Will Everyone Be Saved? A Look at Universalism

Rick Wade covers some of the pros and cons in the universalism controversy. Bottom line? No.

In the spring of 2011, Pastor Rob Bell’s book Love Wins hit the book stores, but the furor over the book started even before that. The charge was heresy. Bell appeared to be teaching Universalism, the belief that everyone will be saved in the end. In fact, Bell doesn’t make a case for Universalism in the book, although his rejection of the traditional view of hell makes it seem so at first.

download-podcastThis will not be a review of Love Wins but rather a look at Universalism itself. It won’t do to simply label Universalism as heresy and be done with it. The way people responded to Bell’s book illustrates the problem.{1} It’s better to understand why this teaching has been and should be rejected.

It is important to try to represent others’ views fairly. This article, which is what aired on Probe’s radio program, is too short to do Universalism justice; there is way too much involved in it. Here I’ll confine myself to introducing some of the important issues involved. However, a longer article in PDF form is available here to fill out the issue some more.{2}

Universalism has been believed by some Christians since the early centuries of the church. What makes it attractive? For one thing, Universalists wonder how a loving God could send people to hell—a place of conscious torment—forever. Furthermore, God is a God of justice, and a punishment of eternal torment seems incommensurate with our finite sins, as bad as they may be.

Universalists find scriptural support primarily in Paul’s writings where he declares, for example, that “as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom 5:18).

Before digging in, I need to make an important distinction. I’ll be talking about Christian Universalism, not pluralistic Universalism. Pluralistic Universalism is the belief that everyone in the world will be “saved” by some almighty being or force that the various religions understand in different ways. Christian Universalism, by contrast, is the belief that Christianity holds the truth about God, man, and salvation, and that, contrary to the traditional belief, everyone will be saved through faith in Christ, even if on the other side of the grave.

The Love and Justice in God

Universalists take the traditional view of hell as being completely out of keeping with the loving character of God.{3} Philosopher Thomas Talbott believes that, because love is basic to the nature of God, everything God does has a loving aspect. Thus, there can be no eternal judgment against a person.

Because of this, Talbott sees God’s justice primarily as remedial or restorative, not as retributive or punitive. Speaking of Israel, for example, he points out that God “did not spare the natural branches” (Romans 11:21), yet eventually God will have mercy on them. Couldn’t it be the same for the Gentiles, too? God’s grand project since the Fall has been to save people. If He doesn’t save all, hasn’t He failed?{4}

Scripture claims both that God is just and that God is love (see Deut. 32:41 and John 4:8). It’s also clear that God administers retributive justice. This is seen in Isaiah 3:11 where God says that what the wicked “have dealt out shall be done to him.” Consider, too, God’s judgment against the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (Deut. 20:16-17). There is no mention of restoration.

For Universalists, love is supreme; justice serves love. Why not the other way around? Why shouldn’t love serve justice? N. T. Wright asks why either love or justice ought to be seen as the highest expression of God’s nature. Perhaps, he says, both are expressions of God’s holiness.{5}

The cross work of Christ is instructive here. Our hope for salvation rests on the fact that on the cross “He who knew no sin became sin on our behalf” (2 Cor. 5:21; see also Rom. 3:25; Gal. 3:13; Heb. 10:10,12,14; Isa. 53:5). What kind of judgment fell on Christ? It was punitive, not restorative, and it was properly ours.

Still, even with all this, how can we possibly regard everlasting punishment as just? It’s important to understand that judgment isn’t merely a reflection of a sin:punishment ratio. Believing in God in the biblical sense involves both our acceptance of God in all His glory and our submission to Him whatever He may command or promise. Thus, to not believe in God in this full sense is to reject God. So when people will be punished in hell, it won’t be simply a matter of paybacks for individual sins. It will be because they rejected God.

Paul and Universalism

In addition to the appeal to the love of God, Universalists often look to the letters of Paul for support. Writes Thomas Talbott, “Unlike most conservatives, I see no way to escape the conclusion that St. Paul was an obvious Universalist.”{6}

Where does he find this in Paul’s letters? Romans 5 and 11 are key passages. In Romans 5, Paul compares the first Adam with the second Adam, Christ. In verse 18 he writes, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” In Romans 11:32 he writes, “For God has consigned all to disobedience that he may have mercy on all.” “All” is taken quite literally to mean everyone tainted by sin.{7} What can we say in response?

Paul’s main point in Romans, with respect to the issue at hand, is that salvation is not just for Jews but for all people, and it comes through faith in Jesus. In chapters 1 through 4, Paul argues that everyone knows God exists but sins anyway and is deserving of punishment. Furthermore, the Jews had no safety net because they possessed the law; they broke the law themselves. Salvation has come through faith in Christ alone. In fact, faith has always been the basis of salvation. Paul sums up in chapter 5: through Adam everyone is tainted by sin; through Christ alone is found salvation for everyone. That he doesn’t mean every single person will necessarily be saved is clear in Romans 11:22. The Jews who will be grafted back in are those who “do not continue in their unbelief.”

Second Thessalonians 1:7-10 is an important passage for understanding Paul’s teaching on eternal punishment. There Paul says that those who do not obey the gospel “will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” Gregory MacDonald, a Universalist, acknowledges that this is an especially problematic passage for Universalists.{8}

Jesus and Universalism

It’s often been noted that Jesus makes the strongest statements on hell in Scripture. Universalists believe they have been misunderstood.

Given that Paul clearly taught Universalism, Thomas Talbott believes, passages such as Matthew 25, where Jesus spoke of separating the sheep from the goats, must be interpreted in that light. Talbott characterizes Jesus’ prophetic teachings as “hyperbole, metaphor, and riddle . . . parable and colorful stories.”{9} He says that “Had it been Jesus’ intention to address the question of universal salvation . . . in a clear and systematic way, I’m sure he was capable of doing so.”{10} Jesus is simply teaching what would have been our fate were it not for the atonement.{11}

Did Jesus make any clear statements about the finality of judgment? I’ll mention just three passages.

In Matthew chapter 7 we read the severe warning from Jesus that in the end not everyone who claims Jesus as Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven. “I declare to them,” Jesus said, “‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (vv. 21-23). There is no mention of a second chance later.

In the parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), when those who weren’t prepared knocked on the door and asked to be let in, the bridegroom refused, saying he didn’t know them. One must be prepared or be locked out. There’s no hint of a later unlocking of the door.

In Matthew 25:46, Jesus speaks of “everlasting punishment.” “Everlasting” is the English translation of the Greek word aiōnion. Universalists argue that this word refers to an age of punishment because the root word, ai­ōn, means just that—an age with a beginning and an end. But aiōnion isn’t just a form of aiōn; it is a form of the word aiōnios which means “eternal.”

According to the standard Greek lexicon of our day, aiōnios can mean, among other things, with a beginning but without an end.{12} One example is when Jesus said He was going to prepare a place for us (Jn. 14:2,3). Paul says that this new home is “eternal in the heavens” (Romans 5:1).{13}

When Jesus speaks of punishment in Matt. 25:46 as everlasting, He means just that. Everlasting life or everlasting punishment; it’s one or the other.

Postmortem Salvation

Because obviously not everyone dies in Christ, postmortem salvation is an essential component of Universalism. There must be people saved after death.

There is no direct scriptural teaching about postmortem salvation. The closest is the much disputed passage in 1 Peter 3 where Peter speaks of Jesus making proclamation to the spirits in prison (vv. 19-20). It is not at all clear that the event spoken of in 1 Peter refers to the evangelization of all the lost after death. Theologian and New Testament scholar Wayne Grudem names five possible interpretations of this passage in an article, and says that even more are possible.{14}

Gregory MacDonald believes that Rev. 21:25, which says that the gates to the New Jerusalem will never be closed, indicates that unbelievers can exercise faith after death and come in. Verse 24 speaks of the kings of the earth entering the city along with the glory and honor of the nations. MacDonald identifies these with the kings defeated earlier with the beast (19:19). They had been enemies; now they are not.

In response, we note that “kings of the earth” is a common designation in Scripture for earthly rulers.{15} It is entirely reasonable to see John, in Revelation, as talking about one group of kings who side with the beast and another group who are part of the kingdom and who enter to bring homage to the King.

The wall around the city marks a boundary between those who may enter and those outside.{16} “Outside” doesn’t necessarily mean simply outside spatially but can also mean those not included in the circle or group.{17} Those who are able to enter the city are those whose names have been written in the Lamb’s book of life (21:27). No promise is given that a person’s name can be entered after death.

There is no clear promise in Scripture that there will be an opportunity for people to be saved after death. Are we willing to risk the eternal damnation of people by presenting the supposition that there will be?{18} Universalism is conjecture built upon a basic notion of what the love of God must mean. The case built from Scripture, however, is too fragile to sustain it.

This article barely scrapes the surface of this subject. I urge you to look at the longer article, “Universalism: A Biblical and Theological Critique,” also on Probe’s web site.


1. My comments regarding the hasty reaction to Love Wins are given in a short article on Probe’s web site titled “(Ir)Responsible Critique: The Rob Bell Affair.”

2. The longer version, titled “Universalism: A Biblical and Theological Critique,” is available on Probe’s web site.

3. Gregory MacDonald, a Universalist, states that “The love of God is very important for the Universalist. Indeed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it is a strong belief in God’s love that often drives people towards Universalism.” Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2006), 100. Note that “Gregory MacDonald” is a pen named used by Robin A. Parry. To reduce the possibility for confusion over book titles and author names, I will refer to him as MacDonald when referencing his book The Evangelical Universalist.

4. See for example John A.T. Robinson, In the End God (New York: Harper & Row: 1968), 116.

5. N. T. Wright, “Universalism and the World-Wide Community,” Churchman 89 (1975): 197-212.

6. Thomas Talbott, “A Pauline Interpretation of Divine Judgment,” in Parry and Partridge, Universal Salvation?, 48.

7. Thomas Talbott, “Christ Victorious,” in Parry and Partridge, eds., Universal Salvation?, 18-19.

8. MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist. 151-54.

9. Talbott, “A Pauline Interpretation of Divine Judgment,” in Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge., eds., Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 43.

10. Talbott, “A Pauline Interpretation,” 50-51, n. 18.

11. Ibid., 45.

12. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, eds., 2nd ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press,1979), s.v. “???????”.

13. Other Scriptures that refer to our future as eternal include Luke 1:33, John 4:14, John 6:51, 58; 8:51; 10:28; 11:26; and Rev. 22:5. Another reason we know eternal life extends into the future in a temporal sense is because it is the life of the Son and he has no end (1 Jn. 5:11; cf. Jn. 1:4). We will have life everlasting because Jesus, to whom we are now connected, has life everlasting.

14. Wayne A. Grudem, “Christ Preaching Through Noah: 1 Peter 3:19-20 in the Light of Dominant Themes in Jewish Literature,” Trinity Journal 7.2 (Fall, 1986): 3-31.

15. See Matt. 17:25; Acts 4:26; Rev. 6:15; 17:2, 18; 18:3, 9.

16. Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, s.v. “Wall, Hedge, Palisade,” by N. Hillyer, 3:948. Hillyer takes the wall to be symbolic, but the same meaning would apply to a literal interpretation.

17. For other Scriptures on this use of “outside” see Mk. 4:11; 1 Cor. 5:12f; Col. 4:5; 1 Thess. 4:12.

18. See Jay Wesley Richards, “A Pascalian Argument Against Universalism,” in William A. Dembski and Jay Wesley Richards, Unapologetic Apologetics: Meeting the Challenges of Theological Studies (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 217-218.

© 2012 Probe Ministries

Did Adam Really Exist?

Were Adam and Eve really the first pair of humans? Rick Wade responds to theistic evolution and OT scholar Peter Enns’ belief the human race did not begin with Adam.

Paul and Adam

In 2011, Christianity Today reported on the growing acceptance of theistic evolution in the evangelical community and one possible implication of it. If humans did evolve along with other species, was there a real historical first couple? Did Adam and Eve really exist?

Download the PodcastIn this article I’ll address a couple of theological problems this claim raises and a question of interpretation. I’ll look at the views of evangelical Old Testament scholar Peter Enns who denies a historical Adam; not, however, to single him out as a target, but rather because he raises the important issues in his writings.

Enns denies a historical Adam for two main reasons. One is that, as far as he is concerned, the matter of evolution is settled. There was no first human couple.{1} The other is his belief that Genesis 1 describes the origins of the world in the mythological framework of the ancient Near East, and thus isn’t historical, and that Genesis 2 describes the origins of Israel, not human origins.{2} So Genesis doesn’t intend to teach a historical Adam and Eve, and evolutionary science has proved that they couldn’t have existed.

Let’s begin with the question of how sin entered the world if there were no Adam.

In Romans chapter 5, the apostle Paul says sin, condemnation, and death came through the act of a man, Adam. This is contrasted with the act of another man, Jesus, which brought grace and righteousness.

However, if there were no historical Adam, where did sin come from? Enns says the Bible doesn’t tell us.{3} The Old Testament gives no indication, he says, “that Adam’s disobedience is the cause of universal sin, death, and condemnation, as Paul seems to argue.”{4} Paul was a man of his time who drew from a common understanding of human beginnings to explain the universality of sin. Enns acknowledges universal sin and the need for a Savior.{5} He just doesn’t know how this situation came about. The fact that Adam didn’t exist, Enns believes, does nothing to take away from Paul’s main point, namely, that salvation comes only through Christ for all people, both Jews and Gentiles. Is this true?

Paul and Adam: A Response

There are a few problems with this interpretation. First, there is a logical problem. Theologian Richard Gaffin points out that, in Rom. 5:12, 17, and 18, a connection is made between the “one man” through whom sin came and the “all” to whom it was spread. If sin really didn’t come in through the “one”—Adam—and spread to the “all”—you and me—how do we take seriously Paul’s further declaration that “one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all”?

