During the First World War, the fortress of Verdun was fiercely attacked by the Germans, and for two years they threw division after division of troops against this pivotal defense of the Allies. A million soldiers lost their lives, but the fortress held, and the brave French resistance gave rise to the motto, “They shall not pass.” So long as Verdun remained unconquered by the Germans, there was hope for the Allied cause, and, finally, the assurance of ultimate victory.
No one questions the fact that the Christian faith during the last 50 years has been under more terrific attack than at any time since the cessation of persecution in the early centuries. As Archbishop Garbett said in his notable work, In An Age of Revolution, “The advances made in scientific knowledge, the results of Biblical criticism, and the mental and spiritual disturbance caused by the wars, have shaken the traditional beliefs and customs.… There is more open and aggressive atheism than at any other period of human history. In Russia, in Germany, in France, and in many of the central European and Balkan nations, Christianity is treated either with hatred or contempt. Far more general is the attitude of almost complete indifference to religion and ignorance of its nature. Except for occasions such as baptisms, marriages, and funerals, the ordinary man has little contact with the church or its ministers.”
Though one confesses this with grief, all men—whether Christians or pagans, believers or scoffers—must recognize that the Christian faith is counting for less and less with the passing of each successive decade. I am referring here to conditions in general. We must not see world conditions through the spectacles of some local, evangelically-active area, such as Southern California, or perhaps the church life of the Twin Cities. Maritain has said, “It is not Europe alone, it is the world, it is the whole world which must now resolve the problem of civilization” (The Twilight of Civilization, 1944, p. 64). Attacks upon the Christian faith are being projected from almost every major area of life, even from the area of ecclesiasticism.
THE COMMUNIST THREAT
First, we must reckon with this hideous monster that has arisen in our century to threaten the liberties of man and challenge the whole free world, namely, communism. I know that people grow weary of hearing this word, but we must face the facts. Communism is not simply anti-Christian, it is anti-God. It is atheistic and vigorously so. The Soviet Encyclopedia goes so far as to say that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. There are 200,000,000 people today in the Union of Soviet Republics. There are 630,000,000 people in Communist China. This makes a total of 830,000,000 people who are consistently exposed to anti-God propaganda. Yet this virus of communism is in the vitals of all nations, more or less. It is vigorously being propagated in Japan. It is blatantly arrogant in our own country. Some of its principles infiltrate many of our textbooks. We are now on the verge of a great student exchange movement, when thousands of our college students will be studying in Russia, and thousands of Russian students will be studying in this country. The day is not far off when we are going to be challenged with the atheism of these Communistic nations more directly than most people today dream.
SCIENCE AND AGNOSTICISM
In the second place, modern science—fascinating, indispensable, exciting in its discoveries, and more and more dominating every department of life—is today, for the most part, totally indifferent to the Christian faith. I believe one is safe in saying that not 10 per cent of the outstanding scientists of our nation are Trinitarians today. I have not yet shaken off the sense of shock which recently came to me in reading a new volume titled Science Ponders Religion, edited by the distinguished astronomer of Harvard University, Professor Harlow Shapley. Eighteen well-known scientists of our country, some now in the prime of life, almost all of them with distinguished careers in teaching in our larger colleges and universities, attempt in this book to set forth their conceptions of religion. Let us remember these men are not purposely attacking Christianity. They are not writing from Moscow, but from the United States. And yet not one of these scientists confesses that he believes in a personal, sovereign, omnipotent God, nor does one of them confess to any sure hope of personal life after death. Not only is their own position agnostic, but they frankly say they represent a true cross-section of what scientists today think about religion, and I am quite sure that in this they are correct. As Dr. Leslie Newbigin has said, “The typical and dominant scientific man of the West is to a large extent alienated from the Christian tradition. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the fact that at the moment when the scientific culture, which was formed within the Western Christian tradition, has achieved world-wide expansion and dominance, its unity with the supernatural faith in which it was begotten has disintegrated” (“Summons to Christian Mission Today” in the International Review of Missions, Apr., 1959, p. 178).
