We are an affluent and comfortable people. We live in the midst of freedom as championed by those who established this nation and defined by successive generations, not only in terms of the originating vision of freedom, but now an ever-expanding understanding of liberty. We live in a time of prosperity; we live in a time of trouble. It all depends upon how you look at the world around us.
It is good for Christians to take some time to look at the trouble, for all around us are a darkening sky and gathering clouds. As we engage this culture and look at it honestly, we must sense that something has happened — and is even now happening — in our culture. These major shifts and changes will change everything we know about ministry in terms of the challenge before us and will draw out the reality of who the church is in the midst of a gathering conflict. Clouds are darkening.
We are no longer seeing the first signs of cultural trouble, but rather the indicators of advanced decay. The reality is that people now do not even know what they have lost, much less that they themselves are lost.
As a nation, we are living in the midst of an intense season of cultural, political, and moral conflict–that is no longer news. America has been through epic conflicts in the past, including a bloody civil war. Still, we must wonder if the worldview conflicts of our time may represent an even deeper conflict than those experienced in times past. We are living in a time of deep and undeniable trouble.
There is a sense, I think, in this culture that we are waiting for a signal for something to tell us which way we are going to go. Something is happening and about to happen. The landscape is changing, the skies are darkening–and this is something we know with a spiritual perception, a spiritual sense, a spiritual urgency. Something is happening that we as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ should see and understand. For we cannot say that we were not warned.
The prophet Joel declared: “I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls. (Joel 2:30-32 ESV).
And, from the book of Hebrews: “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken–that is, things that have been made–in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:25-29 ESV)
These passages describe a reality we might call darkness at noon. In these passages we confront a prophetic vision, a prophetic warning, and a haunting reality. Darkness at Noon–I borrow this title from Arthur Koestler. In 1941 he saw the Soviet Union in all of its horror and the Third Reich in all of its hateful fury, and he described this horrifying reality as darkness at noon. Our times are not the same as Koestler’s, nor are the particular challenges we face. Our central concerns and fears are not represented by totalitarian governments or foreign regimes that threaten world domination, but we must see a real and present threat on our horizon. We can hear the prophet Joel–we can hear him speak of the sun turned to darkness and the moon turned to blood on the great and awful day of the Lord. This is apocalyptic imagery–we know that. It is speaking of a judgment, of a day of the Lord that was near on Joel’s horizon, and yet distant on the horizon of the eschaton, when the Lord Himself shall come to judge the living and the dead.
The imagery of judgment in this passage — of the sun turned to darkness and the moon to blood — is a foreboding image that gives us in a graphic picture a sign of the times, and around us we can see a darkening sky that threatens a darkening sun. We can see darkness at noon on the dawn.
A central dimension of this reality is the dawning of a post-Christian age. History has been altered in so many ways in the twists and turns of human experience. But who could have expected that in our times we would see those nations that once were the cradle of Christianity become so secularized that they can only be described as post-Christian in composition, in culture, in theme, and in worldview and understanding? The post-Christian sense, the post-Christian theme, the post-Christian mentality of these cultures is such that we can look to the nations of Western Europe and see what a post-Christian culture begins to look like. We hear the language, we listen to the discourse, we see the laws, we hear the judgments, we watch the culture at work, and we realize that this is what a nation, a people, an ethnos, a generation that once knew Christianity but knows it no more, looks like and sounds like. This is how they live. And it is not just Europe.
Even as demographers, pollsters, and statisticians tell us how many Americans believe in God, and how many claim belief in the Lord Jesus Christ, still we can see the beginnings of a post-Christian mentality here in America. Look at the cultural elites–the political elites, the legal elites, the judicial, academic, and entertainment elites–look at them, and you will realize that they are largely post-Christian in their mentality.
The prophet Joel speaks of the “day of the Lord,” when the divine judgment would fall like a terrible and swift sword. In Joel 1, the prophet says, “The word of the Lord that came to Joel, the son of Pethuel: Hear this, you elders; give ear, all inhabitants of the Land! Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children to another generation. What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.” (Joel 1:1-4 ESV)
This text speaks most directly of a crop, but it also points to a culture. Our culture has been savaged by locusts. What the cutting locust leaves, the swarming locusts eat. What the swarming locusts leave, the hopping locust takes. What the hopping locust leaves, the destroying locust destroys.
We can give evidence of this in individual words, each representing an individual loss. Consider what has happened to truth, to beauty, to dignity, love, and marriage. Consider what is even now happening in our midst. We are witnessing the dawn of a post-Christian age in our own times, in our own nation, in our own world, and among our own people. We can see the ravages that will come as the sacred things are profaned and trampled under foot. We see the evidence of this decadence and downfall in the culture–in art and music and literature. We are a people whose cultural and moral aspirations are indicated by the Neilson ratings and by the lowest common denominator of the entertainment industry. We are a nation, a people, entertained by a show called “Desperate Housewives,” by reality TV that celebrates the lowest and most base human instincts, and by entertainment that panders and is profane.
Look at what has happened to marriage and family. The idea of romantic love is now commonly reduced to lust. We have largely destroyed the purity of marriage. This central institution of civilization has been decried, denigrated, and even discarded. Marriage is under attack by those who would transform it into something it cannot be and never was, and truthfully never will be.
We see all of this and we wonder how it could have happened. And yet Scripture has told us that sinners love darkness rather than the light. Let me put it this way–in a truly post-Christian age, the saddest loss of all is a loss of the memory of what was lost. The saddest aspect of our dawning post-Christian age is that there is no longer even a memory of what was discarded and what was denied and rejected. Having lived for so long on the memory of Christian truth, without the substance of Christian truth, the culture now grows hostile to that truth.
Even the memory of what once was is now being lost in our generation. We are living in an age in which all constraints and restraints are to be thrown off–all in the name of the liberation that does not liberate, but enslaves. We are seeing the coming of a repressive post-Christian age that is packaged as an age of unprecedented liberty. We must name it for what it is — and be aware of what a challenge this represents for the believing church.