Second, there is a piling on of error in Paul’s claim. One of Enns’ foundational beliefs is that God used human understanding to convey His truths in Scripture. God spoke through the myths of the ancient world when He inspired the writing of Genesis.{6} If Enns is correct, one would expect that God was using the Genesis myth to reveal something true in Paul’s claim about Adam. In other words, the Old Testament story would be opened up so a truth would be revealed. However, Paul’s first point, that sin came through Adam to the race (Rom. 5:12), is in fact false, according to Enns. The following truth, about righteousness coming through Christ, is beside the point here. Paul’s assertion about Adam isn’t simply a historical one; it is a doctrinal one, too. The traditional teaching of the church regarding the source of sin, death, and condemnation is therefore false. Paul delivered a false teaching based upon a non-historical myth. He should have left Adam out of his discussion. It does nothing to buttress his claim about Christ.

Enns says that this matter of the origin of sin is “a vital issue to work through, . . . one of the more pressing and inevitable philosophical and theological issues before us.”{7} One has to wonder, though: if Paul didn’t have the answer, and he was taught by Christ directly, and if the rest of Scripture is silent about such an important matter, can we really think we can ferret out the solution ourselves?

Paul’s Use of the Old Testament

The use of the Old Testament in the New Testament is of great significance in this matter. How does Paul get the point he made out of Genesis if it isn’t true?

Peter Enns believes the problem is related to the way Paul interpreted and used the Old Testament. Paul lived in an era which is now called Second Temple Judaism. Writers in this era, Enns says, “were not motivated to reproduce the intention of the original human author” in the text under consideration.{8} Thus, we see Old Testament texts used in seemingly strange ways in the New Testament, strange if what we expect is a direct reproduction or a further development or deeper explanation of the Old Testament writer’s original intent. Texts could be taken completely out of context or words could be changed to make the text say something the New Testament writer wanted to say. In this way, Enns believes, Paul used the Old Testament creatively to explain the universality of sin and of the cross work of Christ.

Some scholars speak of “christocentric” interpretation of the Old Testament. Enns prefers the term “christotelic” which refers to the idea that Christ is the completion of the Old Testament or the end toward which the Old Testament story was headed. Regarding Adam, Enns writes, “Paul’s Adam is a vehicle by which he articulates the gospel message, but his Adam is still the product of a creative handling of the story.”{9} Paul presents Adam as a historical person, and then makes the further creative claim that Adam’s sin is the reason we all sin. Neither of these are true, but this does no harm to the most important part of the text where Paul claims that salvation for all people came through Christ.

None of this should be problematic for us, in Enns’ opinion, for he believes this view of the Bible is similar to our view of the Incarnation of Christ. In Jesus there are both humanity and divinity. Likewise, the Bible is a coming together of the divine and the human. God used the methods of Paul’s day to convey the gospel message.

Paul’s Use of Old Testament: A Response

How can we respond to this view of Paul’s use of the Adam story?

Enns believes “that the NT authors [subsumed] the OT under the authority of the crucified and risen Christ.”{10} However, Jesus never referred to the Old Testament in a way that showed the Old Testament incorrect as it stood. Even His “but I say to you” in the Sermon on the Mount appears to be more a matter of teaching the depths of the laws than a correction of the Old Testament text. He upheld the authority of the Old Testament such as when he said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt. 5:17).”{11}

Bruce Waltke is an evangelical Old Testament scholar who accepts theistic evolution but who disagrees with Enns on this matter. He wonders why Jesus rebuked the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25-27) for not understanding the plain language of Scripture if the plain historical sense isn’t sufficient.{12} He argues that Enns’ method of interpretation can’t be supported by Scripture.

Paul said the gospel he preached was “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4) by which he meant the Old Testament.{13} Elsewhere he said that the Old Testament Scriptures are “profitable for teaching” in 2 Tim. 3:16-17.{14}

New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham disagrees with the belief that Paul followed the interpretive methods of his day. The apostles weren’t guilty of reading into the Old Testament ideas held independently of it. He says, “They brought the Old Testament text into relationship with the history of Jesus in a process of mutual interpretation from which some of their profoundest theological insights sprang.”{15}

In fact, it was the apostles’ high esteem for the Old Testament that forced them to come to grips with the Trinitarian nature of God given the claims of Jesus.{16}

This doesn’t mean, however, that it’s always easy to understand how the apostles used the Old Testament. However, what the apostles taught was understood to be in continuity with what they had received before, not as a correction of it.

The Matter of Inspiration

It is inevitable that a discussion of the denial of the historical Adam will turn to the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. Old Testament scholar Peter Enns believes that Paul’s incorrect use of Adam “has no bearing whatsoever on the truth of the gospel.”{17} That’s true, but it has a lot to do with how we understand inspiration and its bearing on Paul’s writings.

The apostle Paul said that “all Scripture is inspired” or “breathed out” by God (2 Tim. 3:16). Peter explains further that “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. . . . but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20-21).

Paul, who claimed in 1 Thess. 2 that his teachings were the word of God (v. 13), intended to explain how sin and condemnation came into the world in Romans 5. Elsewhere, Peter spoke of Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Pet. 3:15-16). If Paul’s explanation of this “vital issue,” in Enns’ words, was wrong, was it, then, of Paul’s own interpretation? Either it came from the Holy Spirit and was inspired Scripture, or it was merely Paul’s interpretation and was not. Which is it?

Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke writes this: “A theory that entails notions that holy Scripture contains flat out contradictions, ludicrous harmonization, earlier revelations that are misleading and/or less than truthful, and doctrines that are represented as based on historical fact, but in fact are based on fabricated history, in my judgment, is inconsistent with the doctrine that God inspired every word of holy Scripture.”{18}

It might be objected here that I am confusing inspiration with interpretation. These are different things. However, if it is understood that all of Scripture comes from God who cannot lie, then we have to let that set limits on how we interpret Scripture. Interpretations that include false doctrines cannot be correct.

It seems to me that Enns has put himself into a difficult position. His conviction of the truth of human evolution isn’t his only reason for denying the historical Adam, but it puts the traditional understanding of Adam and his place in Paul’s theology out of bounds for him. It would be better to hold to what the church has taught for centuries rather than to the tentative conclusions of modern scientists.


1. Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012), ix, xiv, 122-23.
2. Ibid., 52.
3. Ibid., 124-26.
4. Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapid: Baker, 2005), 82.
5. Enns, Evolution of Adam, 91. See also 124-25.
6. See for example Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 55-56.
7. Enns, Evolution of Adam, 126.
8. Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 131.
9. Enns, The Evolution of Adam, 102.
10. Peter Enns, “Fuller Meaning, Single Goal: A Christotelic Approach to the New Testament Use of the Old
in Its First-Century Interpretive Environment,” in Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed.
Stanley N. Gundry et al. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) 208; quoted in Don Collett, “Trinitarian Hermeneutics and the Unity of Scripture,” p. 10, n.26; accessed on the web site of Trinity School for Ministry, bit.ly/1iBGLYT.
11. See Collett, “Trinitarian Hermeneutics and the Unity of Scripture,” 10-11.
12. Bruce K. Waltke, “Revisiting Inspiration and Incarnation,” Westminster Theological Journal 71 (2009), 90.
13. See Collett, “Trinitarian Hermeneutics and the Unity of Scripture,” 11; referencing Christopher Seitz, “Creed, Scripture, and ‘Historical Jesus’: ‘in accordance with the Scriptures,’” in The Rule of Faith: Scripture, Canon, and Creed in a Critical Age, ed. Ephraim Radner & George Sumner (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1998), 126-35.
14. Christopher Seitz, “Canon, Narrative, and the Old Testament’s Literal Sense,” Tyndale Bulletin 59.1 (2008), 31-32.
15. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 33.
16. See Collett, “Trinitarian Hermeneutics,” 11-12. Cf. Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, 54.
17. Enns, The Evolution of Adam, 102.
18. Waltke, “Revisiting Inspiration and Incarnation,” 95.

©2014 Probe Ministries

The Old Testament and Other Ancient Religious Literature

Do similarities in the Old Testament with other ancient Near Eastern literature prove that it is all the same kind of thing? Rick Wade shows why it’s not.

The Challenge

In the 1870s a scholar named George Smith revealed the discovery of both creation and flood stories in ancient Babylonian literature.{1} Bible scholars were soon claiming that the writer of Genesis was merely borrowing from Babylonian mythology. Although competent scholars have since shown that the similarities between these accounts are largely superficial, the idea remains today in certain areas of academia and pop culture that the Bible is just another work of ancient mythology.

Download the PodcastAlthough there are good reasons to see the Bible as very different from other religious literature, the problem for conservative Christians is in how similar it is to other ancient literature; it’s because there are significant affinities that scholars made that leap in the first place. On the one hand, liberal scholars and a lot of ordinary lay people take the similarities to indicate that the Old Testament isn’t any more divine than other ancient literature. On the other hand, conservatives, fearful of seeing the Bible lose its status, tend to shy away from the similarities. Most of us wouldn’t say it, but we don’t like to think there’s much overlap between the worldview of the ancient Israelites and that of their neighbors. Where we run into problems is when we assume that God revealed Himself in ways that are always satisfactory to modern people, especially with regard to scientific and historical accuracy. Neither the giving-away-the-store approach nor the approach of turning a blind eye to genuine similarities will do. We must let the Bible be what it is and determine for us how we should understand and use it.

For all the similarities, there are fundamental differences that set the Bible apart. In this article I will spend more time on the differences. Before turning to those, however, it would be good to mention a few similarities.

For one thing, there is similarity in the form that religious practice took. Temples, priests, prophets, and sacrifices were a part of the practices of other religions as they were of the Israelites’. Old Testament scholar John Oswalt notes, for example, that “the layout of the tabernacle and of the temple following it is essentially the same as the layout of contemporary Canaanite sanctuaries. Furthermore, the decoration of the temple seems to have been similar to that of Canaanite sanctuaries.”{2}

There were similarities in law as well. For example, the “eye for an eye” injunctions in Exodus 21:23-25 are similar to some found in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. Both include punishments for striking a pregnant woman and causing her to miscarry.{3}

Even here, though, there are differences, specifically in the purposes of these two. Old Testament scholar John Walton points out that the ancient codes, or treatises as he calls them, were not rules legislated by authorities. Rather, they were collections of principles, learned over time, assembled to show the worthiness and wisdom of the king in his role of maintaining order in society.{4} “This,” Walton writes, “was the most fundamental expectation of the gods.”{5}

By contrast, the Old Testament law was an important part of the covenant between God and His people; the laws were, as Walton says, the “stipulations of the covenant.”{6}

More could be said about similarities, but we’ll turn now to the differences between the Old Testament and other literature of the ancient Near East.

The One True God

Two fundamental differences between the Old Testament and ancient myths are the biblical claims that there is only one true God and that this God is not to be worshipped by means of idols.{7}

Israel’s neighbors were polytheists or henotheists, meaning they believed there were multiple gods but they worshipped only one, or one primarily. This is why the steward of Joseph’s house could speak to Joseph’s brothers of “your God and the God of your father” (Gen. 43:23) and why Pharaoh could say to Moses and Aaron, “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land” (Ex. 8:25). The Egyptians had their gods, the Hebrews had theirs. The cultural “atmosphere” of belief in many gods was as normal in that day as the modern secular mentality is in ours.

By contrast, Yahweh declared that there was only one God and it was Him. “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no God,” Yahweh said. “Who is like me? Let him proclaim it” (Isa. 44:6b-7a; see also 45:5,6).

Further, the true God was not to be worshipped through idols. That was a new idea. Idols were very important to the ancients. They were the actualized presence of deities. The idol received worship on behalf of the god. An example of that worship was providing food for the god by presenting it to the idol. John Walton says that through such expressions, “in this way the image mediated the worship from the people to the deity.”{8}

This entire understanding was declared false by Yahweh. Through Isaiah and Jeremiah God declared that idols were wood or stone, silver or gold, and nothing more (Isa. 44; Jer. 10). “Every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols,” God said through Jeremiah, “for his images are false, and there is no breath in them. They are worthless, a work of delusion” (Jer. 10:14-15a). Through the Psalmist, God asked rhetorically, “Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” (Ps. 50:12-13).

Transcendence vs. Continuity

One of the ways we distinguish the Old Testament from other literature of the ancient Near East is to note the difference between actual history and myth. The stories of the gods in other literature we call mythological. The word myth is often used today to mean false, but it has a much richer meaning than that.

In his book The Bible Among the Myths, John Oswalt gives several definitions of myth which have to do with such things as the definition of the word and sociological and theological factors and more.{9} A central feature of all of them is what Oswalt calls “continuity.” By continuity he means an actual metaphysical connection between all things. A simple illustration of this principle is the claim, “I am one with the tree, not merely symbolically or spiritually, but actually. The tree is me; I am the tree.”{10} In the ancient world, this continuity included the gods. The differences between nature and the gods were more of degree than of kind.

This connection is more than a matter of mere resemblance. Because the pagan gods were understood to be continuous with nature, what happened in nature was thought to be a direct result of the activities of the gods. If the crops didn’t grow or the animals didn’t reproduce, it must have had something to do with the gods. Moving in the other direction, people hoped to manipulate the gods by engaging in some ritualistic act on the level of nature. So, by retelling and acting out the mythical stories of the divine, ideal world, a connection was made between humanity and the gods. It was hoped that the outcomes of the mythical accounts would apply to the natural world.{11} This direct continuity between earth and “heaven” sheds light on such things as temple prostitution and fertility rituals. Through re-enactments of the mythological origins of the world, which involved the sexual activities of the gods, people hoped they could inspire the gods to make their crops grow and their animals fertile.

By contrast, the God of the Old Testament is not continuous with the created world. Yahweh is transcendent, above and separated in His very nature from the created order. This distinction marks a fundamental difference between the teachings of the Old Testament and those of the ancient myths.