Modern philosophy is more outspoken than science in its antagonism to the Christian faith. A recent volume by the German scholar Dr. I. M. Bochenski, Contemporary European Philosophy, reinforces the impression that the philosophers who have exercised the greatest influence over the world of thought since the dawn of this century are all atheists, with possibly one exception, Whitehead, and he was by no means a Trinitarian. In this volume, the modern philosophers are introduced by a chapter on Bertrand Russell. This is followed by one on the Italian, Benedetto Croce, emphatically atheistic. Next follows John Dewey, who exercised such a pernicious influence over modern American education, and who once wrote that the greatest hindrance to the progress of modern man was his belief in the supernatural. Then there is a chapter on Martin Heidegger, of whom a contemporary professor of philosophy has recently said, “He regards the atheism of Nietzsche and Marx as a salutary attempt to purge us of idols.” And last comes Jean-Paul Sartre, the most vigorous atheistic philosopher of our day. It is not necessary to add that in the realm of psychology the most profoundly influential in this department has been Freud, who scoffed at the very idea of the existence of a personal God.
In 1951, The New York Times had a remarkable article on the 100 greatest books of the preceding century. Careful study of these authors, however, would reveal that not more than eight of them could be called Christian, and they were not among the most influential. More than half were deliberately and vigorously antagonistic to Christian principles.
UNBELIEF WITHIN THE CHURCH
Moreover, while unbelief multiplies on every hand, in Christian as well as Muslim countries, the Church itself is being tragically weakened by betrayal from within. Two most recent illustrations of this will suffice.
Probably during the last 30 years, the outstanding single ecclesiastic in The Methodist Church has been Bishop G. Bromley, who retired from the active bishopric only last year. He has been chairman (1939–44) of the Division of Educational Institutions for the Board of Education of The Methodist Church; from 1940 to 1948, in the same great denomination, he was chairman of the Commission on Public Relations and Methodist Information; while for eight years, 1944–52, he was president of its Division of Foreign Missions. For many years, he was chairman of the Methodist Commission on Chaplains. Bishop Oxnam also was on the Board of Trustees of numerous educational institutions and was the president of the Board of Trustees of Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D. C. He was a professor in the University of Southern California, and also in the Boston University School of Theology, and president of DePauw University for eight years. He has been a bishop in The Methodist Church since 1936 and has served as president of the Council of Bishops. In addition to the highest possible offices in his own denomination, he was president of the Federal Council of Churches from 1944 to 1946, and president of the World Council of Churches, 1948–1954. In his book, Testament of Faith (Boston, 1958), he not only ridicules the idea of the Virgin Birth and scoffs at biblical inspiration, but he emphatically repudiates even such a truth as the atoning work of Jesus Christ our Lord. “I have never been able to carry the idea of justice to the place where someone else can vicariously pay for what I have done in order to clean the slate” (p. 38). “They argue that God sent His own Son who died upon the cross and in so doing, satisfies God’s sense of legislative justice. It simply does not make sense to me. It is rather an offense. It offends my moral sense” (p. 41). “Must God have a sacrifice, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, as the Book says? No, no, I cannot think of it this way” (p. 42). And what is the bishop going to do with his sins? He tells us, “I cannot see forgiveness as predicted upon the act of someone else. It is my sin. I must atone” (p. 144).
More recently, Bishop James A. Pike of the Protestant Episcopal Church, bishop of the Diocese of California, in an article in The Christian Century (Dec. 21, 1960) says of the Virgin Birth: “I am inclined to believe it is a myth.” On the work of the Holy Spirit, he says: “I no longer regard grace or the work of the Holy Spirit as limited explicitly to the Christian revelation.” Of the Bible, he says, “It came along as a sort of Reader’s Digest anthology.” But it is on the great doctrine of the Trinity that he most blatantly reveals his unbelief. “Take the Trinity—a doctrinal formulation which I did not question ten years ago.… I can’t see its permanent value.… I see nothing in the Bible, as critically viewed, which supports this particularly weak and unintelligible philosophical organization of the nature of God.” “In other words I believe totally in that which the formula is seeking to express; my belief is in God, not in men’s formulae about Him.” Like Bishop Oxnam, Bishop Pike has been active in educational work.
