A Conversation With Charles W. Colson
April 18, 2012 - Charles W. Colson, founder and president of Prison Fellowship ministries, gave his testimony at the Central Valley Billy Graham Crusade in Fresno, California. In this 2002 interview, Mr. Colson talks about the Christian worldview and his conversion to Christ.
by Jim Dailey
Q/ Chuck, you're a proponent for believers to develop a distinctive Christian worldview. What are the criteria for constructing this kind of perspective?
A/ In the simplest terms, a worldview is understanding how the world works and where you fit into it. Everyone has a worldview. Everyone has a certain understanding of things. Philosophers from the beginning of time have wrestled with the questions: "Where did we come from?" "Why is there sin and suffering?" "Why are we here?" "Where are we going?" "Is there a purpose?" "Is there a way out of the dilemma of life?" How we answer these basic questions reveals what we believe about almost everything in life.
The difficulty today is that Christians and the Church view Christianity much too narrowly; we see it as salvation only. I think that part of discipleship is that when you come to Christ, you've seen the glory of the Christian understanding of life and reality because you've been redeemed. You need to read the Bible in its entirety. It doesn't start with John 3:16. It starts with creation and goes all the way through the fulfillment of the Christian cultural commission.
Q/ What makes the Christian worldview so compelling?
A/ What makes it compelling is that it's true! Look at what is going on in the wake of September 11. We are confronted with a worldview that has ugly ramifications. And we are seeing the horrors of it in the campaign of terrorism that we are dealing with. So worldviews have profound consequences.
One of the things that has struck me lately is that ultimate reality is ultimately grounded in the Christian worldview. When you ask the question, "Where did we come from?" there is only one possible explanation and that is intelligent design. There is no other rational explanation.
The secular worldview requires much too much faith. It believes that light rays refracted at a certain angle hitting the primordial soup, and amino acids flew off, and they all made one protein cell, and out of that comes human life billions of years later. That takes a lot of faith.
It's much more rational to see the sign of intelligent design and to realize that we came from an intelligent Designer. You can't have an intelligent design without a Designer. Now, the question is, Can you look back at history and see whether that designer has revealed Himself in history, and has He spoken? Then you go to the veracity of the Scriptures and the archaeological discoveries and the tests that have been applied over the years, and you begin to realize that the biblical worldview makes sense. Not only does it make sense, but also it provides hope. No other worldview offers the hope that the Christian worldview offers! Not only does it conform to reality, and not only does it fit the facts as we see them and know them and can empirically validate them, but also it is the one that genuinely offers hope to humanity.
Q/ Since the September 11 tragedy, many people have had questions about the existence of evil. What is the Christian worldview of suffering and evil?
A/ In dealing with the problem of evil and the reality of it, we outline a simple formula for people to understand. In the beginning we were created by God in His image, which meant that we have free will. Free will pre-supposes that you can choose to obey God or to disobey God. If you didn't have that right, you wouldn't have free will.
People today talk about choice being the ultimate right. If you are going to have a choice, that means you can do wrong as well as do right. It doesn't mean that God created evil. God did not create sin. He told us how to behave, and had we obeyed Him, there would never be evil or sin in the world. But we didn't obey Him, so by the act of disobedience, that non-good choice became sin because it was falling short of what had been intended. And that non-good choice caused evil. The non-good brought evil into the world. Man did that, not God.
You also can ask, "Why didn't God see the World Trade Center disaster happening?" And, "Because He's an all-loving God, why didn't He stop it?" He could have. But if He stopped the consequences of sin, that is, evil with clothes on it, we would no longer have free choice.
God intervened in history to deal redemptively with the consequences of sin by going to the cross Himself. He made the supreme sacrifice so that our sin could be forgiven and we could be restored. Ultimately, you come back to the cross.
Q/ How does a Christian maintain the distinctiveness of the Christian faith in a pluralistic culture where tolerance seems to reign supreme?
A/ The Bible calls us sojourners. This is not our real home; we're passing through this way. Our real home is with God and living in ultimate peace with Him. The world in which we live is going to be a mixed world, always. It was so for the disciples and the apostles in biblical times. It is so today.
