Mission for the Third Millennium

 

This book, co-authored with Robert M. Bowman Jr., Deals with the challenges Christians face as we approach the third millennium. Includes chapters on evolution, psychology, postmodernism, humanism, the New Age movement, Islam, liberal Christianity, cultic Christianity, biblical Christianity, moral relativism, multiculturalism, secularism, abortion, feminism, and homosexuality. 

 Kenneth Boa

Website: http://www.kenboa.org
Commentary: http://www.kenboa.org/blog
Follow: http://twitter.com/kennethboa
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A hardcopy version of this work is available here on Amazon.

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1. Meeting the Challenges to Christian Faith and Values

Introduction:
Our Changing World

As we approach the beginning of the third millennium, the world seems to be changing quickly and indeed to be spinning out of control. While the threat of a superpower conflict has subsided, the world is still a very dangerous place. Not only have wars been causing havoc and tragedy in places like Bosnia and Rwanda, but the confident peace and security of America, the sole surviving superpower, has been shattered by such events as the bombings of the World Trade Center in New York and the federal building in Oklahoma City.

The world is also a very confusing place, with recent developments in science and culture calling almost everything into question that we once believed. Science itself seems to be suffering a breakdown of its consensus, if it ever had one. Scientists today appear to debate almost everything of cultural significance, from whether the unborn are persons from conception to whether miracles are possible. An increasing number of thinkers are declaring this a “postmodern world” — one in which no consensus is possible because reality is however we perceive it, and one in which neither the Christian worldview nor the modern humanist worldview can any longer command assent.

Is there any place for the biblical, Christian worldview in this changing world? Do Christians have anything to say in response to the myriad challenges they face today to their faith and values? These are the questions we address in this book. We do not try to provide detailed, comprehensive explanations of the issues nor exhaustive, definitive answers to the questions. Instead, we offer a wide-ranging analysis of some of the most critical issues facing Christians today, from evolution to abortion, from the Muslims to the Mormons, from the New Age movement to the gay rights movement. Think of this book as a large-scale map showing the major political boundaries, longest rivers, highest mountain ranges, and largest cities, with smaller “insets” showing more detailed views of select areas. You will get a better view of the big picture, and from there can go on to examine the details with a street map for those local areas of special interest to you. At the end of the book we provide a list of readings that will serve as such “street maps” to go beyond the information provided here.

The most important question that needs to be answered is not what we should think about this or that subject — say, what we should think about the age of the universe or about women in pastoral ministry — but how we should think about all such questions. We do not pretend to know all the answers to all such questions, but we do believe that we know the way we should approach them. We are more interested and concerned to present and model a way of thinking about the issues than to convince you of the correctness of all of our opinions about these issues. For the greatest challenge facing Christians as we enter the third millennium is not finding answers to specific questions or solutions to specific problems, but making clear to our culture that the Christian faith is relevant to all questions and all problems.

How, then, do we approach such diverse questions as why God allows evil and whether some people are born genetically predisposed to homosexuality? Our answer, briefly, is that a biblical worldview and biblical principles should be made the basis for seeking answers to these questions. This does not mean that answers to such questions can always be read straight out of the Bible, as if a simple quotation from the Bible can be produced that will allow us to say to any question we can pose, “Oh, well then, that’s the answer.” Obviously, with some questions the Bible will actually provide direct information or instruction (such as why God allows evil), but with other questions we will not find any direct consideration of the matter (such as whether some people are genetically predisposed to homosexuality). But where the Bible does not speak directly, it provides a framework of understanding within which we can fruitfully pursue answers to our questions. This framework is what we have been calling a worldview, the standard term for them, though actually worldviews might be better called reality-views. A worldview is a “map” (to return to that analogy) which we carry about in our minds, referring to it constantly even when we are not aware of its existence — which, for most of us, is most of the time.

The understanding that the Bible provides a worldview and teaches a variety of principles but does not provide direct answers to every question we might ask leads to an important conclusion about how we go about seeking and articulating answers. If every question had a straightforward answer in a biblical reference or two, we could take those answers and dogmatically insist that everyone accept those answers. On the other hand, if the Bible never answered any of our most basic questions and provided no insight or guidance for pursuing answers to all our questions, then we would have to admit that we were essentially on our own and that our answers were not necessarily any better than anyone else’s. But we face neither of these alternatives. As Christians, we confess that God has revealed himself and his will for the human race in the Bible. We do have answers, and this gives us a basis for confidence in confronting our culture with those answers. At the same time, because not everything is spelled out in Scripture and there are many questions that cannot be directly or certainly answered from the Bible, we must be cautious and humbly admit that we do not have all of the answers and that some of our answers may be less reliable than others.

In short, a worldview approach to applying biblical teaching to contemporary cultural issues and problems requires a balance of confidence and caution, boldness and humility. Where God’s word is clear, we cannot afford to be cloudy. But where God’s word calls upon us to make use of the gifts of reason and our senses to pursue matters beyond the immediate concern of the biblical revelation, we cannot short-circuit that process by concocting simplistic answers and trying to justify them on the basis of a dubious application of the biblical text.

Before going any further, it will be helpful to give a concise statement of what we mean by the biblical worldview. Perhaps the simplest definition is that the biblical worldview has three cornerstone affirmations: monotheism, incarnationalism, and evangelicalism. Monotheism affirms that there is one God who created the world, who made human beings to be creatures who could relate personally both to other creatures in the physical world of which they are a part and to the God who made them, and who holds human beings accountable for their willful breaking of these relationships. Incarnationalism affirms that this God, who revealed himself to us in Scripture, revealed himself supremely by becoming human uniquely in Jesus of Nazareth, who as the Son revealed the Father who sent him and the Spirit whom he sent after he died and rose again to restore our relationship with God. Evangelicalism (used here in a broader sense than usual) affirms that through faith in Jesus as our great God and Savior we enjoy that restored relationship with God and begin to learn again how to honor God in our relations with one another and with his creation. These affirmations are fundamental to the biblical, Christian worldview.

One other premise of the method or approach that we take to the controversial issues in our culture should be explained at the outset. It is possible to respond to each new challenge or difficult issue arising in our culture that poses questions for Christian faith and values by rejecting and condemning outright anything that is strange, unfamiliar, or contrary to traditional opinions. And many Christians do just that. The problem with this approach is that it positions the Christian in a retreatist and reactionary stance. We seem to be falling back from engaging the culture with the truth of God’s word, trying to find a secure bunker from which to defend the gospel. What we should be doing is advancing, carrying the flag forward, and meeting the challenges squarely. For example, it may seem safer to dismiss out of hand all scientific theories that challenge traditional interpretations of the Bible, but in the long run it means that fewer and fewer Christians will make contributions to science and we will have capitulated the sciences to non-Christian worldviews. Arguably we have already done so in some quarters of the church, at least to a great extent.

On the other hand, it is also possible to respond to each new challenging question or idea or cultural development by trying to incorporate it into the Christian faith without asking hard questions about whether it will really fit. Again, many people inside the Christian church are doing just that. The result is that Christianity in such circles appears very trendy, but at the expense of truth. It may seem that in order to make Christianity relevant we must accept whatever trend-setting scientists or scholars tell us is so, but in the long run that will make God’s revelation captive to human rationalization and we will have surrendered the Christian faith to non-Christian speculations. Again, arguably this has also been done in some quarters in the church.

The course we attempt to chart is to avoid both a reactionary antagonism toward the intellectual and cultural developments of our day, and an accommodation of the Christian message to the spirit of the times. Our goal is to seek to make a faithful response that acknowledges the church’s responsibility to continue changing and growing in its own understanding of the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ. We have much to learn, both from God’s word in Scripture and from God’s world. And God’s world includes both nature and people — including non-Christian people. It is the most difficult course, but it is the only one that will get us all the way downstream with our boat intact. This means, as a practical matter, taking what critics of orthodox Christianity say with utmost seriousness — while not yielding ground on those basic principles which Scripture clearly teaches and which have formed the essential framework of belief for the church throughout its history.

It would be arrogant for us to claim that we have sailed this course successfully ourselves around every bend and past every rock. We are learning ourselves, and with this book taking part in a great conversation among God’s people to which we also invite those who do not know our God. We will be grateful to God if this book helps others find their bearings and encourages them to take part in the ongoing mission of the church as we enter the third millennium.

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2. The Evolution Revolution: Naturalism and the Question of Origins

You ask how to fight an idea. I’ll tell you: with another idea.

-- Massala (Stephen Boyd), in Ben-Hur (1959)

The greatest forces in human civilization are not nuclear weapons or massive armies, but ideas. It was an idea that motivated the great political revolutions of the past, including the French and American revolutions of the late eighteenth century, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and the Democracy Revolution in Eastern Europe in 1989. Ideas are the source of both the weapons with which men wage war and the reasons for which they fight in the first place. The ideas we entertain about ourselves and our place in the world shape our decisions in every facet of life from how we spend our money to how we cast our votes.

Among the most influential ideas in the world today are those which have been developed in the sciences. The term science is used here in its broadest sense to refer to both the natural sciences, such as physics and biology, and the human sciences, such as psychology and history. All of these disciplines have emerged as special fields of study in the past two centuries, and all of them have rocked the world with intellectual revolutions no less dramatic and significant than the political revolutions mentioned earlier. Indeed, the scientific revolutions have in some cases directly contributed to the political revolutions, as we shall see.

Revolution in the Heavens

The first scientific revolution to challenge the Christian faith is now a part of the worldview of virtually every Christian (and every non-Christian as well). At first, though, this new idea seemed to undermine the Christian view of the place of human beings in God’s world. At the center -- if a pun may be allowed! -- of this revolution was the idea that the earth is not fixed at the center of the universe, but instead revolves around the sun along with other heavenly bodies. We take the idea for granted now, but at first the idea was hailed with scorn and evidently some fear.

The medieval view that the earth was the unmoving center of the universe, known as geocentrism, was inherited from the ancient Greeks and systematized in the second century AD by the pagan astronomer Ptolemy. Although the Ptolemaic system was not actually taught in the Bible, it was easy for the medieval Christian world to read the idea into various biblical texts. The Scripture most commonly cited to prove the geocentric position was Joshua 10:13, which states that in answer to Joshua’s prayer “the sun stopped in the middle of the sky, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.” The belief that the earth stood at the center of the universe with all heavenly bodies moving around the earth was correlated with the Christian doctrine that human beings were uniquely related to God as his representatives in the material universe. It seemed so sensible, so obvious, that the most important creatures in the universe would live at its center. This theological perspective, more typically assumed than stated, combined with the obvious fact that the earth feels stationary and the heavenly bodies look like they are revolving around the earth, made any suggestion to the contrary seem both irreverent and foolish.

Copernicus: A Mathematical Challenge

Not surprisingly, the first book to challenge the geocentric system was released to the public only shortly after the author’s death. Nicholas Copernicus, a Polish church official and physician, spent much of his life studying astronomy and working out an alternative to the Ptolemaic system. He wrote a brief treatise outlining his theory as early as 1514 and circulated it privately to a few close friends, but finished his complete book and agreed to its publication only in 1543 shortly before his death. The book, “On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres” (De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium), did not overturn the geocentric system overnight. For one thing, the argument is almost purely mathematical, showing that the paths followed in particular by the planets in the night sky are more simply described in mathematical terms on the assumption that the sun rather than the earth is at the center of the universe. (Even Copernicus did not realize that the sun was only one of billions of similar stars in the universe.) Indeed, Copernicus sought to stave off criticism of his book by describing it as “written for mathematicians.”1 Another reason why the book did not immediately cause a furor (although it was severely criticized) was that the editor, the Lutheran scholar Osiander, had included a preface suggesting that the book merely agreed with the observed locations of the heavenly bodies in the sky over time and did not necessarily describe their actual movements.

Galileo: Look for Yourself!

What has come to be known as the Copernican revolution was fully set into motion by another astronomer about 70 years after Copernicus’s death. Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), an Italian professor of mathematics, in 1609 constructed a telescope (a device he had heard had recently been invented in the Netherlands) and used it to look at the heavenly bodies. What Galileo saw “through the looking-glass” was no less strange to his contemporaries than what Alice encountered in her fictional travels: mountains and craters on the Moon, with shadows cast by the light of the sun (proving that the Moon was composed of ordinary material and not an immutable, heavenly “quintessence”); and four moons orbiting Jupiter (proving that not all heavenly bodies were orbiting the earth).

Galileo published his findings in 1609 in The Starry Messenger, a short, popularly written book that immediately provoked a storm of controversy that in some respects has not yet completely dissipated. The reactions from the intellectual establishment to Galileo’s findings are notorious. Some critics claimed that the moons of Jupiter were mere illusions, or suggested that there was some design flaw in Galileo’s telescope. Such excuses became difficult to sustain as more and more people began constructing their own telescopes and using them to look for themselves.

Unfortunately, the intellectual community raised the stakes by accusing Galileo of false doctrine as well as erroneous science, and goaded various religious leaders into attacking Galileo. One priest, Caccini, reportedly preached a sermon against Galileo using a slightly twisted version of Acts 1:11, “Ye men of Galileo, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?”2 The main text, though, used against Galileo was the reference to the sun standing still (Joshua 10:13), mentioned earlier.

Galileo responded to these theological criticisms in the Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615), one of the classic writings on the relationship between science and theology. Galileo argued in this letter that biblical passages such as Joshua 10:13 spoke in ordinary language and described physical events as they appeared to human observers. That the event in Joshua occurred and was a miracle, Galileo did not doubt; but that the Bible meant to specify precisely how the event occurred, and to teach a particular system of astronomy, Galileo pointedly denied. In his view “the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine Word,” so that God is no less “excellently revealed in Nature’s actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible.”3 Galileo pleaded eloquently for the freedom to study the facts of nature unhindered by theological interpretations of the Bible. To disallow such inquiry, Galileo warned, “it would be necessary to forbid men to look at the heavens,” and would implicitly impugn the many Scriptures which teach that God is revealed “in the open book of heaven.”4 Throughout his life Galileo upheld the complete truth of the Bible and its authority.

The religious aspect of the debate soon led to the Catholic church authorities ordering Galileo not to defend Copernicus’s views as scientific fact (though he was allowed to discuss the issue hypothetically). His eventual end-run around this order was to write a book entitled Dialogue on the Two Principal World Systems, Ptolemaic and Copernican (1632). The Dialogue presented three characters — one defending the Ptolemaic system, one defending the Copernican system, and a third neutral participant — so that technically the book does not directly advocate the Copernican view. Of course, the Copernican system emerges triumphant, and the book was eventually banned by the Catholic church and Galileo forced to confess that he had taught error. It would be over three hundred years before the Catholic church would officially admit that it had erred in condemning Galileo’s opinion.

Secular Heavens?

This first round in the growing conflict between science and theology is often seen by non-Christians as having undermined the very foundation of the Christian world view. Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar (a society of radical scholars who publicize an extremely skeptical rejection of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings), speaks for many critics of biblical Christianity:

The Christ of creed and dogma, who had been firmly in place in the Middle Ages, can no longer command the assent of those who have seen the heavens through Galileo’s telescope. The old deities and demons were swept from the sky by that remarkable glass. Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo have dismantled the mythological abodes of the gods and Satan, and bequeathed us secular heavens.5

This opinion of the significance of the Copernican revolution would have come as a surprise to Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler (another astronomer working out significant details of the Copernican system at the same time as Galileo). All three were devout Christians who fervently believed in the Bible and in Jesus Christ. Copernicus was a Roman Catholic church official who saw himself as fulfilling his duty to seek the truth. Johannes Kelper (1571-1630) was a German Protestant who retained his pious faith in Christ despite a very difficult life and rejection from all sides. As we have seen, Galileo was a faithful Catholic who was very knowledgeable about the Bible and Christian theology as well as mathematics and astronomy.

Funk’s assertion, though, does have some truth in it. Before the revolution in astronomy that began with Copernicus, the physical heavens were viewed in essentially supernaturalistic terms. Comets, shooting stars, and other celestial phenomena were regarded as miraculous signs from God. Absolute unchanging perfection — in effect, divine qualities — were attributed to the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies. The new science resulted in a humbler view of the physical universe, but it did not diminish the glory of God, and certainly did not imply his nonexistence.

On the other hand, another revolution in science was coming that would be seen by millions as making it possible to dispense with the very idea of the God of the Bible. This was the evolution revolution.

“Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”

No more important revolutionary idea has shaped human history during the past two centuries than evolution. What began in 1859 with a book — Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection — quickly bloomed into a whole new way of looking at the world, at humanity, at God. Evolutionary theory has been extended beyond biology to provide a comprehensive account of the cosmos, life, the human mind, and religion. The ramifications of Darwinism are far-reaching and subversive to the traditional beliefs and values of Western civilization, including Christianity. So much is this the case that Daniel C. Dennett entitled his defense and explanation of naturalistic evolution Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. But it is not just a wonderful scientific idea. It is a dangerous idea. My admiration for Darwin’s magnificent idea is unbounded, but I, too, cherish many of the ideas and ideals that it seems to challenge, and want to protect them.6

The “dangerous” aspect of Darwin’s idea is that it appears to imply that “meaning” and “purpose” are mere human projections — expressions of the values we choose to place on our own existence and the existence of the world in which we find ourselves. We find meaning and purpose in the natural processes that lead to our existence because, well, they enabled us to exist. But on a strict and thoroughgoing application of Darwin’s idea, we are not the product of a divine purpose, and our lives therefore do not have a divinely ordained meaning. Evolutionary biologist George Gaylord Simpson’s often quoted words make the point:

Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned.7

This was not the conclusion which Darwin himself appears to have entertained. Although Darwin’s religious beliefs are a subject of considerable debate, in Origin of Species he seems to have allowed for the existence of a Creator who originated life itself and who would remain in some way religiously significant.

I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one.8

Understanding Darwin’s Idea

Darwin’s revolutionary idea was that most or all of the diversity of biological life, from the smallest organisms to the major plants and animals inhabiting the earth, arose through natural processes, the most important of which he called natural selection. In this process, offspring of any species will be produced with slightly differing characteristics, and those offspring whose characteristics were most conducive to their survival in changing environments over time would be perpetuated. For example, birds whose markings best enable them to hide from predators and to obtain food for themselves will tend to survive and produce offspring like themselves, so that those markings will be “selected” by nature. This natural criterion of whatever is most conducive to survival will be perpetuated was called survival of the fittest, a notion Darwin took from the economist philosopher Malthus. Darwin extrapolated this incremental process of development and diversification backwards into the ancient past. He hypothesized that such a process could allow mammals and birds to have evolved from amphibians or reptiles, fish to have evolved from simpler forms of sea life, and even plants and animals ultimately to be traceable back to a single ancestor.

Perhaps the most disturbing and controversial implication of Darwin’s theory was that human beings may have arisen from nonhuman species by the same natural process. Darwin defended this theory in The Descent of Man (1871). On Darwin’s view, modern man, apes, monkeys, and other primates are all related by a common ancestry. This idea presented an obvious and major contradiction to the biblical view of human beings as created “in God’s image” (Genesis 1:26-27) and unique among all living creatures on the earth by virtue of a transcendent, spiritual capacity. The Darwinian view of humanity, in fact, implied that human beings are merely extremely advanced, intelligent animals.

Evolution: Galileo Revisited?

It is tempting to compare the Christian church’s resistance to Darwinism to the Galileo incident, but such a comparison would be ill-advised. For one thing, evolutionary theory has been rather widely accepted in many Christian denominations worldwide. The major resistance to evolution has come from denominations and other Christian groups that have a stated policy of adherence to the Bible as an unerring revelation from God — a policy not found in many of the major denominations.

A second, more important point of dissimilarity is that while Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and all of the other scientists and thinkers who promoted the new astronomy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were devout believers in God and in the Bible, Darwin and the scientists and thinkers who have promoted Darwinism for more than a hundred years have for the most part abandoned the biblical world view. Darwin himself was an agnostic, and after an initial generation of diverse and confused responses to Darwinism (from about 1860-1900), most Christians espousing a traditional, biblical theology have opposed Darwinism.

Third, while the counsel of many critics of Galileo was to refuse to look through his telescope, the counsel of most critics of Darwinism has been to look at the evidence more closely. After well over a hundred years and a veritable explosion of knowledge of biology at the microscopic level, the scientific community is further from a consensus on the merits of Darwinian evolution than they were when Darwin died in 1882. Indeed, while institutional opposition to evolutionism was strong in many quarters at first, since about the 1960s it has been evolutionists who have been in control of educational and other cultural institutions in the West and advocates of the biblical view of creation who have found their views unwelcome and even suppressed. In the United States it is now quite difficult for avowed creationists, even those of impeccable academic credentials and ability, to hold teaching posts in the sciences in state universities and colleges. Evolution has become the new dogma of the schools, and those who question it are the heretics. The problem is found around the world: one British scholar who cautiously advocates creationism (though not even of an explicitly Christian sort) puts the point this way:

Our descendants will marvel at the attempts of the neo-Darwinian lobby to suppress alternative inquiry, as we today marvel at the power of churchmen in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.9

A Tale of Two Trials

No more dramatic illustration of this reversal can be given than a comparison of the famous Scopes trial of 1925 with the less famous, but equally important, Arkansas Creationism case in the U.S. District Court in 1982. The Scopes trial, while famous, is remembered almost entirely through its fictional retelling in the play and 1960 film Inherit the Wind. Contrary to the Inherit story, Scopes was not a biology teacher and probably never taught evolution. The case was drummed up by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to challenge a Tennessee state law forbidding the teaching of evolution in its public schools. (The law did not forbid mentioning or discussing evolution.) William Jennings Bryan, representing the state of Tennessee, not only did not disallow scientific testimony as Inherit shows, he actually called scientific experts as witnesses himself! Nor did Bryan endorse a date of 4004 BC for creation; in fact, Bryan was untroubled by the idea that the universe was millions of years old. The state’s argument was simple: evolution was a dubious scientific theory that was clearly contrary to the beliefs of the vast majority of the people of Tennessee, who should be able to determine what was taught with taxpayers’ dollars to their children.10

The Arkansas case centered on a 1981 state law mandating a balanced presentation of both evolutionism and creationism in public schools. This was roughly what the ACLU had asked for in the Scopes trial; to be more precise, they had asked that the state not forbid evolution to be taught. Ironically, the ACLU once again sought to challenge the state law, this time arguing that creationism had no place in public school science classes and that evolution alone should be taught. By the early 1980s various other court cases had established as U.S. law that states could not mandate any teaching of “religion” in the public schools. The Arkansas law defined “creation-science” as including the idea that the universe was only several thousand years old and that its geology had been shaped by a global flood. This made it obvious that the version of creation to be presented was a specific interpretation of the teaching of Genesis, and it was largely on this basis that the state law was found unconstitutional. A similar balanced-treatment law in Tennessee was also struck down, despite the fact that it did not define creation-science with such distinctively religious positions. It was enough for the court that creation implied a Creator of any kind, thus implicitly supporting a “religious” belief.11

Religion and Science: Either/Or?

The absolute dichotomy between religion and science which the court rulings assume is itself part of the objectionable creed of modern evolutionism. It assumes the very thing that the evolutionist claims to prove — that all nature can be explained without appeal to the existence or activity of God. It also makes the absurd assumption that scientific theories and beliefs do not have religious significance. Evolutionism is a basic tenet of various religious belief systems today, from secular humanism (in which irreligiosity has become a religion) to New Age humanism (in which evolution is itself a divine process). Ultimately the thoroughgoing evolutionists have only three choices: they can deny that there is a God, they can believe that all is God, or they can believe that all is evolving into God. Dennett begins his book with the question of whether evolution has shown that nothing is sacred, and ends his book with this conclusion:

Is something sacred? Yes, say I with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. The world is sacred.12

This sort of conclusion about the meaning of evolution became increasingly common during the last quarter of the twentieth century, as the horrifying consequences of an atheistic, purely materialistic interpretation of evolutionism became clear to almost everyone. But the gap between affirming that everything is sacred and denying that anything is sacred can be quite narrow. If everything is sacred, then there is still nothing transcendently special about humanity, still no basis for viewing human beings as anything more than one species of animal life of which we happen to be particularly fond! This is the underlying reason why there is so much confusion in our culture about the relative values of infant children and unborn children, or of humans, whales, lobsters, and trees. The devaluation of human life cannot be reversed by declaring all life sacred.

Scientific Problems for Evolution

As was mentioned earlier, there is no consensus among biologists or other natural scientists on the subject of evolution. Admittedly the majority of professors of biology and of other sciences in the major universities and colleges in America and in other nations subscribe to some form of evolutionary theory. This seeming consensus, however, is something of a mirage.

First of all, the views of scientists cover a spectrum from a thoroughgoing materialistic evolutionism to a thoroughgoing supernaturalistic creationism, with various types of views combining evolution and creation in the middle. Some scientists hold that a transcendent personal God (such as one finds in Judaism, Islam, or Christianity) has somehow guided the natural evolutionary process (perhaps by “pre-loading” a direction for evolution in the original act of creation); others argue that life was created supernaturally and then all living things evolved naturally; others make an exception for the human race; still others hold that several supernatural acts moved the creation process forward, with some evolution taking place between those creative acts.

Second, among committed evolutionists who eschew all supernatural interventions, there is no consensus as to how evolution works. Some regard it as a mindless, blind process with no purpose; others view it as an intelligent, purposeful process of a cosmos in which the divine is inherent. Some espouse the neo-Darwinian view that views evolution as working through gradual, incremental changes; others argue that evolutionary advances come in quantum jumps or sudden radical changes.

Credible critiques of naturalistic evolutionism have been published in every generation since Darwin. In recent years the critiques have increased both in number and in scientific sophistication. Perhaps the best known of these was Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial, whose author was a law professor at Berkeley. Critiques by persons with scientific credentials have included Michael Pitman’s Adam and Evolution and Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis.13 These books point out numerous flaws in the arguments used to establish evolution, and offer solid reasons to uphold some form of creationism. While a complete review of the arguments cannot be offered here, a few of the most important issues may be noted.

The Origin of Life: The Missing Ingredient

One of the most persistent problems facing a thoroughgoing evolutionism is to explain the origin of life itself. While in Origin of Species Darwin seems to concede the necessity for an initial divine creation of life, he later withdrew even this concession and suggested the possibility of a natural origin of life from nonlife if the initial conditions were right. The idea was developed independently by two scientists in the 1920s, each of whom worked out a primordial-soup theory of the origin of life (that is, one which explains life as arising on a microscopic level in an early earth rich in gases but lacking an oxygen atmosphere). Interestingly, both of these two scientists, Alexander I. Oparin (Russian) and J. B. S. Haldane (British) “were professed Marxists in a revolutionary era when it was fashionable to try and solve all sorts of problems here and now by dialectical and material means.”14 Their Marxist ideology does not, of course, invalidate their theory, but it does illuminate its roots. Historically, naturalistic evolution is an attempt to provide a purely materialistic account of human life as the basis for a purely materialistic theory of human values.

There are fundamental problems with primordial-soup scenarios of the origin of life. One of the assumptions of all such scenarios, that the early earth’s atmosphere would have been rich in such gases as ammonia and methane but poor in oxygen, has been discredited. Examinations of rocks dated by geologists to within the first billion years of earth history shows evidence of an oxygenated atmosphere in earth’s early history. Another crucial difficulty is that the results that have been obtained in laboratories have been minimal, and yet have required an enormous commitment of intellectual resources. It has taken years of research by numerous Ph.D.s in chemistry and biology and millions of dollars in technological development to produce tiny amounts of amino acids and other “building blocks” of life. At each stage of the “life-building” process, researchers stop the experiment, conserve the results, and then initiate another well-planned stage of the process. In short, all these experiments seem to be proving it how much intelligent planning and execution must have gone into producing life from nonlife.15

Considerations such as these are leading scientists who don’t believe in a personal God to desperate scenarios. Francis Crick, who co-discovered the double helix form of DNA, suggested that life was seeded on earth by extraterrestrials. Sir Fred Hoyle, one of the most honored astronomers of this century, and Chandra Wickramasinghe proposed that interstellar clouds had produced the essential building blocks of life, which were then transplanted to earth by a comet. After this hypothesis was trashed by the scientific community, both Hoyle and Wickramasinghe rethought the matter and concluded that some sort of intelligent creator must have introduced life on earth. Wickramasinghe actually testified in defense of the Balanced Treatment Act in Arkansas. A confessed Buddhist, Wickramasinghe testified that while he preferred to view the creator as inherent in the universe, a supernatural creator was an equally justifiable inference.16

The Origin of Species: The Missing Mechanism

Darwin’s fundamental claim was that the observable “natural selection” of characteristics in offspring conducive to the adaptation and survival of a species could be extrapolated backward to account for the origin of the incredible diversity and complexity of all living things on earth. Well over a century after Darwin’s Origin of Species, doubts remain as to whether this extrapolation is justifiable.

Darwin believed that the characteristics of parents were blended in their offspring. Such blending might seem to average out characteristics and thus eliminate variations over time. Evolutionists believe this problem was solved by Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics. Mendel showed that characteristics of parents are transmitted to their offspring in discrete units which he called genes. These genes are not blended, but rather one is selected over the other. For example, the offspring of a tall man and a short woman will not necessarily be a medium-height person, but will generally be either tall or short. This explains why we usually find distinct features in a child that resemble one parent over the other (for example, a girl may have her mother’s eyes but her father’s nose).

While genetics eliminates the blending problem, it raises another difficulty: gene selection is itself a conservative process that does not support innovation. To solve this problem, evolutionists have argued that mutations — changes in the genes themselves — have provided the innovative variations that have made evolution possible. Unfortunately, mutations noticeable enough to have any immediate effects on an organism tend to be destructive or debilitating, not helpful to its survival. Evolutionists have therefore been forced in one of two directions, both of them problematic.

On the one hand, those committed to a gradualist understanding of evolution argue that millions of “micromutations,” each of which provides only very slight adaptive benefits, could accumulate over millions of years to result in new species with new capacities. One problem attending this scenario is that even two or three billions of years is not enough time for life to evolve all the complex organisms that inhabit the earth in such a gradualist fashion (a point that has been made by mathematicians who looked at this very question). Another problem is that it is extremely difficult to explain how such micromutations could enable such complex organs as the ear or the eye to evolve, not just once, but evidently numerous times in various species.

On the other hand, an increasing number of evolutionists have adopted some form of “macromutation” theory — the idea being that once in a while a major mutation will turn out to be helpful rather than hurtful, and will be incorporated into the mutated organism’s offspring. The most notorious version of this theory was Berkeley geneticist Richard Goldschmidt’s “hopeful monster” theory, which endorsed the idea of a reptile laying an egg that produced a bird. A more sophisticated version, known as “punctuated equilibrium,” was introduced in the early 1980s by Stephen Jay Gould, but it amounts to the same thing (the offspring differs genetically just a little from its parents, but a big difference emerges when it reaches adulthood). The obvious objection to these macromutational theories is that in place of a supernatural, intelligently directed miracle a kind of natural, accidental “miracle” is supposed. So far, everything we know about genetics suggests that such beneficial macromutations are impossible.

Both micromutational and macromutational approaches to evolution suffer from an even more basic problem: a lack of evidence. Even if one were to grant that one or the other proposal for how evolution might have occurred had some plausibility, there is no evidence that evolution occurred. It remains an extrapolation back into the past, reasoning from observed microevolution (changes within species, such as variations in the coloration of a bird or the length of its beak) to macroevolution (changes resulting in new species and even new orders, such as reptiles as the ancestors of birds). There simply is no evidence for macroevolution. As Pitman notes, “Examples of ‘evolution in action,’ such as the peppered moth or Galapagos finch demonstrate variation but not radical, archetypal change.”17 The fossil record also contains no evidence for macroevolution; it is especially difficult to square with a gradualist interpretation of evolution, since it contains stubborn “gaps” and continues to support the conclusion that new species appeared suddenly in complete form.

The Origin of Humanity: The Missing Link

Of all the questions that can be raised about the theory of evolution, none is more vital than whether humans evolved from non-human animals. Theologically, there may be little at stake from a Christian point of view in the debate over the origins of the various species of plants and animals. It does not make any significant difference to the Christian faith whether dogs and cats are related, or even dogs and dogwoods. It does, however, make an enormous difference whether humans are related to monkeys. In thoroughgoing naturalistic evolutionism, human beings were not created with a dignity transcending all other animals, but instead are simply a particularly intelligent primate. The biblical teaching is that the human race has fallen from an original innocence, and that our tendencies to violence, greed, lust, deceit, and selfishness are in some sense unnatural for us. This teaching is at direct odds with the notion that the human race evolved from similar primate species, and that our unethical tendencies are actually part of our evolutionary history (perhaps necessary aspects of the “survival of the fittest”).

In addition to the problems attending the general theory of evolution, the evolutionary explanation for the origin of the human species has been plagued by the question of the “missing link.” In the first half of his book The Bone Peddlers: Selling Evolution, William R. Fix reviewed the history of frauds, hoaxes, and misidentifications that has characterized the search for the missing link between Homo sapiens and the lower primates from which we supposedly evolved. Two of the most notorious of these bogus links were Piltdown Man, a fraud constructed with sawed-off bones, and Nebraska Man, a link proposed on the basis of a single tooth which turned out to have come from an extinct pig.18 Both of these pseudo-links were introduced as evidence for the theory of evolution at the Scopes trial in 1925.19 Even the more respectable finds, such as Zinjanthropus, Homo habilis, and the several postulated ancestors named Australopithecus (including the famous “Lucy”), have been rejected or seriously questioned even by evolutionists as genuine “missing links.”

One of the most troubling aspects of evolutionary thought has been its racist implications. The logic is simple enough: If humans evolved from simpler, less intelligent primates, then perhaps some of are more “evolved” than others. Such racist thinking has accompanied evolutionism from the very beginning, starting with Darwin himself. Darwin visited the South American tribe of the Tierra del Feugians on his journeys and commented that “the difference between a Tierra del Feugian and a European is greater than the difference between a Tierra del Feugian and a beast.” Eventually, Christian missionaries discovered otherwise, living among the Feugians and documenting their rich culture and language.20

Evolutionists may complain that such thinking is not essential to evolution nor universal among evolutionists. True enough; but evolutionists cannot make a convincing, rational case against such inferences. Although creationists have themselves not been immune from racism, it turns out that creationism is inherently antiracist while evolutionism offers no protection from racism and can reasonably be construed in its support. The same subjective reasoning that has made it difficult for evolutionists to agree on whether a set of bones comes from a human ancestor, a prehuman “missing link” ancestor, or a distant primate cousin, allows those educated in the evolutionary world view to regard human beings of other races as equal or inferior according to their own predisposed judgments.

Cosmology: Back to the Beginning

So far we have examined two scientific revolutions. The Copernican revolution eventually led us to realize that the earth not the immovable center of the universe but instead the third planet orbiting a fairly average star located in an inconspicuous place in an extremely large universe. This revolution rocked the Greek science and philosophy that had been integrated into the medieval Christian world view, but it did not directly challenge any essential aspects of the biblical, Christian faith. The Darwinian revolution led many, but by no means all, of us to regard our own human race as merely one of the myriad of animal species on planet Earth, highly evolved in terms of intelligence but not qualitatively superior or unique in the animal kingdom. This revolution has so far not been entirely successful in forging a new consensus, but where it has taken hold it has radically altered and even dismantled the Christian world view.

The third and final revolution to be considered in this chapter, associated especially with the work of Albert Einstein, is moving in a different direction. While the Copernican revolution required a refinement of the Christian world view and the Darwinian revolution put the Christian faith on the defensive, the Einsteinian revolution has actually restored credibility to the Christian, biblical premise of a Creator. While biologists reveled in the Darwinian hope of a naturalistic account of all life, the physicists and astronomers discovered surprising proof of a supernatural origin of the universe. At the same time, these evidences of creation challenged some traditional interpretations of the book of Genesis.

God and the Astronomers

The tale has been told many times, perhaps most memorably by the self-confessed agnostic Robert Jastrow in his book God and the Astronomers. In 1917 Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity. The Dutch astronomer Willem de Sitter derived from Einstein’s equations the conclusion that the universe was expanding. Other scientists, notably Edwin Hubble and Arthur Eddington, followed up on de Sitter’s calculations and correlated them with observations dating from 1913 that in fact several galaxies were moving away from us at high speeds. Hubble verified through the use of his 100-inch telescope what de Sitter had predicted based on Einstein’s general relativity equations: that “the farther away a galaxy is, the faster it moves” — implying that the universe was expanding from a central point of origin like an inflating balloon or like an explosion. At the same time, Hubble found that “nearby” galaxies were actually millions of light years away.21 The implication of these findings was immediately obvious: the universe had a beginning. In 1965 astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the background radiation that scientists had predicted would be left behind by the initial explosion of the universe. Their discovery led to the almost complete triumph in modern cosmology of the so-called Big Bang theory.

The discovery that the universe had a beginning was not met with pleasure. Many scientists rebelled against the notion because it implied a Beginner. In fact, “Einstein was the first to complain.”22 He refused to believe that the universe was expanding until he looked for himself through Hubble’s telescope. (The lesson of Galileo was evidently not lost on Einstein!) Eddington admitted, “the notion of a beginning is repugnant to me.” Yet the evidence was there. Jastrow puts his finger on the problem: Many scientists have a “religious” commitment to the assumption that everything has a natural, scientifically accessible and quantifiable explanation. Just when they were becoming confident in this assumption, seemingly explaining everything from the formation of stars to the formation of species, they ran into something which in principle cannot be explained scientifically: that first instant of creation, when the universe began as a singularity, a point inaccessible to investigation.

It is not a matter of another year, another decade of work, another measurement, or another theory; at this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.23

Stephen Hawking: Nothing for a Creator to Do?

The cosmological evidence for a beginning of the universe continued to be resisted throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, though increasingly the strategy was to reinterpret that beginning to avoid a personal God. Perhaps the most brilliant scientist who has sought an alternative to a straightforward beginning of the universe is Stephen Hawking. The world-renowned cosmologist’s bestselling book A Brief History of Time repeatedly illustrates Jastrow’s contention that modern scientists are often committed religiously to a comprehensively naturalistic explanation of all things. Hawking states the premise explicitly: “The eventual goal of science is to provide a single theory that explains the whole universe.”24

Ironically, Hawking himself contributed to the proof that the universe had a beginning. He and Roger Penrose had applied their study of black hole singularities to the question of the origin of the universe, and in 1970 they issued a paper “which at last proved that there must have been a big bang singularity provided only that general relativity is correct and the universe contains as much matter as we observe.”25 The paper met with resistance, and Hawking himself admits the reason:

Many people do not like the idea that time had a beginning, probably because it smacks of divine intervention.26

Hawking himself does not like the idea, and eventually came up with an alternative. His end-run around the problem is to postulate that the universe may be finite in size and age yet without boundaries (based on an application of quantum theory, too complicated to explain here!). Hawking uses the illustration of the earth: its surface is finite in size, yet it has no boundaries — no edge or starting point, no singularity where one would “fall off” the earth.27 He suggests that the cosmos is similarly finite but has no boundaries, either of space (like an “edge”) or of time (i.e., like a beginning). This does not completely eliminate the idea of God, but it does, as Carl Sagan puts it in his introduction to the book, leave “nothing for a Creator to do.”28 Hawking himself explains the appeal of his proposal as eliminating the idea of a boundary of space-time “at which one would have to appeal to God or some new law to set the boundary conditions for space-time.”29

There are several difficulties with Hawking’s proposal, not the least of which is that at present that is all it is; as Hawking himself admits, “it cannot be deduced from some other principle,” and so far it does not seem to be testable.30 Second, it has been pointed out that Hawking has merely traded a singularity of relativity theory for a singularity of quantum theory. In Hawking’s proposal the singularity of a temporal beginning is still a reality from within our own “real time” perspective.31 But even Hawking ends up crediting the ultimate origin of the universe — the why of things, if not the how -- to “the mind of God.”32

For Those Who Can’t Believe in God

Many other proposals to avoid altogether the idea of a personal Creator God have been put forth. Probably the most popular approach is to view the origin and evolution of the universe as a manifestation of an all-encompassing force or energy or mystical Spirit. New Age interpretations of quantum physics, such as Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics or Gary Zukov’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters, have sought to integrate Western science with Eastern mysticism.33 Because some interpretations of quantum physics understand reality at the subatomic level to be indeterminate, New Age physicists have argued that at the quantum level all things are naturally possible — even the spontaneous origination of the physical universe. These New Age cosmologies rest on dubious understandings of quantum physics and sidestep the real problem: how does the reality governed by physical laws, quantum or otherwise, exist at all?34

Some of the proposed alternatives to a personal Creator have a strong scent of desperation to them. Perhaps the most outrageous example of such desperate proposals was that put forth by Gilbert Fulmer. He admits that the universe had a beginning and that the most logical explanation for that beginning was that it was initiated by personal design. However, Fulmer also states quite candidly that he cannot bring himself to go back to the biblical account of creation by an infinite personal God. So he proposes an alternative scenario, based on the notion of time travel. He speculates that somewhere, sometime in the universe, perhaps billions of years into the future, perhaps in another galaxy if not here, a race of beings will become so advanced that they will be able to travel back in time. Such an advanced race would know about the Big Bang, but they would also be smart enough to know that there is no God to start it. So, theorizes Fulmer, they might take it upon themselves to send someone back to time zero and set off the Big Bang!35 It does not seem to have occurred to Fulmer that such a Time Traveler would have to arrive at least a split second before the Big Bang in order then to do anything to start it; unfortunately, there was no time “before” the Big Bang! Fulmer’s suggestion (assuming it was meant sincerely) is extreme, but it illustrates the point that some people would rather believe anything other than in the God of the Bible.

The fervent belief that religion must be prevented from contaminating science is, as we said, a kind of religious belief itself. One historical factor that has encouraged this belief is the fact that in the past those in the Christian West too easily attributed various features of the natural world to direct supernatural agency, only to have some scientist come along and demonstrate a regular natural phenomenon to be at work. But to swing the pendulum to the other extreme and disallow the activity of God as a possible explanation for anything, regardless of the evidence, is also unwarranted.

Both of these extremes -- uncritical supernaturalism and uncritical naturalism — should therefore be avoided. The attribution of unexplained phenomena (planetary orbits, meteors, earthquakes, volcanoes, and the like) to supernatural intervention by God has often been criticized as a “God of the gaps” approach. But just as irrational is the assumption made by many naturalists that God never intervenes in his creation and that everything, even the very existence of the universe, must be explainable in natural terms — what has been called a “Nature of the gaps” approach.36 Similarly, Hugh Ross has criticized the appeal by cosmologists to the chance fluctuations posited by quantum theory to explain the origin of the universe as a kind of “Chance of the gaps” methodology.37

An important distinction relating to these two extremes is that between operation science, which studies the ongoing processes and events in the natural world, and origin science, which studies the origins of the natural world and of life. To appeal to a supernatural intervention by God to explain the operations of the natural world is to make the “God of the gaps” mistake.38 On the other hand, to refuse to allow the action of God as an explanation for the origins of the natural world is to commit the “Nature of the gaps” or “Chance of the gaps” error.

Astronomy and the Theologians

The evidence from cosmology that is convincing an increasing number of sometimes unwilling astronomers that a Creator brought the universe into existence has also received mixed responses from the community of Christian theologians and scholars. While many Christians have hailed the cosmological revolution as vindicating the biblical world view and providing exciting opportunities for a renewed defense of the Christian faith, other Christians have rejected the new cosmology because they regard it as conflicting with the biblical account of origins in Genesis.

One issue here dominates the debate among evangelical, conservative Christians about cosmology and creation: the age of the earth (and of the universe). The traditional interpretation of Genesis 1 understands the six “days” in that passage to refer to six literal, 24-hour, consecutive days, during which the entire universe, the earth, all living things, and finally the human race, were created. On this view the inference is usually drawn that the universe (or at least the earth) is no more than roughly 6,000 to 10,000 years old. That inference, of course, contradicts the ages of the earth and the universe accepted in modern cosmology (roughly 4.5 billion years for the earth, and about 10 to 20 billion years for the universe). The older age of the earth is criticized by young-earth creationists as not only in conflict with a literal reading of the six days of Genesis 1, but also as opening the door to naturalistic evolution.

There are serious arguments both for and against the young-earth interpretation of Genesis 1, and reputable evangelical theologians and exegetical scholars can be found on both sides of the debate. Ultimately the major issue separating old-earth creationists from young-earth creationists is the question of the relationship between science and theology. It is important to put the question that way, because to pit science against the Bible is to misconstrue the problem. The Bible is regarded by Christians as the unerring or infallible written revelation from God; theology is the very human, fallible enterprise of interpreting and applying the teachings of the Bible. Similarly, the physical universe, or nature, was created by God and therefore reflects his truth in all its data; science, though, is the all too human, fallible enterprise of interpreting the data of nature. Thus, the data of Scripture and the data of nature, since both come from God, may be regarded as fully reliable and consistent with one another, while our interpretations of either or both Scripture and nature may be inconsistent or in error.

The point is that three possibilities lay before us. (1) The mainstream scientists’ interpretation of the physical data may be right and the traditional interpretation of the Bible wrong. This was the case when Galileo and other scientists argued that the earth moved around the sun while theologians argued that the Bible taught that the earth stood still. (2) The mainstream scientists’ interpretation of the physical data may be wrong and the traditional interpretation of the Bible right. This is evidently the case when evolutionists argue that man evolved from lower primates, contrary to the virtual consensus among evangelical interpreters of the Bible. (3) The positions staked out by mainstream scientists and biblical interpreters may both be mixtures of truth and error. It is possible, even likely, that in many of the ongoing science-theology debates, including biology and cosmology, scientists and theologians have much to learn from each other.

The age of the universe and other questions on which there is no consensus even among evangelical Christian scholars and scientists will probably continue to be debated for some time to come. The challenge facing thinking Christians is to pursue the truth in such debates, even at the risk of giving up traditional ideas or of falling out of favor with the current intellectual establishment. If Christianity is to be a viable world and life view in the third millennium, it is vitally important that the Christian community come to terms with the scientific revolutions of today, even if (as has happened before) that process of coming to terms is not completed until tomorrow. In order to integrate the legitimate findings of science into the Christian world view, we need to make a major commitment of resources toward the exploration of these questions.

The church serves no good end by clinging to failed interpretations of the Bible and refusing to explore new directions. Christian scholars have an obligation to lead the way toward a renewed reverence for God’s truth wherever it can be found. Conservative scholars must develop a more aggressive attitude toward creation and encourage the church’s youth to enter not only the pastorate, mission work, and theology but also such fields as the natural sciences, archeology, anthropology, and the social sciences.39


1 Pointed out in Charles E. Hummel, The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts between Science and the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 52-53.

2 Stillman Drake, trans., Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957), 154.

3 Galileo, “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina,” in ibid., 182, 183.

4 Ibid., 195-96.

5 Robert W. Funk, “Introduction,” in The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, A Polebridge Press Book (New York: Macmillan, 1993), 2.

6 Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 21.

7 George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), 345, quoted, for example, in David A. Noebel, Understanding the Times (Manitou Springs, CO: Summit Press, 1991), 265.

8 Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, Foreword by George Gaylord Simpson (New York: Collier, 1962), 477.

9 Michael Pitman, Adam and Evolution: A Scientific Critique of Neo-Darwinism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 255.

10 An excellent review of the myths and facts of the Scopes trial is found in James K. Fitzpatrick, God, Country and the Supreme Court (Chicago: Regnery Books, 1985), 109-29.

11 For an account supportive of the Arkansas and Tennessee laws, see Bill Keith, Creation vs. Evolution: Scopes II -- The Great Debate (n.p.: Huntington House, 1982).

12 Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, 520.

13 Pitman, Adam and Evolution; Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler, 1986); Phillip E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1991). Johnson stands in a venerable tradition of critics of Darwinism who were trained in law; a notable earlier example is Norman Macbeth, Darwin Retried: An Appeal to Reason (Boston: Gambit, 1971).

14 John L. Casti, Paradigms Lost: Images of Man in the Mirror of Science (New York: William Morrow, 1989), 69. It should be noted that Casti is an evolutionist and firmly committed to a naturalistic theory of the origin of life.

15 Works detailing these problems include Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, and Roger L. Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories (New York: Philosophical Library, 1984); Robert Shapiro, Origins: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth (New York: Summit Books, 1986); Hubert P. Yockey, Information Theory and Molecular Biology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

16 For two very different accounts of these scientists’ contribution to the debate, see Casti, Paradigms Lost, 115-21, 126; Keith, Creation vs. Evolution, 136-38.

17 Pitman, Adam and Evolution, 67.

18 William R. Fix, The Bone Peddlers: Selling Evolution (New York: Macmillan, 1984), xii, 11-15. Fix’s own answer to the question of evolution, developed in Part Two, is to view it as a process impelled forward by the force of “spirit” inherent in living things (and perhaps in the universe). His New Age interpretation of evolution is based largely on parapsychological research into ESP, out-of-body experiences, and the like.

19 Pitman, Adam and Evolution, 100.

20 Ibid., 240-41; the Darwin quote is taken by Pitman from V. Barclay, Darwin Is Not for Children (1950), ch. 14.

21 Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 46-47, 85-86.

22 Ibid., 27.

23 Ibid., 115-16.

24 Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, Introduction by Carl Sagan (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 10.

25 Ibid., 50.

26 Ibid., 46.

27 Ibid., 135-36.

28 Ibid., x.

29 Ibid., 136.

30 Ibid., 136-37.

31 See the discussion in Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Greatest Scientific Discoveries of the Century Reveal God (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993), 83-84.

32 Hawking, A Brief History of Time, 174-75.

33 Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (Boulder: Shambala, 1975); Gary Zukov, The Dancing Wu Li Masters (New York: Morrow, 1979).

34 On New Age physics, see Douglas R. Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 93-109.

35 Gilbert Fulmer, “Cosmological Implications of Time Travel,” in The Intersection of Science Fiction and Philosophy: Critical Studies, ed. Robert E. Myers; Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy 4 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983), 31-44.

36 Norman L. Geisler, Knowing the Truth about Creation: How It Happened and What It Means for Us (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1989), 31-32.

37 Hugh Ross, “Astronomical Evidences for a Personal, Transcendent God,” in The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer, ed. J. P. Moreland (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 155-56.

38 Norman L. Geisler and J. Kerby Anderson, Origin Science: A Proposal for the Creation-Evolution Controversy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 28.

39 Davis A. Young, The Biblical Flood: A Case Study of the Church’s Response to Extrabiblical Evidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 312.

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3. Psyched Out: Scientism and the Question of Humanity

“Hey! I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived!”

— West Side Story (1961)

While the findings and speculations of modern science pose a formidable challenge to Christian faith, it might seem that this challenge is merely theoretical. But theory and practice — faith and values — are interrelated; what one thinks affects how one lives.1 This becomes obvious when we turn from the natural sciences to the “social sciences” — or, more broadly, the human sciences — which attempt to utilize methods similar to the natural sciences (mathematical analysis, experimentation, the use of technology to enhance observation, etc.) for the purpose of gaining knowledge of human beings. Psychology, in particular, has direct concern not merely to acquire information or develop theories to explain human phenomena, but also to propose remedies and develop solutions to human problems. Thus psychology has aspects to it which are both descriptive — information about what people actually do — and prescriptive — instruction as to what people should do. This means that psychology can pose direct challenges to both the faith and values of Christian people.

In this chapter, we will look at three questions which our society has in large measure turned to psychology to answer. (1) What are we? (2) Why do we do the things we do? (3) What can be done to change the things we do?

Modern Man in Search of a Soul2

One stubborn difficulty above all else has frustrated the modern humanistic scientific ideal to attain a completely naturalistic explanation of everything. Like Henry Fonda’s lone juror in Twelve Angry Men, this one dissenting voice is from the scientists’ perspective delaying the obvious verdict and keeping them from going home and watching the ball game. Who is the spoiler who won’t let the scientists go home? We are — humanity is the mystery that refuses to be explained.

The Soulless Science

For well over a century the theorists of psychology have attempted to explain humanity. Their efforts have been ably chronicled by Morton Hunt in his authoritative work The Story of Psychology. The goal of the nineteenth-century German thinkers who pioneered the early developments of what became modern psychology was that it should be a purely physical science — “psychology without a soul,” as they called it.3 Wilhelm Wundt, often considered the father of psychology, wrote early in his career:

As soon as the psyche is viewed as a natural phenomenon, and psychology as a natural science, the experimental methods must also be capable of full application to this science.4

Later, though, he described psychology as a “science of the mind” (probably the best rendering of Geisteswissenschaft), only part of which was strictly a natural science.5 Still, Wundt upheld essentially an empiricist ideal of psychology as a science, dismissing any approach to the subject (including that of William James) that did not fit that rigorous ideal.

James himself agreed that psychology, as he understood it, was not a science, though it hoped to be when it grew up:

A string of raw facts; a little gossip and wrangle about opinions; a little classification and generalization on the mere descriptive level; a strong prejudice that we have states of mind, and that our brain conditions them: but not a single law in the sense in which physics shows us laws, not a single proposition from which any consequence can causally be deduced. This is no science, it is only the hope of a science.6

James believed that the complex processes of the mind had evolved according to Darwinian principles of natural selection. The deductive speculations of philosophers and theologians might seem to lead to the existence of an immaterial soul, but an inductive, scientific study of psychology had no place for such an idea.

Metaphysics or theology may prove the Soul to exist; but for psychology the hypothesis of such a substantial principle of unity is superfluous.7

What we have here is a turning point in the history of thought. Up until the end of the nineteenth century it was commonly assumed or accepted that human beings had a spiritual dimension that transcended the physical body, and the only question that was vigorously debated was just how this soul or spirit was related to the body. In the wake of Darwinism the very existence of a supernatural or transcendent spiritual reality came under fire, and the burden of proof was assigned to those who would attribute any aspect of human behavior to an immaterial soul. C. Lloyd Morgan, a pioneer in animal and comparative psychology, put the point this way in 1894:

In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher psychical faculty if it can be interpreted as the exercise of one which stands lower in the psychological scale.8

This idea that there is no soul distinct from the body dominated psychology throughout most of the twentieth century. Sigmund Freud, the founder of the influential psychoanalysis school of thought in psychology, certainly held to the scientistic ideal, as Hunt explains.

All his life Freud was firmly convinced that no aspect of mind existed apart from the brain and that physical processes in its neurons are the materials of the phenomena of mind. Also, as a scientist he was a thorough determinist; he believed that every mental event has its causes, and that free will is only an illusion.9

Likewise behavioral psychology assumed the nonexistence of the soul and set as its goal the complete scientific description of human beings as animals. James B. Watson, the first advocate of an explicit behaviorism, published an article in 1913 that has been called the Behaviorist Manifesto. In it he asserted:

Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior.10

Watson’s reference to the “control” of behavior made clear that psychology was not merely a descriptive study, but sought to understand human nature in order to control it and change it. The famous behaviorist B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) popularized this approach to psychology through his books, articles, and television appearances. The behaviorists looked upon human beings as physical beings operating strictly according to mechanistic laws of physics and chemistry. On such a view the soul is an irrelevant and unverifiable entity that apparently does nothing and can therefore safely be dismissed as, in the words of Sir Gilbert Ryle, a British behaviorist, “the ghost in the machine.”

Thus, corresponding to the “God of the gaps” problem facing the natural sciences, psychology introduced what we may call the “man of the gaps” problem. More specifically, psychology has raised the “soul of the gaps” problem: are human beings merely highly intelligent animals, or do we have a “soul” or “spirit” that transcends the biological? If we do have souls, what do they do, if anything, that is distinct from the operations of the body — and specifically, the brain?

The Revival of the Soul

Beginning in the 1960s, the mechanistic, materialistic view of human nature championed by most forms of psychological theory began to break down. There are several reasons why this occurred.

First of all, most psychologists finally concluded that human beings were simply too complex for the scientific ideal of complete physiological, causal explanation to be realized. This did not mean necessarily that the soul existed, but it did make it much more difficult to argue that the soul did not exist.

Second, the evolutionary premise underlying modern psychology came under increasing attack from all sides — not just from conservative Christians, but also from scientists and other thinkers of a wide variety of religious and agnostic positions. As explained in the preceding chapter, the theory of naturalistic evolution as an explanation of the origins of all life and even of the human race has never achieved a consensus inside or out of the scientific community. And if evolution is not true, the door is wide open for an affirmation of the creation of humanity by a supernatural God and our endowment by that Creator with an immaterial soul. Even many evolutionists have abandoned a purely materialistic account of evolution and have affirmed a spiritual dimension to the universe as a whole — and such an affirmation, of course, suggests that a similar spiritual dimension may exist in human beings.

Third, the spiritual vacuum created by the rise of secular humanist culture could not be maintained, since nature evidently abhors a vacuum as much in society as in space. Carl Jung, a former associate of Freud who sought a more positive view of the spiritual and religious dimensions of human life than the atheist Freud would allow, in the heyday of materialistic psychology had described modern man as “in search of a soul.” Jung’s own religious orientation was mystical and occultic, and in time the culture caught up with him. The 1960s saw the rise of the counterculture and the explosion of interest in the occult, “psychedelic” experiences through the use of drugs, and (in a more sober key) the mystical spirituality of the Eastern religions. By the 1980s this amorphous turning inward had come to be known somewhat loosely as the New Age movement. By 1992 a book by Thomas Moore entitled Care of the Soul could become a national bestseller. The author, a former Catholic monk, is a mystical teacher and psychotherapist heavily influenced by Jung.11

Admittedly, the “soul” of these mystical traditions is not quite the same as that of traditional Christian and Jewish beliefs. In many cases this soul is seen as an immanent aspect of the human person — “a quality or dimension of experiencing life and ourselves,” says Moore, having to do “with depth, value, relatedness, heart, and personal substance.”12 But mystical and New Age believers are much more open to the idea of the soul as capable of existing after death; indeed, most New Agers accept the idea of reincarnation as basic to their world view.

Ultimately the problem with a soulless view of human nature is that it cheapens the human experience. Modern psychologists that resist the idea of a soul generally view human beings in an oversimplified, narrow perspective that does not do justice to the profundity and mystery of “the human equation.” Such an approach, whether it involves “psychologizing” human beings or applying any other single perspective as a total explanation of human nature, is called reductionism. There are reductionistic tendencies in much of modern sociology, anthropology, and even history, but the problem has probably been most acute in psychology.

Most psychology is relentlessly reductionistic. It is in the business of reducing things to a size where they can be examined with psychological calipers or fit into psychological categories. For example, a psychoanalytically trained psychologist will tend to look at a great painting not as a reflection of man’s search for the Good and the Beautiful, but as a sublimation of the sex drive.13

The increasingly widespread recognition of the inadequacy of such an approach to human experience has led to a revival of interest in the soul and to more spiritual or religious ways of viewing human nature. In addition, various phenomena have been seen as providing a scientific confirmation of the existence of the soul, most notably near-death experiences (though these remain vigorously debated). New Age and other mystical interpreters of human nature generally continue to look to science to unlock the secrets of human nature and experience. This is because, in their view, all reality is ultimately one, and therefore no distinction between the natural and the supernatural will fit into their world view.

Many of the transpersonal psychologists still seem to assume that transcendent or spiritual experience is a special kind of natural phenomenon. . . . They understand the traditional religious disciplines, both physical (e.g., fasting, yoga) and mental (e.g., meditation, spiritual reading, Buddhist koans), as natural practices that facilitate mental detachment to the point where one can eventually have a peak, or transcendent, spiritual high.14

In the midst of this revival of belief in the soul and the importance of spiritual matters, Christians need to offer a clear understanding of human nature and the soul that takes into account the current diversity of views and the genuine advances in knowledge about human nature that psychology has yielded. While we can and should continue to make the case for the reality of the soul as a distinct aspect of human nature,15 we need to take into account the evidence that human beings are fundamentally constituted as a unity. It appears, for example, no longer possible to hold that the soul inhabits a specific region of the body or part of the brain. It is also evidently not possible to attribute certain mental functions of a living human being to the soul alone.

Moreover, while the Bible certainly teaches that human beings have souls that can and do exist separately from the body after death (e.g., Matt. 10:28; Rev. 6:9-11; cf. Luke 16:9-31; 23:43; Phil. 1:21-23), it also views death as an unnatural division of what was intended to be a unity (Gen. 2:7; 3:19; 1 Cor. 15:26). For this reason, biblical theologians have suggested describing the biblical view as a “holistic duality” rather than simply as a dualism or dichotomy.16

One alternative to the traditional dualism or duality view favored by some Christians is to interpret the Bible as teaching that human nature is a trichotomy of body, soul, and spirit. As this position is often defined, the body is the actual material part, the soul consists of the mind, will, and emotions, while the spirit is the Godward part of human nature that gives us our capacity for worship and spiritual experience.

