Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. John MacArthur says religious liberty is idolatry. Is it? … Why moviegoers love Spider-Man: No Way Home … Plus your Desert Island Bookshelf … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
Does Religious Freedom Send People to Hell?

This past week a video bounced around the internet of John MacArthur, pastor of Los Angeles’s Grace Community Church, announcing that he doesn’t support religious freedom. This is because, MacArthur said, to support religious freedom is to support idolatry and the kingdom of darkness. “Religious freedom is what sends people to hell.”

Other reports contend that the quote is out of context, that it fits into a larger argument Macarthur was making. Even so, the argument is a familiar one, usually offered when religious freedom refers to someone else’s religion.

Years ago, a pastor told me that religious freedom essentially affirms the words of the Serpent, “You will not certainly die” (Gen. 3:4). Granting religious freedom to false religions, this person contended, is the equivalent of allowing the prophets of Baal to have their own place on Mount Carmel.

That idea certainly sounds like an “I’m going to tell it like it is” statement of truth to which the only biblical response should be a loud “Amen!” Until, that is, one actually listens to what is being said—and hears it for what it is: theological liberalism.

Religious freedom, after all—as articulated by the early British Baptists or by the persecuted Anabaptists during the Reformation or by the colonial American evangelists or by any of their allies—has never meant a “You believe in Baal; I believe in God; what difference does it make?” sort of pluralism. The question in religious freedom is who should have regulatory power over religion. If you believe that shouldn’t be the state, you believe in religious freedom.

That’s why the free churches—and those who believe in the necessity of personal repentance and faith—have been the most dogged supporters of religious freedom for all. They understand what the gospel is.

The gospel according to Jesus is not an external affirmation of generic belief from a heart still untransformed. The gospel according to Jesus is not accepting Christianity as a ticket of admission into society. The gospel according to Jesus means that “there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). One can stand before God at judgment only by union with the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. And one can come into union with Christ only through faith (Rom. 3:21–31).

This faith, as defined by Jesus and his apostles, does not come through the proxy of a nation, a ruler, or even a religious structure. If that were the case, John the Baptist would not have needed to preach repentance to the descendants of Abraham (Matt. 3:8–10). And if that were the case, the apostle Paul could have found no fault in those who served the false gods chosen by their national or family traditions (Acts 17:22–31).

Instead, the gospel addresses each person—individually—as one who will stand at the judgment seat of Christ, who will give an account, and who is commanded to personally believe the gospel and repent of sin (Rom. 10:9–17). As Jesus said to Nicodemus by night, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3).

And how does this new birth, this personal receiving of Christ by faith, occur? It does not happen by changing the family crest or by having the city council vote on the issue. It happens through the Spirit opening each heart, through the “open statement of the truth” commending itself to each person’s conscience (2 Cor. 4:2, ESV).

Old liberalisms and social gospels of various sorts often preferred a different gospel—one that changed externals and did not demand personal repentance and faith. Under such gospels, as long as one’s country was “Christian,” then one was a Christian too. As long as one’s ruler was “Christian,” then one was a part of the church. As long as one’s morality was adequately regulated, whether by law or by social custom, then one was a good Christian.

That’s all well and good—unless there’s a hell. If Jesus is telling the truth that there is a judgment to come (Matt. 12:36), that no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6), and that coming to him involves not just changing external behavior but also putting one’s faith in him (6:40), then no legal edict or social pressure has a chance of regenerating the human heart. Such things create pretend Christians, not genuine Christians. And that is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Religious freedom is a restriction on the state’s power to establish itself as a mediator between God and humanity. It is no more an affirmation of idolatry than, say, claiming parents’ freedom to raise their own children is an affirmation of bad parenting. Stating that the government should not take children away and raise them doesn’t mean that everyone’s parenting is good. It just means that, except in dire and unique situations, parents, not the state, should raise their own children.

Religious freedom does not mean that everyone’s religion is true. It contends that God judges the heart and that people must truly believe with their hearts that Jesus is Lord rather than merely say “Lord, Lord” because the law requires them to do so.

If religious freedom does not exist, then religious matters are ultimately decided by the majority, not by individual people. Without religious freedom, if you lived in 19th-century Denmark, you would have no choice but to be a Lutheran. In the 20th-century Soviet Union, it would already be decided that you’re a Marxist atheist. If you were in 21st-century Saudi Arabia, you would be a Muslim—no questions asked.

That might be a way for the state to indoctrinate its citizens, but it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Indeed, if religious freedom is eliminated, then majorities decide religious affiliation, as well as the scope of what’s permitted in deviating from that religious affiliation. Does anyone really believe that Los Angeles would adopt Calvinistic dispensationalist Christianity? No one believes that, including (or maybe especially) John MacArthur, whose church just received a settlement after many months in court with the state of California over their freedom to meet in spite of COVID-19 regulations—arguments made on the basis of religious liberty.

