 11, 2007 at 11:36 am #

    One more thing:

    “Brad Pitt is one of many examples who dislike religion because they had a bad experience. Notice Brad did not say he has problem with God, but problems with how God’s people made him feel guilt. God was not stirring the guilt, but His people were.”

    Oh how much we need God’s grace in this area. Is it any surprise that people have offended and mistreated others in the name of evangelism or whatever else? This is a testament to the fact that the church is made up of a bunch of sinners who are saved by grace.

    Are we really surprised that people have misunderstandings and bad experiences within the church? Heck, if I look at my own life, I’m convicted of the countless times where my witness and example have been crappy at best.

    O that God would grant us the mercy to hold fast to His Word in genuinely speaking & demonstrating the TRUTH in LOVE.

  12. jeremy z October 11, 2007 at 1:59 pm #

    Carlito I feel you and I understand you point.
    Here still lies my problem:
    Okay if I speak the truth in love, then this logic follows.
    For instances, lets say you are fat. The first time we meet right after the introduction, I comment that you are fat. The truth is you are fat. And to be honest I am a bit over weight too. So who the heck am I to tell you that you are fat, when I am fat?
    But, then I suggest to you this new way of living and eating, in a sense it has a Savior complex.
    I would suspect that you would still be feeling really embarrassed and probably insecure about your weight and your diet. You just like big macs and you do not want to give them up.

    My point is: communicating the “truth in love” hurts and needs to be handle with such care and compassion. The famous quote from the movie “A few good men” states: You cannot handle the truth.

    This is how I define and present the gospel message. My gospel message is:
    Be reconciled to God. Be restored in God. Be free in God. Be right with God.

    However the scripture is “very clear” how we deliver and handle the gospel message: (I am using the NIV because there are no problematic or syntax issues within the text)

    NIV 1 Peter 3:15 But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,

    We must be gentle in how we communicate the message.

    Secondly, we wait until God gives us the window to do it. If Drew was not sensing a window, then that is fine. God gives us the opportunity, not us.
    NIV Colossians 4:5 Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.

    NIV Colossians 3:12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people(YES, YOU AND I), holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

    Point being be patience and kind when presenting truth. No one wants to hear you are fat and your wife is ugly. That sucks and yeah it may be the truth, but how we language and present the gospel message is huge. YOU CANNOT HANDLE THE TRUTH!!!!!!!!!

  13. jeremy z October 11, 2007 at 3:27 pm #

    Okay I had to post a blog about this issues. Check it out.
    http://jeremyzach.blogspot.com/

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. In Light of the Gospel - October 10, 2007

    […] Behind this statement are some valid questions that we should consider about the faith. John Piper has been addressing this important issue for several years [see also Desiring God Resources, and specifically this: “Is God for Us or for Himself?“]. Denny Burk also has a helpful response to Pitt’s concerns here. […]

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