What just happened?
A man who allegedly opened fire at a Kroger grocery store in October, killing two people, is now facing hate crime charges. A grand jury returned hate crime charges against Gregory Bush, 51, who allegedly shot and killed a black man and woman at the store in Jeffersontown, Kentucky.
Police said that just prior to the killings at the Kroger store, Bush was spotted on security footage outside the First Baptist Church, a historically black church in Jeffersontown. After he was unable to get inside, he allegedly went to the Kroger store and opened fire, ABC News says. According to authorities, Bush walked by dozens of white shoppers before shooting Maurice Stallard, a 69-year-old retiree, in the back of the head. He then walked outside and did the same to Vickie Lee Jones, a 67-year-old black woman.
Also, on Tuesday the FBI released its Hate Crime Statistics report. The report showed a nearly 23 percent increase in religion-based hate crimes and a 16 percent rise in hate crimes against African Americans.
What constitutes a hate crime?
A hate crime is a traditional criminal offense, such as murder, arson, or vandalism, with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” As the FBI notes, hate itself is not a crime, and not all actions that include elements of hate (such as hateful speech) are criminal offenses.
When did the concept of hate crimes originate in the United States?
According to the National Institute for Justice, the term “hate crime” was coined in the 1980s by journalists and policy advocates who were attempting to describe a series of incidents directed at Jews, Asians, and African Americans.
Although the term wasn’t coined until the 1980s, federal involvement in hate crimes began during World War I and expanded after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After the killing of three civil-rights workers in 1964 (see: 9 Things You Should Know About the ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders), the federal government began taking the position that protection of civil rights is a federal function, and not just a local one.
What are the hate crimes laws in the United States?
There are five primary federal laws related to hate crimes:
18 U.S. Code § 241 – Conspiracy against rights – This statute makes it unlawful for two or more persons to conspire to injure, threaten, or intimidate a person in any state, territory, or district in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him or her by the Constitution or the laws of the U.S.
18 U.S.C. § 245 – Violent Interference with Federally Protected Rights – This statute makes it a crime to use, or threaten to use force to willfully interfere with any person because of race, color, religion, or national origin and because the person is participating in a federally protected activity, such as public education, employment, jury service, travel, or the enjoyment of public accommodations, or helping another person to do so.
18 U.S. Code § 247 – Damage to religious property; obstruction of persons in the free exercise of religious beliefs – This statute prohibits the intentional defacement, damage, or destruction of religious real property because of the religious nature of the property, where the crime affects interstate or foreign commerce, or because of the race, color, or ethnic characteristics of the people associated with the property. The statute also criminalizes the intentional obstruction by force, or threat of force of any person in the enjoyment of that person’s free exercise of religious beliefs.
42 U.S.C. § 3631 – Criminal Interference with Right to Fair Housing – This statute makes it a crime to use, or threaten to use force to interfere with housing rights because of the victim’s race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin.
18 U.S. Code § 249 – The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 – The Shepard Byrd Act makes it a federal crime to willfully cause bodily injury, or attempt to do so using a dangerous weapon, because of the victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin. The Act also extends federal hate crime prohibitions to crimes committed because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person, only where the crime affected interstate or foreign commerce or occurred within federal special maritime and territorial jurisdiction. The Shepard-Byrd Act is the first statute allowing federal criminal prosecution of hate crimes motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.
Additionally, all but five states (Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Wyoming) have hate crimes laws.
How many hate crimes are committed each year?
Hate crimes data is reported by various law enforcement agencies and collected by the Uniform Crime Reporting Program. For each offense type reported, law enforcement must indicate at least one bias motivation. A single-bias incident is defined as an incident in which one or more offense types are motivated by the same bias. A multiple-bias incident is defined as an incident in which one or more offense types are motivated by two or more biases.
In 2017, 7,175 hate crime incidents involving 8,437 offenses were reported. There were 7,106 single-bias incidents that involved 8,126 offenses, 8,493 victims, and 6,307 known offenders. The 69 multiple-bias incidents reported in 2017 involved 311 offenses, 335 victims, and 63 known offenders.
How many hate crimes were motivated by race/ethnicity/ancestry bias?
In 2017, law enforcement agencies reported that 4,832 single-bias hate crime offenses were motivated by race/ethnicity/ancestry. Of these offenses:
- 48.8 percent were motivated by anti-Black or African American bias.
- 17.5 percent stemmed from anti-white bias.
- 10.9 percent were classified as anti-Hispanic or Latino bias.
- 5.8 percent were motivated by anti-American Indian or Alaska Native bias.
- 4.4 percent were a result of bias against groups of individuals consisting of more than one race (anti-multiple races, group).
- 3.1 percent resulted from anti-Asian bias.
- 2.6 percent were classified as anti-Arab bias.
- 0.4 percent (17 offenses) were motivated by bias of anti-Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.
- 6.5 percent were the result of an anti-other race/ethnicity/ancestry bias.
How many hate crimes were motivated by sexual orientation/gender/gender identity/disability bias?
In 2017, law enforcement agencies reported 1,303 hate crime offenses based on sexual-orientation bias, 131 offenses were a result of gender-identity bias, 53 offenses were a result of gender bias, 93 offenses were classified as anti-mental disability bias, and 35 offenses were reported as anti-physical disability.
How many hate crimes were motivated by religious bias?
Hate crimes motivated by religious bias accounted for 1,679 offenses reported by law enforcement. A breakdown of the bias motivation of religious-biased offenses showed:
- 58.1 percent were anti-Jewish.
- 18.7 percent were anti-Islamic (Muslim).
- 4.5 percent were anti-Catholic.
- 3.2 percent were anti-multiple religions, group.
- 2.4 percent were anti-Protestant.
- 1.8 percent were anti-other Christian.
- 1.4 percent were anti-Sikh.
- 1.4 percent were anti-Eastern Orthodox (Russian, Greek, Other).
- 0.9 percent (15 offenses) were anti-Mormon
- 0.9 percent (15 offenses) were anti-Hindu.
- 0.8 percent (13 offenses) were anti-Jehovah’s Witness.
- 0.5 percent (9 offenses) was anti-Buddhist.
- 0.5 percent (8 offenses) were anti-Atheism/Agnosticism/etc.
- 4.9 percent were anti-other (unspecified) religion.
You’re married, and your husband isn’t a spiritual leader—he doesn’t initiate prayer or devotions, doesn’t take the lead in bringing the family to church, doesn’t readily show concern for your spiritual wellbeing or the children’s. He doesn’t care about faith and shows no inclination to do so. As a pastor, I’ve counseled many wives in this difficult situation.
These Christian women are struggling; maybe you are thinking: That’s exactly my situation now. I’ve also counseled single women who told me, That’s never going to happen to me. No matter who you are, there is hope in Christ.Don’t Settle
How do you get trapped in this kind of marriage?
Picture this: Peter and Sarah meet at work. He’s hard-working, funny, well-respected in the office, and handsome. A few months ago, he took notice of Sarah. They started talking. Casual chitchat turned into long conversations. Lunches. Emailing. Texting. His fondness for her was clear, and he was direct, not vague like the other guys she dated.
Here’s the kicker—she’s a Christian, he’s not. Sarah grew up in a solid Christian family and gospel-preaching church and was converted in high school. The fruit of the Spirit was evident in her.
Peter never went to church and was agnostic at best. Anytime she brought up the subject of religion, he batted it down: “That’s good for you, but I’m not interested.”
The longer they were together, the more emotionally attached she became, and the harder it was to let go. When her parents and closest friends expressed concern, she defended him. Though her conscience often asked, “Is this right? Should I be doing this?” it was easier to ignore her conscience and the critics than to give Peter up.
Again, you might hear this story and think, That won’t ever be me. But be careful. There are dozens of reasons why smart women settle. Let’s look briefly at four.Temptations to Settle 1. Love Is Blind
Because the relationship is fun, the guy is courteous and kind, and he pays attention like no one else will, a woman gets emotionally attached and lets her priorities slide.2. Idolatry of Marriage
A good and godly desire to be married takes on a weight and importance that the institution of marriage doesn’t ever deserve. It becomes an idol: I won’t be satisfied until I find a spouse, or If God loves me, he’ll give me a husband.3. Fear
Worry can contribute to making a bad choice—I’m afraid I’ll be lonely for the rest of my life, or I’m afraid I won’t ever have children. Some women live under the tyranny of anxiety. Fear of others, fear of failure, fear of discomfort or difficulty, fear of not getting what you want. It’s all there. Because the fears of this world own your heart, they also own your life.4. Looking for the Wrong Things
Rather than godliness, the allure of physical and sexual attraction becomes what matters most.
Now, slow down and consider: Do any of these describe you? Even just a little bit? If so, you need to deal with the poor motivations that will drive you toward a bad situation.
What’s more, if you’re not seeking Christ, not connected to a gospel-preaching church, not honest about your heart’s desires, or not willing to submit to Christ in all things, it will be easy—maybe even likely—for you to make a bad choice.
Acknowledging your weakness will enable you to ask for the Spirit’s help and seek godly counsel in your relationships.I Settled—What Now?
Maybe you married a spiritually immature man, and you feel stuck—and some days, hopeless. Take heart! God hasn’t left you alone. How do I know that? If he sent Christ to Calvary for you, he hasn’t forgotten you. Hold on tightly to this fact, because you’ll need it on the hardest days.
Your husband’s spiritual leadership will change in proportion to him growing in faith. Maturity comes by knowing Christ, not by treating Christianity as a Sunday-only religion or something you pull out of the drawer when things are hard. Your goal as a wife, whatever your husband’s spiritual condition, is to encourage his growth in genuine faith.Help Your Husband Grow
To help your husband grow, you need to speak up about your faith. Silence most of the time isn’t a good option. There are days when you should quietly let the witness of your entire life testify to who Christ is and what he’s done for you (1 Pet. 3:1–5). But there are also days when your words can provoke your husband to think seriously about his relationship with Christ. When you speak, the Spirit can use you as an instrument of grace in his life.
You need a gospel-preaching church. It will be your lifeline. Teaching, prayers, songs, accountability, community—all are vital for your survival.
But you also need partners to help your husband to grow as a leader. You can’t do this on your own. A gospel-rich community will have members who pursue one another for the sake of everyone’s spiritual good. When your husband comes on Sundays, other men will initiate with him. He won’t stay spiritually dormant, because it’s impossible to stay anonymous in that church. For this reason, find a church that won’t leave you alone but will engage your family and care well for your souls.
Finally, if your husband won’t take a spiritual interest in you or the children, you need to take initiative for the sake of your family. If he won’t sing, pray, or open up the Bible with the children, you should, being mindful of an appropriate time and not doing it in a way that’s an affront to him. The same goes for church attendance. Don’t forsake worship if he’s not showing a consistent interest in it. Take the kids to church for their own souls’ sake.
A husband who doesn’t lead is neglecting his responsibility before God, and only the Spirit can convict him of this sin. Go to the Lord. Ask for his mercy. God is gracious and powerful. He can assist you in your time of need.
“Any way you look at it, black people have been enslaved in this country longer than we’ve been free. That’s one thing we have to understand. Then you have to understand the nature of slavery. The nature of slavery wasn’t just about physical bondage; it was about psychological warfare. And that psychological warfare does not go away in a generation or two.” — Justin Giboney
Date: April 4, 2018
Event: MLK50 Conference, Memphis, Tennessee
- From Bloodlines to Bloodline (John Piper)
- Pitfalls White Churches Must Avoid When Pursuing Racial Unity (Christine Hoover)
- Should We Abandon the Language of Racial Reconciliation? (Duke Kwon)
Find more audio and video from the MLK50 conference on the conference media page.
One of the most irreconcilable clashes in modern society is the conflict between Christianity and LGBT rights. At best, the two sides misunderstand each other. At worst, each fears that the ascendency of one means the zero-sum defeat of the other.
But in A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus by David Bennett, readers learn of an agnostic gay activist whose experiences left him searching for deeper meaning in life. He found it in the transformative love of Jesus Christ.
At the beginning, Bennett declares his purpose in writing this memoir was “simply to share how God’s love has impacted my life.” Nevertheless, while these pages narrate a compelling testimony with incredibly insightful truths related to discipleship, friendship, and what true human flourishing looks like, they also contain some erroneous teaching about sexuality and anthropology.Costly Narrative
A review like this one can’t possibly do justice to the personal details of Bennett’s work. You’ll have to read it for yourself to get the full treatment. Nevertheless, let me offer a few highlights.
The book is divided into five sections: The Search, The Encounter, Wrestling with God: Sense and Sexuality, The New Identity, and Reflections on Homosexuality and Christian Faithfulness. War of Loves contains substantive theological reflection on Scripture, community, celibacy, and friendship.
Bennett recounts his life as a child and adolescent aware of attraction for the same sex. As he tells it, he knew this attraction put him at odds with Christianity, and in turn he saw Christianity—and the Bible, “a dangerous book”—as the chief obstacle not only to self-fulfillment, but also to human rights.
But while admitting hatred for Christianity, the agnostic Bennett acknowledged that the intellectual trends of his early adulthood still left him feeling empty. From agnosticism to Wicca to Buddhism to existentialism to romantic relationships with other men, life’s purpose eluded him.
Through friendship with a Christian, Bennett came to faith. He recounts an almost-mystical experience with God’s grace at a pub, where he internally heard God ask, Do you want me? Bennett answered that he did, noting that he was exhausted by the “loveless world” around him. On recognizing that the Holy Spirit was working in him, he recounts his moment of conversion: “As I surrendered myself, something like hot fire coursed through my body. I knew I had become a Christian, and I began to weep.”
Bennett’s conversion wasn’t an immediate course-correction; he recounts his attempt to justify his desire for gay romance with his Christianity. Conversion didn’t make him a fan of the Bible, Bennett admits. The raw honesty of his awkward introduction to Christianity, while coming to grips with the cost of following Jesus, is a refreshing reminder of how jarring it can be to abandon the things that seems to make life worth living.
The remainder of the book is Bennett’s internal grappling with how to navigate life between two communities. The LGBT community had welcomed him and nurtured his desire for visibility, but he felt increasingly alienated because of his devotion to celibacy. The church, which he originally opposed, was now becoming an integral part of his life.