This has several very important implications. I’ll run through a few.

Being transcendent meant God could not be manipulated through rituals the way pagan gods could. Fertility rituals, for example, were meaningless because they had no relation whatsoever to how God created or governed the world. The Israelites engaged in certain ritualistic acts, but they were not for the purpose of making God do what they wanted. In fact, when they became substitutes for godly living, God told them to stop doing them. We read in Isaiah chapter 1 about how abhorrent the sacrifices and the rituals of the Israelites had become to God.

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood (Isa. 1:11-17).

The pagan gods demanded the appeasement of sacrifices. Yahweh looked for a change of heart and behavior.

Here’s another difference. Because the various acts of the pagan deities recounted in myths were thought to be eternally recurring, time and space lost their significance. The acts of the gods were timeless. They couldn’t be connected to particular moments in history.{12} Thus, the mythological view reduced the significance of the historical.

By contrast, in Scripture we see the transcendent God acting in history through specific events and persons. The people of Israel were called not to re-enact but to remember particular events in history, for it was in these things that the transcendent God of the Bible revealed Himself.

The transcendence/continuity distinction helps explain why idol worship was so strongly condemned in Scripture. It was more than just a matter of worshipping the wrong God. It showed a basic misunderstanding of the nature of God. To engage in idol worship was to give in to the idea of continuity between nature and the divine. This mentality was likely behind the creation of the golden calf by Aaron when Moses was on the mountain. The people had lived in a world where gods could be seen through physical idols. It was natural for them, when wondering where Moses and Yahweh were, to find reassurance in a physical representation of deity. But it was condemned by God.

A Few More Differences

Here are three more differences between the worldview and religion prescribed in the Old Testament and that seen in other ancient Near Eastern literature.

First, the biblical worldview regards humanity highly. In the Old Testament, we read that man and woman were created in God’s image. They were the pinnacle of God’s creative work. In the pagan myths, mankind was created merely to serve the needs of the lazy and conceited gods. Humans were only good for “food and adulation,” as John Oswalt says.{13}

Second, Yahweh was concerned with people’s moral lives. Among other ancient Near Eastern peoples, Oswalt writes, religion was “about sacrifice, ritual, ritual purity, prayer, offerings, and the like.” Things like this were part of the covenant between Israel and Yahweh, but not the only things, and not even the most important, as we saw in the Isaiah 1 passage quoted earlier. Ethical obedience was and is an important part of our response to God. His people are to tell the truth, to respect other people and their possessions, to keep the marriage bed pure, etc. Similar laws can be found in some other religious codes, but for Israel they weren’t just the laws of the land; they were aspects of a relationship with God that were grounded in the character of God.{14}

Third, the people of Israel could know if they were pleasing or displeasing Yahweh and why. They knew what they were required to do and not do, and they got feedback, typically through the prophets.

By contrast, other gods didn’t seem so concerned to communicate their thoughts or motives to people. When hardships came for no apparent reason, people thought they must have offended the gods, but they couldn’t know for sure what they had done or not done. Walton writes that “the minds of the gods were not easily penetrated.”{15} By contrast, he says, “nothing in the ancient Near East compares to the extent of revelation that Yahweh gives to his people and the depth of relationship that he desires with them.”{16}

By countering the idea that the Bible is just another example of ancient literature, I have not proved that the Bible’s message is true. The point is to clear away an objection that gets in the way of understanding. It provides a space for people to give more thought to the teachings of the Bible. The Bible is then able to speak for itself.


1. Gerhard F. Hasel, “The Polemic Nature of the Genesis Cosmology,” Evangelical Quarterly, 46 (1974) 81-102; accessed online at www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/1974-2_081.pdf.
2. John Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? (Grand Rapid: Zondervan, 2009), 91-92.
3. Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005), 31-32.
4. John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 290-91.
5. Ibid., 295.
6. Ibid., 299.
7. Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 57-58.
8. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought, 114-115.
9. Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths, chaps. 3 and 4.
10. Ibid., 43.
11. Ibid., 42.
12. Ibid., 43.
13. Ibid., 70.
14. Ibid., 77.
15. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought, 307.
16. Ibid., 298.

© 2013 Probe Ministries

No Reason to Fear: Examining the Logic of a Critic

Rick Wade uses the faulty arguments in Sam Harris’ book Letter to a Christian Nation to show why Christians don’t have to be afraid of the new atheists’ assault on our faith.

Getting Started

Sometimes we Christians shy away from books which attack our beliefs because we’re afraid we can’t answer the objections. That’s understandable. Often the authors of such books carry impressive credentials. It’s easy to feel intimidated.

download-podcastAnother response which is the opposite of fearful avoidance is haughty dismissal. Sometimes we act as if our position is so obviously true that others can be dismissed as downright stupid and hardly worth bothering with. Even if the opponents’ arguments are bad, that’s no reason to adopt an arrogant attitude. It’s especially bad when the dismissive Christian hasn’t even bothered to read the book!

A better response, I think, is to use such occasions to grow in understanding and to exercise one’s apologetic “muscles” by working at answering the challenges posed. So, for example, when a doctrine is challenged, by studying the subject, we grow in our knowledge of Christian beliefs and (here’s the uncomfortable part) we are sometimes corrected in our understanding. Another advantage is preparation for real face-to-face encounters with critics. Responding to arguments in a book means there isn’t the pressure of a person staring at you, waiting for an answer (and fully expecting one; critics do have such a high view of us!).

In this article I’m going to use Sam Harris’s book Letter to a Christian Nation to give some suggestions about what to look for in such books.{1} I won’t try to address every challenge. Others have given more extensive responses.{2}

I titled this essay “No Reason to Fear” for a good reason. The challenges of critics throughout the ages have not been able to prove Christianity false, and those of modern day critics won’t either. Most of their arguments have already been answered. When we brace ourselves and start reading a critic’s book, we often find that the arguments don’t pack that great a punch after all, much like the neighborhood bully who the other boys are afraid of but really have no reason to be.

Of course, we can’t always answer seemingly good objections, and certainly can’t answer them all to the atheist’s satisfaction. I’ll go further than that. I don’t think we have to answer every objection. There will always be objections. But it’s as intellectually wrong to drop one’s convictions because of a few unanswered criticisms as it is to hold to such convictions for no reason at all. Atheists obviously don’t abandon their beliefs so easily, and they shouldn’t expect us to either.

Fallacious Arguments

If we’re going to engage books like Letter to a Christian Nation responsibly, we have to be ready to hear some good criticisms of our beliefs or actions. We have to accept the fact that there are some hard things to deal with in our beliefs, especially the problem of evil. We need to admit our inability to give satisfying answers to all objections if we’re going to expect that kind of openness from critics. Also, it is often Christians who come under attack rather than Christianity. Harris spends a lot of time here. Christians have done some bad things, and they need to be acknowledged.

More to the point for this article, Christians can sometimes give bad arguments for what they believe. I’m not suggesting that we have to bow to all the demands of skeptics; there are several theories of the proper use of evidences and logical arguments and personal experience, and some formulations are unreasonable. It is to say, however, that we must use good reasoning when we make a case.

The problem with using poor reasoning is that it undermines one’s case. That’s what we find in Harris’s book, and that will be our focus here. When we read a case for a particular belief, we should keep a lookout for such things as questionable assumptions, logical fallacies, and incorrect facts. Harris’s book is plagued with fallacious arguments, a surprising turn since he presents his side as being that of reason. So I’m going to spend most of my time on those and mention the other things when appropriate.

Don’t let the term “logical fallacies” put you off, like they’re things only specialists can understand. It’s just another name for poor reasoning. So, for example, if you make the claim that Christianity is the only true religion, and someone responds that you only believe that because you grew up in a Christian nation, you could cry “Foul!” You’re making a universal claim; where you’re from is irrelevant. If it’s true, it’s true in India and China and the US and everywhere else, too. This is a kind of fallacy of false cause. No one is a Christian because he lives in a Christian nation. We are Christians because we have believed Jesus’ claims that are universal. It also reflects the current mood according to which religions are human constructs, and Christianity is just one such religion among many.

Although fallacious arguments can have psychological force (when we don’t spot them and they seem correct), they have no logical force. Their conclusions should not be believed.

Are We Really So Evil?

Harris’s favorite target in his attack on religion is its supposed immorality. He tells us that “Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured, and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible.”{3}Well, that’s a surprise! Not that Christians have done bad things, but that such acts are theologically defensible! Such things are sanctioned by God because He, too, does such things. Harris accuses Christians of picking and choosing sections of Scripture that present a more loving God while ignoring the truly telling ones which reveal a God who condones slavery and the beating and killing of rebellious children.

But Harris is guilty of this picking and choosing himself. He commits the fallacy which is called the neglect of relevant evidence. To be fair, he does note that “it is undeniable that many people of faith make heroic sacrifices to relieve the suffering of other human beings.”{4} But he doesn’t bother listing them. He gives no space to the great work done by Christians in the fields of medicine, literacy, agriculture, famine relief, etc. He ignores the good work of organizations like Mercy Ships which takes life-changing medical help to people in third world nations in the name of Christ.

Well, he doesn’t completely ignore missionary efforts. One of his favorite rants is against the evils perpetrated by missionaries. They waste time preaching about such things as the virgin birth when there is important work to be done. The most memorable accusation is when he charges missionaries who preach against the use of condoms with “genocidal” piety!{5} “Genocidal!” Maybe a little exaggeration there? (And, by the way, while it’s true that Christian medical missionaries do present the gospel to people—which they should, since one’s eternal life is more important than one’s temporal life—I’ve never heard of any who withhold medical help from people in need until they first preach a sermon on the virgin birth.)

In another place Harris commits the fallacy called causal oversimplification. As he sees it, religion is the cause of conflicts in Palestine, the Balkans, Sudan, Nigeria, and other countries. Religion is so unnatural and wrong-headed to atheists, that it becomes an easy target for casting blame.

I’m going to give a bit more space to this charge since it’s a very popular one these days.

In 2004, the BBC published what it called a “War Audit” which was conducted to determine how significant religion has been in war, at least in the last century.{6} In the article “God and War: An Audit and an Exploration,” authors Greg Austin, Todd Kranock and Thom Oommen report that

at a philosophical level, the main religious traditions have little truck with war or violence. All advocate peace as the norm and see genuine spirituality as involving a disavowal of violence. It is mainly when organised religious institutions become involved with state institutions or when a political opposition is trying to take power that people begin advocating religious justifications for war.

They continue:

After reviewing historical analyses by a diverse array of specialists, we concluded that there have been few genuinely religious wars in the last 100 years. The Israel/Arab wars from 1948 to now, often painted in the media and other places as wars over religion, or wars arising from religious differences, have in fact been wars of nationalism, liberation of territory or self-defense.

Regarding Islamic terrorism, the authors write:

The Islamist fundamentalist terror war is largely about political order in the Arab countries, and the presence of US forces in Saudi Arabia. It is not about religious conversion or a clash of religions. Nevertheless, bin Laden claims a religious duty in executing the war. . . .

It is mainly when organised religious institutions become involved with state institutions that people begin advocating religious justifications for war.

We need to go back to the wars of Arab expansion, the Crusades and the Reformation Wars for genuine wars over religion.

The authors—or as they call themselves, compilers—of this article include tables which give death tolls in different categories of wars. The writers say that the tables

show that the overwhelming majority of wars and the overwhelming majority of the victims of such wars cannot be classified primarily according to religious causes or religious beliefs. There have been horrific examples though where particular communities have been targeted because of their religious faith [italics mine], and these atrocities have been perpetrated by the three most 17 vicious and blood-thirsty regimes ever to hold power: Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and Hitler’s Germany.

It’s interesting that Harris tries so hard to make religion a source of violence when, as this report indicates, it is often the religious who are targeted by violence.{7}

A Few More

Sam Harris’s book is titled Letter to a Christian Nation, not simply because he’s against Christianity. He wants all religion to come to an end. It just happens that Christianity is the most prominent religion in America. Because he lumps all religions together, he can smear Christianity with the evils of Islam by implication.

This is a fallacy. It’s called the fallacy of over-generalization (or converse accident). If evil is done in the name of Islam, and Islam is a religion, then every religion is prone to evil. Thus, what counts against Islam counts against Christianity, too. (If one is reluctant to group Christianity with other religions, then one might see here the fallacy of faulty comparison, or what is more commonly called “comparing apples to oranges.”)

Another argument Harris presents employs a fallacy we’ve already discussed, the fallacy of causal oversimplification. Harris commits this fallacy when he tells us that “the anti-Semitism that built the Nazi death camps was a direct inheritance from medieval Christianity.”{8}

The reality of Christian anti-Semitism through the ages cannot be denied. However, Harris’s evaluation is simplistic. It is very easy to narrowly focus on the very real anti-Semitism of Christians and ignore other very significant factors. For example, Harris fails to tell us that the Jews were persecuted quite apart from Christianity and even before Christianity came into existence. For example, serious tensions between the Jews and the Greeks of Alexandria in the first century B.C. spilled over into the next century. Things got so bad that Jews were forced to live in one section of the city. Their houses were broken into and looted. Synagogues were burned, and women were dragged to the theater and forced to eat pork. Historian H. I. Bell reports that “men, women, and even children [were] beaten to death, dragged living through the streets, or flung on to improvised bonfires.”{9} He also ignores the shift from religious persecution to racial persecution which occurred in the nineteenth century, notably in Russia.