It appears that on this view the soul can be regarded as a completely natural part of human nature. (For example, some trichotomists hold that animals have souls but not spirits.) If so, trichotomy would allow all observable, empirical behavior as well as all mental states to have a natural basis, while affirming a transcendent, spiritual part of human nature inaccessible to the scientist.

The view is not without difficulties, however. For one thing, the biblical warrant for trichotomy is slender. Only one text actually mentions the three supposed “parts” together (1 Thess. 5:23), but their respective functions and interrelations are not specified. The terms “soul” and “spirit” are used interchangeably in some cases (e.g., Luke 1:46-47; 1 Pet. 3:4). Paul can use a variety of pairs of terms to signify two essential aspects of human nature; thus he speaks of the body, flesh, or outer man, in contrast to the heart, mind, spirit, or inner man (Rom. 2:28-29; 7:18-25; 12:1-2; 1 Cor. 5:4-5; 7:34; 2 Cor. 4:16; 7:1).

While a rigid distinction between spirit and soul cannot be sustained from the Bible, the trichotomist position does make an important contribution to the discussion about human nature. The immaterial aspect of the human person does not have two “parts,” but it does have two orientations. Our mind or inner person serves to connect us both to the physical world in which we as physical, biological creatures live, and to the spiritual, supernatural world or realm of God (and the angels) to which our spirits depart at the death of our bodies. We are natural creatures, but we also have a capacity for transcendence — for spiritual experiences, for worship of God, and for existence beyond the grave.17

Modern Man in Search of a Cure

Regrettably, while we human beings have a capacity for transcendence, we also have a capacity for travesty. We have such noble and lofty ideals, and sometimes we even seem to realize them, but more often than not we disappoint ourselves by attitudes and behaviors that seem unworthy of the name human. What is wrong with us, and what can be done about it? These are also questions which during the past century our society has asked psychology to answer.

Although there have been dissenting voices heard in the psychological establishment, by far the most common and influential answer to the human problem is that people are basically good and the solution is to be found in appreciating and connecting to that basic goodness. Kilpatrick puts it bluntly:

It is very nearly the First Commandment of the psychological society that we should accept ourselves as we are. . . . Much of the content of humanistic psychology derives from the central assumption that man is good and has no inclination toward evil. Selfishness, aggression, and other undesirable behaviors are blamed on man’s environment, not on man himself. The biblical notion that man is weakened by sin is either implicitly or explicitly rejected by most psychologists of this persuasion. 18

Perhaps the only emendation to Kilpatrick’s description of the psychological view of human evil is that undesirable behaviors are blamed not only on the environment but also on physiology — whether genetic predispositions, chemical imbalances, glands, or other biological factors. Indeed, the major debate that raged throughout the twentieth century was not about whether human behavior was determined — almost all psychologists and other social scientists have assumed that it was. The big debate has been over whether human behavior is determined more by biological or environmental factors — the so-called “nature versus nurture” debate.19

The No-Fault Society

As most people know, the application of psychological “explanations” to human behavior has resulted in a weakening of belief in personal responsibility. In the American court system there have been countless cases in which psychological or societal factors were cited by the defense in support of a plea of innocence or at least diminished responsibility. Such an approach was pioneered by Clarence Darrow, the agnostic trial lawyer probably best remembered for his defense on behalf of the ACLU of John Scopes in the 1925 “monkey trial” (discussed in the previous chapter). Just a few years earlier in the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder case, Darrow had won an acquittal of the two young men on the grounds that their act of violence was the fault of society. In recent years such rationalizations have become so outrageous that something of a backlash has begun to take place. In A Nation of Victims, Charles Sykes reports some of these absurd cases of psychological excuses for unacceptable behavior. One school employee who was fired for constantly showing up late to work gave as his excuse that he had “chronic lateness syndrome.” An FBI agent who was fired for embezzling $2000 from the agency and gambling it away was reinstated by a court ruling that found his gambling habit to be a “handicap.”20

Such excuses for misbehavior have always had their critics. One basic problem with such psychologizing is that quite frequently the blame is merely shifted around from one person to the next, as the following poem illustrates:

At three I had a feeling of
Ambivalence toward my brothers.
And as it follows naturally
I poisoned all my lovers.
But now I’m happy; I have learned
The lesson this has taught;
That everything I do that’s wrong
Is someone else’s fault. 21

A further problem for such blame shifting is that it leads to a logical dilemma. If it’s always someone else’s fault, then it is somehow everyone’s fault and at the same time no one’s fault! Thus the “blame game” becomes a vicious circle in which any explanation of human evil is possible and no explanation is without problems. One of the more interesting expressions of this vicious circularity came in a song in the musical West Side Story, in which the members of a street gang play various parts and satirize the adults’ explanations for their delinquency.

Boy:
Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, you gotta understand,
It’s just our bringing up-ke that gets us out of hand,
Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks,
Golly Moses, naturally we’re punks!

Boys:
Gee Officer Krupke, we’re very upset,
We never had the love that every child oughta get.
We ain’t no delinquents, we’re misunderstood,
Deep down inside us there is good, there is good.
There is good, there is good, there is untapped good,
Like inside the worst of us is good. . . .

Boy:
Dear kindly Judge your honor, my parents treat me rough,
With all their marijuana, they won’t give me a puff.
They didn’t want to have me, but somehow I was had.
Leapin’ lizards, that’s why I’m so bad!

Judge:
Yes, Officer Krupke, you’re really a square —
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care.
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed,
He’s psychologically disturbed. . . .

Boy [to psychologist]:
My daddy beats my mommy, my mommy clobbers me,
My grandpa is a Commie, my grandma pushes tea,
My sister wears a mustache, my brother wears a dress;
Goodness, gracious, that’s why I’m a mess!

Psychologist:
Yes, Officer Krupke, he shouldn’t be here,
This boy don’t need a couch, he needs a useful career.
Society’s played him a terrible trick,
Und sociologically he’s sick. . . .

Social worker:
Yes, Officer Krupke, you’ve done it again.
This boy don’t need a job, he needs a year in the pen.
It ain’t just a question of misunderstood,
Deep down inside him, he’s no good.

Boys:
We’re no good, we’re no good, we’re no earthly good,
Like the worst of us is no damn good. . . .
Dear Officer Krupke, we’re down on our knees,
’Cause no on wants a fellow with a social disease. . . .22

What is fascinating about this song is that while it clearly identifies the oversimplistic explanations prevalent in our culture for human wrongdoing, it offers no alternative — and neither does the play (or film) as a whole. Postmodern man knows that there is something wrong with these reductionistic analyses of human nature, but is unclear as to what to put in their place.

Beyond Simplistic Answers

In the Christian view, human nature is neither good nor bad without qualification. God created human beings good (Gen. 1:26-31), but the first human couple fell into sin and passed a disposition to sin down to all their descendants (Gen. 3; Rom. 5:12-14). Even after the Fall, human beings are creatures with the dignity of being “in God’s image” (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6; James 3:9), and as such are capable of good. Yet, according to the Bible and corroborated by our universal experience, all of us fall woefully short of realizing our ideal and our potential for good (Rom. 3:23). Thus, while it would not be correct to say that human beings are “basically good,” it would also not be correct to say that human beings are basically or essentially bad. Rather, human beings are good creatures whose goodness has been severely compromised and corrupted. We are walking contradictions, creatures who aspire to a seemingly romantic vision of glory and who occasionally and fleetingly come close to realizing it, while so often wallowing in base desires and selfish ambitions.

Only the biblical world view can make sense of human experience. The secular view of human beings as merely very smart animals denies the glorious potential we know is within us, while the New Age view of human beings as gods who have forgotten their divinity denies the humiliating reality of our daily failures that we would desperately like to forget but usually cannot. The Christian perception of humanity, by contrast, is refreshingly fair and realistic — neither denying our dignity nor ignoring our ignominy.

If we return to the West Side Story song “Dear Officer Krupke” for a moment, noticeably absent from the review of possible diagnoses of the human condition was the possibility that all human beings — gang members, police officers, judges, psychologists, and social workers — are suffering, not from a mere “social disease,” but more fundamentally from a spiritual disease. But in the popular culture of the past two generations or so, this idea is rarely even considered. It is no accident that the character of the priest in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (on which West Side Story was based) has been replaced with a hapless store owner.

If humanistic psychology does allow that human beings suffer from a spiritual disease at all, that disease would be temporary amnesia. Nearly every variety of psychology in the twentieth century has prescribed some kind of recollection or remembrance therapy as the solution to psychological and behavior problems. The psychoanalytic search for buried memories in the unconscious mind, the secular humanistic advice to tell ourselves that we’re “O.K.,” and the New Age, transpersonal psychological pursuit of the divinity within, are all variations on a theme — that wholeness, wellness, and the fulfillment of our human potential are to be found within ourselves with the resources we already have. Vitz’s criticism of modern psychological approaches to life is to the point:

This goal of self-realization or self-actualization is at heart a gnostic one, in which the commandment “Know and express thyself” has replaced the Judeo-Christian commandment “Love God and others.” 23

In maintaining that the spiritual dimension of the human condition and problem is primary, it is neither necessary nor desirable for Christians to ignore or minimize the physiological, psychological, or sociological dimensions of human life. The answer to psychological reductionism is not to replace it with a theological reductionism. What Christians need to do is to develop an approach to understanding human behavior that takes all aspects of the human condition fully into account. What makes the theological or spiritual perspective primary is that, unlike the physiological, psychological, or sociological perspectives, Christian theology offers a transcendent perspective on the human condition based on the special, verbal revelation of God in Scripture. The Christian doctrine of humanity provides an orientation to the whole of human nature. To be human is to be a biological, rational being, living in a physical environment in relationship with other human beings and with other creatures, and enjoying a spiritual capacity and potential for relationship with God unique among earthly creatures — a potential thwarted by sin. Thus Christian doctrine allows for a more full-orbed, coherent appreciation of human nature in all its complexity and seeming contradictions than can be gained through the reductionistic philosophies of psychologism or New Age mysticism.

The task facing Christians entering the third millennium is to uphold the biblical view of human nature and sin while recognizing and benefiting from the genuine insights that modern psychology and the other human sciences have produced. Like it or not, modern science has shown and is continuing to show that physiological and environmental factors play much larger roles in human behavior than most Christians were willing to acknowledge in the past. The proper response to these findings is not to discount them in the interests of preserving the traditional view, but to work hard to understand how these findings can enhance or refine the Christian view. Efforts toward that end, commonly called the integration of psychology and Christian theology, are still in the early stages. While many such efforts will have to be judged inadequate or even wrong-headed, in the long run the Christian community will be the stronger for it. We have what the psychologists, the psychotherapists, and their patients are ultimately seeking: the key to understanding ourselves. That key is our identity as creatures made in the image of God and suffering from the effects of a broken relationship with God. If we can communicate this message in a way that fully coheres with the genuine insights into the human condition that are discovered in the human sciences, ours will be a clear message of realism and hope in a world in desperate need of both.


1 The point is developed in Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Orthodoxy and Heresy: A Biblical Guide to Doctrinal Discernment (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 16-17.

2 Cf. Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1933).

3 Quoted in Morton Hunt, The Story of Psychology (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 129.

4 Wilhelm Wundt, Contributions to the Theory of Sense Perception (1862), quoted in Hunt, The Story of Psychology, 129.

5 Hunt, The Story of Psychology, 138.

6 William James, Psychology (1892), as cited in Hunt, Story of Psychology, 145.

7 James, Psychology (1892), as cited in Hunt, Story of Psychology, 158.

8 C. Lloyd Morgan, An Introduction to Comparative Psychology (London: Walter Scott, 1909 [1894]), 53, cited in Hunt, Story of Psychology, 244.

9 Hunt, Story of Psychology, 184-85.

10 James B. Watson, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It,” Psychological Review 20 (1913), cited in Hunt, Story of Psychology, 256.

11 Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating the Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992).

12 Ibid., 5.

13 William Kirk Kilpatrick, The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Naked Truth about the New Psychology (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985), 22-23.

14 Vitz, Psychology as Religion, 119.

15 An excellent philosophical case for the reality of the soul is the essay by J. P. Moreland, “A Defense of a Substance Dualist View of the Soul,” in Christian Perspectives on Being Human: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Integration, ed. J. P. Moreland and David M. Ciocchi (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 55-79; see also Gary Habermas and J. P. Moreland, Immortality: The Other Side of Death (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992).

16 John W. Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989).

17 The reality of our capacity for transcendence, and the various ways that this transcendence has been understood, receives helpful treatment in Norman L. Geisler and Winfried Corduan, Philosophy of Religion, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988).

18 Kilpatrick, Emperor’s New Clothes, 20, 44-45.

19 See chapter 4 of Enduring Issues in Psychology, ed. Toni Blake, Opposing Viewpoints series (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995), for a collection of essays from varying perspectives on the nature-nurture debate.

20 Charles J. Sykes, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Culture (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 3, cited in Vitz, Psychology as Religion, 86.

21 Anna Russell, “Psychiatric Folksong,” quoted in Paul C. Vitz, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 61 n. 7.

22 “Dear Officer Krupke,” in West Side Story (1957; film version 1961), lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

23 Vitz, Psychology as Religion, 3. By “gnostic” Vitz means an approach to the human problem that finds the solution in knowledge (Greek, gnosis).

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4. The Way Things Ought to Be: Postmodernism and the Question of Reality

“What I told you was true, from a certain point of view. . . . Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

— Obi Won Kenobi, to Luke Skywalker, in The Return of the Jedi (1983)

In the previous two chapters, we have looked at the way modern science and psychology have changed the way we look at our world and ourselves and the challenges these new ideas pose to the Christian faith. Arguably the greatest challenge to the Christian faith, though, has yet to be considered. It is one thing to ask questions about the nature of the world or of ourselves — such as how old is the earth or whether human beings possess a soul. It is another thing altogether to ask questions about whether any questions about the world or ourselves can actually be answered. We are now living in a culture that increasingly questions the whole idea of truth as a reality that is the same for all people and according to which all people must order their lives.

For the past two centuries, philosophers and scientists, artists and theologians have turned in large numbers away from the supernaturalistic faith of historic Christianity and have sought an understanding and perspective of the world on a naturalistic basis. The goal was nothing less than a total rethinking of reality in terms fully comprehended by the human mind. Just as modern civilization seemed to be closing in on this goal, the whole project began to break down.

Culture watchers commonly refer to the breakdown of the modern world view and the resulting abandonment of the notion of objective truth and reality as postmodernism. At the heart of the postmodernist revolution is the claim that objectivism, the belief that truth and values exist independently of our perceiving them or believing in them, has been declared an outmoded, unrealizable ideal. Not only has God been declared dead, but Truth also has been pronounced dead. How can we tell a postmodernist that Jesus Christ is the Truth, when they don’t believe in truth any more? William Lane Craig has explained the problem this way:

The postmodernist is not merely saying that we cannot know with certainty which religious worldview is true and we therefore must be open-minded; rather he maintains that none of the religious worldviews is objectively true, and therefore none can be excluded in deference to the allegedly one true religion.1

Relativism and Reality

The seeds of postmodernism were actually sown in the eighteenth century debates about epistemology — the branch of philosophy that asks how and whether we can know anything, and how we know what we know. Such debates seem esoteric to most people today, yet our culture has been profoundly affected by their outcome.

Some philosophers, called rationalists, maintained that we know things through the use of our mental, reasoning faculties. The problem with this claim was that by itself the mind would not have any information about which to think or reason. Other philosophers, called empiricists, maintained that we know things because the world external to us impacts us with information through our senses. One difficulty with this claim was that it could not explain how we know that certain things are always so (for example, how we know that two plus two always equals four). The mind is evidently not a mere blank slate on which the information that passes through our senses are written.

Immanuel Kant: Why We Can’t Know the Real World

Into this debate came the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) Kant argued that the rationalists and empiricists were both half right and half wrong. “Pure reason” by itself has nothing to know, and mere sensations by themselves cannot be known. The mind, Kant argued, imposes a structure on the world as it receives information through the senses. It orders the chaos of sensations and, in effect, creates a world out of them. We can and do gain knowledge this way — but, Kant concluded, not knowledge of things in themselves, but things as they are perceived by us. What we know is not “out there,” but is rather what our minds have done with what is “out there.”

This way of looking at knowledge, Kant claimed, was akin to a Copernican revolution in epistemology. In the Copernican revolution we learned that the appearance of a regular motion of the sun is an illusion and that it is we that are moving, imposing the apparent motion on the sun. In the Kantian revolution we were told that the appearance of a regular structure of the world is an illusion and that it is we that are structuring the world, imposing the apparent structure on the world.

Kant was not a postmodernist. He believed that all of our minds imposed the same structure on the world, and therefore expected knowledge gained by one person to be recognizable by and shareable with other persons. But it should be obvious how short was the step from Kant’s modernism to today’s postmodernism. Take away the assumption that all human minds employ the same structural grid in organizing sense perceptions into intelligent knowledge, and the radical relativism of the postmodern era follows naturally. And that assumption itself could not be supported on Kant’s theory of knowledge. How can I know that other minds impose the same sort of structural form on the world as my mind does? If I cannot know things as they are in themselves, I certainly cannot know how other minds work in themselves.

Relativism: Why We Can’t Know the World Is Real

Not surprisingly, then, as the modern civilization of the West became an intercontinental, global civilization of diverse cultures, religions, and philosophies, the modernist assumption of a common rationality fell by the wayside. What has arisen in its place is another assumption, that of relativism. According to relativism, all knowledge is a construction, a way of looking at things, which has merit or value relative to the person or group of people who utilize it. Because the constructions used by a group have certain similarities and are developed as the individuals in the group interact, many postmodernists speak of “the social construction of reality.” Relativism, then, does not mean that an individual constructs his or her view of reality in isolation. It does mean, however, that no one view of reality is supreme or privileged. There is no objective reality “out there” that is known in this construction but not in that one. If there is anything existing independent of our perceptions of it (and postmodernists have differing “constructions” on that question!), there is no determinable, absolute reality that is waiting to be discovered and known. There are only varying constructions of that reality that differ because of our differing experiences, capacities, and conditions.

If these constructions or reality differ from one another, then, of what use are they? Different answers to that question can also be found, of course, but we will mention two of the most common. Constructions of reality are often held to be of relative validity to the extent that they provide a coherent or internally consistent way of looking at things. That is, as long as a person or group has a world view that makes sense of everything or nearly everything that they experience or encounter in life, that world view is valid for them. The other answer commonly given is that constructions of reality are of relative value to the extent that they provide an effective method for achieving goals. On this understanding, to the extent that a person or group has a world view that enables them to succeed in life, that world view is valid for them. If the first approach asks whether it makes sense, the second asks whether it works. Either question is allowable on postmodernist, relativistic premises. The question that is disallowed, that cannot even be asked, is whether it corresponds with external or objective reality — that is, whether it is true. Such a question is regarded as meaningless. For postmodernists, the only thing that is meaningful is the choice to embrace a world view that has no objective reality. One critic describes the philosophy this way:

Chinese food or French cuisine, Jesus or Nostradamus, permed or straight, life or death: they are all the same. What you choose does not matter, only your freedom in choosing.2

This Message Will Self-Destruct . . .

Despite the enormous sophistication and growing popularity of postmodernism, its relativistic view of knowledge and truth suffers from a simple, fatal flaw: relativism is self-defeating. That is, the claim that all knowledge is relative is a claim that refutes itself, or destroys itself, in the very act of making the claim.

The concept of a self-defeating or self-refuting claim is easy to understand. Suppose one of us were to write, “I cannot write a single sentence in English.” Obviously, in writing that sentence, I have just disproved it. A similar, more famous example is the “liar’s paradox.” If one of us were to say to you, “Everything I tell you is a lie,” that statement is self-refuting, because if it were true, that very statement would be a lie — but if it were a lie, then not everything I told you would be a lie.3 No evidence outside the statement is needed to show that it is false, and no amount of evidence could ever make it true.

Similarly, any statement affirming relativism is self-refuting. For example, if we assert that “all knowledge is relative,” then we are making a claim about the knowledge all other persons have, and thus we are making an absolute statement of truth. If “all knowledge is relative,” then we cannot know that! Perhaps the most blatant example of a self-defeating affirmation of relativism is John Caputo’s assertion, “The truth is that there is no truth.”4 Obviously, if this is true, it is false (since there would be at least this one truth). Such self-defeating statements also appear in moral discourse, such as the dictum of Jean-Paul Sartre’s mistress, Simone de Beauvoir, “It is forbidden to forbid.”5 One would think such transparently self-refuting statements would be rare, but they are commonplace in the literature, probably because they sound profoundly paradoxical. The fact of the matter, though, is that they are simply nonsense (that is, they make no sense).

This self-defeating nature of relativistic statements cannot be avoided by changing the terminology used. For example, if I claim that “all knowledge is a human construction,” that claim must apply to my knowledge that all knowledge is a human construction. But if my “knowledge” in this regard is itself a construction, it is only one way of looking at the question, and I have eliminated any possible basis for asserting it to be true of all knowledge possessed by other persons. Here is yet another example of a self-defeating statement, this one from postmodernist Walter Anderson: “In the postmodern world we are all required to make choices about our realities. . . . The only thing we lack is the option of not having to make choices. . . .”6 If we must “all” make such choices — if it is “required” and there is “no option” in this regard — and if, as Anderson in context clearly means, we are all living in “the postmodern world” whether we like it or not, then his whole statement assumes that there is one world in which we all live and about which one truth rules over all of us. In short, Anderson’s argument destroys itself because it presupposes the exact opposite of what it asserts. Of course, a softer claim might have been made — that we cannot avoid choosing what we will believe — but this is not Anderson’s claim, and it is not relativism.

Nor can the problem be avoided by adopting a softer, more humble form of relativism. For example, suppose someone were to say, “Well, I don’t know if all knowledge is relative for everyone else, but I know that all knowledge is relative for me.” To such an assertion we must ask whether this knowledge is itself relative. Is the humble relativist’s knowledge of the relativism of his knowledge subject to change depending on time, place, or circumstance? If it is, then it is not always or necessarily true even for him. If his knowledge of relativism is not subject to change, then it is an absolute, and his relativism is false — even for him!

Not only can no one affirm relativism without refuting it, no one can argue for it or provide evidence for it without refuting it. Relativists often appeal to the differing belief systems which human beings espouse as proof of relativism. For example, Anderson criticizes “fundamentalists” for their belief in absolute truths by pointing out that “there is not, in most parts of the contemporary world, much of a consensus about what those truths are — if there are any. . . .”7 But the argument assumes that I am living in the same “contemporary world” as Anderson and am aware of the diverse belief systems to which Anderson refers. Or again, relativists often point out that the appearance of a stick partially submerged in water differs depending on the direction from which it is viewed. But the experiment depends on our recognizing that it is the same stick, the same water, and the same glass that we both see — and the fact that we can exchange places and see what the other saw proves that relativism is indeed false. Any attempt to persuade someone to adopt relativism assumes absolutism.

It is true, of course, that we “construct” our world views through a process of interacting with our environment and with each other. This has the further implication that none of us knows everything, and that even what we know in common will have a different set of associations and be set in somewhat differing contexts. We must part company with the relativist and the postmodernist, however, when they reason from these facts to the conclusion that reality itself is a construction of the human mind. Rather, reality is the given setting in which our efforts to construct a world view take place and which set the boundaries and conditions of those efforts. In other words, reality is both the field on which we play the game of knowledge and the rules by which the game of knowledge is governed.

The postmodernist is right in claiming that the modernist project of acquiring absolutely objective, complete, and comprehensive knowledge of the world is impossible for finite humans. For this reason postmodern critiques of the Enlightenment and modern thought have value. But the postmodernist has really not abandoned modernism; he is really more of an ultramodernist. He retains the belief that human beings must determine for themselves what is real and what is right on the assumption of human self-sufficiency. The postmodernist is therefore every bit a humanist as the modernist. Postmodernists have simply concluded that this human determination of the real is to be taken even more literally: to determine what is real now means to make it real.

Reimagining Reality

Postmodernism and its relativistic view of knowledge are more widespread than the number of persons who self-consciously accept these labels. Throughout our civilization the belief in objective truth and objective reality is under assault. Relativism shows up in some of the strangest places. In every case, the argument is ultimately self-defeating.

For example, we are told that all texts, from the Bible to the U.S. Constitution, have different meanings depending on the political, ideological stance from which they are read. Those who disagree with the traditional interpretation of these texts advocate “deconstructing” them, that is, dismantling their actual meanings by showing their ideological assumptions. But if this theory were true, any and all statements that expressed this theory would also vary in meaning in this way — so that, from at least one particular ideological stance, the theory could still be interpreted to mean that texts have fixed meanings which all readers should respect. By this reasoning the postmodernist theory of interpretation of texts can itself be dismissed as reflecting a particular ideological stance.

Or again, it is claimed that modern physics, especially Einstein’s theories of relativity, have proved relativism. This claim, of course, is self-defeating, since it could only be true if Einstein’s theories of relativity were itself true. That is, it assumes that Einstein’s theories refer to absolute truths, not truths judged only from a certain perspective. Moreover, the argument completely misunderstands Einstein. Relativity is not the same thing as relativism. Relativity theory correlates space and time, matter and energy according to certain constant (i.e., absolute) truths, such as the formula E = mc2 or the velocity of light as equaling 186,242 miles per second for all observers. Thus, relativity theory assumes that relativism is false and that some things are true for everyone.

History: The Way We Imagine We Were

One of the areas of thought in which relativism has made especially significant inroads is the field of historical knowledge. History used to be defined as the study of the past — the search for knowledge of what actually took place in the past. The assumption was that certain events took place at certain times for certain reasons, and to the extent that effects of those events have survived or can be found, we can acquire knowledge of those events and an understanding of how and why they happened. It was also assumed that the more accurate our understanding of the past, the more likely we were to be able to act effectively in the present and plan for the future.

This philosophy of history is now widely regarded as out of fashion. We are now told that history is constructed according to the perspectives (i.e., biases) of the historian, and that there is no objective way to judge which perspectives must be used and no way to be sure that our constructions correspond to the way things “really” were.

No one doubts that historians are guided by their own assumptions, experiences, training, and values, and that these factors play a part in shaping the conclusions reached by historians. But what is controversial is that such subjective factors make impossible comparisons of historical constructions in light of objective facts. But the reason for adopting this philosophy of history is not a secret. Many postmodern historians are quite open about the fact that in their view history serves ideological purposes. That is, the purpose of history is not to learn what actually happened in the past (which is supposedly an unrealizable goal), but rather to further a social or political agenda. For virtually all such postmodernists, that agenda is one of liberation of oppressed peoples, providing a voice for those whose perspective has been ignored or suppressed by the powerful.

This ideological philosophy of history is self-defeating, as its relativistic assumptions would suggest. After all, one can only commend revisioning history in the interests of the oppressed peoples if it is possible to identify who the oppressed peoples are. Every citation of slavery, genocide, persecution, or marginalization of a people assumes that we can examine the facts and agree that in truth the people in question did receive such treatment.

Afrocentrism: Teaching Myth as History

An excellent example of this trend in postmodern historiography is Afrocentrism, a program of revisionism aimed at claiming African origins for numerous famous people, inventions, and cultural developments traditionally attributed to European or other non-African sources. What is controversial here is not a search for the actual contributions of African peoples to the history and cultures of the world, or an effort to show that some African contributions have been overlooked or co-opted by Eurocentrists. Such a program would assume an objectivist philosophy of history as the search for knowledge of the actual past. What makes Afrocentrism troubling is its disregard for the facts and its open advocacy, at least on the part of some, of a view of history as essentially an ideological tool rather than a pursuit of the truth.

Mary Lefkowitz has authored an incisive critique of such Afrocentric revisionism in her book Not Out of Africa, in which she refutes the claim that Socrates (for example) was black and that the Greeks stole their philosophy and other intellectual legacies from African culture. Lefkowitz, a Jewish historian, is naturally sensitive to revisionism, since the Nazis created fictions about Jewish history to justify the Holocaust, and since more than a half century later a stubborn minority of people in the West still deny that the Holocaust occurred. Her comparison of the two examples of revisionism is to the point:

Academics ought to have seen right from the start that this “new historicism” has some serious shortcomings. But in fact most of us are just beginning to emerge from the fog far enough to see where history-without-facts can lead us, which is right back to fictive history of the kind developed to serve the Third Reich. It is not coincidental that ours is the era not just of Holocaust denial but of denial that the ancient Greeks were ancient Greeks and creators of their own intellectual heritage. . . . There are of course many possible interpretations of the truth, but some things are simply not true. It is not true that there was no Holocaust. There was a Holocaust, although we may disagree about the numbers of people killed. Likewise, it is not true that the Greeks stole their philosophy from Egypt. . . .” 8

Any attempt to circumvent this problem by claiming that there are different “truths” and that the Afrocentrists are as entitled to their truth as anyone else would miss the point. These revisionists are not seeking toleration, but are demanding (and in some cases getting) official acceptance as the new historical paradigm in universities and throughout the educational establishment. Competition among divergent theories or beliefs is nothing new in academia; what is new is that the players in some cases are explicitly denying that the competition must be awarded to the view that makes the best case for being true to the real world. Lefkowitz asks,

Are there, can there be, multiple, diverse “truths?” If there are, which “truth” should win? The one that is most loudly argued, or most persuasively phrased? Diverse “truths” are possible only if “truth” is understood to mean something like “point of view.” . . . . The notion of diversity does not extend to truth. 9

The fact that people acting on the basis of postmodern assumptions often insist that their view be given priority and acceptance while older, traditional views be discarded suggests something very disturbing. We have already seen that at its root the relativism of postmodern thought is irrational, indeed self-refuting. Why, then, would anyone insist on it? While this cannot be said about all who espouse relativism, in many cases it would seem to be little more than a cover for beliefs that cannot withstand rational, objective scrutiny.

We have been using Afrocentrism as an example of an interpretation of history that is typically postmodern and relativistic, but there are many more examples that could be given (such as the debates about the place of Christopher Columbus in history that raged during 1992, or the postmodern interpretations of history offered by Oliver Stone in such movies as JFK). Indeed, even the historical narratives of the Bible have been subject to revisionist constructions that assume a relativistic understanding of historical knowledge. It is one thing for skeptics to claim that the crucial historical events of the Bible never happened. It is another thing altogether for postmodernists to “re-read” biblical history and come away with completely different meanings that deny the reality of that history. In this regard they have made common cause with the modernist approach to biblical interpretation that has characterized theological liberalism for the past two centuries. It is liberalism and its postmodern successors that will occupy our attention in the next chapter.


1 William Lane Craig, “Politically Incorrect Salvation,” in Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World, ed. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Ockholm (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 77.

2 Roger Lundin, “The Pragmatics of Postmodernity,” in Christian Apologetics in the Modern World, ed. Phillips and Ockholm, 35.

3 An amusing use of this “liar’s paradox” appears in the classic Star Trek episode “I, Mudd,” in which Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock use the self-defeating paradox to paralyze the collective computerized mind of a race of androids!

4 John D. Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 156, cited in Craig, “Politically Incorrect Salvation,” 82.

5 Quoted in Ravi Zacharias, A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 57.

6 Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), 7, 8 (emphasis in original).

7 Ibid., xi.

8 Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History, A New Republic Book (New York: HarperCollins — BasicBooks, 1996), 51, 161.

9 Ibid., 162.

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5. No God at All: Western Humanism and the New Atheism

“Nothing comes from nothing — nothing ever could.”

— Maria Von Trapp (Julie Andrews), “Something Good,”
in The Sound of Music (1965)1

By far the most direct and radical challenge to the Christian faith is to deny the existence of any God. In the twentieth century the atheistic worldview that rejects all beliefs in supernatural or transcendent beings achieved influence far greater than at any time previously in the West. Even in the twentieth century, though, its influence has far outstripped its adherence in terms of sheer numbers. While atheists remain in the minority in all Western countries, they have had an inordinate influence on the culture as the most forceful advocates of the secularization of society.

Who Says God Is Dead?

One commonly hears that about 95 percent of Americans believe in the existence of God. This figure is problematic, though, if one is at all particular by what is meant by “God.” In a 1994 Gallup survey, only 83 percent stated that they believed in a personal God, while some 12 percent believed in a spirit or life force. In other words, about 12 percent of Americans are pantheists of some sort, while only about 83 percent are monotheists.

Of the 5 percent remaining, 3 percent said they did not know if they believed in a God or not, while 2 percent said they did not believe. The difference between these two answers is marginal (since many atheists say both that they do not know and that they do not believe), but suggests that of the 5 percent of Americans who do not confess belief in a God or divine power, about half would describe themselves as agnostics while the other half would probably be agreeable to the designation atheists.2

Gallup’s figures show also that men are a little more than twice as likely not to believe in a God than women (some 5 percent of men do not believe). Young adults (ages 18-29) also tend not to believe somewhat more than the general population, and evidently some 7 percent of teenagers do not believe in a God. It is also interesting to note that 8 percent of those with postgraduate education do not believe in a God.3 This figure is not much higher than for the general population and suggests that belief in God cannot be dismissed as the archaic belief of the uneducated.

While belief in a God is very high in the United States, in other parts of the world a different picture emerges. Worldwide it is estimated that there are about a quarter of a billion atheists and nearly a billion people who are either nonreligious or whose religion has little or no place for a God. While about four-fifths of these atheists and agnostics reside in China and in former Soviet republics, a good many of them are to be found in other parts of the world.4 In 1981 the percentage of people in Western Europe who professed not to believe in God ranged from 16% in Great Britain and West Germany to 29% in France and 35% in Sweden. Another 7% to 15% in these countries said they did not know. Thus in Western Europe, where Christianity has flourished continuously longer than anywhere else in the world, overall only about three-fifths of the people believe in God.5

Atheism, then, and the more noncommittal agnosticism, are positions found throughout the world and which have had an enormous impact on the world in this century. In the United States, where their numbers are comparatively small, atheists and agnostics exert a disproportionate influence on the culture through their advocacy of the complete secularization of American society.

What Atheism Says

It is commonly assumed that atheism is the belief that there is no God, and that an atheist is someone who believes there is no God. Most atheists, however, reject these definitions. They point out that the term atheism derives from the Greek a (not, without) and theos (God, god), and conclude that atheism is simply the lack or absence of belief in a God or gods. That is, an atheist does not necessarily deny the existence of a God, but simply has no belief in the existence of a God.6 George Smith, for example, asserts that in this sense both the man who has never heard of the concept of God, and the child who is too young to grasp the concept, are “atheists.”7 This claim is an old one: the eighteenth-century atheist Baron D’Holbach wrote, “All children are atheists, they have no idea of God.”8

Atheists wish to secure two benefits from this redefinition of the term atheism. First, by defining it as the lack of a belief, rather than a belief itself, they wish to render atheism impervious to criticism. One cannot criticize a non-position! On this basis atheists frequently dismiss out of hand all claims that atheism is a dangerous or corrupt philosophy, since it is not a philosophy at all, but merely the lack of a particular philosophical concept. Second, atheists commonly argue that since they lack a belief while theists are adhering to and promoting their belief, the burden of proof rests fully on the theist to make a case for belief in God. That is, the atheist has nothing to justify, no belief to defend or substantiate; the burden of providing justification or evidence rests solely on the theist. An atheist is in the same position as someone who lacks belief in elves — they have nothing to prove and no need to defend their belief, while the person who does believe in elves is obliged, if he wants anyone else to take his belief seriously, to provide some rational justification for that belief.9 This is what Antony Flew, one of the leading atheist philosophers of the twentieth century, called the “presumption of atheism.”10

The claim that atheism is not a position that needs to be defended is rather odd, and strangely contradicted by atheists themselves. Take, for example, B. C. Johnson, who repeats the standard claim that because atheists merely have a “lack of belief in God,” they are not offering any explanation of things which needs to be justified.11 Yet this claim comes on the heels of the following statement about the purpose of his book: “For some time now atheists have been in need of firm grounds upon which to base their position.”12 George Smith actually entitles his book Atheism: The Case Against God, which obviously implies that atheism is a position that rejects belief in God.

The attempt to defend their unusual definition of atheism by etymology misunderstands how the word was formed. Traditionally the term has been construed as athe-ism, that is, the “belief” (-ism) that there is “no God” (athe-), rather than as a-theism, the mere absence or lack of belief in God. It is silly to define atheism in such a way that not only babies (as is commonly claimed), but also animals and even inanimate objects, would qualify as atheists — since all of these lack belief in God! When atheists are not worrying about the definition, they commonly speak of themselves as “atheists” with the clear understanding that the term refers to people who have rejected the concept of God.

Of course, most atheists do not claim to know with certainty that there is no God. Flew, for instance, is eager to say that atheists are not “bigoted dogmatists” who are closed to the idea of God.13 Such dogmatic atheism would leave itself wide open to the objection that one would have to be omniscient to know that there was no God — so that in effect one would have to be God to know there was no God!

Although atheists often deny espousing such a dogmatic atheism, they frequently do end up asserting in quite dogmatic terms that God does not or even cannot exist. George Smith, for example, writes, “It is logically impossible for god — a concept replete with absurdities and contradictions — to have a referent in reality, just as it is logically impossible for a square circle to exist. Given the attempts to define god, we may now state — with certainty — that god does not exist.”14 This is actually a fairly common sentiment in the atheist literature. The nineteenth-century atheist Annie Besant, for example, admitted that to say “There is no God” would be irrational because it would be asserting “a universal negative” which would require “perfect knowledge” to justify. But it turns out that Besant allowed for the possibility of a God unknown to her only if it is a finite entity in some unknown place (say, “on the far side of Sirius”). If that God is said to be an infinite being, she argued that such a God cannot exist because the assertion of an infinite God is a “universal affirmative” that is contradicted by the existence of anything (such as oneself) that is not God.15

Besant’s argument, of course, misunderstands what theists mean by describing God as “infinite.” They mean, not that God is everything (which would be pantheism, not theism), but that he is unbounded by finite limitations of matter, energy, space, or time. In other words, God is incorporeal, omnipotent, omnipresent, and eternal. These characteristics imply that God is not part of the universe and therefore is a concrete being distinct from everything else. Thus Besant’s denial of an infinite God really is a universal negative after all.

Atheism, then, is a position which is often presented in a remarkably double-minded way. Atheists claim not to have any belief about God, but then vigorously deny that God could exist. Atheists deny that atheism is a position that can or needs to be defended, but then offer arguments in defense of atheism. Again, George Smith illustrates this philosophical schizophrenia in unmistakable fashion. After arguing that atheism is not a position or belief but a mere lack of belief in a god, he changes gears in order to explain why atheism is significant: “If atheism is correct, man is alone. There is no god to think for him, to watch out for him, to guarantee his happiness. These are the sole responsibility of man.”16 It is clear here that atheism is a philosophy, or at least a basic worldview, after all. It is not merely a lack of belief in certain postulated entities (like elves) but a view of the world as self-existent and self-explanatory and of human life as self-determining. Atheism is the belief that man is alone, that is, that the living beings in this universe must fend for themselves because there is no transcendent Creator or other supernatural beings to help them or to hold them accountable for how they live.

Atheism therefore entails naturalism, the belief — as Carl Sagan famously put it, “The COSMOS is all there is, all there was, and all there ever will be.”17 For most atheists, atheism also entails secular humanism, the belief that human beings must determine their own purpose for life and must solve their own problems. For an atheist, the only alternative to some such humanism is nihilism, the belief that life has no purpose or meaning. While nihilism is a reasonable inference from atheism, most atheists resist nihilism and argue for what Antony Flew calls Atheistic Humanism: a positive philosophy of life that embraces life as meaningful despite the lack of any divinely created purpose for the human race. This is the philosophy of the Humanist Manifesto I (1933), the Humanist Manifesto II (1973), and the Secular Humanist Declaration (1980).18

Given this basic worldview in which the natural cosmos is all that exists and yet human life is held to be meaningful and purposeful, atheists cannot legitimately place the burden of proof exclusively on the theist. The modern atheist espouses a worldview in conscious opposition to the theistic worldview that has dominated Western civilization for about 1600 years, and they therefore bear some burden of proof to show that there is no transcendent God responsible for the existence and nature of the world and for the existence and meaning of human life.

The Fool Has Said . . .

Atheists are naturally offended by the Bible’s declaration that “the fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1a; 53:1a). The meaning of this statement is not that atheists are stupid or lacking in intelligence, but that the denial of God is evidence of the moral corruption in their thinking. Nor is this statement aimed solely at atheists per se. The very next lines assert that “there is none who does good” and that they have all “become corrupt” (Ps. 14:1b-3; 53:1b-3). The apostle Paul quotes these lines to prove that all human beings are morally corrupt and deserve God’s judgment (Rom. 3:9-12).

The folly or foolishness of atheism, then, is ultimately just one particularly overt expression of the universal impulse in human beings to turn away from the true and living God and to follow a path of their own choosing. If the Bible is right, atheism will fall into patent foolishness, not because atheists are intellectually challenged but because they are intellectually prejudiced against God. Moreover, in discerning the foolishness of atheism we will also be seeing the foolishness to which we are all prey apart from God’s gracious revelation of himself to us.

Is God a Meaningless Word?

We have already noted the inconsistency of many atheists who claim that atheism is not a position and yet argue in defense of atheism. One of the main reasons given by atheists for defining atheism as a mere lack of belief in God is that they cannot deny what they do not even understand. Atheists routinely claim that the concept of God is meaningless, so that they don’t even know what the theist is talking about when they use the word “God.” George Smith, for example, complains that being asked to believe in a “God” is as meaningless to him as being asked to believe in “unies” or in a “blark.” These are nonsense words, and offer nothing in which to believe. Likewise, Smith argues, the traditional concept of God is of an unknowable being about whom nothing positive can be said, so that there is nothing to affirm or deny.19

Although atheist philosophers have expended great effort to show that the concept of God is meaningless, it is clear from their own writings that they understand well enough what theists mean by the term “God.” That is the reason, in fact, why atheists must work so hard to show that the concept of God is meaningless! What atheists are actually contending is that the concept of God as a personal infinite being is somehow “incoherent” or internally inconsistent. That is, they claim to have found certain logical problems with the concept of God that show, as we quoted Smith asserting earlier, that the concept of God has the same logical status as that of a “square circle.”

Many examples of alleged incoherence in the concept of God could be cited. One of the more interesting is that God cannot be omniscient (all-knowing) because as an infinite, incorporeal being he cannot know how to do something in a body. Michael Martin puts the argument this way:

If God is omniscient, then on this definition he would have all knowledge including that of how to do gymnastics exercises on the parallel bars, and He would have this knowledge to the highest degree. Yet only a being with a body can have such knowledge, and by definition God does not have a body. Therefore, God’s attributes of being disembodied and being omniscient are in conflict.20

Martin’s argument assumes that to be omniscient one must have both “knowledge-that” (propositional knowledge of facts) and “knowledge-how” (practical knowledge of activities). Since “knowledge-how” means to possess a skill that cannot be reduced to propositional knowledge but must be rooted in experience, an incorporeal God cannot know how to do gymnastics exercises. Martin also argues that omniscience must include “knowledge-of,” that is, knowledge by experience, but that if God is morally perfect, he cannot know such feelings as lust and envy.21

It is not at all obvious that omniscience must include knowledge-how and knowledge-of in the way Martin has assumed. God can know how gymnasts do their exercises without having a body. Presumably as an omnipotent being God could materialize a body (since the traditional concept is that God is not essentially embodied, not that he cannot take bodily form) and in that body perform a perfect gymnastic routine on the parallel bars. It is even more contrived to insist that to be omniscient God must have direct personal experience of everything, including every evil feeling or behavior. This is a loaded definition that has nothing to do with the traditional concept of God’s possessing all knowledge. God understands everything involved in a human being’s experience of lust or envy without God himself having felt lust or envy himself.

Martin admits that the problems he has raised could be avoided by saying that God’s omniscience is of propositional truth only. He then tries to show that such a position leads inevitably to paradoxes. For example, he argues that he can know “I am Michael Martin” while God, who is not Michael Martin, cannot know this (even though he can know that Michael Martin is himself). But this violates omniscience because “an omniscient being is supposed to have all knowledge that nonomniscient beings have.”22 But this statement merely revives Martin’s erroneous assumption that omniscience means possessing every kind of knowledge (including practical and experiential “knowledge”) that every kind of being possesses. Since no theist defines omniscience in this way, Martin is simply knocking down a straw man. And this is almost always the problem underlying atheists’ attempts to show that the traditional monotheistic concept of God is meaningless: they burden the concept with implications that do not follow from the traditional concept and which are unnecessary to that concept.

How Atheists Answer Arguments for God

Atheists claim that the traditional arguments for the existence of God are illogical and therefore cannot prove or support belief in God. While some atheists offer more sophisticated answers to the theistic arguments, the most common answers in the atheistic literature are surprisingly shallow. Atheists usually state the theistic arguments in a completely erroneous form and then triumphantly point out the logical holes in the arguments. Once again, this is the standard fallacy of knocking down a straw man.

Gordon Stein, for example, states the cosmological argument as follows: “Everything must have a cause. Therefore, the universe had a cause, and that cause was God.” He then points out the obvious problem: “If everything must have a cause, then God must have had a cause.”23 Frankly, this is downright mischievous. To our knowledge no theistic philosopher or theologian has ever presented the cosmological argument in this way. Although some (not all) versions of the argument are based on causation, in these versions the premise is not that “everything” must have a cause, but that all finite, temporal, contingent, or mutable things must have a cause. In other words, everything that has the characteristics of an effect must have a cause. God does not need a cause, since he is infinite, eternal, necessary, and immutable. Atheists know this, yet they constantly construe the cosmological argument in this way in order to score a cheap point against theism.24

Essentially the same problem invalidates Stein’s objection to the design or teleological argument. To the theistic claim that the evidence of design in the world proves a designer, Stein responds, “If the universe is wonderfully designed, surely God is even more wonderfully designed. He must, therefore, have had a designer even more wonderful than He is.”25 This objection misses the same point as before, that there is a qualitative difference between the things of this world and God. The world exhibits design in that its numerous parts appear to be amazingly ordered in relation to one another in a complex and precise fashion to make life possible. But God, by definition in classic monotheistic thought, is not a complex entity composed of ordered parts, but an infinite, incorporeal being. Likewise Stein objects to the argument from the creation of life that if life needs to be created, then God, if he is alive, also needed to be created.26 But what implies a creator is the complex, functionally intelligent structures of biological life. God’s life is infinite, incorporeal life.

Perhaps the most outrageous misconstrual of the theistic arguments offered by Stein is his handling of the argument from God’s self-revelation in Scripture. The issue of the Bible is so important that we will consider it at some length.

Has God Said . . . ?

Atheists recognize that for millions of Christians and Jews throughout the world, the rational arguments for God’s existence play only a secondary role in their belief in God. The primary and fundamental basis for believing in God is that he has revealed himself — in the written words of the Bible, and for Christians supremely and savingly in Jesus Christ. In order to make their “case against God” complete, they must discount the evidence from the Bible.

Stein’s handling of what he calls “the argument from revealed theology” or the “argument from the Bible” is to misinterpret the argument in especially glaring fashion. He summarizes the argument as follows: “The Bible says that God exists, and the Bible is the inspired word of God. Therefore, what is says must be true, and [therefore] God does exist.” But the fallacy is all too obvious: “this is a circular argument and begs the question” because calling the Bible “the word of God” surreptitiously “assumes the existence of the very thing we are trying to prove (God).” 27 Again, many atheists cannot resist pointing out the irrationality of assuming the Bible to be God’s word in order to prove that God exists. This argument is even enshrined as an example of the informal fallacy of begging the question in several logic and philosophy textbooks.28

Yet it is once again the atheists who are guilty of the informal fallacy of knocking down a straw man. Virtually no one, and certainly no Jewish or Christian philosopher or theologian, argues in the fashion imagined by the atheists. The claim is not that the Bible proves the existence of God merely because it asserts God’s existence (with the question-begging assumption that it must be true because it is God’s word). Rather, the claim is that the Bible reveals God’s existence and nature to us through the many ways in which it evinces a divine origin. In other words, we believe in God because in the Bible we find abundant evidence that God is real. There is nothing illogical about this claim, and it is certainly not question-begging.

Stein gives one other general reason for rejecting the argument from revelation in the Bible: the Bible contains a number of contradictions and factual errors. This objection, of course, is more substantive, and if true would conflict with the claim that the Bible is an error-free revelation from God. While it is clearly unrealistic to offer here a rundown of the alleged contradictions and errors in the Bible and provide answers to each one, a couple of general comments may be made.

First, atheists and other critics of the Bible frequently neglect the positive arguments Christians have developed in support of belief in the Bible as a supernatural revelation from God. It is rare to find atheist or skeptical literature that interacts in a serious way with conservative Christian biblical scholarship and apologetics. It is extremely rare to find such skeptics considering in any depth the arguments, say, from fulfilled prophecy or the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Instead, atheists tend to focus their efforts on making a negative case against the Bible by identifying numerous alleged contradictions, historical and scientific errors, or other difficulties in Scripture.

Second, these same atheists also tend to ignore entirely the massive Christian literature that considers such alleged Bible difficulties and offers detailed, rational answers to the difficulties. George Smith, for instance, devotes eighteen pages of his book on atheism to the Bible, and does not cite a single Christian source written in defense of the Bible.29 Paul Kurtz devotes nearly a hundred pages in a recent book to critiquing the Bible in general and the biblical presentations of Jesus and Moses in particular, and completely ignores Christian sources that defend the Bible.30

Finally, the skeptics’ neglect of Christian scholarship often shows in glaring factual errors of their own about the Bible. For example, George Smith claims that “most modern theologians would agree” that the Gospels, “or at least three of the four,” were “written anywhere from 40 to 150 years after the death of Jesus.” The reference to three of the four Gospels shows that Smith realizes that Mark is generally admitted to have been written no more than about 35 years after the death of Jesus (i.e., no later than about AD 68). But his figures are still wrong: most biblical scholars and theologians date Matthew, Luke, and John between AD 70-95, or no more than about 60 years after Jesus’ death. The absurdity of suggesting that any of the Gospels might have been written 150 years after Jesus’ death (i.e., about 180) is made clear when we note that a harmony of the four Gospels was produced by Tatian about 155!

Even those atheists who avoid making such a crude mistake try to push the dates for the Gospels to as late a time as possible. Michael Martin, for example, claims that “most biblical scholars date Mark around A.D. 80 and Matthew around A.D. 90,” with Luke dated around 100 and John about 110, and thinks “it is possible that the earliest one [Mark] was not written until the beginning of the second century or about seventy years after the alleged death of Jesus.”31 The fact is that many biblical scholars even of a liberal persuasion would date Mark before 70 and very few would date John after 100. Of course, we have not even mentioned the conservative biblical scholars who have argued with great erudition that Mark and Luke were probably written no later than about AD 60. Martin gives no indication that he is even aware of such Christian scholarship.32

We just quoted Martin’s reference to “the alleged death of Jesus.” Martin, along with many atheists today, accepts the theory of G. A. Wells that there is no good evidence that Jesus ever existed. Wells’s theory assumes the extreme late dating of the Gospels discussed, as well as a hypercritical reading of the Gospels as mythology with no historical interest or intent or foundation. While we cannot offer a detailed critique of the Wells theory here, a few comments will illustrate its foolishness. The theory that Jesus never existed is regarded as extreme and baseless even from the standpoint of the most radical and hostile biblical scholars (of which there are many). The Gospels contain a number of details that from the standpoint of their writers would have likely been somewhat embarrassing (such as the short time Jesus was on the cross, or the first witnesses to the risen Jesus being women), showing that the hypothesis that they are wholly fictional is without credibility. Indeed, the idea of a crucified Messiah was an oxymoron in Jewish culture, while the idea of a crucified God was equally an oxymoron in the Greco-Roman culture (cf. 1 Cor. 1:23).33 The theory that the Christians saddled themselves with a central belief that seemed so absurd and superstitious to everyone in their society, for any reason other than its being an historical fact, is more incredible than the Gospel story itself! The Wells theory illustrates once again an irrationality that cannot be put down to lack of scholarly ability, but appears to be rooted in an antipathy to the biblical worldview.

What More Can He Say?

All atheists regard the reality of evil in the world as in come way disconfirming the belief in an all-powerful and all-good God. While some atheists frame this objection as the adducing of evidence against the existence of God, others assert that the concepts of God and a world with evil in it are logically contradictory, making the concept of God meaningless.

This so-called “problem of evil” is by far the most popular argument for atheism, and the argument which carries the most conviction or weight. But there is a logical problem with the problem of evil: the argument assumes a moral standard by which events or situations or persons in this world can be judged “evil.” But what does this mean, if there is no God? Atheism has great difficulty justifying the notion that we can judge anything to be evil. If there is no God and we are merely one of the many species of animals inhabiting this planet, then moral judgments of good and evil are mere human conventions or emotional responses. Plane crashes due to negligence, mass murderers of innocent women, children dying of starvation — these things may outrage us, but if there is no God they are just part of the purposeless process of the cosmos. They are not evil.

The anti-theistic argument from evil assumes that for evil to be a part of the world of an omnipotent God, that God must himself do evil. But this does not follow. Even assuming that, as the Creator, God is ultimately responsible for everything that takes place in his creation, that does not make him morally blameworthy for creating a world in which evil has a place. To use an analogy, Shakespeare was not guilty of evil because of the evil deeds done by the characters in his plays, even though he wrote the plays, “created” the characters, and developed the stories in which they did evil. As long as the characters’ evil is an expression of their own moral disposition, and not of Shakespeare’s moral disposition, Shakespeare cannot be impugned with the evil that his characters “do.”34 Likewise, even if (as we believe) God is in some way ultimately responsible for everything that takes place in his universe, the evil things that his creatures do does not reflect adversely on his own moral perfection. As long as their evil is indeed their own, and as long as God is, as it were, “telling a good story,” God is justified in creating a world in which evil is a part.

The attempt to make the reality of evil logically incompatible with the existence of God, then, cannot succeed. The question that remains is whether God is justified in creating this particular world in which there seems to be so much evil and in which so much of the evil seems senseless. To this question Christians may give at least two complementary answers.

First, what the balance of good and evil in the world will prove to be in the long run, and whether what seems senseless to us now will always seem so, are questions we are incompetent to answer using our own resources. There is nothing irrational about admitting that if there is a God, he might know better than we what he is doing.

Second, God has embraced this evil in the most intimate way possible through the abusive treatment his Son received when he was tortured and crucified by the Romans at the request of his own Jewish religious establishment. If torturing and killing a child is about the most heinous and senseless evil we can imagine, the Christian message is that God ordained that this seemingly senseless evil would happen to his own Child so that evil could be turned on itself and overcome by mercy. Thus the real “problem of evil” — not why God would allow it, but whether anything can be done to overcome it and bring good out of it — has been answered, and can only be answered, in the affirmative by God himself through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


1 A line which Christian philosopher Norman L. Geisler is fond of quoting to express the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

2 George H. Gallup, Jr., Religion in America 1996 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Religion Research Center, 1996), 24. These figures should be regarded as approximations, and other surveys suggest some qualifications are in order. For example, a 1994 survey by the National Opinion Research Center found that while 94% said they believed in a God or higher power, 4% believed only sometimes, and 16% believed but had doubts. The number of people in America with strong belief in a personal Creator God may be closer to 60%. See Glenn H. Utter and John W. Storey, The Religious Right: A Reference Handbook, Contemporary World Issues (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1995), 78.

3 Gallup, Religion in America 1996, 25.

4 See The World Almanac and Book of Facts or similar reference works for these figures.

5 Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), 3-4, 479 n. 7, 480 n. 11.

6 E.g., George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1979), 7; Gordon Stein, “The Meaning of Atheism and Agnosticism,” in An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, ed. Gordon Stein (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1980), 3-6, which reviews several atheists who adopted this definition; similarly, Antony Flew, Atheistic Humanism, The Prometheus Lectures (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993), 23. This definition is endorsed by Michael Martin, though he suggests it be called “negative atheism” and distinguished from the “positive atheism” which is an actual position denying the existence of God; cf. Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, 463-64.

7 Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, 13-14.

8 Cited in Stein, “Meaning of Atheism and Agnosticism,” 4.

9 Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, 26.

10 Antony Flew, “The Presumption of Atheism,” in God, Freedom and Immortality (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1984), 13-20.

11 B. C. Johnson, The Atheist Debater’s Handbook (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1981), 11, 12.

12 Ibid., 10.

13 Flew, Atheistic Humanism, 23.

14 Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, 88, emphasis in original.

15 Annie Besant, “Why I Do Not Believe in God,” in An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, ed. Gordon Stein, 31-32.

16 Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, 27.

17 Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 4.

18 See Paul Kurtz, ed., Humanist Manifestoes I and II (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1973), and Paul Kurtz, A Secular Humanist Declaration (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1980).

19 Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, 43-44.

20 Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, 288.

21 Ibid., 287-88.

22 Ibid., 294.

23 Gordon Stein, “The Existence/Nonexistence of God,” in An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism, ed. Gordon Stein, 56.

24 See, for example, Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, 239; Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Simon & Schuster — A Clarion Book, 1957), 6-7.

25 Stein, “The Existence/Nonexistence of God,” 57; so also Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, 259.

26 Stein, ibid.; and again Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, 269. Stein appears to be dependent on Smith for many of his arguments.

27 Stein, ibid.

28 E.g., Jerry Cederblom and David W. Paulsen, Critical Reasoning: Understanding and Criticizing Arguments and Theories, 2d ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1986), 110; Robert C. Solomon, The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy, 2d ed. (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 25 (“God must exist; the Bible says so”).

29 The only Christian sources cited by Smith in this section are two liberal biblical reference works and the neoorthodox theologian John Baillie, and none of these citations present any substantive content in support of the Bible. (Two of them are actually used against the divine inspiration of the Bible.) By contrast, Smith cites some eight different atheistic or skeptical writers in 25 footnotes. See Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, 194-211, and the endnotes, 339-41 nn. 1-25.

30 Paul Kurtz, The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1986), 106-203. There are 50 footnotes in these two chapters; the only identifiably Christian sources quoted at all besides the Bible are the fourth-century church historian Eusebius (116 n. 7) and a few quotes from the third-century theologian Origen quoting the pagan Celsus (124-25, 134-35)!

31 Michael Martin, The Case Against Christianity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 43, 44.

32 See, for example, Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990).

33 On this point, see especially Martin Hengel, Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).

34 We realize, of course, that Shakespeare’s characters are fictions, whereas God’s creatures have a real existence. The analogy is still valid, though, since we have no trouble describing the villains of Shakespeare’s plays as “evil” despite the fact that they are fictional.

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6. No God but All: Eastern Mysticism and the New Age Movement

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

— Dorothy (Judy Garland), in The Wizard of Oz (1939)1

Although atheistic humanism has been and continues to be an influential movement challenging the Christian faith at its core, in terms of sheer numbers atheism has never been able to win a large voluntary following in any society. The defunct Soviet Union and the still-Communist China are examples of nations where atheism was imposed on the people as the official state position (religion?) by ideologues for whom atheism as much a political statement as a spiritual one, if not more so.

A much more successful alternative worldview to atheism is pantheism. Whereas atheism denies that there is any God at all, pantheism (from the Greek pan, “all,” and theos, “God”) holds that God is in some way the one reality in or underlying or manifested through all things. Pantheism is closely related to the concept of monism (from the Greek monos, “one”), according to which ultimately reality is one, not many. Pantheism has been understood and articulated in many different forms, the main difference being the extent to which the many different things of this world are regarded as real or as illusory.

Pantheism from New Delhi to New York

In the United States it is clear that pantheistic thought is rising. In the survey discussed in the previous chapter, whereas only about 5 percent of Americans did not believe in God or did not know what they believed, some 12 percent of Americans professed to believe in a divine spirit or force rather than in a personal God. 2 Most or all of these Americans evidently hold to a pantheistic worldview rather than a theistic one. Even larger numbers of Americans accept elements of pantheistic religious or philosophical thought. For example, for some time now roughly one in four Americans has believed in reincarnation, and the number may soon be closer to one in three.3 It is therefore likely that far more than 12 percent of Americans have a worldview that is more pantheistic than theistic.

Worldwide, pantheistic religions have an even stronger hold, especially in the East, where they have dominated for about 2,500 years. Hinduism, which in its early history was crudely polytheistic and which retains polytheistic elements, from about 600 BC developed a more refined pantheistic worldview in which the gods were merely high forms of the one divine reality, Brahman, of which human beings and everything else are a part. There are roughly three-quarters of a billion Hindus in the world, most of whom live in Asia, though well over a million Hindus live in North America. Buddhism, which numbers over 300 million worldwide (almost all in Asia), throughout its history has been interpreted in both atheistic and pantheistic ways. Pantheistic beliefs in the divinity of nature and in spiritual powers latent in physical things have a long history in pre-Christian pagan Europe, beliefs that have enjoyed a revival throughout the West during the past two centuries. All told, about one-fifth of the world’s population appears to adhere to a pantheistic worldview, and the number may be considerably higher.