The terrible significance of these denials of basic Christian truths is the more ominous in that the respective churches of these ecclesiastical leaders are so silent about it all. I do not know of one official organization in the whole of Methodism, or any group of ecclesiastical leaders within that church, that has had the courage (or even the desire) to speak out publicly and forcefully against such repudiations of the faith. Some Episcopal clergymen have recently declared publicly their full support of Bishop Pike. If bishops may deny the Faith, then certainly the clergy have the same privilege. Indeed, for the sake of harmony, why may not the day soon be upon us in which the bishop will urge his clergy to stand with him in his opposition to biblically-revealed truth? And, if those who are the ordained teachers and preachers of the Holy Scriptures no longer believe in the divine origin and absolute authority of the Word of God, surely the laity need not believe, and unless some other more wholesome influences are at work in their hearts and minds, they most certainly will not believe.
The emphasis on myth, which has so powerfully gripped theologians on both sides of the Atlantic and has penetrated into many pulpits of the continent, of course destroys confidence in and even need for the actuality of New Testament events which the Church has always considered undeniably historic. Modern man is not going to come under any conviction of his need of salvation through Jesus Christ if he can reduce the crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension to mythological nomenclature.
Some denominations, by their own authorized and widely-distributed Sunday school literature, and study-books assigned for teaching in church organizations, are sowing seeds of doubt as to the truthfulness of many supernatural events in the Gospels. I have before me one on the Gospel of John which, in referring to the raising of Lazarus, says that this record may have four different interpretations, of which the view that it was an historical event is dismissed as the least valid! Other than that, it might be taken as just a piece of fiction, or a misinterpretation, or a parable. Young people, mastering the laws of chemistry, biology, and physics, are not going to find the gospel of Christ powerfully appealing to them if they are being taught that what the New Testament sets forth is to be considered as superstition, or as spiritual truths couched in historical form but all the while decidedly unacceptable as history.
The Bible is the Verdun of the Christian Church. Unless there is a definite reversal of the more powerful currents in modern thought, the Christian Church may have to contend with a condition of universal repudiation of the pre-ëminence and authority of the Scriptures, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and his salvation, and of belief in the eternal, omnipotent, sovereign God.
THE BIBLICAL WARNING
Yet, such a situation as this, of fierce antagonisms against our faith, need not take us wholly by surprise if we are careful students of the Word of God. The Apostle Paul said that Satan, the god of this world, has blinded the minds of men (2 Cor. 4:7). Our Lord warned us again and again that there would come, with particular power at the end of the age, false prophets, false Christs, and false teachers (Matt. 24:11, 24; 2 Pet. 2:1). In fact, so the New Testament tells us, it is Satan who has deceived the whole world (Rev. 12:9; 20:3, 8, 10). Our Lord said that though he spoke the truth and was the Truth, Satan was a liar and the father of lies (see John 8:40–46; 15:26; 16:7, 13). There is the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of error, and these two must ever be in conflict. Indeed, said the Apostle Paul, at the end of this age men would turn from sound doctrine and follow those who preached flattering and false gospels (2 Tim. 4:1–4).
Now we might well ask ourselves the question: Well, what of it? What if faith in the Bible does go? What it believing Christ to be the Son of God and the Saviour of men is to be, for the most part, erased from the convictions of humanity—what difference does it make?
First of all, let men lose confidence in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures and we lose any satisfying knowledge of the true and living God. No religion in this world or philosophy or science dare talk to us with evidence about a God of love, and a God of holiness, except that religion which is built upon the Bible. Our Lord said those who have seen him have seen the Father also. I remember when the atomic bomb was first exploded. Dr. Compton said, “Now we know there is a God.” What nuclear fission has to do with a knowledge of God, I wouldn’t know, but in all the years since none of these physicists, to the best of my knowledge, are echoing Dr. Compton’s words.
Secondly, without faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ, men will not have and cannot have a Saviour from sin who can make men walk in the liberty of the children of God, who is able to reconcile men unto God, and who can deliver them from the wrath to come. How foolish did so great a man as Emerson appear when more than 100 years ago he talked about looking for a new great Saviour from the West! The tragedy today is that most men don’t even believe that we need a Saviour; they think we need nobody but ourselves. Indeed with the loss of the living conviction of a sovereign and holy God, and of life after death, the sense of the very need of a Saviour disappears too.
