An NBC poll reported that 54% of people claimed that the last ten years were the worst decade in American history. The fault here lies with those who know little about history, American or otherwise. Our tendency is to view life through our life experiences. We measure life in terms of what we don’t have rather than what we do have. Yesterday I watched the extraordinary film Endurance (1999), the story of Ethiopian athlete Haile Gebrselassie, one of the greatest track and field athletes in history. He turned adversity into victory. He lived in abject poverty. It was his poverty that turned him into a champion. As a child he ran 6.25 miles to school every morning, and the same back every evening. And we think we’ve got it tough.
Consider this scenario. You’ve lost all of your freedoms. Your nation is occupied by a foreign army. The system of civil government that has kept your country intact has been abolished, and the occupying nation sets up a dictatorship. Things look hopeless, right? Right. But it gets worse. The dictator hires men from your own neighborhood to spy on you and to collect taxes directly. There’s no appeal if he takes too much. In fact, he always takes too much. That’s how the dictator pays him.
Of course, your army is disbanded and foreign soldiers are stationed in every neighborhood. Your church can only operate under the direction of the dictator. If your church leaders want to propose a new program, they must appeal to the dictator for permission. Those who oppose the new government are summarily disciplined or executed.
Would these be, in the words of Charles Dickens, the best of times or the worst of times? Circumstances seem to indicate that they are the worst of times. Let’s move ahead 30 years. A man comes on the scene who seems to be a savior to deliver you from oppression. But just as you think he’s going to make his move, he is publicly executed. All but one of his followers forsake him.
Of course, you know that I’m describing the time of Jesus’ birth and His crucifixion 30 years later. Things looked worse than hopeless for the Jews. And to top it off, God sent a baby into the world to save His people! A poor family with no social or political standing is chosen to rear this seemingly unlikely savior. Thirty years will pass before something of any consequence will happen. And even then no one will really understand what He’s trying to accomplish. After Jesus died and was buried, His beleaguered followers went back to their fishing business. And just as things seemed to pick up again, Jesus leaves them and turns the whole shootin’ match over to the same guys who ran away when He was arrested!
None of this is very encouraging from the perspective of a first-century Jew awaiting a redeemer. How would a 21st-century preacher handle these circumstances if he were transported back in time not knowing how it all turned out? “We’re nearing the end of all things. It’s hopeless. Humanism has the upper hand. It’s futile to try to reform the world. In fact, we cannot accomplish such a monumental task with so many obstacles confronting us.” It took nearly 300 years after the ascension of Jesus before the fourth kingdom fell. Rome did fall. Times were rough. Christians were executed, and the church was persecuted. But God’s kingdom, the “stone cut without hands” did its work.
The battle lines are being drawn today between those who believe that the world can be changed in spite of the rampage of evil and those who say that circumstances indicate that the end is near. The battle is not with the Humanists; it’s with those within the church. Now, those who oppose the building of a Christian civilization aren’t wolves in sheep’s clothing, Humanists parading around as Christians. In fact, many who believe that the world is hopelessly lost are committed Christians. They are firmly convinced that their position is biblical. They’re sheep!
Is it really true that the world is getting worse and worse and that there’s no hope of stemming the tide of evil? I wonder if those who hold this view would like to return to life as it was in 1886. I don’t believe they would. Of course the world can be made better. All one has to do is compare Ethiopia, for example, with any city in the United States.
But you say that times are worse ethically and morally. “Yes,” someone will say, “we do have technological advancements, but the moral climate is degenerating.” But don’t you think that there’s some relationship between a nation’s religious commitment and technological advancement? Is it just coincidental that the West has advanced culturally and technologically while the East has either stagnated or even declined? And how about this: Why is it that when pagan nations adopt the worldview of the once-Christian West that their culture advances at a rapid pace? Japan, for the most part, is pagan, but the Japanese imported Western values long ago. While they give lip service to the pagan worship of their ancestors, they know that if they’re going to do business with the once-Christian West, they must adopt Western ways. That includes the expressions of a Christian worldview.
There were times when declines set in, but over the long haul, life was getting better. What we tend to do is make our slice of time normative and absolute. Because life looks bad now, we prematurely conclude that life can’t possibly get better. Once evil starts, there is no stopping it. Tell that to the slave prior to the Civil War. Tell that to my grandparents and millions of other immigrant families who came to America with little or no money. Hard times, even evil times, are temporary in biblical terms (Joseph, Daniel).
One of the reasons why times look so bad now as compared to, say, two centuries ago is that we hear about nearly every evil in the world on the six o’clock news. We read about the most vile events in the morning and evening editions of our newspapers. Filth and violence are brought into our homes via weekly magazines, in living and dying color. We overdose on bad news daily via the internet. Of course, things are bad. But what if our counterparts 500 years ago had the same communication system? How do you think the papers would read? Pretty rotten, I would say.
Don’t get me wrong. Times are bad. But times are not impossible. Even if we were to experience the total collapse of Western civilization, this would not necessarily mean the end. Israel and Judah collapsed numerous times. All one has to do is read the book of Daniel to see that kingdoms rise and new kingdoms are built on the smoldering rubble. Babylon fell, and the Medes and the Persians took over. The Medes and the Persians were conquered by the Greeks. Greece was vanquished by the Romans. A vibrant Christian civilization won out. Christianity is still alive and well and these other kingdoms are distant memories only revived in textbooks.