One of the most profound parts of the story is Bennett meeting old love interests and, at the prospect of indulging same-sex desire, concluding that acting on his same-sex attraction would be a betrayal of the love God had shown him. For a culture awash in an ethic that says every desire that comes from within should be acted on, Bennett’s story is one of costly discipleship.
Reflecting on what it means to forego gay relationships and sex, Bennett writes: “The very legitimate fear of giving our everything to Christ is the greatest enemy to discipleship.” Bennett is at his best when he writes about the cost of sacrifice and the promise of ultimate redemption.
Were more space available, I’d recount many more of the episodes vividly demonstrating the obedience that same-sex attracted Christians demonstrate in their celibacy.Costly Obedience
I want to state the value of the War of Loves up front. David Bennett is a friendly acquaintance, and I appreciate his testimony and faithfulness to Jesus. He’s a brother in Christ. What’s more, Bennett has gone public with a costly narrative. It’s no easy task, in our polarized age, to tell of a gay activist’s conversion to Christianity—and become a Christian apologist at that. I’m grateful that Bennett’s story exists for others in similar situations. The church needs a multitude of stories showing that discipleship and biblical authority aren’t a self-imposed prison. Bennett’s narrative is a stunning foray into the freedom one can experience when captivated by God’s love in Christ.
The church needs a multitude of stories showing that discipleship and biblical authority aren’t a self-imposed prison.
Second, Bennett’s intellectual honesty shines through. At his conversion, he wanted to find a way to believe that gay relationships were reconcilable with Christianity. But he found the hermeneutical gymnastics of progressive Christianity unsatisfying. We should sincerely applaud Bennett for rejecting revisionist interpretations that supplant orthodoxy in the interest of self-justification.
Third, Bennett’s prose is a joy to read. He offers incredibly beautiful explanations on how fulfilled one can be when fully surrendered to Christ.
At the same time, there are significant problems with some of Bennett’s arguments, the kind that make it difficult to endorse the book without major qualifiers. Left unchallenged, my concern is that an otherwise helpful book could induce further confusion when the church needs clarity.
First, like the Revoice controversy that swelled last summer, Bennett attempts to retain some redeemable aspect to his experience with same-sex attraction. You might hear this called “celibate gay Christianity” or Side B Christianity. While I want to be respectful of Christian brothers and sisters who hold orthodox beliefs about the immorality of same-sex sex acts, it’s wholly problematic to hold on to any iota of an identity that Scripture considers sin. The notion of “identity” used in these debates is itself problematic language, since it is so subjectively defined.
We don’t attach other modifiers to our Christian faith when the modifier in question originates with sin or natures that are the product of the fall. We should no more endorse “gay Christianity” or “gay identity” than we should alcoholic Christianity, racist Christianity, or slanderous Christianity. We ought not modify our Christian walk with attributes born of fallen desires. When an individual comes to Christ—while their sin nature still awaits full redemption—they are dead to sin’s authority.
A Christian’s slavery to sin belongs to their past, not their present. The New Testament calls us to a Spirit-filled present and future. Throughout Bennett’s book, references to “identity” abound. To be fair, Bennett is right to conclude that his ultimate identity is found in Christ, but that doesn’t prohibit him from appealing to his sexual identity as the next most important thing about him. Elevating sexual orientation to the degree he does seems to make “identity” into an ethnos, which is why he expresses so much solidarity with the gay-rights movement.
Second, Bennett equivocates too heavily when it comes to Side A or Side B debates on the proper Christian response to homosexuality. These aren’t two sides of the same coin. Side A proponents—those who see no incompatibility with Christianity and same-sex sexual relations—have adopted a false teaching (and some a lifestyle) that is incompatible with Christianity. They’ve capitulated to the spirit of the age and have abandoned the authority of Scripture. Bennett seems to downplay these differences and characterize this disagreement as an in-house debate. Respectfully, it’s not. The New Testament is clear that unrepentant same-sex sexual behavior excludes persons from God’s kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9–11). Bennett downplays the seriousness of this division, accusing those willing to disfellowship over the matter as being factional or schismatic.
Third, Bennett is too sanguine about the broader gay-rights movement and gay subculture. This leads him to problematically claim there are elements of gay relationships that Christians should endorse. For example, he writes: “Gay unions and relationships, as many of mine did, can contain deep commitment, friendship, and sacrificial love that, when separated from sexual expression, I am sure, are important to God and are to be honored in these ways as forms of friendship.”
I agree that “deep commitment, friendship, and sacrificial love” are Christian virtues, but that doesn’t mean homosexuality is in some sense a virtue that enhances their legitimacy. Gay desire and behavior undermine “deep commitment, friendship, and sacrificial love” by placing them on a sexual spectrum. To treat these virtues as if they were aspects of homosexual orientation is to compromise them. Acknowledging the common grace that can come from any friendship needn’t require valorizing gay relationships or the gay-rights movement.Conclusion
A War of Loves is at its best when recounting the gripping narrative of conversion and transformation. It contains a beautiful testimony of someone honestly wrestling with God’s love, Scripture’s authority, and Christ’s lordship.
For this, I am so deeply thankful for David Bennett and his story.
Nevertheless, the book falters at points by giving the reader an unbiblical view of human personhood—one defined by so-called gay Christianity. It also fails to see how profound the error of Side A Christianity is. To miss this is to soft-pedal a destructive error into which too many Christians today are falling.
In the end, I’m grateful for the testimony of this book. I just wish its teaching on other matters was more appropriately nuanced.
The western genre does not let audiences forget about death. Whether by starvation or heatstroke, gun bullets or arrows, the harsh environs of the lawless frontier present constant reminders of mortality. This has been fodder for movie drama as long as cinema has existed, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (watch on Netflix) is just the latest example.
Written and directed by Oscar-winning filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen—the latest “prestige” auteurs to bring their talents to streaming sites—Scruggs is a six-part anthology about life and death (mostly death) in the Wild West. Each vignette is a standalone story with a different cast and plot, connected only by their setting (the American frontier in the late 19th century) and themes, which mostly concern the fragility of life and the universality of death.
As Netflix TV shows go, Scruggs is about as far from The Great British Baking Show as you can get. It’s a feel-bad series with a nihilistic bent (common in the narratives of the Coen brothers). But in a world where the reality of death is increasingly avoided or hidden from view, it’s also oddly sobering. Remembering death matters. Memento mori. But how we remember it matters too—and on this point Scruggs is a bit problematic.Making Light of Death
The Coen brothers don’t shy away from death. Their films are rife with it: whether death by wood chipper (Fargo), captive bolt pistol (No Country For Old Men), hanging (True Grit), or heart attack (The Big Lebowski). Death in their films is indiscriminate. Sometimes the bad guys die, but often the good guys do too. A character’s guilt or “innocence” has no bearing on his fate; death and suffering come to everyone. All have sinned (Rom. 3:23) and the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). In their 2009 film, A Serious Man, the Coen brothers invoke the Book of Job to explore these themes. One’s uprightness does not exempt him from the consequences (death) of the fall.
This is the big theme in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, where at least one (but often many) characters die in each of the six stories. The unpredictability of death—who it comes to and when—combined with its certainty and ugliness in the Coen brothers’ world, creates thick tension. From the first chapter (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) and its bloody duels and saloon showdowns, to the last (“The Mortal Remains”) and its stagecoach journey toward the afterlife, death is ever-present. Sometimes the deaths feel just (Chapter 2: “Near Algodones”) ,and sometimes they are decidedly unjust (Chapter 3: “Meal Ticket”). Sometimes they are just tragically random (Chapter 5: “The Gal Who Got Rattled”).
Some chapters feel like lighthearted comedy. Others have a gothic solemnity or an Edgar Allen Poe-esque morbidity. But all six treat death’s givenness with a sense of dark humor and detachment. This has long been a Coen brothers’ trademark, but here it feels especially disturbing. Should we really find humor in death? How can we? For the Coen brothers, it often seems like finding comedy in death and suffering is a way to cope with a world that feels meaningless and a God who is detached (if he exists at all). How do we make sense of the randomness and cruelty of death in this world? For the Coen brothers, we don’t. We simply observe it and let it frighten or humor us, depending on our mood.Is Death Meaningless?
The cruelty of the American West—its unforgiving landscapes and amoral savagery—have long been fodder for movies making sense of humanity. Some westerns use the backdrop to essentially liken humans to animals. In a Darwinian world it is survival of the fittest, whether hawks and deer or cowboys and Indians. Westerns like The Revenant underscore this “kill or be killed” approach, rendering death’s meaning as simply the natural consequence of failing to survive.
Other westerns use the viciousness of the West to explore the complexity of morality. Though in former eras the hues of good and evil were more clear (think Shane), recent westerns have foregrounded shades of gray. From Unforgiven (1992) to The Proposition (2005) and this year’s excellent Hostiles, these westerns complicate the categories of good and evil, heroes and villains. In so doing they remind us, appropriately, of universal depravity and the necessity of redemption. None is righteous, no, not one (Rom. 3:11).
Complicating good and evil is one thing. Dispensing with the categories altogether is another.
But complicating good and evil is one thing. Dispensing with the categories altogether is another. Scruggs is barely interested in morality, perhaps because its view of death—utterly arbitrary, universal, and final—renders the actions of life meaningless. The final chapter makes fun of an uppity Christian lady’s insistence on two kinds of people (“upright and sinful”) and a moral system with consequences. Other chapters find laughs in popular notions of heaven and hell. If we all die, and there is nothing we can do about it, and if there is nothing beyond, what is the meaning of death? It has none. It is merely the “stop” to bookend a story’s “start,” an endless cycle of ephemeral stories with different characters but the same general plot: grow up, work, search for love, search for purpose, and die. The structure of Scruggs, as stories in a literal book with pages turning between chapters, underscores this view.Meaning of Death
But death is not meaningless. There are ways we can, and should, remember death in meaningful ways. Recent films like the Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion (2017) and Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri dwell on death in meaningful ways. Many films viscerally capture the unnatural sting of death, its trauma and its injustice.
Death is most meaningful when we see it in light of Christ. His death and resurrection redefine death, removing its sting, absorbing its unbearable trauma, imbuing it with hope.
Death is most meaningful when we see it in light of Christ.
This is not to say death is a happy thing. As Matt McCullough’s writes in his new book, Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope (Crossway/TGC, 2018):
If death is not a problem, Jesus won’t be much of a solution. The more deeply we feel death’s sting, the more consciously we will feel the gospel’s healing power. The more carefully we number our days, the more joyfully we’ll hear that death’s days are numbered too.
The Coen brothers are not wrong to dwell on death and its unavoidable universality. They are not wrong when they point out the humble, fragile realities of human life. But they are wrong to stop there, refusing the hope and meaning Christ offers us in our death-bound plight.
The story of this world, as the Coen brothers so eloquently articulate, may indeed be one of ever-present death, blood, and savagery. But there is another story, at times just as bloody and savage, that Scripture describes—for those who have ears to hear. McCullough puts it well:
If death tells us we’re not too important to die, the gospel tells us we’re so important that Christ died for us. And not because death’s message about us is wrong. It isn’t. On our own, we are dispensable. But joined to Christ, through our union with him, we are righteous, we are children of God, and God will not let us die any more than he left Jesus in the grave.
My dear dad was the first person, within the range of my consciousness, who showed me the beauty of Jesus. He showed me the Lord’s beauty countless times along the way.
But first, let me say how grateful I am to my friends at TGC for asking the question in terms of our Lord’s beauty. Beauty, with its attendant concepts, is a consistent theme running through the Bible. For example:
- Gaze upon the beauty of the LORD (Ps. 27:4).
- How lovely is your dwelling place (Ps. 84:1).
- Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us (Ps. 90:17).
- Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary (Ps. 96:6).
- He adorns the humble with salvation (Ps. 149:4).
- She will bestow on you a beautiful crown (Prov. 4:9).
- Your eyes shall behold the King in his beauty (Isa. 33:17).
- You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD (Isa. 62:3).
- She has done a beautiful thing to me (Matt. 26:10).
- . . . whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely . . . (Phil. 4:8).
- . . . prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (Rev. 21:2).
The beauty of the Lord is why, as the gospel gains traction within us, our categories include more than right versus wrong and true versus false. As vital as those considerations are, the gospel expands the range of our concerns to include beautiful versus ugly. Truth is more than valid; it also opens our eyes to the loveliness of everything that is of God.
This awareness should matter to us profoundly, because it is easy to be right and ugly at the same time. The Pharisees were simultaneously right and ugly. Sometimes we are simultaneously right and ugly. But to quote Francis Schaeffer, “Biblical orthodoxy without compassion is surely the ugliest thing in the world.”
It is easy to be right and ugly at the same time.
Mere doctrinal correctness can be harsh and coercive, but beauty turns heads. Beauty melts hearts. Beauty works with gently irresistible power. And my dad had a spiritual radiance upon him to a remarkable degree.
How then did my dad show me the beauty of Jesus? Here are three ways.1. Restraint
In his many years serving the Lord as a pastor, my dad encountered some people who mistreated him. For example, one time some people in his church wrote a letter to the entire membership accusing him of being a communist. My dad, a conservative Republican, a communist? It was crazy! But by God’s grace—I can only imagine the journey his heart had to take to get here—my dad not only didn’t retaliate; he didn’t even answer that foolishness. He restrained himself, putting his trust in the Lord, and he kept preaching the gospel and loving the people.
Eventually, he came through that refining fire more loving and more cheerful and more convincing as a pastor than ever before. His humble self-discipline graced him with an attractive moral authority in the eyes of the congregation. It accelerated his ministry toward unprecedented fruitfulness for the rest of his years at that church. In our day of Twitter rage, I admire my dad’s restraint as the beauty of Jesus, who “opened not his mouth” (Isa. 53:7).2. Joy
My dad did not live a charmed life. He felt all the buffetings of real life in a broken world. But he was the happiest man I’ve ever known. And it lasted. He didn’t end up a burned-out, disillusioned, cynical old pastor who couldn’t wait for retirement. Instead, he sweetened as the years went by.
My dad did not live a charmed life. But he was the happiest man I’ve ever known.
What helped him along the way? Dad deeply understood that joy is a moral category. Joy is not a mood spike or a personality type. Joy has, and deserves to have, a commanding moral authority over us—whatever might be happening at any given moment. The Bible says, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). That doesn’t mean we refuse to weep. It does mean we refuse to grow bitter.