Thirdly, without Jesus Christ, no man has any adequate reason for real hope for the future. Our Bible talks about the day when God is going to make this an earth of righteousness, when sin will be judged, when the supernatural enemies of mankind will forever be put away, when the dead in Christ shall be raised, shall be in the presence of God and possessed with eternal life. These are the things that will go if Christ goes. It has always been true, it is true today, and it will forever be true, that men without Christ are without hope in this world (Eph. 2:12).
Is it not also true that if the Christian faith goes, along with the highest ethical principles ever known on earth, even those restraints that still exist, which tend to make men decent, honest, and truthful, will be removed, and we are already as lawless in thought and deed as we dare to be? Even such an atheist as Bertrand Russell would testify to this. In his lectures at Columbia University, which were published under the title The Impact of Science on Society, he apologetically confesses that the only hope for the world is in what is called Christian love. These are his words: “The things that it (our age) must avoid and that have brought it to the brink of catastrophe are cruelty, envy, greed, competitiveness, search for irrational subjective certainty, and what Freudians call the death wish. The root of the matter is a very simple and old-fashioned thing, a thing so simple that I am almost ashamed to mention it, for fear of the derisive smile with which wise cynics will greet my words. The thing I mean—please forgive me for mentioning it—is love, Christian love, or compassion. If you feel this, you have a motive for existence, a guide in action, a reason for courage, an impressive necessity for intellectual honesty. If you feel this, you have all that anybody should need in the way of religion. Although you may find happiness, you will never know the deep despair of those whose life is aimless and void of purpose; for there is always something that you can do to diminish the awful sum of human misery” (pp. 59 f.) And from what source does “Christian love” derive? It comes from faith in and obedience to Jesus Christ, and is revealed fully and truly only in the Holy Scriptures.
In saying that full confidence in the divine origin of the Bible and faith in the Word of God are being erased in our desperately critical and convulsive mid-twentieth century life is not to say, however, that the Word of God is itself in danger of being extinguished. The all-powerful and eternal God himself has said, “I watch over my word to perform it” (Jer. 1:12). The Lord Jesus said that though “heaven and earth will pass away … my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35). I believe that! Peter was right that “the grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord abides forever” (1 Pet. 1:24, 25). Even when the beast and the false prophet bring together that great federation of demon-possessed kings at the end of this age to go out and wage war against the Lamb, we are told that it is God himself who “has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and giving over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God shall be fulfilled” (Rev. 17:17).
THE HOPE FOR REVERSAL
What will bring about any reverse in this alarmingly growing mood of unbelief and denial? There is only one hope, so far as you and I know, and that is in a return to, a full confidence in, and a loving obedience to, the Holy Scriptures. Philosophy is not going to bring us to God—it never has. All the marvelous discoveries of nature are not leading us into a deeper reverence for God, and most of those engaged in these necessary enterprises do not even give God a thought. We talk about the coming of a new society for a new world, but if the next 50 years show the same graphs as the last 50, then we will have greater periods of destruction, a higher crime rate, more violence and racial hatred than the world has ever known. Who can judge and control the human heart but God alone? Certainly, no legislation of any government can bring us to God. And most of all, what is in the heart of men by unaided human nature is not going to give us a knowledge of God. The heart is desperately wicked. I shudder when I see posters on the bulletin boards of some churches that read “God is the best that is in you.” Our Lord said, “I have told you the truth.” And then He asked the sad question, “If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?” (John 8:45, 46).
At the dawn of human history, Satan’s first words to unfallen man were, “Yea, hath God said?” And our first parents, finally concluding that God had not said what they thought they heard, or at least, that what God said was not true, turned their backs on a righteous Creator and led the human race into a subservience to the father of all lies. Even Eve, within a few hours, confessed how tragic was her decision when she acknowledged that the serpent had deceived her. Satan is asking this more loudly, with greater sarcasm than ever in human history, and is appealing to the growing pride of man in his “yea, hath God said?” The answer man gives to that question will determine the destiny of his soul, and the answer that this age gives to that question today will determine more than anything else whether we will continue to rush into one great final overwhelming disaster, or whether there will remain still a time of grace and an opportunity for lost men to be saved, for men dead in trespasses and sins to be possessed with eternal life, and for those who are without hope to cry out, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3).
Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.
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