Of course, this doesn’t prove that Hitler didn’t get his anti-Semitism from Christians; but it does mean that one should not immediately assume that Christian prejudice is at the root of anti-Semitism. There have been other causes as well. A significant factor in Hitler’s hatred of the Jews was the strong influence of Darwinism that led him to think that people who were racially or eugenically inferior needed to be eliminated from the evolving human race.{10}

Although some people already believed in the inferiority of some races, and although Darwinism wasn’t Hitler’s sole inspiration, Historian Richard Weikart writes, “Darwinism was a central, guiding principle of Nazi ideology, especially of Hitler’s own world view.” Weikart quotes Richard Evans, a historian at Cambridge University: “The real core of Nazi beliefs lay in the faith Hitler proclaimed in his speech of September 1938 in science—a Nazi view of science—as the basis for action. Science demanded the furtherance of the interests not of God but of the human race, and above all the German race and its future in a world ruled by ineluctable laws of Darwinian competition between races and between individuals.” Weikart continues: “This is not a controversial claim by anti-evolutionists, but it is commonly recognized by scholars who study Nazism.”{11}

A Fundamental Commitment to Atheism

One of the questionable assumptions in Letter to a Christian Nation is Sam Harris’s assertion that “there is no question that human beings evolved from nonhuman ancestors.”{12} Of course, there is indeed a question about this, a question raised by highly educated scientists easily as qualified as Mr. Harris.

It’s no wonder, really, that Harris makes such bold statements. He is prevented from allowing the possibility of divine creation by his basic worldview commitments. He admits that he doesn’t know why the universe exists, but he’s confident there’s no God behind it. That sounds like a philosophical presupposition. What evidence or reasons does he give for it? Harris might like to pretend that his beliefs are based solely on the “trinity” of science, reason, and nature, but his naturalism cannot be established by these. Rather, it informs his use of them.

One of the (potentially!) maddening things about the arguments of atheists these days is their frequent silence with respect to any justification of their own basic worldview commitments. Harris goes so far as to claim that atheism isn’t really a belief; that there shouldn’t even be the word “atheism.”{13} Although “atheism” has long been understood to mean the belief that there is no God, many atheists today deny that. It isn’t the belief that there is no God; it’s simply an absence of belief in God.{14} It’s a kind of “default” position, a “zero” belief, where everyone should be until given sufficient reasons to believe in God. Thus, the atheist has nothing to defend or prove.

But really, folks. Who’s going to believe that atheists are belief-less about God, that they don’t actually believe that there is no God? It’s astonishing the effort they put forth in arguing against religious belief if indeed they have no belief at all.

However, we can go back and forth with atheists about whether they truly deny the existence of God, or we can let that stand and simply ask what they do believe about ultimate reality, for surely they believe something. It’s simply false to assume that atheism is some kind of zero belief, that it involves no metaphysical commitments. If one denies God, one must have some other view about ultimate reality. Naturalism is a metaphysical position, and it has serious problems of its own.{15} If Christians are responsible to give good reasons for their belief in Christian theism, naturalistic atheists must give reasons for their naturalism.

Sam Harris speaks as a voice on high, shouting down to us poor, ignorant people who are stuck in our absurd religious beliefs. It’s hard to imagine anyone with thoughtful convictions changing his or her beliefs based on this book. He’s preaching to the choir. Now that you have a few tips on what to look for, you might want to take a look at the book, and hear the rest of the “sermon.”


1. Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).
2. Douglas Wilson addresses many of Harris’s arguments in his Letter from a Christian Citizen (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2007) and Ravi Zacharias does the same in The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).
3. Ibid., 22.
4. Ibid., 22.
5. Ibid., 33-34.
6. Greg Austin, Todd Kranock and Thom Oommen, “God And War: An Audit & An Exploration,” http://tinyurl.com/a2tpb.
7. For more on this subject, see also Don Closson, “The Causes of War,” Probe Ministries, 2008, www.probe.org/the-causes-of-war/.
8. Harris, Letter, 41.
9. H. I. Bell, “Anti-Semitism in Alexandria,” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 31. (1941), pp. 1-18.
10. Richard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
11. Richard Weikart, “Re-examining the Darwin-Hitler Link,” The Discovery Institute, http://www.evolutionnews.org/2008/02/reexamining_the_darwinhitler_l.html.
12. Harris, Letter, 71.
13. Ibid., 51.
14. See Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, (Temple University Press, 1990), 463.
15. See Norman Geisler, Is Man the Measure? An Evaluation of Contemporary Humanism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), chap. 11.

© 2008 Probe Ministries

Making a Defense

Rick Wade explores the meaning of the word “defense” in 1 Peter 3:15, suggesting that all Christians can do what Peter is urging us to do in defending our faith.

Apologetics has grown into a very involved discipline over the last two millennia. From the beginning, Christians have sought to answer challenges to their claims about Jesus and complaints and questions about how they lived. Those challenges have changed over the years, and apologetics has become a much more sophisticated endeavor than it was in the first century.

download-podcastThe Scripture passage most often used to justify apologetics is 1 Peter 3:15: “In your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” This verse is probably used so often because it sounds like marching orders. Other Scriptures show us defense in action; this one tells us to do it.

The word translated “defense” here is apologia which is a term taken from the legal world to refer to the defense a person gave in court. It is one of several words used in Scripture that carry legal connotations. Some others are witness, testify and testimony, evidence, persuade, and accuse.

Something that scholars have noticed about Scripture is the presence of a kind of trial motif in both Old and New Testaments, what one New Testament scholar calls the “cosmic trial motif.”{1} There is a trial of sorts with God on one side and the fallen world on the other. The use of legal terminology isn’t merely coincidental.

Think about the arguments you’ve heard presented by apologists that are philosophical or scientific or historical. The core issue of apologetics is generally thought as being truth.{2} While all this fits with what Peter had in mind, I believe there was something deeper and wider behind his exhortation.

In short, I think Peter was concerned with two things: faithfulness and speaking up for Christ. He wanted Christians to acknowledge and not deny Christ. And, as we’ll see later, Jesus said demands for a defense were to be seen as opportunities to bear witness. Defense in the New Testament doesn’t function separately from proclaiming the gospel.

The Old Testament Background

As I noted earlier, there is a kind of cosmic trial motif running through Scripture, or what we might call a “forensic theme,” which provides a background for understanding Peter’s exhortation. One thing that will help us think about defense and witness in the New Testament is to look at the trial motif in the Old Testament.

Bible scholar A. A. Trites notes the frequency with which one encounters lawsuits or controversy addressed in a legal manner in the Old Testament such as in the book of Job and in the prophets. On occasions of legal controversy, witnesses were the primary way of proving one’s case. They were not expected to be “merely objective informants,” as we might expect today.{3} The parties involved “serve both as witnesses and as advocates,” Trites says. “It is the task of the witnesses not only to attest the facts but also to convince the opposite side of the truth of them (Isaiah 41:21-4, 26; 43:9; 51:22; cf. Gen. 38:24-6).”{4}

Especially notable in the Old Testament is the controversy between Yahweh and the pagan gods, represented by the other nations, recorded in Isaiah chapters 40-55. “The debate is over the claims of Yahweh as Creator, the only true God and the Lord of history (40:25-31; 44:6-8; 45:8-11, 21),” says Trites.{5} Yahweh brings charges and calls the nations to present their witnesses, and then calls Israel to be His witness. A representative passage, which I’ll leave you to look up for yourself, is Isa. 43:9-12.

Since the other nations have nothing to support their case on behalf of their gods, they lose by default. By contrast, Israel has witnessed the work and character of Yahweh.

The New Testament: John and Luke

As I continue to set the context for understanding 1 Peter 3:15, I turn now to look at defense in the New Testament.

The apostles had a special role to fulfill in the proclamation of the gospel because they were eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus’ life. Trites says that they “were to be Christ’s advocates, serving in much the same way that the witnesses for the defendant served in the Old Testament legal assembly.”{6} Beyond giving the facts, they announced that Jesus is Lord of all and God’s appointed judge, and they called people to believe (see Acts 10:36; cf. 2:36-40; 20:21).{7}

I spoke above about the controversy recorded in Isaiah 40-55 between Yahweh and the nations and their gods. This “lawsuit” continues in the Gospels in the conflict between Jesus and the Jews. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham writes, “It is this lawsuit that the Gospel of John sees taking place in the history of Jesus, as the one true God demonstrates His deity in controversy with the claims of the world.”{8} Multiple witnesses are brought forth in John’s Gospel. In chapter 5 alone Jesus names His own works, John the Baptist, God the Father, and the Old Testament. And there are others, for example the Samaritan woman in chapter 4, and the crowd who witnessed the raising of Lazarus in chapter 12.

This witness extends beyond simply stating the facts. As in the Old Testament, testimony is intended to convince listeners to believe. The purpose of John’s Gospel was to lead people to belief in Christ (20:30-31).

The concept of witness is important for Luke as well; obviously so in the book of Acts, but also in his Gospel. In Luke 24 we read where Jesus told His disciples, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (24:45-49). Here we have a set of events, a group of witnesses, and the empowerment of the Spirit.

The New Testament: Luke and Paul

It was a dangerous thing to be a Christian in the first century, just as it is in some parts of the world today. Jesus warned His disciples, “they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons.” Listen to what He says next: “This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer” (Lk. 21:12-14). “How to answer” is the word apologia, the one Peter uses for “make a defense” in 1 Peter 3:15.

It’s important to keep the central point of this passage in Luke in view. What Jesus desired first of all were faithful witnesses. The apostles would face hostility as He did, and when challenged to explain themselves they were not to fear men but God, to confess Christ and not deny Him. This warning is echoed in 1 Peter 3:14-15. Jesus’ disciples would be called upon to defend their actions or their teachings, but their main purpose was to speak on behalf of Christ. Furthermore, they shouldn’t be anxious about what they would say, for the Spirit would give them the words (Lk. 12:12; 21:15). This isn’t to say they shouldn’t learn anything; Jesus spent a lot of time teaching His followers. It simply means that the Spirit would take such opportunities to deliver the message He wanted to deliver.

Witness and defense were the theme of Paul’s ministry. He said that Jesus appointed him to be a witness for Christ (Acts 22:15; 26:16; see also 23:11). As he traveled about, preaching the gospel, he was called upon to defend himself before the Jews in Jerusalem (Acts 22 and 23), before the governor, Felix, in Caesarea (chap. 24), and before King Agrippa (chap. 26).

Toward the end of his life when he was imprisoned in Rome, Paul told the church in Philippi, “I am put here for the defense of the gospel (1:16; cf. v.7). That claim is in the middle of a paragraph about preaching Christ (Phil. 1:15-18).

In obedience to Jesus, Paul was faithful to confess and not deny. Although he was called upon to defend himself or his actions, he almost always turned the opportunity into a defense and proclamation of the gospel.

1 Peter

Finally I come to 1 Peter 3:15. What is the significance of what I’ve said about the trial motif in Scripture for this verse?

A key theme in 1 Peter is a proper response to persecution. Christians were starting to suffer for their faith (3:8-4:2). Peter encouraged them to stand firm as our Savior did who himself “suffered in the flesh,” as Peter wrote (4:1).

After exhorting his readers to “turn away from evil and do good” (1 Pet. 3:11), Peter says,

Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame (3:13-16).

The main point of this passage is faithfulness: faithfulness in righteous living, and faithfulness in honoring Christ and speaking up when challenged.

So how does the idea of witness fit in here? I submit that Peter would have remembered Jesus’ instructions to turn demands for a defense into opportunities to bear witness. Remember Luke 21:13? Peter did this himself. When he and John were called before Caiaphas, as we read in Acts 4 and 5, rather than deny Jesus as he did when Jesus was on trial (Mk. 14:66-72), Peter faithfully proclaimed Christ not once but twice. The second time he said, “We must obey God rather than men,” and then he laid out the gospel message (Acts 5:27-32; see also 4:5-22).

Sometimes I hear apologists talking about how to put apologetics and evangelism together. While there may be a conceptual distinction between the two, they are both aspects of the one big task of bearing witness for Jesus. The trajectory of our engagement with unbelief ought always to be the proclamation of the gospel even if we can’t always get there. As Paul said in 1 Cor. 2:5, our faith rests properly in Christ and the message of the cross, not in the strength of an argument.

Defense and witness are the responsibility of all of us. If that seems rather scary, remember that we’re promised, in Luke 12:12, the enabling of the Spirit to give us the words we need.


1. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 389.

2. See for example James K. Beilby, Thinking About Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011), 20.

3. Allison A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1977), 21.

4. Ibid., 46.

5. Ibid., 45.

6. Ibid., 139.

7. Ibid., 133.

8. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 387.

© 2013 Probe Ministries

Digging Our Own Grave: The Secular Captivity of the Church

Os Guinness' 'Last Christian on Earth'


Rick Wade provides an overview of how the Christian church has become captive to the godless values and perspective of the surrounding culture, based on Os Guinness’ book The Last Christian on Earth.

Our Real Enemy

download-podcastIf memory serves me correctly, it was my introduction to such concepts as secularization and pluralization. I’m speaking of the book The Gravedigger Files written by Os Guinness in the early 1980s. The subtitle of The Gravedigger Files is Papers on the Subversion of the Modern Church. The book is a fictional dialogue between two members of a council which has as its purpose the undermining of the Christian church. The Deputy Director of the Central Security Council gives one of his subordinates advice on how to accomplish their goal in his area.

In 2010, Guinness published a revised and updated version of Gravedigger Files. He gave it the new title The Last Christian on Earth. The titled was inspired in part by Luke 18:8: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

What Guinness wanted to do in Gravedigger and the updated version was to show how the church in America is being undermined from within. We concern ourselves so much about outside enemies without realizing that we are at times our own worst enemies. He wrote: “The Christian faith contributed decisively to the rise of the modern world, but it has been undermined decisively by the modern world it helped to create. The Christian faith has become its own gravedigger.”{1}

The primary focus of Probe Ministries now is what’s been called the cultural captivity of the church. All too many of us are influenced more by our culture than by the Bible. It’s impossible to separate oneself from one’s surrounding culture, to be sure, but when there is conflict, we are called to follow Christ. Cultural captivity is subtle. It slowly creeps up on us, and, before we know it, it has soaked into our pores and infected much of what we think and do. “Subversion works best when the process is slow and subtle,” Guinness’s Deputy Director says. “Subtle compromise is always better than sudden captivity.”{2}

This book is helpful for seeing ourselves in a clearer light, and for understanding why some of the things we do, which seem so harmless, are really very harmful to our own Christian lives and to the church.