What helped my dad was the phrase “in the Lord.” He understood that, in both our celebrations and also our losses, the Lord doesn’t change. We always have a reason to rejoice in who the Lord is. Indeed, the pain of this life only makes more precious to us who he is—his faithfulness, his care, his mercy, his reign, and on and on and on. Who the Lord is gives joy a sacred gravitas that deserves our humble obedience, moment by moment. Dad locked onto that insight. He bowed his heart before the Lord, and it made him a magnetic, attractive personality. Like Jesus.3. Surrender
As my dad aged and it began to show, he said to me, “I am getting old. But it’s okay. I accept it.” Dad had been a handsome young athlete. Then age began taking it all from him. But he didn’t resent it. He didn’t pretend to be younger than he really was. Way down deep, trusting in the Lord, he meekly accepted what was happening to him. And making peace with encroaching death graced my dad with an awe-inspiring dignity. An aged saint, glorifying and enjoying God, is a beautiful sight to behold.
I thank the Lord for the radiance he put upon my dad. And now it’s my turn, by his grace, for his glory. Y’all can hold me to it. Please pray for me. Thanks.
It’s not every day—or decade—that we hear someone teach through the short book of Haggai. When we do, it’s often employed in the midst of a church building campaign to stir people to give financially toward the effort.
Rt. Rev. Dr. Michael Stead is the Anglican Bishop of South Sydney and a part-time lecturer in Old Testament at Moore Theological College. In our conversation (and in the section on Haggai which he contributed to the ESV Expository Commentary: Daniel-Malachi), Stead walks through the three main emphases in the short prophetic book—building God’s house, glory, and foundation. According to Stead, teaching from Haggai “needs to be grounded in the book’s historical context and shaped by a biblical theology that demonstrates how the theological themes of the book find their fulfillment in Christ.”
You can listen to our conversation here.
Recommended Resources on Haggai:
- ESV Expository Commentary: Daniel-Malachi
- The Message of Ezra and Haggai (The Bible Speaks Today) by Robert Fyall
- Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi: A 12-Week Study
Sermons on Haggai:
The seed of the gospel is planted in new soil. A new church is established. And then, a few years in, a crisis occurs.
Significant conflict hits young churches with surprising consistency, even if the reasons are widely varied.
But not me, I thought. I’ve been thoughtful about our approach. I’m a better leader.
I was wrong.
The journey of planting a church has a way of forcing a painful reality check when the vague ecclesiology many planters carry into their new churches is confronted by the complications of real people, real sin, and real challenges that develop with growth.Ecclesiology Matters
In the eagerness to see a church planted, many leaders run the risk of appointing elders too quickly. It can be tempting to compromise on certain doctrines in order to have an eldership and, therefore, a healthy church. One such doctrine is ecclesiology. I’ve seen many leaders appoint elders without seeking unity on this issue.
It can be tempting to compromise on certain doctrines in order to have an eldership and, therefore, a healthy church. One such doctrine is ecclesiology.
Perhaps we think unity on ecclesiology is secondary to other “more important” doctrinal matters. But this could not be further from the truth.Change Is Inevitable
To varying degrees, church plants will go through stages of change, and elders need to be prepared for their roles to shift as this happens. Sometimes, elders need to make weighty calls in light of these changes. Difficult decisions are the lay of the land in church planting. And you can’t simply write a detailed guide as to how you’ll deal with these changes in your prospectus. But a robust ecclesiology can help.
About four years into planting our church, fissures appeared in the relationships between key leaders. Those fissures had roots in philosophical divides that grew over time and turned into personal hurt. Division developed, and eventually true crisis. By God’s grace, the church was preserved and is now more healthy and unified than ever before. Still, it was painful and unsettling.
But teaching on the nature of the church is about more than just conflict avoidance. It’s about being faithful to the Bible.Move Slowly
Church plants of the more Reformed persuasion typically have strong theological convictions, including a commitment to a plurality of elders who lead, guide, and care for the church. From this good desire for plurality, many planters appoint elders quickly. This can mean appointing men with little experience in leadership or a small sample size of life and ministry in the local church. This is exactly what Paul cautions young Timothy against doing in Ephesus. One of my mentors pointed out that some of Paul’s list may even show us a correction of mistakes he made along the way in planting churches.
I know few church planters who look back with regret for moving too slowly.
So, don’t be hasty in the laying on of hands (1 Tim. 5:22). I know few church planters who look back with regret for moving too slowly.Develop and Train
Early on, I also focused heavily on doctrine in our training, at the expense of other aspects of eldership. It is true that “able to teach” is one of the qualifications for elders, but it is only one (1 Tim. 3:2). What undergirds all the qualifications is character. Character will prevail where giftedness is lacking.
Where I once looked for the sharpest theologian in the room, I now look for the man whose presence most encourages and lifts the spirits of those around him, pointing them to Jesus.
So we reshaped our training to focus primarily on developing and evaluating a man’s heart and character. Our development process works to assess and strengthen emotional intelligence. We observe a man’s life at home, at work, and in the church. Where I once looked for the sharpest theologian in the room, I now look for the man whose presence most encourages and lifts the spirits of those around him, pointing them to Jesus.Build Toward Philosophical Unity
While character is the key marker when it comes to qualifications for elders (1 Tim. 3; Titus 1), there’s a wide spectrum of perspectives on how elder teams are to function. A man may have the character qualifications listed in Scripture—and even have elder experience in another church—but still differ from the vision or ministry philosophy of the church you’re planting. And when those differences are present within an elder team, it can be paralyzing. If they turn into deep division, the church will experience the division as well.
Disagreement about whether a church has a “lead pastor” or what role that pastor has within the church and elder team can lead to a pastor thinking he is doing his job while others feel he is too controlling. As we were planting our church, there were times when people on our team could describe the same moment in opposite ways. A lack of unity on how the roles of various elders were differentiated contributed to that division.
As our church grew and the staff team grew with it, the role of the elders had to shift as well.
Disagreement about the roles of the elders and staff team, and how they relate, can lead to frustrating meetings and confusion. As our church grew and the staff team grew with it, the role of the elders had to shift as well. These shifts were welcomed by some and resisted strongly by others.
Disagreement on the core structures for care and mission in the church will lead to competing visions for the church, and can end in division. Our team developed sharp disagreement on the connection of elders to community group leaders, and who was responsible to directly care for the church’s members.
As I reflect on these difficulties, it’s important to recognize that we often couldn’t blame one person. The challenges we faced were the result of necessary changes in leading a maturing church.
And this is why deep humility and wisdom are needed. I’m not advocating for uniformity, but for unity. It is possible to have slightly different perspectives on ecclesiology and still have a healthy eldership. But know that division can quickly arise. Humble, prayerful dependence will no doubt be necessary in navigating such issues.Repent, Learn, Grow
Church planters will make mistakes. Other leaders will make mistakes. It’s difficult for a lot of planters to make the transition from the entrepreneurial sensibilities of getting something started to the pastoral sensibilities of leading a church. As conflict inevitably arrives, repent quickly and regularly, learn from mistakes, and grow in the application of the gospel in the church.
Planting a church is always more complicated than writing the vision prospectus.
I made my share of mistakes along the way and had to repent both privately and publicly. I had ecclesiological ideals that looked great on paper but fell short when tested by real-life ministry and conflict. I’m thankful for the wise mentors who helped me to press on, reminding me that the church is not built on perfect leaders, but on a perfect Savior.
Planting a church is always more complicated than writing the vision prospectus. Having a clear, written, and biblically rooted ecclesiology—on which all your elders agree from the beginning—can help a church better carry out its mission and navigate conflict as it arises.
The Bible’s account of the fall in the Garden of Eden raises a number of important questions. Chief among them usually goes something like this: Where does evil come from in a good world created by a good God?
We must admit that the Bible does not explicitly and definitively answer this question. But we must also acknowledge that the Bible does tell us many things that, taken together, can help us make a reasonable attempt at an answer.Where Did the Serpent Come From?
Genesis 3:1 is the first Bible’s first mention of a serpent. Genesis 1–2 gives no record of God creating any such animal. But several factors support the idea that God created serpents at the same time he made every other “beast of the field.” For one thing, Genesis 3:1 tells us the serpent was “more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made,” which implies that God made the serpent, just as he made the other beasts.
The serpent approached Eve without in any way catching her by surprise. If this was the first she had ever seen of a serpent, Eve would at least have been a little surprised by its presence. What is more, Isaiah 65:25 states that the new heavens and the new earth will contain serpents along with other animals, which seems to suggest they were all part of God’s original creation.
These things all support the conclusion that God created the serpent along with every other animal and that he pronounced it, and everything else, “very good” (Gen. 1:31).
What, then, do we do about the temptation account in Eden? How does a serpent, created good by God, intentionally tempt Adam and Eve and lead them into rebellion against God? Again, it’s important to point out that the Bible is not explicit here. But several key passages suggest the most likely answer is that Satan inhabited the serpent and used it as his instrument to deceive Adam and Eve.
Passages like Matthew 8:28–34 and Mark 5:6–13 indicate that demons can inhabit both people and animals. And Luke 22:3 shows us that Satan himself, at least on one occasion, “entered into” a man and used him as his instrument to betray Jesus and hand him over to be crucified. What’s more, Revelation 12:9 and John 8:44 offer proof that the serpent of the garden is none other than Satan himself.
John Calvin argues that Satan chose the serpent as his mouthpiece because he knew that he couldn’t appear to Adam and Eve and speak to them as himself. He needed a mouthpiece that wouldn’t raise their immediate suspicions, one with which they would have been familiar. Calvin then goes on to say that Satan chose the most suitable animal possible to carry out his plans. He chose the one animal in all of God’s creation that was most cunning or crafty (Gen. 3:1), the one that was the most shrewd or wise (Matt. 10:16).
He took the serpent’s natural gifts and perverted them for his own nefarious purposes.
This is one reason why I believe God created the serpent just as it is now. He created it to crawl upon its belly and to eat the dust of the earth. Although I know others will disagree with me and prefer to think of the serpent as being created upright and consigned to travel on its belly only through the judgment in Genesis 3:14, I think there are at least two factors that support my view.
First, Isaiah 65:25 indicates the serpent will crawl on its belly in the new heavens and the new earth and suggests this was its original, pre-fall condition, now being restored in the new heavens and the new earth.
Second, it seems odd that God would vent his anger upon the serpent in Genesis 3:14, and thenceforth relegate it to a different destiny for eternity, when the passage’s whole tenor indicates that God is chiefly aiming at Satan in his judgments. It’s Satan, not the serpent, who is chiefly to blame in this encounter with Adam and Eve; and it’s Satan, not the serpent, who is chiefly assailed in the judgments pronounced by God.
It’s enough for the serpent to be consigned to the condition it was in before the fall, but now, there’s also enmity between it and mankind until Jesus returns. No doubt this enmity is part of God’s plan to give humankind a constant reminder of our fall and of the dangers of Satan, our spiritual enemy.Where Did Satan Come From?
But if Satan is responsible for possessing the serpent and using it for his own evil purposes, then the question follows, where does Satan come from? The Bible seems to teach that Satan is a created being who turned against God and embraced evil.
Revelation 12:7–9 and Jude 6 are two important passages here. Both indicate that Satan is an angel who is responsible for leading a group of fellow angels in rejecting God’s authority. As a result, they were removed from heaven and “thrown down” to earth, where they have now given themselves to making war against the seed of the woman, God’s people (Rev. 12:17).
Hebrews 1:7 and 1:14 further suggest that all angels are created beings God designed to serve him and his people. And according to Genesis 1:1, God existed all by himself in the beginning when he began his creative work. God alone is eternal. God alone is self-existent and the ground of all being (Exod. 3:14; Acts 17:28). Everything else proceeds from him and is made by him. Satan himself was part of God’s good creation.Where Did Evil Come From?
But if Satan—and every other creature—was created by God to be good, where did evil come from? Again, the Bible doesn’t explicitly answer this question. But it suggests a probable answer in at least two main ways.
First, passages like Habakkuk 1:13, Psalm 5:4–6, James 1:13, and 1 John 1:5 teach that God is not the author or creator of evil. He is pure light and, as such, there is no darkness in him whatsoever (1 John 1:5)—not even a shadow of turning (James 1:17). And if God cannot be tempted with evil, as James 1:13 says, then surely it follows that he cannot create it, because to create evil would itself be evil.
Second, passages like 1 John 3:4 and Titus 2:11–12, among others, suggest that evil is not a “thing” in and of itself but is the absence or privation of something. Just as sin is the privation of lawfulness (1 John 3:4), so evil would seem to be the privation of goodness—or, of God himself. Evil is un-godliness, un-righteousness (Rom. 1:18), and everything else that is not God. It’s not a substance that must be created—like every other substance—to exist. It’s an anti-God attitude or a posture that sets itself against God. And if that’s true, then all that’s required for evil to exist is for creatures to exist who have the ability to choose or to reject God.
Thus, evil can be said to have “entered” the world when God created the angels, one of whom chose to turn away from God, set himself against him and led as many others as he could to do the same.Big God
What does all this mean? For starters, the origin of evil has been a nagging source of doubt for many and a disconcerting source of embarrassment for others. As Christians, we haven’t always been ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Pet. 3:15)—at least not in this area. But my desire is for others to see that the Christian worldview really is plausible, far more so than the atheistic worldview that has absolutely no basis in itself to explain the existence of evil.
More than anything else, the problem of the origin of evil ought to remind us of how big our God really is. He is, as Paul says in Romans 11, “unsearchable” and “inscrutable,” and his ways are beyond our tracing out. When we have gone as far as we can, we still haven’t come close to plumbing his depths. He is far deeper than the deepest ocean and far greater than the greatness of the universe.
In the end, all we can do is to cry out with Paul, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forevermore. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).
- Who Made Satan? (Matt Smethurst)
For nine months she cherished the flutterings in her womb, and she wondered about the contours of the hands that prodded her, the unique works awaiting them. As she prepared a nursery in pastels and assembled a library of board books, she imagined all the long years with her little one, and her joy coursed vast and deep. She thanked God for calling her to motherhood.
