The Wrong Question

“I think you’re asking the wrong question.”
Grasse, France

This was a profoundly necessary yet startling response which shook the room full of travelers out of their creeping slumber (enough with the adjectives).

Nicole had just finished sharing about her work with migrants from Morocco in Grasse, a sleepy town in the south of France. Her organization, Parfums de Vie, or Fragrance of Life, started quite by accident. Her husband, Vincent, offered to watch the son of a single mother from Morocco on Wednesdays, which is a day off school in France. She gratefully accepted the offer, and the following week not one but two boys showed up at their door. The next week it was five kids, and pretty soon their average sized home was full of Moroccan kids in need of love and attention.

Nine years later, Parfums de Vie is a Kid’s Club, a youth group, an after school program, a family retreat provider, and much more. They serve dozens of families who immigrated illegally to France in hopes of starting a new life. In so many ways, Nicole and Vincent are a fragrance of life to people in need of hope.

Nicole and Vincent are Christians. In the Kid’s Club, they regularly read the stories of Jesus from the Bible. They have a women’s group in which they do the same. They seek to learn from and follow the ways of Jesus together. Yet most, if not all, of the families they serve are Muslim. And there is no conflict between those two realities, because they are not seeking to convert anyone from one religion to another. Instead, they are trying to follow Jesus from whatever starting point they have.

Because Jesus transcends religious boundaries.

“I think what you’re doing is great. It sounds like you are meeting so many needs of the people you serve. But aren’t you doing a disservice to them by not also being concerned with their eternal salvation?”

This is the “wrong question” Nicole was asked after sharing about her work with Moroccan Muslims in France. It is a familiar question in the American Christian world. It is a question that forces people to take sides, to prove they are on the ‘Christian’ team. From the perspective of the man who asked the question, doing good work, helping people, and learning from Jesus aren’t as valuable as turning Muslims into Christians.

He, like many other Christians, has a theological starting point that informs this question. His starting point is Genesis chapter 3, which is notoriously referred to as ‘the fall of man’. Genesis 3 is the framework for the concept of ‘original sin’ which is imputed on all human beings. We are born sinful, fundamentally flawed, and the only hope is to confess that sin and our need for a Savior. So, serving people is all well and good, but if we aren’t also helping people see their need for Jesus to cleanse them from the taint of original sin, we aren’t doing anything of ‘eternal value’.

Though ‘original sin’ is not an explicitly biblical concept, the Church has found it to be implicit through interpretation of the writings of Paul. For instance, Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthian church, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21–22). The curse of death was placed upon all people by the original sin of Adam, according to this line of interpretation, and that curse has been lifted (or will be lifted) by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Not surprisingly, the Scriptures don’t start in Genesis chapter 3. The beginning of the story is the very goodness of humankind. Genesis 1 testifies that God created humans in his image, and that we all, no matter what tribe or nation or religion, are bearers of that divine image (Genesis 1:27). When one’s theology starts in Genesis 1, it is a theology of hope rather than a theology of despair. Instead of treating Jesus’ death and resurrection as simply payment for sin to a wrathful God (which is one popular understanding of the atonement), it proposes that through Jesus, the broken image of God in all of us is repaired and restored to its original state. Through Jesus we can see again. Such a theology doesn’t deny that sin and darkness is a part of the human experience. It just doesn’t start there, and it doesn’t end there either.

Allow me to introduce you to a different theological framework. In the Genesis origin story, there are two trees that Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat from: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. As the story goes, they ate fruit from the first tree in disobedience of this command. As a result, God mercifully protected them from living forever in a state of brokenness by kicking them out of the Garden so they could not eat from the tree of life (Genesis 3:22–24).

It was on a different tree that Jesus was crucified, but one could argue that it, too, was a tree of life. Because on that tree, Jesus restored the image of God in us, and defeated death in the process. As Paul testified, in Christ all shall be made alive.

Interestingly, the tree of life shows up again at the end of the biblical story. When the kingdom of God is established on earth, according to the vision of John in the book of Revelation, there is a new Garden. In the center is the tree of life. And the leaves of that tree are for the healing of the nations (Revelation 22:1–2). The conclusion to the story of Scripture is divine restoration, not divine retribution.

People like Nicole and Vincent are participating with God in the restoration of all things through their work with Muslims from Morocco in the south of France. Their work isn’t missing the point at all. When we focus solely on getting people to join the Christian team, we are missing the hope that infuses the Scriptures, and we often refrain from doing the necessary work to be light, hope, and the fragrance of life in our world.