Stages of Subversion

Rather than directly attacking the church, the enemy finds it more profitable to try to undermine it. “Subversion” is the word Os Guinness’s Deputy Director uses in the book The Last Christian on Earth. How does this happen?

This process of undermining comes in various stages. Three of them are demoralization, subversion, and defection.{3}

Demoralization is the softening up of the church through such things as hypocrisy and public scandals. Morale drops, and our ability to resist the devil’s advances decreases.

Subversion comes about from winning over key church leaders who begin to trumpet “radical” and “daring” ideas (better words for this, Guinness says, may be “revisionist” and “unfaithful”{4}).

Defection comes when prominent members abandon the church, such as when former fundamentalists publicly deny the divine authority of the Bible.

Faithfulness, which once was understood as being committed to God, now has a new focus. The desire to be “in the world but not of the world” is realigned. The church’s commitment to the world turns into attachment, and worldliness settles in. “Worldliness” is a term once used by fundamentalists to describe being too attached to the world, but it went out of favor because of the excesses of separationism. It was a word to be snickered at by evangelicals who were adept—or thought they were adept—at being in the world without becoming its servant. This snickering, however, doesn’t hide the fact that the evangelical sub-culture exhibits a significant degree of being of the world, or worldly.

Moving through these stages, the Deputy Director says, has led the church deeper and deeper into cultural captivity. The church becomes so identified with the culture that it no longer can act independently of it. Then it finds itself living with the consequences of its choices. Says the Deputy Director, “Our supreme prize at this level is the complete devastation of the Church by getting the Adversary [or God] to judge her himself. “Here, in a stroke,” he continues, “is the beauty of subversion through worldliness and its infinite superiority to persecution. . . . if the Adversary is to judge his own people, who are we to complain?”{5}

Forces of Modernism

In The Last Christian, Os Guinness describes three challenges of modernity which aid in the subversion of the church. They are secularization, privatization, and pluralization. These forces work to squeeze us into the mold of modernistic culture. To too great an extent, they have been successful.

Secularization is the process of separating religious ideas and institutions from the public sphere. Guinness’s Deputy Director speaks of society being “freed” from religious influence.{6} This is how secularists see the separation. Religion is seen as restrictive and oppressive and harmful, and the public square needs to be free of it. All ideas and beliefs are welcome as long as they aren’t explicitly grounded in religious belief. Because of the influence of the public arena in our lives, Guinness points out that “Secularization ensures that ordinary reality is not just the official reality but also the only reality. Beyond what modern people can see, touch, taste and smell is quite simply nothing that matters.”{7}

If religion is removed from the public square, the immediate result is privatization, the restriction of religion to our private worlds. This can be the small communities of our churches or it can mean our own individual lives. Guinness writes that “today, where religion still survives in the modern world, no matter how passionate or committed the believer, it amounts to little more than a private preference, a spare-time hobby, and a leisure pursuit.”{8}

The third force is pluralization. With the meeting of many cultures comes the awareness that there are many options with regard to food, dress, relationships, entertainment, religion, and other aspects of life. The number of options multiplies in all areas, “especially,” notes Guinness, “at the level of worldviews, faiths and ideologies.”{9} Choosing isn’t a simple matter anymore since it’s so widely believed that there is no truth in such matters. In fact, choosing is what counts. Guinness writes, “what matters is no longer good choice or right choice or wise choice, but simply choice.”{10}

Some Characteristics of Subversion

What are some characteristics of a subverted church? Os Guinness discusses several in his book The Last Christian on Earth.

One result of being pushed into our own private worlds by secularization is that we construct our own sub-culture and attempt to keep a distance. But then we turn around and model our sub-culture after the wider culture. For example, it’s no secret that evangelical Christianity is heavily commercialized. Our Christianity becomes our style reflected in plenty of Christian kitsch and in being surrounded by the latest in fashions. The depth of our captivity to things—even Christian-ish things—becomes a measure of the shallowness of our Christianity. Compared to what Jesus and the apostles offered, which included sacrifice and suffering, says Guinness, “today’s spiritual diet . . . is refined and processed. All the cost, sacrifice and demand are removed.”{11}

Another pitfall is rationalization, when we have to weigh and measure everything in modernistic ways. We’re guided by “measurable outcomes” and “best practices” more than by the leading of the Spirit.{12}

Feeling forced to keep our Christian lives separate from the wider culture—the sacred/secular split, it’s been called—reduces Christianity in size. We don’t know how to apply it to the larger world (apart from excursion-style evangelism). “Many Christians,” Guinness writes, “have so personal a theology and so private a morality that they lack the criteria by which to judge society from a Christian perspective.”{13} Lacking the ability to even make sound judgments about contemporary issues from a distinctly Christian perspective, we’re unable to speak in a way that commands attention. Christianity is thought at best to be “socially irrelevant, even if privately engaging,” as someone said.{14}

A really sad result of the reshaping of Christianity is that people wonder why they should want it at all. The church is the pillar of truth, Paul says (1 Tim. 3:15). The plausibility of Christianity rises and falls with the condition of the church. If the church is weak, Christianity will seem weak. Is this the message we want to convey?

A Wrong Way to Respond

In the face of the pressures of the modern world on us, the conservative church has responded in varying ways in the wider culture.

Os Guinness describes what he calls the push and pull phases of public involvement by conservatives. The push phase comes when conservatives realize how much influence they have lost. For much of the nineteenth century, evangelical Christianity was dominant in public life. Over the last century that has been stripped away, and conservatives have seen what they held near and dear taken away. This loss of respect and position in our society has resulted in insecurity.{15}

In response, conservative Christians push for power by means of political action and influence in education and the mass media. “But, since the drive for power is born of social impotence rather than spiritual authority,” Guinness writes, “the final result will be compromise and disillusionment.” They fall “for the delusion of power without authority.”{16}

When they recognize the loss of purity and principles in their actions, they begin to pull back and disentangle themselves from the centers of power. There is a return to the authority of the gospel without, however, a sense of the power of the gospel. Standing on the outside, as it were, they resort to “theologies stressing prophetic detachment, not constructive involvement.”{17} This is the phase of “hypercritical separatism.”

Then comes a third phase, the enemies’ coup de grâce. Standing back to view all this, some Christians experience what Guinness’s Deputy Director gloatingly describes as “a fleeting moment when they feel so isolated in their inner judgments that they wonder if they are the last Christian left.” There is left “a residue of part self-pity, part discouragement, and part shame that unnerves the best of them.”{18} But these are the few. The many are simply kept asleep, the Director is happy to report, unaware of what has happened.

This article has given only a taste of Os Guinness’s message to us. The hope for the church is a return to the gospel in all its purity and power. I invite you to read The Last Christian on Earth and get a fuller picture of the situation and what we can do to bring about change.


1. Os Guinness, The Last Christian on Earth: Uncover the Enemy’s Plot to Undermine the Church (Ventura, Calif.: Regal, 2010), 11.
2. Ibid., 51, 52.
3. Ibid., 28.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 32-34.
6. Ibid., 57.
7. Ibid., 63.
8. Ibid., 72.
9. Ibid., 92.
10. Ibid., 97.
11. Ibid., 159.
12. Ibid., 138.
13. Ibid., 155.
14. Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends (New York: Doubleday, 1973,), 449; quoted in Guinness, Last Christian, 79.
15. Guinness, Last Christian, 166.
16. Ibid., 213.
17. Ibid., 214.
18. Ibid.

© 2013 Probe Ministries

Secularization and the Church in Europe

Christian beliefs and church attendance are playing a much smaller role in Europeans’ lives in general than in the past. Rick Wade gives a snapshot of the place and nature of Christianity in Europe.

At the end of a talk about the state of the evangelical mind in America, the subject turned to Europe, and a man said with great confidence, “The churches in Europe are all empty!” I’ve heard that said before. It makes for a good missions sermon; however, it doesn’t quite do justice to the situation. Not all the churches in Europe are empty! The situation isn’t like in Dallas, Texas, where churches dot the landscape, but there are thriving churches across the continent.

Listen to the Podcast That said, however, there is more than just a grain of truth in the claim. Church attendance in Europe is down. Traditional Christian beliefs are less widely held.

It’s important to know what the situation is in Europe for a few reasons.

First, we have a tendency to write Europe off in a way we don’t other parts of the world. The church is struggling there, but it isn’t a lost cause by any means! Maybe we can even learn from the thinking and life’s experience of believers across the Atlantic.

Second, learning about the church around the world is good because it broadens our understanding of the interaction of Christianity and society. This should be of interest to us here in America.

Let’s look at a few numbers in the area of church attendance. To provide a contrast with the situation today, the best estimate for church attendance in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century was between forty and sixty percent of the adult population.{1} By contrast, in 2007, ten percent attended church at least weekly. About a quarter of those (about two million people) self-identify as evangelicals.{2} Although there has been large growth in so-called “new churches,” that growth hasn’t offset the loss across other denominations, especially the Church of England.

What about some other countries? In 2004, Gallup reported that “weekly attendance at religious services is below 10% in France and Germany, while in Belgium, the Netherlands, [and] Luxembourg . . . between 10% and 15% of citizens are regular churchgoers. . . . Only in Roman Catholic Ireland do a majority of residents (54%) still go to church weekly.”{3}

As we’ll see later, reduced numbers in church doesn’t mean all religious belief—even Christian—is lost.

The Golden Age of Faith

There is a story of the prominence and demise of religion in Europe that has become standard fare for understanding the history of Christianity in the modern world. The story goes that Europe was once a Christian civilization; that everyone was a Christian, and that the state churches ensured that society as a whole was Christian. This was the so-called “golden age of faith.” With the shift in thinking in the Enlightenment which put man at the center of knowledge, and which saw the rise of science, it became clear to some that religion was really just a form of superstition that gave pre-modern people an explanation of the world in which they lived and gave them hope.{4}

This story has come under a lot of fire in recent decades.{5} Although the churches had political and social power, there was no uniform religious belief across Europe. In fact, it’s been shown that there was a significant amount of paganism and folk magic mixed in with Christian beliefs.{6} Many priests had the barest notions of Christian theology; a lot of them couldn’t even read.{7} Sociologist Philip Gorski says that it’s more accurate to call it an Age of Magic or an Age of Ritual than an Age of Belief.{8}

On the other side of this debate are scholars such as Steve Bruce who say that, no matter the content or nature of religious belief in the Middle Ages, people were still religious even if not uniformly Christian; they believed in the supernatural and their religious beliefs colored their entire lives. “The English peasants may have often disappointed the guardians of Christian orthodoxy,” Bruce writes, “but they were indubitably religious.”{9}

So what changed? Was there a loss of Christianity or a loss of religion in general, or just some kind of shift? Historian Timothy Larson believes that what has been lost is Christendom.{10} The term Christendom is typically used to refer to the West when it was dominated by Christianity. The change wasn’t really from religion to irreligion but from the dominance of Christianity to its demise as a dominant force.

Religion has come back with significant force in recent decades even in such deeply secular countries as France, primarily because of the influx of Muslims.{11} Although the state Christian churches are faltering, some founded by immigrants are doing well, such as those founded by Afro-Caribbean immigrants in England. It seems that critics sounded the death knell on religion too soon.

European Distinctives

Although Christian belief is on the demise in general in Europe, the institutional church—the state church specifically—still has a valuable place in society.

In Europe’s past, the church was a major part of people’s lives. Everyone was baptized, married, and buried in the church. That tradition is still such a part of the social psyche that people fully expect that the church will be there for them even if they don’t attend. Sociologist Grace Davie describes the church in this respect as a public utility. “A public utility,” she writes, “is available to the population as a whole at the point of need and is funded through the tax system.”{12} Fewer people are being married in churches now, and far fewer are being baptized. However, there’s still a sense of need for the church at the time of death along with the expectation that it will be there for them.

Another term that characterizes religion in Europe is vicarious religion. Vicarious religion is “religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who . . . understand [and] approve of what the minority is doing.” Church leaders are expected to believe certain things, perform religious rituals, and embody a high moral code. “English bishops,” Davie writes, “are rebuked . . . if they doubt in public; it is, after all, their ‘job’ to believe.” She reports an incident where a bishop was thought to have spoken derogatorily about the resurrection of Jesus. He was “widely pilloried” for that, she writes. Soon after his consecration as bishop, his church was struck by lightning. That was seen by some as a rebuke by God!{13}

Another indicator of the importance of the church in European life is the fact that, in some countries, people still pay church tax, even countries that are very secular. Germany is one example. People can opt out, but a surprisingly high number don’t, including some who are not religiously affiliated. Reasons include the possibility of needing the church sometime later in life, having a place to provide moral guidance for children, and the church’s role in positively influencing the moral fabric of society in general.{14}

From Doctrine to Spirituality

I described above two concepts that characterize religious life in parts of Europe: public utility and vicarious religion. There’s a third phrase sociologists use which points to the shift in emphasis from what one gets through the institutional church to personal spiritual experience. The phrase is “believing without belonging.”

Sociologist Peter Berger believes that, as America is less religious than it seems, Europe is less secular than it seems. “A lot goes on under the radar,” he writes.{15}

A phrase often heard there is heard more and more frequently in the States: “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” This could mean the person is into New Age thinking, or is interested in more conventional religion but doesn’t feel at home in a church or in organized religion, or just prefers to choose what to believe him- or herself. A term some use to characterize this way of thinking is “patchwork religion.”