But two months after her baby was born, she could hardly drag herself from bed. She would drift throughout the day weepy and listless, scarcely mustering the energy to return a phone call. Her baby’s cry from the nursery elicited none of the tenderness she had envisioned, but only waves of dread. She would run her fingers over her baby’s delicate toes, the scalp she had yearned to kiss, and felt only emptiness.
“God seems so far away right now,” she admitted through tears when concerned friends visited. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ve always dreamed of a family, but it turns out I’m such a terrible mom.”
She wasn’t a terrible mom. She needed help. Postpartum depression had taken hold.More Than the Baby Blues
The stress of caring for a newborn can unnerve and exhaust even the best prepared of new mothers. The wild fluctuation of hormones in the bloodstream pitch emotions into turbulence, prompting us to gush with enthusiasm at one moment, only to devolve into tears the next. Sleep deprivation diminishes our reserve. Anxiety seizes us as we obsess over doing things right.
These “baby blues” occur commonly after pregnancy, unsettling and confusing up to 70 percent of new mothers. Thankfully, as our hormones level out, the exhaustion and volatile feelings subside. In most cases, the baby blues resolve within a couple weeks. As they pass, we feel better equipped to weather the long nights, and to reap the joy.
In some women, however, despair lingers and takes root. Up to 13 percent of mothers suffer from postpartum depression (PPD), which the American Psychiatric Association defines as an episode of major depression during pregnancy or within four weeks following delivery (although many clinicians make the diagnosis within a year postpartum). The effects of clinical depression, heavy on the heart under any circumstance, can prove especially shattering when heaped on top of the strains and expectations of motherhood.Severe Effects
During a time when we anticipate celebrating God’s gifts (Ps. 127:3) and bonding with a new baby, PPD can leave us disconnected, despondent, struggling with guilt. In approximately 20 percent of women this darkness hovers long-term, for up to a year after delivery. In 13 percent it persists for two years. In the most rare and harrowing cases, PPD may even drive mothers to suicide or infanticide.
Such tragedies signal that PPD is neither a normal feature of motherhood, nor a sign of a weak mom. Rather, PPD is an illness with potentially devastating consequences for mothers and their babies. Those struggling with PPD need help from a professional and love poured out by the body of Christ.Spotting the Signs
The symptoms of PPD mirror those of depression during other times in life (e.g., saddened mood, loss of pleasure from activities we love, thoughts of worthlessness and guilt, difficulty concentrating). Often after having a baby, however, we mistake signs of depression for normal stressors of motherhood. In particular, sleep disturbances, fatigue, and weight changes—all features of clinical depression—may also represent typical postpartum challenges.
Given the overlap of symptoms, attention to your mood and the content of your thoughts after the birth of a baby is crucial. Fluctuations in weight and poor sleep may be normal when caring for a newborn, but daily hopelessness and despair are not. Exhaustion from new motherhood should never so deplete you that for weeks you no longer find joy in your passions. If you feel anxious and irritable, tearful, worthless, guilty, or detached from your newborn every day for over two weeks, you’re not experiencing normal motherhood, but potentially something more sinister. If thoughts of suicide or harming the baby haunt you, you need help immediately.Seeking Help
Although researchers can’t pinpoint a single cause, data are perfectly clear that PPD is not a woman’s fault. Studies suggest a history of prior mood and anxiety problems can predispose us to PPD. The storm of hormonal changes in pregnancy also contribute. Whatever the specific etiology, PPD does not reflect incompetence as a mother, or as a Christian. False guilt may dissuade us from seeking help, but the majesty of the gospel is that when we admit we are drowning, God draws us near (Ps. 34:18, Matt. 5:3).
Treatment for PPD is effective, and you need not suffer needlessly or indefinitely. If you struggle with symptoms of depression for more than two weeks postpartum, fill out the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, a screening instrument to help physicians detect PPD. Bring the results to a doctor you trust. Voice your need for help. Bring a friend or a loved one; hold his or her hand. If the darkness progresses to thoughts of suicide or infanticide, reach for help immediately. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or use their webchat.Role of the Church
The body of Christ is uniquely poised to shepherd mothers through dark pastures. Churches often gather around expectant mothers in jubilation, showering them with gifts and warm embraces. After a baby’s birth, the continued compassionate presence of a church family can dissolve barriers to asking for help.
If a new mother reveals she is struggling, don’t dismiss her concerns as typical motherhood stress. Ask questions. Inquire more about how she feels, what overwhelms her, and for how long she’s endured sadness, joylessness, or hopelessness. If you suspect PPD, encourage her to see her physician, or better yet, offer to go with her. Partner with her. Pray with her. Offer concrete help, before she asks. Seek out others in the church whom she knows and trusts, and surround her with loving support. Rather than discount her struggle as a lack of faith, which will only deepen her feelings of guilt and worsen her depression, help her to cling to God’s promises while she walks in darkness.
Author Dana Bowman, who suffered through PPD, poignantly writes of the power of Christian love in an article for Today’s Christian Woman:
The church brought me food: cherry Jell-O and chicken burritos and green bean casseroles. And blankets for the baby. And a soft, fawn-colored blanket for me. The church sat and held my hand on my front porch as I sobbed so loudly the lawn guy across the street looked over, concerned. And we sat and rocked on the porch swing, my sweet church and I, and she listened. Just listened.
Listen to the mothers in your midst. Love them, as Christ loved you (John 13:34). When a shadow dulls the blues and pinks, recognize the signs, and draw near. Hold onto the suffering as she sobs, and walk with her toward recovery.
“Maybe we believe once we find that workout routine and get the diet right and our body gets to where we want it, that’s when I’m finally going to find the life that I am longing for. Maybe we believe that once I lose those pounds or hit that big payday, or once I finally am confident in who I am, then I will have what I’m longing for.” — Allan McCullough
Text: 2 Corinthians 5:1–5
Preached: October 8, 2017
Location: Grace Hill Church, Herndon, Virginia
You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.
This weekend is the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act until the September 11 attacks of 2001. Here are nine things you should know about the massacre and Jim Jones, the cult leader behind the killings.
1. In his youth during the 1950s, Jim Jones was part of a “Oneness” Pentecostal congregation. He continued to attend a Pentecostal church even while serving in his first ministry position as a 21-year old student pastor at a Methodist church. Two years later, Jones opened a small church he named Community Unity, and less than two years later, he purchased a church building at Fifteenth and North New Jersey, calling his new congregation Wings of Deliverance.
2. In 1956, Jones became an ordained minister in the Independent Assemblies of God. The ordination certificate includes the first known mention of Peoples Temple, listed here as “People’s Temple of the Wings of Deliverance, Inc.” The church eventually became part of the Disciples of Christ, and Jones himself eventually became an ordained minister in that denomination.
3. Jones considered the church to be primarily a means to fulfill his political agenda. According to his wife, Jones had “not been lured to the ministry by deep religious faith, but because it served his goal of achieving social change through Marxism.” “Jim used religion to try to get some people out of the opiate of religion,” she said, adding that he had once slammed a Bible on a table and said, “I’ve got to destroy this paper idol!” In a recorded interview Jones said, “I decided, how can I demonstrate my Marxism? The thought was, infiltrate the church.” It was in talking about communism with a Methodist superintendent that Jones got his first church. “He said I want you to take a church,” Jones claimed. “I said, you giving me a church. I don’t believe anything. I’m a revolutionary . . . and he appointed me, a Communist, to a church, and I didn’t even meet him through the party, I met him in a used car lot. This was in 1953.”
4. In the early stages, the People’s Temple functioned as more of a religious organization than a church. In 1965, Jones told his congregation that a nuclear war would occur on July 15, 1967. About 70 families followed him to a “safe haven” in northern California. After the move from Indianapolis to California the congregation became a social welfare advocacy group and a political organization. Interviews with members of the People’s Temple who survived the massacre indicated that the group had not been formally religious for several years, even though it registered as a religion with the state of California and took advantage of the provisions for religious organizations in Federal income tax laws. Members said that instead of hearing about God they heard a great deal of “socialist rhetoric.” They also noted that Jones found evangelical speaking, music, faith‐healing, and other tent‐meeting techniques “useful in attracting and controlling the many working class members, particularly the aged, whose Social Security and government-support checks were an important resource.”
5. Jones used the pulpit to preach a doctrine that he called “Apostolic Socialism” (which he sometimes referred to as God Socialism or Divine Socialism). In one sermon he said, “My desire is to see a perfect utopia based on non-violence, based on apostolic socialism as it was on the day of Pentecost when they had all things in common.” As David Chidester explains, “The Divine Principle, or Divine Socialism, which Jones claimed to represent, was committed to a society based on total equality, where all things were held in common, where there were no rich or poor, and where there were no racial divisions among human beings. This was the practical dimension of God Almighty, Socialism.” In one sermon Jones told his parishioners, “If you’re born in a socialist community, then you’re not born in sin. If you’re born in this church, this socialist revolution, you’re not born in sin. If you’re born in capitalist America, racist America, fascist America, then you’re born in sin. But if you’re born in socialism, you’re not born in sin.”
6. By the early 1970s, Jones abandoned all pretense of being a Christian minister. Jones also began preaching that he was the reincarnation of Buddha, Gandhi, Vladimir Lenin, and Jesus. He would preach sermons lasting six hours or more, in which he showed a preoccupation with sex. As one congregant noted, “Oh, and he would talk for hours about sex, about how good he was and how women should think he was making love to them, not their husbands, and about how all the women sent him notes that they wanted to see him.” Jones, a bisexual, reportedly had numerous affairs with both men and women in his congregation. His former bodyguard claimed that Jones appointed one of his secretaries to arrange for women church members to sleep with him. He was also arrested in a Hollywood theater on lewd‐conduct charge, after an undercover Los Angeles policeman said Jones had tried to molest him.
7. In the summer of 1977, Jones learned the San Francisco Chronicle was going to publish an expose of him and the People’s Temple. Jones and several hundred church members decided to move to the Temple’s compound in Guyana, South America, a settlement called “Jonestown,” which Jones had named after himself. Jonestown was a tract of 3,852 acres, leased to People’s Temple by the Government of Guyana, where members had cleared dense jungle to build an agricultural commune. About 2,000 members (including children) were committed enough to the cause that they had passport photos and filled out application forms to travel to Guyana, though only about half that number moved to Jonestown.
8. In November 1978, after hearing reports from the U.S. Embassy in Guyana that some people in Jonestown were being subjected to physical and psychological abuse, Congressman Leo Ryan and a delegation visited the compound. Soon after their arrival a follower of Jones attempted to attack Ryan with a knife, prompting the delegation to flee the compound. As they were boarding two planes at the airstrip, Jones’s armed guards attacked them, killing Ryan and four others. Jones convinced his followers that the incident would result in U.S. authorities coming to Jonestown and committing mass murder.
9. For years Temple members had practiced suicide drills in which they pretended to drink poison and then fell down “dead” as part of a loyalty test to Jones. After the incident at the airstrip, Jones convinced his follower it was time to finally commit “an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.” The people were encouraged to consume the fruit drink Flavor Aid that contained a lethal combination of potassium cyanide and sedatives (this is the source of the now-commonly used expression, “Drink the Kool-Aid.”). The death toll at Jonestown was 909, including two confirmed gunshot deaths—one of which was Jim Jones. The deaths included 304 children and minors younger than 18. Only 36 people who began their day in Jonestown survived the massacre.
Other posts in this series:
Out-of-Wedlock Births • Bethel Church Movement • Christian Hymns • Hurricanes • Infertility • The STD Crisis • Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) • Russian President Vladimir Putin • Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh • MS-13 • Wicca and Modern Witchcraft • Jerusalem • Christianity in Korea • Creation of Modern Israel • David Koresh and the Branch Davidians • Rajneeshees • Football • The Opioid Epidemic (Part II) • The Unification Church • Billy Graham • Frederick Douglass • Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 • Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders • Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease • Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State
Allen Guelzo, in his recent work Reconstruction: A Concise History, helpfully summarizes one of the most important and neglected periods in American history: the movement to reconstruct a nation divided by the Civil War.
Guelzo is a Civil War historian at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, and his book goes a long way to explaining why a nation that eradicated the blight of slavery allowed nearly a century to pass before African Americans enjoyed the most basic of civil rights.Reconstruction
Reconstruction, simply put, is the “twelve years of active efforts to rebuild and reconstitute the American Union after the attempt by the Confederate States of America to secede from it” (1). Consider the difficulty of the task. It took a bloody war to force 11 states and 9 million Southerners into submission. After the North emancipated 4 million slaves, they still had no clear path to equality. Lincoln, the most visionary leader of the era, died before he could even try to fully reunite the country. Finally, Americans in the North and the South remained settled in their conviction that blacks and whites weren’t equal.
A nation that eradicated the blight of slavery allowed nearly a century to pass before African Americans enjoyed the most basic of civil rights.
Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, proved to be an enemy of Reconstruction. He worked against a Congress that, under the influence of the so-called “radical” Republicans, sought to suppress Confederate influence in the South. Senator Charles Sumner and Representative Thaddeus Stevens worked diligently to pass Reconstruction bills. However, the states worked just as hard to legislate “black codes” banning black-white marriage, free speech, and even owning firearms and knives (26). Congress fought back, often overriding a president who worked to keep the peace at the expense of civil rights.
By 1868, a window of hope cracked open. The House impeached President Johnson (55). Washington readmitted several states into the Union and demanded pro-Reconstruction leadership—much of it consisting of African American legislators (57). Optimism bloomed.Reconstruction Undermined
Under the surface, unfortunately, forces conspired to derail Reconstruction’s progress. Republican leaders may have done too much too soon (60). They enacted laws that went beyond the people’s willingness to follow. Bands of former slaveholders terrorized blacks (62). The Ku Klux Klan started in 1866 and “quickly became, by 1867, a night-riding posse, complete with graveyard costumes, bizarre ranks and titles, and a mission . . . to ‘overawe union men, both black and white’ and ‘put the negro in a semi-serf condition’” (64). The reality was worse than the threat. Between 1885 and 1900, “201 lynchings took place in Alabama, 219 in Georgia, 253 in Mississippi, and 247 in Texas” (124).
The Republican leadership at the state level was simply too green to lead a population unwilling to change its attitude. Guelzo notes, “It was, in the end, inexperience which proved a deadlier poison in Reconstruction’s cup than murderous white violence” (66). Neither the federal nor state Republicans had a political answer to the ongoing, subversive actions of the white South.