The New Age: From Minor Cults to Cultural Megashift

In the United States, less than two million people are actually members of Eastern pantheistic religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. The vast majority of the roughly 25 to 35 million Americans (at least) who espouse some form of pantheistic religion are either members of Christian denominations (though perhaps only nominally) or have no commitment to any religious institution.

On the cutting edge of the growth of pantheistic religious belief and practice in America is what is commonly known as the New Age movement. Although this label appears to date from the early 1980s, it is not so much a new phenomenon as a further development of America’s long history of fascination with pantheistic thought.

The roots of the New Age movement go back to the rise of alternative religions and philosophies in the nineteenth century. Among these were Transcendentalism, a philosophical and cultural movement associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson that emphasized idealist and intuitive thought, and the metaphysical cults, notably New Thought and Unity (a sect with origins in both Christian Science and Hindu thought). The Unity School of Christianity (and the related Unity Church) is essentially a New Age religion utilizing Christian terminology. But the nineteenth-century institution closest to a parent or grandparent of the New Age movement was Theosophy. Building on a growing interest in spiritualism (contacting departed spirits) in America, Helena P. Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in 1875 (the same year in which Mary Baker Eddy published Science and Health, which would inspire Unity and other metaphysical teachings). Out of the Theosophical Society came such related movements as anthroposophy (Rudolf Steiner) and the Ascended Masters or “I AM” groups. All of these institutions and teachings have remained to this day and have contributed to the stream of mystical, generally pantheistic religious teachings and practices that have flowed together to become the New Age movement.

After the rise of the metaphysical cults, the theosophical groups, and other precursors to the New Age in the 1870s and 1880s, the next major impetus to the New Age movement came in the countercultural occult explosion of the mid to late 1960s and the early 1970s. The increasing secularization of the West in the postwar years created a spiritual vacuum into which rushed an incredible diversity of religious movements emphasizing spiritual experience. On the Christian side, the 1960s was the decade of the outbreak of Pentecostal experiences (speaking in tongues, prophesying, healing ministries, and the like) in the mainline denominations — what became known as the charismatic movement. During the same decade, millions of Americans turned to Eastern religions to find spiritual experiences. The Beatles produced such songs as “My Sweet Lord,” a song of devotion to Krishna, a Hindu god proclaimed in the West by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), better known as the Hare Krishnas. Numerous gurus and swamis came to America teaching the message of our oneness with the divine All in a form tailored for the West: Transcendental Meditation (TM), for example, essentially involved chanting to a Hindu god, but it was packaged and promoted as a scientifically proven stress-relieving relaxation technique.

The 60s and early 70s also experienced an explosive growth of interest in the occult. The occult became a multimillion dollar market, seen for example in occult bookstores selling tarot cards and other paraphernalia as well as books, or such occult-theme films as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973). Certain new humanistic religions utilized the demonic categories, not so much because they believed in the Devil, but as a symbol of their anti-Christian perspective. These included Satanism (appealing mainly to men) and Wicca (appealing mainly to women). The latter actually has more mystical overtones, and is closely related to neopaganism and goddess worship. By the 1980s some feminist theologians in mainline liberal church settings began taking interest in these alternative religions because their use of feminine images of the divine served the feminist agenda of displacing masculine, supposedly patriarchal or chauvinistic ways of thinking and speaking about God.

The New Age movement is, then, an incredible diffuse and variegated phenomenon in Western society, rooted in both Asian religion and philosophy and Western European paganism. It also makes connections with Native American religion, tribal religions of Africa, and mystical traditions of medieval origin within the monotheistic religions of the West. These mystical traditions include the Kabbalah in Judaism, the Sufis in Islam, and certain Catholic mystics whose thought tended toward pantheism.

Those who are self-consciously part of the New Age movement probably number in the hundred of thousands, but the number of Americans whose worldview is New Age or close to New Age is likely in the tens of millions. The significance of the New Age movement is less a matter of its conscious adherents as it is the fact that the movement represents the tip of the iceberg of a megashift in Western, and especially American, society. Instead of seeing less and less of life in religious or sacred terms, the new direction is to think of all of life, and indeed all of existence, in a sacred or spiritual way. If secularization seemed to be crowding God out of the cosmos, the new sacralization represented by the New Age encourages us to equate God with the cosmos.

What the old materialistic, secular humanism and the new spiritual, religious humanism have in common is the desire to find personal fulfillment and world harmony on our own terms — with God as a source of power or wisdom, perhaps, but not as the standard of truth and values or the ruler of the world. Thus the New Age movement is part of a larger trend in Western culture seeking to find religious meaning and fulfillment apart from submission to the transcendent Creator, Judge, and Savior of biblical Christianity.

There is no one New Age religion or organization to unify the movement. Nor is there any creed or formal principles or scriptures or any other documents that could be regarded as foundational for the New Age. Because of the noncentralized and amorphous nature of the movement, generalizations about what New Agers believe or what they do are notoriously difficult. Still, there are patterns of belief and a basic worldview that can be discerned as common to most of the groups and writings that consider themselves New Age. On the other hand, some Christian publications purporting to expose New Age groups grossly overgeneralize and label groups as New Age that are anything but New Age. An extreme but unfortunately widely available example is Texe Marrs Book of New Age Cults and Religions, which erroneously includes Christian Science, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other unorthodox groups that are not New Age.4 We will try to avoid such loose use of the term New Age while keeping in mind the bewildering diversity and far-reaching influence of New Age ideas and practices.

The overgeneralization of the New Age label typified by Texe Marrs is actually one aspect of a larger picture in which Marrs and other writers depict the New Age movement as a massive, worldwide conspiracy intent on taking over the world. On their view the New Age movement is preparing the stage for the Antichrist, and therefore every false religion, every cult, every heretical movement, will eventually find their way into the one-world religion whose basic principles are now being enunciated in the New Age movement. Even many Christian experts on the New Age movement who deny that a human conspiracy is at work speak of a demonic or Satanic conspiracy that will culminate in a one-world government which will persecute Christians.5

The main problem with such approaches to the New Age movement is that it misunderstands the basic structure and character of the movement. In her 1980 book Marilyn Ferguson called the movement The Aquarian Conspiracy, not because there was any monolithic organization working secretly to take over the world, but because there were so many different people who were working together toward the same goals without their common purpose being publicly known.6 While Scripture does teach that false teachers and prophets will arise, it is at least highly debatable to claim that the Bible warns us to look for all false religion to merge into a single Satanic system.

Gods Are Us?

The basic worldview of the New Age movement is pantheism, the belief that in some sense all of reality is ultimately One and Divine. Although the simplest definition of pantheism is that God is all and all is God, pantheism is actually understood and articulated in a variety of ways, most of which allow for some recognition or differentiation of the world and the multiplicity of things in the world. What is essential to pantheism is the idea that underlying the manyness which we perceive through our senses is a divine oneness that unifies all things and that can be accessed through religious or spiritual means.

In Eastern religion, pantheism has usually been understood in a life-negating way. The goal of religious practice in Hinduism, for example, is to escape the wheel of reincarnation which repeatedly traps our spirits in this inglorious life and to achieve freedom in perfect oneness with Brahman (God). Likewise, in Buddhism life is characterized as suffering (the first of the Four Noble Truths) and the goal of Buddhist discipline is to escape the suffering by achieving oblivion to the cares of this world. In Hinduism, and even more so in Buddhism, strict disciplines of self-denial are indispensable to the spiritual life.

By contrast, pantheism in the Western, New Age setting has been interpreted in a life-affirming way. The world is divine, the earth and its many living things are divine, and human beings themselves are divine. Every aspect of life is to be enjoyed. The difference is at its startlingly clearest in the matter of sexuality. Whereas sexual activity even in marriage is viewed in Hinduism and Buddhism as an impediment to spiritual progress, in New Age thought the divinity of all life is understood to encourage sexuality and even sexual freedom. Whereas Eastern religion endorses the same traditional morality found in Western culture (sex is for marriage only), New Agers view sex in extremely permissive ways and are almost universally supportive of the gay and lesbian “alternative lifestyle.” New Age art and literature often views God and the world in sensual, even erotic, terms.

The penetration of pantheistic thought in Western culture has been pervasive. One recent example comes from the autobiography of Brett Butler, the star of the ABC sitcom Grace Under Fire:

Once, when I was about ten, I asked my mother what religion she was. After pausing a moment, she said, “I’m a pantheist. That means that God is in everything.” I liked that idea. It cleared things up for me.7

It is evident from this passage that despite the enormous philosophical difficulties besetting any form of pantheism — and despite its clear contradiction of the Bible — many people simply find it easier to believe pantheism than monotheism. It is not that pantheism is more rational — many pantheists themselves would insist that rationality is misleading in matters of ultimate reality — but that pantheism is more comfortable. Many of us in the West simply find it more to our liking.

Another point that Butler’s statement illustrates is that there is really not much difference in the popular mind between pantheism and what more technically would be called panentheism (the belief that God is “in” all things). Panentheism recognizes God and the world as distinct concepts, but then holds that God is the spirit or soul or divine energy or mind that fills and pervades and expresses itself in the world. On this view God and the world are interdependent, needing each other to form a complete reality. Thus the standard analogy for panentheism is the idea that a human being is both a spirit (or mind) and a body, with neither doing anything without the other. God is not a personal Creator of the world, but the divine potential of the world and of each one of us. Most people in the popular culture could not clearly distinguish pantheism from panentheism, and in most contexts the difference is of little practical significance. This is why the former Catholic priest, Matthew Fox, can be an advocate of New Age thinking while technically holding to panentheism rather than pantheism.8

One of the most famous examples of pantheism in the popular culture is the religious philosophy of “the Force” in George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy, originally released from 1977 to 1983 and re-released with enhanced sound and visual effects in early 1997. Although the Force is never called God, those who believe in it and seek to use it are said to be followers of a “religion,” and the teacher of “the ways of the Force” is a 900-year-old “Jedi Master” called Yoda who functions much as a Zen Buddhist master. At one point in the second Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Yoda explains to the hero Luke Skywalker how the Force works:

For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter! You must feel the Force around you — here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere — yes, even between the land and the ship.

The idea that we are really “luminous beings,” that is, beings of light, is a common New Age theme. The all-pervasive energy of the Force is evidently the same energy that powers the luminosity of our real selves. Here again a common New Age idea is suggested: not only is the cosmos God, human beings are Gods. Such language sounds contradictory from a Christian perspective (is God one or many?), but this paradox is common to Eastern philosophy and is carried enthusiastically in New Age thought. To say that all is God and that we are Gods really means the same thing in New Age thinking, because each of us is one with the All and is therefore God. This is what Swami Muktananda meant when he said, “Kneel to your own self. Honor and worship your own being. God dwells within you as You!”9

If we are Gods, the question naturally arises as to why most of us are unaware of our divinity. In New Age thinking the answer is that we have forgotten who we are. How this divine amnesia occurred is explained in a variety of ways, though usually it is thought that living in these material bodies itself induces the forgetfulness. For some New Agers, living without the conscious recollection of our Godhood is part of the experience of this life which we chose. Many New Agers believe that we are reincarnated many times in order to gain a diversity of experience that will enrich us even though we live each life one at a time. The variations are potentially endless, and New Agers generally don’t argue these questions with one another. Diverse and even contradictory beliefs are for them part of the mosaic, a testimony to the fact that each of us creates his or her own reality, that we are indeed our own God. The only view that New Agers find offensive is the monotheistic claim that God is a transcendent, person being external to (or distinct from) our world and ourselves.

Why do New Agers take offense at monotheism? On one level, of course, anyone who thinks of himself or herself as God is likely to be annoyed at those who deny them this status. Christians are quite right to see the New Age worldview as inherently idolatrous. But New Agers also reject monotheism because they associate it with beliefs and values that they believe are destructive to our world and human life. One very important area in which New Agers press this claim is their concern for the environment.

The Greening of God

The New Age movement is a major religious expression of the countercultural trend the bloomed in the 1960s and which at its core represented a radical rejection of the materialistic culture of the West. Crucial to this counterculture was a concern for the environment — what was known as ecology. Environmentalists have been warning for decades that we are polluting our water, air, and soil, destroying our ozone layer, destroying habitats for wildlife species in rain forests and other places, hunting whales and other species to extinction, and in general rushing headlong toward the destruction of our own world.

Beginning with a 1967 article in Science by Lynn White,10 many environmentalists have argued that the Christian belief in a sovereign Creator God who authorized the human race to exercise dominion over nature (cf. Gen. 1:26-29) is responsible for the West’s “rape” of the global environment. If this is so, it follows that a key to saving the planet is to abandon the biblical view of God for an ecologically sensitive one — a view that regards the earth itself as alive, as divine, and all living things as manifestations of God. Tom Hayden, a famous California environmentalist, has recently stated the matter quite plainly. Under the heading, “Tenets to Be Overcome,” the first is monotheism.

The doctrine of an external, original creator, who set the universe in motion at a certain time in the past, creates a consistent dualism between creation/mind and nature/matter throughout Western culture. . . . Ecology would suggest, in contrast, that spirit, soul, consciousness, and creativity are part of the mystery of evolution, not outside the process, and that creation is ongoing, not simply an epic event in our past.11

Much of the New Age critique of the West’s anti-environmental theology has been shaped through interaction with Native American religions. In Native American thought the Earth is commonly regarded as sacred or even divine, and American use of the land is criticized not merely for threatening our own ecosystem but for violating sacred places and sacred things, and for failing to respect the rights of the animals, all of whom are regarded as sacred as well. A not so subtle example of this message occurred in Disney’s animated feature Pocahontas (1995). In the Academy Award-winning song “Colors of the Wind,” Pocahontas chides the Englishman John Smith for his materialistic view of the earth:

You think you own whatever land you land on;
the earth is just a dead thing you can claim;
But I know every rock and tree and creature
has a life, has a spirit, has a name.

Technically, this view of all things as possessing their own spirits is known as animism. Attributing life to rocks as well as trees and animals may seem extreme, but in much Native American thought, and now in New Age belief, the Earth itself is viewed as a living organism and as divine. This view of the Earth as divine is closely related to the popular idea of Mother Nature. The choice of “Mother” rather than Father is deliberate and important: in New Age religion feminine images of the divine are preferred over masculine images. New Agers prefer to think of us as birthed by God, not made by God. The Earth as “Gaia” is regarded as a divine mother, sustaining our life, but requiring our love and affection and respect (or worship) in return.

Hayden recognizes that orthodox Christians have responded to the concerns of environmentalists (and even admits to the existence of what he calls “green fundamentalists,”12 that is, environmentally responsible evangelical Christians), but judges their response inadequate and essentially supportive of the status quo. In his view there are only three positions possible on the human race’s relationship to the environment. First, we may view ourselves as “lords of the universe,” exercising “lordly dominion” over nature and using and disposing of whatever we find in nature as it suits our purpose. Second, we may view ourselves as “stewards of nature,” responsible to make the best use of nature we can without destroying it. This may sound better, and Hayden agrees it is better than the lordly stance, but he argues that it assumes a “paternalistic” superiority of humanity over nature that is arrogant and scientifically untenable. A stewardship model still allows human beings to regard nature as something to be used. The third approach, which Hayden champions, is to view human beings as having “kinship with nature,” a model that sees humanity and the rest of the species of life in the earth as “interdependent.” If on the view of the Lords and Stewards of nature we may do what we want with the salmon, for instance, on the interdependency model “we are kin to salmon.”13

As Christians we may respond to Hayden by simply arguing that he has stacked the deck in his analysis of the options. Stewardship in Christian usage makes human beings servants of God and therefore does not permit them to do with creation what they will. Genesis does not authorize human beings to destroy the environment or annihilate species of life. “Dominion” does imply that human beings have a priority or unique place in the created order, but that need not be applied in the abusive way it undoubtedly has been.

Think No Evil, Be No Evil

There is something strangely inconsistent about the New Age mystical, romantic view of nature. On the one hand, we are told that human beings should think of themselves as part of nature, interdependent with the rest of living things and the earth itself. On the evolutionary view of earth life accepted by New Agers as a given (even if they see some immanent divine principle guiding the process), human beings are no less a part of nature than the salmon, who are our kin (if not exactly our brothers). Every part of nature helps every other part of nature, and together the whole is rich and beautiful and good. This romantic view of nature as inherently good and self-sustaining is eloquently expressed in the animated Disney film The Lion King (1994). In this film the lion Mufasa instructs his cub Simba about the importance of respect for all living things, and answers the obvious objection that lions eat some of those living things:

Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope. . . . When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so, we are all connected in the great circle of life.

Yet, at the same time, we are warned that the human race is in danger of becoming the species that actually destroys its own world. We are warned that alone among all the living things in the universe, human beings exhibit a wanton disregard for their habitat and for other living things. This concern is expressed in The Lion King in parable form, with lions, as the strongest animal in the wild, representing the human race. When Scar, a self-centered lion with no respect for other life (he is seen playing with a mouse before eating it, for example), manages to become king, he temporarily upsets the circle of life by allowing the hyenas unrestricted access to the pride lands. The message is clear enough: Human beings who exploit the earth with no regard for the ecological consequences are no better than a pack of hyenas.

But another obvious question, if a more difficult one, then arises: Aren’t hyenas part of the circle of life? Or, to put the matter in a non-metaphorical way, aren’t the selfish, greedy Western capitalists who are accused of seeking to exploit the land (and who are, we would agree, at least partly guilty as charged) part of the circle of life? How, in the romantic picture of all living things from the grass to the antelope to the lion as part of a lush and self-sustaining interdependent ecosystem, directed if at all by an immanent living force of harmony and love, does part of that system rebel and threaten the destruction of the whole?

The idea of the human race as a threat to weaker animals is expressed in yet another animated Disney film, this one the much earlier Bambi (1942). In the chilling words of Bambi’s mother explaining to her young son the reason for the animals’ fear: “Man was in the forest.” While the film Bambi cannot be described as “New Age,” the ominous view of what “Man” has become in relation to nature is one that strikes a chord with New Agers. But again, why is the human race — or at least the greater part of it — like this? Why does every other animal take its place without resistance in the circle of life except humanity?

This is a question to which no sensible answer seems possible in the context of the New Age worldview. If all is God, and we are God, then why would we choose to threaten our own environment? Why would God threaten the life of God? In short, if all is God, why is there evil? Pantheism may seem comforting to some, but it has no reasonable or even plausible answer to this question. Only if the world is not God, but is a realm created by God in which creatures are free to rebel, can the stark reality of evil be explained.

New Age attempts to explain evil are generally far-fetched and often are nothing short of ludicrous. On New Age premises we all choose our physical life; we create our own reality, and each of us makes choices that will contribute to the whole. But why would anyone who is God choose to become Adolf Hitler, or Jeffrey Dahmer? And how can we say that the terribly destructive acts of such persons are anything but evil? Yet one of the principal answers of New Agers to the problem of evil is to deny that it exists. Since we create our own reality, nothing will be evil for us unless we believe it to be evil. This is the message of such New Age books as A Course in Miracles, a book of New Age psychobabble purporting to have been “channeled” to its author, Helen Schuchman, by Jesus himself. How strangely inconsistent with the teaching of the real Jesus, who could say plainly, for example, that “a good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things” (Matt. 12:35).

If New Agers naively view themselves as God and blindly deny the obvious reality of evil in the human heart and the human race, then it is not surprising to find them completely distorting the teachings and significance of Jesus Christ. For them he is an example of how to live like a God, not our sovereign God come down to redeem us from our pretensions to Godhood. The New Age movement gladly confesses Jesus to be God, but then goes on to explain that, of course, so am I and so are you! What is most shocking is that this way of looking at Jesus is gaining a foothold in Christian churches, particularly in the mainline denominations where the desire for unity with people of all religions and an antipathy to the exclusive and sovereign claims of the biblical Christ are leading more and more liberal churchgoers to heed the siren call of the New Age.

While no one strategy provides a foolproof response to this New Age heresy, perhaps one of the most important ways of answering such errors is to use a kind of “intellectual shock therapy.” Every horrific tragedy in the news is another graphic illustration of the reality of evil. Every time a child is killed by a stray bullet or a drunk driver, we should ask if that child chose to die that way. Every New Ager with children (there are a few) should be asked why they try to protect their children from a world which the children are creating for themselves. Every New Ager outraged at the intolerance of the so-called Religious Right should be asked why they virtually demonize a whole religious and cultural community if we are all God and we all create our own truth. C. S. Lewis once wrote that our world is “incorrigibly plural,”14 a truth that flies in the face of the monistic, pantheistic world view of the New Age. He might also have added that our world is incorrigibly other. It refuses to be what we expect, confronts us with sometimes unpleasant realities, and simply does not conform to our will.

Someone once said that the two most important truths are that there is a God and that we are not him. To these we may add a third: There is a world, and it operates by God’s rules, not ours. To confess these fundamental truths is the beginning of wisdom, and this is what the New Ager and so many others in our society desperately need to hear.


1 Quoted by New Age scholar Marilyn Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s (Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1980), 85. Cf. also Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Ockholm, eds., Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 15.

2 George H. Gallup, Jr., Religion in America 1996 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Religion Research Center, 1996), 24.

3 Norman L. Geisler and J. Yutaka Amano, The Reincarnation Sensation (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1986), 7-8.

4 Texe Marrs, Texe Marrs Book of New Age Cults and Religions (Austin, TX: Living Truth Publishers, 1990).

5 The two trendsetting works of this genre were both released in 1983: Constance Cumbey, The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow (Shreveport, LA: Huntington House, 1983); Dave Hunt, Peace, Prosperity, and the Coming Holocaust (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1983). Since then Texe Marrs has emerged as the most prolific and visible proponent of this approach to the New Age movement. The best critique of this approach from an evangelical Christian perspective is found in Elliot Miller, A Crash Course on the New Age Movement: Describing and Evaluating a Growing Social Force (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989).

6 Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy , especially 19-21.

7 Brett Butler, Knee Deep in Paradise (New York: Hyperion, 1996), 12.

8 E.g., Matthew Fox, Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality (Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company, 1983); The Coming of the Cosmic Christ (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988).

9 Quoted in Douglas R. Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 21.

10 Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155 (March 10, 1967):1203-7, reprinted in Ecology and Religion in History, ed. David and Eileen Spring (New York: Harper & Row, 1974).

11 Tom Hayden, The Lost Gospel of the Earth: A Call for Renewing Nature, Spirit, and Politics (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), 50. The Sierra Club, it should be noted, is one of the leading environmental organizations in the United States.

12 He notes Calvin De Witt, ed., The Environment and the Christian (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), as presenting this viewpoint well, though he does not seem to interact with it.

13 Hayden, The Lost Gospel of the Earth, xxi-xxii, 97-99.

14 C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 2d ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1947), 169, as cited in Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age, 20.

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7. No God but Allah: Muslim Radicalism and the New Islamic Sects

“One wife? One God, that I can understand. But one wife? That is uncivilized.”

— Sheik Iriad, in Ben Hur (1959)

The major rival to Christianity among all the world’s religions is without a doubt Islam. The youngest of all the major world religions, Islam is the second largest, numbering roughly a billion people worldwide. The major mission fields proving most resistant to the gospel of Jesus Christ are almost all in Muslim-dominated areas, especially in North Africa, the Middle East (excluding Israel), and parts of Southeast Asia. In many of these nations Christianity represents less than one per cent of the population (e.g., Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Turkey, Somalia, and Morocco).

Significant and growing Muslim populations can also be found in Western Europe and North America. In the United States alone, the number of Muslims is variously estimated at three to four million and growing rapidly through both immigration and conversion. In addition, various Islam-based sects (such as the Sikhs and the Baha’is) have relatively large constituencies in the United States, possibly adding another half million or more Americans to this general religious orientation.

Despite the growing numbers of Muslims worldwide and in the West, and the increasing importance of Islam in world politics, many Christians in the West know little about Islam. We have reached a point where all Christians need to know about this major religious challenge to Christianity.

Muhammad: Prophet of God?

The figure of Muhammad (c. 570-632), the founder of Islam, towers head and shoulders above almost every other major figure in human history in the sheer impact he made in world history and civilization. Probably only Jesus Christ himself has had a greater impact overall. In 22 short years Muhammad changed Arabian culture from a largely polytheistic and fragmented society into a monotheistic, unified society driven by a clear sense of purpose and destiny.

The Life of Muhammad

Muhammad was born and raised in Mecca, a trade center in Arabia famed for its pagan shrine known as the Ka’ba. Arabs from all over the peninsula would make an annual pilgrimage (hajj) to the shrine to pray to one or more of the gods there and to kiss a black meteorite stone housed there. Judaism and, to a lesser extent, Christianity had made some inroads into the area, evidently leading some Arabs to honor one of the gods of the Ka’ba as Allah (literally, “the God”) and to identify the God of the shrine as the God of Abraham. Abraham, in fact, was believed to have built the Ka’ba.

Into this religiously mixed environment Muhammad was born. Orphaned at a very early age, he was raised by his grandfather and then his uncle. Through his family’s caravan trading he was exposed to Judaism and likely to Christianity as well, but probably not to any churches or to the Bible itself. At about 25 years of age he married Khadijah, a older and wealthy widow.

As midlife approached, Muhammad gave much of his time to solitary prayer. It was while he was praying on a night in about the year 610, in the month of Ramadan (a sacred month in Arab polytheistic culture), that Muhammad had his first vision, known as “the Night of Power and Excellence.” A heavenly being appeared in the sky and came down to within about two bow-shots of Muhammad. His first word is believed to have been “Recite!” (iqra’), a word related to the word Qur’an (which literally means “recitation”). At first Muhammad had severe doubts about the divine origin of the being. He worried that he might be possessed by an evil jinn (genie). Ironically, Khadijah’s cousin, who professed to be a Christian, endorsed the vision as from God, along with Khadijah. Encouraged by them to believe that God had called him to be his prophet, Muhammad eventually began receiving repeated visitations or inner experiences in which he felt himself prompted to “recite” the words of God (Allah). The being in his first vision was at first identified as Allah himself, but Muhammad’s more developed view of God as utterly transcendent led him to identify the being with the angel Gabriel.

Muhammad’s message developed over time into a thoroughgoing monotheism with distinctively Arabic and Meccan elements. Allah was identified as “the Lord of this House” (Qur’an 106:3), that is, the God of the Ka’ba. Early in his Meccan ministry, Muhammad recited verses permitting devotion to the “daughters of Allah” (three goddesses enshrined in the Ka’ba along with Allah), but later recited new verses to replace the earlier ones, which were rejected as having been recited by Satan. The rejected verses hence became known as “the satanic verses” — a phrase made familiar in recent years as the title of Salmon Rushdie’s infamous book which was condemned by Muslims as a blasphemous portrayal of Muhammad.1 In any case, Muhammad eventually came to a consistently monotheistic doctrine of Allah as the one and only God.

Muhammad gained some followers in Mecca, but he was generally not well received there. When the Meccans learned that a city to the north named Yathrib had invited Muhammad to bring his prophetic message there, his opponents in Mecca tried to kill him before he could leave. Muhammad’s flight to safety on June 16, 622, is known as the Hijrah (“emigration”), and is marked as the beginning of the Muslim calendar (with AD 622 termed 1 AH, or Anno Hegirae, “the year of the Hijrah” in Latin). It is the most sacred event in Islam.

Yathrib welcomed Muhammad with open arms and renamed itself Madinat al-Rasul (“city of the Prophet”), now known more simply as Medina. At first Muhammad adopted a fairly “Judaized” religious system, hoping to win the support of a sizable Jewish population living in Medina. He instituted a Friday worship service and required prayers to be said facing Jerusalem. The Jews rejected Muhammad, though, and he had them expelled from the city and later led a massacre of a Jewish community. Muhammad then reinstated his earlier practice of having prayers said facing the Ka’ba in Mecca. He cemented his ties with the most influential Arab families in Medina by marrying some ten to fifteen wives.

In 630 Muhammad led an army of 10,000 men from Medina and other supporters to Mecca and conquered the city. With the economic and religious center of Arabia under his control, Muhammad was able to sweep through most of the peninsula and unify it under his leadership within two years, dying suddenly in 632.

The Claims of Muhammad

Was Muhammad a true prophet of God? In Islamic thought, to denigrate Muhammad is the worst sin possible (as the fury over Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses illustrates). The early 20th-century Indian Muslim thinker Iqbal asserted, “You can deny God, but you cannot deny Muhammad!” While the Christian cannot let Muhammad’s claim to be an infallible and final prophet of God go unchallenged, it is not necessary to attack his character or sincerity. There are good reasons to deny that Muhammad was an inspired prophet, even granting that his doctrine of monotheism was a radical improvement over the polytheism of the culture in which he had lived.

First of all, Muhammad really offered no good evidence for his claim to be a prophet. And since he claimed to be the last and the greatest prophet, the standard of evidence ought to be high. Certainly it should not be lower than for the prophets of the Bible, or for Jesus. Yet Muhammad offers no evidence or proof for his claims. He fulfilled no prophecies of the Bible, although Muslim apologists have tried to argue otherwise. For example, they point out that Moses said that a prophet like him would arise at a later time, but fail to deal with the fact that Moses, speaking to the Jewish people, said that the prophet would be one of their own countrymen (Deut. 18:15-18). Muhammad also did no miracles comparable to anything we can find in the Bible: he healed no one, raised no one from the dead, and provided no supernatural deliverance for his people (like Moses’ parting of the Red Sea or the manna from heaven). All we really have are Muhammad’s apparent mystical or spiritual experiences, his belief that they came from God, and the words he recited as revelations from God (later compiled as the Qur’an after his death).

Second, Muhammad’s teachings flatly contradicted the teachings of the Old and New Testaments. We are not talking here about changes in ritual obligations, a loftier moral ethic, or deeper insight into the nature and purposes of God (changes which Christians typically find in the New Testament as compared to the Old). Muhammad rejected what is without a doubt the central historical and theological point of the New Testament — the death and resurrection of Jesus. According to Muhammad, Jesus did not die at all (he was taken bodily into Paradise), and the idea of a blood atonement for sin by Jesus’ death was firmly rejected as insulting to Allah.

Thus, we cannot accept Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet of God unless we are willing to reject the prophetic, revelatory character of the Bible. But again, this does not mean that we should view Muhammad as an evil schemer or a deliberate deceiver. Muhammad was almost certainly a very sincere, very pious man who made a monumental contribution to civilization by his impassioned preaching of the truth that there is one all-powerful, all-merciful God who created the world. He evidently learned this truth from Judaism (with perhaps some Christian influence), which itself was rooted in God’s authentic revelation in the Old Testament. So, ultimately the heart of Muhammad’s message originated from divine revelation, even though as Christians we are convinced that the words which Muhammad spoke were not themselves revelations from God.

The Qur’an: God’s Last Words to Man?

Muslims would, of course, take strong exception to our claim that the Qur’an represents Muhammad’s fallible expression of his own understanding of the revelation of God which had been given to the Jews. They regard the Qur’an as the chief and greatest proof of Muhammad’s divine call, and as the final and superior revelation of God, displacing the Bible.

As we mentioned earlier, the Qur’an was compiled after Muhammad’s death from his recitations which had been memorized or written down by his disciples on whatever was handy (usually bark or other objects, not paper). It is a collection of highly poetic pronouncements arranged in chapters or suras by order of length (basically longest to shortest). The arrangement is so haphazard from a thematic or historical perspective that the most popular English translation completely rearranges them.2

Ironically, the main evidence offered by Muslims for the inspiration of the Qur’an is its literary beauty. The Qur’an itself claims that no one could produce a writing with its magnificent style, which is attributed to its being literally dictated by God (2:23; 10:37-38; 17:88). Non-Arabic readers find this claim puzzling, but Muslims assure us that the literary quality of the Qur’an (and therefore its divine inspiration) can be appreciated only by reading it in Arabic. This is not exactly a claim that is designed to commend the Qur’an to people of all nations and languages! While non-Muslim scholars generally agree that the poetry in the Qur’an is generally excellent, there simply is no evidence here of divine origin. Literary beauty is, after all, to some extent a culturally conditioned and even subjective judgment.

Lacking more objective evidences such as fulfilled prophecies or miracles, the Qur’an simple does not compare with the Bible. Again, this is not to detract from the powerful presentation of belief in one God and the high moral ideals and values often expressed in the Qur’an. The Qur’an is an Arabic masterpiece and one of the greatest, most influential books in the history of humanity. It is not, though, a divine revelation like the Bible, much less superior to the Bible.

Islam and Jesus

Islam acknowledges Jesus to have been a great prophet. Indeed, Islam honors Jesus as the greatest of all prophets other than Muhammad. However, Muslims flatly deny the two central claims of Jesus as understood by Christians.

First, Muslims deny that Jesus is the Son of God or deity in any sense. The unqualified, simple monotheism of Muhammad left no room for God to have “partners,” as the Qur’an puts it. Of course, in Christianity Jesus is not a divine “partner” of God — he is God, in the person of the Son. But to Muhammad’s mind, raised in a polytheistic culture and with only a limited exposure to Judaism and even less to Christianity, the doctrine of the Trinity sounded like three Gods. Muhammad could not even accept the designation “Son of God” for Jesus, since he took this literally to mean that Jesus was procreated by God. Muhammad rightly rejected such an idea, unfortunately not realizing that this was not the Christian position.

Second, Islam rejects the Christian belief that Jesus had died on the cross as an atonement for sins and rose from the dead. Having demoted Jesus to a merely human prophet, Muhammad could not very well retain the Christian concept of Jesus as a divine Savior from sin. Moreover, in Muhammad’s conception a prophet is a glorious, victorious figure; he reasoned that God would certainly never allow his prophet to suffer such an ignominious death. Muhammad concluded that Jesus never died at all, but had been taken up bodily into Paradise. The Romans probably crucified someone else by mistake, most likely Judas Iscariot (although Simon of Cyrene, whom the Gospels say carried Jesus’ cross, is sometimes suggested).

The claim that Jesus did not die on the cross is arguably the weakest link in the Muslim religious system. As a matter of simple historical fact the execution of Jesus by the Romans is on the firmest ground possible. The Jewish leaders had seen Jesus in the Temple and around Jerusalem for several days prior to his death, and they would certainly have known (and objected) if the Romans were crucifying the wrong man. We have at least two independent accounts informing us that various friends and family members of Jesus (including his mother) witnessed his death and buried his body (Luke 23:49-56; John 19:25-27, 38-42). Small wonder that all non-Muslim historians, whether Jewish, Christian, or skeptic, agree that Jesus was crucified.

Another difficulty facing the Muslim view ought to be mentioned. On their view Jesus never died at all and was taken up bodily into Paradise. While Jesus’ enemies might be confused as to what happened, it is hard to imagine why his disciples would remain confused. Surely Jesus explained it to them before he ascended! How, then, did the idea originate among Jesus’ followers (that is, in the church) that Jesus had died? No follower of Jesus would have made up such an idea, for the very reason Muhammad seven centuries later could not accept it — because death by crucifixion was universally regarded as the most shameful death possible.3

While rejecting the deity of Jesus and his death and resurrection, Muslims do have high regard for Jesus. Whatever traditional Christian beliefs about Jesus that did not contradict or undermine Muhammad’s strict unitarian monotheism were accepted by him and are acknowledged by Islam to this day. So, Muslims have no trouble agreeing that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he performed miracles, that he ascended into heaven, and even that he will return to the earth at some future time. What they cannot allow is that any of these ideas be interpreted in a way that would imply Jesus’ deity or undermine Muhammad’s claim to be a prophet of God.

Not surprisingly, Islam regards Muhammad as the last of the prophets. As such, it is natural that Islam should claim that Muhammad’s teaching supersedes that of Jesus and of Christianity. Muslims have traditionally argued that Jesus was a Jewish prophet sent to his people, whereas Muhammad was a prophet for the whole world. This claim obviously depends on the claim, already discussed, that Jesus was a mere prophet and not the divine Savior from sin. But there are other problems with the Muslim claim that Muhammad was a more universal prophet than Jesus. Although Jesus was a Jew, he commissioned his disciples to take the gospel to all nations (Matt. 28:19-20), which they did. Already by Muhammad’s time Christianity was predominantly Gentile, and Christians could be found throughout Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa — essentially the whole known world.

Today Jesus is acknowledged by a larger number and a greater diversity of ethnic and cultural peoples than any other religious leader in history. Nearly every major world religion (including Islam) finds it necessary to assign some place of honor to Jesus. Muslims regard Jesus as a prophet, Hindus regard him as a holy teacher or even an avatar (human manifestation of the Divine), and Buddhists regard him as an enlightened one or “Buddha” for the West. The people of the world religions do not, on the other hand, find it necessary to come to terms with Muhammad.

Our point here is not that the greater attraction of Jesus among people of all religions proves that Jesus was the Son of God and the Savior. It is, rather, that the evidence does not support the Muslim claim that Jesus was a lesser prophet with only local appeal as compared to Muhammad. If anything, the evidence shows that Jesus is the one person in human history who has the potential to transcend all cultural boundaries and unite people of every tribe and language and nation (Rev. 5:9).

Islam and World Powers

On the basis of its claim that Muhammad was the final and greatest prophet of God, Islam has sought to bring all people into “submission” to the will of Allah. The word Islam means “submission,” and a Muslim is “one who submits.” Although Islam has had its philosophers and apologists who have sought to persuade people to convert to the Muslim faith, in general Islam has from its very beginning under Muhammad himself made its major advances around the world through military force. By contrast, while Christianity has on occasion also been imposed by force, its initial cultural success in Europe came by the blood of Christian martyrs, and the most important means of spreading Christianity during the past four centuries has been the work of missionaries who have also in many cases died as martyrs to further the gospel.

The Rise and Fall of the Muslim Empires

During the decades immediately following the death of Muhammad, the Muslims consolidated their hold on Arabia and gained control of Palestine and parts of North Africa and the Mesopotamian region. About the year 700 the Dome of the Rock was built in Jerusalem at the site where Muhammad was believed to have had a vision of (or journey to) heaven. By 711 the Muslim empire covered all of North Africa and had conquered Spain (where the Muslims became known as the Moors). By the year 1000 Muslim power covered essentially the entire Middle East and was rising in India and Southeast Asia.

At this point Christian Europe felt it had to answer the political and military threat of the Islamic empire. It concentrated its efforts on taking control of Jerusalem and on driving the Moors from Spain. Jerusalem changed hands a couple of times and ended up in control of the Muslims, where it remained (under different ethnic powers) from the thirteenth to the twentieth century. The Europeans were more successful in Spain, eventually expelling the Moors in 1492 (the same year as Columbus’s first expedition).

It was the British empire which would eventually contain the expansion of the Islamic powers worldwide. In 1600 the British established the East India Company, establishing economic interests in a part of the world which was increasingly under Muslim control. By the time of the American Revolution the Muslim Ottoman Empire was breaking up gradually, due in large part to British (and French) colonialism in India, Africa, and Southeast Asia. In 1858 India became part of the British empire, and between 1880 and 1918 the British gained control of both Egypt and Palestine. The Ottoman Empire disappeared completely after World War I, and during the 1920s several independent states emerged, typically with the British or French lending support. These included Turkey, established as a secular state, and several Arab monarchies with only partially Islamic systems of law (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Syria).

The British intent in taking control of Palestine all along was to open the way for Jews to establish a homeland there, an intention formally declared in the Balfour Declaration (1917). Already in 1881 Jewish immigrants had begun building new settlements in Palestine, still largely Arab Muslim in population. The Jewish population grew in Palestine after World War I and increased dramatically during the Nazi regime in the 1930s and throughout World War II, as Jews sought to escape the Holocaust. After the war ended, in 1947 the United Nations partitioned Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, giving Jews 52 percent of the land, and in 1948 the nation of Israel began its modern existence. The Arab Palestinians rejected this plan and in 1948 Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq launched war against Israel. In less than a year Israel had won the war and enlarged its borders to encompass some 77 percent of the former Palestine.

Meanwhile, in India the British-educated Mohandas K. (“Mahatma”) Gandhi led a nonviolent resistance movement to pressure the British for Indian independence. Although the British did grant India its independence, Gandhi’s hope that Indian Muslims and Hindus would live together in peace was not realized. The Muslim-dominated areas in the east and west wings of the Indian subcontinent became an independent Pakistan4 in 1947, and Ghandi was himself assassinated in 1948.

Muslim Radicalism and the Middle East

The main flashpoints in the world involving Muslim powers in the last half of the twentieth century have been in the Middle East. In the Six-Day War (1967) Israel took control of all of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, refusing to comply with a United Nations resolution calling for its withdrawal from these “Occupied Territories.” Modern Arab-Israeli peace negotiations throughout the rest of the century focused on these disputed areas and the disposition of cities, especially Jerusalem, considered holy by both sides. The negotiations were complicated by Arab Palestinian terrorism (orchestrated in the 1970s and 1980s especially by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or PLO, headed by Yassir Arafat) and by Israeli attacks against Lebanon where PLO forces were based. Even the historic peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians in 1994 did not resolve these issues or bring the violence to an end.

The militant Palestinian resistance against Israel is a small but crucial part of the larger movement known as Muslim “fundamentalism”5 but perhaps better termed Muslim radicalism. This movement represents a backlash against the Westernization and secularization of Muslim countries. In 1978-79 the Ayatollah Khomeini led a revolt in Iran in which he deposed the Shah (who had been supported by the West), instituted a state governed by Islamic law, and held American hostages for over a year. In 1981 members of a radical Muslim group named Jihad (the Arabic word meaning “struggle” and often translated “holy war”) assassinated Anwar Sadat, whose visit to Jerusalem in 1977 had opened peace negotiations between Egypt and Israel. Similar groups emerged during the 1980s among the Palestinians, notably Hizbullah and Hamas, as the PLO became less radical.

Meanwhile, throughout the 1980s the neighboring nations Iran and Iraq fought a long and bloody war. The West was inclined during this period to look more favorably on Iraq because of its secular government (ruled by dictator Saddam Hussein), which seemed more open to the West than Iran’s militant Islamic government. This perception was undone when Iraq invaded Kuwait, leading to the Gulf War (1990-91) in which a U.S.-led coalition of nations — including some of the Muslim nations of the Middle East — drove the Iraqi army out of Kuwait.

Muslim Sects

Islam is known in the West, and especially in the United States, as much or more through certain Islamic sects than through the traditional forms of Islam. We will briefly consider four of them here — the Sufis, the Sikhs, the Baha’is, and the Nation of Islam.

The Sufis were a medieval movement within Islam which reacted against the formalism and materialism of the growing Muslim empires. Sufis sought to develop a simple lifestyle and to cultivate a deep spiritual experience of Allah, generally following a mystical path in order to find such an experience. The interest in mysticism in the West in the twentieth century led to rapid growth of Sufism in Europe and the United States.

The Sikhs were founded around 1500 by Nanak, a Hindu in Punjab during the Muslim rule there of the Moguls. Nanak, who is regarded as the first of ten founding gurus, sought to integrate the form of Hinduism which expressed devotion to a personal deity (known as bhakti) with the mystical Sufi tradition in Islam. In Sikh belief God is the immortal Creator who has many names, including Allah, Rama (a Hindu divine name), and Sahib (“sir,” “master”). The Sikhs are well known for their martial philosophy and garb (notably the turban and the dagger), a tradition which stems from their persecution in Punjab by Muslim authorities in the 1600s. Outside their original home the largest populations of the Sikhs are to be found in the United Kingdom, which has close to half a million Sikhs, and the United States, which has over a quarter of a million Sikhs.

The Baha’i World Faith was founded by Baha’u’llah, a Muslim in Persia (modern-day Iran) in the nineteenth century. He took the name Baha’u’llah (“the glory of Allah”) because he claimed to be the last in a series of prophets, each of whom had provided a new and more complete manifestation of God to the world. Baha’i teaches that Jesus was the sixth of these prophets, Muhammad was the seventh, a Persian prophet called the Bab (whom Baha’u’llah had followed) was the eighth, and Baha’u’llah himself was the ninth, last, and greatest of these prophets. As might be expected, the Baha’is were persecuted by the Muslim authorities in Persia, and Baha’u’llah died in a Turkish prison in Palestine in 1892. His son, ’Abdu’l-Baha’, brought the Baha’i religion to America, where it has flourished and grown throughout the twentieth century.

The Nation of Islam is undoubtedly the most culturally significant sect of Islam in the United States. Popularly known in earlier years as Black Muslims, the Nation of Islam is an African-American cult that reinterprets Islam as a religion for the oppressed Blacks. The original vision of its founder, Wali Fard Muhammad, was of a separate and autonomous Black nation within the United States. African Americans were urged to renounce their U.S. citizenship and to reject their last names (which were their “slave names”), using only “X” in their place. The most famous member of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, was killed in 1965 by angry Nation members after Malcolm had disavowed the group in favor of pursuing a more traditional Muslim path. The Nation of Islam6 has been led since the late 1970s by Louis Farrakhan, who emerged as the most controversial African-American leader in the 1990s. Under Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam seeks economic independence from the white establishment (“Buy Black”) rather than political independence from the United States. He has provoked outrage over the years for his rhetoric of hate, especially against the Jews. Still, for many African-Americans Farrakhan’s message, especially his emphasis on self-reliance, personal responsibility, and the importance of restoring young Black men in America to their place in the home, strikes some important and valid themes.

Christians and the Challenge of Islam

No religion poses a more formidable challenge to Christianity as we enter the third millennium than Islam. It is the dominant religion in many parts of the Third World, and its appeal as the religion of the oppressed, the religion for those who resent their treatment at the hands of the white European and American establishments, has considerable force. Islamic civilization boasts numerous and impressive accomplishments in architecture, mathematics, philosophy, and law, just to name a few of the areas in which Islamic culture has shined. Now Islam, in both traditional and sectarian forms, is growing in Europe and America, as well as throughout the world. How should Christians respond to this challenge?

First of all, it is important for Christians to acknowledge that there is much in Islam that is good. Certainly the monotheistic religion of Islam is far superior to the paganism that gripped Arabia and much of the surrounding lands before Muhammad. The cultural contributions of Islamic civilization to the rest of the world should be appreciated and commended. On the other hand, it does no good to perpetuate stereotypes of Arab or other Muslim peoples. Many Muslims are sincere, kind people, who simply care about their families and the future of their people.

Second, we ought to recognize that much of the conflict between the West and the Islamic nations of the Middle East and North Africa is the result, at least in part, of Western policies and practices. This is not to place all or even most of the blame on the West, but it is to say that the West has contributed to the problem. To cite just one example, the treatment of Jews in Europe throughout the modern era, but especially in the twentieth century, in large measure led to the creation of a Jewish state right in the middle of a region long dominated by Muslim peoples. The whole matter of Israel and its relations with the Palestinians and the surrounding Muslim nations is exceedingly complex, but the point here is that the West cannot deny all culpability for the problem.

Third, Christians need to support efforts to bring peace between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East and to foster understanding and acceptance between themselves and Muslims. Christian efforts to evangelize Muslims have so far had only marginal success, and this might not change unless and until the climate of mutual suspicion between people of these two largest world religions changes.

Finally, Christians need to continue efforts to evangelize Muslims with the good news of Jesus Christ. We can and should work toward mutual understanding and acceptance while at the same time taking every opportunity to present the gospel to Muslims. This will require gaining a fair and accurate understanding of Islam as well as an ability to explain and defend the Christian truth claims over against the errors of Islam. Surely this largest of mission fields deserves the greatest of efforts and commitments of the Christian church as we enter the third millennium.


1 Salmon Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (New York: Viking, 1989).

2 N. J. Dawood, trans., The Koran, 4th rev. ed. (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1974); see p. 11.

3 On Jewish and Greco-Roman attitudes toward crucifixion in the time of Jesus, see Martin Hengel’s classic little study, Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).

4 The eastern part of Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971.

5 The term is of debatable accuracy. Insofar as Muslim and Christian fundamentalists both decry the secularization of their societies and believe that the culture and nation should return to complete adherence to their Scripture (the Qur’an or the Bible), the comparison has merit. However, the use of force to impose Islamic law is an essential part of the radical Muslim agenda, whereas only a very small and extreme segment of Christian fundamentalism has even suggested resorting to violence.

6 Or to be more precise, a splinter group of the Nation of Islam; the original group went through various name changes and was absorbed into the world religion of (Sunni) Islam in 1985.

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8. Letting Go: Liberal Christianity-Retreating from the Faith

“I know what you are against — what are you for?”

-- Emile DeBecque (Rossano Brazzi), in South Pacific (1958)1

Beginning about 250 years ago, liberalism -- a view of the Bible as a purely natural book that gutted Christianity of its historic beliefs -- began developing and growing in influence. Today it is culturally and politically the most influential form of Christianity, even as the actual membership in liberal churches continues to decline. Although theologians are beginning to speak about “postliberalism” and other theologies supposedly departing from liberalism, in reality such approaches to the Bible assume the general validity of the liberal paradigm.

Liberalism has many facets, but for the purpose of this chapter we will focus on the following defining distinctives of the liberal tradition. (1) A “literal” approach to the Bible is rejected. (2) The miraculous or supernatural aspects of the biblical history are denied or reinterpreted to fit a naturalistic world view. (3) The Bible is said to endorse an archaic and backward morality. We will consider each of these liberal claims in order.

Liberalism and Literalism

According to liberalism, “literalism” — interpreting the Bible literally — is dead. Ironically, liberals are typically unclear as to what it is they are rejecting and why.

Often, liberals criticize literal interpretation as if it were some new and strange way of reading the Bible invented by twentieth-century fundamentalists. John Shelby Spong, the liberal Episcopal bishop of Newark, for instance, maintains that fundamentalists are abusing the Bible by “literalizing” it.2 It is often claimed by liberals that the fundamentalist view of the Bible as “literally” true is a novelty in history. Presumably, the error of “literalizing” would occur when a person interpreted a statement as literal that was not intended to be taken that way by its author. For example, to interpret the psalmist’s cry, “Praise him, sun and moon! Praise him, all stars of light!” (Ps. 148:3), to be a request for astronomical bodies to verbally honor God would be to take words literally that were meant figuratively. Of course, fundamentalists recognize that there are many such statements and expressions in the Bible, and they also warn against literalizing the Bible in this sense.

What liberals are really criticizing, and what in some cases they plainly admit to be criticizing, is the practice of reading the Bible in the traditional fashion. When orthodox and conservative Christians (“fundamentalist” or not) speak of taking the Bible literally, what they mean is to interpret the texts of the Bible according to ordinary canons of interpretation — reading the words of the text in their proper literary and historical contexts. In this sense, to interpret the Bible “literally” means that one accepts its historical narratives as descriptions of actual past events and its statements about God as conveying meaningful truths about God’s nature, actions, and moral standards. For example, on this method one accepts the biblical assertions that Jesus really was born in Bethlehem, that he really did rise from the dead, that God really does know everything, that God really is in control of the number of hairs on our heads, and that God really does disapprove of adultery.

Interpreting the Bible “literally” in this way is said by many liberals to be a backward, unenlightened approach to the Bible. Obviously, this criticism is incompatible with the claim that taking the Bible literally is a modern novelty of American fundamentalism. On this view, it is liberalism that offers a new way of reading the Bible. The historical or factual claims of the biblical records and doctrines, we are told, simply cannot be believed today by modern, educated people. Besides, liberals say, whether the miracles of the Bible actually happened is completely unimportant and irrelevant. (Why, if this is so, liberals feel it important to call the Bible’s historicity and factuality into serious question is something of a mystery.) What is important is the underlying message, which must be found by peeling back the layers of miracles and other objectionable aspects of the text. (This peeling away is called demythologization.) In order to find anything of value in the Bible at all, they insist, then, we ought to give up on the “literal” meaning and look for a meaning that in some way goes “beyond” or “behind” the literal.

This call for the abandonment of the “literal” meaning of Scripture for a demythologized meaning has many problems, but one that is especially fatal. If the Bible is no longer believable as it was written and as it has been understood for millennia, then why try to hold onto it at all? Why not simply admit that they don’t believe the Bible and move on with their lives?

The problem is easier to see if we consider another book. No one today believes that Ptolemy’s Almagest (in which he developed the earth-centered view of the universe into a system that was not seriously challenged until Copernicus and Galileo) provides a true explanation of the movement of the heavenly bodies. While we may read Ptolemy for historical interest, we would never think of claiming to “believe” Ptolemy or of using his book as a textbook of astronomy.

Or, let’s consider another religious book. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (whose members are more popularly known as Mormons) have a book called the Book of Mormon which they regard as a collection of ancient prophetic writings originating from the pre-Columbian Americas. If I do not accept the Book of Mormon for what it claims to be, and for what Mormons throughout their history have claimed it to be, why should I claim to believe in the Book of Mormon at all? Why try to find some “positive value” in a book that I consider to be historically fraudulent?

The answer, of course, is that such efforts to salvage books we believe to be basically false make no sense. Why, then, would anybody do it? The answer is not hard to find. Some astronomers in the decades after Copernicus continued to use Ptolemy’s Almagest even though they knew its geocentric system was wrong because they were part of an establishment that had not yet admitted that fact. A few Mormon scholars defend a “liberal” view of the Book of Mormon as a pious nineteenth-century fiction with valid religious insights because they can’t bring themselves to leave the Mormon church. Bishop Spong and many, many people like him stay in the mainline churches and develop their liberal reinterpretations of the Bible because they don’t wish to give up their positions of power and influence in the church.

The real question that must be answered is whether these liberals are right in claiming that the factual truth of the Bible cannot reasonably be affirmed. If they are right, then we should close up the churches or convert them into lecture halls (or maybe movie theaters). We should certainly not continue to “play church” if we no longer believe that the foundational beliefs of the church are true. On the other hand, if there is no sound basis for the liberal rejection of the Bible’s teachings, then we should insist that the church continue to uphold the Bible and to interpret it “literally” — and to ask those who reject the church’s beliefs to admit that openly and honestly.

Christianity — Without Miracles?

As has already been indicated, one of the main objections liberals have to a “literal” (that is, ordinary) interpretation of the Bible is that the Bible is full of accounts of miracles. Underlying liberal theories about the origins of the Bible and liberal reinterpretations of the Bible is the assumption that miracles are unbelievable.

The assumption has worked itself throughout the biblical scholarship of liberal seminaries and colleges throughout Christianity. The whole account of the Exodus, the deliverance of the Israelites from their bondage to Egypt, is rejected, since it contains miracles from beginning to end (most notably the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea). The references to God speaking to the patriarchs and the prophets throughout the Old Testament cannot be allowed to stand. The miracles performed through Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah and Daniel, are viewed as legends. Isaiah’s book is partitioned to circumvent his clear predictions of the Babylonian Exile and the return of the Jews. Daniel is dated in the second century BC rather than the sixth century BC because it too obviously predicts the rise of the Greeks. The first three Gospels are dated after AD 70 (or Mark perhaps just before that date) because in it Jesus predicted the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Jesus is allowed to perform exorcisms and healings (since these can be explained as psychosomatic cures), but the Gospel accounts of Jesus walking on water, changing water into wine, feeding thousands of people with one boy’s lunch, and similar miracles are interpreted in naturalistic terms or as later legends. His resurrection is interpreted as the ongoing life of his spirit or the embodiment of his ideals in his disciples. The book of Acts is dated as late in the first century as possible because (among other reasons) it reports such dramatic miracles through the apostles.

Why this systematic questioning of the miraculous in the Bible? Liberals rarely explain the reason in a straightforward manner, but it is very simple. The thinkers who pioneered this way of reading the Bible for the most part simply did not believe in God. I do not mean that they were all atheists — in fact, very few of them were — but that they did not believe in the kind of transcendent, all-powerful, Creator God of which the Bible speaks. They were mostly deists (according to whom there is a Creator but he does not or cannot do miracles), although some of them were pantheists (according to whom God is a divine reality that undergirds or pervades the cosmos).

In short, the liberal reconstructions of biblical history and literature assume that the God of the Bible does not exist. This was the premise of the investigation, not its conclusion. A hundred years after liberalism gained control of most of the major theological institutions in the United States, the order has been forgotten. Liberals now sometimes appeal to their theories of two (or more!) Isaiahs, a second-century BC date for Daniel, the legendary development of the Gospels, and so forth, as evidence that the miracles of the Bible did not literally occur. But these theories in large measure were inspired by a disbelief in miracles and logically assume that miracles do not happen.

On the basis of this anti-supernatural presupposition, liberalism rejects not merely the occurrence of miracles per se but the whole world view and basic belief system of orthodox Christianity. We may again refer to Bishop Spong as an example. Spong claims to have discovered “that our central Christian affirmations make assumptions based upon a literalized view of the biblical narrative that are no longer believable.”3 The list of Christian affirmations Spong explicitly says are no longer believable is quite long:

  • God as the creator distinct from the creation
  • Adam as a special creation and historical figure
  • The Devil as an actual entity
  • The historical fall of humanity from innocence into sin
  • Israel as ever having been God’s chosen people
  • The doctrine of the Trinity
  • Christ as preexisting in heaven before his human life
  • Christ as the incarnation of God, as the God-man
  • The virgin birth of Christ
  • Christ performed miracles
  • The bodily resurrection of Christ
  • The ascension of Christ
  • The Atonement — Christ’s death as delivering human beings from sin
  • Salvation through faith in Christ alone
  • Eternal punishment for the unbelieving or the wicked4

The obvious question is, what’s left? Take all these doctrines away from Christianity, and you have nothing left that distinguishes Christianity from humanism. Indeed, at the end of his book Spong makes his adherence to humanism explicit:

Religion is but one more mask that insecure people put on to cover their sense of personal inadequacy. The call of Christ is an eternal call to the affirmation of what is. In the words of a popular commercial, it is a call to be all that one can be. . . . True Christianity ultimately issues in a deeper humanism. . . . To be a humanist is to affirm the sacredness of life.5

It is astonishing that this interpretation of the Christian message is endorsed by a bishop of an orthodox Christian denomination. Bishop Spong believes virtually nothing that he professed to affirm when he was ordained in the Episcopal church, whose ministers are required to uphold the creeds of the early church as well as the Episcopal church’s own quite orthodox confession. His beliefs are far, far closer to Buddhism or even secular humanism than to Christianity. So what is he doing in the church? And this question can be asked of thousands of ministers and professors in most of the mainline denominations today.6

Again, those who wish to reject Christian beliefs have the freedom to do so. But then they ought to be honest enough to admit that they aren’t Christians.

Is Biblical Morality Out of Date?

Liberals regard much if not most of the Bible as unacceptable morally. They are scandalized by the biblical doctrine of eternal punishment, by the Old Testament claim that God commanded Israel to destroy the Canaanite peoples, by alleged anti-Semitism in the New Testament, by biblical toleration of slavery, and so forth. In short, they believe that we ought to regard ourselves as having advanced (or “evolved”) beyond the morality and spirituality of the Bible.

A complete refutation of these criticisms of the Bible is obviously beyond the scope of the present discussion. However, there are four important points that need to be made about the reasoning used by liberals in the course of making these criticisms.

First of all, liberals make their moral sensibilities the standard by which they judge the Bible. That is, they assume that their moral judgment is superior to that of the Bible. That would be all right if they had some other good reason to deny that the Bible was revelation from God. If there was no good evidence for the Bible’s inspiration, or if there was substantial evidence against it, then there would be no reason to accept its moral guidance. On the other hand, if there is good evidence that the Bible does communicate revelation from God, then it is hazardous to reject that evidence because of the Bible’s moral standards. After all, one of the major claims made by the Bible is that our moral sensibility is out of whack — that we deceive ourselves in matters of right and wrong to justify our sinful desires. If there is good reason to believe the Bible is a revelation of God, it is irrational to set aside such evidence because the Bible doesn’t agree with our preconceived notions of what is morally acceptable or proper.

The point can be put another way. Suppose the Bible is right and our inner moral compass is misaligned, as it were. If that were true, and if it were also true that in the Bible the God who made us tells us what is right and what is wrong, we would expect the Bible to disagree with our moral beliefs at least on some points. Unless we assume that our moral sensibility is perfect, we should be suspicious of any allegedly inspired book that merely confirms our own moral intuitions.

A second and directly related point is that liberals underestimate the moral and spiritual depravity of humanity. The liberal credo is that human beings are basically good, and it is on this basis that liberals reject much of the biblical revelation. For example, the doctrine of eternal punishment makes no sense if human beings are basically good — but it makes fine sense if fallen human beings are incorrigibly depraved and rebellious against God in their hearts apart from the transforming grace of God in Jesus Christ. God’s command to destroy the Canaanites makes a lot of sense when you realize that the whole culture was permeated with such gross evils as bestiality and child sacrifice (which is also why the Israelites were repeatedly warned not to engage in such practices).

Third, liberals inconsistently appeal to those parts of biblical morality they like to criticize the parts they don’t like. The ethical principle of the essential equality of the sexes and races, for example, was learned by the liberals from the Bible (e.g., Acts 17:26; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11), and liberals will often quote such passages and pit them against those they imagine teach sexism or racism. Liberals almost invariably elevate love as the supreme ethical value and on that basis criticize Old Testament morality, quoting Jesus to back up their argument — but fail to notice that Jesus was quoting the Old Testament when he said that love of God and neighbor were the greatest commandments (Mark 12:29-31; cf. Deut. 6:4-5).