One frequently finds a greater acceptance of religion in Europe when religion in general is the subject and not particular, creedal religions. Davie notes that “[generally speaking] if you ask European populations . . . do you believe in God, and you’re not terribly specific about the God in question, you’ll get about 70 percent saying yes, depending where you are. If you say, do you believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, you’ll get a much lower number. In other words, if you turn your question into a creedal statement, the percentages go down.” A “cerebral” kind of belief doesn’t hold much appeal to the young. The essence of religious experience isn’t so much what you learn as it is simply taking part. “It’s the fact that you’re lifted out of yourself that counts.”{16}

The loss of authority in the state church hasn’t resulted in the triumph of secular rationalism among young people, which is rather surprising. They experiment with religious beliefs. “The rise occurred right across Europe,” Davie notes, “but is most marked in those parts of Europe where the institutional churches are at their weakest.” This isn’t seen, however, “where the church is still strong and seen as a disciplinary force and is therefore rejected by young people.”{17}

Some Closing Thoughts

Allow me to make some observations about the subject of secularization and the church in Europe.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as we face a Western culture that is increasingly hostile to the Gospel. First, we routinely hear the charge from people that religious people are living in the past, that they need to catch up to modern times. Such people simply assume as obviously true the long-held theory that secularization necessarily follows from modernization. This theory is sharply disputed today. Europe’s history isn’t the history of the rest of the world. Modernization appears in different forms around the world, including some that have room for religious belief and practice. America is a prime example. It isn’t the backward exception to the rule, as haughty critics would have us believe. Some say it’s Europe that is the exception with its strong secularity.{18} In fact, I think a case can be made that the modern propensity to separate our spiritual side from our material one is artificial; it violates our nature. But that’s a subject for another time. What we can be sure of is that the condescending attitude of people who want Christians to catch up to modern times is without basis. There is no necessary connection between modernity and secularity.{19}

A second thing to keep in mind is that the church doesn’t require a Christian society around it in order to grow. Christianity didn’t have its beginnings in a Christian society, but it grew nonetheless. The wide-spread social acceptance of Christian beliefs and morality is not the power of God unto salvation. It is the word of the cross.

Third, religion per se will not disappear because we are made in God’s image and He has put eternity in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11). Christianity in particular will not die either, for the One who rose from the dead said even the gates of hell won’t prevail against it (a much more serious adversary than the new atheists!).

What should we do? The same things Christian have always been called to do: continue in sound, biblical teaching, and learn and practice consistent Christian living. It is the way we live that, for many people, makes our beliefs plausible in the first place. And proclaim the gospel. Despite any constraints society may put on us, the Word of God is not bound.


1. Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 63-64.
2. Tearfund, “Churchgoing in the UK,” available on the Web at www.tearfund.org/webdocs/Website/News/Final%20churchgoing%20report.pdf.
3. Robert Manchin, “Religion in Europe: Trust Not Filling the Pews,” Sept. 21, 2004, www.gallup.com/poll/13117/religion-europe-trust-filling-pews.aspx.
4. Kevin M. Schulz, “Secularization: A Bibliographic Essay,” The Hedgehog Review, vol. 8, nos.1-2 (Spring/Summer 2006), 171. Online at www.virginia.edu/iasc/HHR_Archives/AfterSecularization/8.12RBibliography.pdf.
5. Sociologist Rodney Stark is one of the most prominent doubters of secularization theory. See his “Secularization, R.I.P. – rest in peace,” Sociology of Religion, Fall, 1999, available online at findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0SOR/is_3_60/ai_57533381/.
6. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, England: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971), 41; quoted in Philip S. Gorski, “Historicizing the Secularization Debate: Church, State, and Society in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ca. 1300 to 1700,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Feb. 2000), 144.
7. Stark, “Secularization, R.I.P.”
8. Gorski, “Historicizing the Secularization Debate”: 146.
9. Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), 47.
10. Timothy Larsen, “Dechristendomization As an Alternative to Secularization: Theology, History, and Sociology in Conversation,” Pro Ecclesia, Vol. XV, No. 3.
11. See Jean-Paul Williame, “The Cultural Turn in the Sociology of Religion in France,” Sociology of Religion 65, no. 4 (Winter 2004): 373-389.
12. Grace Davie, “Is Europe an Exceptional Case?” The Hedgehog Review 8, nos.1-2 (Spring/Summer 2006): 27. Online at www.virginia.edu/iasc/HHR_Archives/AfterSecularization/8.12DDavie.pdf.
13. Grace Davie, “Is Europe an Exceptional Case?”: 24-26.
14. See Peter Berger, Grace Davie, and Effie Fokas, Religious America, Secular Europe? A Theme and Variations (Ashgate Publishing, 2008), 15.
15. Charles T. Mathewes, “An Interview with Peter Berger,” The Hedgehog Review, vol. 8, nos.1-2 (Spring/Summer 2006):155. Online at www.virginia.edu/iasc/HHR_Archives/AfterSecularization/8.12PBerger.pdf
16. “Believing Without Belonging: Just How Secular Is Europe?” A discussion with Grace Davie at the Pew Forum’s biannual Faith Angle Conference on religion, politics and public life, December 2005. pewforum.org/events/?EventID=97.
17. Ibid.
18. Berger, Davie, and Fokas, Religious America, Secular Europe?.
19. Sociologist Christian Smith edited a volume titled The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life (UC Press, 2003) in which the case was argued that secularization became so powerful here because of a concerted effort by people who wanted it, not because of some natural, teleological progression.

© 2010 Probe Ministries

The Inspiration of the Bible

What Jesus said of Scripture and the nature of apostolic teaching are two of the main issues in Rick Wade’s examination of the inspiration of Scripture.

A question we often encounter when talking with non-believers about Christ is, “Why should I believe the Bible?” Or a person might say, “You have your Bible; Muslims have their Koran; different religions have their own holy books. What makes yours special?” How would you answer such questions?

Download the PodcastThese questions fall under the purview of apologetics. They call for a defense. However, before giving a defense we need theological and biblical grounding. To defend the Bible, we have to know what it is.

In this article, then, we’ll deal with the nature of Scripture. Are these writings simply the remembrances of two religious groups? Are they writings consisting of ideas conceived by Jews and early Christians as they sought to establish their religion? Or are they the words of God Himself, given to us for our benefit?

The latter position is the one held by the people of God throughout history. Christians have historically accepted both the Old and New Testaments as God’s word written. But two movements of thought have undermined belief in inspiration. One was the higher critical movement that reduced Scripture to simply the recollections and ideas of a religious group. The more recent movement (although it really isn’t organized enough to call it a “movement”) is religious pluralism, which holds that all religions–or at least the major ones–are equally valid, meaning that none is more true than others. If other religions are equally valid, then other holy books are also. Many Christian young people think this way.

Our evaluation of the Bible and other “holy books” is governed by the recognition that the Bible is the inspired word of God. If God’s final word is found in what we call the Bible, then no other book can be God’s word. To differ with what the Bible says is to differ with God.

What do we mean by inspiration? Following the work of the higher critics, many people–even within the church–have come to see the Bible as inspired in the same way that, say, an artist might be inspired. The artist sees the Grand Canyon and with her imagination now flooded with images and ideas hurries back to her canvas to paint a beautiful picture. A poet, upon viewing the devastation of war, proceeds to pen lines which stir the compassion of readers. Is that what we mean when we say the Bible is inspired?

We use the word inspiration because of 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” Inspired is translated from the Greek word theopnuestos which literally means “God-breathed.” Some have said the word could be translated “ex-spired” or “breathed out.” Inspiration, then, in the biblical sense, isn’t the stirring of the imagination of the writer, but rather is the means by which the writers accurately wrote what God wanted written.

This idea finds support in 2 Peter 1: 20-21: “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

What we need before proceeding is a working definition of inspiration. Theologian Carl F. H. Henry writes, “Inspiration is a supernatural influence upon the divinely chosen prophets and apostles whereby the Spirit of God assures the truth and trustworthiness of their oral and written proclamation.”{1} Furthermore, the writers were “divinely superintended by the Holy Spirit in the choice of words they used.”{2} Although some things were dictated to the writers, most of the time the Spirit simply superintended the writing so that the writer, using his own words, wrote what the Spirit wanted.

The Historical View of the Church

The first place to look in establishing any doctrine is, of course, the Bible. Before turning to Scripture to see what it claims for itself, however, it will be worthwhile to be sure this has been the view of the church throughout history. Because of the objections of liberal scholars, we might want to see whose position is in keeping with our predecessors in the faith.

Historically, the church has consistently held to the inspiration of Scripture, at least until the 19th century. One scholar has said that throughout the first eight centuries of the church, “Hardly is there a single point with regard to which there reigned . . . a greater or more cordial unanimity.”{3} The great Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield said, “Christendom has always reposed upon the belief that the utterances of this book are properly oracles of God.”{4} In the 16th century, the Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin were explicit in their recognition of the divine source and authority of Scripture.{5} B. B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, J. Gresham Machen, Carl F. H. Henry, J. I. Packer and other very reputable scholars and theologians over the last century and a half have argued forcefully for the inspiration of Scripture. And as Warfield notes, this belief underlies all the creeds of the church as well.{6}

The Witness of the Old Testament

Let’s turn now to the Bible itself, beginning with the Old Testament, to see whether its own claims match the beliefs of the church.

The clear intent of the Old Testament writers was to convey God’s message. Consider first that God was said to speak to the people. “God says” (Deut. 5:27), “Thus says the Lord” (Exod. 4:22), “I have put my words in your mouth” (Jer. 1:9), “The word of the Lord came to him” (Gen. 15:4; 1 Kings 17:8). All these references to God speaking show that He is interested in communicating with us verbally. The Old Testament explicitly states 3,808 times that it is conveying the express words of God.{7}

Furthermore, God was so interested in people preserving and knowing His word that at times He told people to write down what He said. We read in Exodus 17:14: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this in a book as a memorial and recite it to Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.’” (See also 24:3-7, 34:27; Jer. 30:2; 36:2.)

The clear testimony of Old Testament writings is that God spoke to people, and He instructed them to write down the things He said. These writings have been handed down to us.

Of course, we shouldn’t think of all the Old Testament—or the New Testament either—as having been dictated to the writers. In fact, most of the Bible was not. What we want to establish here is that God is a communicating God, and He communicates verbally. The idea that God is somehow unable or unwilling to communicate propositionally to man—which is what a number of scholars of this century continue to hold—is foreign to the Old Testament. God spoke, and the people heard and understood.

We should now shift to the New Testament to see what it says about inspiration. Let’s begin with the testimony of Jesus.

The Witness of Jesus

Did Jesus believe in the doctrine of inspiration?

It is clear that Jesus acknowledged the Old Testament writings as being divine in nature. Consider John 10:34-36: “Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your Law, “I have said you are gods”? If he called them “gods” to whom the word of God came–and the Scripture cannot be broken–what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world?’” Jesus believed it was God’s word that came to the prophets of old, and He referred to it as Scripture that could not be broken. In Matt. 5:17-19, He affirmed the Law as being fixed and above the whims of men.

Jesus drew on the teachings of the Old Testament in His encounter with Satan (Matt. 4:1-11). His responses, “Man shall not live on bread alone” (Deut. 8:3), “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only” (Deut. 6:13), and “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deut. 6:16) are all drawn from Deuteronomy. Each statement was prefaced by “It is written” or “It is said.” Jesus said that he only spoke what the Father wanted Him to (John 12:49). By quoting these passages as authoritative over Satan, He was, in effect, saying these were God’s words. He also honored the words of Moses (Mark 7:10), Isaiah (Mark 7:6), David (Mark 12:36), and Daniel (Matt. 24:15) as authoritative, as carrying the weight of God’s words.{8} Jesus even referred to an Old Testament writing as God’s word when this wasn’t explicitly attributed to God in the Old Testament itself (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:4,5).

In our consideration of the position of Jesus on the nature of Scripture, we also need to look at His view of the New Testament. But one might ask, “It hadn’t been written yet, how could Jesus be cited in support of the inspiration of the New Testament?

To get a clear picture of this we need to realize what Jesus was doing with His apostles. His small group of twelve was being trained to carry on the witness and work of Jesus after He was gone. They were given a place of special importance in the furthering of His work (Mark 3:14-15). Thus, He taught them with clarity while often teaching the crowds in parables (Mark 4:34). He sent them as the Father had sent Him (John 20:21) so they would be witnesses of “all these things” (Luke 24:48). Both the Spirit and the apostles would be witnesses for Christ (John 15:26ff; cf. Acts 5:32). He promised to send the Spirit to help them when He left. They would be empowered to bear witness (Acts. 1:4,5,8). The Spirit would give them the right things to say when brought to trial (Matt. 10:19ff). He would remind them of what Jesus had said (John 14:26) and would give them new knowledge (John 16:12ff). As John Wenham said, “The last two promises . . . do not of course refer specifically or exclusively to the inspiration of a New Testament Canon, but they provide in principle all that is required for the formation of such a Canon, should that be God’s purpose.”{9}

Thus, Jesus didn’t identify a specific body of literature as the New Testament or state specifically that one would be written. However, He prepared the apostles as His special agents to hand down the truths He taught, and He promised assistance in doing this. Given God’s work in establishing the Old Testament and Jesus’ references to the written word in His own teaching, it is entirely reasonable that He had plans for His apostles to put in writing the message of good news He brought.

The Witness of the Apostles

Finally, we need to see what the apostles tell us about the nature of Scripture. To understand their position, we’ll need to not only see what they said about Scripture, but also understand what it meant to be an apostle.

The office of apostle grew out of Jewish jurisprudence wherein a sjaliach (“one who is sent out”) could appear in the name of another with the authority of that other person. It was said that “the sjaliach for a person is as this person himself.”{10} As Christ’s representatives the apostles ( apostle also means “sent out”) carried forth the teaching they had received. “This apostolic preaching is the foundation of the Church, to which the Church is bound” (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 2:20).{11} The apostles had been authorized by Jesus as special ambassadors to teach what he had taught them (cf. John 20:21). Their message was authoritative when spoken; when written it would be authoritative as well.