If California decided tomorrow that the official state religion was Zen Buddhism, I would be willing to wager that Grace Community Church would not stop preaching the gospel. Nor should they. That’s religious freedom.

And if the California state legislature passed a law declaring that all of the state’s citizens should be considered good Christians, I would wager that Grace Community Church would not stop calling on their neighbors to repent and believe, personally, in Christ. That’s religious freedom.

We believe in religious freedom not because we accept freedom on its own terms but because we believe in the exclusivity of Christ, in the power of the gospel.

We believe in religious freedom because we acknowledge there is one name under heaven whereby we must be saved—and that name is not Caesar or Ayatollah or assistant secretary for civic affairs.

We believe in religious freedom because we know what Jesus has given us to fight back the kingdom of darkness: the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.

We believe in religious freedom because there’s no civil substitute for the gospel of Christ.

We believe in religious freedom because we want to persuade our neighbors to be reconciled to God—not so they won’t be fined, but so they will find eternal life.

Saying “To hell with religious freedom” is no way to get people to heaven.

Why Spider-Man: No Way Home Works

My kids and I went to see Spider-Man: No Way Home the day it released to theaters in December. I have waited a while to write about it so that I wouldn’t reveal spoilers. (If you haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t want spoilers, skip on down to the Desert Island Bookshelf now.)

I don’t know when I can remember having so much fun at a movie. After several weeks of thinking about it, I believe I know why.

Apart from the general fun of any Marvel Cinematic Universe film (especially one featuring their best character), this one was unique in that it was really three Spider-Man movies rolled into one—which we realized as soon as Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire, the Peter Parkers of the prior two Spider-Man franchises, showed up on the screen.

I am quite sure I’ve never been to a movie that prompted so many cheers from the viewers. Every time an unexpected character (Matt Murdock from the Daredevil television series, for instance) or a villain from a previous iteration of Spider-Man (the old Doctor Octopus, played by Alfred Molina, for example) emerged, the audience would applaud and yell. Of course, none of those cheers were anything compared to the ones when Garfield and Maguire appeared.

That’s partly due, I think, to the fact that so few movies now are able to generate genuine surprise, especially about which actors will appear in them. That way has always been tough. Back in the 1980s, executives for the nighttime soap Dallas decided they’d been wrong to kill off Bobby Ewing and opted to bring him back. In the cliffhanger to close that season, Bobby’s ex-wife Pam heard the shower running and opened the door to see him turn and cheerily exclaim, “Good morning!” When the show came back in the fall, viewers learned that the previous season—everything from right before Bobby Ewing’s death until that morning in the shower—had been a dream. To pull this off, the producers had to keep actor Patrick Duffy’s contractual return a secret, even from the show’s other actors. They had him film the shower scene in a separate studio by himself, under the disguise that he was doing a soap commercial.

That kind of thing is much harder to do today with an instant-news social media culture. But, for the most part, Spider-Man: No Way Home was able to keep the surprise.

The fun came from more than just the surprise, though. Audiences loved watching the Garfield, Maguire, and Tom Holland Spider-Men cooperate, learn about each other’s lives, and form friendships with one another, even as they fought off the multiversal villains. I suspect that’s partly because this taps into a primal longing of our age—to get our stories straight.

Whatever you think about the theory of a multiverse, we all can look back to a striking number of decisions we’ve made (or that were made for us) where if even one thing had gone differently, our life stories would have branched off in completely different directions. In our most reflective moments, we can ponder T. S. Eliot’s words in “Burnt Norton”:

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened.

For some, pondering these alternate, potential life stories are an exercise in regret. “What if I hadn’t taken that first drink?” “What if I had told my mother I loved her before it was too late?” and so on.

For others, it’s an exercise in gratitude. “What if I hadn’t said hello to her at that party?” “What if I hadn’t muscled up the courage to tell a friend about my heroin addiction or kept the courage when he helped me get into treatment?” “What if I had hit snooze on the alarm that morning when I stumbled into that church and heard the gospel for the first time?”

For most of us, it’s a mixture of both.

But we can’t imagine what it would be like to have all those unlived lives, all those untold stories, join with the stories of our lives as we know them. What would happen if your Andrew Garfield self and your Tobey Maguire self could hang out, if just for an hour or two, with your current Tom Holland self? Might that help you let go of some regret and spur some gratitude for the grace you see everywhere in your life so far?

Might such a thing help us realize that what sometimes seems to be a random jumble of events and decisions really does have some coherence? That there really is, in the maelstrom of our confusing lives, a plot line?