Finally, liberals fallaciously criticize biblical ethics by pointing to its abuses. This is perhaps one of the most common errors in the misinterpretation of biblical teachings. The use of passages in which God commanded Israel to kill Canaanites by people seeking to justify wars of aggression against neighboring nations is an obvious abuse of those passages. Never is anything said in the Old Testament that would encourage such a generalized application.

The fact that some white Southerners in the nineteenth century quoted the Bible to justify the enslavement of blacks does not mean that the Bible actually endorsed that practice. In fact, the Bible forbids kidnapping human beings as well as buying or selling stolen or kidnapped persons (Ex. 21:16; Deut. 24:7). Thus, the Old Testament clearly condemns the slave trade in which African people were kidnapped from their homes and villages and sold in America.

Yet another example has to do with the alleged anti-Semitism of the New Testament. Virtually everything said about the Jews in the New Testament of a critical nature had some precedent in the Old Testament. All of the New Testament authors were Jewish except for Luke. The New Testament authors did blame the Jewish leaders for the death of Jesus (along with the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate), but they do not encourage violence or hatred against the Jews. Indeed, the apostle Paul expressed deep dismay over their rejection of Jesus as their Messiah and instructed Gentile Christians to regard the Jews as beloved despite their opposition (Rom. 9:1-5; 10:1-4; 11:28). Gentiles who use the New Testament as a pretext for their hatred and violence toward Jews (or anyone else, for that matter) are in clear violation of New Testament teaching.

Again, in some cases we may continue to puzzle over the reason for isolated statements or specific ethical teachings in the Bible that run against the grain of our own moral intuition — even for those of us who take biblical morality seriously. These difficulties remind us that our moral sense, even as Christians, remains imperfect, as does our knowledge of the Bible. But in general those who submit their minds and values to the Bible and accept its evaluation of the human condition find its moral teachings far superior to anything that human philosophies or other religions have devised.

The Challenge of Liberalism

The problem of liberalism has been complicated in our churches by the fact that it has gained acceptance in varying degrees. There are many mainline church members who accept some of the biblical miracles and some of the church’ s distinctive beliefs, but who take an essentially liberal view of the Bible and who do not accept all of its historical and doctrinal claims. There are not two neatly divided camps with clearcut differences, but instead something more like a spectrum of views from thoroughly conservative and orthodox to thoroughly liberal and heretical. Thus, one of the ongoing challenges in the mainline churches as we enter the third millennium of the history of the church is to make the issues clear to the laity in the mainline churches. Many Christians simply do not understand what is at stake in the liberal revisionist interpretations of the Bible and of Christian faith.


1 A Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II play and film.

2 John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), 3, 35, 64, 72, etc.

3 Ibid., 35.

4 Ibid., especially 17-20, 33-35, 81-82, 104-5, 123-33, 141-46, 180-83, 204-7, 217-24, 232-36, 241-42.

5 Ibid., 242.

6 See further Robert M. Bowman, Jr., “A Summary Critique: Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism,” Christian Research Journal 14 (Fall 1991):36-38.

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9. Starting Over: Cultic Christianity-Reinventing the Faith

“Here I am like a kid out of school
holding hands with a god!
I’m a fool.”

— Lois Lane, “Can You Read My Mind?” in Superman (1979)

In the previous chapter we considered the most serious challenge posed to Christianity from within during the past two centuries — that of liberalism. The basic strategy of liberalism is to remain within institutional Christianity while radically revising its teachings and questioning the reliability and authority of its foundational canon, the Bible. The most fundamental premise of most forms of liberal Christianity is antisupernaturalism, a rejection of the miraculous in favor of a naturalistic reinterpretation of the Christian faith.

We turn now to a growing challenge facing Christianity from without, or, more precisely, from the fringes — that of cultism. Although the term cult is used in a variety of senses, here we are referring to religions which arise from within Christianity but which deviate radically from its teachings and separate themselves from the institutional Christian traditions. These sects are not members of the “family” of churches and denominations in Christianity, but rather have split away from historic Christianity by their advocacy of doctrines or practices which deviate from the essential defining positions of Christianity down through the centuries.1

As we are using the term here, then, a cult is not defined as a group engaged in psychologically damaging, socially disruptive, or criminal conduct. Some “cults,” in fact, are religions whose members are generally psychologically healthy, socially responsible, and law-abiding. Admittedly, there have been and are cults that pose psychological and even physical dangers to its members (and to others),2 but our concern here is with cults as alternative religions and the challenge they pose to the Christian faith. Examples of such cults include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, Unity, The Way International, the Unification Church, the Church of the New Jerusalem (Swedenborgianism), and the United Pentecostal Church.

The Rise of the Cults

The rise of the cults parallels the rise of liberalism within the Christian religion. Both liberalism and the cults were made possible by the lessening of governmental controls on religious beliefs and practices in Western Europe and the United States in the eighteenth and especially the nineteenth centuries. Liberalism originated in the eighteenth century and developed and flowered in the nineteenth century in European countries, especially Germany, which was officially Protestant but which tolerated increasingly diverse interpretations of Protestant theology and of the Bible. The roots of the cults are to be found in England and especially in America, where religious liberty was absolutized and people were free not only to reinterpret Christianity from within but to establish new sects and religious at will.

Liberalism and cultism share some assumptions in common. Both reject the doctrine of the Trinity (at least as traditionally formulated in the creeds). Both liberalism and most of the cults reject the doctrine of eternal punishment for the wicked. In general, liberalism and cultism both seek to make God and his ways more understandable and more acceptable to people. They offer alternatives to those who would like to consider themselves Christians but who are disillusioned with orthodox Christian denominations or who cannot accept the traditional Christian beliefs.

One striking difference between the two is that while liberalism rejects most or all of the miracles of the Bible, the cults typically do not. In this respect the cults often appear more “conservative” theologically than liberals in the mainline denominations. The Mormons, for example, affirm the heavenly origin of Jesus Christ, the literal occurrence of the miracles Jesus is reported to have performed on earth, and his miraculous resurrection from the dead, while thoroughgoing liberals reject these doctrines. One Mormon apologist has rightly complained that there is something strange about liberal Protestants calling themselves “Christians” while denying that Mormons, whose beliefs seem more traditional than the liberals, are Christians.3

Unitarianism:

Christianity in Decay

One of the earliest cultic movements, and one that contributed to the rise of many other cults, was Unitarianism — a movement which began within Protestantism as the doctrine that God was one person only and that Jesus was a man (though the greatest of men). Unitarianism originated on the Continent in Europe, but came into its own in England and then in the United States. The first Unitarian church in America was established in Boston in 1785, and by the 1820s had made significant gains throughout Massachusetts and beyond. Unitarians prior to the middle of the nineteenth century tended to accept many of the traditional Christian beliefs and to claim some kind of biblical support for their antitrinitarian theology, but a tendency toward antisupernaturalism and rationalism was present early on, and by the twentieth century Unitarians had completely abandoned allegiance to the Bible as the authority for Christian doctrine. In 1961 the Unitarians joined with Universalists (who had also followed a history from relatively conservative roots to extreme liberalism) to form the Unitarian-Universalist Association. Unitarianism today has decayed theologically to the point where it is a religion more humanistic than Christian.4

Restorationism:

Something Old, Something New

Throughout the northeastern region of the United States in the early 1800s, religious revivalism (much of which was in direct reaction to Unitarianism) brought doctrinal confusion and spiritual chaos as well as genuine Christian renewal. Two religious impulses increasingly gained expression at this time that contributed to the rise of the cults.

The first of these impulses was the quest for new revelation. Early in the modern era various Christian traditions emerged emphasizing the importance of personal spiritual experience, of receiving a “revelation” of God within (as opposed to merely believing and accepting the revelation given in Scripture). These traditions included the message of a “New Age of the Spirit” preached by George Fox (1624-1691), the founder of the Society of Friends (nicknamed the Quakers), and the mystical or semi-mystical Quietism originating with such French Catholic thinkers as Madame Guyon (1648-1717) and Fenelon (1651-1715). The extent to which these individuals had departed from orthodox Christian faith continues to be debated, but what is clear is that while some of their followers affirmed orthodox doctrine, the emphasis on inner revelation led many to seek new revelations that deviated from traditional Christian beliefs. An example of an unorthodox movement in early 1800s America that reflected this trend was the Shakers, a group named for the strange manifestations associated with their worship.

One of the most important advocates of a new revelation in the eighteenth century was the Swedish mystic and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Not unlike Fox, Swedenborg proclaimed the coming of a new age based on the many visions he claimed to have received. On the basis of these revelations Swedenborg claimed to be restoring true Christianity to its original, more mystical form. Swedenborg’s followers after his death formed the Church of the New Jerusalem to promote his legacy, and by the early 1800s the movement was gaining influence in America. The influence of Swedenborg in the United States can be illustrated by the simple mention of two of his most famous followers: John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed (1775-1847), and Helen Keller (1880-1968).

The second religious impulse that led to cultism was restorationism. In a weaker sense of the term, all Protestants sought to “restore” a fully biblical doctrine and spiritual life in the church. However, the more traditional Reformation churches — the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican churches, and the orthodox church groups that emerged from those parent bodies — viewed such correction as an internal reformation of the historic church in keeping with its orthodox heritage as embodied in the early creeds (especially the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds). The more radical restorationism that began to find its voice by the early 1800s called for the abandonment of the creedal doctrinal traditions of the church and a return to “New Testament Christianity.” Such restorations could be based on new revelations (as Swedenborg argued) or on a fresh reading of the Bible alone. The latter approach was favored by revivalist evangelists Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, whose message of “no creed but Christ” resulted eventually in the development of the Disciples of Christ and several Churches of Christ denominations. Again, not all restorationists actually rejected the essential teachings of Christianity (although they rejected the creeds as such), but restorationism opened the door to those who would reinterpret the Christian faith along more radical lines.

The sects and movements that emerged in the early 1800s, then, provided a wide assortment of Christian, semi-Christian, and pseudo-Christian options in a part of the world that was enjoying the novelty of religious liberty. This was the soil in which the cults took root and flowered.

Mormonism:

From Polygamous Cult to American Religion

A uniquely American religion that arose from this mix was Mormonism. Founded in 1830 by a young man from upstate New York named Joseph Smith (1805-1844), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claimed that Smith had been chosen by God to restore true Christianity to the earth and had been divinely inspired to translate the Book of Mormon from gold plates dug up on a hill near his home. At first the beliefs of the Mormons, as they were nicknamed, were fairly close to traditional Christian teaching, showing affinity especially with the teachings of the Disciples of Christ. Rather quickly, though, Smith began issuing new revelations and writing new scriptures that departed radically from orthodox Christian doctrine. By the end of his life Smith was teaching that God was once a man like us, that all of us preexisted in heaven, and that all human beings had the potential to become Gods like the Father and Jesus Christ. He set forth this teaching in his famous King Follet Discourse, a funeral sermon which Smith preached shortly before his own death.

First, God himself, who sits enthroned in yonder heavens, is a man like unto one of yourselves. . . . You have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves.5

Toward the end of his life Smith began practicing polygamy, and his successor Brigham Young instituted polygamy as a common practice among the Mormons for most of the nineteenth century. More than a century after the Church officially ended the practice among its members in 1890, scores of hamlets in Utah and Idaho are populated by polygamous clans who broke from the LDS church to continue the tradition. Meanwhile, throughout the twentieth century the Mormon church increasingly became part of the mainstream culture of the United States. In 1978 the Church leadership abandoned their view that blacks and other people of color were cursed by God, and opened the Mormon priesthood (which is essentially equivalent to full membership in the church) to all worthy males regardless of race. In the 1980s, an increasing number of Mormons began calling for the inclusion of women in the priesthood, although so far the church has refused to do so.

The Mormon church is perhaps the clearest example of a cult (in the theological sense we have been using) which was once engaged in shocking and even criminal activities but has since gone on to become culturally mainstream. Yet the wholesome, family-friendly nature of the Mormon lifestyle does not change the fact that the church has rejected the historic Christian faith. These two aspects of Mormonism illustrate the importance of distinguishing the doctrinal, faith-oriented meaning of cultism from the more popular, cultural sense in which certain religions are labeled cults.

Christian Science:

Something Borrowed

Another major cultic tradition emerging in the nineteenth century was that of the metaphysical or mind-science cults. The roots of this tradition go back to Swedenborg and other thinkers who reinterpreted Christianity along mystical and occult lines. Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) had developed a theory of “animal magnetism” as a force flowing in and from human beings. While this theory was never given a scientific grounding in fact, it paved the way for the idea of the mind exerting forces for good or ill, an idea central to the metaphysical cults. In 1836 a number of mystically oriented ministers broke away from the Unitarians and began the movement known as transcendentalism. The key figure here was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), one of the most respected and often-quoted American thinkers. Emerson and the Transcendentalists espoused a kind of pantheistic world view in which God is the soul or living force of Nature. This living force is also within all human beings and is the key to human fulfillment.

Out of this mix of Swedenborgianism, Mesmerism, Transcendentalism, and other currents of thought, arose the metaphysical movement. Its “father” is generally acknowledged to be Phineas P. Quimby (1802-1866), a Mesmerist who focused his efforts on developing a science of mental healing. Quimby thought sickness and disease were products of mental forces out of control, and believed that what Jesus had done was to show the way to health. Quimby’s system of healing, which he called “Christian Science,” was plagiarized by a Boston woman named Mary Baker Eddy shortly after his death. Eddy claimed to have received a revelation of Christian Science and published a book setting forth her version of Quimbyism in 1875. Entitled Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, the book became a virtual second scripture for Eddy’s followers, who were organized into the Church of Christ, Scientist, in 1879.

Christian Science, while it departed radically from orthodox Christianity, fairly quickly became established as the most conservative of the mind science cults. One of Eddy’s associates, Emma Curtis Hopkins, separated from her to promote a more humanistic approach to mind science. Among those influenced by her were Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, founders of Unity School of Christianity in 1891. As the name was intended to suggest, the Fillmores sought to unify all religions through reinterpreting Christianity to teach metaphysical, mystical concepts found in all religions. Ernest Holmes (1887-1960) developed an alternative metaphysical system he called Religious Science or Science of Mind. His major work, Science of Mind (1926), was an ambitious (one could say, arrogant) attempt to devise a metaphysical system that combined the best elements of all world religions, philosophies, and the modern sciences.

Jehovah’s Witnesses:

Prophets of Armageddon

In 1875, the same year in which Mary Baker Eddy was publishing Science and Health in Boston, a young Pittsburgh businessman was beginning to formulate a system of interpreting biblical prophecy that would eventually attract millions of followers. As a teenager, Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916) had lost faith in the teachings of the Bible because of his dislike for such doctrines as the Trinity, hell, and predestination. His respect for the Bible was renewed through the teachings of an Adventist sect that held that such doctrines were not taught in the Bible.

Something should be said here about Adventism itself. The Adventist movement had its beginning in the failed prediction by Baptist minister William Miller of the Second Coming (or “Advent”) of Christ in 1844. When the event did not take place, Miller’s followers suffered what became known as the Great Disappointment. Still convinced that Miller’s date had significance, some of his followers began teaching that something had occurred in 1844, but it was the beginning of a new phase in Christ’s heavenly work (which they called the “investigative judgment”), not his physical return to the earth. The largest Adventist sect that emerged on the basis of this new idea was the Seventh-day Adventist church (which itself has been regarded by many evangelical Christians as either a cult or a church with cultic elements), but other, smaller Adventist groups have also existed, some of which flatly rejected orthodox Christian doctrine — such as the Adventists with whom Russell associated in the 1870s.

Russell quickly separated from the Adventists and went his own way, drawing a following known as the Bible Students who referred to him as “Pastor Russell” (despite his lack of any formal ministerial education or training). In 1879 Russell launched a new magazine called Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, and in 1881 incorporated the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. The title of the Watch Tower magazine referred to Russell’s revised Adventist speculations on biblical chronology and prophecy. In Russell’s view, the key date in Bible prophecy was not 1844, but 1874. In 1874, according to Russell, Christ became invisibly “present” in the world. This invisible presence would last 40 years and culminate in 1914 in the destruction of all the wicked in Armageddon, the literal restoration of the Jews to their land, and the ushering in of the Millennium. Russell died in 1914, believing that World War I was Armageddon and that his predictions would be realized imminently.

Russell’s successors attempted to extend his chronology and set new dates for the beginning of the Millennium. Noting that Jesus’ earthly ministry had lasted three and a half years, they speculated that Armageddon would conclude three and a half years after 1914, that is, in 1918. World War I did end in 1918, but the Millennium did not arrive. An additional seven years was added, bringing the date to 1925, when the Watch Tower confidently predicted that the resurrection of Old Testament saints would occur; a house in San Diego called Beth Salim (Hebrew for “House of the Princes”) was even built for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The failure of 1925 devastated many of the Bible Students and forced the Watch Tower to make drastic changes in Russell’s chronology. During the 1930s the Society abandoned the 1874 date and began teaching that 1914 was the beginning of the “invisible presence” of Christ. They taught that the generation that had witnessed the events of 1914 would not all die before Armageddon took place and the Millennium finally arrived. As if to reinforce the Society’s abandonment of Russell’s original position, the name of the magazine was changed to The Watchtower Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom. At about the same time the Society announced that the people who followed their teachings would henceforth be known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In the 1960s the Society again presented a specific date for the beginning of the Millennium — 1975. They based this date on a chronological argument showing that Adam and Eve had been created by God exactly 6,000 years prior to 1975. During the late 1960s and early 1970s bumper stickers could be seen on the backs of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ cars reading “Stay Alive Till ’75.” When that date also failed, the Society suggested that Eve was created an indeterminable period of time after Adam, and that the Millennium would actually begin 6,000 years after Eve’s creation. (As of the date of this writing, the Society has never withdrawn this explanation; the implication is that God waited at least 21 years after making Adam before making Eve!) More recently still, in 1995 the Society published articles in the Watchtower indicating that they no longer maintained that the generation that was alive in 1914 would not all die before Armageddon and the beginning of the Millennium.

The aggressive and persistent efforts of Jehovah’s Witnesses to evangelize throughout the United States and around the world has made them one of the most visible and successful of the cults. Their thorough indoctrination methods and emphasis on using biblical prooftexts to defend their beliefs and attack such Christian doctrines as the Trinity, the physical resurrection of Jesus (they believe Jesus was raised as a spirit), and eternal punishment for the wicked are also well known. In response evangelical Christians have established numerous ministry organizations dedicated to responding to the abuses of Scripture by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as by Mormons and other theological cults.

Where Does It Say That?

The cults are successful to a large extent because most people, even Christians in Bible-preaching churches, are woefully ignorant of Scripture. Admittedly people join cults for a variety of reasons — attraction to the lifestyle of the members, desire for friendship, disillusionment with their church experience, and the like. Still, the best means of preventing nominal and weak Christians from being drawn into a cult is for those Christians to become well grounded in biblical truth.

Not all of the cults profess to believe the Bible without qualification. All of them, however, call into question the traditional, orthodox Christian understanding of the Bible’s teachings. If we are to help cult members come to the knowledge of the true and living God, we must be prepared to defend the historic Christian gospel against the misunderstandings and misinterpretations of biblical doctrine propagated by the cults. In the remainder of this chapter we will look at some of the most critical doctrinal issues that confront us when sharing the gospel with those deceived by the cults.

New and Improved?

Earlier in this chapter we discussed restorationism, the belief that Christianity had become so corrupt that the Christian church needed to be restored, or started over, through modern prophets or teachers. Some cults, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, claim that the Bible actually predicted a complete “apostasy” or falling away from the faith as well as the “latter-day” restoration of true Christianity in their religion.

The Bible certainly does speak of a falling away, but never says that the church as a whole would become apostate. Paul, for example, says that “in latter times some will depart from the faith” (1 Tim. 4:1, emphasis added). Other references to an apostasy are similar. If some people will fall away, that implies that others will not. Paul and John both taught that apostates would arise within the church and lead some people out of the church into sects (Acts 20:29-30; 1 John 2:19), not that the church as a whole would become apostate.

Moreover, the Bible’s description of apostasy does not match the history of Christianity. According to the usual scenario taught by the cults, Christianity began moving toward apostasy shortly after the apostles died out toward the end of the first century, and became completely apostate by the time the church defined its doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century Nicene Creed. But the biblical descriptions of apostasy do not match these developments. For example, both Jesus and Paul warned about seeming miracles and false prophets leading people astray (Matt. 24:11, 24; 2 Thess. 2:9), whereas the Christian church in the period from the death of the apostles through the Council of Nicea and beyond placed little emphasis on miracles and did not regard their teachers as prophets. The New Testament warns about false teachers diminishing the deity of Christ (Col. 2:8-9) or denying the humanity of Christ (1 John 4:1-3), truths defended by the early church and articulated in the Athanasian and Chalcedonian creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries. Nowhere in the New Testament are we warned about apostates exalting Jesus too highly.

It turns out, then, that the Bible simply does not support the cults’ charge that Christianity became apostate and needed to be restored. The opposite is true: Scripture teaches that the church as a whole, though rocked by false doctrines and sinful practices, would be preserved by Christ and shepherded by him until his return (e.g., Matt. 16:18; 28:20; Eph. 4:11-16; 5:25-27; Jude 3).

The Trouble with the Trinity

The most consistent doctrinal deviation found in the cults is their rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. So far as we know every cult denies the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity in favor of some alternative view that they claim is actually closer to the biblical doctrine.

Ironically, the cults differ wildly with one another as to what that doctrine is. Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Almighty God is a solitary person named Jehovah, the Father, that Jesus was God’s first and only direct creation and a second, inferior deity with great power but who is not to be worshipped, and that what Christians call the Holy Spirit is actually God’s invisible, impersonal active force. Mormons teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three separate Gods: the Father is named Elohim (the Hebrew word for God) and is an exalted, immortal Man with a body of flesh and bones; the Son, who was Jehovah in the Old Testament, now also has such a body; and the Holy Ghost is a third God who does not have a physical body. Oneness Pentecostals, a cultic movement that broke away from orthodox Pentecostals about 1916, believe that God is a single person and that he became a man in Jesus; on their view Jesus is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Way International holds that Jesus did not exist until his conception and birth as a human being, and that after his resurrection Jesus became a semi-divine being; the Holy Spirit is regarded by them as a force, similar to the view of Jehovah’s Witnesses. And we could go on and on describing many other views developed by the cults to replace the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, according to which God is one infinite Being who exists eternally in three persons — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The cults are fond of pointing out that the words Trinity or three persons cannot be found in the Bible. No informed Christian has ever said otherwise. The words Trinity and three persons are a kind of theological shorthand that express in succinct form all that the Bible says about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whatever label one applies to these three, the New Testament links the three together repeatedly in ways that make it clear that each of the three are vital objects of Christian faith (Matt. 28:19; John 14-16; Acts 2:38-39; 1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 13:14; 1 Peter 1:2; etc.).6 The question is whether these three are, say, three Gods (Mormonism), two Gods and a force (Jehovah’s Witnesses), one God playing three parts (Oneness Pentecostals), or one God in three persons (the Christian doctrine of the Trinity).

When we turn to the Bible for an answer to this question, the first point that can be most clearly made is that there is only one God. This God is called both Elohim (“God”) and Yahweh (Jehovah, the Lord). The Bible even says that Yahweh is Elohim, and that there is only one God (e.g., Gen. 2:4; Deut. 4:35, 39; 6:4; 32:39; Is. 43:10; 44:6-8; 45:21-22; Jer. 10:10; Zech. 14:9; John 17:3; 1 Cor. 8:4-6; Eph. 4:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; James 2:19; 1 John 5:20). It is only with great ingenuity and creativity that cults teaching more than one God can circumvent the plain teaching of the Bible on this point.

Second, each of the three — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — is clearly revealed in Scripture to be God. The Father is frequently called God (John 8:42, 54; Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; etc.); this point is rarely if ever disputed. The Son, Jesus Christ, is also called God, and identified as the Lord (Yahweh) of the Old Testament (Is. 9:6; John 1:1; 20:28; Rom. 10:9-13; Phil. 2:9-11; Titus 2:13; 2 Peter 1:1). Jesus is said to possess God’s nature fully and completely (Col. 2:9; Heb. 1:3), to do all the works of God (John 5:19; Col. 1:16-17), and to deserve all the honors due God (John 5:23; 14:1; Heb. 1:6). The Holy Spirit is also identified as God and Lord (Acts 5:3-4, 9; 2 Cor. 3:17-18).

Third, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each presented in Scripture as persons in relation to one another. For example, the Father and the Son love each other (Matt. 3:17; John 3:35; 17:23-26), speak to each other (John 11:41-42; 12:28; 17:1-26), and know each other (Matt. 11:27; John 8:55; 10:15). The Father sent the Son (John 3:16-17; Gal. 4:4; 1 John 4:10), and the Son came down out of heaven from the Father and then returned back to heaven with the Father (John 3:13, 31; 6:33-62; 13:3; 16:27-28). The Holy Spirit is no impersonal force: he was sent by the Father in the Son’s name to teach, bear witness, and speak on Jesus’ behalf (John 14:26; 15:26-27; 16:7, 13-14). The Holy Spirit speaks, guides, and chooses (Acts 13:2; 20:28; 28:25; 1 Cor. 12:11; Heb. 3:7). In short, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to one another in distinct, personal ways.

What do we have, then? We have one God, who is revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of whom is personal, each of whom is in some way personally distinct from the other two. This is what the Christian church has historically confessed as the doctrine of the Trinity: one God in three persons.

Although some of the cults, notably the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have expended great effort to explain the biblical teaching in a different manner (often by simply translating the critical texts differently), the real trouble with the Trinity is not that it cannot be sustained from the Bible. The real reason the cults object to the doctrine is that they find it confusing or illogical. We will admit that the doctrine defies our attempts to comprehend it entirely, but it is not illogical or nonsense. The doctrine is not that there are three Gods in one God, for example — which would be illogical. If God is an infinite, transcendent Being, we should not be surprised if his nature transcends our finite categories.

It Can’t Be That Easy

While the biblical doctrine of the Trinity is unavoidably complicated, the biblical doctrine of salvation is by comparison simple: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). The gospel of salvation by God’s grace through faith in the redeeming death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ is the heart of the Christian faith (Rom. 1:16-17; 1 Cor. 15:3-4).

The cults generally accept certain aspects of the biblical doctrine about Christ and his saving work on our behalf. However, they always deny one or more key aspects and introduce new twists of their own. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, deny that Jesus rose physically from the grave; on their view Jesus’ body was disintegrated by God and Jesus was recreated as a spirit creature. Christian Science denies that Jesus actually died; on their view his death was an illusion in the minds of the world who did not understand that only spirit is real. Mormons generally believe that Jesus’ redemptive suffering took place in Gethsemane before his arrest, not on the cross.

What virtually all of the cults agree must be rejected is the belief that Christians are saved through faith alone and not on the basis of their works. Again, the alternatives proposed to the biblical doctrine are legion. Mormonism teaches that everyone is saved by grace whether they believe or not, but only those who believe and who perform all the works expected of them in the Mormon church will be exalted to potential Godhood. Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that we are saved through “exercising faith,” which means doing the works expected of them as the result of their faith. The metaphysical cults such as New Thought and Religious Science generally teach that no one needs to be saved because we will naturally pass on to higher levels of consciousness when we die.

The doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Christ is solidly based on the teaching of the Bible. All human beings are sinners (1 Kings 8:46; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3:10-18, 23; 1 John 1:8, 10) and deserve eternal death (Rom. 6:23). Jesus Christ died on the cross to free us from the curse of bondage to sin (Matt. 20:28; Rom. 3:24; Gal. 3:13; Col. 1:14; 1 Tim. 2:6; 1 Peter 1:18). His death atones for our sins, satisfying God’s righteous anger or wrath against our sin (Is. 53:5-7; John 1:29, 36; Rom. 3:25; Eph. 5:2; Heb. 9:12-14, 25-28; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). Those who believe in Christ’s atoning death for them God declares righteous before him (Is. 53:11; Rom. 3:21-26; 5:6-9, 16-19; Gal. 2:16-21) and pronounces their sins forgiven (Rom. 4:7; Eph. 1:7; Col. 2:13-14; 1 John 1:9). Repeatedly in Scripture faith is identified as the critical factor that marks those who are the beneficiaries of God’s saving grace (e.g., Gen. 15:6; Hab. 2:4; Matt. 21:32; John 1:12; 3:15-18; 11:25-26; 20:31; Acts 16:31; Rom. 1:16-17; 5:1-2; 10:9-11; Eph. 2:8; Titus 3:8; Heb. 11:6; 1 John 3:23; 5:1).

In response to this biblical teaching, the cults commonly point out that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). But Christians agree. James is not denying that faith saves, but that so-called “faith” that does not result in good works is a dead, useless faith that does not save anybody. Thus, at the beginning of this passage James asks, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” (v. 14). The way this question is worded — “if someone says he has faith” — implies that the person James is speaking about claims to have faith but really does not. James then follows up with the question, “Can that faith save him?” (NASB)7 — a question which expects the answer “no,” but which also assumes that there is a faith that can save him, namely, a faith that results in good works. Contrary to a popular misconception, that is also the view taught by the apostle Paul (e.g., Rom. 1:5; 6:1-2; Gal. 5:6).

The crucial point here is that good works are the result of a life saved by God’s grace, not the prerequisite for acceptance by God. As has often been said, good works are the fruit, not the root, of salvation. Even faith is a gift of God’s grace, a work of God’s Spirit converting us from disbelief and self-reliance to faith and reliance on Christ (John 6:37, 44, 65; Acts 16:14; 26:18; Eph. 2:8-9). Our confidence and assurance is therefore based, not on what we are doing for God, but on what God has done and is doing and will do for us (Phil. 1:6; 2:13; 1 Peter 1:5; 1 John 5:11-13).

We have good news for cultists who are trying to please God with their many good works: God will do the crucial good work for you (Phil. 2:13). We have good news for cultists who are enslaved to an organization’s rules and expectations: Christ will set you free (John 8:31-32; Gal. 5:1). We have good news for those who are trying to make their life better by finding God within themselves: you can let God be God, and he will dwell within you by his Spirit and give you eternal, abundant life (John 10:10; 14:16-17, 23; 17:3). This is the message we need to bring to those who are in bondage to the cults.


1 For more extended discussions of this theological definition of cult, see Alan W. Gomes, Unmasking the Cults, Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 7-16.

2 E.g., the Jonestown mass-suicide in the South American country of Guyana (1978), the Branch Davidian cult’s deadly confrontation with the U.S. governmental agencies in Texas (1993), and the Heaven’s Gate apparent mass suicide in Southern California (1997).

3 Stephen E. Robinson, Are Mormons Christians? (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991), 32-33.

4 See further Alan W. Gomes, Unitarian Universalism, Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997).

5 Joseph Smith, in Times and Seasons 5 (Aug. 15, 1844), 613-14.

6 For a complete overview of about 65 passages in the New Testament linking Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (or God, Christ, and Spirit), see Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Why You Should Believe in the Trinity: An Answer to Jehovah’s Witnesses (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 124-31.

7 The NKJV reads “Can faith save him?” This translation misses a nuance in the Greek, which literally reads, “Can the faith save him” — that is, can the faith which this hypothetical person has save him. The NASB brings out this nuance nicely by translating, “Can that faith save him?”

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10. Holding On: Biblical Christianity-Remembering the Faith

“You must remember this . . .
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.”

-- Sam (Dooley Wilson), “As Time Goes By,” in Casablanca (1942)

The spread of liberalism throughout the various denominational traditions of Christianity and the rise of the cultic sects espousing heretical versions of the Christian religion have not gone unanswered in the church. The Christian faith revealed in Scripture has been remembered and proclaimed in churches all over the world throughout the modern era. Yet the onslaught of criticism and attacks against biblical Christianity have not left its adherents unchanged. If we are to carry on the mission of proclaiming and defending Christian faith and values into the third millennium, we must be aware of how the various religious and cultural challenges to our faith have shaped the church as it seeks to hold fast its confession.

While there are tens or even hundreds of millions of Christians worldwide who are seeking to uphold the Christian faith in a way that resists its corruption by liberalism and other heretical movements, the ways in which they seek to do this vary dramatically. Each of these arguably has its strengths as well as its weaknesses. In this chapter we will consider several closely related approaches to upholding the biblical Christian faith. Along the way we will look at some of the major challenges facing biblical Christianity from within as we enter the third millennium.

Catholicism: Faith of Our Fathers?

By far the largest segment of Christianity in the world is Catholicism, by which we mean primarily the Roman Catholic Church.1 Liberalism, or modernism as it is generally called in Catholic contexts, had a delayed impact on Catholicism as compared to Protestantism (where liberalism originated). While mainline Protestant denominations were being overwhelmed with naturalism and liberalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Roman Catholicism remained relatively stable theologically. During the postwar years Catholic scholars began exploring liberal theories and interpretations of the Bible more freely, and after Vatican II in the 1960s the conservative consensus of faith in the Catholic Church began to break down, notably in the United States.

The primary mechanism by which the Catholic Church seeks to preserve authentic Christianity is the Church’s exercise of authority to interpret tradition. Catholicism places great emphasis on its sacred tradition, and claims that its teaching office (headed by the Pope) is guided by God to interpret that tradition infallibly.

Not all Christians, of course, accept the Catholic Church’s authority claims. The Eastern Orthodox churches hold to a similar theological system and church structure, except that it does not acknowledge the Roman claim that church authority is centralized in the Papacy. Protestants question the whole notion of an authoritative church teaching and argue that Christians have the right and the responsibility to question church institutions and teachings in the light of Scripture. The Protestant Reformation began as a movement to reform the Catholic Church in the light of a fresh understanding of the biblical gospel, and led to the formation of new church bodies only when the Church institution refused to acknowledge its error.

In the 1960s the Catholic Church held its landmark council Vatican II and instituted sweeping ecclesiastical reforms and reformulated its theology to create more openness to Scripture and the Protestant churches. Since then Protestants have been debating what they ought to think about Rome. The views range from fierce denunciations of Catholicism as a cult or false church to calls for Protestants and Christians to put their old differences aside and to worship and evangelize side by side.

All Christians should commend the efforts of the Catholic Church to resist the onslaught of modern naturalism and other philosophies at odds with the biblical revelation of God working to redeem humanity through the supernatural saving work of Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church continues to maintain the historic faith in Christ as the eternal Son of God, born of a virgin, crucified and risen for our salvation. To the extent that the Catholic system of authority and tradition has worked as a conserving force in Christianity, even Christians outside that Catholic system should be appreciative.

What keeps non-Catholic Christians (and especially Protestants) from giving unqualified praise to the Catholic Church is the fact that its use of authority has not been limited to efforts to conserve the historic Christian faith. During the late nineteenth century, when confidence in the Christian faith began to be assaulted from all sides in Western culture, the Catholic Church strengthened the authority of the Pope by declaring at the first Vatican Council (1870) as dogma the claim that the Pope could speak infallibly for the whole Church. The purpose of this declaration was not to strengthen the Pope’s hand to uphold the essential truths of the Christian gospel but to warrant papal pronouncements that exalted Mary. Already in 1854 the Pope had declared that the Immaculate Conception of Mary (the idea that she was conceived without original sin, and so never sinned) was to be received as dogma. At the same time the Pope elevated to the level of dogma the belief that Mary served as “Mediatrix,” an ongoing role in salvation by which she mediates between Catholics and Jesus Christ. In 1950 the doctrine of the Bodily Assumption of Mary (the idea that she was taken up into heaven and did not suffer death) was also pronounced dogma by the Pope.

It is true that these ideas existed within Catholicism before the Pope made them dogma. What is disturbing, though (beyond the fact that these dogmas are not warranted by Scripture),2 is that the Church’s authority has been used to promote excessive devotion to a creature (as truly great a creature as Mary was and is).

If, despite these controversial pronouncements and dubious authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church hierarchy, the Church was in other respects succeeding in propagating the biblical gospel, Protestants would on balance be obliged to commend the Catholic Church. But this does not appear to be the case. For one thing, the Catholic teaching and preaching of the gospel from a Protestant reading of the Bible is woefully inadequate. We may gratefully acknowledge that the Catholic Church has an accurate view of the person of Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God incarnated in human flesh for our salvation, and that the Church faithfully preaches that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead. The Catholic Church also teaches that salvation is ultimately a work of God’s grace, not the result of our efforts. But the Church’s claim that this salvation is appropriated not simply or even necessarily through personal faith in Jesus Christ, but essentially through participation in the rites and disciplines of the Church (especially the sacraments), greatly obscures and distorts the biblical doctrine of grace (see John 3:16-18; Rom. 11:6; Eph. 2:8-10; Titus 3:3-8). It is all too easy, and common, for Catholics to trust in their religious observances rather than in Christ for their salvation, and this is an error which Catholic doctrine inadvertently encourages.

Setting aside the differences between Catholics and Protestants on the doctrinal content of the gospel, the fact is that the Church’s authority has not proved effective in preventing apostasy from Christian convictions within its own walls. Millions of Roman Catholics are Christian in name only and Catholic in formal affiliation only. In the last third of the twentieth century the Church has been rocked by heretics of all kinds, from New Age mystics like Matthew Fox to blasphemous humanists like John Dominic Crossan (a defrocked priest who openly denies the Resurrection of Christ and is a leading member of the ultraliberal “Jesus Seminar”). Although the Church has disciplined such teachers, it has not been able to prevent them from swaying many Catholics (and Protestants) and contributing to the general unbelief which is increasingly prevalent in Western society.

By no means are we denying that Catholics and Protestants can make common cause on issues on which they agree. For example, Catholics and Protestants who affirm an orthodox view of Scripture as divinely inspired and historically reliable can stand together against radical biblical criticism which denies the truth of the Bible and offers revisionist theories about the life and teachings of Jesus. Conservative Catholics and Protestants also share many ethical convictions and concerns, especially on such issues as abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, and religious expression in public life. Some of the most important work being done in these areas today is the work of Catholic Christians. But we cannot agree with Catholics when they urge us to look to the Catholic Church’s authority as the key to defending Christian faith and values. That authority appears to be neither effective nor valid. Not only does Scripture not accord such authority to the Pope or to the Roman teaching office, but the Catholic Church uses that authority to promote dogmas that are not taught in Scripture and which widen the divide between Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians.

Calling on Christians to respect tradition and Christian leaders and to honor the Mother of our Lord is legitimate; demanding that Christians bow to tradition, ascribe infallibility to their leaders’ doctrinal pronouncements, and to venerate Mary as the Mediatrix between Christ and all Christians is not legitimate. Such teachings, if anything, work against the laudable efforts of the Catholic Church to uphold “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Fundamentalism: Not Just That Old-Time Religion

The term fundamentalism has been widely used and abused, and numerous definitions have been offered, most of them abusive and some of them only slightly tongue in cheek (e.g., a fundamentalist is an evangelical who’s mad about something, or a Christian who’s more conservative theologically than we are).

The most careful analysts of church history seem to be in broad agreement that fundamentalism per se is a development in early twentieth-century American Protestantism. It was not merely a movement that affirmed the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith (although it certainly did that), but one whose affirmation of those fundamentals was characterized by its opposition to the modernist or liberal teachings which threatened or denied them. In short, the basic impulse of fundamentalism was reactionary. The point is not that the fundamentalists rejected liberal, antisupernatural views of the Bible — all orthodox Christians rejected such views — but that the fundamentalists’ reaction against those views became a major, and often consuming, aspect of their religious identity.3

One of the five “fundamentals” commonly identified in the early years of the movement was the inerrancy of Scripture — the doctrine that the Bible, as the word of God, is completely true in all matters on which it speaks and therefore does not contain substantive error in any of its teachings, statements of fact, or ethical principles. The doctrine as such is actually not new; it can easily be shown to have been the view of most or all of the major Christian theologians prior to the nineteenth century (e.g., Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, to name but a few). What was new was that fundamentalists began more and more to equate commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture with acceptance of particular interpretations of Scripture, about which orthodox Christians had honest and legitimate disagreements.

For example, fundamentalists generally insist that the Bible must be interpreted “literally” to teach the creation of the universe no more than about six to ten thousand years ago. The issue here is not the specific conclusions that fundamentalists reach: for example, many evangelicals who are not fundamentalists also believe that the universe is only a few thousand years old. What is distinctive about fundamentalists is that they typically believe that those who do not reach these conclusions do not “really believe the Bible.” Christians who understand the Bible to allow for a billions-old universe, or who do not hold to the same views about the end-times events as they do, are commonly said not to believe the Bible literally — which is to say, as fundamentalists see it, not at all.

The motive and concern that drives this emphasis on literal interpretation of the Bible is itself noble and Christian. Fundamentalists rightly recognize that liberals often claim to believe and respect the Bible while systematically dismantling its teachings by “interpreting” the Bible “in the light of modern knowledge.” They quite properly repudiate efforts to reinterpret the Resurrection as communicating a spiritual truth or timeless insight. Jesus literally came back to life, just as he was literally conceived in the womb of a virgin, was literally crucified, and will literally return to the earth to bring eternal judgment on the wicked and eternal life to those who trust in him. A “literal” reading of these biblical teachings is quite proper and is in fact the historic Christian way of understanding the Bible. Where fundamentalism is distinctive and new is in its absolutizing the principle of literal interpretation and its condemnation of Christian understandings of secondary doctrinal issues as unbiblical because they do not follow such absolute literalism.

Fundamentalists typically prefer to separate themselves from denominations if a significant portion of the denomination does not accept their understanding of the Bible. In one major case, that of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), fundamentalists were able to gain control of the denomination away from the “moderates.” While the fundamentalists in the SBC regard the moderates as really liberals, for the most part the moderates appear to be Christians who hold to an orthodox theology but do not accept the literal approach and interpretations of the Bible mentioned earlier.

From a cultural and sociological perspective, fundamentalism is generally marked by a reactionary approach to a wide range of issues and in a variety of ways. Fundamentalists have often resisted cultural changes that were for the better, such as the civil rights and racial integration movement of the 1960s (though most fundamentalists today support minority civil rights). In general, fundamentalists all too often react to new developments in the culture with initial suspicion if not hostility, and eventually come to terms with those developments after they have become a fait accompli.

If Catholicism places too much confidence in ecclesiastical authority and traditions, fundamentalism tends to give too little credence to the role of the church and the importance of Christian tradition. Most fundamentalists are suspicious of denominations (perhaps because of the widespread liberalism of the mainline bodies) and insist on the autonomy of the local church — a position especially associated with Baptists but held by numerous other fundamentalist church associations and independent churches. Fundamentalists also tend to downgrade or deny the importance of the early creeds, such as the Apostles and Nicene creeds, and regard church history and tradition as irrelevant to the understanding and application of the teachings of Scripture. This seems to be itself contrary to Scripture, which speaks of Christ through his Spirit working in and with his church continuously until his second coming (Matt. 16:18; 18:20; 28:18-20; Eph. 4:11-16; 5:25-27).4

Despite its tendencies toward excessive dogmatism and narrowness and its reactionary cultural spirit, fundamentalism is an orthodox Christian movement whose people have often exhibited strength of conviction and fidelity to the gospel when everyone else around them was exhibiting neither. As the movement matures, many Christians who are part of institutions that are historically fundamentalist have transcended the movement’s cultural and temperamental limitations even if they hold to its usual distinctive doctrinal conclusions. For this reason fundamentalism may be better thought of as a particularly narrow and reactionary approach to the Christian faith that characterizes some institutions and individuals in a larger orthodox Protestant tradition in varying degrees. That larger orthodox Protestant tradition is known as evangelicalism.

Evangelicalism: In Search of a Biblical Balance

Although the term evangelical (from the Greek euangelion, “good news” or gospel) was used as early as the sixteenth century to express the Reformation emphasis on the gospel, the movement that bears its name originates in 1942, the year when the National Association of Evangelicals was formed in the United States.5 It has been associated from its early years with evangelist Billy Graham and such theologians as Carl F. H. Henry. By the late 1940s evangelicalism had clearly distinguished itself from its fundamentalist roots as a movement that sought to defend the gospel without being reactionary.

Billy Graham became known internationally by the 1950s as an evangelist who preached a simple, old-fashioned gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and who would work in his crusades with all Christian denominations (even with Catholics) in order to bring the gospel to as many people as possible. A quick and dirty, but fairly accurate, rule of thumb to distinguish evangelicals from fundamentalists might be that American evangelicals generally commend and support Graham, while fundamentalists (even if they acknowledge his contributions) generally criticize Graham for his openness to Catholics and the mainline denominations.

The larger point is that evangelicals, while they reject liberalism, do not typically insist on complete separation from churches or church bodies that include or tolerate liberalism in varying degrees in their midst. Evangelicals are much more likely to support efforts to renew the mainline denominations than to abandon them (although some evangelicals can also be found in historically fundamentalist churches).

Again, the line between fundamentalists and evangelicals is a blurry one. There are denominations that split away from their mainline parent bodies but which see themselves as simply carrying on their historic denominational tradition. These include the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, both of which are extremely conservative theologically but which do not fit the usual fundamentalist profile in certain respects. For example, these denominations use and respect the ancient creeds and are more appreciative of Christian history than most fundamentalists. They tend to be less literalistic in their interpretation of Scripture than fundamentalism. Yet they also tend to be fairly intolerant of theological differences from their doctrinal distinctives on the part of other evangelical denominations, a trait common in fundamentalism. It is therefore somewhat arbitrary whether one classifies these denominations as fundamentalist or not.

Evangelicalism, then, is a broad term referring to Protestants who uphold an orthodox theology, maintain a conservative view of Scripture as the word of God, and emphasize the importance and centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ for the Christian faith. Fundamentalism shares the evangelical doctrine and evangelistic focus of evangelicalism, but takes a more hard-line, separatist, and generally reactionary approach to the evangelical faith.

While evangelicalism in theory avoids some of the extremes found in fundamentalism, there are plenty of problems associated with the evangelical movement. Most of these have to do with the question of how Christianity is to relate to the larger culture or cultures in which it finds itself. American evangelicalism in particular has all too often mirrored the American obsession with success and power, while at the same time other evangelicals live in virtual isolation and retreat from “the world.” While many evangelicals appear preoccupied with doctrine, both essential and speculative, most seem to have lost their passion for truth and to be more interested in self.6

Perhaps one of the most basic pitfalls into which some evangelicals fall is to define themselves primarily as an alternative to fundamentalism. To do so is to become reactionary in the opposite direction, with the potential result an accommodation of the evangelical message to the pressures of appearing “contemporary” and anything but “fundamentalist.” Such a danger can be avoided only by seeking to learn from the positive contributions of fundamentalism and by incorporating the sound biblical principles and motives that it embodies at its best.

Nathan O. Hatch has identified three “pressing challenges for American evangelicals on the eve of the 21st century.”7 The first is the “rampant pluralism” of evangelicalism, with “its populist and decentralized structure, and its penchant for splitting, forming, and reforming.” As such renowned leaders as Carl Henry and Billy Graham are expected soon to pass on, it is unclear who will emerge as the new leaders of evangelicalism and what new shape the movement will have. The second and related challenge is the need “to recover a higher view of the Church as an institution” — the need for evangelicals to gain a higher respect for the historical institutions and traditions of Christianity. The third challenge is the need for “nurturing first-order Christian scholarship.” This last challenge is difficult for evangelicalism because its decentralized structure has resulted in its lacking such institutions as a major research university and in its developing its own evangelical publishing houses and associations within which its research efforts are largely directed at internal disputes.8

Evangelicals, then, have much learning and growing to do. What they have going for them is their adherence to Scripture as the source and standard for faith and values. Whatever the shortcomings of evangelicals individually and as a movement, the answers will surely be found in the word of God.

To allow one’s ideas and values to become controlled by anything or anyone other than the self-revelation of God in Scripture is to adopt an ideology rather than a theology; it is to become controlled by ideas and values whose origins lie outside the Christian tradition — and potentially to become enslaved by them. . . . The only way Christianity can free itself from subservience to cultural fashion is to ensure that it is firmly grounded in a resource that is independent of that culture. The traditional evangelical approach is to acknowledge the supreme authority of Scripture as a theological and spiritual resource, and the contemporary task as interpreting and applying this resource to the situation of today.9

It is this question of the application of the authoritative revelation of God in Scripture to the cultural issues of our changing world that will occupy our attention in the remainder of this book. As McGrath warns us, it is all too easy for evangelicalism to become corrupted by the culture instead of working as salt and light to the culture.


1 There are a number of Catholic church groups, such as the Old Catholic Church, which have broken from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic hierarchy. At present all such groups probably number in the hundreds of thousands worldwide, whereas the Roman Catholic Church counts roughly a billion members worldwide.

2 See Elliot Miller and Kenneth R. Samples, The Cult of the Virgin: Catholic Mariology and the Apparitions of Mary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).

3 See George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980). There is a recent helpful discussion in Alister E. McGrath, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 27-35.

4 One way of solving this problem is to argue that the Spirit’s guidance of the church is more intense and effective at some times than at others, and that the Holy Spirit is guiding the church today in an unparalleled and dramatic fashion. This is the claim traditionally made in Pentecostalism, a movement closely related to fundamentalism but differing in its emphasis on new experiences and manifestations of the Spirit in the church today. Nearly a century old, Pentecostalism runs the gamut from biblically sound, mildly experiential churches to thoroughly heretical sects and churches exhibiting the most bizarre and offensive behaviors.

5 McGrath, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity, 22.

6 Cf. Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994); David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993).

7 Nathan O. Hatch, “Response to Carl F. H. Henry,” in Evangelical Affirmations, ed. Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 97.

8 Ibid., 97-100.

9 McGrath, Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity, 62, 63.

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11. The Graying of Morality: Relativism and the Law of Nature

“Not ‘black and white’ — right or wrong!”

— Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford), in Clear and Present Danger (1994)

So far in this book we have looked at a variety of challenges to the Christian faith that question what Christians believe. These challenges have come from intellectual disciplines such as physics, biology, and psychology, from religious movements such as Islam and the New Age movement, and from alternative forms of Christianity such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and liberal theology.

As important as all these challenges to the Christian faith are, arguably the main challenges to Christianity today are aimed at Christians ethics and values. It is not so much what Christians say about God that non-Christians question, as what Christians say about sex. While it seemed not very long ago that most non-Christians in the Western world agreed with biblical morality even if they rejected the biblical message, that common moral consensus has rapidly disappeared.

In the rest of this book, then, we will be considering some of the myriad challenges to Christian ethics and values facing us on the eve of the third millennium. If we are to maintain the integrity of our Christian confession and to continue the task of reaching out with the gospel to the world, we will need to be prepared to articulate not only a Christian view of the world, but also a Christian vision for the world.

Christian Morality: Asset or Liability?

It used to be that one of the undisputed evidences of the truth and greatness of the Christian faith was the majestic ethical and moral system of values which it taught. While not denying the noble moral convictions exhibited by many non-Christians, evangelists and apologists for the Christian faith have until very recently appealed to the moral power of Christianity as one of its main “selling points.”

How quickly things have changed. Ask any ten non-Christians anywhere in the Western world at random why they do not accept biblical Christianity, and probably eight of them will give answers that focus on ethical issues. Christianity, they may say, is racist, or sexist, or imperialist. Christianity, they may worry, is an intolerant religion that would deny them their sexual pleasure, their artistic freedom, or even their political rights. They may blame Christianity for the destruction of the environment or for the divisions in society. Or they may cite the moral hypocrisy of television preachers who rail against immorality and are caught in sexual scandal, or of pro-lifers who condemn abortion as murder yet support capital punishment. While ethical criticisms of Christianity have been voiced for centuries, in the past generation such objections have become extremely commonplace, and it is hard to find anyone outside the church who will commend the Christian religion for its ethical greatness. From a great asset, Christian ethics have almost overnight, it seems, become one of its greatest liabilities.

The evangelical or conservative Christian’s answer to these complaints is typically that non-Christians have misunderstood or misconstrued what Christianity really teaches about these things. Christianity, first of all, is about Christ, not about Christians. Some Christians may be racist or sexist, but Christ was not. Christians may be hypocritical, but Christ is not. Second, Christians often respond to these charges by trying to show that Christian ethical standards are really good. The Bible teaches the essential equality of men and women of all races (Gal. 3:28); unbridled sexual pleasure leads to AIDS; abortion targets the innocent, while capital punishment targets the guilty.

Such responses are sound and helpful as far as they go. Still, they often fail to convince non-Christians. Why is this? It is tempting to blame the problem on the moral corruption of non-Christians, but this explanation can only go so far. Paul, for example, while noting the moral depravity of the pagan culture (Rom. 1:24-31), points out that the wicked live immorally while at the same time “knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death” (v. 31). In his view, the problem with pagans is not so much that they do not know right from wrong, but that they do wrong despite knowing better (2:1-16).

The widespread criticism of Christianity on ethical grounds in our day, then, might be worth taking more seriously. One basic reason non-Christians reject some of our standard answers to their criticisms is that the answers are simplistic. Christianity ought indeed to be centered on Christ, but the fact remains that it is not unreasonable for non-Christians to test what we profess by the way we behave. As a matter of fact, the New Testament tells us quite plainly that they will do so, and places a burden of responsibility on us as Christians to show the world the truth of the gospel of Christ by our behavior (John 13:34-35; 1 Pet. 2:9-12).

The rationales which we offer for our ethical judgments also often seem simplistic, especially in the light of modern developments in society and technology. For example, while it is true that those engaged in sexual promiscuity may get AIDS, it is also possible to get the HIV virus that causes AIDS from a blood transfusion (as happened tragically to the late tennis star Arthur Ashe). And what if science comes up with a way to eliminate all sexually transmitted diseases? Is promiscuity bad only because it can lead to undesirable consequences, such as disease or out-of-wedlock pregnancy?

Another reason why non-Christians may feel justified in rejecting Christian ethical standards is that there no longer appear to be any! That is, from an outsider’s point of view, it now appears that almost every traditional ethical value or judgment is widely questioned inside the church as well as outside it. More generally, there does not seem to be any ethical consensus or set of standards consistently advocated by Christians.

It is true that the erosion of faith in the Bible as an infallible standard of truth and values is a major reason for the lack of an ethical consensus in the church on certain controversial questions, such as homosexuality and abortion. It is not surprising to find evangelicals and liberals on opposite sides of certain ethical questions. However, this is not a complete explanation for the diversity of ethical beliefs in the church. Evangelical attitudes and values on a variety of ethical issues have also changed dramatically during the last half of the twentieth century. James Davison Hunter has documented a number of these changes. Disapproval of the use of tobacco products, for example, dropped among American evangelicals from 93% in 1951 to 70% in 1961, and then to 51% in 1982, while disapproval of the use of alcohol products dropped from 98% in 1951 to 78% in 1961 and then to only 17% in 1982. On other issues, such as dancing, playing cards, and attending movies, disapproval dropped from figures typically between 45-90% in 1951 to between 15-30% in 1961. While figures are unavailable after 1961, Hunter’s interviews in 1982 suggest that disapproval ratings for such activities among evangelical students by 1982 had dropped almost to zero.1 What these figures show is that what evangelicals consider to be moral or ethical matters itself changed dramatically between the 1950s and the 1980s.

Not only have evangelical moral judgments changed with the times, but evangelicals have become sharply divided in America over a wide variety of social and political issues. While American evangelicals are most commonly identified in the public realm with the political “right-wing,” there is also a strong contingent of “left-wing” evangelicals. Thus, one will find that evangelicals with radically opposed views on such diverse issues as gun control, environmentalism, feminism, taxes, welfare, affirmative action, public education, capital punishment, and U.S. involvement in the United Nations (to name just a few).

All this is not to suggest that evangelicals do not differ ethically from the rest of the culture. While some moral judgments have changed dramatically among evangelical students, others have not changed significantly. For example, Hunter found that among students in evangelical colleges and universities, about 90% disapproved of premarital sex and about 97% of extramarital sex under all circumstances in 1963, and these figures were essentially unchanged in 1982. Meanwhile, public university students have become much more tolerant than students at evangelical institutions. For example, in 1982 only 15% of public university students disapproved of all premarital sex. Since one may assume that evangelicals comprised at least some of this 15%, it appears that while about 90% of evangelical students in 1982 thought all premarital sex was wrong, only about 10% (or perhaps even less) of non-evangelical students thought so. Also in 1982, roughly 90% of evangelical students disapproved of cheating on one’s income tax, while only 44% of public university students disapproved. This last statistic shows that it is not true that evangelical morality has remained static only in matters of sexuality.

The bottom line here is that evangelicals retained certain ethical beliefs and jettisoned others during the period from the 1950s to the 1990s. In general, evangelical ethics have undergone something of a “liberalization” during this period. Evangelicals at the end of the twentieth century are likely to regard the ethical standards of their grandparents (or even their parents) in the mid-twentieth century as overly conservative, perhaps sexist or racist, and even “legalistic.” This is not necessarily a bad thing; indeed, we would argue that in some ways this “liberalization” has been a healthy corrective. But the understandable result is that non-evangelicals are often mystified as to why evangelicals insist so vehemently on certain ethical judgments as expressions of the unchanging will of God. If we are to make a case for a Christian view of life, we must come to grips with our own changing mores and do a better job of distinguishing them from God’s unchanging moral standards.

Moral Absolutes: Black and White?

At the root of the problem of contemporary ethics is the phenomenon of moral relativism. The basic idea of moral relativism is that there are no moral judgments that apply to all human beings. What is morally wrong for one person may be morally permissible or even right for someone else; what is unethical in one situation may be perfectly all right in another.

It comes as no surprise to most Christians to learn that such thinking is widespread in the general American culture. What many may find surprising is that a majority of Christians embrace some form of ethical relativism as well. More than two-thirds of both Catholics and Protestants in a 1994 George Barna survey accepted the statement that “there are no absolute standards for morals and ethics.” Of those professing a personal commitment to Jesus Christ and reliance on Christ for their salvation, 64 percent agreed with the statement. Only when Barna used eight specific criteria to narrow the sample of “evangelical Christians” (including adherence to biblical inerrancy, belief in a personal God and a personal devil, acceptance of evangelistic responsibility, and other criteria) did the number of moral relativists drop below a majority: some 40 percent of such evangelical Christians agreed with the statement affirming no absolute moral standards. Barna also found that moral relativism is significantly higher among younger people.2

There is something rather paradoxical about this moral relativism among evangelicals. Earlier we cited studies showing that even in the 1980s evangelical college students disapproved of certain sins (such as adultery or tax cheating) in overwhelming numbers — between 90 and 97 percent saying such acts were always wrong. Yet we are also told that between 40 and 70 percent of young evangelicals are moral relativists. Clearly, there is something not computing here. Nor is the answer that the evangelical college students tend to be more conservative and absolutist than other young evangelicals. A 1994 National Opinion Research Center survey found that 85 percent of American evangelicals thought extramarital sex was always wrong, and nearly 12 percent thought it was almost always wrong. Thus, 97 percent of evangelicals thought extramarital sex was always or almost always wrong. What is more, the same survey found that 92 percent of mainline Protestants also thought extramarital sex was always or almost always wrong. The number was significantly less for those with no religious affiliation — about 80 percent — but still far higher than we would expect if most Americans were really moral relativists.3

Part of the problem here may be that the surveys ask different kinds of questions. People are more comfortable expressing the opinion that a specific behavior is wrong than affirming that there is a universally binding moral code or law to which all people are subject in all areas of life. Even the most liberal humanist, if asked about certain behaviors (such as child molestation or genocide) would likely affirm that such behaviors were wrong. What many find objectionable is the idea that such specific judgments are part of a larger system of morality that applies to everyone. This may explain why one survey found most Americans judging certain behaviors to be always or nearly always wrong, while another survey found that a large majority of Americans do not believe in absolute moral standards.

Another possible explanation is that most Americans, evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike, believe that for them extramarital sex and other behaviors would always (or almost always) be immoral, yet are not prepared to extend that judgment to everyone else. Or, as many often put it, they are “personally convinced” that doing such things would be wrong, but do not believe there are any absolute standards available to serve as the basis for making such judgments universal.

The two explanations are mutually compatible and may both be right. Behind this paradoxical affirmation of specific moral judgments and denial of universal moral absolutes is a fundamental confusion about morality. Unless there is some universal standard of moral right and wrong, there is no rational basis for concluding that such specific behaviors as adultery or tax cheating are always, or even almost always, wrong. Moral convictions are therefore being replaced by moral preferences. We are developing into a society in which most people choose to avoid certain behaviors, and prefer that others also avoid them, but which cannot bring itself to reject such acts on principle. To do so would be to undermine what Americans in particular have long held as their most precious (and even sacred!) value — their freedom. Liberty has always been an obsession of the American people, but in the twentieth century it was increasingly expanded in scope and elevated in status, until by the twentieth century it seems to have become the chief of all virtues. In such an ethical climate, holding the personal opinion that certain acts are wrong for oneself is fine, but affirming that they are wrong for everyone on the basis of a universal moral standard is regarded as an affront to the principle of liberty. Thus, in the interests of liberty, we have made peace with libertinism — the philosophy that an individual’s freedom to do as he or she pleases is the highest moral value.