As the apostles were witnesses of the gospel they also were bearers of tradition. This isn’t “tradition” in the contemporary sense by which we mean that which comes from man and may be changed. Tradition in the Hebrew understanding meant “what has been handed down with authority.”{12} This is what Paul referred to when he praised the Corinthians for holding to the traditions they had been taught and exhorted the Thessalonians to do the same (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15). Contrast this with the tradition of men which drew criticism from Jesus (Mark 7:8).

Paul attributed what he taught directly to Christ (2 Cor. 13:3). He identified his gospel with the preaching of Jesus (Rom. 16:25). And he said his words were taught by the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:13). What he wrote to the Corinthians was “the Lord’s commandment” (1 Cor. 14:37). Furthermore, Paul, and John as well, considered their writings important enough to call for people to read them (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; John 20:31; Rev. 1:3). Peter put the apostolic message on par with the writings of the Old Testament prophets (2 Pet. 3:2).

What was the nature of Scripture according to the apostles? Many if not most Christians are familiar with 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” This is the verse most often cited in support of the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. Paul was speaking primarily of the Old Testament in this passage. The idea of God “breathing out” or speaking wasn’t new to Paul, however, because he knew the Old Testament well, and there he could read that “the ‘mouth’ of God was regarded as the source from which the Divine message came.”{13}Isaiah 45:23 says, “I have sworn by Myself, The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back” (see also 55:11). Paul also would have known that Jesus quoted Deuteronomy when He replied to the tempter, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; cf. Deut. 8:3).

Peter also taught that the Scriptures were, in effect, the speech of God. In 2 Peter 1: 20-21, he noted that prophecy was made by “men moved by the Holy Spirit [who] spoke from God.” It didn’t originate in men.

One further note. The Greek word graphe in the New Testament only refers to sacred Scriptures. This is the word used in 1 Timothy 5:18 and 2 Peter 3:16 to refer to the writings of the apostles.

The apostles thus were the ambassadors of Christ who spoke in His stead and delivered the message which was the standard for belief and practice. They had both their own recollections of what they witnessed and heard and the empowerment of the Spirit. The message they preached was the one they wrote down. The New Testament, like the Old, claims very clearly to be the inspired word of God.

Making a Defense

We now come to a very important part in our discussion of the inspiration of Scripture. It’s one thing to establish the biblical teaching on the nature of the Bible itself. It’s quite another to give a defense to critics.

As I noted earlier, we frequently hear questions such as “Many religions have their own holy books. Why should we believe the Bible is special?”

When this objection comes from someone who holds to religious pluralism, before answering the question about the Bible we will have to question him on the reasonableness of pluralism itself. No amount of evidences or arguments for the Bible will make a bit of difference if the person believes that there is no right or wrong when it comes to religion.{14}

It’s easy for apologists to come to rely primarily on their arguments when responding to critics, which is something even Paul wouldn’t do (1 Cor. 2:3-5). What we learn from Scripture is the power of Scripture itself. “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword,” Hebrews says (4:12). Isaiah 55:11 says that God’s word will accomplish his will. In Acts 2:37 we see the results of the proclamation of the word of God in changed people.

So, where am I going with this? I wonder how many people who object to our insistence that our “holy book” is the only true word of God have ever read any of it! Before we launch into a lengthy apologetic for Scripture, it might be good to get them to read it and let the Spirit open their minds to see its truth (1 Cor. 2:6-16).

Am I tossing out the entire apologetics enterprise and saying, “Look, just read the Bible and don’t ask so many questions”? No. I’m simply trying to move the conversation to more fruitful ground. Once the person learns what the Bible says, he can ask specific questions about its content, or we can ask him what about it makes him think it might not be God’s word.

The Bible clearly claims to be the authoritative word of God, and as such it makes demands on us. So, at least the tone of Scripture is what we might expect of a book with God as its source. But does it give evidence that it must have God as its source? And does its self-witness find confirmation in our experience?

Regarding the necessity of having God as its source, we can consider prophecy. Who else but God could know what would happen hundreds of years in the future? What mere human could get 300 prophecies correct about one person (Jesus)?{15}

The Bible’s insight into human nature and the solutions it provides to our fallen condition are also evidence of its divine source. In addition, the Bible’s honesty about the weaknesses of even its heroes is evidence that it isn’t just a human book. By contrast, we tend to build ourselves up in our own writing.

As further evidence that the Bible is God’s word, we can note its survival and influence throughout the last two millennia despite repeated attempts to destroy it.

What Scripture proclaims about itself finds confirmation in our experience. For example, the practical changes it brings in individuals and societies are evidence that it is true.

One more note. We have the testimony of Jesus about Scripture whose resurrection is evidence that He knew what He was talking about!

In sum, the testimony of Scripture to its own nature finds confirmation in many areas.{16} Even with all this evidence, however, we aren’t going to be able to prove the inspiration of the Bible to anyone who either isn’t interested enough to give it serious thought or to the critic who only wants to argue. But we can share its message, make attempts at gentle persuasion and answer questions as we wait for the Spirit to open the person’s mind and heart.


1. Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 4, The God Who Speaks and Shows (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1979), 129.
2. Class notes, Introduction to Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, May 4, 1987. See also Warfield cited in Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 4:141.
3. L. Gaussen, The Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures (Chicago: Moody Press, 1949), 145. See the entire section, pp. 145-152.
4. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1948), 107.
5. Warfield, 108-09.
6. Ibid., 110-11.
7. René Pache, The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969), 81.
8.John W. Wenham, Christ and the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1972), 24.
9. Wenham, 113.
10. Edward J. Young, Thy Word is Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 21.
12. Herman Ridderbos, “The Canon of the New Testament,” in Revelation and the Bible, ed. Carl F. H. Henry ;(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958), 192, 193.
13.Ibid., 193.
14. For help in dealing with relativism and religious pluralism, see these other Probe articles: Don Closson, How Do You Spell Truth? and Rick Rood, Do All Roads Lead to God? The Christian Attitude Toward Non-Christian Religions.
15. Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict, rev. ed. (San Bernardino, Ca.: Here’s Life Publishers, ;1979), 144.
16. See Bernard Ramm, Protestant Christian Evidences (Chicago: Moody Press, 1953), esp. chaps. 8 and 9.

© 1999 Probe Ministries International

Putting Beliefs Into Practice Revisited: Twenty-somethings and Faithful Living

Rick Wade updates his earlier discussion of 3 major ingredients necessary for Christians’ faithful living: convictions, character, and community.

A Turning Point

In recent months Probe has focused more and more attention on the state of the younger generations in the evangelical church regarding their fidelity to basic Christian doctrines and Christian practices like prayer and church attendance. Our concern has deepened as we’ve become more aware of the fact that, not only is the grasp on Christian beliefs and practices loosening, but that some unbiblical beliefs and practices in our secular culture are seen as acceptable for Christians.

Download the Podcast With this in mind it seems appropriate to revisit a program I wrote over ten years ago on the necessity of linking our beliefs with the way we live in order to practice a healthy Christian life. It was based on Steven Garber’s book The Fabric of Faithfulness.{1} Garber’s book was written with college students in mind. However, the principles are the same for people in other stages of life as well.

The Fabric of Faithfulness was written to help students in the critical task of establishing moral meaning in their lives. By “moral meaning” he is referring to the moral significance of the general direction of our lives and of the things we do with our days. “How is it,” he asks, “that someone decides which cares and commitments will give shape and substance to life, for life?”{2}

In this article I want to look at three significant factors which form the foundations for making our lives fit our beliefs: convictions, character, and community.{3}

For many young people, college provides the context for what the late Erik Erikson referred to as a turning point, “a crucial period in which a decisive turn one way or another is unavoidable.”{4} However, as sociologists Christian Smith and Patricia Snell report, graduation from college is no longer the marker for the transition of youth to adult.{5} Steve Cable notes that “most young adults assume that they will go through an extended period of transition, trying different life experiences, living arrangements, careers, relationships, and viewpoints until they finally are able to stand on their own and settle down. . . . Some researchers refer to this recently created life phase as ‘emerging adulthood,’ covering the period from 18 to 29.”{6}
<h3>Telos and Praxis

The young adult years are often taken as a time to sow one’s wild oats, to have lots of fun before the pressures (and dull routine!) of “real life” settle in. Too much playing, however, delays one’s preparation for those pressures. In addition, bad choices can be made during that time that will negatively affect the course of one’s life.

Theologian Jacques Ellul gives this charge to young people:

“Remember your Creator during your youth: when all possibilities lie open before you and you can offer all your strength intact for his service. The time to remember is not after you become senile and paralyzed! . . . You must take sides earlier—when you can actually make choices, when you have many paths opening at your feet, before the weight of necessity overwhelms you.”{7}

Living in a time when so many things seem so uncertain, how do we even begin to think about setting a course for the future? Steven Garber uses a couple of Greek words to identify two foundational aspects of life which determine its shape to a great extent: telos and praxis. Telos is the word for the end toward which something is moving or developing. It is the goal, the culmination, the final form which gives meaning to all that goes before it. The goal of Christians is to be made complete in Christ as Paul said in Colossians 1:28: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature [or complete or perfect] in Christ.” This over-arching telos or goal should govern the entirety of our lives.

Garber’s second word, praxis, means action or deed.{8} Jesus uses the word in Matthew 16:27 when he speaks of us being repaid according to our deeds or praxis.

While everyone engages in some kind of praxis or deeds, in the postmodern world there is little thought given to telos because many people believe no one can know what is ultimately real, what is eternal, and thus where we are going. We are told, on the one hand, that our lives are completely open and free and the outcome is totally up to us, but, on the other, that our lives are determined and it doesn’t matter what we do. How are we to make sense of our lives if either of those is true?

Where we begin is the basic beliefs that comprise the telos of the Christian; i.e., our convictions.

Convictions: Where It Begins

When we think of our “end” in Christ we’re thinking of something much bigger and more substantive than just where we will spend eternity. We’re thinking of the goal toward which history is marching. In His eternal wisdom God chose to sum up all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10). New Testament scholar J. B. Lightfoot wrote that this refers to “the entire harmony of the universe, which shall no longer contain alien and discordant elements, but of which all the parts shall find their centre and bond of union in Christ.”{9} It is the telos or “end” of Christians to be made perfect parts of the new creation.

Who is this Jesus and what did he teach? He said that He is the only way to God, and that our connection with Him is by faith, but a faith that results in godly living. He talked about sin and its destruction, and about true faith and obedience. What Jesus said and did provide the content and ground of our convictions, and these convictions provide the ground and direction for the way we live. These aren’t just religious ideas we’ve chosen to adopt. They are true to the way things are.

Garber tells the story of Dan Heimbach who served on President George H. W. Bush’s Domestic Policy Council. Heimbach sensed a need while in high school to be truly authentic with respect to his beliefs. He wanted to know if Christianity was really true. When serving in Vietnam he began asking himself whether he could really live with his convictions. He says,

“Everyone had overwhelmingly different value systems. While there I once asked myself why I had to be so different. With a sense of tremendous internal challenge I could say that the one thing keeping me from being like the others was that deep down I was convinced of the truth of my faith; this moment highlighted what truth meant to me, and I couldn’t turn my back on what I knew to be true.”{10}

Christian teachings that we believe give meaning to our existence; they provide an intellectual anchor in a world of multiple and conflicting beliefs, and give direction for our lives. For a person to live consistently as a Christian, he or she must know at least basic Christian doctrines, and be convinced that they are “true truth” as Francis Schaeffer put it: what is really true.

Character: Living It Out

So our beliefs must be grounded in Christ. But we can’t stop there. Not only do we need to receive as true what Jesus taught, we also need to live it out as He did. After telling the Corinthians to do all things to the glory of God, Paul added that they should “be imitators of me as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

Morality is inextricably wedded to the way the world is. A universe formed by matter and chance cannot provide moral meaning. The idea of a “cosmos without purpose,” says Garber, “is at the heart of the challenge facing students in the modern world.”{11}This is a challenge for all of us, student and non-student. Such a world provides no rules or structure for life. Christianity, on the other hand, provides a basis for responsible living for there is a God back of it all who is a moral being, who created the universe and the people in it to function certain ways. To not live in keeping with the way things are is to invite disaster.

If we accept that Christianity does provide for the proper development of character in the individual based on the truth of its teachings, we must then ask how that development comes about. Garber believes an important component in that process is a mentor or guide.

Grace Tazelaar graduated from Wheaton College, went into nursing, and later taught in the country of Uganda as it was being rebuilt following the reign of Idi Amin. At some point she asked a former teacher to be her spiritual mentor. Says Garber, “This woman, who had spent years in South Africa, gave herself to Grace as she was beginning to explore her own place of responsible service.” Grace saw her mentor’s beliefs worked out in real life.{12}

The White Rose was a group of students in Germany who opposed Nazism. Brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl were strongly influenced in their work by Carl Muth, a theologian and editor of an anti-Nazi periodical. One writer noted that “The Christian Gospel became the criterion of their thought and actions.” Their convictions carried them to the point of literally losing their heads for their opposition.

Being a mentor involves more than teaching others how to have quiet times. They need to see how Christianity is fleshed out in real life, and they need encouragement to extend themselves to a world in need in Jesus’ name, using their own gifts and personalities.

Community: A Place to Grow

Garber adds one more important element to the mix of elements important in being a Christian. We’ve looked at the matter of convictions, the beliefs we hold which give direction and shape to our lives. Then we talked about the development of character, the way those beliefs are worked out in our lives. Community is the third part of this project of “weaving together belief and behavior” (the sub-title of Garber’s book), the place where we see that character worked out in practice.