We live in a nation that is remarkable, because it has set an unprecedented experiment: to create a system of ordered liberty with a fundamental principle of religious freedom. We respect the right of people to their own convictions, their own beliefs and their own religions. All of us together have made a pledge, and we affirm it with the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable rights for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This means that you have to learn to live in an environment where there are people with different belief systems. In other words, I can't be free to believe what I believe, unless my neighbors are free to believe what they believe. You have to have common order, and you have to have a decent respect for law and for a civil society.
When I went into the U.S. Marines, I took an oath to defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States, so even now I fight for anyone's convictions. However, I won't compromise mine, nor will I demand that others compromise theirs. I will live as a Christian, making as strong a witness as I can to the rest of society even while I respect the differences that exist within that society.
Q/ How can evangelism be effective in a postmodern culture?
A/ We have to take the model of the Apostle Paul at Mars' hill. Paul went to the Greeks. They had no biblical understanding of the coming Messiah and the Jewish culture. Paul had to start from scratch. When he went to Mars' hill, he reasoned in the marketplace with the wise men. That tells me that he had apologetic arguments about the Christian and the Jewish faiths.
When Paul spoke at Mars' hill, he didn't start by saying, "Jesus has come to save you." He built upon their culture and their artifacts and their poets. In his argument you can see what he was doing. The first thing Paul talks about is creation. Then he talks about the resurrection, but only after he has built the case and identified with the Greeks and their culture.
We have to do that too. We have to understand the mind of the postmodern culture, which says that there is no such thing as truth.
What we are witnessing these days is that postmodernism breaks down in the wake of a horrific event such as the attack on the World Trade Center, because people are confronted with the reality of evil. People cannot say that there is no such thing as sin.
Suddenly the human dilemma is thrust before them, and that's why they are going to church. They are looking for answers.
Q/ Have you gotten over the night in 1974 when Christ gripped you?
A/ No, and I never want to get over it. When I think about who I was that night and who I had been, and then think about what Jesus has meant to me since and knowing that I can live my life without suffocating in my own sin—which I would have otherwise—I am so filled with gratitude that I am compelled to do what Jesus commands. That is why I keep doing what I am doing.
I am so grateful for what He has done for me. When you've been in the office next to the President of the United States, and you collapse and fall into sin, and you end up being publicly humiliated and taken off to prison, never again do you take yourself as being quite so important. You realize that God is the great Leveler.
I am afraid that if I begin to think too highly of myself, and get puffed up, then God will bring me down again. Even out of fear, I try to stay humble. I have to work at it, as everyone does, and trust good, close brothers in the ministry to keep me accountable.
Q/ What are some of the toughest lessons that you have learned?
A/ Living in prison was the toughest I had to go through. Watergate, indictments, humiliation, and then prison—that was tough. It tests your faith because of all the opportunities to compromise.
The second toughest experience would have been one of life-and-death, when I had stomach surgery in 1986. I had an infection and came close to dying. I was so delirious that I couldn't pray, yet I was at peace, knowing that if I were going over that line, I would be with God in that next moment. I had what I think was a dying grace, in that if I died, it was OK.
Also, I have had some harrowing moments in prisons. In 1982 in Washington I was in a prison where a riot was to take place and I was to be taken hostage, except that a strange thing happened—the guys who were to take me hostage accepted Christ while listening to me preach.
A challenge to my faith was writing the book "How Now Shall We Live?" It's important that we use our minds and that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and soul. But as you study and work through worldview questions, you can intellectualize the faith to such an extent that you forget that it's a gift of God and it comes from His revelation. I would start thinking and saying, "Of course, this makes perfect sense!" But eventually you get to the point where an act of faith is required to know God, and you can't make perfect sense out of it.
A few times I've had questions of faith and I would say, "I can prove intelligent design. I can prove the God of creation. But can I really prove that God was in Jesus and that that act of atonement is going to be forgiveness of my sins and eternal life?" And, of course, you can't.
Then I would think, "Why can't I prove this too?" And that's a challenge. Then one morning I had a riveting experience in the Scriptures, and I realized, "Wow! You have forgotten that God has spoken, that God has revealed Himself in the Bible. It all comes from the Bible. It isn't proving your faith."
So much of the Christian faith lends itself to rational explanation and intellectual explanation, and I engage in that process. Rationalism can be a danger, and I strive for balance in my life and go back to remembering my roots: my experience with Christ personally, and the faith I was given as a gift.