Reconstruction is no success story.
The South wasn’t the only problem, however. Democrats on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line pushed back against black civil rights. Shortly after the war ended, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Minnesota voted down measures to provide equal voting rights (30). Northern Democrats “bitterly opposed the Fifteenth Amendment” and “employed Klan-like intimidation to suppress black votes in Northern cities” (101).
By 1878, Democrats had regained control of the House and the Senate, and Southern governorships were firmly in their hands. Regardless of the Fifteenth Amendment, which said states couldn’t discriminate on the basis of race or color, Southern leaders imposed “literacy tests, poll taxes (starting with Georgia in 1871), property requirements, and sheer intimidation” on black voters (117).
Reconstruction wasn’t a complete failure, Guelzo notes. The Union was restored, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments recognized the rights of citizenship for former slaves. Moreover, our Civil War didn’t end in “mass executions” (12, 127). But for all this good, Reconstruction is no success story. Unjust laws on paper, and racism in human hearts, continued to flourish. Guelzo quite appropriately cites T. S. Eliot: “I question whether any serious civil war ever does end” (127).Churches During Reconstruction
Unfortunately, Guelzo fails to even mention the role of Christians in Reconstruction—certainly a concession to keep his book concise. But this omission is costly, since churches played an important role in both preserving racist attitudes and, ironically, providing a preacher to lead the South out of Jim Crow.
Guelzo successfully explores the lines of political division that persisted after the Civil War. Had he addressed church life, he would have found parallel lines among Christian leaders, denominations, and churches.
We can better understand today’s racial divisions when we remember the Civil War didn’t come close to ending political or religious strife.
Southern white Protestants heartily defended the Southern way of life during Reconstruction, and they cheered the return of Democrats to power in the 1870s. Most agreed slaveholders called down God’s discipline by treating their slaves poorly, but few admitted slavery itself was sinful. Churches in the North considered the war-torn South their mission field; they tried to reunite fractured denominations, with little success. Freed blacks saw Reconstruction as an opportunity to finally have a church of their own, outside the control of white masters. Their departure from white churches was accelerated by racism that remained rampant (for more information on the church during Reconstruction, see Rebuilding Zion, Redeeming the South, and Baptized in Blood).Current Ramifications
Long story short: we can better understand today’s racial divisions when we remember that the Civil War didn’t come close to ending political or religious strife. In the years after the war, America remained a nation where racism won the day in congresses, courtrooms, and Sunday school classrooms around the country.
American Christians who read Reconstruction (and it’s certainly worth reading) will lament our history. A people capable of welcoming the “huddled masses” to Ellis Island proved just as capable of suppressing the rights of freed blacks in Atlanta. Reconstruction isn’t just a window into 19th-century history; it’s a window into the human heart. Readers who wonder if Eliot was right when he suggested civil wars don’t ever end will naturally pray with John, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).
Ten years ago, a relatively unknown pastor published The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.
Tim Keller’s book leaped onto The New York Times bestseller list, grabbing acclaim from The Washington Post columnists and Publishers Weekly and awards from World magazine and Christianity Today. The book is still ranked a #1 best-seller in evangelism at Amazon.
Without question, The Reason for God was a home run.
So it was a surprise when Keller’s next big swing at convincing nonbelievers to believe in God used an entirely different approach. He released Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical in 2016.
Since then, a slew of like-minded books have joined Making Sense. This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel came out in March 2017, followed by Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor in September 2017, Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News About Jesus More Believable in March 2018, Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Witness in May 2018, and Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age in July 2018. Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion will hit shelves in April 2019.
All were in some ways sparked by Keller, and all aim to help the church meet the evolving challenge of witnessing in a post-Christian context.
“In the past, apologetics could be left to a certain type of ‘expert,’ a type of person with a proclivity for such mental exercises and argumentation,” resident theologian at Holy Trinity Anglican Church Josh Chatraw wrote in Didaktikos Journal this summer. “Now believers are finding they need apologetics just to have a conversation about the gospel with their neighbor or their teenage son.”Take Two
“Wait, another Tim Keller book for skeptics? Really?” TGC asked when Making Sense hit the shelves. Keller didn’t try to hide the surface similarities. He used the same calm and logical tone. Even the title was a reworked version of The Reason for God.
So why two?
The most obvious reason to need a new apologetics book is sexuality: In 2008, voters in California voted to make same-sex marriage illegal through Proposition 8; in 2015, the Supreme Court legalized it for the entire country. In between, assault provoked by sexual orientation was criminalized, gay men and lesbians began serving openly in the military, and the first openly gay politician was elected to the U.S. Senate.
“Sexuality, same-sex marriage, and gender are now ‘apologetics’ issues,” Keller told TGC. “That wasn’t the case 20 years ago. They didn’t come up in talking to non-Christians, but today they almost always do.”
But sexuality wasn’t the only reason—or even the main reason—Keller wrote Making Sense.
Here it is: “The biggest difference is that Christianity used to have cultural familiarity and modest respect,” Keller told TGC. Before, “most Americans not only had a rudimentary knowledge of Christianity but also tended to respect it, or at least feel they ought to show some respect.”
The exponential growth in competing lifestyles and worldviews in the modern West has made the exclusivity of the Christian faith seem quaint, said Oklahoma Baptist professor Alan Noble. “Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor describes this growth as ‘secularism,’ a condition in which there is an overwhelming number of possible belief systems available to us, all of which are tenuous and contested.”
In response, expressive individualism has taken deep root in the culture, said Noble, who released Disruptive Witness in July. “Since external sources of meaning seem impossible to adjudicate, modern people turn inward to discover their ‘true self’ and live ‘authentically’ to that self through self-expression. For societies that have accepted expressive individualism, Christianity is only persuasive insofar as it fits an individual’s sense of style, branding, or image.”
This secularism—and the ubiquity of technology and distraction—make it it increasingly easy for people to live pleasurable lives without ever truly acknowledging and wrestling with life’s big, essential questions, Noble said.
Chatraw agrees. “Some people are still asking traditional questions, but often people are first asking another set of questions,” he said. “That is, if they are asking questions at all. Often they are dismissive of and unconcerned with traditional religion; after all, they have their own life goals to pursue.”
So non-Christians aren’t asking if science disproves Christianity (obviously) or if they should take the Bible literally (obviously not) or if the church’s past sins negate the gospel message (since it’s not real, who cares?).
In the country with the largest population of Christians, many nonbelievers aren’t even up to that level of interaction with Christianity.Not Enough
The United States was baptized into Judeo-Christianity as an infant—from the Declaration of Independence (“endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”) to the first Constitutional amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) to the population itself (98 percent of colonists identified as Protestant).
And while the level of authentic belief has waxed and waned (think the Great Awakenings), the language and culture of Christianity has remained familiar to Americans. So much so that for years, “we believed that the mission field was [only] overseas,” Keller said.
At home, “you went to Sunday school—even if your parents didn’t go to church,” said Sam Chan, Australian apologist and author of Evangelism in a Skeptical World. “You played ball with a local church. You were in a community of believers.”
So much so that nonbelievers showed up at Billy Graham crusades in church buses. “When he gave you a 20-minute Bible talk, you already had structures, a DNA, a worldview,” Chan said. Conversion was just a matter of tipping over into believing what you already knew.
Back then, belief was “thick,” Keller said. “Fifty years ago, virtually everybody had generic religious beliefs. They believed in a personal God, in an afterlife, in guilt and sin.”
But in the 1970s, religion in America had begun to drop off. By the 1990s, the downward trend in religious identity, church attendance, and belief in the importance of religion was alarmingly sharp.
Many who rejected Christianity cited science or lack of empirical evidence.Courtesy of Religion News Service
“We didn’t think about ourselves as emotional,” Chan said. “We were autonomous, rational thinkers, free to think for ourselves.”
So that’s where apologetics (the defense of Christianity) aimed. Building off the thoughtful, academic foundations laid by the likes of C. S. Lewis and G. K. Chesterton, American apologists tried to provide logical arguments or historical evidence to convince their audience of the Bible’s veracity. Josh McDowell wrote Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World in 1972, Ravi Zacharias released Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message in 1990, and Lee Strobel published The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus in 1998.
That’s also where Keller positioned The Reason for God. (At Amazon, it’s “frequently bought together” with Lewis’s Mere Christianity.)
But Keller spends a lot of time with non-Christians, and it wasn’t long before he knew The Reason for God wasn’t enough.Inside Their View
But people have to have “working answers to big questions,” Keller said. Some examples: What’s my meaning in life? How do I handle suffering? How do I face death? How do I ever really find satisfaction? How do I get an identity that’s not unstable and fragile?
Today’s nonbelievers fill in their own answers—“Follow your passion,” “Stand up for moral values and human rights (and you don’t need God to do it),” or simply “You do you.”
Around 2014, two Liberty University professors noticed that the traditional apologetics approach of equipping people with facts and figures “wasn’t working for our students,” said Chatraw, then the director of the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement at Liberty.
“That information is good, but apologetics can’t just be a dump truck of information,” said Chatraw, who wrote Apologetics at the Cross with Liberty’s Mark Allen. “That isn’t how productive conversation works.”
Actually, a good conversationalist—a good friend—mostly listens.
“Of course we need to speak and make appeals for the gospel,” Chatraw said. “But listening and hearing people out—in a culture where people feel like they have to get their points out before they get cut off—can plow the ground for gospel conversation.”
Careful listening helps a Christian understand the worldview of their non-Christian friend, allows them to love that person with their time and attention, and lets them press back on weaknesses and inconsistencies. Listening also builds credibility, so when the conversation spins toward Christianity, it’s a natural and hopeful turn.
So Chatraw and Allen told their students: “You might not know much about where [a nonbeliever] is coming from. That’s why you start asking questions. Ask about their beliefs, their struggles. Start inside of their view.”
It’s a humble way to engage. “I think it’s what the gospel drives us to, this others-centered view,” Chatraw said. “It’s incarnational—how can I step inside their world and try to understand?”
Christianity in America used to be a matter of tipping over into believing what you already knew. Those days are gone.
Where there is worldview overlap—a desire for justice or mercy or beauty—Christians can affirm the similarity. But all of that comes from God, so Christians can also push on the secular narrative until it unravels—for example, if there is no God and we evolve through survival of the fittest, why should we care for the poor?
Chatraw and Allen call it “inside-out” apologetics; The Gospel Project general editor Trevin Wax calls it “making a path to get to the path.” Rachel Gilson, Cru director for theological development in the Northeast, calls it inviting people into the process.
“They’re all saying the same thing,” Keller said. “Arguably, it’s what Augustine was doing. Before you defend Christianity, you have to critique the polytheistic culture.”
“Right now the cultural storyline is looking for purpose, meaning, happiness, and freedom,” Chan said. “The gospel has those things. Jesus will set you free and give you rest. We just need to adapt the storyline.”Adding Beauty to Truth
“Modernism and the Enlightenment put the exclamation point on the truth part of truth, goodness, and beauty, and attempted to separate it from the other two ideals,” Chatraw said.
And getting that right is crucial. In a post-truth world, the claims of Christianity can seem exclusive and ridiculous. Sloppy apologetics only exacerbates this problem.
“One of my frustrations with apologetics over the years has been that it hasn’t always represented the best Christian thinking,” said Rebecca McLaughlin, author of the forthcoming Confronting Christianity. “We are often trying to take down academic fields without first listening to the Christians who are world leaders in those fields and leveraging their insights.”
Christians “literally invented science and literally invented the university,” she said. Though most universities are increasingly secular, “there are serious Christians at the top of the academy in practically every field. . . . Our posture needs to change from, ‘How can we discredit the academy?’ to ‘Isn’t this exciting?’”
But convincing today’s nonbelievers is going to take more than laying out the nearly impossible odds that life sprang up on its own or the historical evidence for Jesus. Truth is cheaper to a generation that carries access to nearly all the world’s information in their pockets.
“We’re not necessarily coming to them as holders of spiritual information,” said Gilson, who started her journey to Christ through Google. “They can go online and find the answers to their questions.”
Instead, “the students I’m working with now really want to be part of the process,” she said. They need help to sift through “the good and the garbage.”
After all, neither Christian nor non-Christian “can prove their views of God or identity,” Keller said. “Therefore, we need to look at our views [and theirs] and compare them—see which ones fit human nature the best and seem more reasonable.”
Not only reasonable, but also good, Gilson said.
“That’s where we’re hitting some major themes on holding to God’s sexual ethics, because they perceive so clearly that some people’s sexual sin is being called out more than others,” she said. “That burns them. They want to love their neighbor. They want to dump what looks hurtful in order to preserve their brothers and sisters, not realizing if they call sin ‘not sin,’ they’re just tying a millstone around their necks.”
So even as our neighbors lose belief in the truth of the gospel, they’re still, on a gut level, looking for its goodness and beauty.Gut Level
To be clear, converts are always won by the work of the Holy Spirit, Keller said. Christians evangelize because “God commanded us to, so it would be churlish and silly to say, ‘No—because I know you’re going to save people anyway and you’re more effective than I am.’”
Christian apologists, then, are clearing obstacles to the Spirit’s work of regeneration.
“You can’t reason all the way to conversion with a fallen man,” TGC editorial director Collin Hansen said. “They can’t think God’s thoughts without regeneration. But you can poke holes and doubts in their own beliefs. You can help them to doubt their doubts.”
One way to do that is by refusing to play by the world’s presuppositions, Keller told church leaders in Chicago last month.
“Our culture says, ‘Look, we are objective and rational. And if you Christians will come up to our high standards of objective rationality, we would be happy to give you a hearing,’” he said. “That’s not what the early Christians did. They critiqued the standards. . . . You need to say to the culture, ‘Your standards don’t work. You’re not objective.’ . . . The modern understanding of reality doesn’t fit in with human nature.”
“We’re not primarily rational beings who array our arguments against one another until one side or another prevails,” Hansen said. “We are profoundly driven by our emotions, our passions, our affections, and ultimately our intuitions.”
Our emotions and our desire for community (think tribes) drive our decisions, which we then follow with rationalizations, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues.