The other side of the coin is the notion that moral absolutes must be rejected because they are inseparable from intolerance. Where liberty is the greatest virtue, intolerance is the worst vice. Moral relativism has gained a near-consensus hold on our culture almost entirely because such relativism has been equated with toleration. It is widely assumed that to make moral judgments at all about other persons’ conduct is to be “intolerant” or “judgmental” or “divisive.” It is further assumed that such intolerance means that those making the moral judgments are calling for the disenfranchisement, if not the extermination, of those whose actions are judged to be immoral. And so, in the interests of pluralistic, multicultural peace and harmony, we are encouraged to drop all talk of moral absolutes.

There are at least four serious problems with the moral relativistic stance that has permeated our society. The first, mentioned earlier, is that if moral relativism is true, there is no basis for criticizing or condemning any specific acts. If there are no universal standards by which everyone’s actions are to be measured, there is no rational grounds on which to condemn the killing of six million Jews and millions of other innocent human beings by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s. Nor is there any reasonable basis for denouncing any other horrible conduct that comes to light, whether it be the reportedly widespread incidence of sexual assault of women in the U.S. military or the continuing practice of drug dealers selling cocaine and other addictive drugs to children. If there are no universal standards of right and wrong by which human behavior is properly evaluated, all anyone can say is that they would prefer that such things did not happen.

Second, if moral relativism is true, then there is no rational basis for law. If enough people are so inclined, they can band together to pass and enforce legislation that criminalizes certain unwanted behaviors. Such legislation, however, will merely be the imposition of their preferences on those who do not share them. Moreover, if there are no universal moral standards, there is no universal standard for determining which behaviors should be criminalized and which should not. Which behaviors are criminalized, and which people are judged to be criminals, will therefore have to be decided by the group that is most successful in getting their preferences imposed as legislation. In short, if there are no moral absolutes, then might makes right.

To the absolutist claim that moral relativism provides no basis for law, it is commonly said that liberty should be the basis of law. That is, the law should be designed to maximize the individual liberty of every person under the jurisdiction of the law. The law should impose itself on individuals only to the extent necessary to prevent them from infringing on the liberty of others. While not all advocates of this “libertarian” view of law are moral relativists, it is one common approach favored by relativists.

There are some serious problems with the libertarian view of law, even if it is not linked to moral relativism. One such problem is that libertarianism cannot account satisfactorily for various laws designed to protect children, such as laws forbidding the selling of alcohol to children or laws against consensual sexual relations between adults and children. The standard libertarian explanation is that children are not yet competent to make such decisions for themselves, but there is much arbitrariness to this claim. Thus in many states 17-year-olds are judged incompetent in such matters, but not 18-year-olds. Even if this judgment were accepted, on libertarian grounds it seems the law ought to permit consensual sex between a father and his 18-year-old daughter.

The merits of the libertarian theory of law, then, are certainly debatable. But what should be noted here is that it assumes liberty as a universalizable basis for law. In other words, libertarianism assumes that respect for the liberty of others is a universal moral imperative. This leads us to a third problem for moral relativism, namely, that moral relativism cannot serve as a basis for society without being self-refuting. If we advocate moral relativism as the basis for protecting individual liberty, we are presupposing that respect for individual liberty is an absolute moral standard or universal principle. If we insist that everyone should be tolerant of everyone else’s choices (on the grounds that there are supposedly no moral absolutes), then we are implicitly presupposing that tolerance is a moral absolute. In short, moral relativism as a guiding principle is itself a disguised form of moral absolutism.

The result is that as many people in our society have embraced moral relativism, they have developed a new set of “absolutes” by which they judge actions, assess school curricula, discriminate in employment, and evaluate public policy or legislation proposals. As William D. Watkins rightly says, these are “the new absolutes” which many unwittingly have adopted even as they profess to hold to a “live and let live” philosophy of moral relativism.

The American people may say they accept the notion that a truth claim or a moral claim is relative, but they do not behave as if this is true. . . . The conflicts raging throughout America on such issues as abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, feminism, race, and the public role of religion are over the emergence of new absolutes seeking to replace the old ones which used to dominate our country.4

In the course of working out these new absolutes in public life and public institutions, it has become increasingly apparent that those championing these absolutes are themselves extremely intolerant of those who oppose them. We therefore have universities and even seminaries where all religious and moral viewpoints are welcomed except those which overtly claim to be true! We have a society in which it is divisive to call left-wing politicians or thinkers “liberals” but perfectly acceptable to refer to all conservatives as “right-wing extremists” or “the lunatic fringe.” We have a culture in which the in-your-face tactics of the extreme gay-rights group ACT-UP are viewed as expressions of an oppressed minority’s free speech rights, while the generally peaceful picketing of abortion clinics by pro-life Christian men and women is regarded as reprehensible violations of women’s rights. We have an unwritten rule that no form of “family” life or structure can be scorned except the “Leave It to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best” traditional father-mother-children family. We have public schools in which stories about witches may be posted in the classrooms, but not the Ten Commandments.

We must, then, recognize a fourth problem with moral relativism: it is an unstable basis for toleration of diverse viewpoints and lifestyles. True toleration must be grounded in a genuine, undisguised moral absolutism. Only on the basis of universal standards of respect for all human beings can a workable “pluralism” be maintained. Moreover, these absolute standards must go beyond a mere libertarianism that makes individual freedom the only moral value. A moral philosophy based on individual freedom from moral restraint is vacuous and self-defeating. An authentic moral absolutism must recognize responsibility as well as freedom, and hold people accountable to do right. Assuming that the state should extend political toleration to people of diverse religious and moral beliefs and practices, minimally a true pluralistic approach to toleration must allow people of conviction the freedom to challenge the morality of others. A society that is tolerant of everything except “intolerance” is a society that is turned in upon itself. Only by admitting that there are moral absolutes and by allowing free and unfettered discussion and debate about what those absolutes are can a society truly be free.

Traditional Values: Backwards or Forwards?

If we insist that there are moral absolute standards to which all people are accountable to God, and on the basis of which human society should be ordered, we must be prepared to specify clearly where those standards are to be found and what they are. In the past twenty years or so, a common approach to defining those standards has been to appeal to what are called “traditional values.” Many Christians, in fact, both Catholics and Protestant evangelicals, couch their appeal to moral absolutes in these terms. These values are often expressed in single words, such as God, country, family. By returning to these values, it is urged, we can restore America’s greatness.

Perhaps the best known advocate of traditional values is Bill Bennett, who headed the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities under President Ronald Reagan and the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George Bush. Bennett’s most famous book, The Book of Virtues, is probably the bestselling work championing traditional values. The subtitle, A Treasury of Great Moral Stories, indicates that the book contains mostly stories, but there are also poems, as well as didactic passages teaching moral concepts. The passages are drawn from an amazing variety of sources: the Bible, yes, but also Aesop’s fables and Grimm’s fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen and Martin Luther King, Jr., Plato and Aristotle, Lincoln and Washington, Dickens, Emerson, Frost, Longfellow, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Twain. There are Christian, Jewish, Greek, Roman, Hindu, Confucian, Taoist, and Native American stories. The chapter titles express in single words the values these passages illustrate or explain: self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, and faith. These are, as Bennett calls them, virtues — character traits that should be part of any child’s moral education, aspects of a maturing, well-grounded moral being. Bennett argues that character education and development must come before resolving such ethical “issues” as nuclear war or abortion: “First things first.”5

Of course, it is hard to argue with such virtues, and Bennett has undoubtedly made valuable contributions to the moral education of adults as well as children. Indeed, we are unlikely to find anyone who is willing to argue on behalf of laziness and cowardice or against compassion and loyalty. But that very fact should alert us to the reality that the advocacy of these virtues is not an adequate response to moral relativism. Relativists can all too easily say that how these virtues are expressed will vary from person to person and from culture to culture, so that there are still no absolute standards by which expressions of such virtues as Bennett names are to be judged. So, for example, it may be argued that because the courageous person will walk away from some fights but in other situations stand and fight, there are no absolute moral laws that dictate how these virtues are to be lived out in practice.

The traditional values approach to moral absolutes, then, must specify actual moral principles governing behavior, in addition to character traits, if it is to serve as an effective antidote to moral relativism. And so traditional values advocates commonly appeal to moral standards of the past — those standards that served as a moral consensus prior to the sexual, artistic, and political revolutions that are usually traced to the turbulent period of the 1960s. These traditional values would include the permanency of marriage and its strictly one man, one woman composition, the sanctity of all life from the unborn to the elderly, the responsibility of the state to protect its innocent citizens from harm, the responsibility and authority of parents to raise their children, and so forth. On the basis of these traditional values, conservatives in America oppose liberal divorce laws, same-sex marriages, and gay rights; abortion and euthanasia; gun control measures and rehabilitative models of criminal justice; and, typically, children’s rights advocacy and government controlled public education. A flood of books, mostly by conservative Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants, have been published in the past 25 years promoting a traditional values agenda roughly along these lines.

While we believe that there is a great deal that is right about this conservative cultural agenda, its appeal to traditional values is problematic in light of the moral relativism rampant in our society. There are at least two reasons why this is so.

First, traditions by their very nature are pluralistic and constantly changing. There is no one, unified, unchanging set of “traditional values” out there that merely needs to be recovered and reinstituted in society. For example, there is no such thing as the traditional family. Setting aside the flawed pro-homosexual arguments for same-sex marriages and other alternative lifestyles, it is undeniable that in many cultures throughout history polygamy has been quite traditional, while in the Western, Judeo-Christian tradition monogamy has been the traditional norm for nearly two thousand years. By definition “tradition” is a human, historical phenomenon, a constantly moving and developing and changing stream of experience and thought. While tradition may attest to an absolute moral law, it cannot be the source of that law. You cannot establish a fixed point of reference by pointing to a flowing river.

Second, some traditional moral judgments have proved themselves to be false. We have learned the hard way in the West that it is never right for one human being to buy, sell, or own another human being. We have discovered that there is no good reason for separating the races, and have abandoned the practice of allocating separate restrooms, separate sections in movie houses, and separate schools for “the coloreds.” Even those of us who are still uncomfortable with interracial marriages almost universally recognize that there are no good moral objections to such unions. These changed perspectives and practices represent genuine moral advances — but they are inexplicable on a consistently “traditional values” rationale.

The call to respect moral absolutes is often confused, by both critics and advocates, with a call to a return to the values of the past. Where generations of the past had a firmer grasp of and respect for moral absolutes, the values of the past can be a helpful guide. But moral absolutes, while true for all people, have never been acknowledged by all people. Moral absolutes are standards for people of all generations, even if past generations did not yet realize them or if today’s relativistic generation rejects them. If moral relativism is to be answered, the standard of moral absolutes will have to be found somewhere else than in a call to return to “traditional values.”

Natural Law: From Above or Below?

If “traditional values” are not necessarily true moral absolutes, then where or how do we determine what the true absolutes are? Many advocates of a return to traditional values argue that those values were expressions of an immutable moral law. William Watkins, for example, in his book The New Absolutes argues that there is “a universal moral law,” which all people know whether they have read the Bible or not. This moral law is “embedded in the nature of things” and “transcends culture.” The universality of religion, law, and moral rationalizations attests to the reality of this transcendent moral law.6

Likewise Bill Bennett champions a “natural law” theory of ethical absolutes. One of the works excerpted in his Book of Virtues is C. S. Lewis’s little classic The Abolition of Man.7 Lewis wrote to combat the trend, already discernible in English education in the 1940s, away from absolute moral truths. He argued that a universal morality could be discerned in all cultures, despite their superficial differences about what was appropriate behavior. A universal moral law inherent in the nature of the world and of ourselves is attested in all of the great religions of the world. Perhaps anxious to show that he was not writing from a parochial perspective, Lewis referred to this moral law as the Tao. In Chinese philosophy and religion the Tao is “the Way,” that is, the way things are, the way of nature. Lewis takes up this term and argues that all cultures recognize this Tao (whatever name they may call it) and seek to follow it.8 From this Tao all of the major religions and moral philosophies of the world have given expression to the Golden Rule or some variation on it, as well as other basic moral principles of courage, honesty, and love. To deny the reality of this universal Tao is to take civilization down an unprecedented path of self-destruction. It means to deny that we are Man — that is, to deny that we are a unique race of beings with a transcendent purpose that can be realized only in the context of the universal moral law. This is what Lewis meant by the title The Abolition of Man. 9

The concept of a moral law of nature certainly provides a rational starting point for the belief in moral absolutes. The difficulty comes in moving from that premise to any conclusions about the specific content of the moral law. Here, Lewis and many other advocates of natural law are sometimes less than clear.

One approach to natural law ethics that is frequently used, and is illustrated by both Lewis and Bennett, is to examine the writings of disparate cultures and religions in search of common moral principles or ideals. In so doing, they find that most or all cultures value honesty, loyalty, kindness, faithfulness in marriage, respect for elders, and so forth. We might call this doing natural law from within: looking at what beliefs within human societies have usually been regarded as basic moral values and treating those as fixed points of reference for the development of moral judgments.

There are several difficulties with this approach. We have already pointed out that all cultures develop over time, making extraction of a pure, unchanging moral standard from the streams of moral tradition problematic. To do so one must have some principle of selectivity by which those ideals that are moral absolutes are isolated from attitudes or values that, while wrong, happen to have dominated most societies (such as the inferiority of women to men). It turns out that one has to know what to look for before surveying the field. Works like those by Lewis and Bennett present an idealized view of human values based on what its most “noble” representatives have said. But this makes the approach somewhat circular. This is not to deny that the major philosophies and religions of the world do attest to the moral law, but only to caution that one does not really “discover” that law by comparing those various philosophies and religions. Natural law ethics cannot be conducted as a value-free, morally neutral science! There is no stance outside of a moral framework from which one can “objectively” examine human expressions of values in order to arrive at the moral law.

A second approach that is sometimes taken is to study human nature and human behavior in the context of the world in which we live, and to determine what behaviors are beneficial and what behaviors are harmful to human beings or to the human race as a whole. This is an approach favored in naturalistic or humanistic ethics. On this view, the moral law is ultimately not prescriptive (telling us what to do) but descriptive (telling us how what we do will affect us). We may call this doing natural law from below: looking at how behaviors affect the lives of human beings here on earth and developing guidelines or recommendations for future conduct.

It should be immediately apparent that such an approach to ethics cannot and will not relate our ethical beliefs to a truly absolute moral standard. Indeed, such naturalistic ethics assumes that there are no moral absolutes and that we are free to do whatever suits us, as a race if not as individuals. Ultimately, naturalistic ethics cannot escape moral relativism. But as we have already seen, moral relativism leaves no reasonable basis for moral judgments or law and is at bottom an irrational position.

This leaves only one option for establishing an understanding of moral absolutes on the basis of a universal moral law. Such a law must be understood as coming not from a consensus of human societies (from within) or from a pragmatic cost-benefit analysis of human behaviors (from below), but from God — the One who created the human race and who knows better than we how we were designed to live and what is best for us. This is doing natural law from above. The human race must be viewed, not as an autonomous society of beings who can chart their own destiny and purpose, but as a society of beings who have been created for a purpose and whose moral choices are weighed in light of that transcendent purpose. Our moral standards must be determined neither democratically from within or scientifically from below, but theologically.

The theological approach does not negate all value or truth to the approaches from within or below. If there is a God, it is reasonable to think that most human societies will have some idea, if hazy, of what he expects; and it is certainly reasonable to think that what God wants for us is what is ultimately in our best interests. But the perspectives from social consensus or scientific analysis have no absolute foundation unless they are framed by the theological perspective that morality is ultimately given, not discovered. It is only this transcendent perspective that can prevent the other perspectives from floating away on the seas of moral relativism.

If the moral absolutes that are to govern our lives are given by God, this still leaves the obvious question of how he has given them to us and where we will find them. In theistic (God-oriented) natural law ethics, it is understood that the moral law is in some way implanted or incorporated into our inner being. All of us in our hearts know that marriage should be for life, that human life is sacred, that honesty is not only the best policy but is the right thing to do. If some of us are morally blind, we have each other and the witness of society at large that these moral absolutes are true and binding on each and every one of us. Thus, natural law that acknowledges the divine origin of the moral law contends that ultimately that moral law is inescapable: we know it whether we want to admit it or not.

While we would completely agree that the moral law is universally attested in society and in every human heart, it is also true that our perception of that moral law has been distorted by our desire and practice of neglecting, ignoring, and rebelling against that law. As universal as the moral law is, human violation of that law is also universal. Even though almost all of us can see that to be the case, the universality of human violation of the moral law — what used to be called man’s inhumanity to man — makes it hazardous to try to learn the specific content of that moral law from our own hearts or from the witness of society. We can and do know that such a moral law exists, and we may have a general idea as to what it entails, but this knowledge is not sufficient as a basis for resolving moral disputes.

We need, then, a more direct and definitive expression of the moral law than can be gained from introspection or from a consideration of the world’s great moral stories and maxims. In short, we need to hear from God himself. It is the Christian claim that God has in fact spoken, and that he has given us a definitive expression of the moral law in the Bible.

As soon as we point to the Christian revelation as the definitive expression of the moral law, many people — even many Christians — become nervous. By what right or reason should Christians regard the Christian faith as providing the standard for all peoples of all cultures? Why should the call to follow the way set forth by Jesus be regarded as an absolute claim on all people? This is the question we will consider next.


1 James Davison Hunter, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 58-60.

2 George Barna, Virtual America (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1994), 84-85, cited in William D. Watkins, The New Absolutes (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1996), 28.

3 Glenn H. Utter and John W. Storey, The Religious Right: A Reference Handbook, Contemporary World Issues (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1995), 87.

4 Watkins, New Absolutes, 44.

5 William J. Bennett, The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 12.

6 Watkins, New Absolutes, 247.

7 Bennett, Book of Virtues, 263-65.

8 There is a distinct religion known as Taoism, for which the Tao is a central concept, but Lewis was not endorsing or referring specifically to this religion.

9 C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1947). If the publishers want to release the book under a more politically correct and marketable title, they could probably do no better than to entitle it The Tao of Ethics. Not only does this reflect Lewis’s actual message and wording in the book, it would capitalize on the recent popularity of books with such titles as Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics and Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh!

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12. Christ and Cultures: Multiculturalism and the Gospel of Christ

“When I was a boy, world was better spot,
What was so was so, what was not was not,
Now I am a man, world have changed a lot,
Some things nearly so; others nearly not. . . .
O-ho! Sometimes I think that people going mad.
A-ha! Sometimes I think that people not so bad. . . .
But — is a puzzlement!”

— The King of Siam (Yul Brynner), “Is a Puzzlement,” in The King and I (1956)

So far we have argued that morality must be based on absolute truths about human nature and that these truths are determined by the fact of our creation by God as beings designed for relationships with God and one another. Furthermore, we have claimed that a reliable, definitive expression of these absolute moral truths is to be found uniquely in the Christian revelation preserved in the Bible.

All this talk of moral absolutes based on absolute truths is, to use the usual expression, politically incorrect. Those who dare to suggest that there are absolute truths that apply to all people in all cultures are usually deemed narrow minded and culturally imperialistic.1 The charge is made even more vehemently when the absolutes which are upheld find their normative expression within the context of the biblical, Christian world view. Belief in Jesus Christ as the only way to God is associated by almost all non-Christians, and even by many within the Christian church today, with “Eurocentrism” — a cultural mindset that exalts the perspectives and achievements of white male Europeans (and their descendants in North America) at the expense of other cultures and traditions. As Islam and the Eastern religions have come into greater cultural prominence and acceptance in the West, belief in the absolute truth of the religious and moral teachings of Christianity is now commonly viewed as arrogant, intolerant, and unrealistic in today’s pluralistic society.

How shall we respond to this increasingly common sentiment? How can we call on all people to submit to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and to embrace the faith and values of Christianity in a society zealous for cultural diversity?

Understanding Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism can be thought of as a reality or as an ideal. As a reality, multiculturalism is a historical phenomenon that emerged in the last half of the twentieth century. As an ideal, it is a highly controversial view of human society that has become a source of contention and conflict in the last decade of the twentieth century.

Multiculturalism: The Reality

The roots of multiculturalism as an historical reality are to be found in the turbulent years of the 1960s. The counterculture movement of that decade sharply challenged the seeming cultural superiority and homogeneity of Western civilization. Young people protested against the materialism and militarism of the West in a variety of ways. They staged rallies against the Vietnam War. Men burned their draft cards, women burned their bras. Both men and women “turned on” to sex, drugs, and rock music that glorified both. Millions pursued spiritual enlightenment through alternative religions: TM, Scientology, the Hare Krishnas, Rev. Moon’s Unification Church, the Baha’i, the Nation of Islam, a dozen major Hindu gurus and uncountable minor ones, and many other paths.

The civil rights movement laid a foundation for the multicultural emphasis on racial diversity, although arguably the multicultural form of civil rights in the 1990s is very different from that of the 1960s. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most visible leader of the civil rights movement, was one of several icons of the idealism of the 1960s who were assassinated, martyred for the cause: President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert (“Bobby”) Kennedy, and former Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X were the others.

After 1968, the year in which both King and Bobby Kennedy were killed, the idealism seemed to give way to a more pragmatic pursuit of economic and political power. In the 1970s, American politics began to be seen increasingly as a struggle between various disparate groups, each complaining of oppression, each seeking to achieve political power as a voting “bloc” that could not be ignored: besides every racial group, there were women (emerging in the 1970s) as well as gays and lesbians (a notable force by the 1980s). None of these blocs were or are really monolithic: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) does not speak for all black Americans, nor does the National Organization for Women (NOW) speak for all American women. But such organizations have played an ever more important role in the cultural and political drama of American public life.

The multicultural reality has been enhanced by the increased ethnic and religious diversity of Western society. American and European society has been transformed through the immigration of millions of people from all over the world, especially from the Indian subcontinent and Southeast and East Asia. These people have brought with them their religion, philosophy, music, art, dress, and food. At the same time, advances in technology have brought us into increasingly close contact with the rest of the world. Television has led the way in this regard, allowing us to see other cultures; now, at the end of the 1990s, the computer appears to be taking us the next step, allowing us to interact with other cultures anywhere in the world.

In this rapidly changing and shrinking world, the idea that one culture is inherently superior to all others has all but disappeared. Certainly the notion of a monolithic culture in the West based on a single stream of tradition is no longer viable. We live in a multicultural world — one in which peoples of disparate cultural heritages and traditions live and work together. In this sense, multiculturalism is a reality — a present fact of life.

Multiculturalism: The Ideal

But multiculturalism can and is also thought of as an ideal — as a goal toward which we ought to be moving and progressing. This is the controversial meaning which has become a focal point of conflict in our society — the focal point of what has been called the culture wars. Granted that we live in a world of varied cultures, ideally how should we come to terms with this multicultural reality?

Two prevalent tendencies in contemporary society certainly must be avoided. The first might be called polyculturalism. The relativistic belief that all cultures are equal and that there can be no ideal or standard in culture implies that people of disparate cultures cannot really learn from one another. All individuals, families, and institutions may be free to express whatever cultural heritage they choose, or to mix and match different elements of various cultures, but all cultural expression will be seen merely as a matter of taste. A society that actually embraced such a polyculturalism would have no basis for achieving real results in the ongoing struggle for liberty and justice for all people. Polyculturalism makes for a colorful display, but it is impotent to solve the real problems caused by the selfishness, greed, ambition, fear, anger, and mistrust which people of different nations, races, languages, religions, and cultures have exhibited in their dealings with each other throughout human history.

A good example of the multicultural ideal degenerated into polyculturalism was provided by the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. These ceremonies mixed artistic expressions of the culture of the American South with tribal pagan symbols and explicit references to the “spirits” of the different continents. John Lennon’s mystical song Imagine and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy were two of the more jarringly disparate musical selections. The most reverential tribute imaginable was paid to Martin Luther King. The modern Olympic Games were heralded as a symbol of the world coming together on the basis of a humanistic belief in the inherent goodness and self-sufficiency of humankind — a not so subtle repudiation of the Christian view of humanity as a God-created race corrupted by sin. Yet this proud celebration of human goodness could not completely hide the darker reality of human nature, a reality brought vividly into view by the bombing of Centennial Park in downtown Atlanta during the Games.

The Olympic Games illustrates not only the disjointed and disunited character of polyculturalism, but the fact that it cannot provide a stable basis for all cultural options to enjoy full expression. Any cultural tradition which affirms a universal standard for all cultures, whether it be Muslim or Christian, must and is given short shrift in the polycultural festivities. In such a setting the courageous struggle for civil rights by a black Baptist preacher or the brilliant music of a German composer are cut off from their Christian, theological roots. The polyculturalist is like the polytheist who is willing to add Jesus to the pantheon of gods, but is shocked and outraged when told that Jesus is the only God and demands the elimination of all idols. There is no room in the cultural pantheon for a God who is the Lord and Judge of all cultures.

If polyculturalism is not an acceptable option, neither is replacing the Eurocentric cultural dominance with another form of monoculturalism. Islam has always been intrinsically monoculturalist, in a way that makes the cultural gaffes of Christian missionaries in Africa or the Pacific seem innocuous. The treatment of women in countries ruled by Islamic regimes, particularly in the Middle East, demonstrates this fact in disturbing fashion. The continued growth if Islam and its unceasingly militaristic approach to expansion and control makes Islam, not Christianity, the main enemy of multicultural cooperation and appreciation.

If there is a serious alternative to Islamic monoculturalism, it is a new paganism. Many people are discovering that the paganism of pre-Christian Europe (with its magic, astrology, witchcraft, and the like) has more in common with the ancient religious beliefs and rituals of Native American religion, tribal African religion, and Chinese folk religion, than with the monotheistic faiths of Judaism and Christianity. Since polyculturalism is inherently unstable, the push for multiculturalism is in many respects turning into a movement toward a new pagan monoculturalism in which all religious and cultural expressions of a mystical, earth-based, humanistic kind are embraced and woven together. Again, though, this is not true multiculturalism, since it excludes traditional beliefs and values of Christians, Jews, and Muslims — religions whose members account for roughly one-half of the world’s population!

What, then, is — or should be — the multicultural ideal? What people seem to be trying to achieve in the name of multiculturalism seems to be fairly clear. We may identify three goals of the multicultural ideal.

First, multiculturalism means recognizing the rights of people of varying ethnic, racial, geographical, linguistic, and social roots to political freedom, economic opportunity, and societal toleration. It means bringing to an end the specter of race-based conflicts in such different places as Bosnia and Los Angeles.

Second, multiculturalism means rectifying political and economic injustice by pursuing policies that ensure freedom and opportunity for all people. Where laws or social structures systematically deprive people of freedom and opportunity, they must be changed. This does not mean pursuing an impossible ideal of equal results for all groups or classifications of people, but it does mean continuing to pursue the ideal of full opportunity for all people.

Third, multiculturalism means fostering a genuine respect for diverse cultural expressions such as music, art, literature, and dance, and diverse cultural traditions in such matters as education, the family, and work. Such respect does not mean ignoring moral or spiritual failings reflected in these cultural expressions and traditions (since these can be found in any culture, including European). It does mean recognizing that certain constants of human life — love, growth, need, aspiration, suffering, hope — find expression in all cultures.

Jesus and Multiculturalism

Is the claim that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior of the world relevant to a world in which so many cultures coexist in such close proximity, a world weary of conflict between peoples and nations of disparate cultures? Not only should Christians not be embarrassed to make this claim, we should see in the cry for a multicultural ideal a tremendous opportunity to present the claim of Christ to all people.

Jesus in His Cultural Setting

Who was Jesus? Well, Jesus was at the most obvious and visible level a Jewish rabbi and prophet. He spoke in parables (as did the rabbis) and interpreted the Jewish Torah. He taught disciples and debated Jewish authorities, including other rabbis.

Although Jesus was a rabbi, he was by all accounts no ordinary one. Jesus was in crucial respects a religious and cultural revolutionary. He taught that although God had revealed himself uniquely to the Jews (John 4:22), Jewishness alone was no guarantee of favor with God (Matt. 8:10-12). He taught that the temple would be destroyed (Matt. 24; Mark 13) and that worship of God would be centered in the heart, not in Jerusalem (John 4:21-24). He taught that a kind Samaritan or a repentant tax-collector was better than a pious but proud or heartless Pharisee (Luke 10:29-37; 18:9-14). He invited women to be his disciples (Luke 10:38-42). He granted healing to Gentiles (Matt. 15:21-28) and ate in the homes of outcasts (Luke 19:1-10).

Jesus was remarkable in everything he said and did. He taught like no man ever had or has since — an evaluation that has been voiced by Christians and non-Christians alike who have read the Gospels. Jesus spoke with absolute authority — “but I say to you” — yet few find his words arrogant. He spoke to the sick and the sinner with compassion yet without sentimentality. He spoke in terms that challenged the factions of Judaism of his day that might be loosely described as the “fundamentalists” and “liberals” of that culture. His own position was theologically closest to the Pharisees, yet his teaching defied simple categorization.

Nor was Jesus “all talk.” He performed miracles of healing, restoring health and even life to children and adults, men and women, Jews and Romans. Even most critical scholars of a skeptical bent today acknowledge that Jesus at least performed some works of healing, however they might explain them. Rather than parading the healed before the public as many faith healers do today, Jesus usually healed people in relative privacy and discouraged people from looking to him merely for miracles. His miracles were profound signs of God’s love and mercy that were remembered by his disciples as proof, not merely that he was a wonder worker, but that he was God’s beloved Son.

Surprisingly, despite the tremendous inspiration of his teaching and the impressive power of his miraculous works of healing, Jesus was remembered primarily for the way he died than for the way he lived. All four of the Gospels focus on Jesus’ death, with his teachings and miracles serving more as preludes than the main point. Jesus’ death itself was unusual: he died on a Roman cross, convicted of treason by claiming to be the King of the Jews. Crucifixion was viewed universally in the ancient world with such revulsion that the Christians would never have made Jesus’ crucifixion part of their faith if it had not really happened, and if they had not seen in it a transcendent significance. The New Testament implicates everyone in the death of Jesus — Jewish religious leaders, Roman political authorities, even one of Jesus’ own followers. Thus, to use the Crucifixion as a pretext for anti-Semitism contradicts the New Testament, which implicates all groups of people and whose authors were, with only one exception (Luke), Jewish. Indeed, by implicating all groups of people in Jesus’ death, the Gospels present his death as redemptive for all people.

The story of Jesus does not end with his death, however. The unanimous witness of all of the New Testament writers and of the church from its earliest days was that Jesus had risen from the dead. Since the traditional Jewish expectation was that all people would be resurrected at the end of history, the notion of an individual being raised from the dead in the midst of the historical process would hardly have occurred to the disciples, even as a myth. That the story was not a myth is made plain by the fact that all four Gospels report that the first ones to see Jesus alive from the dead were women. Since this was an honor that Jewish men of the first century were not likely to bestow on women in a fictional story, evidently this is how it really happened. By appearing first to women, Jesus affirmed their dignity and once again challenged traditional first-century cultural prejudices. Of course, Jesus made several appearances to men as well, appearances that are reported in independent sources in Scripture — to individuals (Peter, James), to the eleven men disciples, and to even larger groups. Jesus’ resurrection, a documentable historical fact, established the truth of his claim to be God’s Son and the meaning of his death on the cross as a redemptive work of God.

Jesus in His Multicultural Significance

In a classic work of theology, H. Richard Niebuhr asked about the relationship between Christ and Culture.2 Does Christ transform culture? Does Christ stand against all culture? Does Christ reveal himself through culture? Niebuhr identified five distinct approaches to the relationship between Christ and culture — and the corresponding relation between the church and the world — which he correlated with distinct Christian traditions (e.g., Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anabaptist).

While Niebuhr’s analysis was and is illuminating, various theologians have noted some weaknesses in Niebuhr’s approach. Perhaps the major problem was Niebuhr’s assumption of culture as a single, unitary reality whose relation to Christ and the church could be defined in one way.3 In an increasingly multicultural world, we must now ask about Christ and cultures: How does Christ relate to the diverse cultural traditions and expressions in our world? And how do these diverse cultural traditions relate to one another in Christ?

We suggest that the relation between Christ and our plurality of cultures may be understood from at least three perspectives. First, Christ is the Reconciler of cultures — he is the one who can bring people of different cultures together. Second, Christ is the Redeemer of cultures — he brings wholeness and hope to people of all cultures. Third, Christ is the Ruler of cultures — he is the one who establishes the standards by which all cultures are ultimately to be judged. We will elaborate on each of these perspectives.

Christ the Reconciler of Cultures

By both his life and his death, Jesus offered reconciliation to all cultures. By his teaching Christ called Jew and Gentile together; both were offered a place in God’s kingdom, with the ethnicity of the Jews giving them no advantage whatsoever. While Jesus modeled this reconciliation in his own life and ministry, it took his followers some time to put this aspect of his message into effect. When they did, however, the results were revolutionary. The Jewish disciples of Jesus were taught to reach out with love and acceptance to the Gentiles, whom they had come to think of as beasts. The Gentiles were invited into fellowship with the Jewish disciples without having to become Jewish.

Christ even more decisively brought about reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles through his death. Both Jews and Romans found themselves implicated in the death of Christ, but also forgiven through the death of Christ. One’s relationship with God was now based on the experience of God’s love through Christ as shown supremely in his death, not on one’s Jewish identity. Gentile believers came to see that the God of Israel, of the Jews, was the true God. Jewish believers came to see that their God was to be made known to all people.

Christians have certainly failed to embody the full potential of reconciliation which Christ came to bring to all cultures. Throughout most of church history the Gentile nations that have professed the Christian faith have created deep wounds of division between Gentiles and Jews, culminating in the devastation in this century of the Holocaust. To our shame, Christians have made Blacks their slaves instead of their brothers. The still largely segregated churches in America testify to the continuing need for reconciliation between white and black Christians.

But there have been positive signs as well. Christian conviction was a primary factor in the abolitionist movements in England and America, and was also prominent in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Although churches still tend to be quite segregated, Christians of all races and nations regard one another as brothers and sisters, and have come together in parachurch settings such as the many college campus ministries or the recent phenomenon of Promise Keepers.

By his death Christ offers reconciliation between all peoples today. He offers reconciliation between Jew and Arab, Jew and German, and Jew and black. He offers reconciliation between whites and blacks in America and in South Africa. He offers reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. He offers reconciliation between the descendants of European colonialists and Native Americans. He offers reconciliation between Croats and Serbs. He offers reconciliation between men and women, rich and poor, criminals and victims. There are no ethnic, national, cultural, or social barriers that Christ cannot tear down.

Christ the Redeemer of Cultures

What can Christ do to bring reconciliation between peoples and cultures which have historically regarded each other with suspicion if not hatred? Christ effects reconciliation between people of different cultures by bringing redemption to those people. Only those who have experienced the redemption which Christ provides can know the reconciliation which he brings. This redemption is of multifaceted significance for the cultures of the world.

First of all, Christ offers forgiveness to people of all cultures. Christ forgave the worst sinners of his own culture; he also forgave those who professed him but then denied him. Christ teaches us to forgive others as he forgives us (Matt. 6:14-15) — and this must include forgiving the sins of the past as well as of the present.

Second, Christ offers healing to people of all cultures. Christ’s physical healing of Jews and Gentiles symbolized his spiritual healing for all. He offers spiritual healing to all individuals who come to him, and for cultural institutions that honor him. Christ offers healing of relationships between people of differing cultures — a healing that comes as people forgive each other and accept each other in Christ’s name.

Third, Christ offers cleansing to people of all cultures. He challenges all cultures to accept the transforming power of his redemptive love. Christ challenges traditionally Christian cultures to repent of their sins and to make restitution to peoples they have wronged. At the same time, he challenges cultures largely untouched by him to trust themselves to him — not to European culture. It is as they both seek to know the cleansing and transforming power of Christ in their lives and cultures that European and non-European cultures will eagerly and sincerely come to learn from each other.

Fourth, in his work as redeemer Christ offers hope to people of all cultures. He promises an eternal future for people of all tribes, nations, and languages. But the hope is not exclusively future: Christ offers people of all cultures spiritual power now for personal and community transformation.

Christ the Ruler of Cultures

Christ’s work of reconciling people of all cultures to himself and to one another through himself, then, is effected by Christ’s redeeming work of bringing forgiveness, healing, cleansing, and hope to all who believe in him. By his death Jesus Christ brings people of all cultures together to confess their need of redemption and to place their trust in him instead of in the false self-sufficiency of their proud cultures. Part of entrusting ourselves to Christ is submission to him as the Ruler of cultures.

The claim of Christ’s universal authority over all cultures is undoubtedly the most troubling and “politically incorrect” aspect of the Christian faith, but it is non-negotiable (Matt. 28:18). On what basis do we claim that Christ is the Lord to whom all cultures must bow — that he is for all people and not only for some? Is this not simply a bit of cultural imperialism, to exalt one religious founder over all others?

We have already discussed the radical universality of the message and ministry of Jesus. What is not often considered, however, is the importance of his cultural identity. The fact that Jesus was a Jew makes him ideally suited to bring people of all cultures together. For one thing, the Jews are a people whose numbers have always been relatively small and who have never been politically dominant — unlike the Arabs, Europeans, Chinese, and other such ethnically related peoples. Indeed, the Jewish people’s experience of oppression can be appreciated by people of many other cultural and ethnic histories. Moreover, by coming in a people of such distinct cultural heritage, Christ affirmed the value of particular ethnic and cultural traditions. Jesus was not a bland Everyman, representing a homogeneous ideal for humanity, but a man of distinct racial appearance, language, customs, and history. It is also striking to note that the Jewish people in Jesus’ time had lived for over a millennium at the crossroads of the three continents of the Eastern Hemisphere — Europe, Africa, and Asia. Thus, in many and surprising ways the cultural heritage of Jesus makes him an ideal figure to unite people of every culture. This is one reason why it is so important to recognize and understand the Jewishness of Jesus.

If his Jewish cultural identity ideally positioned Jesus to bring people of all cultures together, what authorizes him to be the Ruler of all cultures is his resurrection from the dead. Jesus is the only major religious figure in history who is even reputed by his followers to have risen physically from the grave. As we have seen, the evidence clearly shows that Jesus’ resurrection really happened and was not a myth that developed some time after Jesus’ death. The Resurrection makes Jesus Christ a unique figure among all the religious teachers, prophets, sages, and leaders of world history. It shows that he has the power of life and death, and is the proof of his claims to uniquely reveal God (Acts 2:36; Rom. 1:3-4; Rev. 1:18).

The near-universal appeal and attraction which Jesus Christ has evoked even outside Christianity confirms the claim that only he can truly unite people of all cultures. It is notable that the three largest non-Christian religions all have sought to come to terms with Jesus in some way. Islam, which numbers roughly a billion people, views Jesus as a great prophet and miracle-worker. Hinduism, numbering roughly 750 million, often views Jesus as an avatar of Vishnu — one of many incarnations of one of the many Hindu forms of God. Buddhism, which accounts for about 300 million people of the world, typically regards Jesus as an enlightened one for the West. What these religions unwittingly attest by extending such honors to Jesus is that he is the one religious figure in history that simply cannot be ignored.

What does it mean to honor Christ as the Ruler, the Lord of all cultures? It means, first of all, to accept him on his own terms, as he has revealed himself. It means to accept the revelation of Christ given through his own disciples. We should not be embarrassed to say that Christ calls upon all people to become Christians. This does not mean, of course, that everyone should become culturally European, any more than in the first century all Christians had to become culturally Jewish. But if European culture was at all influenced for the better by its acceptance (however flawed) of Christ as Lord, surely those who submit to Christ as Lord of whatever culture will not find it necessary to despise or reject all things European.

Honoring Christ as Ruler of cultures means, further, to accept his rulership over every aspect of one’s life, including one’s culture and one’s relationship to people of other cultures. It means to accept his offer of redemption — forgiveness, spiritual healing, and hope — and to place our hope for redemption in him only. It means to accept his teachings on all subjects on which he speaks in the Gospels (Matt. 28:18-20).

Thus, if we honor Christ as Ruler of cultures, we will do as Christ taught and place our faith in God as Creator, Provider, Father, and King over all cultures. We will love and respect people of all cultures. We will critically examine the beliefs and practices of our own culture to see if they conform to the teachings of Christ. We will seek to submit every area of life, including culture, to the will of the God revealed to us in Christ. This God, according to Christ himself, has revealed his will definitively in Scripture (Matt. 5:17-18). And so it is on the basis of the teaching of Jesus Christ, the Ruler of cultures, that we call upon all cultures — including our own — to submit itself to the will of God as revealed in Scripture.

Yet this view of Scripture as preserving an unchanging and absolute will of God for all people has fallen on hard times, even within the church. In the next chapter, then, we will consider key objections to the absolute moral authority of Scripture.


1 One of the rare examples in American politics in recent years of a speech emphasizing moral absolutes that was generally very well received was General Colin Powell’s keynote address at the 1996 Republican National Convention.

2 H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951).

3 Cf. Robert E. Webber, The Church in the World: Opposition, Tension, or Transformation? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 262-64.

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13. Ethics as If God Mattered: Secularism and the Word of God

“What is the meaning of existence? . . . Man and woman persons, their existence means exactly and precisely, not more, not one tiny bit less, just what they think it means, and what I think doesn’t count at all.”

— “God” (George Burns), in Oh, God (1977)

We have argued that there are moral absolutes, and that it is on the basis of the transcendent authority of Jesus Christ over all cultures that we conclude that those moral absolutes are to be found in Scripture. But this conclusion is widely questioned today, even by Christians. In this chapter, we will consider two basic objections to treating biblical morality as absolute.

First, it is often alleged that biblical morality applied only to people in the past. The moral teachings of the Bible may have been fine and helpful for people thousands of years ago, it is often urged, but they can hardly be regarded as binding on us today.

Second, it is also often argued that biblical morality applies only to people in the church (and not necessarily even all of them). That is, when it is admitted that the moral teachings of the Bible might have some contemporary relevance today, it is commonly suggested that its moral relevance is limited to those who profess to be Christians and who accept the Bible as their moral guide. The general point here is that anyone who wants to follow the Bible as their moral standard is, of course, free to do so, but those who do not choose to view the Bible in that way are free to follow another path.

The effect of both of these ideas, especially the latter, has been that Western civilization has become secularized. That is, while most people in the Western world recognize a legitimate place for commitment to God, such religious expression has been systematically excluded from public life. Not only are distinctive religious beliefs peculiar to certain denominations or religions held to be irrelevant to the social and political issues of our cities, states, and nations, but even the affirmation of our status as creatures responsible to our Creator is widely thought to be irrelevant. We have become a civilization in which one’s belief or lack of belief in God is supposed to be irrelevant to the ethical questions facing us as a society. In short, we have come to the point of acting as a society as if it doesn’t matter whether there is a God or not, or whether he approves of what we do or not.

Is biblical morality a relic from the past? Is it a code of conduct for Christians only? We will discuss both of these objections to the universal relevance of biblical morality in turn.

Is Biblical Morality for Today?

The Bible is now about two thousand years old. Because of its antiquity, many people today question the applicability of the Bible’s moral teachings to contemporary life. Even many Christians today are less than fully confident in the relevance of the Bible to the problems and issues of modern society.

We need, then, to be very clear about why we regard the Bible as a reliable and authoritative standard for morality. It is not because it happens to be the source of moral values with which we were raised, or which has dominated Western civilization for so long. Such reasons would base our confidence in the Bible as a perfect and unchanging standard on our very imperfect and changing experiences and histories. To put it simply, we rely on the Bible as our standard for morality because we are convinced that its moral teachings come from God. While the point here may seem obvious, it is worth reflecting on its significance.

For Best Results, Follow the Directions

First of all, the God of the Bible is the God who made the world and humanity (Gen. 1-2; Ex. 20:8-11; Acts 17:24-28), and whose instructions to humanity must therefore be obeyed. If God made us, he has every right to tell us how to live. Indeed, by creating the world in which we live and designing us to live in this world in relationships with one another, he determined for us what is right and wrong. The Bible simply reminds us or explains to us how God made and designed us and what behaviors are consistent with God’s creation and what behaviors are not. In other words, in the Bible we find a perfectly reliable reminder in human words of the universal, natural moral law.

Second, the God who gave us the Bible proved himself to be the true God. The God of the Bible is not a symbol for the moral ideal, or a mythological figure, or the projection of an ideal father figure. This is a God who speaks and acts. This is the God who spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who spoke to Israel through Moses and the prophets, and who spoke to us definitively and personally in his Son, Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-2). This is the God who proved himself to be the God of the whole earth by his miraculous deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt (Ex. 19:4-5; 20:2-3; Deut. 4:32-40; etc.). This is the God who proved himself to be the true God, the God of life, by raising Jesus from the dead (Acts 17:30-31). This is not a God who tells us what to do but does nothing himself, but a God who has done what no other religion has even dared to claim.

Third, the moral standards given to us in the Bible are the true standards of what is good because God is perfectly good and does only good. Everything God created was created perfectly good (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). Everything God says and does is right (Gen. 19:25; Deut. 32:4). This means that God never requires from us anything but good. Moreover, what God intends for our lives is good. Even things which happen to us that are bad can and will be used by God for our good if we trust in his goodness (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28).

Fourth, the Bible is accepted as the supreme written standard of morality because God determined that the moral teachings of the Bible would reflect his own holy character (Lev. 19:2; Rom. 7:12; 1 Pet. 1:14-16). The moral standards of the Bible are not arbitrary rules designed merely to test our fortitude, patience, or loyalty to God.1 They are expressions of God’s own perfectly good, perfectly holy moral character. What God tells us to do is a reflection of what God is like and what God does. This is what we would expect if we were made in God’s image, as the Bible tells us (Gen. 1:26-27). This brings us back to our first reason for trusting in the moral standards of the Bible — they come from our Creator.

Finally, the morality of the Bible is applicable to us today because the God of the Bible is unchangingly good and faithfully consistent (Deut. 7:9; Ps. 136; Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8). God’s purpose and standards do not vacillate or change. Because he is dependably, unchangeably good, we know that what he laid down for his people two and even three thousand years ago still applies today. Since God does not change at all, and since human nature has not changed (even if our circumstances have), what God reveals in Scripture as his standards for human life and relationships is as relevant to us today as it was to Abraham, Moses, Amos, and Paul.

Numerous objections to the Christian view of the Bible as revealing unchanging moral standards have, of course, been put forth. We will consider some of these objections. But it should be pointed out to those who would dispute it that simply citing supposed “difficulties” with this view of the Bible is not enough. Those who would deny the Bible’s moral truth — what it says about life and death, sex and money — must first explain why they reject its historical truth — what it says about Abraham and Moses, David and Christ. In other words, it makes no sense to deny the moral authority of the Bible while refusing to consider the evidence for the divine origin of the Bible.

It Was Good Enough for Moses, But . . .

Of the many objections to viewing biblical morality as an unchanging standard, the most common by far is that the morality of the New Testament is advanced compared to the Old Testament. It is easy to see the logic of this argument: if morality changed from the Old Testament to the New, perhaps morality has changed again in the past two thousand years. The argument carries weight even with many Christians today, who are under the impression that the morality of the Old Testament is somehow inferior to that of the New Testament. Thus, while a considerable ethic can be derived from the New Testament itself, to view the Old Testament as ethically outmoded poses a serious threat to the integrity of the biblical revelation and calls into question the belief in an unchanging moral will revealed by God.

There are a number of serious problems with the notion that the Old Testament is morally deficient compared to the New. It is, first of all, inconsistent with all that was said earlier about the Bible — and this applies to the Old Testament as well as the New — coming from a good, holy, unchanging God who created us and designed us and has always known what was best for us. Besides, the New Testament affirms the complete inspiration and divine authority of the Old Testament in no uncertain terms (e.g., John 10:35; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21). If the New Testament writers thought Old Testament moral standards were outmoded, it is strange to say the least that they subscribed to an extremely conservative view of the Old Testament as divine revelation.

Although evangelical Christians generally agree that the Old Testament was inspired, many evangelicals nevertheless regard Old Testament morality as somehow superseded by the New Testament. It is commonly believed, for example, that Jesus fulfilled the Law so Christians are not obligated to keep it. Jesus is thought to have criticized the Pharisees for their overly scrupulous observance of the Law. Many liberal Christians also appeal to the transition from “law” to “grace” in order to dismiss the moral standards of the Old Testament.

These ideas have no basis in Scripture. Jesus upheld the moral teachings of the Law, criticizing the Pharisees not for adhering to the Law but for nullifying it by their interpretations (Matt. 5:17-48; 15:3-6). If one insists on attributing to Jesus a different morality from the Old Testament, one will have to conclude that Jesus held out a higher ideal than is reflected in certain Old Testament texts. Some support for this view might be found in Jesus’ instructions to his disciples not to exploit aspects of the Law that made concessions to human sinfulness, such as the Law’s allowance of divorce (Matt. 19:7-9). Even here, Jesus insists that his own view is grounded in what the Old Testament says about marriage (Matt. 19:3-6). Jesus certainly did not nullify or lower the Old Testament moral standards (cf. Matt. 5:48). Anyone hoping to find a more permissive sexual ethic or a more relaxed position on truth-telling in the teachings of Jesus than in the Old Testament, for example, is on a doomed expedition (cf. Matt. 5:27-37).

It is true that Jesus kept the Law perfectly to save us, so that we do not need to keep the Law in order to be saved. However, this does not mean that we have been given a license to sin. We are still expected to keep God’s law, even though our salvation does not depend on our doing so perfectly.

One of the New Testament texts most commonly misunderstood in this connection is Paul’s statement that we are not under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14). What Paul actually says here is that we should not let sin master us because we are not under law, but under grace. And how do we know what sin is? According to Paul we know what sin is from the Law (3:20; 7:7). The Law therefore continues to tell us as Christians who are “under grace” what we should not allow to master us — in short, it tells us what not to do.

Another reason commonly given for setting aside the moral commandments of the Old Testament Law is the idea that the Christian rule is the new commandment of love, not law. However, love as the guiding rule of life does not originate with the coming of Jesus or the New Testament. The Old Testament clearly taught love for God and neighbor (Deut. 6:4-5; Lev. 19:18), and according to both Jesus and Paul these love commandments are the essence of the whole Law (Matt. 7:12; 22:37-40; Rom. 13:8-10). That is, the Law was given to us to tell us in detail what love means.

Left to ourselves, we manage to come up with a lot of strange notions about the meaning of love. But God has not left us to our own devices to guess or feel our way along, even as Christians. Love does not mean “never having to say you’re sorry.” Love means never stealing from your neighbor, or lying about him, or betraying him by committing adultery with his wife (or with her husband), or murdering him, or even coveting what is his. True, we ought to know these things, even without the Ten Commandments; that is the point of the venerable natural law tradition in ethics. But the sad fact is that we often need reminding and a definite, unmistakable word from God so that we will not deceive ourselves into saying such nonsense as “It’s really okay as long as we love each other.”

Yet another reason often given for viewing biblical morality as changeable is that the New Testament sets aside various aspects of the Old Testament Law, such as circumcision, the sacrificial system (with its priests, altars, and so forth), and the dietary regulations. But these regulations were never presented as moral standards. Circumcision was a sign of the special covenant that Abraham and his descendants had with God (Gen. 17). The sacrificial system symbolized atonement for sin (see, e.g., Lev. 16-17). The dietary regulations are only a little more complicated. Many of them may have contributed to the Israelites’ health, but that does not seem to have been the main point. Rather, those who ate prohibited foods were declared “unclean” (Lev. 11) — a ritual term meaning that they were temporarily barred from participating in religious or communal activities. This is a very different sort of judgment from those attached to violations of God’s moral laws; such violations are typically described as injustices, sins, perversions, or abominations (e.g., many of the prohibitions in Lev. 18-20). Such descriptions, and the fact that the prohibitions have to do with human relationships in such universal matters as family ties, sexual acts, honest business practices, and civil justice, make it clear that these laws express God’s moral standards for all human beings, not merely for the Israelites under the Mosaic Law.

Applications Accepted

In maintaining that the moral teachings of the Old Testament Law have remained the unchanging standard for God’s people to this day, we are not suggesting that Old Testament statements apply in precisely the same way in modern society as they did during Old Testament times. Our point is that those unchanging moral standards can be upheld while making reasonable adaptations to changing cultures. This is especially true of the case laws, the regulations given in the Law of Moses as statutes for the nation of Israel. Clearly any application of the moral standards illustrated by these case laws will have to respect the cultural differences between ancient Israel and the modern world, but this does not make application impossible.

An excellent example is the command to build a railing around one’s roof (Deut. 22:8), a regulation that made perfect sense in a society where houses had flat roofs that were often used for entertaining and other purposes. The specific regulation itself need not be followed, but the principle (“that you may not bring bloodguilt on your house”) should be upheld by taking reasonable precautions to prevent accidental injury on one’s property. Greg Bahnsen, for example, suggested that a modern day application of this case law would be a city ordinance or state law requiring homeowners to put a fence around their swimming pools.2

Not all such cross-cultural applications of the Old Testament laws are so easy, of course, but in principle every rule that God laid down governing human relationships reflected an unchanging moral truth. Those truths are as relevant to Italians and Iranians in the twentieth century as they were to the Israelites in the tenth century BC. The same is true for the New Testament, which endorses the whole range of Old Testament ethical standards. Both Old and New Testaments have a lot to say about life and death, parents and children, sex and marriage, money and power, and truth and justice. Everything that Scripture says about these matters has been given to us so that we might know when we have strayed from God’s will, and so that we might know and do what God wants of us (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

It may take some work to gain a clear understanding of the moral standards set down in the Bible and to discern how they apply to us as we enter the third millennium since the coming of Christ. But nothing in the Bible suggests that ethics is always easy. There were complex ethical issues in the first century (see, for example, 1 Cor. 7-10), and there will be complex ethical issues in the twenty-first century. Absolute moral standards, contrary to a common criticism of biblical ethics, should not be confused with simplistic, easy, or pat answers. What the absolute moral truths of the Bible give us are fixed points of ethical reference from which to think about complex issues.

Is Biblical Morality for Everyone?

Many Christians, of course, do agree that those of us who believe in the Bible as the word of God should live by its moral teachings. But even when this fact is recognized, and the absolute character of biblical morality is appreciated, the relevance of the Bible to the moral issues facing our society today is often questioned. Even if we as Christians live by the precepts of the Bible, can we really expect non-Christians to do so? It is widely believed that we cannot and should not expect non-Christians to live by the moral standards of Scripture. As many see it, the Bible belongs in the church, but not in the Congress; its values should be promoted in our Sunday schools, but not in our public schools.

The implications of this view of Scripture for Christian involvement in the issues of the society in which they live are far-reaching. It implies that if Christians come to certain moral convictions about such matters as abortion, divorce, euthanasia, and homosexuality on the basis of their study of the Bible, they are free to hold those views — but they have no business trying to make those views normative for the whole of society. What shall we say to those who question the relevance of biblical morality to the issues of our day?

The Prophetic Stance: Our Heavenly Citizenship

First of all, we have already seen that the nature of the Bible as a revelation from the Creator of the entire human race militates against the idea that biblical morality does not apply to all people. The law which God gave to Israel was not a set of arbitrary rules, but an expression of the goodness, holiness, and justice of God.

Moreover, the ethical teaching of Jesus and his disciples was not merely for their hearers only, but for people of all nations. Jesus told his disciples to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe everything he had taught (Matt. 28:19-20). It is true that here Jesus implies that full and voluntary submission to his moral teaching will be expected only of disciples. But at the same time it is clear that Jesus authoritatively calls upon all people of all nations to submit to his teaching. That is why Jesus prefaced his command to make disciples with the observation that “all authority” had been given to him “in heaven and on earth” (v. 18). Thus, people who refuse to become disciples, who refuse to observe all that Christ commanded, are in rebellion against the sovereign King of the universe, the one who has authority over it all.

From one perspective, then, while it is quite true to say that non-Christians cannot be counted on to observe the moral standards of Scripture, that does not change the fact that all people ought to observe those standards. This is just another way of saying that all people ought to do God’s will. We are all accountable to God for how we live, and will have to answer to him for our lives, whether we called ourselves Christians or not.

The Christian task from this perspective is a prophetic one. Our responsibility is to do God’s will ourselves and to proclaim in word and action to the rest of the world what God expects of his creatures who bear his image. We do this, not merely as individuals, but as families and churches, modeling what institutions based on those moral principles should look like, and encouraging others to do likewise. We know that God’s will is ultimately about having a relationship with God based on love and trust, and so we not only model and proclaim God’s moral standards, but we also model and proclaim the gospel of reconciliation to the Father through faith in his Son Jesus Christ. This prophetic stance of proclamation is carried out in the awareness that we have a citizenship which is from heaven (Phil. 3:20-21) — membership in an eternal community of the redeemed who will enjoy life in the new heavens and new earth in which God’s moral standards are perfectly realized (2 Pet. 3:13).

The Public Stance: Our Earthly Citizenship

It is sometimes thought that the prophetic task of modeling and proclaiming the moral standards of God’s heavenly kingdom is inconsistent with involvement in social and political issues. But this is not so. Christians have a kind of “dual citizenship,” with a responsibility both to God’s eternal, heavenly kingdom and to the temporal, earthly governments of the nations of which they are a part (cf. Rom. 13:1-10; 1 Tim. 2:1-4; 1 Pet. 2:9-17). This is similar to our family situation: We are members of God’s heavenly, supernatural family (the church) while remaining members of our earthly, natural families. Just as we can advance the interests of our eternal family by participating faithfully in our temporal families, we can advance the interests of God’s heavenly kingdom by participating faithfully in the affairs of our earthly nations. In doing so, we will be able to show that God’s moral standards are relevant and applicable to all areas of life, including politics.

Thus, involvement in public life and public affairs is a natural extension of our prophetic stance. It is not an either/or proposition, but both/and: our effort to promote justice and righteousness in society goes hand in hand with our effort to proclaim God’s message of judgment and reconciliation. We cannot expect to show that God’s will is relevant to all people in all areas of their life if we do not show that God’s will is relevant to the most entrenched problems and controversial issues of our day.

In working for justice and moral standards in society, we will of course be approaching the issues from the perspective of our biblical, Christian moral convictions. But this does not mean that when we are engaged in controversy in public affairs with people who do not share our Christian commitment we will be able to appeal only to the Bible and its authoritative teaching. It is not necessary to quote Scripture or to assume its authority to promote biblical moral standards. To some extent this is obvious. All societies agree in general that it is immoral to commit murder, to steal private property, to commit perjury in a court of law, and so forth. We do not need to convince a whole nation to believe in the Bible before we can urge that nation to enact laws that protect citizens from murder, theft, and false accusations.

We may go further still. We said earlier that in principle every rule that God laid down in Scripture governing human relationships reflects an unchanging moral truth. The moral truths, or principles, which are embodied and illustrated in the Bible are absolutes that are true for all people because they are the truth of what it means to be human beings in relationship with one another. That is, the moral standards of the Bible are a reminder to us of what we already know, or at least should know, is right and wrong. And this means that in principle it should be possible to understand and articulate the rationale or reason for every moral teaching and rule found in the Bible. In other words, we ought to be able to explain to non-Christians why certain things are wrong, or why other behaviors are morally right, without our explanation amounting to nothing more than “because the Bible says so.” We ought to be able to show them that the moral standards we embrace are right for all people whether they are Christians or not.

In making a reasoned case for these moral standards, Christians will have to appeal implicitly to certain truths about God and human nature. The belief that all human beings at whatever stage of development are persons deserving of respect really assumes that human beings are not mere animals but are creatures endowed with a capacity or potential for relationship with God that distinguishes them among all living things. (Many atheists admit that all human beings should be given respect, but they have no rational basis for insisting on such a standard as a matter of public policy.) Traditional Christian beliefs about sexuality likewise assume that sexual intimacy is not merely a biological function (though it obviously includes such a function) but for human beings has a higher purpose ordained by the Creator. It will not be possible to make a complete case for Christian convictions about such moral issues without acknowledging that these convictions ultimately assume that we are created by a God who has in the act of creating us determined the purpose and design for our lives. Any moral system that is not based on that premise must ultimately allow human beings to determine their own purposes, if any, and to make whatever choices they wish.

Still, in developing their case for a public morality that agrees with the moral standards revealed in Scripture, Christians will not have to appeal to uniquely Christian beliefs. For example, most if not everything that has just been said about God and human nature in relation to ethics can be and is affirmed by many Jews and Muslims. The arguments Christians put forth in debates about culture and public life will be informed by Scripture; that is where we will go to check our values and to make sure that our moral judgments are in accord with what God has revealed to us. But then the arguments which we put forth will not be based on Scripture, but on truths about God and ourselves that are generally understood and acknowledged even outside of the Christian church.

