The doctrine of hell has recently come under vicious attack, both from secularists and even from some evangelicals. In many ways, the assault has been a covert one. Like a slowly encroaching tide, a whole complex of inter-related cultural, theological, and philosophical changes have conspired to undermine the traditional understanding of hell. Yesterday, we considered the first and perhaps most important of those changes–a radically altered view of God. But other issues have played a part as well.
After reviewing the rise of the modern age, the Italian literary critic Piero Camporesi commented, “We can now confirm that hell is finished, that the great theatre of torments is closed for an indeterminate period, and that after 2000 years of horrifying performances the play will not be repeated. The long triumphal season has come to an end.” Like a play with a good run, the curtain has finally come down, and for millions around the world, the biblical doctrine of hell is but a distant memory. For so many persons in this postmodern world, the biblical doctrine of hell has become simply unthinkable.
America’s most congested travel season is now underway as millions of people are headed home to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. These days, the holiday signals the beginning of the extended Christmas season, and even though an official Thanksgiving observance has long been a familiar part of our American culture, the substance of the observance is very much in question.
When Bill Moyers asked his youngest son why he had seen Star Wars at least a dozen times, he responded: “For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all your life.” As Moyers explained, “He was in a new world of myth.”
Theology will be front and center at this week’s meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Atlanta, Georgia. This is not a year for business as usual, for the society will be confronting charges brought against two of its members. Given the nature of the charges, one or both of these individuals may be removed from membership in the society. Why? The answer to that question points to one of the most significant controversies facing contemporary evangelicals.
You may not believe that sexual bondage, sadomasochism, and leather fetishes have much to do with theology, but that would just go to show how little you know about what’s really going on at the American Academy of Religion. Of course, it also shows how far the American Academy of Religion has distanced itself from historic Christianity, or from common sense for that matter.
Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson once declared religious belief to be “the greatest challenge to human sociobiology and its most exciting opportunity to progress as a truly original theoretical discipline.” In other words, Wilson admitted that belief in God is a fundamental challenge to the theory of evolution, since evolution cannot explain why this belief could be so widespread, so powerful, and so closely tied to human existence. Now, Dean Hamer, a geneticist at the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, claims to have found the genetic explanation for belief in God–a “God gene” that provides an evolutionary explanation for faith.
For almost thirty years, Dr. Timothy Johnson has been associated with ABC News, serving as medical editor and providing on-air analysis of medical issues for Good Morning America, World News Tonight, Nightline, and 20/20. Beyond this, he holds joint positions at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. As author, journalist, and on-air medical expert, Johnson has become one of America’s most famous physicians, and a familiar adviser in matters of health.
The disappearance of sin from our moral vocabulary is one of the hallmarks of the modern age–and of postmodern morality. These days, most people think themselves to be imperfect, leaving room for improvement–but they do not think of themselves as sinners in need of forgiveness and redemption. This point has been raised by many, but an early prophet of sin’s disappearance was not a theologian, but a psychiatrist.
In this strange postmodern age, heretics find themselves in a very strange predicament. Various skeptics, revisionists, liberal theorists, and atheists have been undermining the faith for more than a century. By this time, virtually every heresy has been expounded by numerous proponents. The creative heretic of the contemporary age has to come up with some new angle or bizarre new theory to promote.
G. K. Chesterton once described the Victorian loss of faith as “a great silent collapse, an enormous unspoken disappointment.” In our own times, the collapse is often anything but silent or unspoken. Indeed, one of the most noteworthy developments of our age is the rise of the theologian or church leader who, once orthodox, now declares before the world that he has outgrown biblical Christianity.
The 20th century witnessed an increasingly energetic revolt against doctrine. A denial of specific formulations of classical Christian doctrine has been evident in some quarters, while others have rejected the very notion of doctrine itself.
The concept of God that prevails in our modern [or postmodern] popular religion bears little resemblance to the God of the Bible. As A. W. Pink famously once observed, “The conception of Deity which prevails most widely today, even among those who profess to give heed to the Scriptures, is a miserable caricature, a blasphemous travesty of the Truth. The God of the twentieth century is a helpless, effeminate being who commands the respect of no really thoughtful man. The God of the popular mind is a creation of a maudlin sentimentality. The God of the present-day pulpit is an object of pity rather than of awe-inspiring reverence.”
Our concept of God inevitably determines our philosophical worldview. The question of the existence or non-existence of God is primary, but so is the question of God’s power and character. Theologians speak of the “attributes” of God, meaning the particulars about God’s revealed nature. If we start with the right concept of God, the worldview will be properly aligned. If the concept of God is sub-biblical, the worldview will be sub-biblical as well.
The Christian worldview has suffered significant atrophy in the modern age–and virtually all of this can be traced to a significant shift in the doctrine of God. The God worshipped by millions of modern persons–including some who identify as Christians–is a deity cut down to postmodern size. This God is more a spectator than a sovereign, and largely leaves his creatures to make their own way. This formless “God” may be popular–but He is not the God of the Bible.
The need for a Christian worldview reset underlines the necessity of knowing God–the one true God who has revealed Himself in the Bible. A recovery of this knowledge is the starting point for both theological reformation and worldview realignment. The fact that so many modern people believe in “just an ordinary God” indicates the true nature of our challenge. This “god” of popular American spirituality is nothing like the God of the Bible–not even close.
The foundation of the Christian worldview is the knowledge of the one true God. The fact of God’s existence sets this worldview apart from all others–and our knowledge of God is entirely dependent upon the gift of divine revelation. All Christians need a regular “reset” of our worldview perspective. The times demand that we address the pressing issues and controversies of the day with Christian truth. Eternity demands that we take every thought back to the reality of God’s existence and the revelation of His character and will.
In every generation, the church is commanded to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” That is no easy task, and it is complicated by the multiple attacks upon Christian truth that mark our contemporary age. Assaults upon the Christian faith are no longer directed only at isolated doctrines. The entire structure of Christian truth is now under attack by those who would subvert Christianity’s theological integrity.
In the age of world terror–and with the reality of conflict never far from sight–many secularists are convinced that religious truth claims are the root of the problem. Following this logic, peace and stability cannot be achieved until all truth claims are relativized and the potential for religious conflict is removed.
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