So this means that before non-Christians convert, they must want to believe. They will often think, Isn’t this beautiful? Wouldn’t it be great if this were true? I wish this were true.
That’s exactly what Keller offers in Making Sense. After pressing on modern worldviews (“If there is no God, you will have to turn some created thing into a god to worship, and whatever that thing is, it will punish you with inner fears, resentment, guilt, and shame if you fail to achieve it.”), he offers the true and better alternative of Christianity (“When a Christian grasps how Jesus saved us at infinite cost to himself, how he emptied himself of his glory and took on a humble form to serve our best interests, it creates a grateful joy that inwardly moves us to want to please, know, and resemble him.”)Tell a Story
The best way to stir imagination is—as Hollywood knows—to tell a story.
“A lot of people have a deconversion story, which means they’ve swapped the old story of the gospel for what they think is a better story,” Chan said. “[UK Christian psychiatrist] Glynn Harrison says the reason we lost the debate on sex and morality is the liberal, secular West has been telling a better story.”
Ex-Christians lay out their religious credentials, then explain the “unimaginable relief” of leaving Christianity, of wishing “I had let go of faith in a god years ago.” Movies, sitcoms, and social media show happy same-sex couples making it work, or people enthusiastically sleeping with multiple partners, or heroes pursuing their goals by any means necessary.
“In apologetics, we’ve been trying to give facts and data, when we really need to tell a better story,” Chan said. “We have to win the imagination, not just the debate.”
“I love how Making Sense of God enters their worldview and speaks what [nonbelievers] want, quoting their authors, getting them nodding, then bit by bit saying, ‘Huh, it’s not going to work this way,’” Chan said. “It would be really powerful if someone could complement that with a story.”
That’s not a new idea—professors teach it practically on the first day of seminary. Logic and story are a combination Lewis uses with Screwtape and with Narnia. It’s a combination the New Testament uses with history and letters. Jesus himself uses it with sermons and parables.
Story is a soft entry, a gentle way to lead nonbelievers to examine their worldview, which may lead to openness to another worldview, which may lead (finally) to traditional apologetics.
And that’s good news. Because if you need a story, then every Christian is equipped to tackle today’s apologetics.New Face
“Jesus often answered a question with a question,” Chan said. “It’s how counseling works.”
He remembers a colleague who was angry that a local Christian church was spreading leaflets on his street.
“How dare they?” the man asked.
Chan didn’t have an immediate answer. Later, his friend—who is also a chaplain—supplied one.
“You should have asked him why that made him so angry,” he told Chan. “All you have to do is get him to speak back. People are only two ‘why?’ questions away from not having an answer. Just keep asking questions until they have no answer, and then say, ‘Hmm.’ At that moment, they’ll realize, ‘I’m not as well-thought as I thought I was.’”
So the new face of apologetics isn’t up on stage. It’s in a coffee shop or break room, sharing stories and saying “tell me why you think that” until the answers run out.
Even as our neighbors lose belief in the truth of the gospel, they’re still, on a gut level, looking for its goodness and beauty.
It’s less efficient, certainly, than converting dozens—or even hundreds—at once in a youth conference or weekend retreat. But in the tougher soil of a post-Christian culture, it’s the slow preparation that must be done. And as public conversations about Christianity are more and more contentious, the move to intimate conversations makes even more sense, Chan said.
“Modern selves are so internal,” Keller said. “In the old days if you were convinced of the truth, you changed yourself. Now we adopt the truth as accessories that fit in with who we want to be.”
He tells campus ministries they need a lot more staff. “It means having a dozen or so ongoing non-Christian relationships. . . . You have to work with fewer students over longer conversations.”More Hopeful
While the approach to apologetics may shift, one thing does not: Christianity is always more true, beautiful, and good than any alternative.
Responding to changes in culture just means reaching for a different biblical answer, Chan said. “Typically we’ve used the salvation and historical sections of the Bible to try to evangelize. Now we can use wisdom literature as the entry point. We can show them the better story to managing sex and marriage and work found in Proverbs or Ecclesiastes.”
That’s a good approach to take with people who are less likely to wonder if intelligence could come from non-intelligence, and more likely to wrestle with meaning or to sense deep beauty in their love for their children, Chatraw said.
“The church has a long history of people who are appealing to the goodness and beauty part of the gospel,” he said. “We can retrieve those and apply them to the present context.”
“It’s not about merely defeating non-Christians in an argument,” Hansen said. “It’s about showing them the beauty of the gospel. ‘Doesn’t this make more sense?’ ‘Isn’t this more hopeful?’ ‘Isn’t this more plausible?’”
You can hardly watch a TV show or listen to a podcast without someone telling you how to spend, save, or invest your money. While most Christians recognize they shouldn’t live to make money, they too often fall short of glorifying God with their money.
Carl Ellis, Phillip Holmes, and David Platt sat down to talk about the need for Christians to spend, save, and give their money with intentionality. “We live in a culture that is not telling us how to biblically handle our money,” Platt says. But it’s vital to spend, save, and give money with intentionality, since “our money is a reflection of where our heart is.”
Holmes talks about how, as newlyweds, he and his wife thought the answer to money problems was to make more money. Later, when they were earning more, they realized that they were never going to be intentional about their finances without a budget. “When you budget, you’re actually, intentionally telling your money what to do. You’re taking dominion over your money as opposed to letting your money take dominion over you.”
- How to Worship with Your Debit Card (Jeremy Treat)
- 11 Ways Engaged Couples Should Deal with Finances Now (Deepak Reju)
- Two Views on Tithing
I recently returned from a week in Uganda and Kenya, where I was helping to train pastors and church planters. I was in Africa as part of Acts 29’s Emerging Regions Network, a team that works in various parts of the world where we want to see churches planted.
I had the privilege of serving with some other Acts 29 pastors, and the trip left quite an impression on us. Here are six personal reflections about theological and pastoral training in underdeveloped regions of the world.1. Join the fight against theological poverty.
There are many good, global causes that one can be part of today. I’m part of many, from orphan care to fighting gendercide. But I would love to see an increased excitement and commitment to fighting theological poverty.
There are many good, global causes that one can be part of today. But I would love to see an increased excitement and commitment to fighting theological poverty.
As I’ve traveled the world the past 15 years, teaching church planters and other church leaders, it has become clear to me why many false gospels abound. People simply haven’t been taught the true gospel. What I found in Uganda and Kenya is a real hunger and openness to historical Christian orthodoxy. The only problem is, certain truths have never been well articulated and distinguished from false teaching. Consequently, people tend to believe what they hear.
It has been said that humanity is incurably religious, that we are religious beings who will believe something. And if we don’t saturate the nations with sound doctrine, then people will believe something else.
Whatever means of influence you have in this world, would you consider leveraging some of it to help make robust theological training available to such hungry students?2. Realize that online training is insufficient for much of the world.
During the course of our teaching, the subject of online learning came up periodically. While a few students said they have decent internet access, most don’t. So online learning simply isn’t an option. These students need life-on-life teaching, and they need printed materials. (By the way, even if online training is an option, it’s no replacement for embodied, communal learning.)
As I’ve traveled, I’ve become increasingly grateful for resources like the little 9Marks books. These are so important and beneficial. A big thank you to Mark Dever, Jonathan Leeman, and others who contribute to that series.
On this particular trip, I gave out a copy of my commentary on Acts, and the response was remarkable. You’d have thought I’d handed the students gold. They thanked me endlessly. We need to get more good resources in their hands.3. We need context-sensitive theological training.
I gave one talk called “Church Planting 101.” Along the way, I encouraged the students to “plant the church that fits you and your community.” I encouraged them not to do an American church model, but to plant a church that fits their context. That is, to consider their city when they think about music, discipleship programs, outreach events, and so on.
So much training from the West has failed to make the distinction between timeless, biblical principles for the church and the flexibility for doing church in our context. There was an audible affirmation from the students (some even clapped) when I said, “Do church for Uganda or Kenya, not America.”
When we train people, we must give them biblical ecclesiology.
Now, these students, as in every other country, must start with Scripture when it comes to ecclesiology, preaching, eldership, and so on. When we train people, we must give them biblical ecclesiology. But as we provide training for pastors in other countries, let’s not mistake our Western practices for biblical principles.4. The majority of the world needs basic-level training; they’re not ready for an MDiv.
Thanks to our friends at Church in Hard Places, our team was able to use the two-year program for mentoring our students. Church in Hard Places has broken down the (rigorous) Acts 29 assessment into monthly learning models, which includes reading, writing, and meetings.
We’ve found over the years that most of the guys we train in emerging regions are not ready for an MDiv degree or a thorough theological/pastoral assessment. They can get there if we will walk with them, which we plan on doing. But most haven’t had the basic training many assessments often assume.
Most seminaries cater to educated people with undergraduate degrees. I’m not throwing stones, just pointing out the fact that we’re overlooking millions of people when we don’t have a plan for bringing basic training to theologically hungry students.5. To increase theological depth for generations, we need churches planted and pastored by trained leaders.
Part of the problem of rapid multiplication efforts in missions is that they are not taking the long-view of ministry. We need to be thinking in terms of 50-plus years, not five weeks (or even five years).
To see the theological landscape change in a country for the long haul, we need to identify, train, and resource faithful pastors who will serve their churches for years to come.
To see the theological landscape change in a country for the long haul, we must identify, train, and resource faithful pastors who will serve their churches for years to come. And we need them to plant churches that will plant churches for generations to come. So let’s give ourselves to this task.6. Let’s challenge people who have access to resources and training to recognize this privilege, and take advantage of it.
There really is no excuse for people in various parts of the world not to engage in serious study of the Bible, theology, missiology, church history, and spiritual disciplines. From books to blogs, seminars to seminaries, conferences to computer software, the resources in the Western world are vast. Yet many don’t take advantage of this precious privilege.
Our worldliness is evident when we prefer endless entertainment, and the pursuit of more possessions and comforts, over soul-nourishing education. If many would substitute learning God’s Word for even half the time they spend on Netflix, maybe we’d see a spiritual awakening.One Goal
The goal of training leaders—who will lead and plant churches in the neediest places in the world—is the glory of Christ. That’s what’s at stake. Robust theological training is for his glory in his church throughout his world. And there are brothers and sisters who are hungry—and I mean really hungry—to be trained for this task.
Robust theological training is for his glory in his church throughout his world.
So for those of us in privileged positions with resources galore: will we spend ourselves for the glory of Christ and the good of his people in the neediest parts of the world? How I pray that we will.
One of the saddest scenes in Boy Erased—a film full of sad scenes—finds protagonist Jared (Lucas Hedges) confronting his father (Russell Crowe) about their strained relationship. Jared has come out as gay, and his father is a Baptist pastor.
“There’s no changing me,” Jared tells his father, who years earlier had enrolled him in a traumatizing conversion-therapy program. “You are going to have to be the one who changes.”
For Jared, there can be no meaningful father-son relationship so long as his dad thinks a gay lifestyle is sinful. “I’m gay, and I’m your son,” he says. “And both of those things are not going to change.”
The father’s fidelity to Scripture’s witness on sexuality, however, is the only variable that can be changed, Jared implies. Change your view, or lose your son. This is the ultimatum implied in the scene—to Jared’s father and to anyone in the audience with LGBTQ loved ones. It’s black or white. Lose your old-fashioned religious view of sexuality, or lose us. It’s your choice.
This is one of many simplistic binaries in Boy Erased, a well-acted and moving drama that nevertheless traffics in the “no shades of gray” neo-fundamentalism of contemporary progressivism.Valid Critique
Based on Garrard Conley’s book Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family, the film is ostensibly an advocacy piece presenting conversion therapy—attempting to change one’s sexual orientation through psychological and behavioral means—as unnecessary, ineffective, and dangerous malpractice that threatens the safety of LGBTQ youth. Panned by almost every mental and psychiatric health organization, banned in many countries and at least 14 U.S. states, and increasingly critiqued by evangelical institutions and organizations, gay conversion therapy appears to be a phenomenon on the wane. Films like Boy Erased (which is rated R for language and a scene of sexual assault) seek to put the proverbial nail in the coffin.
When Jared comes out to his father (Crowe) and mother (Nicole Kidman) in the film, they ask, “In your heart, do you want to change?” Jared, then 19, replies, “Yes.” And he really does seem to desire change. But by the film’s end, having survived the horrors of a Memphis conversion therapy program called Love in Action, but without having his attraction to other men altered, Jared concludes that he cannot be changed. He embraces what he views as the only alternative: wholly embracing a gay identity.
Tragically, the nature of “change” Jared is pitched at Love in Action is not the sort we find in the New Testament, where “new creation” growth is the byproduct of our union with Christ in the context of a community of discipleship. At Love in Action, a supposedly “Christian” organization that was also featured in a 2011 documentary, the desired change seems less about becoming like Christ than about becoming less gay and more manly. Indeed, the behavioral therapy we see in the film is fixated on training adolescent boys like Jared to become more “manly” through things like uncrossing legs, posture (the “triangle” stance is apparently the man’s stance), push ups, handshakes, and baseball swings. With a large American flag in the backdrop, the program at times feels less like Christian discipleship than military boot camp.
Though the program’s leader, Victor Sykes (played by Joel Edgerton, who also directed the film) seems well-intentioned, his tactics are brutal and wrongheaded. In one scene a boy named Cameron (Britton Sear) is literally beaten with Bibles while he hunches over a coffin in a fake funeral for himself. Horrifying stuff. There is physical abuse, verbal abuse, spiritual abuse, and trauma that contributes (in at least one case) to a boy’s suicide. Boy Erased is right to critique these approaches to conversion therapy.Is Change Impossible?
The problem is the film’s binary posture makes no room for any approach to sexual desire that involves change in any form. The film reflects our progressive secular culture’s oddly rigid view of sexuality as something fixed and immutable—even as this same culture insists on total gender fluidity. So one’s gender can be changed, but not one’s sexual desires? In the end, the LGBTQ movement’s conception of “change” is both internally inconsistent and also experientially depressing.
Boy Erased reflects our progressive secular culture’s oddly rigid view of sexuality as something fixed and immutable—even as this same culture insists on total gender fluidity.
Imagine being told that your unwanted desires to drink or gamble or envy are “just who you are” and that changing your desires is impossible. To suggest an unchangeable givenness to the matrix of desires that constitutes a supposedly fixed “identity” is a truly novel and unbiblical anthropology. It is a notion fundamentally at odds with a faith defined by resurrection and renewal, where to be in Christ is to be a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).