In our religiously pluralistic society, then, the source of our moral convictions as Christians should be the word of God which has been uniquely revealed in Scripture. The way we express and defend those moral convictions in public life should be by appealing to the moral truths which are revealed to all human beings in their conscience and which have been admitted in most or all cultures.


1 Compare this to Islam and Mormonism, both of which have scriptures containing difficult or contradictory ethical instructions which their own theologians commonly explain were given to test people’s loyalty to the Prophet who founded their religion. For example, early Mormon scriptures instituted polygamy as an everlasting ordinance from God, whereas later Mormon scriptures ended the practice (so that Utah might be admitted to the Union).

2 Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), 138.

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14. All Creatures Great and Small: Abortion and the Meaning of Persons

“You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you. . . .”

— Pocahontas, “Colors of the Wind,” in Pocahontas (1994)

Ask most Americans to name the most controversial ethical issue of our time, and the chances are most will answer with one word: abortion. It may not be the most important ethical issue in most people’s minds (although it is for some people), but it has probably been the most contentious issue in American politics for the past quarter of a century. It is also an issue relating to virtually every area of life and touching on a variety of other controversial social, political, philosophical, and religious questions, including the relationship between sex and procreation, feminism, the relationship between church and state, contraception, euthanasia, biotechnology and bioethics, the meaning of life and the meaning of personhood.

In this chapter we will look at the issue of abortion from the perspective of defending the Christian approach to values discussed in the previous chapters. That is, we will be using the question of abortion to illustrate our claim that there are moral absolutes known to all humanity by our creation in God’s image and definitively revealed to us by God in Scripture.

Abortion from the Bible to the Present

We begin by surveying the history of the abortion question from the Bible to the present. Our purpose here is to see if there are moral absolutes which Christians have upheld throughout church history, and to set the stage for the modern abortion debate.

The Old Testament and Judaism

It is well known that the Old Testament does not specifically mention abortion. In one passage it does appear to speak about a miscarriage caused accidentally during a fight (Ex. 21:22-25). Recent interpreters have made a good case for understanding this passage to have allowed a fine if the fight caused a premature live birth and a more serious punishment if either the child or the mother died.1 On the other hand, it must be admitted that most interpreters have understood this passage to allow a fine if a miscarriage takes place and a more serious punishment if the woman is injured or killed. This was how most of the Jewish rabbis understood the passage by New Testament times, and it was the view held by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus.2 This does not mean the Jews approved of abortion: the rabbinical view of Exodus 21 related to the question of accidental miscarriage, not deliberate abortion. While the evidence is sparse (since deliberate abortions except to save the mother’s life were extremely rare in ancient Judaism), it appears that the Jews generally regarded the unborn as human beings and deliberate abortion as akin to infanticide.3 Thus, modern defenders of abortion who cite Exodus 21 in support of a pro-choice viewpoint4 are certainly placing more on the passage than it can bear, even if the rabbinical interpretation is assumed.

The Septuagint (the translation of the Old Testament used by Greek-speaking Jews in the New Testament period) paraphrased Exodus 21:22-23 to say that a fine would be imposed if the child was miscarried while unformed while death was the punishment if the miscarriage resulted in the death of a fully formed child. As Michael Gorman notes, the distinction between an unformed and fully formed child originated from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who thought male children were formed in 40 days while female children were formed in 80 days.5

The Jewish heritage, then, was generally opposed to abortion, but not adamantly so. The rabbis were uncertain when the soul became joined to the body of a human being (conception, formation, and birth were all suggested), and no definite position was set forth in the Talmud. The result is that Orthodox Judaism generally discourages abortion except to save the life of the mother, while more liberal forms of Judaism allow abortion for a variety of reasons.6

The New Testament and Historic Christianity

The New Testament also does not specifically mention abortion, although some biblical scholars have suggested that passages condemning the use of certain drugs (e.g., Gal. 5:20; Rev. 21:8)7 are referring to the practice of using abortion-inducing drugs. Again, the silence of the Bible should not be construed as approval or permissiveness. It is difficult to find any discussion of the ethics of infanticide in the Bible, but it is clear enough that infanticide is a form of murder.8

As soon as the Christian church became predominantly Gentile and had to deal with the practices of the pagan Greco-Roman culture, Christian writings began specifically mentioning and condemning abortion. The Didache, for example, probably written close to AD 100, prohibited abortion and compared it to infanticide: “You shall not kill the fetus by abortion or destroy the infant already born.”9 The early second century Epistle of Barnabas also prohibited abortion and classified it as a form of murder.10 In the late second century, the apologists Athenagoras and Tertullian and the theologian Clement of Alexandria all explicitly stated that Christians considered abortion to be a form of murder.11 Similar views were taken by the third-century church fathers Hippolytus and Cyprian.12

One of the first Christians to make use of the distinction between the unformed and the formed unborn child was Origen, an Alexandrian theologian heavily influenced by Greek philosophy.13 The distinction was accepted in the late fourth century by the biblical scholar Jerome and the early church’s greatest bishop and theologian Augustine of Hippo, both of whom concluded that abortion prior to formation, though immoral, was not murder. The acceptance of this view by Augustine in particular assured it a permanent place in Christian thought, although other fourth-century church fathers, such as Basil of Caesarea, rejected that view.14 The thirteenth-century theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas, for example, accepted the view that the unborn were not persons prior to formation. Thomas sought to interpret Christian theology and ethics in light of Aristotle’s philosophy and science, and he accepted Aristotle’s view that unborn males were formed at 40 days and unborn females at 80 days. Again, Thomas regarded abortion at any stage of pregnancy as immoral, but viewed abortion as murder only after the baby was fully formed in the womb. Thomas’s view prevailed in the Roman Catholic church until the late nineteenth century.

Some pro-choice advocates point to the medieval Catholic view as represented especially by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas as evidence that the pro-life position is not the solidly traditional Christian view that pro-lifers imagine it to be.15 When pro-lifers claim that Christians have always regarded abortion as murder at any point after conception, such a claim is admittedly overstated. But it would be an even greater mistake for defenders of abortion to read their position into church history.

First of all, the medieval view clearly regarded abortion as immoral at every stage of pregnancy. This was not merely because abortions were commonly linked to adultery, as is sometimes emphasized (although in the medieval period that was also true), but because abortions even during the earliest stage of pregnancy destroyed a life which God was forming into his image.16

Second, abortion after “formation” was uniformly regarded as murder, and this means that abortions after the sixth week (for boys) or possibly the thirteenth week (for girls) were regarded as murder. In modern terms, all abortions after the first trimester were uniformly regarded by Christians as murder throughout church history until modern times. Such a position is entirely unacceptable to the pro-choice movement.

Third, the distinction between abortions performed before formation and those performed after formation was introduced into the church’s thinking from a pagan source (the Greek philosopher Aristotle) and was accepted somewhat hesitantly by Augustine. There is no biblical basis for the distinction, and it was accepted because it was as close as medieval thought could get to a “scientific” understanding of when the body growing in the womb was actually human. That is to say, the medieval view was that as soon as the unborn attained human nature, they were human persons and their destruction was murder. Accepting what Aristotelian “science” told them about the development of the unborn — that they were not human until they were “formed” — the church qualified its earlier blanket condemnation of all abortion as murder while holding firmly to its conviction that abortion at any stage of pregnancy was a serious sin.

If we were to follow the medieval church’s lead, then, we would take the best scientific information available to us regarding the humanity of the unborn and regard the destruction of human life in the womb as murder. Presumably no one today thinks that the unborn are human at 40 days if they are male but do not become human until 80 days if they are female. That is a bit of ancient scientific theory which no one in the abortion debate accepts today, and therefore it makes no sense for pro-choice advocates to criticize pro-lifers because they have abandoned the medieval view.17

The Roman Catholic church, committed to a strong view of church authority and tradition, accepted the medieval view until the late nineteenth century. Increased knowledge about fertilization gradually led the Catholic church to abandon the medieval view in favor of its present position that the unborn are human persons from the moment of conception. Some pro-choice writers have suggested that the real reason for the Catholic church’s change was its new emphasis on the idea of the Virgin Mary’s “immaculate conception” (the idea that she was conceived in her mother’s womb without original sin).18 While this doctrine may have contributed to Catholic sensitivity to the significance of conception, it does not appear to have been the driving reason for the church’s change on the abortion question. In any case, the attempt to dismiss the church’s new position because of some debatable aspect of the historical origins of that position is a classic instance of the genetic fallacy — the mistake of reasoning that a person’s view is wrong because of how he or she happened to come to that view.

Protestant thinking on abortion took a somewhat different history. Since Protestants placed more emphasis on the Bible and less on tradition, they quickly reverted in the earliest years of the movement to the pre-Augustinian view that all abortions destroyed human lives and were therefore always tantamount to murder except when performed to save the mother’s life. Martin Luther and John Calvin both strongly condemned abortion as murder, as did Protestants after them uniformly for centuries.19 It was only the rise of liberalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that made it possible for some Christian theologians to entertain any other view of abortion.

The Modern Abortion Problem

Although testimonies to the Christian judgment of abortion as at least immoral and typically as murder are not wanting throughout church history, the subject came up rarely until modern times because abortion was quite rare. Abortion was almost always an act of desperation by unmarried women which risked their own lives as well as killing their unborn. The method of choice throughout the centuries was essentially drinking some form of poison and hoping that it would expel the fetus but not kill the woman. Women were therefore more likely to commit infanticide than abortion, and of course infanticide was uniformly regarded by Christians of all traditions and denominations as murder.

It was not until the nineteenth century that abortion became a major social issue. Several factors contributed to the rising importance of the issue during that period, all of which have been ably discussed by Marvin Olasky in his history of abortion in America.20 We will highlight two of the major factors.

First, the urbanization of the West, especially in America and Western Europe, produced a social environment in which abortion became more popular. As men traveled in their business more, and as cities became larger and society more anonymous, both adultery and prostitution became far more common than previously. Prostitutes in particular were likely to have multiple abortions over their short careers. The most reliable estimates suggest that by the mid-nineteenth century there were tens of thousands of prostitutes (working mostly from brothels of various kinds) in America, including about 6,000 in New York City alone.21 Because the crude methods of contraception available at that time were ineffective, prostitutes made frequent use of abortion. Olasky estimates that prostitutes during this period may have been averaging 1.8 abortions per year, resulting in roughly 100,000 abortions per year total.22 Such a high rate of abortions may help to explain why the life expectancy of a full-time prostitute was only about four years (since abortion often resulted in the death of the mother).

Second, in a small but growing minority in Western culture abortion was seen as a means of expressing freedom from the traditional, Christian world and life view. During the 1840s (often called the Mad Forties) and the 1850s spiritism (usually known then as spiritualism) became widespread, especially in the northern states. Spiritism was a movement that sought guidance from disembodied spirits — generally thought to be the departed — whose messages typically encouraged self-indulgence and extreme individualism (messages Americans in particular seemed to want to hear). Inspired by such messages, both men and women in the movement were encouraging women, married or not, to have abortions if having a child interfered with their pursuit of sexual pleasure and individual happiness. Typical was an 1858 book by spiritist Henry Wright entitled The Unwelcome Child, which argued that abortion was preferable to bringing “unwanted children” into the world. Wright reported women saying that they felt that “it would be a greater sin to give birth to a child” whom they could not love “than to kill it before it is born.”23 The spiritists also argued that neither men nor women should be bound to marriage and that women should have complete control over their wombs, determining whether and if they will become pregnant or give birth. Olasky offers a “speculative” estimate of roughly 45,000 abortions per year performed on women in this spiritistic, free-love movement during its heyday in the mid-nineteenth century.24

Combining the number of “free-love” abortions with the abortions obtained by prostitutes, in addition to the relatively few abortions obtained by young unmarried women, yields a very rough estimate of about 160,000 abortions in a single year during the mid-nineteenth century. Since the non-slave population of America at that time was about 27 million, Olasky concludes that the abortion rate in the mid-nineteenth century was roughly akin to what it has been since the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade (about 1.5 million per year in a population of over 250 million).25

The swelling abortion rate led Americans to enact state laws specifying various punishments for women who obtained abortions and especially for persons aiding women in producing abortions. The first state law specifically prohibiting abortion was an 1821 Connecticut law authorizing sentences up to life in prison for any person intentionally giving a woman an abortifacient. The law specified that the law applied to women who were “quick with child” — not, as some have argued, because the unborn were not considered persons prior to quickening, but “because — in the absence of pregnancy and blood tests — fetal movement was the only legally established indicator of unborn life.”26

By the end of 1868 thirty states had overcome all legislative and cultural obstacles to passing an anti-abortion law, and twenty-seven of them punished attempts to induce abortion before quickening. Twenty of the states had bitten the bullet and were punishing abortion at all stages equally, regardless of the added evidence given by quickening; others had an increased range of punishment.27

These anti-abortion laws reflected the prevailing cultural abhorrence of abortion and the general belief that the unborn were human persons. Although various physicians were in the forefront of the public discussions of the blight of abortion, the American Medical Association did not exert inordinate pressure on legislatures to pass anti-abortion laws, as is sometimes claimed.28 These laws did not stop abortion, although they probably helped to contain it.

During the first half of the twentieth century the abortion rate declined significantly, partly because contraceptive technologies became more efficient, more available, and generally more acceptable. The growing use of contraception, societal disapproval of abortion, and to some extent the legal penalties associated with abortion, made abortion comparatively rare during this period.

Although contraception (which prevents a new human being from being created) should not be confused with abortion (which ends the life of the new human being in the womb), the leading advocates of contraception in the first half of the twentieth century laid the groundwork for the modern abortion rights movement. Many of the leaders of the movement to promote contraception were heavily influenced by eugenics, the belief that society should try to maximize the procreation of the “well-born” (eu, “good” or “well,” and gen, “born”), typically meaning middle and upper class whites. In turn eugenics assumed the view of the Malthusians that population growth would be arrested by wars or other disasters if society did not take prudent steps to control population growth. Margaret Sanger (1883-1966), whatever her other motivations (some selfish, some perhaps noble), was also influenced by eugenics: “More children from the fit, less from the unfit — that is the chief issue of birth control.”29 Sanger, founder of what became Planned Parenthood, generally opposed abortion, but after her death Planned Parenthood became the leading organization promoting abortion rights. The heightened concern about the population explosion in the 1950s was also frequently focused on the growth of non-white populations around the world.30

Although contraception was becoming increasingly common, after World War II abortion rates appear to have begun rising again. In part this was made possible by the fact that medical technologies were making abortion much safer for women than in the past. Contrary to the rhetoric often heard from advocates of legalized abortion, during the 1950s and 1960s most abortions, even though illegal, were performed by physicians using ever more sophisticated and safe equipment and procedures.

Pro-life and pro-choice partisans disagree vigorously as to just what the rate of abortion was during the decades leading up to the legalization of abortion. Pro-choice advocates often claim that women sought between one to two million illegal abortions a year prior to the 1970s, a figure that is almost surely exaggerated. A somewhat more responsible estimate offered by James Mohr, whose research was generally oriented toward supporting abortion rights, was that illegal abortions in the late 1960s numbered somewhere between 200,000 and 1.2 million per year, with Mohr unable to be more precise.31 On the pro-life side a 1981 study is commonly cited which found that about 39,000 illegal abortions took place in 1950, with that number rising to a high of about 210,000 in 1961.32 Even if these figures are thought to be too low, it is almost certain that the abortion rate was significantly less prior to legalization, probably a lot less.

What is more important than the numbers is the fact that the abortion rate was rising during this period; most of the studies, whether biased toward pro-choice or pro-life interests, show an increase in abortion from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. Although medical technology made abortions safer for women during this period, the reason more women were seeking abortion was a social one: a dramatic growth in premarital sex among teenagers and young women in the context of a culture that was becoming increasingly materialistic and individualistic. These cultural changes were taking place under the surface during the 1950s, and only became more overt in the 1960s with the advent of the counterculture, its glorification of sex, and its exploration of Eastern mysticism and the occult.

Note that in many respects the 1960s resemble the 1840s when spiritism and free love prompted a sudden increase in abortion. As in the “Mad 40s,” advocates of abortion in the 1960s saw abortion as a symbolic declaration of the autonomy of women and their right to enjoy the sexual revolution without being “forced” to accept maternity as a consequence.

However, abortion advocates generally did not advertise sexual license as the reason for liberalization of abortion laws. Instead, they focused attention on the so-called “hard cases” to generate sympathy for women seeking abortions. The most celebrated such case in the 1960s was that of Sherri Finkbine, a married suburban mother of four children who discovered in 1962 that while pregnant with her fifth child “she had unwittingly taken the drug thalidomide, then surfacing in Europe as the reason why some children were born with phocomelia (flipperlike limbs) or without any limbs at all.”33 When Finkbine was unable to obtain a legal abortion in her home state of Arizona, Planned Parenthood and other advocates of abortion seized upon her case as evidence of the need for “updating” America’s abortion laws. Finkbine rejected the offers that came from couples all over America offering to adopt the child, claiming, “It wouldn’t be fair to the child.” She eventually obtained an abortion by traveling to Sweden. The media handling of the Finkbine case evidently encouraged roughly a majority of Americans to accept the reasoning that abortion should be permitted in cases where the child is expected to be severely deformed or handicapped.34

The other, even more famous “hard case” which changed abortion law dramatically in America was that of “Jane Roe” (Norma McCorvey), an unmarried Texas woman who filed a class action lawsuit in 1970 challenging Texas law which denied her a legal abortion. Roe’s case was regarded with sympathy because she claimed that she had sought the abortion on the grounds that she had been raped. (Years later McCorvey admitted that she had lied about the rape; recently she has publicly confessed to having become a Christian and now says she is pro-life.) In 1973 the Supreme Court decided the case of Roe v. Wade in Roe’s favor, with Justice Harry Blackmun arguing for the majority that the Texas anti-abortion law (and by implication all such state laws) was unconstitutional.35

This review of the history of the events leading up to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision makes it clear that the main issue in the abortion debate was sex, not saving women’s lives or their health or defending women from rape. (In most states abortion was permitted to save the mother’s life, and even before Roe v. Wade some states interpreted this exception broadly to allow women to have an abortion for reasons of physical and even mental health.) As Paul Savoy, a pro-choice attorney, has written:

What the Supreme Court, in effect, has recognized over the last quarter of a century in its rulings on birth control and abortion is a constitutional right of women to have sex for pleasure rather than procreation as part of a more general freedom from sexual subjugation. . . . the Court had legalized the sexual revolution without so much as a nod of acknowledgment that its rulings had anything to do with the liberation of women as sexual beings.36

Roe v. Wade sparked a national debate about abortion that intensified in the 1980s and has continued to the present. Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants have been the largest and most visible opponents of abortion in America, though one should not ignore the fact that Muslims, Mormons, Orthodox Jews, and people of other religious beliefs have also opposed abortion. (Indeed, internationally the strongest opposition to abortion has come from nations dominated by Islam.) Liberal Protestants, liberal Jews, adherents of Eastern and New Age religious beliefs, and secular humanists have generally all supported abortion rights, though one can find occasional exceptions. The most vocal support for abortion rights in America has come from feminist groups which see abortion as a key element in securing equality and autonomy for women.

Opponents of abortion label their position pro-life, indicating that for them the issue is not really sexual immorality or women’s roles but the life of the unborn. Defenders of legalized abortion label their own view pro-choice, emphasizing their belief that the issue is the right of women to choose whether to continue their pregnancy or end it by abortion. We use these terms rather than the labels anti-abortion and pro-abortion, because these terms are generally used by the opposing sides against one another (although technically both terms seem accurate enough).

Although not all pro-lifers regard the entire Bible as the infallible word of God (since there are Orthodox Jews and Muslims who are pro-life), within Christianity nearly all pro-lifers accept the orthodox view of the Bible as God’s word, while most pro-choice Christians hold to a more liberal view of the Bible. There are some pro-choice Catholics and evangelicals who hold a high view of Scripture, but they are a small minority. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that biblical values (at least some of which are shared by Muslims, Orthodox Jews, and Mormons) inform the pro-life position, while the pro-choice view is in some respects out of keeping with biblical ethics. In the rest of this chapter we will test this conclusion by examining the pro-life position and considering crucial objections to the pro-life view raised by Christians who do profess a high view of Scripture.

The Life of the Unborn

The pro-life argument is actually a very simple one. One of the most elegant statements of the argument has recently been set forth by Patrick Lee. He begins his book by summarizing the case against abortion with the following argument:

Intentionally killing an innocent person always is morally wrong.
Abortion is the intentional killing of an innocent person.
Therefore, abortion is always morally wrong.37

He then explains that there are “only three ways of challenging this argument, and therefore only three ways of trying to justify abortion.”38 (1) Deny the second premise by arguing that the unborn are not persons. (2) Deny the second premise by arguing that abortion is not intentional killing. (3) Deny the first premise by arguing that intentionally killing an innocent person for certain purposes is not morally wrong.

Although pro-life advocates usually give most of their attention to defending the second premise by arguing that the unborn are persons, in fact the most common pro-choice strategy appears to be denying the first premise. We will therefore start there and consider the premise that it is always immoral to kill an innocent person.

Abortion and the Sixth Commandment

The basic reason for the pro-life view is the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17; Matt. 19:18; Rom. 13:9). The Bible does not specify all classes of human beings who may not be murdered — that is, it does not bother saying, “You shall not murder women, people of color, old people, infants, deformed people, retarded people,” and so forth; it covers all the bases by the universal prohibition against murder. Nor was it necessary for the Bible to say, “You shall not murder the unborn.” As Randy Alcorn puts it, “All that was necessary to prohibit an abortion was the command, ‘You shall not murder’ (Exodus 20:13).”39

In biblical teaching, murder is prohibited because what is killed was created in the image of God. The classic text on this point is Genesis 9:6:

Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made man.

This text is extremely important for the abortion debate because it makes certain crucial points explicit. First, all human beings are in God’s image. The word translated “man” is ’adam, a Hebrew word which simply means “human being” or “humanity.” The same word is used in Genesis 1:26-27, which says that God created ’adam in his image — and states specifically that this includes both male and female. In other words, if it is a human being, it is in God’s image. Thus, if the unborn are human beings, killing them is forbidden because it is an attack on the image of God.

Second, the prohibition against murder does not forbid killing non-human animals. In the immediate context of Genesis 9, God specifically gives humanity permission to kill animals and eat their meat (vv. 2-3). Pro-choice writer Stephen Asma is therefore mistaken when he claims that the person who opposes abortion on the grounds of the “sanctity of life” does not realize that on those grounds he “must now sin nightly as he devours his sacred sirloin.”40 It is not all “life” that the pro-life movement regards as sacred, but all human life (as Asma presumably knows full well).

Third, the prohibition against murder forbids killing innocent human beings. In Genesis 9:6, human beings who are guilty of murder are themselves subject to having their life taken away by man. This makes it clear that the prohibition against murder is a command prohibiting the taking of life away from human beings who have not killed and are not threatening to kill other human beings. It does not forbid killing in self-defense or the use of lethal force by police, soldiers, or executioners. It is therefore not inconsistent for pro-lifers to oppose abortion but endorse capital punishment and military force. The essential pro-life claim is not that it is always wrong for human beings to kill other human beings, but that it is always wrong for human beings to kill innocent human beings. Some pro-lifers do oppose capital punishment and all warfare, and believe this position to be a more thoroughly ethical stance, but pro-lifers who do not take this approach are perfectly consistent with their own premise.

Whether or not it is ever morally right to kill murderers, it should be noncontroversial that in biblical ethics it is always morally wrong to kill those who are doing no harm to others. The pro-life position follows directly from this premise. It asserts that it is always morally wrong to kill the unborn except where they pose a danger to the mother’s life.

A key pro-choice objection to applying the sixth commandment to abortion is that it assumes that the unborn are persons. We should therefore consider the question of the personhood of the unborn as it relates to the morality of abortion.

Human Beings, Persons, and the Unborn

It is common for the abortion debate to be framed in terms of the personhood of the unborn. Pro-lifers routinely defend the claim that the unborn are persons, and many pro-choicers argue that abortion is morally permissible because the unborn are not persons. Patrick Lee uses the term “person” as the key term in the two premises of his argument against abortion, quoted earlier.

The trouble with making personhood the decisive issue in the abortion debate is that our culture no longer has a consensus view of what personhood is. Some people define personhood in terms of the developed characteristics of self-awareness, individuality, rational thought, the capacity for moral choice, and so forth. Defining personhood in this way virtually guarantees that the unborn will not be considered persons, but arguably six-month-old infants will not qualify as persons either.

Others define personhood as the possession of an individual soul or spirit distinct from the body. The trouble with this way of defining personhood is that there is no unanimity in our society as to whether such things as souls exist, let alone when they become part of the human being. Jewish thought has always been uncertain as to whether the soul is united to the body at conception, at formation, or possibly even not until birth. Christian theology has historically carried on a debate as to whether the soul is procreated along with the body or is specially created at some unknown point in time by God. Eastern religions believe in something like a soul, but it passes from body to body in reincarnation and may or may not have a unique individual personal identity. Atheists and skeptics generally do not believe in a soul or spirit at all. If the pro-life position were to depend on one particular theological view of the soul, the pro-choice side would seem to have a point in arguing that such a specific theological doctrine should not be made the basis for the claim that abortion should be illegal for people of all religious beliefs.

Although we believe that it is proper to defend the claim that the unborn should be regarded as persons from the moment of conception, it might be prudent to avoid the term “person” and make the simpler and more direct argument that the unborn should not be killed because they are human beings. After all, the Bible does not use the word “person” in Genesis 1:26-27 or 9:6 but speaks instead of human beings, ’adam, as created in God’s image possessing life that is not be violated. Nowhere in the Bible or in the legal traditions of our civilization is there any suggestion that only some classes of human beings are deserving of life. It is therefore unnecessary to defend a particular view of personhood or to argue its applicability to the unborn at any or every stage of development in order to argue that the life of the unborn should be protected by law. Rather, all that is necessary is to defend the claim that the unborn are human beings.

That claim, it turns out, is exceedingly easy to defend — which is why many pro-choice advocates are happy to keep the discussion on the more debatable concept of personhood. The claim that the unborn are human beings from conception is based on the scientifically certain fact that the event of conception (or, perhaps more narrowly, fertilization) is the first event in the history of the human organism — indeed, the event which constitutes it as a distinct human being. Fertilization is the initial event which produces an organism that can develop into what we all recognize and admit are human persons. Prior to conception, what exists is an egg which is genetically and functionally part of the mother’s body, and a sperm which is organically, genetically, and functionally part of the father’s body. When fertilization is complete a new organism is conceived which is genetically distinct from the mother and father and is functionally developing as a distinct organism. Specifically, from the moment of conception what exists is a human organism, a human being, with potential for development, growth, and full realization.41

The point here is not merely that the unborn are human. As pro-choice advocates never tire of pointing out, our fingernails are human, but we think nothing of cutting them off and throwing them in the trash. The unborn entity from the moment of conception is not merely human, but a whole human being — an entity that is a biologically individual and whole being, an individual member of Homo sapiens, distinct from the being of the mother, needing only time and nourishment to develop into a fully functioning adult human person. Again, this is a well-known and noncontroversial fact of biology which no one seriously denies or questions and which even many people on the pro-choice side freely admit.

Given that the unborn are human beings from the moment of conception, it follows directly that killing them for any reason other than in an attempt to save someone else’s life (that is, the mother’s life) is forbidden by the sixth commandment. It is unnecessary to prove that the unborn are “persons” in order to claim that their lives ought to be protected by law. All that is needed is to point out that they are human beings. Let those who would defend abortion as a legal right say, if they can (and if they dare), that it is permissible to kill some human beings. In fact a minority of pro-choice advocates are willing to say this, but most simply cannot bring themselves to say so — at least not directly and openly. Most proponents of the pro-choice position cannot even bring themselves to use the word “kill,” though most surely know that is what is involved. They hide the truth from the public, and perhaps from themselves, by speaking vaguely of “a woman’s right to choose” — without specifying what she is choosing — or euphemistically of a woman’s “reproductive rights” — without acknowledging that once a woman has conceived reproduction has already taken place, and that fact is not changed whether her child is killed after three months in the womb or three months after birth.

Note also that it is unnecessary, and in some respects possibly misleading, to base the pro-life position on the facts concerning fetal development. Many pro-lifers take great care to explain at what stage the unborn can feel pain, or at what stage the unborn have a heartbeat, and the like. These facts can be helpful in showing that those who try to justify abortions beyond the first trimester cannot reasonably appeal to the developed fetus’s lack of human functions (at least, not without also justifying infanticide). Such arguments also make sense if what one is seeking is a compromise in which abortions after a certain stage of development will be forbidden except to save the mother’s life. But placing great emphasis on the development of various capacities at fourteen days, twenty days, six weeks, and the like invites the question of whether the unborn deserve legal protection before those benchmarks of human development. If the unborn are human beings — even “persons” — from the moment of conception, then logically what functions emerge at various stages of gestation after conception is irrelevant to the humanity or the personhood of the unborn.

Ultimately many defenders of the pro-choice position base it on a kind of agnosticism about the moral status of the unborn. They acknowledge that some people find the arguments for the full humanity or personhood of the unborn persuasive, but maintain that so long as there is diversity of opinion on this question the law cannot “impose” the pro-life view of the unborn on the rest of society. Again, this argument seems to carry more weight when the argument is framed in terms of personhood rather than whether the unborn are human beings. But the agnostic defense of the pro-choice position can be answered regardless of how the question is worded. The standard pro-life response is that if we are unsure whether the unborn are fully human beings or persons, then it is surely wrong to permit people to kill them. One of the ablest expositions of this point has been developed by Peter Kreeft, a Roman Catholic philosopher. Kreeft sets forth a “quadrilemma” on the question of whether the fetus is a person:

    1. It is not a person, and we know that.

    2. It is a person, and we know that.

    3. It is a person, and we do not know that.

    4. It is not a person, and we do not know that.42

In case (1), Kreeft argues, “abortion is perfectly permissible,” but there seems no way to know with certainty, or to prove, that the fetus is not a person. (Again, it is possible to find defenders of the pro-choice position who claim they do know with certainty that the unborn are not persons, but they are a very small minority.) In case (2), “abortion is murder,” because it is knowingly killing a person. In case (3), “abortion is manslaughter,” because it is an act of careless and irresponsible killing. In case (4), even though the fetus is not a person, abortion is “criminal negligence,” because one ought to ascertain whether the fetus is a person before killing it.43

Kreeft’s analysis is helpful, not only because it is an effective response to the agnostic pro-choice argument that no one knows whether the unborn are persons, but also because it introduces important distinctions regarding the seriousness of abortion in criminal law. The sixth commandment says “You shall not murder,” a general statement that does not distinguish between “first-degree” murder, manslaughter, and criminal negligence. These distinctions, however, are biblical, since the Law of Moses clearly distinguished between cases of killing that were punishable by death, exile, and restitution (e.g., Ex. 21:12-14, 20-21, 28-29). Thus, it is not necessary for women who procure abortions to be judged as committing murder in the first degree in order for the pro-life position to be reflected in law. Nineteenth-century state laws in America prohibiting abortion made various qualifications that took into account the often miserable situation in which women sought abortions and the difficulty in making a case for deliberate homicide in abortion cases (since physical evidence, for example, was often lacking). Pro-lifers are not asking for the death penalty for women who have abortions, or even for abortionists. They are asking for reasonable punishments that reflect an understanding of the legal and social difficulties of prosecuting abortion cases (e.g., suspension of physicians’ licenses or possibly prison time for repeated illegal abortions, community service or other penalties for women who obtain abortions).

The argument presented here for the pro-life position has made open use of Scripture to define what we mean by “murder” and on what basis we oppose the destruction of the life of the unborn at any stage of development. But the argument clearly is serviceable outside the community of people who believe in the Bible, since the major premise of the argument is simply that killing innocent human beings is wrong and should be prohibited by law. Though for us who believe in Christ and in his Word this premise will be understood in light of the biblical teaching that all human beings are created in God’s image, it is not necessary for people to accept that understanding for them to see the moral force of the pro-life argument. The abortion issue therefore well illustrates our contention that Christian values are based on the revelation of God’s will provided in Scripture, but that these values can to a great extent be defended in the public realm by appeal to facts and moral principles that people of most religions, or even of no religion, can usually understand and accept.

Abortion and God’s Grace

Before we conclude this chapter, we want to examine some typical objections to the pro-life position that have been raised from within the conservative Christian community of Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants. Our source for these objections is a recent book edited by Anne Eggebroten entitled Abortion — My Choice, God’s Grace.44 The bulk of the book is taken up with testimonies from women, most of whom obtained abortions, all of whom try to explain how their obtaining an abortion made sense to them in a Christian context of belief in a God of love and grace.

Bunnie Riedel, in her Foreword to the book, makes it clear that she regards the pro-life position as setting an unrealistic expectation on women:

Almost half of the women in the U.S. will have an abortion at some time in their lives. . . . After all, women are fertile for 30 to 40 years of their lives and the likelihood of their having an unacceptable pregnancy during that period is quite high. How many of us can manage anything perfectly for 30 years? Yet many expect every woman to get through all those years without an unplanned pregnancy.45

Of course, this is a caricature of the pro-life position. Everyone understands that many women through no fault of their own will find themselves pregnant in difficult or even wrenching situations. Women occasionally become pregnant as the result of rape or incest. Many women become pregnant by boyfriends or even husbands who then abandon them with no financial or familial support. Even happily married women often become pregnant “by accident,” perhaps before they felt ready to start a family, or perhaps after they had already had the number of children they had “planned” to raise. No doubt a large number of pregnancies are unplanned, but it is difficult to understand why this justifies abortion if the unborn are human beings. What pro-lifers expect is not that women will “manage anything perfectly for 30 years” but that they will not resort to killing their unborn children when things do not go exactly according to plan.

The testimonies from women who had abortions nicely illustrate that woman can often find a silver lining in their decision to have an abortion, but they hardly show that the pro-life position is wrong or that their abortions were morally justified. The first two stories are typical. The first testimony is from a woman who had sex with her Christian boyfriend in college and decided to have the baby and give it up for adoption (the boyfriend had urged her to have an abortion). She went through with this plan, although having to give up the baby was extremely painful.46 Three months later, she became pregnant again (by another man), and this time decided to have an abortion. Her rationale: she had been trying to do what was “right” out of fear, and “trying to be right is a trap that springs from our pride.”47 “For me, carrying a baby nine months and then giving it up is too horrible to recommend to another person. I might as well suggest that she burn her eyes out with branding irons, drink ammonia and sleep on razor blades — because that pain could not hurt as much.”48 Ironically, such gruesome violence is just what abortion does to the unborn child, but this woman does not comment on that fact. She traded her supposed self-righteous concern to do right for a self-centered concern to feel good. Calling the latter “God’s grace” does not make it so.

The second story comes from a woman who was raped by her sister’s husband. The woman, a Catholic, believed that abortion was murder, but her doctor, she says, “was totally against my continuing the pregnancy. . . . She was very clear that by no means should I go through with the pregnancy. She said that if I did, there would be chances of my not living a normal life because the flashbacks from my terrible experience would continue.”49 One wonders how many confused and emotionally vulnerable women are talked into abortions by such persons. Was there not also a chance of “flashbacks” not only to the rape but also to the abortion? Is killing an innocent child justifiable because of a “chance” that doing so might make it easier to forget the evil that someone else did? The woman eventually decided that in her situation abortion “was better for both the embryo and me.” No reason is ever given why abortion was a better choice for the embryo. The woman simply concludes that abortion “is certainly the best solution in a case of rape or serious deformity.”50 So much for Eggebroten’s claim in her Introduction that “no one is pro-abortion.”51 This popular claim is empty rhetoric when so many people go right on to claim that abortion is the best choice.

In a concluding chapter, Eggebroten discusses “The Bible and Choice.” All of her arguments in favor of the pro-choice position would also support a “pro-choice” position on infanticide as well as abortion. Ten such arguments can be discerned in the chapter; we will consider each of them in turn.

1. Eggebroten argues that even if we view abortion as immoral, we should respect the rights of others to hold their divergent views and seek to persuade them of our view rather than forcing them through legislation. “Only those who do not respect the views of others try to implement laws forcing everyone to abide by their views.”52 By this reasoning, how would we object to those who argue that we should respect the views of those parents who opt to kill or abandon their newborn children? If we are convinced that the unborn are human beings, shouldn’t we do all we can to convince the government to extend legal protection to them? We may “respect” the rights of those who disagree with us to voice their views, but if we value human life we will act to protect it lawfully whether the human beings whose value is questioned by others happen to be newborn children, the very old, people of dark skin, or the unborn.

2. Eggebroten argues, as do all pro-choice Christians, that abortion is permissible because the Bible never mentions abortion and gives no clear statement on whether abortion is murder.53 As explained earlier, the Bible rarely mentions infanticide, never discusses the question of whether parents should be allowed to make “hard choices” about the life of their infants, and certainly does not clearly condemn all infanticide as murder. Yet nearly all pro-choice advocates, Christians or not, agree that infanticide is contrary to the Bible and is covered by the sixth commandment. The point is that if the unborn are human beings, the Bible just as clearly condemns killing them as it does killing infants, senior citizens, blacks, Jews, or women.

3. Biblical texts that speak of God’s knowledge of the unborn (e.g., Ps. 139) are read by some Christians as ascribing value to unborn human beings “without ascribing full personhood to them. . . . The difference of opinion arises because the Bible is not explicit about the line between a person and a potential person.”54 By this reasoning, there would be no way to show from the Bible that infants have “full personhood,” since the Bible never actually says that infants are persons. For that matter, the Bible never hints at a distinction between persons and potential persons. Even if we accepted such a distinction (which we do not), there is no basis in the Bible for denying life to a whole class of human beings on the grounds that they are merely “potential persons.”

4. Eggebroten argues that since people have different opinions about the status of the unborn, it does not make any sense to have laws establishing the unborn as persons from conception.55 We discussed this objection earlier as the argument from agnosticism. If people disagree about the status of the unborn, then we ought to err on the side of caution and not allow people to kill the unborn. Regrettably, there are also people in our society who believe that newborn children and infants are not quite persons in the full sense either (since they cannot reason and do not appear to have any sense of personal identity). But from the fact that people have “different opinions” about the status of infants, it does not follow that we are wrong to have laws establishing infants as persons accorded equal protection under the law.

5. According to Eggebroten, if neither the father nor the mother is willing to commit themselves to love and provide for the child, and if they are not willing to trust others to make that commitment, then “no one should force the woman to continue the creative process.”56 This doctrine that only love children should be allowed to live goes back to spiritist, free-love cultural notions, but Eggebroten attempts to give it a Christian theological basis: “The covenant basis of Judeo-Christian theology directs us toward bearing children only as part of a covenant, and that promise of commitment can be freely made only in the context of full procreative choice.”57 As noble and biblical as the language sounds here, the idea has no substantial basis in the covenantal teaching of the Bible. Children of Israelites who found themselves born and raised under the Mosaic covenant, for example, could not “choose” to ignore the Mosaic law simply because they were unwilling to make a voluntary commitment to it. A choice is indeed required in biblical covenants, but God dictates the choice because he is the sovereign God who owns each and every one of us. Again, Eggebroten’s reasoning here leads to the justification of abandonment or even killing of one’s born children. If neither parent is willing to continue loving their newborn children, should they be “forced to continue the creative process” and continue raising their children? After all, the creative process that continues after conception is the process of bringing the unborn to full adulthood and independence from their parents — and this process is continuous from conception to adulthood.

6. Eggebroten’s next argument is similar. Giving birth should be something a woman does freely, not out of compulsion; the pro-life position would compel women who become pregnant to give birth. “To require a woman to complete a pregnancy against her will, dishonors her sacrifice. . . . Only when motherhood is freely chosen can its difficult work be valued — by the individual and society.”58 To this line of reasoning it must be asked if it is wrong to require a woman to complete the “sacrificial task” of raising her child if at some point after the baby is born she decides she no longer wants to be responsible for the child. Does requiring her to continue caring for the child “against her will” dishonor motherhood? Shall we say that only when motherhood is freely chosen can its difficult work be valued?

7. Eggebroten’s next argument begins with the reasonable and biblically based assumption that God has given us free will59 and allows us to make our own decisions and to bear responsibility for those choices, even though we make mistakes. But from this premise she jumps to the unwarranted conclusion that laws prohibiting abortion “would deny women whose birth control has failed the opportunity to weigh good and evil and to make a responsible moral decision.”60 “If we respected women as a group. . . . We would understand how a woman, faced with a difficult situation, must decide how to handle it to the best of her ability — even if that decision means ending a human life in its beginning stages within her.”61 Actually, no laws prevent women, or men, from weighing the morality of their actions and making whatever decisions they choose. What laws do is threaten legal, state-imposed consequences if men or women make wrong choices. In this sense the state’s laws do discourage women and men from making a variety of choices, but the alternative is anarchy. In this context, laws prohibiting infanticide also deny women who find themselves in poverty or difficult social situations the “opportunity” to weigh good and evil and to make a “moral decision” to kill their infants with impunity. But would we have it any other way? It simply does not follow that if we respected women, we would grant them the freedom to make their own decision to kill their infant children. Nor does it follow that if we respected women we would allow them to kill their unborn children.

8. As the title of her book indicates, Eggebroten emphasizes the idea of God’s “grace” as somehow inconsistent with the pro-life condemnation of abortion. She argues that because we are saved by grace, not by works, our response to women who become pregnant out of wedlock should not be harsh condemnation and rejection but merciful love and support, whether they “keep their babies or choose abortion.”62 It is true, of course, that we are saved by grace, not by works. But while this means that those who have committed sin, whether it be having an abortion or cheating on income taxes, should be encouraged to seek God’s forgiveness and grace, it does not follow that abortion is morally permissible! Shall we say that our response to women who are abandoned by their partners after they have borne children should be to love and support them whether they keep their babies or choose infanticide? Such a position would make a mockery of grace. God’s grace extends mercy and peace to those who confess their sins, not to those who seek to justify and rationalize their actions and deny that they are sins. God’s grace certainly does not provide forgiveness to those who abuse the very concept of grace to justify killing the innocent.

9. Eggebroten also argues that anti-abortion laws are inconsistent with Jesus’ special concern for the poor and oppressed. This is because laws prohibiting abortions would oppress women by telling them they cannot end their pregnancies. “If abortion is made illegal in this country again, the weight of the law will fall only on poor women.”63 Until we live in “an ideal world” in which all women have the economic resources to provide for all their children, abortion must remain legal.64 One wonders if Eggebroten and other pro-choice advocates would allow laws prohibiting rich women to have abortions. The fact is that while many poor women do have abortions, overall the poor tend to be more pro-life than the middle class, and the rich tend to be more pro-choice than either the middle class or the poor. In any case, Eggebroten’s argument assumes that denying abortions to women is depriving them of some good — and that in turn presupposes that abortion does not involve killing innocent beings. One could just as easily (and erroneously) argue that laws prohibiting infanticide oppress poor women by forcing them to continue raising children for whom they cannot adequately provide. Since we do not live in an “an ideal world” in which all women have the economic resources to provide for all their children, should infanticide be made legal?

10. Finally, Eggebroten expresses the worry that laws that prohibit non-Christians from having abortions based on our Christian beliefs might make non-Christians bitter and impede our efforts to preach the gospel to them.65 But if the unborn are human beings and deserving of life, this argument diverts attention from the real issue. Should we worry that laws that prohibit non-Christians from committing infanticide based on our Christian beliefs might make non-Christians bitter and impede our efforts to preach the gospel to them? So far the number of people in our society who openly favor legalization of infanticide is extremely small (but note that there are some).66 If infanticide becomes a hotly debated subject in our society, shall we who oppose it as Christians timidly back away from the debate and allow infanticide to be legal because we don’t want pro-infanticide non-Christians to be bitter toward us? Nor do we need to pose the question in such a purely hypothetical fashion. There are thousands of pedophiles in America; shall we legalize pedophilia because we want pedophiles to be more receptive to the gospel?

There is one more objection to the pro-life position which we hesitate to mention, and which lies mostly under the surface of Eggebroten’s book (though it is made explicit by many others). That is the objection that we have no right to oppose abortion because we are men. Somehow many people have convinced themselves that the argument against abortion is a “male” argument and can therefore be dismissed. While such an objection is completely fallacious, on an emotional level we understand that those who favor abortion rights need to hear the pro-life case from women.

We would therefore like to recommend, as a counterpoint to Anne Eggebroten’s book, an excellent defense of the pro-life position by Terry Schlossberg and Elizabeth Achtemeier. The title itself is instructive — Not My Own.67 Schlossberg and Achtemeier emphasize that the basic premise of the pro-choice position is that women have an absolute right to do what they choose with their own bodies. This premise is wrong, they argue, not only because the unborn child has its own body and is not part of the woman’s body, but also because our own bodies, both men and women, are not ours to do with as we please but belong to God who created us. Both our own lives and the lives of our children belong not to us but to the Creator:

In the Bible’s world-view, our children do not belong to us. . . . It follows, therefore, that to abort any child in the womb is to destroy a child who belongs finally to God.68

Ultimately, the meaning of the abortion debate is that human beings are not autonomous beings free to do whatever they choose, but creatures created in God’s image and responsible to God and to each other in community. By offering legal sanction to the killing of millions of innocent human beings in the interests of women’s autonomy, we sacrifice the innocent for the sake of a principle that degrades women and men alike. Abortion is a grave problem in its own right, but it is also a symptom of an even greater problem. That is the problem of a society that values individual freedom over individual responsibility to the lives of others. It is the problem of a society that has deified choice and demonized restraint. What is all the more remarkable is that such attitudes have surfaced in the church. In opposing abortion, we must be honest that we are opposing not only abortion itself but also the self-centered, hedonistic, and autonomous spirit of the culture that not only tolerates abortion but enshrines it as an integral part of its revolutionary ethic.


1 E.g., Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 246-49; Meredith G. Kline, “Lex Talionis and the Human Fetus,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (1977); Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 142-44.

2 Michael J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982), 40-41.

3 Ibid., 42-43.

4 E.g., John M. Swomley, “The Bible Does Not Prohibit Abortion,” in Abortion: Opposing Viewpoints, ed. Charles P. Cozic and Stacey L. Tipp (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1991), 113.

5 Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, 35.

6 J. Gordon Melton, The Churches Speak On: Abortion: Official Statements from Religious Bodies and Ecumenical Organizations (Detroit: Gale Research, 1989), xix.

7 Some translations render the Greek words used here as “sorcery” and “sorcerers,” but the word pharmakeia can refer to the use of drugs in any negative sense, including sorcery and abortion; cf. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, 48.

8 Pharaoh’s ordering infanticide on Hebrew male infants (Ex. 1:15-16) and Herod’s ordering the slaughter of male children two and younger in the Bethlehem area (Matt. 2:16-18) are two notorious examples of infanticide in the Bible. One might also refer to the sacrificing of children to Molech, which was forbidden in the Law (Lev. 18:21; 20:1-5; Deut. 12:31). But nowhere in the Bible do we find a discussion of the morality of infanticide as a “choice” by parents.

9 Melton, The Churches Speak On: Abortion, xvii.

10 Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, 49-50.

11 Ibid., 50-58.

12 Ibid., 59-60.

13 Ibid., 59.

14 Ibid., 66-73.

15 Notably Stephen T. Asma, “The Roman Catholic Church Historically Condoned Early Abortions,” in The Abortion Controversy, ed. Charles P. Cozic and Jonathan Petrikin; Current Controversies series (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995), 59-65.

16 Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church, 68-73.

17 Asma, “The Roman Catholic Church Historically Condoned Early Abortions,” in his zeal to make the Aristotelian-Thomistic view seem more scientific than the modern pro-life view, completely ignores the Aristotelian view that males and females achieve form at widely different stages of gestation.

18 Melton, The Churches Speak On: Abortion, xviii.

19 Terry Schlossberg and Elizabeth Achtemeier, Not My Own: Abortion and the Marks of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 4-6.

20 Marvin Olasky, Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1992).

21 Ibid., 47, 57. By 1893 the number of prostitutes in New York City was estimated at 40,000; ibid., 189.

22 Ibid., 57.

23 Henry C. Wright, The Unwelcome Child or The Crime of an Undesigned and Undesired Maternity (Boston: Bela Marsh, 1858), 117, quoted in Olasky, Abortion Rites, 70.

24 Ibid., 77.

25 Ibid., 291-92.

26 Ibid., 93.

27 Ibid., 102.

28 Ibid., 109-30.

29 Melton, The Churches Speak On: Abortion, xxii; the Margaret Sanger quote comes from Rosalind P. Petchesky, Abortion and Woman’s Choice: The State, Sexuality, and the Conditions of Reproductive Freedom (New York: Longman, 1983), 93.

30 Melton, The Churches Speak On: Abortion, xxiv.

31 James Mohr, Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900 (New York: Oxford, 1978), 254, cited in Beckwith, Politically Correct Death, 58.

32 Barbara J. Syska, Thomas W. Hilgers, M.D., and Dennis O’Hare, “An Objective Model for Estimating Criminal Abortions and Its Implications for Public Policy,” in New Perspectives on Human Abortion, ed. Thomas Hilgers, M.D., Dennis J. Horan, and David Mall (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1981).

33 Olasky, Abortion Rites, 278.

34 Ibid., 280-81.

35 Cf. Francis J. Beckwith and Norman L. Geisler, Matters of Life and Death: Calm Answers to Tough Questions about Abortion and Euthanasia (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 53-55.

36 Paul Savoy, “Abortion Is a Moral Choice,” in The Abortion Controversy, ed. Cozic and Petrikin, 47.

37 Patrick Lee, Abortion and Unborn Human Life (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 1.

38 Ibid., 2.

39 Randy Alcorn, Pro Life Answers to Pro Choice Arguments (N.p.: Multnomah, 1992), 239.

40 Asma, “The Roman Catholic Church Historically Condoned Early Abortions,” 61.

41 Virtually any scientific textbook on human biology will corroborate these facts; an excellent resource is Landrum B. Shettles, M.D., and David Rorvik, Rites of Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983); see also the excerpt from this book in “Human Life Begins at Conception,” in Abortion: Opposing Viewpoints, ed. Charles P. Cozic and Stacey L. Tipp (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1991), 17-22.

42 Peter Kreeft, Making Choices: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Moral Decisions (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1990), 119.

43 Ibid., 120.

44 Anne Eggebroten, ed., Abortion — My Choice, God’s Grace: Christian Women Tell Their Stories (Pasadena, CA: New Paradigm Books, 1994).

45 Bunnie Riedel, “Foreword,” in ibid., xiii-xiv.

46 Eggebroten, Abortion, 30-31.

47 Ibid., 32, 33.

48 Ibid., 33.

49 Ibid., 38.

50 Ibid.

51 Ibid., 10.

52 Ibid., 210.

53 Ibid.

54 Ibid., 216.

55 Ibid.

56 Ibid., 217.

57 Ibid., 218.

58 Ibid., 219.

59 The issue here is the faculty of volition or responsible choice, not whether human beings have “free will” in the anti-predestinarian sense. Thus, the premise is biblical regardless of what position one takes on the question of human freedom in relation to divine sovereignty.

60 Ibid., 221.

61 Ibid., 222.

62 Ibid., 224.

63 Ibid., 226.

64 Ibid., 228.

65 Ibid., 229-30.

66 See Beckwith, Politically Correct Death, 174, for some representative quotations.

67 Terry Schlossberg and Elizabeth Achtemeier, Not My Own: Abortion and the Marks of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).

68 Ibid., 27.

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15. All About Eve: Feminism and the Meaning of Equality

“Though we adore men individually,
We agree that as a group they’re rather stupid.
So cast off the shackles of yesterday;
Shoulder to shoulder into the fray. . . .
From Kensington to Billingsgate one hears the restless cry
From every corner of the land: ‘Womankind, arise!’
Political equality and equal rights with men. . . .
No more the meek and mild subservients, we;
We’re fighting for our rights, militantly. . . .”

— Winifred Banks (Glynis Johns), “Sister Suffragettes,” in Mary Poppins (1964)

If pressed to identify the most influential cultural development in Western civilization of the twentieth century, we believe a good case could be made for choosing feminism. The woman’s suffrage movement of the early part of the century changed the political system by giving women, both married and unmarried, the vote. The suffragettes and feminists of the early twentieth century were culturally conservative by today’s standards. They were at the forefront of the temperance movement that outlawed the sale of alcoholic beverages for a time. Prohibition and its repeal contributed to major changes in the structure of crime in America and led to widespread skepticism about the possibility of “legislating morality.” The early feminists were generally opposed to abortion, though they led the effort to develop and legitimize contraception.

Forced into the workforce in record numbers during World War II, the rise of women in the workplace has continued to alter the economy of the Western world. Associated issues and controversies have included such difficult matters as sexual harassment, the rise of the day care and “latch-key kids,” welfare for single mothers, and gender-based affirmative action.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was in part inspired by the suffrage and early feminist movements. In turn the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s pushed for political representation of women in government, fueled the sexual revolution, brought about the legalization of abortion, and sparked debates in every denomination about women’s ordination and the relationship of husband and wife in the home. Inspired by both the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, the homosexual rights movement began building momentum in the 1970s and by the 1990s was dramatically altering the cultural landscape.

In the 1980s and 1990s women have turned in increasing numbers to goddess worship, Wicca, and other “New Age” types of religious and spiritual expression. Meanwhile, in mainline Protestant churches feminism has successfully pushed for the publication of new Bible translations and liturgies that remove references to God as “Father” or Jesus as “Son.”

Regardless of what one thinks of these developments, there can be little doubt that feminism has dramatically changed the way we all think about men and women. Nor is it only men who have had to change how they think about women. Over the decades, women have learned to think of themselves in new ways. Some of this changed thinking is surely for the better. For example, Prestonia Mann Martin, a leading opponent of the woman’s suffrage movement, in a book co-authored with her husband in 1916 expressed her belief that women were not merely the weaker sex, but that they were relatively “disabled” as a sex in comparison with men. Even disabled men, she argued, have a chance to recover, “but womanhood is an infirmity from which women rarely, if ever, recover.” Martin went on to warn women against getting involved in the legislative process, on the grounds that women “lack the aptitude either to make laws or to obey them.” Women should give up the attempt to change man’s world “because it is his world.”1

Prestonia Mann Martin’s viewpoint was neither coerced nor mindless. Ironically, she was a thoughtful, informed, outspoken person who was concerned about the world at large. Her point of view had tradition and the political status quo on its side. Yet a mere eighty years later her perspective has all but disappeared, and most of us, both men and women, can hardly believe that any woman would so belittle her own half of the human race. Almost all of us now realize that it was wrong to deny women the right to participate directly in the democratic process by voting.2

Even those who would be critical of feminism, then, must take into account the fact that all of us should agree that feminism has made legitimate and valuable contributions to our society’s view of women. It is also important to keep in mind that feminism is not monolithic. There are evangelical feminists, Catholic feminists, liberal feminists, ecofeminists (a New Age type), atheistic feminists, and lesbian feminists, just to name a few of the varieties. While women are far more likely than men to call themselves feminists, a growing number of men affirm the validity of feminism, and both male and female scholars, philosophers, and even theologians can be found in growing abundance who work from a feminist perspective.

Defining feminism, then, is a somewhat perilous venture. A useful definition offered by feminist theologians Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardesty is that feminism is “a belief in and commitment to the full equality of men and women in home, church, and society.”3 Basic to feminism is the claim that women must not only be regarded as “equal” in dignity and worth, but also must be “equal” in opportunity to participate in every institution of human society at every level.

While it is arguably not the most important issue in feminism, probably the simplest indicator of a feminist position in relation to Christianity is the question of women’s ordination. Those who favor ordaining women as priests or pastors nearly always endorse a full-orbed feminist position, while those who do not support women’s ordination dissent from feminist thinking at least in part.

The Feminist Challenge to Biblical Values

While feminism is well represented within Christianity, historically feminists have raised troubling questions not only about the view of women promoted by Christian men throughout the centuries, but also about the teaching of the Bible about women. It would not be overstating the matter to assert that one of the most common objections to an evangelical view of the Bible as God’s unerring word, both from outside the church and from many inside the church, is that it relegates women to second-class status. This should not be surprising, since the issue affects slightly more than half of all people! A representative expression of this objection comes from Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong:

There is no doubt about the fact that the Bible is biased against women. . . . Both the religious and ethical directives of the Bible were formulated out of a patriarchal understanding of life, with the interests of men being primary. Are we willing to return to these destructive definitions of both men and women?4

So, if we are to commend the biblical Christian faith to the world as we enter the third millennium of the church’s history, we must be prepared to answer the feminists’ questions about the Bible’s view of women. Here we must work hard to face honestly what the Bible says, whether our own perspective tends toward feminism or a more traditionalist view. Critics of the biblical teaching will see through any attempt to paper over what the Bible says about women and rightly conclude that we are actually embarrassed by those aspects of the biblical view that don’t fit our modern “enlightened” perspective. Nor, on the other hand, is it honest to refuse to rethink some of our traditional understandings of the Bible’s teaching on women.

While we do not claim that our own assessment of the question is the last word, we do believe that there are some things about which we can be certain. We hope to show that the biblical teaching on women is not only defensible, but that it is based on absolute truth. Far from viewing it as a stumbling block or an embarrassment to the Christian faith, we believe that, properly understood, the biblical view of women is one of Christianity’s greatest assets.

Before turning to the Bible to see just what it does teach about women, we should point out that there are several views on the matter. For our purposes the most important of these views are the following.

1. Inferiority. On this view the Bible teaches that women are inferior to men and assigned a subservient role in life. While there may be some encouragement here and there in the Bible to take a nobler view of women, overall the Bible’s view of women is demeaning and cannot be accepted. This is the view espoused by such liberals as Bishop Spong, for whom the Bible is not divinely inspired or authoritative and who are therefore prepared to jettison the Bible’s teaching on women.

2. Developing egalitarianism. The word “egalitarian” refers to views that emphasize full equality between people (here, men and women). We are using the term “developing egalitarianism” to refer to what Scanzoni and Hardesty, among others, call biblical feminism. On this view the Bible is the product of a patriarchal world and to some extent incorporates that world’s view of women as inferior, yet the Bible also points toward a higher view of women as equal to men which is developed more fully in the New Testament. The conclusion is that Christians today should adopt an egalitarian view that eliminates all vocational and authoritarian distinctions between men and women.

3. Consistent egalitarianism. Some believe that the Bible consistently teaches an egalitarian view of women. Specific passages thought to be inconsistent with that view are said to have been misinterpreted. This position is gaining ground in evangelical circles, and has been defended in respectable fashion by some evangelical biblical scholars. While we disagree with some of the claims made by egalitarians, their approach to Scripture is honorable, and they make some valuable correctives to traditional stereotypes of the biblical view of women.

4. Complementarianism. This view understands the Bible to teach that women are equal to men in human dignity and worth, though intended by God to submit to male authority in the home and in the church. On this view the roles of women are complementary and different, not inferior. We are in basic agreement with this view, though we do not always agree with some of the leading complementarians in the way they articulate and defend this position.

Some comparisons are in order here. The first three views all hold to an egalitarian view of women, although the first says such a view is not really taught in the Bible. All three of these views regard any subordination of women to men as inconsistent with the essential equality of women and men, and for this reason reject complementarianism as a contradictory and incoherent position. The consistent egalitarian and the complementarian views both accept the Bible as the unerring word of God, although they differ in their interpretations of the Bible’s teaching on this subject. The developing egalitarian view typically holds what is called the neo-evangelical view of Scripture, according to which the teaching of the Bible taken as a whole is true, but individual statements may not be completely right. As others have pointed out, one of the reasons for concern about the neo-evangelical egalitarian position is that it undermines the authority of Scripture.5

Is God Male?

Perhaps the most basic question that can be asked about any religion is what it thinks about God. How one views God has the most profound ramifications for the whole of one’s outlook on life. For example, those who view God as a harsh, arbitrary deity looking for opportunities to spoil their day will obviously live differently from those who view God as a spiritual power from which they can draw strength for whatever purpose suits them. These examples are extreme, but they illustrate the point. Likewise, many people think that the Bible presents God as a male deity, an idea that implies that women are inherently inferior to men. According to Spong, for example, the Bible insists “on the totally masculine nature of God and the corresponding assignment of divine (i.e., male) prerogatives to men, who alone, the myth argues, are created in the image of this God.”6 While Spong is criticizing this view of God as a myth, there are those who actually affirm the essential masculinity of God. The easiest example is Mormonism, according to which God is a literal, though immortal and exalted, man. The traditional Mormon view understands God to be living somewhere in the heavens with a celestial wife, a kind of heavenly Mother. But the belief that God is “masculine” can also be found a little closer to home. John R. Rice, a fundamentalist writer popular in some independent Baptist circles, wrote in 1941 that “God is a masculine God. . . . God is not effeminate. God is not feminine, but masculine.”7 Even though Rice did not mean that God is a literal man with male anatomy, his affirmation that God is masculine implies a kinship between God and men that women cannot share.