Christian doctrines can seem so abstract and distant. How does one truly hold to them in a world which thinks so differently? Bob Kramer, who was involved in student protests at Harvard in the ‘60s, said he and his wife learned the importance of surrounding themselves with people who also wanted to connect telos with praxis. He said, “As I have gotten involved in politics and business, I am more and more convinced that the people you choose to have around you have more to do with how you act upon what you believe than what you read or the ideas that influence you. The influence of ideas has to be there, but the application is something it’s very hard to work out by yourself.”{13}

The Christian community (or the church), if it’s functioning properly, can provide a solid plausibility structure for those who are finding their way. To read about love and forgiveness and kindness and self-sacrifice is one thing; to see it lived out within a body of people is quite another. It provides significant evidence that the convictions are valid. “We discover who we are,” says Garber, “and who we are meant to be—face to face and side by side with others in work, love and learning.”{14}

During their university years and early twenties, if they care about the course of their lives, young people will have to make major decisions about what they believe and what those beliefs mean. Garber writes, “Choices about meaning, reality and truth, about God, human nature and history are being made which, more often than not, last for the rest of life. Learning to make sense of life, for life, is what the years between adolescence and adulthood are all about.”{15}

Convictions, character, and community are three major ingredients for producing a life of meaningful service in the kingdom of God, for putting together our telos and our praxis.


1. Steven Garber, The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior During the University Years (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996). An expanded edition was published in 2007 under the shortened title The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior.

2.Ibid., 27.

3. Ibid., 37.

4. Erik Erikson, Insight and Responsibility: Lectures on the Ethical Implications of Psychoanalytic Insight (New York: W.W. Norton, 1964), 138, quoted in Garber, 17.

5. Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press, 2009).

6. Steve Cable, “Emerging Adults and the Future of Faith in America,” Probe Ministries, 2010, www.probe.org/emerging-adults-and-the-future-of-faith-in-america/.

7. Jacques Ellul, Reason for Being: A Meditation on Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 282-83, quoted in Garber, 39.
8. Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), s.v. “Work,” by H.-C. Hahn (3:1157-58). [Note: The hyphen is there in the source text.]

9. J. B. Lightfoot, Notes on the Epistle of St. Paul, 322, quoted in Brown, NIDNTT, s.v. “Head,” by C. Brown (2:163).
10. Garber, Fabric, 122.

11. Ibid., 59.

12. Ibid., 130.

13. Ibid., 149.

14. Ibid., 147.

15. Ibid., 175.

© 2011 Probe Ministries

Lessons from C.S. Lewis

Two issues which vex Christians today are moral subjectivism and the origin of the world. Through a couple of his recorded lectures, C.S. Lewis provides helpful insights and answers to the challenges we face.

The Poison of Subjectivism

C.S. Lewis was both a serious scholar who could tangle with the great minds of his day and a popular author who had the wonderful ability to write for children. Lewis, who died in 1963, is still an intellectual force who is well worth reading.

download-podcastI want to dig into Lewis’s thinking on a few subjects which are still applicable today. Studying writers like Lewis helps us love God with our minds.

Are Values Created by Us?

Let’s begin with a very pertinent issue today, that of subjectivism. Subjectivism is the belief that individual persons—or subjects—are the source of knowledge and moral values. What is true or morally good finds its final authority in people, not in an external source like God. Today there is more of an emphasis on groups of people rather than individuals. However, truth and morality arise from our own ideas or feelings.

Over the last few hundred years there have been many attempts to work out ethical systems that are grounded in our subjective states apart from God but somehow provide universal moral values. That project has been a failure. The individual is now left to his or her own devices to figure out how to live, except, of course, for laws of the state.

In a lecture titled “The Poison of Subjectivism,” Lewis scrutinizes subjectivist thinking with a special focus on what he calls “practical reason.” Practical reason is our capacity for deciding what to do, how to act. It has to do with judgments of value. It is different from theoretical reason which deals with, well, theories. Practical reason answers the question, What should I do?

It sounds odd today to talk about moral values as matters of reason since people tend more to go with what they feel is the right thing to do. But this is just the problem, Lewis says. “Until modern times,” he wrote, “no thinker of the first rank ever doubted that our judgements of value were rational judgements or that what they discovered was objective.”{1} In other words, matters of value have not always been separated from the realm of reason.

Lewis continues:

Out of this apparently innocent idea [that values are subjective] comes the disease that will certainly end our species (and, in my view, damn our souls) if it is not crushed; the fatal superstition that men can create values, that a community can choose its ‘ideology’ as men choose their clothes.{2}

Just as we don’t measure the physical length of something by itself, but rather use a measuring instrument such as a yardstick, we also need a moral “instrument” for deciding what is good or bad. Otherwise, what we do isn’t good or bad, it’s just . . . what we do.

Cultural Relativism

A prominent form of moral relativism today is cultural relativism. This is the belief that each culture chooses its own values regardless of the values other cultures choose. There is no universal moral norm. This idea is supposed to come from the observation that different cultures have different sets of values. A leap is made from there to the claim that that is how things should be.

We’re often tempted to counter such a notion with the simple answer that the Bible says otherwise. Lewis provides a good lesson in doing apologetics by subjecting the belief itself to scrutiny. Cultural relativism is based on the assumption that cultures are very different with respect to values. Lewis claims that all the supposed differences are exaggerated. The idea that “cultures differ so widely that there is no common tradition at all” is a lie, he says; “a good, solid, resounding lie.” He elaborates:

If a man will go into a library and spend a few days with the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics he will soon discover that massive unanimity of the practical reason in man. From the Babylonian Hymn to Samos, from the Laws of Manu, the Book of the Dead, the Analects, the Stoics, the Platonists, from Australian aborigines and Redskins, he will collect the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery and falsehood, the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, of almsgiving and impartiality and honesty. He may be a little surprised . . . to find that precepts of mercy are more frequent than precepts of justice; but he will no longer doubt that there is such a thing as the Law of Nature. There are, of course, differences. . . . But the pretence that we are presented with a mere chaos . . . is simply false.{3}

Someone might ask whether the Fall of Adam and Eve made us incapable of knowing this law. But Lewis insists that the Fall didn’t damage our knowledge of the law as much as it did our ability to obey it. There is impairment, to be sure. But as he says, “there is a difference between imperfect sight and blindness.”{4}

We still have a knowledge of good and evil. The good that we seek is not found within the subject, within us. It is rooted in God. It is neither above God as a law He has to follow, nor is it a set of rules God arbitrarily made up. It comes from His nature. And, since we are made in His image, it suits our nature to live according to it.

Is Theology Poetry?

In 1944, Lewis was invited to speak at a meeting of the University Socratic Club at Oxford. The topic was, “Is Theology Poetry?”{5}

Lewis defines poetry here as, “writing which arouses and in part satisfies the imagination.” He thus restates the question this way: “Does Christian Theology owe its attraction to its power of arousing and satisfying our imagination?”{6}

Why would this question even be raised? This was the era of such scholars as Rudolph Bultmann who believed the message of the Bible was encrusted in supernatural ideas unacceptable to modern people. Bultmann wanted to save Christian truth by “demythologizing” it.

Some Problems

It has been assumed by some critics that until modern times people didn’t know the difference between reality and fantasy. But this is a condescending attitude. People know the difference for the most part, even premodern people—and even Christians! In fact, Lewis believes there are elements in Christian theology which work against it as poetry. He says, for example, that the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t have the “monolithic grandeur” of Unitarian conceptions of God, or the richness of polytheism. God’s omnipotence, for another example, doesn’t fit the poetic image of the hero who is tragically defeated in the end.{7}

Critics point out that the Bible contains some of the same elements found in other religions—creation accounts, floods, risings from the dead—and conclude that it is just another example of ancient mythology. Lewis says there are notable differences. For example, in the pagan stories, people die and rise again either every year or at some unknown time and place, whereas the resurrection of Christ happened once and in a recognizable location.

However, we shouldn’t shy away from the fact that our theology will sometimes resemble mythological accounts. Why? Because we cannot state it in completely non-metaphorical, nonsymbolic forms. “God came down to earth” is metaphorical language, as is “God entered history.” “All language about things other than physical objects is necessarily metaphorical,” Lewis says.{8}

Did early Christians believe the metaphorical language of Scripture literally? Lewis says “the alternative we are offering them [between literal and metaphorical] was probably never present to their minds at all.”{9} While early Christians would have thought of their faith using anthropomorphic imagery, that doesn’t mean their faith was bound up with details about celestial throne rooms and the like. Lewis says that once the symbolic nature of some of Scripture became explicit, they recognized it for what it was without feeling their faith was compromised.

The Myth of Evolution

Lewis had a wonderful way of turning criticisms back on the critics. So they believe Christian doctrine is mythological because of its language? They should look to their own beliefs! These critics, Lewis says, believe “one of the finest myths which human imagination has yet produced,” the myth of blind evolution. This is how he describes this myth.{10}

The story begins with infinite void and matter. By a tiny chance the conditions are such to produce the first spark of life. Everything is against it, but somehow it survives. “With infinite suffering, against all but insuperable obstacles,” Lewis says, “it spreads, it breeds, it complicates itself, from the amoeba up to the plant, up to the reptile, up to the mammal. We glance briefly at the age of monsters. Dragons prowl the earth, devour one another, and die. . . . As the weak, tiny spark of life began amidst the huge hostilities of the inanimate, so now again, amidst the beasts that are far larger and stronger than he, there comes forth a little naked, shivering, cowering creature, shuffling, not yet erect, promising nothing, the product of another millionth millionth chance. Yet somehow he thrives.” He becomes the Cave Man who worships the horrible gods he made in his own image. Then comes true Man who learns to master nature. “Science comes and dissipates the superstitions of his infancy.” Man becomes the controller of his fate.

Zoom into the future, when a race of demigods rules the planet, “for eugenics have made certain that only demigods will be born, and psychoanalysis that none of them shall lose or smirch his divinity, and communism that all which divinity requires shall be ready to their hands. Man has ascended to his throne. Henceforward he has nothing to do but to practice virtue, to grow in wisdom, to be happy.”

The last scene in the story reverses everything. We have the Twilight of the Gods. The sun cools, the universe runs down, life is banished. “All ends in nothingness, and ‘universal darkness covers all.’”

“The pattern of the myth thus becomes one of the noblest we can conceive,” Lewis says. “It is the pattern of many Elizabethan tragedies, where the protagonist’s career can be represented by a slowly ascending and then rapidly falling curve, with its highest point in Act IV.”

“Such a world drama appeals to every part of us,” Lewis says. However, even though he personally found it a moving story, Lewis said he believed less than half of what it told him about the past and less than nothing of what it told him about the future.{11}

This kind of response to the critic of Christianity doesn’t prove that the critic is wrong. Just to show that he has his own mythology doesn’t prove he is wrong about Christianity. That’s called a tu quoque argument, which means “you too.” It serves, however, to make the critic hesitate before making simplistic charges against Christians. What is important about a belief system isn’t first of all whether it contains poetical elements. It’s whether it is true.

Naturalism and Reason

Having pointed out that the critic has his own mythology, Lewis examines another aspect of the issue, that of the reliability of reason, the primary tool of science.

Critics were purportedly looking at Christian doctrine from a scientific perspective. They believed that the findings of science made religious belief unacceptable. Lewis was no outsider to the atheistic mentality often found among scientists; he had been an atheist himself. Yet even as such, he didn’t have a triumphal vision of science as being the welcomed incoming tide that overtook the old mythological view of the world held by Christians. Lewis had accepted as truth the “grand myth” of evolution which I recounted previously, but he came to see a serious problem with it quite apart from any religious convictions. “Deepening distrust and final abandonment of it,” Lewis wrote, “long preceded my conversion to Christianity. Long before I believed Theology to be true I had already decided that the popular scientific picture at any rate was false.”{12} There was “one absolutely central inconsistency” that ruined it. This was the inconsistency of basing belief in evolution on human reason when the belief itself made reason suspect!{13}

What Lewis calls “the popular scientific view” or “the Scientific Outlook” is based on naturalism, the view that nature is all there is; there is no supernatural being or realm. Everything must be explained in terms of the natural order; the “Total System,” Lewis calls it.{14} If there’s any one thing that cannot be given a satisfactory naturalistic explanation, then naturalism falls.

Lewis contends that reason itself is something that can’t be explained in naturalistic terms. This is an especially pertinent matter, because reason is one of the primary tools of science, and science is the great authority for evolutionists.

Science, Lewis says, depends upon logical inferences from observed facts. Unless logical inference is valid, scientific study has no basis. But if reason is “simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming,” how can we trust it? How do we know our thoughts reflect reality? How can we trust the random movement of atoms in our brain to reliably convey to us knowledge of the world outside us? “They ask me at the same moment to accept a conclusion,” Lewis says, “and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based.”{15}

In short, then, if reason is our authority for believing in naturalistic evolution, but the theory of evolution makes us question reason, the whole theory is without solid foundation.

The science of the evolutionist cannot explain reason. Christianity, however, can. In fact, it explains much more than that. Lewis ends the lecture with one of his famous quotations, one that is hanging on my office door: “I believe in Christianity,” he says, “as I believe that the Sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”{16}


1. C. S. Lewis, “The Poison of Subjectivism,” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 73.
2. Lewis, 73.
3. Lewis, 77.
4. Lewis, 79.
5. C. S. Lewis, in The Weight of Glory and Other Essays (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1980), 116.
6. Ibid., 117.
7. Ibid., 118.
8. Ibid., 133-34.
9. Ibid., 131.
10. Ibid., 123-25.
11. Ibid., 125-26.
12. Ibid., 134-35.
13. This argument is found at the end of “Is Theology Poetry?” A lengthier discussion is found in C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan, 1947), chap. 3.
14. Lewis, Miracles, 17.
15. Lewis, Weight of Glory, 135-36.
16. Ibid., 140.

© 2005 Probe Ministries