We believe that Jesus' followers have done a great deal of good through the centuries, and still are doing it today.
In any human organisation, it is easy to find people who have been unpleasant, obstructive, or downright evil. Especially if that organisation has existed for centuries. Some people talk as if the church ought to have a totally unblemished record, but this is absurd.
It is easy to 'prove' that the church has had an evil influence in the world, if you only look at the failures - at the times when people in the church failed to follow Jesus' example. But if you take an honest look at the church through the centuries, you will find ordinary people engaging in extraordinary acts of love and charity - over and over and over again.
I could point you to stories of incredible love and heroism but, no matter how inspiring the stories, they would prove as little as the list of cowards and murderers. No selective list is going to prove anything to someone who wants to believe the opposite.
I also want to be fair. It would be wrong to imply that every good and generous person in history has been a Christian and was motivated by godly love. There have been many good and noble people in each of the world's religions. There have even been a few outstandingly good atheists and agnostics (but only a few - it is a relatively recent and uncommon phenomenon in historical terms).
What I am talking about is numbers. You may be able to find someone to testify that they were set free from addiction to gambling or alcohol through their discovery of the wonderful truth of atheisism. But for every such person you can find, I can find ten, fifty, a hundred people who will testify to the power of Jesus working in their lives, setting them free from every kind of bondage.
The point is not that people's lives are only transformed and improved through the church, but that of the people whose lives are transformed in this way, Christians are involved amazingly often. Whether you like it or not, there is clearly some power at work in people's lives - something the scientists and social workers have not been able to pin down yet.
There are many reports of lives changed by Jesus - reports written by people who are not themselves Christians. And you don't even have to believe in Jesus in order for your life to be changed, although that is by far the best and most effective way. If you put His teachings into practice, you will find that they work. One good example of this is the work of Charles Colson and the Inner Change programme. 70% of prisoners re-offend, but only 8% of those who have done the programme. The truth works.
Or you could look at the major charities operating in the world today. How many of them were set up by Christians? It is easier to ask, how many were not set up by Christians? Not many. In fact, if you know of any, please email me with the information and I will update this page accordingly.
Of course, most of these charities are not operated and run by Christians today. The usual pattern is that a group of Christians see a need and are motivated to do something about it. Other people then see the good which is being done, and want to be involved. These people eventually get promoted to the leadership of the organisation, and slowly the Christian ethos and assumptions are eroded. The charity, however, continues to do good - so the intentions of the founders are still being fulfilled.
Christians believe that love - true, pure, sacrificial, total love - is the defining characteristic of God. It therefore has to be the mark of His people.
We fall short of this ideal, but even recognising that it is the ideal puts Christianity into a completely different ball game from any other religion.
Put simply, Christians believe we are not here in order to find our way to heaven - we are here to love other people. Or, to put it another way, to express God's love to other people. To make His love real - in the jargon, to incarnate it.
"Christians only help other peeople because they believe God will reward them for it. This is not love or generosity, just a hidden form of greed or selfishness."
Yes, Christians do believe in a God Who, in the end, rewards the good and punishes the evil. He would not be a good God otherwise! So yes, there can be a selfish element to every good and loving act.
But who says that our motivation has to be totally selfless? The Bible does not teach this! The Bible says that God receives our offering, even if our motives are mixed and ambiguous. He works through some pretty mixed-up characters in the Bible.
And who does act from totally selfless motives? I don't even know what that would mean. Everything we do is done for a reason - we have a motive for it. You may say that the movtive is simply the desire to do good, but this is not adequate as an explanation: many people know of good things they could do and yet do not do them.
It is like saying you bought the shoes because they were pink: many people saw the pink shoes and yet did not buy them. You bought the shoes because they were pink and you like pink shoes.
Similarly, you may say you did this because it was the right thing to do, but in fact you did it because it was right and you like doing the right thing. There are various reasons why people like doing the right thing: it makes you feel good, and it reinforces your image of yourself as the sort of person who does the right thing. And so on. The point is, there is always a reward, always a reason for doing what you do.
Christians are not totally motivated by the prospect of reward. Like everyone else, they have a number of complex reasons for what they do. And, like everyone else, their actions have motives. This is not wrong, it is not a problem - it is simply an aspect of being human.
"Christians have done many dreadful things over the centuries - the Crusades and the Inquisition, for example. how can you possibly say that Christians have 'done good'?"
Yes, Christians have been responsible for some really bad things, but this does not invalidate Jesus' message and example. Jesus taught that we should love our enemies, and He lived the same way.
Anyone can claim to be following Jesus, as they can claim to be following other teachers. But if people choose to fight, you cannot blame the man Who taught His followers to "love your enemies." Over the centuries, the overall effect of His teachings has been an incredibly good one, as I argue above.
I can't think of any alternative positions to discuss here. Suggestions, anyone?