In actual fact the Bible does not teach that God is male, but rather views God as an incorporeal spirit who transcends all created distinctions and who is neither male nor female. As if to underscore this point, the Old Testament explicitly denies that God is either male or human: “God is not a man [Hebrew ish, a male adult], that He should lie, nor a son of man [ish], that He should repent” (Num. 23:19). Nor is God human at all: “For He is not a man [Hebrew ’adam, human being], that he should relent” (1 Sam. 15:29). The Bible clearly reveals God to be an infinite Spirit whom the universe itself cannot contain (1 Kings 8:27; John 4:24; Acts 7:49; 17:24).

It is true, of course, that God is given masculine titles in the Bible such as King and Father, and is referred to using masculine pronouns (he, him, his). But some choice of language had to be made. Four possibilities were open to the biblical writers.

(1) Refer to God using feminine titles and pronouns. In ancient religious contexts, this choice would have unavoidably evoked strong sexual associations. Goddesses were not merely gods with feminine names, but were portrayed and thought of in a sexual and even erotic way. Worse still, portraying the one God as female would have suggested that the relationship between God and creation was like that between a mother and her child — and this in turn would have encouraged the deification of nature. The Bible views God as the creator, maker, and designer of creation, and this relationship was better safeguarded by avoiding referring to God using feminine names.

(2) Refer to God using neuter, impersonal language (“Source” instead of “Father,” “it” instead of “he”). The problem with this solution is more obvious: It would tend to encourage the view that God is impersonal, a force or power latent in the world, rather than the personal, loving Being he is.

(3) Refer to God using both masculine and feminine language. In a limited respect this is actually what we find in the Bible, but we must be careful not to overstate the case (as is often done by egalitarians). For example, while the Bible avoids picturing God as the mother of nature, Isaiah in particular pictures God as the Mother of the people of Israel, carrying them in the womb, nursing and comforting Israel as a child (e.g., Is. 46:3; 49:15; 66:13). That the analogy is not to be pressed is made clear by the fact that Isaiah can also liken God to a husband and Israel to a wife (e.g., Is. 54:5; 62:4-5). Jesus compared God’s delight in saving sinners to a woman’s delight in finding a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10). Such imagery can be found scattered throughout the Bible, and it shows that the Bible does not regard God as male.8 Still, the Bible never uses feminine titles for God (such as Mother or Queen) and never uses feminine pronouns for God. Nor is the Holy Spirit the “feminine member” of the Trinity; at least, no biblical language supports such an idea.

(4) Refer to God using primarily masculine language. This is what the Bible actually does. Again, the main reason for this choice seems to have been to avoid the serious theological errors of viewing God as a sexual being or as an impersonal force. Beyond this point it should also be realized that the biblical language is more overtly masculine in English translation than in the original Hebrew and Greek. Masculine pronouns in Hebrew and Greek were used not because the objects to which they referred were necessarily male or female, but because grammar required that the pronoun agree in gender with the antecedent noun. For example, in Matthew 2:13 the angel tells Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt because “Herod will seek the young child [paidion, neuter] to destroy it [auto, neuter]” (literal translation). Here a neuter pronoun is used to agree grammatically with the neuter noun for “child.” In languages that assign a gender to all nouns, the masculine gender of a pronoun referring to God does not strike readers as connoting the idea that God is male.

The question of what sort of language the Bible uses for God and why leads, of course, to the question of what language we should use. One might imagine that we no longer need to worry about pagan Goddess concepts, but in fact such notions are widespread now in our culture. Referring to God as “Mother,” and especially referring to God as she, is without precedent in Scripture and intentionally evokes feminine associations. The same is not true when referring to God as he, since most Christians are accustomed to using such language and understanding it generically. For these reasons we would generally discourage using feminine titles or pronouns to refer to God, although what is most important is that we understand and communicate clearly what God is really like.

Women and Creation

We quoted Spong earlier as asserting that the Bible affirms men only, to the exclusion of women, as made in God’s image. This assertion is based on a misreading of Genesis, where God announces, “Let Us make man in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). Taken out of context, this statement in English might seem to exclude women from God’s image. However, in the very next verse we are told, “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them” (v. 27). In both of these verses the word translated “man” is ’adam, a Hebrew word which can mean “Adam” (the first man), “human being,” or “humanity.” In verse 26 ’adam is clearly used to mean “humanity,” not Adam alone, since after announcing his intention to create God says, “let them have dominion.” Verse 27 then makes it explicit that the ’adam who was created in God’s image includes both male and female (see also Gen. 5:1).

If both men and women are created in God’s image, that leads to two important truths. First, it confirms what we have already seen, that God is not male. Nor is God both male and female: he is transcendent Spirit, neither masculine nor feminine. To suggest that God is both male and female would lead to the conclusion that the image of God is incomplete in a single human being, whether a man or a woman. That is, it would imply that an individual man, or an individual woman, is not in the image of God. Such an idea has in fact been suggested by some feminists, but it misunderstands Genesis.9 Surely the example of Jesus, a single man, is enough to show that the image of God can be fully realized in a single human being — whether male or female.

Second, men and women are essentially equal. Both were created in God’s image, both were authorized to have dominion over the creatures of the earth, and both were spoken to by God and given his blessing (Gen. 1:26-28). Even if their roles are differentiated, their roles must be seen as of equal worth, dignity, and honor. Both men and women are created primarily and ultimately for relationship with God, and both are entrusted by God with awesome responsibility as stewards of the creation.

The Creation of the Woman

Chapter 2 of Genesis elaborates on the creation of the man and the woman, revealing that the man was created first, followed by the woman, who was created from his rib. The account of the creation of woman is prefaced by God’s statement, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him” (Gen. 2:18). There is considerable debate over the significance of the word “helper” (’ezer). The traditional view is that woman was created to help man procreate children, since man could not do that alone. Augustine, for example, said that he could see no way that “it could be said that woman was made a help for man if the work of childbearing is excluded.”10 Thomas Aquinas argued that the woman was created “not indeed to help him in any other work, as some have maintained, because where most work is concerned man can get help more conveniently from another man than from a woman; but to help him in the work of procreation.”11 Such explanations, as Susan Foh (a critic of the egalitarian position) put it, “brings out the feminist in all of us women,”12 and not a few of us men as well.

The egalitarian interpretation is based on the observation that the word ’ezer is almost always used in the Old Testament with reference to God (Ex. 18:4; Deut. 33:7, 26, 29; Ps. 20:2; 33:20; 70:5; 89:19; 115:9-11; 121:1-2; 124:8; 146:5; Hos. 13:9). In a couple of other texts the word refers to other human beings as “helpers” who really cannot help (Is. 30:5; Ezek. 12:4).13 Egalitarians conclude that the word “helper” cannot mean an inferior or even a subordinate helper; admitting (usually) that woman is not being described as a superior helper, they conclude that Genesis 2:18 means that women are equal partners with men.14

This argument, while helpful, is typically overstated. It is going too far to say that the word “helper” could not be used to refer to a subordinate or supporting role. The related verb ’azar (“to help”) is used several times of a supplementary or subordinate help (2 Sam. 21:17; 1 Kings 1:7; 1 Chron. 12:1, 17, 18, 22; 12:21; 22:17; 2 Chron. 26:13; 32:3).15 It is context, not the word itself, which must determine whether the helper takes an equal, subordinate, or superior role.

Now, in the context there are three clues that may help (!) us understand what is meant by the term “helper.” The first is that immediately preceding this statement we are told that the man was placed by God “in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it” (v. 15). The implication is that the woman was created at least in part to help the man fulfill the charge to serve as stewards or custodians of the earth and its creatures. While it is true that one vital way in which she would help with that task was to bear children who would populate the earth (1:28), there is nothing in the passage to suggest that her role was limited to bearing and raising children. The egalitarians are therefore surely right to reject the claim that Genesis 2:18 is speaking only of the woman’s reproductive function. On the other hand, the bearing and raising of children is an essential and most honorable part of what women do in fulfilling their “creation mandate.”

The second clue comes from Genesis 2:18 itself, specifically from God’s statement that “it is not good that man should be alone.” Does this mean simply that the man needed help with the work given to him, or that there were certain personal needs that could only be met by the woman? The rest of the passage gives some encouragement to the latter reading. After the woman was created, the man’s response was to rejoice over the woman because she was “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (v. 23), and the passage concludes by noting that the two became “one flesh” and “were both naked . . . and were not ashamed” (vv. 24, 25). The implication is that what was wrong with the man’s being “alone” was not merely that he needed help with the work, but that he also needed a companion who complemented him.

The third clue to the meaning of woman’s role as “helper” is the fact that the same word is used in verse 20, which says that out of all of the animals brought to the man “there was not found a helper comparable to him.” This statement corroborates the view that what the man lacked was a companion, since it is doubtful that the animals were brought to him as candidates for helpers in tending to the Garden! The emphasis here again is on the woman’s essential equality and compatibility with the man — her being “fit” for him (vv. 18, 20).

So far the account in Genesis 2 seems to view woman as equal to the man without any subordination or differentiation of roles. There are aspects of the passage, though, that do suggest that woman’s relationship to the man is in some respect a subordinate or supportive one. Some of these were pointed out by the apostle Paul in his epistles: the woman was created from and for the man, not vice versa. “For man is not from woman, but woman from man. Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man” (1 Cor. 11:8-9). Elsewhere Paul gives as a reason why a woman should not exercise authority over a man that “Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Tim. 2:13).

Paul’s reasoning in these verses has come under fire as invalid and demeaning to women. For example, Paul is understood in 1 Timothy 2:13 to be arguing that Adam had authority over Eve merely because he happened to have been created earlier than Eve. Such an argument, as egalitarians rush to point out, would backfire in light of the fact that the animals were created before Adam or Eve (Gen. 1:20-25).16 Rather, Paul is appealing to the order in which these two creatures of the same essential nature were created as evidence of the first creature’s priority in rank. Such an argument is not invalidated by the fact that creatures of a lower order were created before Adam.

Similarly, Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 11:8-9 has been construed to be basing Adam’s authority over Eve merely on the fact that Eve was made from the substance of Adam. Again, as egalitarians point out, such an argument would appear to be invalid, since Adam was created from the dust of the ground yet was not subordinated to the earth (Gen. 2:7).17 This objection confuses Paul’s argument, since Eve was created from Adam and shared his nature (Gen. 2:23), whereas the dust from which Adam was formed was not of the same nature as Adam! Rather, Paul is reasoning from the fact that Eve, a creature of the same nature as Adam, was taken from Adam specifically for the purpose of being his complement to the conclusion that Adam had a natural, created priority in relation to Eve.

The Fall of the Woman

Paul also relates his teaching on women in the church to the Fall of Adam and Eve: “And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression” (1 Tim. 2:14). Paul’s statement here raises two questions. Does he mean to imply some sort of inherent inferiority of women as compared to men? And in what way, if any, did the Fall change the relationship between men and women?

First of all, if anything Paul held Adam, not Eve, primarily responsible for the entrance of sin into the world. It was “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin” (Rom. 5:14). Although it is true that the Greek word translated here as “man” (anthropos) can be used generically to mean “human being” or even “humanity” (like the Hebrew ‘adam). However, in Romans 5 the “one man” is not a reference to male and female together,18 but to Adam alone. This is absolutely clear, since Paul goes on to identify the one man who sinned as “Adam” (v. 14) and to contrast his sin with the gift of righteousness which came by “the one Man, Jesus Christ” (v. 15; cf. vv. 17-19). Paul draws the same contrast between the man Adam and the man Jesus Christ in another epistle (1 Cor. 15:21-22, 45).

Paul’s view of Adam as originating sin in the human race stands in stark contrast to the Jewish apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus, which stated, “Woman is the origin of sin, and it is through her that we all die” (Ecclus. 25:24 NEB).19 Regrettably, many Christians have also blamed the troubles of the world on Eve (perhaps influenced by Ecclesiasticus). For example, around AD 200 the Latin theologian Tertullian told women that they were to blame for sin and death:

You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die.20

Such an interpretation of the Fall is a grotesque misreading of the Genesis account, as Paul’s teaching confirms.

Now, if Paul held Adam primarily responsible for sin, that implies that he thought that Adam’s responsibility for the actions of himself and his wife Eve was in some way greater than Eve’s. This does not mean that Eve was not responsible for her own actions, but that Adam bore a greater responsibility for both of them. This greater responsibility would be consistent with his having a leadership role in the relationship.

But is Paul saying that because Eve was deceived and Adam was not, women in general are more easily deceived? Although this is often how Paul has been understood, there are some good reasons to think otherwise. In another passage where Paul comments on Eve’s having been deceived, he expresses concern that the entire church might be similarly deceived: “But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3). Since Paul is addressing the Corinthians as a whole, he is clearly issuing this warning to men as well as women; there is no hint that the Corinthian women were especially susceptible to the danger.

Another difficulty with the view that Paul regarded women as more susceptible to deception is that if this was Paul’s view, it is odd that he allowed women to teach other women (Titus 2:3-4).21 Surely if women were more prone to deception, having women teaching other women would be a prescription for deception! Paul’s concern, then, must be something else.

In 1 Timothy 2:14 it is more likely that Paul is pointing out that Eve was the one who had spoken directly with the serpent and listened to his deception, whereas Adam had been encouraged to eat by Eve and not directly by the serpent (Gen. 3:1-6). His point in bringing this up is not to characterize all women as more easily deceived, but to warn that deception is likely when the man’s responsibility is abdicated or circumvented. That is, Eve was deceived, not because she was a woman and therefore more gullible, less intelligent, or less spiritually discerning, but because she chose to make such a radical decision without bringing the matter to her husband.

If this interpretation is correct, Paul forbids women to exercise authority over a man, not because women are less capable in any sense, but because such violation of the created order between men and women is precisely how spiritual deception got a foothold in the human race in the first place. “Men and women are both more vulnerable to error and sin when they forsake the order that God has intended.”22

So far it appears that the leadership role of the man, particularly in the marriage relationship, is based on creation, not on the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. However, some interpreters have thought that male authority in marriage was specified as a result of the Fall. Eugene Merrill, for example, denies that there was any subordination of woman to man before the Fall, using several of the arguments examined earlier in this chapter, but then explains that such subordination was the result of the Fall:

That woman was taken from man no more implies the inferiority of woman to man than the taking of man from the ground (’adam from ’adamah) implies the inferiority of man to the ground. Nor does the term “helper” connote subordination. . . . the Hebrew word for “helper,” ‘ezer, is frequently used of the Lord Himself as man’s Helper. . . . Sin, however, radically altered the man-woman relationship just as it did that between God and His creation.23

According to Merrill, this change was that woman was subjected to man by God himself, when he told the woman after she and Adam had sinned, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). “That this is not merely predictive of what the future would hold but prescriptive of the man-woman functional relationship from that time forward is clear from apostolic teaching on the matter.”24 But while the apostles do teach that women ought to be submissive to their husbands, they do not teach that this requirement is the result of the Fall.

The one text which Merrill cites from the apostles that might be construed to support his conclusion is Paul’s directive that women “are to be submissive, as the law also says” (1 Cor. 14:34). It is often assumed that the passage in “the law” (i.e., the Old Testament) to which Paul is referring must be Genesis 3:16. Admittedly no other Old Testament text comes as close as Genesis 3:16 to saying that women are to be submissive (though the idea is not put that way even there). But earlier in the same epistle, Paul indicates that he finds the idea of the husband’s authority over his wife to be taught in the account of woman’s creation in Genesis 2 (1 Cor. 11:7-9; see also 1 Tim. 2:13). Since he has already made that argument in chapter 11, when he makes basically the same point in chapter 14 and adds “as the law says,” we should probably understand Paul to be referring to the same passage in the Old Testament Law as previously.

If Genesis 3:16 is not saying that women were to be submissive to their husbands on account of the Fall, what is it saying? The words translated “desire” and “rule” in Genesis 3:16 are found together just a few paragraphs later in Genesis 4:7, where God warns Cain about sin: “And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” It is likely that in both of these texts the terms “desire” and “rule” are being used in pejorative senses: “desire” means lusting, wanton desire, or desire out of control, and “rule” means to dominate, subjugate, or conquer. Thus in Genesis 4:7, God is warning Cain that sin wants to get him, but he needs to overcome and conquer it. Likewise, on this view Genesis 3:16 means that because of the Fall women will tend to be obsessed with their men, and men will tend to be domineering over their women.

On this reading Genesis 3:16 is not a prescription for marriage, but a description of one of the unfortunate effects of the Fall. This interpretation, furthermore, is required by the fact that the rest of the words spoken by God in this passage are descriptive and prophetic, not prescriptive. To the serpent God says he is cursed to crawl and eat dust (v. 14), and will be crushed by the seed of the woman (v. 15). To the woman God says that she will experience great pain in childbirth and will feel desire toward her husband (v. 16). To the man God says that the ground is cursed because of him and will require toil all his life (v. 17), produce thorns and thistles (v. 18), and that he will sweat to produce food until he dies (v. 19). All of these curses are descriptions of what will happen whether the serpent, woman, or man like it or not, or cooperate or not. It is therefore certain that the curse of the husband’s “rule” is not a command or prescription given to the woman or the man, but a description of the oppressive rule, the domineering and authoritarian fashion in which men have typically exercised their leadership role.

Again, the fact that Genesis 3:16 is descriptive rather than prescriptive does not mean that there are no functional or relational differences between men and women. We have seen that the creation account teaches that men and women are essentially equal and that the woman was created to play a subordinate role in relation to her husband. Thus, the curse of a domineering husband is not an entirely new change in the order of things, but a distortion and corruption of the original good relationship between men and women. Thus, on this view women’s functional subordination is a creational ordinance that has been characteristically abused by men as a result of the Fall.

One other point ought to be made. The fact that God pronounced this curse on the woman does not mean that it is all right for men to be domineering. Men and women are permitted to do all in their power to ameliorate the cursed conditions of the Fall. For example, God did not expect the man to put up with the thorns and thistles and not try to eliminate them from his fields or gardens. God does not disapprove of women taking advantage of medical technologies or medicines or breathing methods to ease the pain of childbirth. Likewise, God does not expect women to accept abuse from their husbands. Indeed, Christians in whom the blessings of God’s grace and love have been realized should seek to overcome the sinful effects of the Fall in their relationships.

From the teaching of Genesis 1-3 about man and woman, Paul draws certain conclusions about the relationship between husbands and wives and about the role of women in the church. These conclusions are without a doubt the most “politically incorrect” aspects of the Bible’s teaching about women. Before we look at Paul’s teaching on these matters, though, we should consider the approach to women taken by Jesus himself.

Women and Jesus

Scanzoni and Hardesty call Jesus “woman’s best friend,”25 and in this sentiment they are surely right. Jesus treated women with a respect and dignity that sometimes shocked the cultural sensibilities of his Jewish brothers. This fact is evident in all four of the Gospels, but is especially emphasized in Luke.

Equality: Jesus and His Women Disciples

The first person whom Luke reports Jesus to have healed of a sickness was Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (4:38-39). Jesus allowed a woman who was a “sinner” (an immoral woman, possibly a prostitute) to wash his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair, after which he forgave her sins (Luke 7:36-50). Various women followed Jesus and supported his ministry financially (8:1-3). Jesus healed a woman suffering from a hemorrhage when she touched him (8:41-48) and raised a little girl from the dead (8:49-56). Jesus healed a woman on the Sabbath who had been crippled for eighteen years; his kindness to her stands in sharp contrast to the uncaring synagogue ruler who objected to Jesus “working” on the Sabbath. Jesus responds to this objection in part by pointing out that the woman is “a daughter of Abraham” — suggesting that Abraham’s daughters, no less than his sons, are offered the blessings of the kingdom of God (13:10-17). Jesus commended the poor widow who gave “two mites” because she gave everything while the rich gave only what they did not need (21:1-4). When he was being led to Calvary to be crucified, Jesus stopped to express concern for the women of Jerusalem (23:26-31). The first persons to learn of Jesus’ resurrection were women (24:1-12).

Probably the most telling such incident in Luke — and the least understood — is the account of Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha. Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word,” while Martha, who “was distracted with much serving,” asked Jesus to tell Mary to help her (10:39-40). Jesus’ response was that “one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her” (v. 42). The lesson that is often drawn from this passage is that we should be more concerned to “spend time with Jesus,” to worship and commune with Jesus, than with being constantly busy with religious activities and good works. But this way of looking at the passage (while it expresses a valid concern) completely misses the point.

In first-century Judaism rabbis often gathered groups of students, or disciples, who would sit at his feet to learn Torah (the Old Testament Law and its interpretation). This privilege of studying Torah under the tutelage of a rabbi was strictly for men only — and remained so until only quite recently. Men studied Torah, women did the housework — that was the way things were. Mary, by sitting at Jesus’ feet to listen to his “word,” was assuming the role of a rabbinical student, a role reserved in Judaism exclusively for men. Martha’s objection was not merely that she needed Mary’s help but that Mary had no business taking the man’s role and neglecting the woman’s role. That is why Jesus says that the thing Mary has chosen “will not be taken away from her”: Jesus is saying that Jewish restrictions on the roles of women will not be allowed to keep Mary from learning.

Distinctions: Jesus and His Male Apostles

Jesus, then, dramatically elevated women’s status and showed them kindness and respect uncharacteristic of Jewish men at that time. He welcomed women as his disciples, a revolutionary practice, and honored women by making them the first witnesses to his resurrection. All of these things are true, and ought to be emphasized. But we must not conclude too hastily that Jesus leveled all role distinctions between men and women. There is significant evidence to the contrary.

The most important such evidence is the fact that although Jesus had many women disciples, he chose twelve men to be apostles (Luke 6:13-16). That Jesus appointed only men to the office of apostle is striking, and implies that he saw a differentiation of roles between men and women. Two objections to this inference have commonly been made by egalitarians: that Jesus appointed only men as a concession to first-century chauvinistic culture, which would not have tolerated women in authority; and that no inference about women in authority can be derived from Jesus’ choice of all men, since Jesus also chose only Jews but no one would infer from that fact that Gentiles are excluded from positions of authority.26

Neither of these objections is very credible. Jesus was quite willing to violate Jewish customs in so many other areas, including in his dealings with women. Moreover, all of his apostles were to face intense opposition, persecution, and martyrdom. In light of these two facts, it is unlikely that Jesus did not appoint women as apostles because they would not be accepted. As for the second objection, the fact that Jesus appointed no Gentiles as apostles is irrelevant, because throughout his earthly life Jesus had no Gentile disciples at all, whereas he did have women disciples. That is, the twelve apostles were chosen from a larger pool of disciples which included Jewish men and women, but no Gentiles. Evidently the office of apostle was deliberately limited to male disciples.

This is apparently how Peter understood the matter as well. Luke reports that when it came time to appoint a new apostle to replace Judas Iscariot, Peter stated that the choice was to be made from “these men [andron, adult males] who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (Acts 1:21). This gender-specific language can only mean that Peter intended the office of apostle to be limited to men.27

Finally, although several other individuals in the New Testament outside the circle of the Twelve are also designated apostles, none of them appear to have been women. It is just barely possible that “Junias” in Romans 16:7 is an exception, since that name may have been a woman’s name. Still, the evidence in support of the claim that Junias was a woman is at best inconclusive. Moreover, Paul’s language is ambiguous enough that it is a little unclear if he meant to identify Junias as an apostle. This doubly ambiguous reference to Junias, then, cannot overturn the positive evidence from the rest of the New Testament that all of the apostles of Christ were men.28

Unless one is driven by ideological concerns to think otherwise, it seems most reasonable to infer that women were not intended by Jesus to be apostles. That in turn suggests that Jesus was not overturning or challenging all role distinctions between men and women. Since Jesus nowhere in the Gospels challenges the concept of a husband’s authority over his wife, and since he himself named twelve men to be his authoritative representatives, it is difficult to evade the conclusion that Jesus accepted the principle of male authority. Again, his acceptance of that principle did not mean he accepted the way the principle was abused in Judaism to bar women from learning and participating in the life and work of the kingdom of God.

Women and Paul

We have already had occasion to refer to several passages in Paul’s epistles relating to the subject of women. But now we need to consider Paul’s view of women more directly. Paul has been viewed both as the great oppressor and as the great liberator of women. There can be no denying that some of the things he wrote have been used to oppress women, but we must consider the possibility that Paul’s teaching has been abused.

Women in the Home

In three different epistles Paul teaches that wives are to submit to their husbands as the “head” of their marriage union:

But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God (1 Cor. 11:3).

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord (Col. 3:18).

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is the head of the church . . . Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything (Eph. 5:22-24).

Although a great deal of effort has been expended to show that Paul was not teaching in any of these passages that wives are to submit to the authority of their husbands, such efforts must be judged more ingenious than valid. We can only give a few examples of the lines of reasoning used to defend an egalitarian reading of these texts and indicate where we believe they fall short.

Two of these texts speak of the husband as the “head” of the wife (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23). The debate over the meaning of the word “head” (Greek kephale) seems to be endless, with complementarians holding to the traditional view that it means an authority figure in these texts,29 while egalitarians generally insist that kephale rarely or never has that meaning and instead means something like “source.”30 While in our judgment the complementarians are right, the egalitarian view of the word’s meaning does not eliminate the complementarian interpretation of the texts.

In both 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5:22-24 the husband’s status as “head” in relation to the wife is compared to Christ’s status as “head” in comparison to the church. Egalitarians who make note of this analogy are unable to eliminate the lack of parity between the husband and wife that this analogy implies. Scanzoni and Hardesty, for example, say that the point of the metaphor of head and body with reference to Christ and the church is “united head and body, we live; severed head from body, we die. It is a variation of an image Christ used, that of the vine and the branches (John 15:1-17).”31 What this interpretation overlooks is that while we need to be united to Christ to live, Christ does not need us to live. Obviously, interpreting Paul to mean that women cannot live or flourish apart from their husbands will not serve an egalitarian view! Thus Scanzoni and Hardesty quickly shift the analogy and write, “As husband and wife become ‘one flesh’ and live in unity, the marital relationship lives and flourishes.”32 The wording here is slippery, since the point of Paul’s analogy is not about a “relationship” living, but (if we accept “source” as the meaning of kephale) about the church living through its union with Christ. Again, though, this would imply that Paul thought wives could not survive apart from their husbands, a chauvinistic notion indeed.

Scanzoni and Hardesty go on to argue that the relationship between Christ and the church, and therefore also between husband and wife, is one of “mutual submission.”33 But Paul’s description of the church as Christ’s body has nothing to do with mutual submission, and everything to do with submission by the church to Christ. “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head [kephale] over all things to the church, which is His body. . .” (Eph. 1:22-23). “And He is the head [kephale] of the body, the church . . . that in all things He may have preeminence” (Col. 1:18). How anyone could miss the fact that Christ’s “headship” involves or entails authority over the church in these texts is puzzling.

In Ephesians 5:22-24 Paul explicitly infers from this analogy between Christ’s relationship with his church and the husband’s relationship with his wife that wives should submit to their husbands “just as the church is subject to Christ.” Again, the comparison here makes it clear that the submission or subjection spoken of is not mutual. Christ is not subject to or in submission to his church. It is true that Christ “serves” his church, but he does so on his own terms, without giving up his authority as the Lord. Analogously (though not in the same precise way), husbands are to serve their wives without giving up their responsibility to take the lead in their marriage relationship. The fatal assumption of the egalitarian view is that loving sacrificial service is incompatible with the exercise of authority.

Thus, the claim that the sentence preceding this passage teaches mutual submission between husband and wife needs to be reconsidered: “. . . submitting to one another in the fear of God” (Eph. 5:21). Paul does not mean here that everyone is to “submit” to everyone else in a kind of anarchic, egalitarian society with no one in positions of responsible oversight or authority. Indeed, he is probably not talking about “mutual submission” at all, though even some complementarians have allowed that this is what Paul means.34 Rather, he probably means that everyone is to submit to those in authority over them: wives to husbands (5:22-33), children to parents (6:1-4), and servants to masters (6:5-9). Thus 5:21 serves as a kind of lead-in or heading for the rest of this section of the epistle. In each case Paul also emphasizes that those in authority are to exercise that authority in caring, sacrificial love, but he does not say or imply that parents are to submit to their children or that masters are to submit to their slaves.

It should be noted that although the submission of wives to their husbands is discussed alongside that of children to parents and servants to masters, Paul does not teach that this submission operates according to the same rules in all three cases. In particular, it is striking that Paul tells children to “obey” their parents, and servants to “obey” their masters (6:1, 5), but does not tell wives to “obey” their husbands. The same pattern appears in the parallel passage in Colossians (Col. 3:18, 20, 22). The Greek word here (hupakouo and related forms) is different from the term translated “submit” or “be subject” (hupotasso), and is never used by Paul of the wife’s submission to her husband (although Peter uses it once of Sarah’s submission to Abraham, 1 Pet. 3:6). It seems reasonable to conclude that Paul expected husbands and wives to function more like equals than parents and children, though wives were to defer to their husbands’ decision when consensus could not be reached.

One other very important point should be made. Husbands do not in Paul’s view have the authority to make their wives do anything contrary to Christian teaching, or to abuse or mistreat them. Indeed, parents and masters do not have such rights, either. Whatever authorities on earth or anywhere else there may be, Christ outranks them all (Eph. 1:21; Phil. 2:9-11; Col. 1:16). If any human authority attempts to command or force a Christian, whether man, woman, or child, to disobey God, Paul’s counsel would be the same as Peter’s principle: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Women in the Ministry

We have considered Paul’s teaching on wives at length, but Paul related to women as more than simply extensions of their husbands. Women are associated with Paul in ministry both in the Book of Acts and scattered throughout his epistles. One of the most impressive such women was Priscilla, a woman who with her husband Aquila helped to instruct a new convert and promising evangelist named Apollos in accurate doctrine (Acts 18:24-26). That Priscilla was actively engaged in teaching Apollos, and perhaps even the more vocal of the couple, is implied by the order in which the two are named here and elsewhere in both Acts and Paul’s epistles: “Priscilla and Aquila” (18:18, 26; Rom. 16:2; 2 Tim. 4:19; Aquila is named first in 1 Cor. 16:19). The fact that both Luke and Paul usually place Priscilla’s name first undermines the objection from some complementarians that “Luke may simply have wanted to give greater honor to the woman by putting her name first (1 Peter 3:7), or may have had another reason unknown to us.”35 Rather, it is clear that Priscilla generally made the stronger impression on the church, probably because she was the more gifted in speaking and teaching.

In fact, a less reliable family of manuscripts of Acts known as the Western text reverses the order in Acts 18:26 to “Aquila and Priscilla” — a reading regrettably followed by the King James Version and the New King James Version — to avoid the implication that Priscilla was actively teaching Apollos.36 While there is no evidence that Priscilla held an office of teaching authority in the church, she was clearly gifted to teach, and Luke seems to have had no qualms about presenting Priscilla as instructing a man.

Another woman in Paul’s orbit of ministry of note was Phoebe, described by Paul as “a servant of the church in Cenchrea” (Rom. 16:1). The word translated “servant” here is diakonos, from which our word “deacon” is derived, and which is used elsewhere in Paul’s writings to refer to an office in the church (Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8-13). As Stanley Grenz points out, the use of the masculine form of this noun with reference to Phoebe (when the noun would normally be given a feminine ending) strongly suggests the word is being used in its technical sense of the church office of deacon.37 On the other hand, in 1 Timothy 3:8-13 it appears that the office of deacon did not entail teaching, as did the office of “bishop” (episkopos, “overseer”) or “elder” (presbuteros), both of whom Paul says had to be able to teach (1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17).38

In general we may say that women enjoyed far greater opportunities for ministry in Paul’s circles than they have typically been granted in churches of a traditional sort. Still, the evidence from the New Testament fails to provide any clear examples of women in Paul’s churches who served in authoritative teaching and leading positions. Does that mean that women were barred from such positions? This is the question to which we now turn.

Women in the Church

The question of the ordination of women in the church has caused great division in many denominations during the second half of the twentieth century. Numerous books have been published on the subject, and just bringing up the question generates heated emotions in many people. We recognize that there are evangelical Christians on both sides of this question.

Before considering the apostle Paul’s teaching on this subject, it will be helpful to discuss what is at stake here. In Catholicism ordination has an element of authority attached to it, but the most important function of ordained priests in the Catholic Church is to administer the sacraments. Priests perform baptisms, hear confessions, celebrate the Eucharist, marry couples, and perform last rites. Catholic women are not permitted to do any of these things.

In Protestantism, on the other hand, especially in predominantly evangelical denominations, ordination is associated primarily with pastoral authority. In those Protestant churches that do not ordain women, the most important activities which are closed to them are preaching to and teaching the congregation at large and exercising leadership functions in the church. Pastors usually also perform all baptisms and officiate at Communion, but these are secondary functions in many Protestant churches.

This somewhat simplified overview of ordination in Catholic and Protestant churches brings an important point to the surface: ordination means different things to different churches and even to different people. This will be as true for women as for men. Some people want to be ordained because they believe God has called them to preach the gospel and bring people to faith in Christ. (Any Christian can do this, but ordination enables a Christian to evangelize with the support of a church body.) Some people want to be ordained because they want to serve Christ by visiting the sick and prisoners. (Access to the sick and prisoners is sometimes denied except to family members and ordained ministers, making ordination a vital matter for persons interested in this ministry.) Some people want to be ordained because they are devoted to the sacraments and wish to administer them to others. Unless one maintains that all of these activities are restricted to men only, a simple “no” to the question of women’s ordination is misleading. It might be better to frame the question differently: not, may women be ordained, but, to what ministries may women be ordained?

If we look at Paul’s teaching about women in church ministries with this question in mind, it is apparent that there are many ministries which are open to women. Paul speaks about women praying and prophesying in church (1 Cor. 11:4-5, 13). He encourages the Corinthians generally to seek spiritual gifts (12:31; 14:1, 5, 31), all of which are intended to be used in the public worship of the church (14:3-4, 26), and evidently is directing such encouragement to women as well as men. Elsewhere Paul encourages Christians generally to speak to one another and to sing together, teaching and encouraging each other (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). There is no hint that such activities may not include women. Nor is there anything in Paul’s epistles suggests that he would forbid women to baptize, to administer Communion, to counsel or encourage others, or to visit the sick and imprisoned.

To the shame of Christian men, for most of church history these vital ministries have been closed to women. Women were not even allowed to sing in church. Before contemporary evangelicals dismiss this prohibition as a medieval Catholic mistake, we note with dismay that, for example, it was only in 1969 that the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod allowed women to sing in church.39

The absolute prohibition of women speaking or singing in church has historically been based on Paul’s statement, “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:34-35). Whatever the significance of this passage, nearly all modern interpreters, both egalitarian and complementarian, recognize that it cannot be an absolute prohibition of women speaking in church, since earlier in this same epistle Paul writes about women praying (aloud) and prophesying in the church (11:5, 16). Most interpreters therefore favor understanding Paul to be forbidding certain types of speech by women in the church.

While certainty about the precise problem that Paul was addressing in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 seems elusive, evidently Paul is forbidding public speech in the church meetings by women that brought dishonor to their husbands (as verse 35 emphasizes) and disorder in the church (cf. vv. 33, 40). Some interpreters have suggested that the women were guilty of noisy speech or distracting questions.40 Others have argued that the women were making remarks challenging the charismatic utterances of the men (and thereby assuming a public teaching role) or of their own husbands (and thereby undermining their authority).41 All of these explanations have strengths and weaknesses. What is generally agreed is that Paul’s directives were not intended to squelch the exercise of spiritual gifts by women or their participation in the worship of the church.

While we wish to emphasize that women in Paul’s teaching were called to participate in the church’s worship and ministry, we must be candid and point out that Paul did set some limits on the roles women could occupy in the church. In particular, Paul stated, “I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:12, NASB). Before discussing Paul’s limitation, we should note that the word translated “quiet” (hesuchia) here describes an attitude of peaceable acceptance, and is different from the word translated “silent” in 1 Corinthians 14:34 (sigato). Thus in verse 2 of this same chapter Paul tells Timothy that the church is to pray that they will be able to live a “quiet life,” by which he certainly does not mean a silent one!42

Even with this important qualification, though, Paul appears to be stating categorically that women should not teach men or exercise authority over men. Moreover, he grounds this prohibition in the created difference between men and women (vv. 13-14), making it difficult to contend that it has no application beyond Paul’s immediate concern. Admittedly some creative and sophisticated arguments have been advanced for regarding Paul’s statement here as inapplicable outside the situation in Timothy’s church in Ephesus, but these all seem strained.43

This text would be somewhat less controversial were it not for the fact that traditionally theologians have inferred from it that women are inherently inferior to men in intelligence, spiritual discernment, or both. But such an inference makes no sense. Paul does not forbid women to teach other women, or to teach children — but he should if women are supposedly doctrinally inept. Paul forbids women to teach or rule men for one reason only: women were created to fulfill a responsive, submissive role to the responsible leadership of men, and in particular their husbands. Within the context of a respectful acceptance of their husbands’ authority, women are free to ask questions, to express disagreements, and even to correct men when they misunderstand some aspect of Christian truth (cf. Acts 18:26). What they are not permitted to do is to assume an authoritative teaching or pastoral role in the church which places them in a position of responsible leadership over men.

Churches that accept this understanding of Paul’s teaching on women in the ministry could go a long way toward bringing reconciliation to the fractious debate by ordaining women as, for example, ministers of children’s education (a position which most evangelical churches fill with men), or pastors to women. They could ordain women to serve in visitation ministries. Both men and women who serve as itinerant evangelists and missionaries should be ordained for those tasks. We should do everything we can to honor the gifts and callings which God has given to women for the building up of the church. In this way we will show that we take seriously Paul’s teaching that in Christ “there is neither male nor female; for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

You’ve Come a Long Way . . .

The view of women defended here attempts to keep two aspects of the biblical teaching in balance. The first and far more important truth to be recognized is that women and men are equal partners in the kingdom of God, both created in God’s image and called to know, love, and serve God in the home, in the church, and in the world. If we have not made this clear, we have failed to do justice to the biblical teaching — and are contributing to the perpetuation of injustice to women.

The second and far more controversial truth to be recognized is that God created men and women to serve in complementary and overlapping roles. That is, many of the ways in which God calls us to serve him are open to both men and women, but there are certain roles that are reserved for men and other roles that are reserved for women. The sole basis for excluding woman from any role is her created purpose as a complementary, supportive partner for man. Specifically, Scripture assigns the husband the responsibility of serving as the “head” or authority in the marriage relationship, and limits participation of women in the Christian church to roles that do not place them in authority over men. Women are not excluded from any roles or functions in life because of any supposed biological, intellectual, psychological, social, or spiritual inferiority. There may be differences between men and women in these areas, but these differences, if they exist, are complementary.

Once the biblical view of women has been defined in this fashion, most of the common objections to it from a feminist perspective have been answered. Indeed, on a truly complementarian view most of the social and political claims made by feminists are completely justified. Of course women can do just about any job that men can do. Of course women should receive comparable pay for the same work that men do. Of course the widespread physical and sexual abuse of women by husbands, boyfriends, soldiers, and even ministers is an evil that is all too often covered up or ignored or even maliciously blamed on the female victims. Of course advertisers, television, and films often perpetuate stereotypes of women and exploit them for profit.

If women — and men — accustomed to dealing with church institutions that treat women as inferiors (whatever their theological position in theory may be) react by adopting an egalitarian view, we understand and are sympathetic to their concerns, even though we would regard their position as an overreaction. On the other hand, if men defend the complementarian view not in the interests of truth or in a spirit of love, but as an ideological excuse to continue treating women for all practical purposes as inferiors, then we must criticize their hypocrisy even if on paper we agree with them.

We have been critical of the tendency throughout most of church history for Christian men to regard women as inferior. We have also acknowledged that evangelical Christians committed to the authority of Scripture differ on women’s roles. This does not mean that there are no absolute truths or moral laws to serve as fixed points of reference in thinking about these issues. That both men and women are created with the same capacity for relationship with God, that men and women should treat each other with love and respect, that women are uniquely endowed with the capacity for bringing children into the world, that women should be encouraged to use all of their gifts to serve God and others — these principles are unambiguously taught in Scripture, confessed by Christians on all sides of the debate, and proven constantly by experience. We should confidently build our discussions and debates about women’s roles on these bedrock truths.

Though we believe that many of the concerns raised by feminism are valid, and respect evangelical Christians who hold to a more egalitarian view than we do, there are some destructive tendencies in feminism that must be recognized and opposed. Specifically, feminism in its most thoroughgoing forms challenges the biblical distinction between male and female in a way that opens the door to the endorsement of homosexuality and other immoral sexual choices, as well as to all kinds of false doctrine.

The logic by which this troubling implication of feminist thought is developed is easy to understand. In its most radical or pure form feminism calls for the leveling of all distinctions between men and women. Feminists do not deny that there are obvious anatomical differences between the sexes, but in general they insist that these differences are irrelevant in human relationships and in societal roles. A natural implication of this belief is that same-sex relationships should be treated no differently than different-sex relationships — which is to say, that homosexual relationships should be regarded as no less valid than heterosexual ones. Furthermore, in the interests of eliminating all distinctions between the sexes, feminists commonly criticize the making of distinctions in principle and are often driven to deny other distinctions basic to the Christian faith.

This is not a mere theoretical concern or a problem found exclusively outside the church. Even within evangelicalism, the growing feminist influence has evidently resulted in a growing acceptance of homosexuality, though most evangelical egalitarians resist this trend.44 Some neo-evangelical feminists are pushing their critique of gender-based distinctions in principle to the precipice of heresy. A particularly clear and telling example comes from Scanzoni and Hardesty. Agreeing with feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther that “all duality, all polarity, is evil,” Scanzoni and Hardesty express their conviction that it is not only the duality between male and female that must be set aside in feminist theology:

All distinctions between people — male and female, rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, Western world and Third World, Christian and non-Christian — are attempts to deny our common humanity. Divisions between human and animal, animate and inanimate, allow us to rape the earth and dominate it for our own greedy ends. A truly Christian, truly feminist theology continually seeks to root out all dualism, which at bottom is an outgrowth of original sin, the desire to separate and dominate.45

This feminist anti-dualism is not only self-refuting (since it implies a dualism between the dualists and the anti-dualists, between the dominators and the liberators), it is unbiblical. One will search in vain through the pages of the Old or New Testaments for any evidence that the prophets, apostles, or Christ himself saw “dualism” in the sense meant here as pernicious or problematic. Basic to the entire Bible is the “dualism” between Creator and creature (Gen. 1:1; Ps. 100:3; Rom. 1:25). God has every right to do whatever he wants with his creation (Ps. 115:3; Is. 45:9; Rom. 9:20). Given their distaste for “dualism,” it is not surprising that feminist theologians are increasingly attracted to pantheistic conceptions of God that eliminate the distinction between Creator and creature.

Even within the created realm, it is not duality, or distinction, that is evil, but abuses of such distinctions that violate our created purposes. Distinguishing between male and female roles is not evil; making such distinctions to justify exploiting women is. Identifying homosexual conduct as immoral is not evil; committing acts of violence against gays is. While we should not treat animals cruelly, and while it is true that God cares about the animals, it is nevertheless also true that God cares more about human beings (e.g., Matt. 6:26). Since both Christians and non-Christians are created in God’s image and are the recipients of God’s gracious provisions for life (Gen. 1:26-27; Matt. 5:45), those of us who are Christians should love non-Christians even if they actively oppose us (Matt. 5:44). But there is a distinction between those who believe and those who disbelieve, between the righteous and the wicked, and we are responsible to draw a clear distinction between what is acceptable within the Christian church and what is not (Ps. 1; John 3:18; 1 Cor. 5:11-13; 1 Tim. 4:1; 1 John 4:1).

When feminists argue that women should be treated with respect, that women are just as intelligent as men, that women should not be excluded from the political process or from church ministry, they are on solid ground and their agenda has great potential for success. But when feminists argue that there are no differences between men and women besides trivial anatomical differences, that marriage is an institution of oppression, that equality of the sexes requires acceptance of gays and lesbians in the church, or that women cannot be free unless they have an unrestricted right to an abortion, they are not only contradicting the clear ethical teaching of the Bible, they are doing their own cause immeasurable harm. The church can and should be the best friend and champion of women seeking dignity, respect, and freedom; but when feminists call for a repudiation of distinctions basic to the Christian faith, they cannot expect the church to support them.

Christians can afford to disagree agreeably about women’s ordination and related questions about women’s roles. But underlying much of feminism are assumptions and attitudes that are hostile to the Christian faith. To work for better relations between men and women — or between blacks and whites, or rich and poor — is a good and honorable thing. But to reorient all Christian theology to the goal of eliminating all perceived inequities between men and women is proving to be destructive to Christian theology and ultimately to the cause of women. If we aim at learning the truth about men and women and serving Christ faithfully together, we will find that equality will take care of itself. If we aim at equality as our overriding goal, we will find it all too easy to distort the truth about men and women and will end up serving ourselves instead of Christ — and we will lose equality in the bargain.

Christ does not call men to dominance over women or women to liberation from men. He calls both men and women to freedom — not freedom from each other, but freedom to serve one another in love (cf. Gal. 5:13). This freedom is available equally to men and women; and those who know this freedom in Christ will treat each other as equals without regard to whether the other person is male or female.


1 Prestonia Mann Martin, “Women Should Not Have the Right to Vote,” in Feminism: Opposing Viewpoints, ed. Carol Wekesser (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995), 25, 26; the selection is excerpted from Mr. and Mrs. John Martin, Feminism: Its Fallacies and Follies, Book 2 (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1916).

2 Apparently not quite all of us: one of the authors (Robert Bowman) was told in 1994 by a male caller on a Christian radio talk show in Atlanta that America’s social problems all began when women were given the vote!

3 Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Nancy A. Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, 3d rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 1.

4 John Shelby Spong, Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality (New York: HarperCollins — Harper San Francisco, 1990), 117, 133.

5 E.g., Susan T. Foh, Women and the Word of God: A Response to Biblical Feminism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1979), 5-49.

6 Spong, Living in Sin, 125.

7 John R. Rice, Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives and Women Preachers (Wheaton, IL: Sword of the Lord, 1941), 65, cited in Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War Bteween Traditionalism and Feminism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 59.

8 Cf. Scanzoni and Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be, 19.

9 See the critique in Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1-3,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 98-99.

10 Augustine, De Genesis ad Litteram 9.5, quoted in Mary J. Evans, Woman in the Bible: An Overview of All the Crucial Passages on Women's Roles (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 143 n. 24.

11 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Vol. 13: Man Made to God’s Image (1a.90-102), trans. and ed. Edmund Hill (London: Blackfriars, 1964), 35, 37 (1a.92).

12 Foh, Women and the Word of God, 60.

13 Daniel 11:34 is the one text that does not clearly fall into either of these two uses. The related nouns ’ezrah and ’ezrat (“help”) also refer almost entirely to God’s help or the ineffectual help of human allies.

14 E.g., Scanzoni and Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be, 26-27; Gilbert Bilezekian, Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says About a Woman's Place in Church and Family, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 28, 217 n. 9. Some writers have argued that the text literally says that the woman is superior, but they then conclude that we should understand the text to mean that men and women are equal, e.g., Aida Besançon Spencer, Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985), 23-26. If the text literally says women are superior, why back away from that conclusion? But in fact Spencer’s interpretation of the word “comparable” (“meet” in the KJV) is flawed; cf. Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” 103-4.

15 For a complete list of all the OT uses of these related words, see George V. Wigram, The Englishman’s Hebrew and Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), 917-918.

16 E.g., Scanzoni and Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be, 29. Others deny that Paul is arguing for male authority at all, cf. Bilezekian, Beyond Sex Roles, 30-31, 219-20; Evans, Woman in the Bible, 14-15.

17 Scanzoni and Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be, 29-30.

18 As is claimed by Scanzoni and Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be, 41.

19 Quoted in ibid., 44. Ecclesiasticus was a collection of wisdom sayings similar to Proverbs but written about 180 BC by Greek-speaking Jews. It is not to be confused with Ecclesiastes, a book traditionally ascribed to Solomon about eight centuries earlier. Ecclesiasticus is accepted as part of the Old Testament by Roman Catholics, but not by Protestants. The fact that Ecclesiasticus blames sin and death on the woman would seem to be evidence that the book is not consistent with Paul and is therefore not inspired.

20 Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women 1.1, trans. S. Thelwell, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans reprint, 1979), 4:14.

21 This is pointed out by Douglas Moo, “What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority Over Men? 1 Timothy 2:11-15,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Piper and Grudem, 190.

22 John Piper and Wayne Grudem, “An Overview of Central Concerns: Questions and Answers,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Piper and Grudem, 73.

23 Eugene H. Merrill, “A Theology of the Pentateuch,” in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, ed. Roy B. Zuck (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 19-20.

24 Ibid., 20.

25 Scanzoni and Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be, 71.

26 The second objection is more common, e.g., Stanley J. Grenz with Denise Muir Kjesbo, Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 213.

27 A point overlooked by egalitarians who cite Acts 1:22 on the qualifications to be an apostle; e.g., Scanzoni and Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be, 90; Spencer, Beyond the Curse, 100.

28 On whether Junias was a woman apostle, see Piper and Grudem, “An Overview of Central Concerns: Questions and Answers,” 79-81 (no); Grenz with Kjesbo, Women in the Church, 92-96 (yes).

29 See especially Wayne Grudem, “Does Kephale (‘Head’) Mean ‘Source’ or ‘Authority Over’ in Greek Literature? A Survey of 2,336 Examples,” Trinity Journal 6 NS (1985):38-59, and his follow-up answer to his critics, “The Meaning of Kephale (‘Head’): A Response to Recent Studies,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Piper and Grudem, 425-68.

30 Especially Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 501-505, answered by Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephale (‘Head’),” 465-66; cf. the more recent discussion in Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992), 32-35.

31 Scanzoni and Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be, 35.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid., 37.

34 E.g., Piper and Grudem, “An Overview of Cenral Concerns,” 62-63.

35 Piper and Grudem, “An Overview of Central Concerns,” 69.

36 Richard N. Longenecker, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, Vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 491. Longenecker points out that the Western text makes similar changes in Acts 17:12, 34.

37 Grenz, Women in the Church, 88.

38 Piper and Grudem, “An Overview of Central Concerns,” 68. For our purposes it does not matter whether “bishops” and “elders” were different terms for the same office or two distinct offices.

39 Grenz, Women in the Church, 249 n. 116.

40 E.g., Grenz, Women in the Church, 123-25.

41 E.g., D. A. Carson, “‘Silent in the Churches’: On the Role of Women in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Piper and Grudem, 151-52.

42 Thus the NKJV rendering “in silence” is almost certainly incorrect.

43 The most important effort along these lines is Richard Clark Kroeger and Catherine Clark Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992). A good overview of the interpretive issues from a complementarian perspective is Douglas Moo, “What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority Over Men? 1 Timothy 2:11-15,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Piper and Grudem, 179-93.

44 Helpful examples are given in Piper and Grudem, “An Overview of Central Concerns,” 82-84.

45 Scanzoni and Hardesty, All We’re Meant to Be, 14.

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16. All That Heaven Allows: Homosexuality and the Meaning of Love

“It can’t be wrong when it feels so right . . .”

— Debby Boone, title song in You Light Up My Life (1977)

As much consternation and confusion as the feminist movement that took Western culture by storm in the 1970s has brought to Christians and to society in general, the demands of even the most radical feminists seem tame in comparison to the homosexual rights movement that came into prominence in the 1990s. No other issue seems to provoke stronger feelings in people than this one.

A great deal of hate, in fact, seems to surface whenever this subject is discussed. Some people, including some people who profess to follow Christ, clearly hate homosexuals. They are not only the object of occasional acts of violence motivated by hate, but are often reviled by people who simply loathe them. In turn, some homosexuals just as clearly hate anyone, especially conservative Christians, who question or criticize their lifestyle. Christian churches and individuals have in recent years become the targets of harassment by militant homosexuals who go out of their way to offend and intimidate people whom they perceive — rightly or wrongly — as hating them. Indeed, homosexuals who favor a more brazenly alternative lifestyle are sometimes hostile toward homosexuals who seek a more “mainstream” fit into the general culture.

One of the favorite slogans of the homosexual rights movement and of those sympathetic to them is “Hate is not a family value.” It is not a Christian value, either. In this chapter we have no desire to add fuel to the fire of anyone’s hatred of homosexuals. The goal of thinking about this and any other ethical issue is not to give “us” ammunition against “them,” but to understand our own moral responsibilities first of all and then enable us to stand up for our convictions and honestly “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) to anyone who will listen.

Love, Law, and Sex

We have just spoken about the need for love in the ethical debate over homosexuality. We live in a society that is obsessed with love. Our songs glorify it and our ads glamorize it. But the homosexual debate, probably more than any other issue, exposes a troublesome fact about our society: we don’t even agree about what love is. The central claim of the homosexual rights movement is that gays and lesbians should be allowed to love in their own way, and that a failure to accept them and their lifestyle as a permanent and open part of society is a failure to love. The central claim of all those who reject homosexuality is that it is an unacceptable way to express love. Thus, simply calling upon everyone to “love” one another, without coming to some common understanding of what that means, will not solve the homosexual debate.

We mentioned in chapter 12 that one of the great gifts God has given us in Scripture is a clear explanation of the meaning of love. As both Jesus and Paul pointed out, the Old Testament Law specifies what behaviors and attitudes are inconsistent with love so we will not fool ourselves into thinking that we are exhibiting love when we are not (Matt. 7:12; 22:37-40; Rom. 13:8-10). It also sets forth positive instruction in how we are to love one another in our marriages, families, friendships, and communities. Biblical morality is a morality of love, and nothing more or less — but this does not mean that we are left to our own feelings to determine what love means for us. Rather, if we truly love God, who is love (1 John 4:7-8), and who must be loved above all else, and if we love each other with the love of God, we will seek to express that love in the way that God tells us. We keep God’s rules because, as his children, we know that he makes the rules for our benefit. Jesus said that those who love him keep his commandments (John 14:15, 21; 15:10). If we fail to see the love principle at work in some moral injunction in the Bible, then we need to adjust our notion of love.

In the New Testament the supreme example of love in action is provided by Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son. Jesus shows us how to love those our society deems unlovable, whether on account of their own actions (such as the tax-collectors and the sexually immoral) or through no fault of their own (such as the lepers and the Gentiles). Those who are in distress through no sin of their own we are to show compassion and kindness (Mark 1:40-42). Those who are in sin and who recognize their sin we are to offer an opportunity for repentance and to show them tender mercy and forgiveness (Matt. 9:11-13; Luke 15:1-32). Those who are in sin and who proudly deny their sin we are to leave in their blindness (Matt. 10:14-15; John 9:40-41).

The relevance of these principles to the homosexuality controversy should be clear. If Scripture teaches that homosexual acts are wrong, then we cannot paper over that fact or hold back from declaring God’s moral will in this matter, any more than we should in other matters. But our goal as people of love should be not merely to condemn homosexuals, but to reach out our hands to them and offer them the love, forgiveness, and spiritual and moral healing which Jesus also has extended to us.

Those who act as spokespersons for the Christian church, whether as teachers or writers or preachers or evangelists, should make it clear when they speak about homosexuality that sexual sin is an essentially universal problem in the human race. By no means is homosexuality the only, or even the most prevalent, form of sexual sin in our society. For every person who engages regularly in homosexual acts, there are at least five (and probably more than that) who are regularly engaging in adultery or other “heterosexual” sins. Hardly any adult in America today, it seems, can honestly claim to have lived a completely chaste life. (Sometimes it seems hardly anyone even knows what “chaste” means!) Worse, the vast majority of the people who commit sex crimes — rape, incest, and the like — are heterosexual males. To ignore these facts when dealing with the issue of homosexuality skews the discussion and prevents legitimate criticisms of the homosexual lifestyle and movement from being heard.

On the other hand, there are those who believe that entirely too much attention has been given in Christian ethics to sexual matters. They point out that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality, very little about sex at all, and had a great deal to say about greed, hypocrisy, and other besetting sins of the most religious people of the day. Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong, for example, has written:

Compared to the sin of idolatry, for example, or to the ritual details of temple worship, the time spent on homosexuality by the biblical authors is minuscule. There is not one reference to homosexuality in any of the four Gospels. The argument from silence is not a powerful one, but it does suggest that those who consider this “the most heinous sin” must be terribly disturbed that our Lord appears either to have ignored it completely or to have said so little on the subject that no part of what he said was remembered or recorded.1

While Spong’s factual assertions about the lack of emphasis on homosexuality in the Bible and the silence of Jesus in the Gospels are basically correct, one must be careful about basing moral conclusions on relative emphases in certain portions of Scripture. For example, only one out of the ten commandments is about sex (two if you count the fairly all-encompassing tenth commandment that prohibits coveting), but there is also only one commandment about respecting life. Even if we decide that the commandment forbidding murder is more important than the commandment forbidding adultery (or, say, false witness), they all carry the same divine authority. God only has to say “no” once for something to be wrong!

While it is true that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality in the Gospels, this silence does not “suggest” anything except, perhaps, that the subject was not a controversial issue between Jesus and the Jewish leaders — which would imply, in turn, that he agreed with their judgment that homosexual acts were sinful. For this same reason the Gospels do not record Jesus commenting on the sinfulness of child sacrifice, bestiality, sex with minors, and various other behaviors. One wonders if Spong this there is any validity to reasoning that since Jesus said nothing about bestiality, it cannot be all that terrible a sin! That Jesus regarded sexual sin as a serious matter is made clear by the fact that two of the six subjects in Jesus’ corrections of Pharisaic ethics in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:21-48) relate to the marriage relationship (5:27-32; cf. Matt. 19:3-12). In any case, Spong’s protest that homosexuality may not be as heinous as “Bible-believing Christians” think is disingenuous, since he thinks it is not a sin at all.

Paul deals more often than Jesus (judging from the Gospels) with issues relating to sexuality (Romans 1:24-27; 2:22; 13:9, 13-14; 1 Cor. 5:1-13; 6:9-7:40; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 4:19; 5:3-5; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:3-5). While these references are numerous enough to show that Paul thought the matter fairly important, they do not dominate his ethical teaching to such an extent that he could be accused of being obsessed with sexual matters. To the extent that Paul gives such matters more attention than Jesus did, the reason is probably that Gentile converts were particularly weak in this area.

It might be supposed that advocates of a homosexual lifestyle would simply reject the Bible’s teaching on the matter out of hand. While some do, in fact many homosexuals and others who defend their lifestyle claim that the Bible does not give as clear a condemnation of homosexuality as Christians commonly claim. Indeed, there is a significant community of people today who profess to be Christians — some even regarding themselves as evangelicals — who openly admit to being homosexuals. We cannot merely assume our understanding of the Bible on this question, then, but must be prepared to show what the Bible really says about homosexuality and to answer the arguments used to counter the traditional interpretation of the Bible’s teaching.

What Does the Bible Say?

The biblical teaching on sex is not merely negative. Contrary to popular belief (admittedly fostered by some Christians over the years), sex in biblical thought is not sin. It is sex outside the proper relationship that constitutes sexual sin. That relationship, according to the Bible, is the husband-wife relationship.

Sex in the Beginning

The foundation for the biblical view of sex is laid down in the opening chapters of Genesis. Basic to the biblical view of human nature is that God created the human race in his image as male and female (Gen. 1:27). God ordained that the human race would reproduce itself through the sexual union of the male and female (v. 28), thus making it clear that sex was of God’s design and is “very good” (v. 31). We should not miss the revolutionary character of this teaching. Most of the developed religions of the world have regarded sex (and indeed, biological life in general) as inherently unspiritual and as unavoidably interfering with the higher aspirations of humanity. On the other hand, polytheistic and animistic religions have generally divinized the sexual functions and attributed carnality to the gods. Biblical religion strikes a healthy balance between these two extremes, affirming sex as divinely created, not divine, and as good when pursued in the proper relationship, though abused when pursued outside its divinely intended purpose and context.