In his book Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, historian Diarmaid MacCulloch noted that we sometimes misunderstand the word logos from the prologue to John’s gospel (“In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God”) because of our somewhat imprecise English translation of it as “Word.” Logos, as John used it, isn’t “word” in the sense of a disconnected statement. “Logos is the story itself,” MacCulloch wrote. It’s this story, the Bible says, that holds the universe (or the multiverse!) together (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3).

When we follow Christ, we are embracing his life—in every sense of the word. His story is now our story. “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin,” Paul wrote (Rom. 6:6). “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God,” he said. “When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:3–4).

Frederick Buechner wrote of Jesus, “He tells us not to be this or to be that, but to be his. Not to follow this way or that way, but to follow him. He promises to give us everything and in return asks us to give up everything the way he himself gave up everything—that is his story. And only then the miracle that not even all our tragic and befuddled history has ever quite managed to destroy.”

“So in the long run the stories all overlap and mingle like searchlights in the dark,” Buechner wrote. “The stories Jesus tells are part of the story Jesus is, and the other way round. And the story Jesus is part of the story you and I are because Jesus has become so much a part of the world’s story that it is impossible to imagine how any of our stories would have turned out without him, even the stories of people who don’t believe in him or even know who he is or care about knowing.”

We can’t make sense of much of our lives. What would have happened if I had been standing just an inch farther away from that radioactive spider? Who knows? But we know that something fills us with joy when we see stories we’ve heard and told coming together, making sense of things at last.

Maybe we can ask why there’s such power in these stories. And maybe we can realize that with that kind of power comes great responsibility.

Desert Island Bookshelf

This week’s submission comes from reader John Ash of Villa Rica, Georgia. John writes:

Dr. Moore, I’m enjoying your newsletter. If I were on a desert island, I’d take the books in the photo attached.

Charles Spurgeon, Morning and Evening—To take a stand in the morning and in the evening, like he did in 1850s London, where on one side of town he preached Christ and on the other Marx spouted nonsense

John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany—For soul ripping and repairing

Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life—To listen to an old friend share secrets about the good way

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—To wonder more

Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man—To learn what it is to know and be about the sublime

Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction—So as not to get lost

Anne Tyler, The Clock Winder—For remembering that all of us are quirky

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings four-book set—The whole set. How else would we know where Frodo came from and about giving presents on our birthday and second breakfast?

Oh, and Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible—To revel in glory

What do you think?

If you could have one bookshelf with you to last the rest of your life, what volumes would you choose? Send me a picture with as much or as little explanation of your Desert Island Bookshelf choices as you would like.

Or send me your Desert Island Playlist of 10 or fewer songs (excluding, for now, psalms, hymns, or praise choruses).

Send either or both to

Quote of the moment

In the Christian religion we find, in the first place, God. Back of the stupendous mechanism of the world, there stands, as the Master of it and not as its slave, no machine but a living Person. He is enveloped, indeed, in awful mystery; a dreadful curtain veils his being from the gaze of men. But unlike the world, he is free; and he has chosen in his freedom to lift the veil and grant us just a look beyond. In that look we have freedom from the mechanism of the world. God is free, and where he is there is liberty and life.

—J. Gresham Machen, in The Gospel in the Modern World

Currently Reading (or Rereading)

Lorenzo Albacete, The Relevance of the Stars: Christ, Culture, Destiny (Slant)

George Orwell, 1984 (Penguin Random House)

Curt Thompson, The Soul of Desire: Discovering the Neuroscience of Longing, Beauty, and Community (InterVarsity)

Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller Essays (New York Review Books)

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Religion in the University (Yale University Press)

Join Us at Christianity Today

Founded by Billy Graham, Christianity Today is on a mission to lift up the sages and storytellers of the global church for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why don’t you join us as a member—or give a membership to a friend, a pastor, a church member, someone you mentor, or a curious non-Christian neighbor? You can do so here.

Ask a Question or Say Hello

The new Russell Moore Show podcast includes a section of grappling with the questions you might have about life, the gospel, relationships, work, the church, spirituality, the future, a moral dilemma you’re facing, or whatever. You can send the questions to I’ll never use your name—unless you tell me to—and will come up with a groan-inducing pun of a pseudonym for you.

And, of course, I would love to hear from you about anything. Send me an email at if you have any questions or comments about this newsletter, if there are other things you would like to see discussed here, or if you would just like to say hello!

If you have a friend who might like this, please forward it, and if you’ve gotten this from a friend, please subscribe!

Russell Moore

P.S. You can support the continued work of Christianity Today and the public theology project by subscribing to CT magazine.

Christianity Today 465 Gundersen Dr. Carol Stream Il. 60188

*You are receiving this at because you are subscribed to Russell Moore's newsletter
If you would like to stop receiving member-only communication, click here to opt out of future email notifications.
Christianity Today, 465 Gundersen Dr, Carol Stream, IL 60188, United States