By targeting Love in Action-style conversion therapy (“pray the gay away”), Boy Erased finds an easy target to justify its position that attempting to change sexual desire does more harm than good. But the film is wrong to suggest conversion therapy is the main or only way Christians approach discipleship of LGBTQ persons. Thousands of churches around the world are walking with men and women who are same-sex-attracted (SSA), working out the complexities of what discipleship and sanctification looks like for them, without asking or expecting their disordered desires to suddenly disappear. The main concern in discipling Christians who feel tension between their sexual feelings and their faith (which is really all Christians) is not sexual orientation but spiritual orientation. The latter is the root issue, affecting all of our desires and behavior, sexual or otherwise. Indeed, the most important “conversion” in the Christian life involves a changed heart posture toward God.Truly Erased
Garrard Conley’s story is his story, and Boy Erased does it justice. It’s a story Christians should reckon with, listen to, and learn from. But Rosaria Butterfield’s story also exists, as does Jackie Hill Perry’s, and Christopher Yuan’s, and Sam Allberry’s, and countless others who have chosen faithfulness to Scripture and identity in Christ over faithfulness to identity in sexuality. Where are the movies about these stories? Would progressives be willing to reckon with, listen to, and learn from these stories?
Boy Erased leaves the impression of a one-size-fits-all prescription for those with SSA: Don’t fight it. Don’t think it’s in any way wrong. Don’t long to be changed. Just accept who you are and live with pride.
But for many Christ followers, it’s not that simple. Watch the vignettes of Catholics struggling with sexuality and faithfulness to Christ in this documentary. Watch the testimony of Beckett Cook, a Hollywood production designer who left a gay lifestyle behind when he started following Jesus. Watch CCM songwriter Dennis Jernigan tell his emotional story of freedom from a homosexual lifestyle. These stories are out there, though they’re sadly hard to find. Hollywood studios and media gatekeepers don’t like that these stories exist. You won’t see Nicole Kidman starring in a film about the life of Rosaria Butterfield.
If anyone is truly being “erased” today, it is those who fall in the category of pursuing Christian faithfulness despite SSA; those who have chosen the costly path of celibacy or the complex pursuit of heterosexual marriage; those who have embraced the cost of discipleship in choosing Jesus over sexual fulfillment. We need more stories like these, showing how Jesus followers can pursue Christian faithfulness even while living with the challenges and complexities of sexual desires (which are challenging and complex whether you’re attracted to the same sex or not).
Every Christian will at some point feel tension between faith and sexual desires, and films like Boy Erased suggest there is no way to manage such a tension unless one’s faith beliefs are adjusted to accommodate sexual desires. Not only is this a simplistic solution to “resolve” the tension, but it also presumes unresolved tension has no place or value in life. Just as conversion therapy prescribes a too-simple solution to the complex struggle of SSA, so too does Boy Erased, just on the other extreme.
Every Christian will at some point feel tension between faith and sexual desires, and films like Boy Erased suggest there is no way to manage such a tension unless one’s faith beliefs are adjusted to accommodate one’s sexual desires.More Complicated
Given the dichotomous thinking in Boy Erased (“Your son is not changing, so your faith must”), it’s no surprise when Jared’s mom (Kidman) changes her faith. By the end of the film she no longer attends church regularly, and she sums up her beliefs this way: “I love God. God loves me. And I love my son. It’s that simple. For your father it’s a bit more complicated.”
It’s more complicated because, while Jared’s father (Crowe) loves his son and says so in the film, he can’t just throw away Scripture. Enduring the pain of managing this tension—loving Scripture and loving his son, without assuming the latter requires abandoning the former—makes Crowe’s character the most interesting and heroic of the film, even while he makes mistakes along the way. But Boy Erased casts his “more complicated” journey in a condescending way, as a quaint (if somewhat stubborn) brand of old-fashioned fundamentalism bound to fall apart in time, whenever reason and science prevail.
Indeed, the movie presents faith as a largely anti-intellectual pursuit necessarily in conflict with science. A doctor character (Cherry Jones) says she is a religious woman—“but I also went to medical school . . . I hold science in one hand and God in the other.” This lazy binary (faith vs. science) shows up elsewhere in the film. At one point Jared visits an art exhibit titled (literally) “God vs. Science.” He meets the artist, a gay man named Xavier (Théodore Pellerin), who listens to Jared as he describes his spiritual tension: “I imagine I am Job . . . God and the Devil are having a bet over me.” Xavier neatly resolves the tension for Jared by declaring, “God is in all of us.”
I’m reminded of what Ross Douthat notes in Bad Religion about heresies—that they almost always stem from “a desire to resolve Christianity’s contradictions, untie its knotty paradoxes, and produce a cleaner and more coherent faith.” Whether the tension of faith and science or the tension of sexual desires and biblical teachings, the either/or approach is certainly easier. But it is likelier to be heretical.
Whether the tension of faith and science or the tension of sexual desires and biblical teachings, the either/or approach is certainly easier. But it is likelier to be heretical.
Sadly, the tensions felt by Christians like Jared are too easily resolved in Boy Erased. When God’s revelation in Scripture feels harsh or disapproving of one’s feelings, it is replaced with the “revelation” of autonomy and sexual liberation. This is championed in the form of a song, “Revelation,” repeated a few times in the film. Gay singer/songwriter Troye Sivan (who has a small acting role in the film) sings: You’re a revelation / Won’t you liberate me now / From a holy bound . . . It’s a revelation / There’s no hell in what I found / No kingdom shout / How the tides are changing / As you liberate me now / And the walls come down.
But is this liberation “from a holy bound” really liberating? Is the path of choosing self-fulfillment over faithfulness to Scripture really revelatory?True Liberation
One of the saddest things about Boy Erased is that Jared is sent away from his church in his time of need. He’s sent to a “specialist” parachurch program to work on his temptations in a context far from his local church family. But church members tempted by greed or pornography or heterosexual lust are not sent away to specialist camps to be “fixed.” Why is Jared? Same-sex-attracted Christians should be discipled within the church family, along with everyone else. Their cost of discipleship may look higher than others, but as Sam Allberry has pointed out, the cost is high for everyone:
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The key word is anyone. To follow Jesus, all of us will have to say a deep and profound no to some of our deepest intuitions and longings. Jesus doesn’t put “self” in front of “identity”; he puts it in front of “denial.”
This call needs to be spelled out. Jesus goes on to say that there is a sense of “losing our life” in following him (v. 35), that there will be times when it feels like obedience to him is taking life from us. And yet the glorious paradox is that by going through this loss, we are actually gaining life. By denying self and following Jesus we don’t become less who we are; we become most truly ourselves.
In the upside-down kingdom of God, this is what true liberation looks like. It is the freedom to follow Christ rather than our fickle hearts; the freedom of being caught up in God’s story rather than our own; the freedom of not being slaves to our desires.
God doesn’t promise the removal of same-sex desires, or heterosexual marriage, to those who, like Jared in Boy Erased (at least in the beginning), wish for “change.” God promises himself. To have God, are we willing to say no to our disordered desires?
Contrary to the tragic reductionism of Boy Erased, there are many paths of faithfulness and flourishing for the Christian with SSA. There are certainly paths of unfaithfulness—sanctifying one’s desires rather than submitting them to God; shrugging off Scripture’s authority when it feels confining. But many are walking the faithful paths daily. They are in your church. They are in your family. Their testimonies need to be heard. They need your love and accountability on their journey, just as you need theirs.
“Listen. I gotta break it to you . . . I’m post-Christian. . . . I don’t believe it anymore. I don’t believe any of it.”
These are the words former Christian minister Bart Campolo recalls speaking to his famous evangelist father, Tony Campolo, after leaving the faith of his youth. He explained that his journey to secular humanism was a 30-year process of passing through every stage of heresy. In other words, his theology “progressed” from conservative to liberal to entirely secular.
He predicted that in 10 years, 30 percent to 40 percent of so-called progressive Christians will also become atheists. Progressive Christianity is tough to define, because there isn’t a creed or list of beliefs that progressive Christians officially unite around. However, progressive Christians tend to reject the historic biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality, and generally deny or redefine doctrines such as the atonement and biblical authority.
As a result, Campolo believes that for the most part, progressives have already abandoned Christianity, simply redefining terms in an effort to hold on to some semblance of their faith. He believes the generation behind them will recognize the shallowness of this new theology—and, with nothing invested in remaining a Christian, they’ll basically say, “Let’s just call it what it is,” and leave the faith altogether.De-Conversion Stories
The trajectory Campolo identifies isn’t difficult to spot. Husband-and-wife Christian recording duo Gungor recently made headlines when Lisa described her husband’s year-long conversion to atheism in a Buzzfeed video titled, “I Stopped Believing in God after Pastoring a MegaChurch.” The video highlighted the couple’s spiritual evolution from faith to “heretical” to unbelieving . . . and back to belief. Although Lisa’s own atheism lasted only a day, the faith she and Michael have finally come to embrace looks little like historic Christianity. After stating he no longer feels “spiritually homeless,” Michael identified himself as an “Apophatic mystic Hindu pantheist Christian Buddhist skeptic with a penchant for nihilistic progressive existentialism.”
The Gungors aren’t alone in this pattern. Mike McHargue, better known as “Science Mike,” tells a similar story of deconstruction, temporary atheism, and a return to a faith that is foreign to the Christianity he previously practiced. He told Relevant magazine that after he started blogging and podcasting his story, he received thousands of emails from people who share the same experience. Even the famously skeptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman passed through a progressive Christian phase on his way out of evangelical Christianity and into atheism. He now believes “it is possible to be both an agnostic and an atheist. And that’s how I understand myself.”
Bands like Caedmon’s Call composed the soundtrack for many evangelical youth. That’s why it’s especially sad to learn that former member Derek Webb recently announced he’s walked away from his faith, finding the Christian narrative to “not be true.” He describes his new album, Fingers Crossed, as a “tale of two divorces,” referencing the divorce from his wife, and from God. The album features a song called “Goodbye for Now,” which laments,
So either you aren’t real
or I am just not chosen
maybe I’ll never know
Either way my heart is broken.
So goodbye for now.
These “de-conversion stories” (see “Jen Hatmaker and the Power of De-Conversion Stories”) have become almost a rite of passage in the progressive church, giving rise to podcasts, websites, and conferences entirely devoted to the process of deconstruction. In fact, Webb’s latest album has been described as “an anthem for deconstruction,” inspiring a podcast called The Airing of Grief, where listeners can share their de-conversion stories.
The two belief systems have some significant underlying beliefs in common.
Time will tell if Campolo’s theory that progressive Christianity leads to atheism is valid. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but it’s worth noting that the two belief systems have some significant underlying beliefs in common.
Here are three atheistic ideas that some progressive Christians espouse and may lead them into full-blown atheism.1. They May Adopt a Belief That the Bible Is Unreliable
“[The Bible is] a profoundly human book” (Rob Bell).
“If we are fixed on the Bible as a book that has to get history ‘right,’ the Gospels become a crippling problem” (Peter Enns).
“Anything in the Bible that looks miraculous or contrary to the normal functions of the natural world is not factual, but rather is mythological” (James Burklo).
“What business do I have describing as ‘inerrant’ and ‘infallible’ a text that presumes a flat and stationary earth, takes slavery for granted, and presupposes patriarchal norms like polygamy?” (Rachel Held Evans).
Think these are the musings of hardened skeptics? The declarations of atheists bent on destroying Christianity? No. These are actually the words of progressive Christian writers and scholars about their own holy Book.
No one would think twice if they heard an atheist deride the supernatural stories in Scripture. But they might be surprised to learn that progressive Christians share this skepticism. Progressive Christian writers David Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy consider it a given that the virgin birth, Jesus’s healing miracles, and the resurrection are metaphorical. Progressive author Rachel Held Evans suggests that Christians should be less concerned about the historical validity of these miracle stories, and more focused on the theological points they teach.2. They May Have an Unresolved Answer to the Problem of Evil
For atheists, one of the most consistent defeaters of belief in God is the reality of evil and suffering. Throughout the ages, even many Christians have wrestled with this ancient dilemma: If God is good, why is there evil? If he’s all powerful, why doesn’t he do something about it? Sadly, when someone can’t come to a place of resolve and peace with these questions, the temptation is to redefine the faith they’ve held—or to leave it altogether.
In an interview on a popular Irish television show, atheist Stephen Fry was asked what he might say to God if he died and discovered he did indeed exist. He responded, “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right.” Fry ended by saying if God exists, he’s an “utter maniac.”
Instead of saying ‘Just have faith’ or ‘You shouldn’t question your faith,’ we should provide a safe place for people to ask tough questions and process their doubts.
Similarly, when addressing his recent conversion from Christianity to atheism, Derek Webb said, “Either it’s all chaos—or there is a god who is both all-loving and all-powerful, and he’s just a f***ing a**hole. It’s got to be one of the two.”
Lisa Gungor expressed that one of the tipping points in her own faith deconstruction was a visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Shortly after, while processing her cousin’s bout with cancer, she described hitting rock bottom. Her temporary atheism circled back to a kind of faith after the birth of her second child. Although she doesn’t use a label to describe her current belief system, she refers to God as “Divine Mother,” saying: “I love the way of Jesus. I don’t have a definition for that.”
Former atheist C. S. Lewis wrote:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?
For Lewis, the problem of evil led him to faith in God. But in the case of progressive Christians and atheists, it often leads to further deconstruction and unbelief.3. They May Affirm a Culture-Adapting Morality
Many atheists believe an action is moral or immoral based on its effect on the well-being of humanity. With no need to bring God into the picture, this view of morality ends up following certain societal norms.
It’s not so different for progressive Christianity. With the Bible evicted from its seat of authority, that authority will generally shift onto self. Personal conscience, opinion, and preference becomes the lens through which life and morality is evaluated and interpreted—and this will usually be informed by the current cultural milieu.
In 2016, Jen Hatmaker sent shockwaves through American Christian culture by announcing she now affirms same-sex marriage. LGBT activist Matthew Vines tweeted that this made her “one of the highest-profile evangelicals” to do so. She’s hardly the only self-professed evangelical who no longer holds to the historic Christian position on sexuality and marriage.