It may be that the once-Christian America will pass away. It happened to Israel. The destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 should stand as a constant reminder that there’s an end to God’s patience. If the tide of immorality is not turned back, America might be relegated to the dust bin of history. But is it impossible to believe that a more godly civilization could arise from the ashes? Revival may spread throughout Africa, Korea, China, or even the Soviet Union. What we now see as famine and death in Ethiopia may one day become a new continent saturated with Christians fulfilling the original dominion mandate. Just because our nation seems to be disintegrating, doesn’t mean that there’s no hope for the rest of the world. Who would have ever thought that the United States could have carried on the great Christian tradition of the Reformation?
We’ve locked ourselves into a mode of thinking that becomes self-fulfilling. One generation of Christians believes that their culture is at the breaking point. In their minds, this is the end. What do they do? They retreat from building a Christian civilization, believing it’s futile to try to transform society. It was not the end, but the damage to the world was done. Humanists came in and filled the vacancies left by once-dominion oriented Christians. Now life is worse than it was in the previous generation. The current generation evaluates the times and concludes that their generation will experience the end. More retreating. Humanism takes more territory vacated by Christians.
In a hundred years, three generations of Christians have retreated thinking that the end was near. Each generation left the world in worse shape than the way they found it.
So then, the Humanist is not the problem. It’s Christians! Christians aren’t thrown out of positions of authority and influence. They give into unbelief. A little compromise here, a little compromise there. There is retreat in the face of hostility. They go along to get along. This too will pass. If you think the end is near, such persecutions just add fuel to the fire of prophetic speculation. “This was all predicted, don’t you know.” To fight against such anti-Christian hostility is thought to be futile and maybe even subversive to God’s plan for the ages.
Humanism flourishes when the church loses its leavening effect on the world. A corrupt world is the result of a corrupt church. Read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. He was shocked that the Corinthians were tolerating “immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles” (1 Cor. 5:1). The church is not told to tolerate evil, nor is the church to retreat in the face of evil. Paul tells the Corinthian church to “remove the wicked man from among” themselves (v. 13).
How about doctrinal error? Paul shows that they “must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach. . .” (Titus 1:11). Such troublemakers are to be “delivered over to Satan, so they may not be taught to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:20). The leadership in the church is to reprove those who error and those who listen to them so they “may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). But for too long, the church has neglected the creeping secularism that has infiltrated the church.
Why does it seem that the religious radicals advance to the positions of power? Edmund and Julia Robb make this observation in their book The Betrayal of the Church:
The Religious Left has controlled the church by default. . . . In many ways the radicals have demonstrated more integrity than the moderates [and conservatives]. Most radicals are willing to risk their reputation for what they believe. They are not afraid to be controversial and to take unpopular positions. What they believe, however misguided, they believe fervently. As a result, they have influence far above what their numbers would justify. It would seem that conservatives, which represent a majority of members in most mainline denominations, could have stymied a Religious Left with which they totally disagree. Their fervency is unquestionable. But the conservatives have held only marginal positions of influence during the last fifty years.
Underneath it all the Humanists are weak! They’re afraid of us! They play the role of tough guy, and we accommodate them. We also think we can reason with them if we just give in a little. Let’s “dialogue.” While we’re listening to their rhetoric, they’re moving into positions of power. Before we know it, all the exits are covered, and they’re ready to beat us to a pulp if we do not follow their program. Even with our pitiful efforts, the Humanists are scared. Why? They know that their view is the minority view. If the cat gets out of the bag that their position is as awful as they know it is, in five years their entire world view will turn to dust. They will be seen as the fools they really are.
Numerous people have come up to me after I’ve delivered a series of lectures and say: “Why, I never looked at it like that before. I never heard that.” C.S. Lewis in his immortal Screwtape Letters addresses this very issue. Speaking to his apprentice devil Wormwood about his Christian “patient,” Screwtape writes:
By the very act of arguing, you awake the patient’s reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result? Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it “real life” and don’t let him ask what he means by “real.”
The devil wants us to remain passive in the face of hostile opposition to the Christian faith. And, even if we do get involved, it’s only for defensive purposes and short-term action. The devil isn’t too concerned if we battle Humanism. He knows that in time we’ll go home. For most Christians, there’s no long-term strategy to implement. What angers, frustrates, and motivates the devil is when we start building to supplant Humanism. When we start building schools, the devil-inspired Humanists who have succeeded in claiming the seats of judicial power swoop down on us to try to shut us down. They are usually backed by one of the largest anti-Christian lobbying groups in the country, the NEA.
You see, as long as Christians remained in their churches, even railing against every “ism” under the sun, the devil was not worried. He got upset when we took our Christian beliefs to the world. It’s when we claimed this world as ours in the name of Christ, as “fellow-heirs” (Rom. 8), that he went on his rampage. He put his “useful idiots” to work, like Norman Lear and “People for the American Way.”
The goal is to get us to believe a lie, that Christians should keep their religion private, that there’s no hope in changing things. Preachers teach it, and millions of Christians believe it. The Humanists are saying the same thing! Here’s just one example. In Greenville, Tennessee, some Christian parents want alternative textbooks for their children. Here’s what a syndicated columnist had to say about them:
These poor children are being denied the most basic of childhood’s freedoms, the right to imagine and learn. Someone should remind their parents the law of this land still requires we educate our children in qualified schools with qualified teachers. That a sound education involves free exploration of ideas and fact. That they may rant and rave against humanism and feminism and any other “ism” on Sunday, but come Monday the children belong in school.1
Christians are tolerated as long as they keep their faith private. That’s just the way the devil wants it. We fall for his trap when we believe that the world cannot be changed, that there’s no earthly hope, that this world doesn’t matter. Bah! Humbug!
- Rheta Grimsley Johnson, “‘People’ vs. fundamentalists,” The Marietta Daily Journal (September 2, 1986), 4A. [↩]