For atheists, morality has never been informed by the Bible, and for progressives, the Bible is being renovated to accommodate some of our culture’s moral standards.Atheists in the Making?
After his conversion to secular humanism, Campolo decided he still had something to offer as a minister. But instead of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, he now teaches the tenets of humanism as University of Cinncinatti’s humanist chaplain. Using the skills he cultivated as a Christian minister, he operates much like any other chaplain, meeting with students to give guidance and advice.
If Campolo is right, many progressive Christians are on a path to full-blown atheism. And he’ll be there to offer the de-converted support and friendship in a world without God.
The teachings of the Bible aren’t progressive—they’re eternal.
This isn’t to say that every Christian who holds progressive views on certain issues is on a direct route to atheism. Progressive Christianity covers a spectrum. But as Campolo describes, letting go of historical doctrines can be addictive. He explains, “Once you start adjusting your theology to match up to the reality you see in front of you, it’s an infinite progression.”
For Campolo, sovereignty was the first to go. For others, it’s a belief in biblical norms regarding sexuality and gender, or the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Whatever it may be, once a person makes their own thoughts, feelings, and opinions the authoritative source for truth, their spirituality will reflect what they prefer, rather than what’s true. And the farther a Christian walks down this path, the farther they get from a genuine relationship with God. Tim Keller aptly notes,
What happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will? If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you? You won’t! You’ll have a Stepford God! A God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction.Christian Response
So what can we do to prevent this from happening in our churches and families?
As Natasha Crain recently pointed out, committed Christians in America are now a minority, and we need to prepare ourselves and our kids for that reality. We need to truly understand what it means to take the narrow road and fix our gaze on the beautiful reward that awaits those who walk it. We need to thoughtfully and intelligently interact with questions of faith with compassion and clarity. Instead of saying “Just have faith” or “You shouldn’t question your faith,” we should provide a safe place for people to ask tough questions and process their doubts.
Truly following Jesus has been countercultural since the first century. Christians have always had to stand up against the spirit of the age, and when we fail to do so, it can be a step toward unbelief. The teachings of the Bible aren’t progressive—they’re eternal. So we must “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:23).
After all, the contemporary views that many people call “progressive” aren’t progressive anyway: they’re very old, echoes of that primordial question, “Did God really say?” (Gen. 3:1), signs of the most wicked rebellion imaginable. And we all know where that ends up.
Google “robots” and you’ll discover dozens of articles forecasting the future of our economy. One study projects a potential 800 million global jobs lost to automation. We can see the trend already in the self-service lines at stores, the rise of chatbots, and the touchscreen kiosks sweeping the country’s fast food chains. Though the changes leave some hopeful about the possibilities of automation, others are uneasy at the prospect of being replaced.
Whether or not you fear that your current role being taken over by a robot, the truth is many of us go through periods when our work feels unneeded. Our workload is filled with dead-end projects, our tasks feel monotonous, or there is enormous competition in our field. It leaves us wondering: Does my work matter?God Didn’t Need You
As we consider these questions, we can find hope in a seldom-discussed attribute of God. The opening words of the Bible are “In the beginning, God” (Gen. 1:1). Here we get the first look at God’s aseity (literally “from self”).
The aseity of God means that he wasn’t created by anything, dependent on anything, or in need of anything. He always existed, and he is fully satisfied in himself.
The news that God doesn’t need us isn’t another declaration of our uselessness; it’s a precious gift.
It’s easy to slip into the thinking that God was filling a void when he created—maybe he needed a friend? But God didn’t progress through each day of creation until he finally got it right. Each day was called good not because the prior day wasn’t, but because he created and made it so.
We see this theme echoed in the humbled cries of King Nebuchadnezzar, who concedes that man is nothing and God does according to his will among the heavens (Dan. 4:35). Additionally, Paul references divine aseity at Mars Hill, recounting the God who isn’t served by human hands, as though he needed anything, but who gives life to everything (Acts 17:25).
The news that God doesn’t need us isn’t another declaration of our uselessness; it’s a precious gift. The doctrine of aseity allows us to marvel at the incredible love of God in creating us. For he made us not out of need, but freedom.
In God’s aseity we’re also freed from burdens too heavy to bear. Neither the goodness nor power of God rests on our weak shoulders. The amount of worth we receive from our work doesn’t change his character, catch him off guard, or render him any more or less glorious than he is right now.God Gave Work as a Gift
Not only did God freely create us, he also chose to give us work. He tells Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” (Gen. 1:28). If we read these words without a proper understanding of God’s aseity, we set ourselves up for disappointment when we feel stuck in the menial. Our dead-end job doesn’t feel like we have dominion.
You have a stronger hope, and a fuller mission, than simply finding the you-shaped hole in the universe.
We might think we were made to be an Esther, birthed into this world “for such a time as this,” but we forget the humbling first half of that well-known verse, when Mordecai tells Esther that God will save his people with or without her (Esth. 4:14). The truth is God doesn’t lean on us to fill a void he can’t fill, since he has no void and his plans will never be thwarted (Job 42:2).
Instead we can look at our work through the lens of God’s aseity and see the command God gave us to fill and rule over the earth not as a burdensome need, but as a gift to obey—no matter how small the task seems. As we labor in faithfulness, we acknowledge that our work is a form a worship, and that ultimately it’s God who makes any of it good.
So we can sit through eight hours of meetings, take food orders, or mop floors that will only be dirty again because God uses our work to glorify himself. He doesn’t need us to pick up Legos or take pictures or even write articles, but God gave us these tasks as a gift to participate in his good work in the world.God Gave Us Co-Workers
Along with faithfulness in our work, God calls us to faithfulness to those who do need us—our neighbors in general and Christ’s body in particular. God called each day of creation good, and yet it was not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18).
This need for community is repeated throughout the New Testament, and echoed in the very picture of Christ’s body. A body’s various parts are all dependent and connected, whether they seem weaker or not (1 Cor. 12:15–26). So, too, we as the church need each other—to serve, to teach, and to encourage each other to stay faithful in whatever callings we’ve been entrusted.
You have a stronger hope, and a fuller mission, than simply finding the you-shaped hole in the universe. Maybe it’s okay that a robot could do your job, or that there are hundreds of other workers just like you. Your ordinary work, after all, is a chance to worship the God who made you and gave you everything you need—not because he had to out of lack, but because he wanted to out of love.
I’ll never forget when I realized I didn’t believe in angels.
It was 2006, and I was reading C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet for the first time. In the book, Edwin Ransom is taken to Malacandra (Mars), where he encounters intelligent beings called eldila, the chief of whom is the Oyarsa.
Because the story dealt with rocket travel through outer space to an actual planet, I had a ready category for these beings: aliens. And since aliens had always been implausible to me anyway, I had no trouble suspending my disbelief. Then Lewis dropped a clear biblical allusion, and my eyes were opened.
Ransom meets the Oyarsa, who explains to him that the Silent Planet Thulcandra is actually Earth, and that it became silent when its Oyarsa became “bent.” There are rumors, however, that “Maleldil” (Jesus) has pulled off an amazing rescue:
We think that Maleldil would not give it up utterly to the Bent One, and there are stories among us that He has taken strange counsel and dared terrible things, wrestling with the Bent One in Thulcandra. But of this we know less than you; it is a thing we desire to look into.
With this clear reference to 1 Peter 1:12, it finally dawned on me that these were not aliens. That passage speaks of the gospel events as “things the angels desire to look into” (KJV).
All along, I had been reading about angels and chalking it up to science fiction. I simply didn’t have room in my cosmology for intelligent, invisible, spiritual beings other than God. Not really. Angels existed in the Bible, not in the “air” and certainly not on other planets in our solar system. I had effectively cut angels out of the “real” cosmos.Enter Michael Heiser
Ever since that shocking realization, I’ve paid closer attention to what the Bible says about angels, as well as to what older Christian writers have said about them. I’ve even thought about writing a book.
But thanks to Michael Heiser, now I don’t have to.
Heiser is scholar-in-residence for Faithlife Corporation, the company that gave us Logos Bible software. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the role of angels as “the divine council” (Ps. 82:1), and has since carved out a niche for himself as an expert in the supernatural and paranormal.
His latest book, Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host, is a tour de force tackling everything from the angel of the LORD in Genesis to the angels of the seven churches in Revelation. Written at an intermediate level, Angels offers a thorough account of angels in the Old and New Testaments, as well as in Second Temple Jewish literature. He concludes with a chapter of miscellaneous myths and questions about angels.
Biblical angels are more like Poseidon than Precious Moments.
My only gripe about the book is Heiser’s tendency to cast “Christian tradition” as the bogeyman, with ancient Near Eastern studies as the savior (xiii, xix, 42). Derek Rishmawy refers to this as Heiser’s “frustrating case of biblical studies prejudice.” Perhaps by “tradition” Heiser means the cheesy stuff he heard as a kid. But if he means Athanasius, Aquinas, and Luther, then, as Rishmawy points out, it’s hard to get more supernatural than these guys.Who Are They?
Chapter 1 surveys the Old Testament (OT) terminology for the heavenly host, structured around terms that describe their nature (what they are), their status (how they rank), and their function (what they do). One might be taken aback by how many terms there are besides “angel.” For their nature, they’re spirits, heavenly ones, stars, holy ones, and gods (2–12). For status, they’re described in terms of an assembly, council, congregation, and court (13–17). And for function, there are words like angel, minister, watcher, host/mighty ones, mediator, cherubim, and seraphim (17–27). He concludes by noting that
talk of “angels” in the Old Testament is both too simplistic and incomplete. We are of course accustomed to that term, but it fails to do justice to how an Israelite would have thought about the spiritual world. (27)
Particularly interesting is his discussion of angels as “gods.” The OT doesn’t reserve the word elohim (God/gods) for God alone (see Ps. 8:5; 82:1, 6). Rather, it uses the word broadly for “any entity that is not embodied by nature and is a member of the spiritual realm” (12). But neither does the OT teach polytheism. Rather, it distinguishes the one true Elohim from the lesser elohim in other ways. He’s eternal; they’re not. He created them; not they him. He is worshiped by them; never they by him. Still, they’re gods in a lesser sense. This language can remind us that biblical angels are more like Poseidon than Precious Moments.What Do They Do?
Chapter 2 outlines the OT picture of what angels do.
As participants in God’s heavenly council, they contribute to council resolutions, bear witness to his decrees, and assist in his governance of the world (33–46). They also deliver his decrees, explain his activity, and execute his judgment (46–55). They’re both the “heavenly bureaucracy” (13) and “God’s task force” (56). And perhaps most familiarly, they’re God’s heavenly worship team, praising him day and night (55–56).
God’s sovereignty doesn’t render angels useless, any more than it renders humans useless.
With regard to angelic participation in God’s decrees, Heiser seems to hold to a libertarian view of freedom (35, 49). But compatibilists like myself should still profit from his analysis of angelic activity. The fact that I once asked the quasi-deistic question “What would they do?” suggests that we need to work harder to include angels in our concept of secondary causality, in providence as well as in miracles (104; Rev. 16:5).
God’s sovereignty doesn’t render angels useless, any more than it renders humans useless.Why Does It Matter?
From the opening page, Heiser is aware that the obvious question is “Who cares?” (xiii). Despite obsession with angels in some quarters, for many Christians the Bible’s storyline could be told with nary a reference to angels at all. And to some degree, that’s understandable. As Heiser gladly affirms,
The emphasis of what the Bible says about the intersection of heaven and earth is, understandably, God himself. . . . Though an integral part of how Scripture shows God’s will being carried out on earth, the heavenly host’s service operates like a computer program running in the background. (57)
Still, it’s hard for me to imagine many Western Christians today speaking like Paul does in 1 Timothy 5:21, where he charges Timothy not only in the presence of God and Christ Jesus, but also in the presence of the elect angels. They’re just not part of the furniture of our minds the way they were for Paul. We’re not nearly so conscious of their presence. I suspect we fear that a greater awareness of them would distract us from God or make us superstitious (both of which could happen, of course).
Angels aren’t the main thing in the Bible, but they’re present in supporting roles from beginning to end, and it’s helpful to think through the Bible’s storyline with particular reference to them.
Angels aren’t the main thing in the Bible, but they’re present in supporting roles from beginning to end, and it’s helpful to think through the Bible’s storyline with particular reference to them.Story of God’s Two Families
If we start at the beginning, John Owen notes that God “provided himself [with] two distinct, rational families,” angels and men. Heiser suggests that both were made in God’s image, albeit with man a little lower than the angels (xv–xvi). Still, both families were on the same side—God’s side. But then a great rupture occurred. Some angels rebelled, followed by all men.
In his sovereign justice, God passed by the fallen angels, offering no redemption (152; Heb. 2:16). But in his great kindness, he carried out an eternal plan in which the Son of God became lower than the angels by assuming human nature, so that through death he could defeat the evil angels and redeem his human brothers (Heb. 2:5–18).
In the end, it will be the holy angels who gather us to Jesus (Matt. 24:31). Then, with his authority, we’ll judge the evil angels and take their place as rulers of the earth (1 Cor. 6:3; Deut. 32:8–9; 131).
Despite obsession with angels in some quarters, for many Christians, the Bible’s storyline could be told with nary a reference to angels at all.
In the meantime, the holy angels serve us (Heb. 1:14), since Jesus has reconciled us and placed us back on the same team. Though torn asunder by rebellion, God’s two families have been made one again in Christ Jesus. And so, far from envying the grace shown to us, they rejoice in our repentance (Luke 15:10), obsess over our salvation (1 Pet. 1:12), and marvel at God’s manifold wisdom in forming one church out of many warring peoples through the blood of his cross (Eph. 3:10; 2:11–22).
Contrary to popular belief, we’ll never become angels. But we’ll meet them in glory as all things in heaven and earth are united in Christ (Eph. 1:10). We’ll gather with them around the throne to worship our mutual Father and King (Rev. 7:9–12). And we will “join [them] in a blended divine family and actually outrank [them] in a new global Eden” (177).
The Oyarsa was right. Maleldil hasn’t given us up to the Bent One. He has dared terrible things for us and taken strange counsel. The angels long to look into God’s plans for us, the redeemed. Let us occasionally return the favor.