Genesis goes on to elaborate on the marital relationship by explaining that woman was created as a complementary partner for the man (Gen. 2:18). The physical union of male and female, the man and the woman, is the paradigm of marriage (vv. 23-25). When Genesis says that “a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife” (v. 24a), the reference to the man’s father and mother indicates that the marriage institution is designed to be a union of a man and a woman that is repeated from generation to generation. This does not mean that sex is merely about procreation; the text goes on to say that sex is intended by God to be a uniting of two complementary halves into “one flesh” (v. 24b). Sex is therefore intended to be a part of a relationship with a person of the opposite sex. The paradigm of Adam and Eve clearly excludes the notion that such a relationship is properly formed between two men or between two women.2

In appealing to Genesis 1-2 as providing the paradigmatic view of marriage, we are following the precedent set by Jesus when he was asked to settle an ethical dispute about marriage (Matt. 19:3-6). This does not mean that the Christian view of homosexuality is based on a speculative reading of Genesis 1-2. On the contrary, the teaching of the rest of the Bible on the subject informs our reading of Genesis. But the point is that Genesis gives us the positive model of the marriage relationship that enables us to understand properly the reasons for the biblical prohibitions of sexual activities outside that marriage relationship. In other words, the Bible does not arbitrarily forbid homosexual acts for no good reason, but offers a positive view of sexuality within which the Bible’s commandments and prohibitions make sense.

Two objections may be answered here to making the man-woman relationship in Genesis 1-2 a model which excludes all homosexual unions. The first is that the Old Testament appears to permit polygamy, which is inconsistent with the picture in Genesis of marriage as a union of one man and one woman. The issue here is actually a little complicated. Although it is true that the Old Testament apparently never explicitly forbids polygamy, it clearly does discourage it in a number of ways. The statutes relating to marriage in the Law of Moses never encourage or sanction polygamy, but instead strictly regulate it to protect the women involved, so much so that men would normally be discouraged from taking more than one wife (Ex. 21:10; Lev. 18:17; 20:14; Deut. 21:15-17). Evidently God allowed polygamy but regarded it as a concession, just as he allowed divorce without approving of it (Deut. 24:1-4; compare Jesus’ comments in Matt. 19:7-9). Throughout the Old Testament the men who took two or more wives — Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon being the most notable examples — lived to regret it, and the consequences for the children were often distressing. In the New Testament, the Genesis ideal is reaffirmed and Christian leaders are required not to be polygamists (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6).

Technically, polygamy is not a different form of marriage, but is an arrangement in which one man is party to more than one marriage. That is, each marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman, but in polygamy a man has committed himself to more than one marriage relationship. Thus, polygamy does not violate the Genesis paradigm of the marriage relationship itself, though it does compromise that paradigm with respect to the number of marriage relationships to which a man is designed to be a party.

The second objection to basing a Christian model of marriage and sex on Genesis 1-2 is that in Genesis marriage was permitted between close relatives (such as a brother and a sister), but in the Law of Moses such marriages were forbidden. This objection fails to give due regard for the unique circumstances of the human race in the early generations of its history. If the human race was to be propagated from an original couple (which is necessary if the human race is to be united), it was unavoidable that siblings would marry in the second and perhaps third generation. Beyond that point marriage between cousins appears to have been allowed, but closer relatives were not encouraged or sanctioned to marry. It is now realized that after the human race had multiplied over many generations, intermarriage between siblings was likely to result in children with birth defects or other congenital problems. In any case at no time in history did God ever permit marriage across all relations — for example, it was never morally permissible for a man to take his daughter, or for a man to marry his mother.

Neither of these two objections really undermines the claim that Genesis indicates that marriage is intended to be a relationship between persons of the opposite sex. Admittedly marriages among God’s people did not always match the Genesis paradigm exactly, but no commandment or teaching in either the Old or New Testament suggests that there is any legitimate exception that would allow homosexual unions to be regarded as morally acceptable.

The Sins of Sodom

Probably the most often discussed passage in the Bible in relation to homosexuality is the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. On the traditional view, these cities were destroyed because they had become so morally degenerate that homosexual acts were common there. Defenders of homosexuality often argue that the sin of Sodom in particular (the city in which Lot lived) was inhospitality — or more strongly, mistreatment of strangers.

The account in Genesis 19 is an historical narrative and not a piece of ethical instruction, so we should not expect to find a fully developed “case” against homosexuality. In particular, we do not find a general discussion of the moral status of homosexual acts. Still, the attempt by some interpreters to eliminate homosexuality from the picture in Genesis 19 must be judged unsuccessful. For example, it is often claimed that when the townsmen ask for the men staying with Lot (who were actually angels) to be sent outside “that we may know them” (Gen. 19:5, literal translation), that they are demanding an opportunity to interrogate them and are not asking to “know them carnally” (NKJV). But this reading misses two points in the immediate context. First, Lot’s response to the townsmen is to offer to send his daughters out to them so that they can do whatever the like to them (v. 8). This is obviously an offer to satisfy their sexual demands in an alternative way. Second, Lot describes his daughters by saying that they “have not known a man” (v. 8). Here the same word “know” is used as in verse 5, and here it is clear that Lot is describing his daughters as virgins.3 Thus there is no getting around the fact that the men wanted to have their way sexually with the strangers.

A better point is that the townsmen were not seeking consensual homosexual relations with the strangers, but were in fact threatening to rape them.4 There is no denying that such was their intention. However, the underlying assumption in Lot’s offer of his virgin daughters as alternatives was that he saw homosexual acts as inherently immoral. This does not mean, as Spong erroneously claims, that “the biblical narrative approves Lot’s offer.”5 Rather the point is that the whole story assumes that homosexual acts were regarded as particularly strong evidence of moral corruption — the basis for the Lord’s judgment of the cities in the first place. The text does not present a sinless Lot in contrast to a wicked Sodom, but a sinful but believing Lot saved by grace from the punishment brought on the wicked and unrepentant Sodom.

Later texts in the Bible show that while homosexual acts were not the only evidence of moral degeneration in Sodom, such activity was part of the picture. Ezekiel states that Sodom was condemned for their arrogance, failure to help the poor and needy, and their committing “abomination” (Ezek. 16:49-50), which in context appears to refer at least in part to sexual sins (cf. vv. 43-48, 51-58), and which is used in both of the texts in Leviticus (to be discussed shortly) that specifically condemn homosexual acts (18:22; 20:13).6 In the New Testament epistle of Jude, Sodom and Gomorrah are said to have been condemned because they had “given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh” (Jude 7).

The claim here is not, as some critics of the traditional view have mistakenly supposed, that the entire male population of Sodom was exclusively homosexual in today’s concept of a person with homosexual orientation.7 But the fact is that at least some of the men of Sodom must have had some experience with homosexual acts for them to come to Lot’s house demanding to gang rape his guests. And evidently the male population of Sodom as a whole was enthusiastically supportive of the idea of some of their members forcing the strangers to engage in such acts.

As wicked as Sodom and Gomorrah were judged to be, there is a sin that is far worse than any they committed. The worse sin possible is the sin of rejecting the mercy and forgiveness which Jesus offers. Jesus said that it would be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Sodom and Gomorrah than for those who reject his disciples when they bring the message of his saving kingdom (Matt. 10:15). The comparison Jesus makes is this: The angels who went to Sodom were prepared to take anyone who respected them and accepted their message out of the city to safety, yet were rejected and threatened with abuse. The disciples who went to the towns of Israel with the gospel were offering eternal salvation to anyone who respected them and accepted their message; those who rejected them were therefore rejecting a greater salvation and would be judged more harshly. In making this comparison, Jesus is not denying the sexual immorality of the Sodomites; indeed, part of why he refers to them is because their homosexuality had made them in Jewish thinking proverbial examples of gross sin. Nor is he saying that judgment would come on Jewish towns merely for refusing “to welcome His disciples with appropriate hospitality,” as evangelical gay writer Mel White has argued.8 Rather, Jesus is saying that as grossly immoral as the people of Sodom were, their punishment will not be as severe as that brought upon the Jewish people if they reject their Messiah. Jesus’ comparison thus presupposes the traditional Jewish understanding of the time that the Sodomites were destroyed because of their complete moral degeneracy, of which their homosexual practices were symptomatic.

Leviticus and Abominations

By far the most difficult passages in the Bible relating to homosexuality to explain away are the categorical prohibitions of homosexual acts in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. As J. Gordon Melton puts it, these verses “have proved the hardest to reinterpret.”9 Both of these texts forbid men to engage in sexual activity with men, and label such activity an “abomination.” Most writers defending homosexuality admit that these texts condemn same-sex acts, but try to show that they reflect a culturally archaic situation and thus no longer apply today.

The basic difficulty facing any such explanation of the Leviticus texts is that the description of homosexual acts as an “abomination” is in the context referring to God’s assessment of homosexual acts. That is, Leviticus asserts that God himself finds such practices abominable, and makes that the reason they are so strongly forbidden.

Two completely opposite strategies have been used to discredit these prohibitions as moral absolutes. On the one hand, it has been suggested that Leviticus is describing homosexuality as offensive to the Israelites, and not necessarily to God. On the other hand, it has been argued that Leviticus describes homosexuality as an abomination to God only because of some religious or ritual associations which same-sex acts had in ancient Israelite society. The context rules out both of these interpretations. Shortly after forbidding men to lie with other men and stating, “It is an abomination” (Lev. 18:22), God warns the Israelites that they

shall not commit any of these abominations . . . for all these abominations the men of the land have done, who were before you, and thus the land is defiled. . . . For whoever commits any of these abominations, the persons who commit them shall be cut off from among their people. Therefore you shall keep my ordinance, so that you do not commit any of these abominable customs which were committed before you, and that you do not defile yourselves by them: I am the Lord your God (Lev. 18:26-30).

Several points should be noted here. First of all, this is God speaking. The passage is thus an expression of God’s judgment of homosexual and other acts, not the Israelites’ judgment about them.

Second, what God calls detestable acts are said to be customary in Canaan. The obvious implication is that the Canaanites, at least, did not find these behaviors abominable. Thus the test of sexual morality is not how it makes us feel, but rather how it makes God “feel.”

Third, twice in this passage the description of the acts as “abominations” is linked to the land and the people becoming “defiled.” Defilement is a religious concept, not a sociological one. The point again is that these acts were an offense to God, whether or not they were offensive to human beings.

Fourth, this reference to defilement has been taken to prove the theory that homosexuality is being condemned only in some ritual or ceremonial religious context. But this will not work. For one thing, nothing is said to indicate that a pagan ritual association was even part of the rationale for the prohibition. Besides, sex acts between men and women were also (indeed, more commonly) part of pagan rituals. It makes no sense for language specifying same-sex acts to be used if the problem that was really being targeted was not limited to such acts. Moreover, the pagans practiced homosexual acts both in ritual settings and outside them. Since such a distinction would have been familiar in that culture, there is no reason why Leviticus might not have allowed for non-ritual homosexual acts if they were deemed morally permissible. In any case, that homosexual acts are being condemned here for reasons unrelated to pagan rituals is clear in the larger context of the chapter. It is not merely homosexuality, but all of the acts forbidden in this chapter, that are considered abominable (as verses 26-30 say); these include the following.

Incest (vv. 6-18). Specifically, Leviticus 18 forbids sex with parents or children, siblings, and other close relatives. (Note that “uncovering the nakedness” of another does not mean merely seeing them in the nude, but is a euphemism for sexual intimacy.) The prohibitions here are as general and categorical as they could be. All such sexual acts are forbidden, regardless of how the two people involved feel about each other, or how old or young they are. By extension, these prohibitions have been extended to forbid marriages between people related in the ways mentioned. Obviously, these prohibitions have nothing to do with ritual taboos.

Violating a woman during her menstrual period (v. 19). It is unlikely that this verse is referring to sex between a husband and wife during her menstrual period, as Spong and others assume.10 A few chapters earlier such an act is regarded as making the man ritually unclean for seven days (15:24). Here, though (compare v. 29), and explicitly in a related text (20:18), the act is punishable by death. Thus, the act in view here must be different from the one in chapter 15 and must be regarded as a more serious kind of offense. It is therefore most likely that the act forbidden here is one that took place between persons who were not married, and probably one in which the man violated the woman (since she is not likely to have consented freely during that time). We are therefore not dealing here with a matter of ritual purity, but of morality.

Adultery (v. 20). Notice that this act is also said to be defiling. There is no denying that this refers to a consensual sexual act. Moreover, the general description of all of these acts as detestable to God (vv. 26-30) shows that God considers heterosexual adultery to be detestable, too, and not merely homosexual acts. Adulterers in the church (and there are many) who openly condemn homosexuality as an abomination but refuse to repent of their sin of adultery are hypocrites. The hypocrite is still right in his view of homosexuality, though. The problem with the hypocrite is generally not that he is wrong about others, but that he is wrong about himself (cf. Matt. 23).

Child sacrifice (v. 21). I think it safe to assume we all know this is an offense to God; if we have any doubts, such an act is said here to “profane the name of your God.” This is the one sin condemned in Leviticus 18 that is not overtly sexual in nature, though evidently child sacrifice to Molech was part of pagan rituals that included sexual immorality as well (cf. Lev. 20:4-5). This is also the one prohibition dealing with acts that clearly did take place in a pagan context — but presumably no one is prepared to say that child sacrifice was condemned only when the children were sacrificed to the wrong god! Surely the horrific abuse of the children is itself being condemned. Would it be permissible to kill innocent children today, as long as it was not in a pagan ritual? (Come to think of it, that is happening now — it’s called abortion.)

Homosexual acts (v. 22). These are the acts under consideration.

Bestiality (v. 23). This act is described as a “perversion,” a term which connotes that the act is utterly unnatural.

It is clear from surveying all of the forbidden acts in Leviticus 18 that all of them are condemned as categorically immoral. The term “abomination” in this context clearly means something that is particularly offensive in the sight of God. This is true of the word “abomination” in general. If we list those offenses which Deuteronomy, for example, labels “abomination,” it becomes clear that it is impossible to exclude a moral force to the term, either by limiting it to a description of how the Israelites felt about these practices or by understanding it to denote a mere ritual uncleanness.11 These offenses are sometimes specifically called “an abomination to the Lord,” at other times simply called “an abomination”:

    1. idolatry (Deut. 7:25-26; 13:13-14; 17:4; 27:15; 32:16-17)

    2. child sacrifice (Deut. 12:31)

    3. offering blemished sacrifices (Deut. 17:1)

    4. occult practices — divination, witchcraft, necromancy, etc. (Deut. 18:9-12)

    5. cross-dressing (Deut. 22:5)

    6. offering money from prostitutes (Deut. 23:17-18)

    7. divorced and remarried woman returning to her first husband (Deut. 24:4)

    8. using different weights and measures, i.e., fraud (Deut. 25:13-16)

Were we to go through the entire Old Testament, we would see the same sorts of things. Some of these practices have specifically religious contexts (idolatry, most obviously), but others just as obviously don’t involve ritual or sacral practices (the last two listed above being rather obvious examples). The sinfulness of none of these behaviors appears to be dependent on some archaic cultural feature of ancient Israelite society. If we regard biblical morality as normative, then all such behaviors are just as wrong today as they were three thousand years ago. Again, if we have a problem with that, it is an indicator of our own moral compass being “off” rather than of any defect in biblical teaching.

So far, we have said nothing about the fact that in Leviticus 20:13 homosexual acts are said to be punishable by death. The argument that homosexuality is immoral and forbidden by God is not based on the premise that Leviticus imposes the death penalty for such acts. Rather, Leviticus shows that homosexuality is immoral because it is ranged with a variety of other sexual sins that are indisputably moral offenses (Lev. 18:6-23; 20:10-21). The death penalty shows how severely this particular act was judged under the Mosaic Law, and does not necessarily translate into a prescription for how the act should be viewed in the criminal codes of modern, non-Israelite nations.

On the other hand, the Mosaic Law did not impose death penalties for trivial offenses. Mel White’s argument is typical. Leviticus, he says, imposes the death penalty “for a variety of other sins as well” as homosexuality. “Imagine killing a child for cursing her parents or putting someone to death for working on Sunday or executing a neighbor for using God’s name in vain.”12 But White has misconstrued all three of the Levitical laws to which he is referring here. Let’s take them one at a time.

Leviticus 20:9 states that “everyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death.” Since this statute follows immediately upon statutes condemning child sacrifice (vv. 1-5) and occultism (v. 6), it is clear that the offense is a serious one. All three of the offenses involve attempts to wield destructive power from spiritual forces that in fact are evil and demonic. The offense in verse 9 is that of calling upon some deity to bring a curse on one’s parents. It is not merely using words like “damn” in reference to one’s parents (though that is also wrong).

Leviticus 23:30 is said by White to call for the death penalty for “one who works on the Sabbath.” On this supposition he suggests that a modern-day literal application would be to execute anyone working on Sunday.13 But his reading of the text is either careless or a deliberate misrepresentation, since it has nothing to do with the weekly Sabbath. The death penalty in this passage is imposed on any Israelite who works on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the most solemn holy day of the Israelite calendar (vv. 26-29). Since there is nothing in Christianity or the general modern culture outside Judaism corresponding to the Day of Atonement, there is no reason to expect that this capital offense in Old Testament religion would apply today.

The third death penalty which White misconstrues is the one associated with blaspheming God’s name (Lev. 24:16). White trivializes the offense by describing it as “using God’s name in vain.” In fact the offense was that someone spoke a curse against God (vv. 10-15). Again, cursing in biblical thought is not merely careless language using God’s name, but invoking a deity or spiritual power to bring evil upon someone. To curse the Lord God, then, is to declare spiritual warfare against the true God, the God of Israel. Since Israel’s national existence was the direct result of God’s miraculous intervention on their behalf, and their nation was constituted legally as a people sworn by a covenant oath to worship and honor the Lord as their God, it is perfectly understandable that the Law would impose the maximum penalty on someone who openly cursed God. Such an act is akin to treason, and in fact more serious than treason, since the government that is betrayed is the kingdom of God.

Again, the few death penalties in the Mosaic Law for offenses relating to the Israelite religious system rather than directly moral offenses do not apply directly to modern non-Israelite nations. But it does not follow that the acts that were punishable by death are not still sins. Christians do not have a Day of Atonement, but the other two offenses are still possible today. Anyone who called upon a false god or occult power to bring harm upon their parents, or who cursed God himself, would surely have to be regarded as having sinned grievously. Even if we decided that none of the capital offenses in Leviticus should be punished by death today, that wouldn’t change the fact that they were and are still wrong — they are still sins. White himself slips and admits this when he says that “the death penalty was also demanded for a variety of other sins as well.”14 And indeed all of the capital offenses White cites are all sins: cursing one’s parents, adultery, incest, bestiality, occultism, prostitution, cursing God, and sexually violating a woman (even during her period, when she cannot become pregnant) are all surely sins (Lev. 20:9-18, 27; 21:9; 23:30; 24:16). Roughly the same list is produced by Spong, who also fails to notice that even in his radically liberal ethic most of these acts are viewed as immoral.15 It is therefore purely arbitrary to exclude homosexual acts, which are included in the same section of Leviticus as acts identified as “abominations” to God and as punishable in Israel by death (18:22; 20:13), from the category of sins.

Further confusing the matter, White argues that the laws in this section of Leviticus have no moral force because “even conservative Christian scholars seem to agree that the warnings were not about ethical or moral issues so much as they were a ‘Holiness Code’ describing acts that caused a Jewish man to be unclean and therefore unable to enter the courtyard of the temple for worship.”16 The confusion is obvious: how can Leviticus impose the death penalty for offenses that merely cause Jewish men to become ritually unclean? If a man is put to death, surely the question of whether he can “enter the courtyard of the temple for worship” is moot!

What White is confusing here are those elements of the “Holiness Code” (a term scholars do often use for this portion of Leviticus) that have to do with ritual purity and those that have to do with moral purity. It should be obvious that such commands as “Do not have sexual relations with an animal” (18:23) and “Do not defraud your neighbor or rob him” (19:13) are moral in their intent and force. The majority of the commands and statutes in Leviticus 18-20 clearly fall into this category. Most of the exceptions fall in one passage (19:19-37), where moral and ritual laws are mixed in order to make the point that Israel was expected to abide by all of the laws regardless of what kind they were. Both of the texts forbidding homosexuality are part of extended passages dealing unambiguously with issues of sexual morality (18:6-23; 20:10-21).

A couple of other objections to reading the Levitical texts as condemning all same-sex unions should be considered. It is sometimes argued that the texts do not condemn all such relations since nothing is said in Leviticus (or anywhere else in the Old Testament) about same-sex unions between two women.17 The premise is correct, but the argument ignores the form and perspective of Leviticus 18. All of the prohibitions are directed to adult men because the family heads in Israelite society were indisputably the men and therefore the primary responsibility for making certain these laws were obeyed was assigned to the men. Thus Leviticus commands the Israelite man not to have sexual relations with his mother (v. 7), stepmother (v. 8), sister or half-sister (v. 9), granddaughter (v. 10), stepsister (v. 11), aunt (vv. 12-13), uncle’s wife (v. 14), daughter-in-law (v. 15), or sister-in-law (v. 16); he is also forbidden to marry or have sexual relations with a woman and her daughter or her granddaughter (v. 17), or to marry or have sexual relations with a woman and her sister (v. 18). Finally, he is forbidden to have sexual relations with a woman during her period (v. 19), to commit adultery with his neighbor’s wife (v. 20), to allow any of his children to be sacrificed to Molech (v. 21), to have sexual relations with a man (v. 22), or to have sexual relations with an animal (v. 23). Only the last prohibition, regarding bestiality, explicitly adds a statement specifying that women are also prohibited from that act (v. 23). It is clear that the Israelites were to see these prohibitions as paradigms, not as an exhaustive list; what was forbidden to the men was also by implication forbidden to the women.

One of the more interesting explanations for the Levitical condemnations of homosexuality is that the Israelites were greatly concerned with increasing their population and therefore forbade sexual activities, such as homosexual acts, that “wasted” reproductive resources. Spong, for instance, argues that the Levitical laws originated during the exile in the sixth century B.C. (in other words, about nine centuries after Moses), when “the passion to reproduce, to guarantee the future of the exiled nation, was a very high priority and would have mitigated against any practices wherein the potential source of life was wasted.”18 Setting aside Spong’s assumption that Leviticus was written centuries after Moses (which we deny, but which is not essential to Spong’s conclusion), there are still several major difficulties with the theory.

First, the Bible never urges the Israelites to have large families or to avoid non-procreative sexual pleasures in order to guarantee the survival of their race.

Second, if we may express the point somewhat crudely, on Spong’s theory as long as men were having sex with women on a regular basis, there would be no reason for the Jews to object to a little man-on-man sex “on the side,” as long as the girls were kept pregnant.

Third, why doesn’t Leviticus condemn masturbation by married men, since such acts waste procreative resources just as much as homosexual acts? Sexual libertines delight in pointing out that the Bible never actually condemns masturbation. But this very fact proves that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality for trivial or non-moral reasons, and certainly not because it “wastes seed.”

Fourth, the Old Testament is replete with narratives of the Israelites winning armies despite the numerical superiority of the opposing forces. Their cultural and political success did not depend on winning a procreation race.

Fifth and last, Deuteronomy 7:7 notes the fact that Israel was numerically very small, and makes the point that the Lord’s favor does not depend on its size. This statement is at least in tension with the notion that Israel was under pressure to increase its population.

One more objection to the Levitical prohibitions of homosexual acts must be considered. It is often argued that even if Leviticus condemns all same-sex acts, that condemnation should not be taken seriously today because people didn’t know back then that natural homosexuals existed. Later in this chapter we will discuss the question of whether homosexuality is a natural orientation. But there are several problems with this objection to the applicability of the Levitical laws, even assuming for sake of argument that the premise is true.

First of all, if it was true that some people are naturally homosexual, God knew it then. This is an important point, since Leviticus presents these moral laws as coming from God through Moses. Is this true, or isn’t it? Some defenders of the morality of homosexual acts, such as Spong, have the candor to say forthrightly that they think it isn’t true — that “the Levitical condemnation of homosexuality is a pre-modern illustration of ignorance.”19 But even on the supposition that Leviticus wasn’t divinely inspired, other problems remain.

For example, if some people grow up always feeling naturally homosexual, wouldn’t they know it, even if most of the Israelites didn’t believe it? Wouldn’t such homosexuals have known that about themselves two and three thousand years ago, as well as they supposedly do today? They wouldn’t need to wait for modern science, because some people in the modern gay-rights movement were claiming that homosexuals are born that way long before any scientists had produced studies supposedly lending credence to that claim. But in fact there is no evidence that anyone in the ancient world believed or claimed, for example, that some men were naturally attracted only to men. There is no evidence that the Jews ever felt it necessary to deny, much less refute, the notion that some people are naturally homosexual while others are not. If no one felt that way when Leviticus was written, then evidently there were no “homosexuals” in the modern sense of the word. But of course the legitimacy of the modern homosexual rights movement depends on the claim that some percentage of the population has always been naturally inclined toward homosexuality.

In other words, it is quite true that Leviticus makes no distinction between heterosexuals engaging in homosexual acts that were not natural to them and homosexuals engaging in homosexual acts that were natural to them. But in light of the fact that this distinction seems to be unknown not only to ancient times but to all history until the past century or so, it would seem that no one whose homosexual acts were condemned under the Levitical law would even have thought about claiming that they were only doing what came naturally. That being the case, rather than conclude that Leviticus reflects a primitive ignorance, we might consider the possibility that our modern notions about homosexuality reflect a modern arrogance.

Another way the objection is sometimes made is that Leviticus does not deal with homosexual acts between two consenting adults in a monogamous, caring relationship. Again, it is quite true that no distinction is ever made in Leviticus, or anywhere else in the Bible, between homosexual acts in a “loving” relationship and homosexual acts outside such a relationship. Nor does any Old Testament text say or imply that these sexual acts are permissible as long as the “relationship” can be characterized in that way. But this omission in Leviticus does not create a “loophole” that can be used to justify homosexuality. After all, it makes no sense to understand any of the other sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18 in this fashion. No one seriously suggests, for example, that Leviticus condemns casual sex between a man and his mother but by omission leaves open the possibility that a man might ethically choose to marry his mother (we’ll assume his father is dead) and have sex with her, as long as it’s in the context of “a monogamous, caring relationship.” “Love” cannot make sex with one’s sister or mother, or with one’s neighbor’s wife, or with an animal, all right. To say otherwise is to substitute one’s own notions of love for the biblical view.

We conclude that there is no way around the clear prohibitions of Leviticus against homosexual acts. The traditional Jewish and Christian understanding, that these verses forbid certain kinds of sexual acts irrespective of how people feel who engage in them, seems to be the only legitimate interpretation.

Paul on Homosexuality

The clearest passage in the New Testament on homosexuality is Romans 1:26-27, where Paul says that

God gave them [the Gentiles] up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.

Paul is traditionally understood here to be describing same-sex acts, both between women and between men, in the most general terms as indicative of the moral corruption that resulted from the Gentiles’ idolatrous ignorance of God. Paul specifically characterizes homosexuality here as vile, unnatural, and shameful, terms that appear to indicate that homosexual sin is particularly degrading and offensive.

As with the prohibitions in Leviticus, critics of the traditional interpretation of Romans 1:26-27 admit that Paul is talking about homosexual acts but try to show that what he says does not condemn homosexuality as a sexual orientation. In support of this claim, some have argued that Paul is here describing same-sex acts as a punishment for the sin of idolatry, and therefore such acts are not themselves the real sin. Spong, for example, reasons, “Homosexual activity was regarded by Paul as a punishment visited upon the idolaters by God because of their unfaithfulness. . . . Homosexuality was thus for Paul not the sin but the punishment.”20

Spong’s argument overlooks just how Paul relates Gentile idolatry with Gentile sexual practices. Twice Paul describes God’s action as God “giving them up” to improper sexual desires: “God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts. . . . God gave them up to vile passions” (vv. 24, 26). This language is used a third time in verse 28, where Paul says that “God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting. . .” (v. 28). The expression “gave them over” implies that God allowed the Gentiles to suffer the consequences of their idolatrous ignorance of God. In other words, in verses 24-31 Paul is describing how the Gentiles’ moral corruption followed upon their spiritual and religious corruption.

Now, in context these consequences of the idolatrous rejection of God are most obviously sinful. The catalog of sinful attitudes in verses 29-31 are the very sort of wicked attitudes that Spong and other liberal Christians emphasize as the greatest sins — greed, murder, strife, gossip, arrogance, and the like. But these are just as “natural” to sinful human beings as are the sexual lusts described earlier. More properly (since Paul says same-sex acts are actually “unnatural”), such sins as greed and murder are just as much the result of God’s judicial decision to give the pagans over to follow their own inclinations. Yet these acts are obviously sinful and immoral.

In context, then, same-sex acts are cited by Paul as particularly offensive examples of the moral corruption in the Gentile world. The long list of sins in verses 29-31 follows the references to sexual sins as a bridge to the next stage of Paul’s argument, where he will point out that no one, whether noble pagan or religious Jew, is free from the moral corruption that is so obvious in the larger Gentile world (Rom. 2:1-3:20).

Spong and others also reason that Paul spoke critically of homosexual acts because he was unaware of the possibility that some people were naturally inclined to homosexual affections. “He did not or perhaps could not imagine a life in which the affections of a male might be naturally directed to another male.”21 Once again, this we-know-better-now reasoning fails to see just how much Paul did seem to understand. In this very passage we find Paul explaining that the same-sex acts which he criticizes are motivated by the passions of those who engage in them. Paul understood full well that the people who engage in such acts feel driven to them by their emotions, by their sexual and emotional urges. He simply did not share the modern assumption that if a person has passionate feelings, those feelings must be “natural” for the person and therefore should be affirmed and accepted and even, if possible, acted upon. In fact, Paul specifically says that same-sex acts, even those motivated by strong passions, are unnatural (vv. 26-27).

It turns out that we need to distinguish between what feels natural and what really is natural. The depraved may feel sexual passion toward persons of the same sex, or toward children; they may feel hatred toward persons of another color; they may feel that it is natural to them to feel this way — but all of these feelings are a perversion of human nature.

Romans 1 is not the only passage where Paul mentions homosexuality, although it is the main one. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 practicing homosexuals are listed among those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. They are associated with idolaters, adulterers, thieves, swindlers, and the like (vv. 9-10), all of whom heard the gospel and left their sinful lifestyles behind by the grace of God. Similarly, in 1 Timothy 1:9-10 Paul says that the law is intended to expose sinners of all kinds, including homosexuals along with murderers, kidnappers, perjurers, and the like.

Both of these passages use the term arsenokoitai, which is traditionally understood to refer to those committing same-sex acts. Critics of this traditional interpretation have tried to prove that the word has been mistranslated; they usually conclude that the word referred to male prostitutes. But David Wright has shown that the term is a compound word based on two Greek words used in both of the Leviticus texts condemning homosexual acts as found in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament used in Paul’s day by Greek-speaking Jews). Leviticus 18:22 in the Septuagint says, “Do not lie with a male [arsenos] as one lies [koiten] with a woman,” while Leviticus 20:13 reads, “Whoever lies with a male as one lies [arsenos koiten] with a woman.” The word arsenokoites was evidently coined by Greek-speaking Jews (possibly even by Paul himself) to refer to persons guilty of engaging in the act forbidden in these texts.22 Thus Paul is not referring to male prostitutes or to some other special class of persons, but to anyone who engages in homosexual acts.

The reasonable person might come away from the Bible uncertain as to whether every passage traditionally thought to condemn homosexuality really does so. The account of Sodom’s destruction, for example, seems to stop short of explicitly teaching that all homosexual acts are immoral. But there is no reasonable way to eliminate the idea from the Bible altogether. Both Old and New Testaments contain explicit statements categorically describing same-sex acts as sin, going so far as to label them abominations, unnatural and shameful acts, and warning that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Only someone wanting desperately to justify homosexual acts, either for himself or herself or as part of a larger agenda of sexual liberation from biblical and traditional morality, could convince themselves that the Bible does not condemn all homosexual acts as grievous sin.

We have argued that the Bible clearly teaches that homosexual acts are immoral. But is the Bible right? The principal objection to the validity of the Bible’s teaching on this matter is that the biblical writers did not realize that some people are naturally homosexuals. This is the question that will occupy our attention in the rest of this chapter.

Doing What Comes Naturally?

The modern homosexual rights movement insists that the traditional Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) view of homosexuality as a perversion is wrong. While engaging in same-sex acts may be unnatural for most people, it is claimed that such acts are natural for those who identify themselves as homosexuals or “gays” (male homosexuals) and “lesbians” (female homosexuals). Those who say that all homosexual behavior is immoral on this view are actually attacking a class of people who are the way they are through no fault or choice of their own. Homosexuals commonly compare their appeal for equal status and acceptance in society to the civil rights movement for racial minorities or the feminist struggle for equal rights for women. Usually they claim that homosexuals are born as such — that is, that those who feel sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex do so because they are born with a genetic predisposition toward same-sex intimacy that can no more be denied that most people’s instinctive desire for sexual intimacy with someone of the opposite sex.

Gay Apologetics

Those who argue that homosexuals are born that way and that it is perfectly natural for them offer a number of arguments in support of this conclusion. We will confine ourselves to what seem to be the three most common and important lines of reasoning. First, it is argued that roughly 10 percent of the population are homosexuals. Spong regards this as a very important point.

Statistically this means that in the United States of America, homosexuality is the sexual orientation of some twenty-eight million citizens. It means that every time one hundred people gather in a church anywhere in this nation, the mathematical probability is that ten of them are gay or lesbian persons. . . . It means that in every core family or extended family, when the circle expands to ten persons, there is a mathematical probability that one member will be gay or lesbian.23

Not only does this suggest that all of us have family members and close friends who are homosexual, but it also undermines the notion that homosexuals have something wrong with them, since “any process of nature that occurs one time out of every ten can hardly be called a malfunction.”24

Second, various scientific studies are cited that show that the brains of homosexual men differ in certain subtle ways from those of heterosexual men. The most famous such study, published in 1991, showed that tiny parts of the anterior hypothalamus region of the brain that are usually “more than twice as large in men as they are in women” were in gay men about the same size as those of women.25 Another commonly cited 1991 study reported that slightly more than half of the identical twin brothers of gay men were also gay, while only 22 percent of the non-identical twin brothers and 11 percent of the adopted brothers of gay men were themselves gay.26 A 1993 study appeared to provide even stronger proof of a genetic link. It examined the DNA of 40 pairs of brothers who were both gay and found that 33 of the 40 pairs “shared five different patches of genetic material grouped around a particular area on the X chromosome.” The study suggested that this finding provided “by far the strongest evidence to date that there is a genetic component to sexual orientation.”27

Third, it is asserted that homosexuality is an incorrigible sexual orientation in gays and lesbians that cannot be changed. Any suggestion that homosexual feelings and desires can be unlearned, or that people can be “cured” of homosexuality, is rejected. It is in fact argued that attempting to change homosexuals’ sexual feelings and practices, in psychotherapy for example, is actually harmful to them.28

Cumulatively, these arguments seem to be convincing a growing number of people today that homosexuality is an inborn orientation, not a choice. What shall we say about these arguments?

How Many Are They?

Until very recently homosexual rights advocates have confidently made the claim that ten percent of Americans are homosexual. Analyses of the study on which this figure is based, as well as more recent studies, have weakened that confidence. The original study on which the figure was based was a 1948 Alfred Kinsey study29 that was seriously flawed and even more seriously misconstrued by the homosexual rights movement. The study was flawed primarily because it was based on an unrepresentative sample of the population: 25 percent of his sample were or had been prison inmates; all of the people included in his survey were volunteers who agreed to tell him about their sexual experiences and practices (leaving out most people of traditional morals who would be more reticent to talk about such matters); the sample was heavily weighted with homosexuals because Kinsey gathered his interviews by visiting gay bars and other gathering places.30

The study was also badly misused, though, because Kinsey did not conclude that ten percent of Americans were homosexual. Rather, he concluded that about ten percent of Americans had been primarily or exclusively homosexual in their sexual activities for a period of three years. Only about four percent of American males and about two percent of American females, on Kinsey’s count, were primarily homosexual throughout their life. When the skewed nature of his sample is taken into account, it becomes clear that if anything his study suggests that the percentage of homosexual males in America is probably significantly less than four percent.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s more sophisticated and accurate studies completely discredited the ten percent figure. Six separate surveys were conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and the National Opinion Research Center between 1988 and 1990; these surveys consistently show that about three percent or less of American males have engaged in same-sex acts during the past fifteen years. Studies published in 1993 and 1994 found that between 5.5 and 7 percent of men, and between 2.5 and 4 percent of women, had ever engaged in same-sex relations.31 The author of the 1993 study of genetic factors in homosexual brothers, mentioned earlier, that same year reported that his research showed that the percentage of American males who were exclusively homosexual was about 2 percent.32

Probably the most illuminating study to date was one published in 1994 that surveyed 3,432 Americans. It found that about 9 percent of men, and about 4 percent of women, had engaged in a same-sex act at least once in their lives. Roughly 5 percent of men and 4 percent of women said they were attracted to persons of the same sex; these numbers include persons who said they were attracted to persons of both sexes. Most telling, “About 1.4 percent of the women said they thought of themselves as homosexual or bisexual and about 2.8 percent of the men identified themselves in this way.”33

It appears, then, that the percentage of Americans who think of themselves as homosexuals is roughly 2 percent — a little higher for men, a little lower for women. Somehow it should not have surprised us to learn that the number of homosexuals in America is probably less than six million, not the twenty-eight million claimed by Bishop Spong. Moreover, homosexuals are not spread evenly through the American population. In the twelve largest U.S. metropolitan cities about 9 percent of the population consider themselves homosexual or bisexual, compared to less than 2 percent in most of the nation’s suburbs and about 1 percent in rural areas.34 This means that, contrary to Spong, the vast majority of families and churches in America are unlikely to have any homosexual members.

Were They Born That Way?

Some of the studies that have been thought to prove that homosexuals are born that way are of dubious relevance to that claim. LeVay, for example, denies that his study proves that homosexuals were genetically determined to be homosexual.35 He does think there may be a genetic factor, but his own study is inconclusive. LeVay had studied the bodies of deceased men; all of the men thought to be homosexuals had died of AIDS, and some of the men thought to be heterosexual had also died of AIDS. Since the sample was small (35 males) and probably skewed by the dominance of AIDS victims (a problem especially since the HIV virus can affect brain cells), and since LeVay could not determine if the differences in the brains of homosexual men were the cause of their homosexuality, or were caused by their homosexuality (or by something related to it), drawing conclusions about the basis of homosexuality from his study is hazardous.36

On the other hand, some scientific studies do seem to be making plausible cases for the idea that there may be a genetic factor that contributes toward homosexual orientation. But this is a far cry from the idea that homosexual orientation is genetically predetermined. Indeed, the studies nearly always suggest that this is not so.

For example, the study involving twins of homosexuals does seem to show a possible genetic factor (though even this is disputable), but it flatly disproves genetic determinism of homosexuality. After all, if genetically identical twins are raised together and one of them is gay, the percentage of their identical twins who are also gay should be near 100 percent. Yet the actual figure in the study was 52 percent.37 Why, then, were only 22 percent of the non-identical twins of gay men themselves gay, as compared to 52 percent of identical twins? The answer is quite probably that identical twins tend to be treated differently, and tend to interact with each other and with other persons differently, than do non-identical twins. Indeed, logically the twins study leaves open the possibility that there is no genetic factor at all.38

The best evidence for a genetic factor so far seems to be the study comparing the DNA sequencing around the X chromosome in forty pairs of homosexual brothers. But even this study appears to be rather inconclusive. The findings are given punch by the observation that “homosexuality was the only trait that all thirty-three pairs shared.” But if this study holds up, the most it seems to be able to prove is that there is some genetic factor that makes it more likely that the brother of a gay man will also turn out to be gay. The fact that seven of the forty pairs (that is, about 18 percent) did not have the genetic “marker” suggests that the factor might predispose but not predetermine homosexual feelings. The sample size is fairly small, and the structure of the study (focusing exclusively on pairs of brothers that were both gay, with no comparisons to pairs where one or none is gay) is also a problem.

We may eventually reach some definitive conclusion about the genetic factors in homosexuality. But we can be reasonably confident even now that the evidence will stop short of proving that homosexuals are genetically predetermined from the womb to be homosexuals. At most some people may have a genetic predisposition that makes them more susceptible to becoming attracted to people of the same sex. This still leaves room for social, psychological, and spiritual factors in the development of same-sex attitudes and behaviors.

Similarly, some scientists have been suggesting for years that various other behaviors, including undesirable and destructive behaviors, also have underlying them a genetic component that makes certain people more susceptible to them (e.g., alcoholism, violent aggression). But responsible ethicists and scientists are not claiming that people are born drunks or murderers! Likewise, even if some people are more likely because of their genetic makeup to develop homosexual feelings, this does not mean that people are born homosexuals.

If some people are born homosexuals — which we seriously doubt -- it would indeed not be a sin to be born a homosexual. But even if we were to assume for the sake of argument that there are such persons, it would not follow that it is morally permissible for those born homosexuals to engage in homosexual acts. We’re all born sinners, after all, but that does not mean that it is all right to sin! Many heterosexual men appear to have an instinctive, “natural” desire to be sexually promiscuous; that does not mean that it is morally acceptable to engage in sexual relations with as many persons as possible.

Ironically, at least some homosexuals themselves deny the theory that homosexuals are genetically programmed that way. Some of them worry that the genetic theory of the origin of homosexuality will lead to heterosexuals using genetic engineering to change homosexuals to heterosexuals in the womb. Lesbians in particular often deny or dismiss as irrelevant the genetic deterministic view of homosexuality that is prevalent among gay men. One lesbian writing in Ms. magazine commented:

I personally don’t think I was “born this way.” (In fact, when I’m feeling hostile, I’ve been known to tell right-wingers that I’m a successfully “cured” hetero.) Until I was in my early thirties, I fell in love with men, took pleasure in sleeping with them, and even married one. . . . Virtually every self-identified gay man I’ve ever met has been convinced that his sexuality is a biological given, but lesbians are a mixed bag. My own wildly unscientific estimate is that it’s a pretty even split between the born lesbians and the born agains.39

If it is true that gay men almost always tend to think of themselves as born that way, and lesbians tend to hold varying opinions on that matter, that would tend to show that how people feel about their sexuality does not necessarily reflect what is biologically natural for them.

One last point should be made here. If a genetic factor that predisposes people to homosexuality is ever discovered, advocates of homosexual rights would definitely not be satisfied if society agreed to allow biologically natural homosexuals to engage in same-sex acts, but no one else. What they want is sexual freedom for everyone — straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual — to have sexual relations with anyone they want, male, female, or both. Suppose it became possible to test people for the “gay gene.” Would any homosexuals agree to forego same-sex relations if they turned out to “test negative” for the gene? This is a crucial test question for those who predicate homosexual rights on the supposed genetic, biological basis of homosexuality.

Must They Stay That Way?

The third and final argument that we will consider is the claim that homosexuals cannot change their sexual orientation. If this is true, it is reasoned, then Christians are asking the impossible when they tell homosexuals to repent of their homosexual lifestyle.

Usually the claim that homosexuals cannot change is defended at least in part by the prior claim that homosexuals are born that way. Since there is good reason to deny that homosexuality is genetically predetermined, and even reason to doubt yet that any genetic predisposition has been shown, such opinions about the origins of homosexuality serve as a shaky basis for the claim that homosexuals cannot change.

The supposedly fixed nature of homosexual feelings is sometimes compared to a person being left-handed instead of right-handed. Left-handed people appear to be a distinct minority, and they feel that they cannot change to being right-handed, any more than right-handed people could change to being left-handed. But this analogy actually backfires on the argument in defense of homosexuality as a normal alternative sexual orientation.

For one thing, there is nothing wrong with using one’s left hand instead of using one’s right hand, even if one was born right-handed. Thus, the comparison implies that it would be permissible for those born homosexual to form a heterosexual relationship, or vice versa. And most advocates of homosexual rights, when pressed, will admit that they think this is so. But then, as pointed out earlier, it really does not matter whether homosexuality is biologically natural (like being left-handed) or not.

Second, and more devastating, it is a well-known fact that handedness can be taught. That is, persons who were born left-handed can be taught to use their right hand, and eventually will even feel right-handed. For example, persons who suddenly lose the use of their “natural” hand will at first feel very uncomfortable using the other hand, and may feel that it is “unnatural” to do so. But eventually they will become adept at it. Children who may have been born left-handed are often trained by their parents to be right-handed because the parents prefer that their children be right-handed. The analogy, then, seems counterproductive to the claim that those born homosexual cannot change.

The division of humanity into two neat classes, those born heterosexual and those born homosexual, ignores the sociological facts. A relatively large percentage of people (though still a minority) evidently have on occasion had sexual feelings toward a person of the same sex. A smaller percentage of people at any one time find persons of the same sex sexually attractive (about five percent of men and four percent of women). The percentage of people who have engaged in consensual same-sex acts ever in their lives is also small (about nine percent for men and four percent for women). The percentage of people who feel themselves oriented exclusively to same-sex relations throughout their life is much smaller still (less than two percent). Then there are those who believe themselves to be bisexual (less than one percent).40 These statistics present a much messier picture than the simplistic view that people are naturally either homosexual or heterosexual. In fact, they “illustrate how difficult it is to decide who is, and who is not, a homosexual.”41

There are people whose homosexual feelings run very strong and who find it difficult if not impossible to eliminate such feelings. There is evidence that shows conclusively that homosexual “orientation” can be successfully overcome, though all the evidence suggests that this is rarely easy and that most people who leave the homosexual lifestyle will continue to struggle with homosexual feelings through much of their life.42 Throughout America there are now a number of support groups of former homosexuals (the best known of which is Exodus International), both gays and lesbians, who testify that they have left their former lifestyle behind. Homosexual rights advocates who deny that these Christians were ever “really” homosexual, or who claim that such Christians must be repressing their natural homosexual feelings, show by their response that they don’t want to believe that they can change.

For Christians overcoming a homosexual past, what enables them to change is the transforming power of the love of God given to them through faith in Jesus Christ. These Christians struggle with sexual temptation and sometimes fall into sexual sin, just as do Christians who have never had homosexual feelings. But the constant which gives their lives stability and hope is the knowledge that they are loved by a God who created them for love and who will sustain them as they seek to love other human beings according to his divine design and intention as revealed in Scripture. That, and not the reckless indulgence of one’s feelings or the fulfillment of one’s passions, is the true meaning of love.


1 John Shelby Spong, Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality (New York: HarperCollins — Harper San Francisco, 1990), 135-36.

2 The argument here is similar to that developed by Thomas E. Schmidt, Straight and Narrow? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 39-45.

3 Cf. Schmidt, Straight and Narrow, 87.

4 This is the view favored by Spong, Living in Sin, 139-40; cf. Mel White, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Christian and Gay in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 38.

5 Spong, Living in Sin, 141.

6 By quoting verse 49 and ignoring verse 50, White misses the reference to the “abomination” done by the Sodomites; White, Stranger at the Gate, 38.

7 E.g., Spong, Living in Sin, 139.

8 Ibid., 39.

9 J. Gordon Melton, The Churches Speak On: Homosexuality; Official Statements from Religious Bodies and Ecumenical Organizations (Detroit: Gale Research, 1991), xxii.

10 Spong, Living in Sin, 145-46.

11 The latter approach is attempted by John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 100.

12 White, Stranger at the Gate, 237. Notice how White refers to the child as “her,” a subtle way of appealing for more sympathy.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., emphasis added.

15 Spong, Living in Sin, 147; cf. Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, 101 n. 32.

16 White, Stranger at the Gate, 237-38.

17 Spong, Living in Sin, 144; William N. Eskridge, Jr. , The Case for Same-Sex Marriage: From Sexual Liberty to Civilized Commitment (New York: Free Press, 1996), 99.

18 Spong, Living in Sin, 145.

19 Ibid., 147.

20 Ibid., 149, 150.

21 Ibid., 150.

22 David F. Wright, “Homosexuals or Prostitutes? The Meaning of Arsenokoitai (1 Cor. 6:9, 1 Tim. 1:10),” Vigiliae Christianae 38 (1984):125-53, cited in Schmidt, Straight and Narrow, 95.

23 Spong, Living in Sin, 67, 68.

24 Ibid., 77.

25 Marcia Baringa, “Differences in Brain Structure May Cause Homosexuality,” in Homosexuality: Opposing Viewpoints, ed. William Dudley; Opposing Viewpoints series (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1993), 19. This article originally appeared as “Is Homosexuality Biological?” in Science 253 (Aug. 30, 1991):956-57. Baringa’s article centers on the research of Simon LeVay; cf. his later book, The Sexual Brain (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), excerpted in “Sexual Orientation and Its Development,” in Homosexuality: Debating the Issues, ed. Robert M. Baird and Katherine M. Baird (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1995), 62-70.

26 Michael Bailey and Richard Pillard, “Are Some People Born Gay?” New York Times, Dec. 17, 1991, reprinted in Homosexuality: Debating the Issues, ed. Baird and Baird, 83-84.

27 William A. Henry III, “The Hamer Study,” in Homosexuality: Debating the Issues, ed. Baird and Baird, 92; the article originally appeared as “Born Gay?” in Time, July 26, 1993.

28 E.g., Richard A. Isay, “Psychotherapy Should Help Gay Men Accept Their Homosexuality,” in Homosexuality: Opposing Viewpoints, ed. Dudley, 133-39.

29 Alfred C. Kinsey, et. al, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1948).

30 The definitive critique of Kinsey’s studies and their use in American society and politics is J. H. Court and J. G. Muir, eds., Kinsey, Sex and Fraud: The Indoctrination of a People (Lafayette, LA: Huntington House, 1990). See also the discussions in William Dannemeyer, Shadow in the Land: Homosexuality in America (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 59-61; Robert T. Michael, et. al., Sex in America: A Definitive Survey (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994), 173-74.

31 For the details of these studies with references, see Schmidt, Straight and Narrow, 102-3.

32 Henry, “The Hamer Study,” 92.

33 Michael, et. al., ed., Sex in America, 175-76.

34 Ibid., 177-78.

35 LeVay, “Sexual Orientation and Its Development,” 62, 70.

36 Cf. Darrell Yates Rist, “Are Homosexuals Born That Way?” in Homosexuality: Debating the Issues, ed. Baird and Baird, 73-76; Schmidt, Straight and Narrow, 137-38.

37 Bailey and Pillard, “Are Some People Born Gay,” 83.

38 Cf. Steven Goldberg, “What Is Normal?” in Homosexuality: Debating the Issues, ed. Baird and Baird, 85-87, reprinted from National Review (1992). Goldberg makes these same points, but his analysis is hampered by an uncritical acceptance of the claim that ten percent of all males are gay.

39 Lindsy Van Gelder, “The ‘Born That Way’ Trap,” in Homosexuality: Debating the Issues, ed. Baird and Baird, 80, 81; reprinted from Ms. (May/June 1991).

40 Michael, et. al., ed., Sex in America, 175-76.

41 Ibid., 177.

42 See Schmidt, Straight and Narrow, 153-58, and especially Jeffrey Satinover, M.D., Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth (Grand Rapids: Baker Books — Hamewith Book, 1996).

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17. Conclusion: Our Challenging Mission

The purpose of developing a Christian view of the world is not merely to evaluate and judge the world, but to change it. By our actions each of us — each human being — is changing the world in which we live. Ultimately, Jesus Christ will introduce a radical change to our world when he comes in glory. But until that time, he is using his people to change the world. This indeed happens one person at a time, but it also happens one family at a time, or one school at a time, or one church at a time, or even one nation at a time. Wherever you are, you have an opportunity to participate in changing the world for Jesus Christ.

The place to begin, of course, is with ourselves. The gospel of salvation by grace which is basic to the Christian worldview teaches us that before we can change the world for Christ, we must ourselves be changed by Christ. We must trust in him to bring us into a relationship with the Father (John 14:6) and to begin making us into sons and daughters of God who mirror the love of God’s eternal Son Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29). In this age of the gospel, God is not calling together mere servants or “employees” to work for him, but is raising up children who will participate in the “family business” out of a sense of love and mutual commitment.

Essential to changing our world is changing our view of the world and then living in light of the new vision. God, as a loving Father, has given us his word in the Bible to enable us to see the world as he would have us see it. As the world changes around us, we need to assess those changes in light of Scripture, as well as to assess our own understanding of Scripture in the light of new ideas and new perspectives. In this book we have tried to provide a sampling of the issues facing us as Christians seeking to understand our changing world according to God’s word.

Where do we go from here? Each of needs to make a commitment to participating in the work of God’s family in whatever context and through whatever opportunities he opens up to us. God calls scientists, psychologists, philosophers, theologians, ministers, missionaries, historians, physicians, educators, attorneys, politicians, artists, mothers, and fathers — people of all professions, of all races, of both sexes, and of all nations — to use the gifts God has given them to make a difference where they are. We need to encourage young Christian men and women to pursue excellence in their professions, to look for ways in which they can make a difference.

Wherever we are and whatever roles we fill in life, part of living in light of the Christian world view is learning to communicate Christian faith and values to others and to defend them when they are challenged. Whether we are mothers or fathers answering the many difficult questions our children ask us, or students taking classes that raise troubling or complex issues, or workers at our job engaging in conversations over lunch with people of other religions or lifestyles, all of us will face challenges to our Christian convictions. If we are to meet these challenges effectively for Christ, we must take seriously our calling to “be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). In turn this means that we must commit ourselves to the lifelong mission of learning and growing in our understanding of Christian faith and values and their application to the changing world in which we live. It is our hope that this book has helped you in that mission.

Recommended Reading

Science (ch. 1)

Denton, Michael. Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler, 1986. Agnostic scientists examines evidence for evolution, finds creation more plausible.

Geisler, Norman L. Knowing the Truth about Creation: How It Happened and What It Means for Us. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1989. Excellent primer for the layperson on the Christian doctrine of creation and its relationship to science and philosophy.

________, and J. Kerby Anderson. Origin Science: A Proposal for the Creation-Evolution Controversy. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987. Important work arguing that there are crucial differences between the scientific study of natural processes and scientific inquiry into the origins of nature.

Heeren, Fred. Show Me God: What the Message from Space Is Telling Us about God. Wonders That Witness 1. Wheeling, IL: Searchlight Publications, 1995. Amusing, informative book on cosmology and creation, unlike any other.

Jaki, Stanley L. God and the Cosmologists. Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 1989. One of many excellent books by noted Catholic scientist.

Jastrow, Robert. God and the Astronomers. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. Agnostic astronomer explains how astronomy has discovered strong evidence for a Creator.

Johnson, Phillip E. Darwin on Trial. 2d ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993. Law professor examines the evidence for evolution and exposes fallacies in evolutionary theory.

Hummel, Charles E. The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts between Science and the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986. One of the best surveys of the subject, especially good on the history of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein; holds to a progressive creationist perspective.

Lindberg, David C., and Ronald L. Numbers, eds. God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. Scholarly studies on key figures and movements in history.

Moreland, J. P., ed. The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer. Foreword by Phillip E. Johnson. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994. Excellent place to start for a variety of essays on the scientific evidence for God.

Morris, Henry M. The Biblical Basis for Modern Science. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984. One of the best works by this leading young-earth creationist scientist.

Numbers, Ronald L. The Creationists. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. Critical study of the history of the modern creationist movement, with important lessons.

Pearcey, Nancy R., and Charles B. Thaxton. The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy. Turning Point Christian Worldview series. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994. On developing a Christian view of science.

Pitman, Michael. Adam and Evolution: A Scientific Critique of Neo-Darwinism. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984. Focuses on the theory that human beings evolved from lower hominids.

Ratzsch, Del. The Battle of Beginnings: Why Neither Side Is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996. Argues that atheistic evolution and young-earth creation are two extremes, and that neither side typically understands the other.

Ross, Hugh. Creation and Time: A Biblical and Scientific Perspective on the Creation-Date Controversy. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994. Old-earth creationist scientist surveys the biblical teaching, church history, and the scientific evidence, arguing that creationists should not view modern cosmology and the old-earth view with suspicion.

________. The Creator and the Cosmos: How the Greatest Scientific Discoveries of the Century Reveal God. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993. Explores the developments in modern cosmology that prove the universe had a beginning and that point to intelligent design.

Schroeder, Gerald L. Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery of Harmony between Modern Science and the Bible. New York: Bantam Books, 1990. MIT-trained Jewish physicist argues that Genesis and science agree.

Thaxton, Charles B., Walter L. Bradley, and Roger L. Olsen. The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories. New York: Philosophical Library, 1984. Classic study showing that naturalistic theories to explain the origin of life have failed.

Wiester, John. The Genesis Connection. Hatfield, PA: Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 1992. Old-universe creationist survey with many helpful pictures and diagrams.

Young, Davis A. The Biblical Flood: A Case Study of the Church’s Response to Extrabiblical Evidence. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995. Massive historical study arguing that the global catastrophic view of the Flood of young-earth creationism reflects a jaundiced view of the scientific evidence.

Youngblood, Ronald F., ed. The Genesis Debate: Persistent Questions about Creation and the Flood. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990. Helpful introductions to questions about the Bible’s teaching on the age of the earth, the Flood, and so forth, with contributions offering opposing views on each question.

Psychology (ch. 2)

Benner, David G., ed. Psychology and Religion. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988. Textbook survey of psychological approaches to religious belief and experience.

Blake, Toni, ed. Enduring Issues in Psychology. Opposing Viewpoints series. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995. Secular collection of excerpts presenting opposing views on such questions as nature versus nurture.

Collins, Gary. Can You Trust Psychology? Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989. Christian psychologist argues that psychology should not be feared.

Cooper, John W. Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989. Scholarly, readable study of the biblical teaching on the soul, interacting with modern philosophy and science.

Evans, C. Stephen. Wisdom and Humanness in Psychology: Prospects for a Christian Approach. Christian Explorations in Psychology series. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989. One of many books by this Christian philosopher integrating psychology with faith.

Hunt, Morton. The Story of Psychology. New York: Doubleday, 1993. Up to date history of psychology reflecting a humanistic perspective but providing much revealing information.

Jones, Stanton L., and Richard E. Butman. Modern Psychotherapies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991. The best and most thorough study comparing approaches to psychological counseling and therapy from an evangelical Christian perspective.

Jones, Stanton L., ed. Psychology and the Christian Faith: An Introductory Reader. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986.

Kilpatrick, William Kirk. Psychological Seduction: The Failure of Modern Psychology. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Argues that modern psychology has encouraged an irresponsible world view.

________. The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Naked Truth about the New Psychology. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1985.

Meier, Paul D., et. al. Introduction to Psychology and Counseling: Christian Perspectives and Applications. 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991. Textbook whose primary authors are the well known psychologists of the Minirth-Meier radio program.

Moreland, J. P., and David M. Ciocchi, eds. Christian Perspectives on Being Human: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Integration. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993. Excellent textbook by evangelical scholars on human nature.

Sykes, Charles J. A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Critique of our society’s tendency to excuse criminal and anti-social behavior by labeling individuals and whole groups as victims.

Van Leeuwen, Mary Stewart. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: A Christian Looks at the Changing Face of Psychology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982.

Vitz, Paul C. Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship. 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994. Powerful critique of psychological theories in education and other aspects of modern culture.

Postmodernism (ch. 3)

Allen, Diogenes. Christian Belief in a Postmodern World: The Full Wealth of Conviction. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989. An apologetic focusing on “the book of nature” and “the book of Scripture.”

Anderson, Walter Truett. Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990. An enthusiastic review of postmodernism by an advocate (who has a very shallow understanding of Christianity).

Bernstein, Richard J. Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future. New York: Knopf, 1994. Bernstein offers a protest against relativism in American culture.

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. Famous critique of relativism in higher education, from a modernist perspective.

Bork, Robert H. The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law. New York: Simon & Schuster -- Touchstone, 1990. Erudite critique of constitutional revisionism, of relevance to the postmodernist approach to the interpretation of texts.

Gross, Paul R., and Norman Levitt. Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Lefkowitz, Mary. Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History. A New Republic Book. New York: HarperCollins — BasicBooks, 1996.

Lundin, Roger. The Culture of Interpretation: Christian Faith and the Postmodern World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993. Historical, cultural, and theological study and critique of the development of postmodernism.

Middleton, J. Richard, and Brian J. Walsh. Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995. Evangelical study that finds much of value in postmodernism.

Moreland, J. P. Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984. Excellent apologetics textbook, containing a very helpful discussion of self-refuting arguments.

Phillips, Timothy R., and Dennis L. Ockholm, eds. Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995. Excellent collection of essays approaching postmodernism in varying ways.

Poythress, Vern Sheridan. Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House -- Academie Books, 1987. Groundbreaking study of biblical interpretation that takes into account the social dimensions of biblical interpretation without succumbing to relativism.

Sire, James W. Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All? Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994. The first half discusses the question posed in the title; very insightful.

Veith, Gene Edward, Jr. Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994.

Atheism (ch. 4)

Buckley, Michael J. At the Origins of Modern Atheism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987. Catholic scholar examines the historical roots of atheism

Geisler, Norman L., and Winfried Corduan. Philosophy of Religion, 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988. Contains excellent discussions of the meaningfulness of language about God, the arguments for God’s existence, and the problem of evil.

Miethe, Terry L., and Antony Flew. Does God Exist? A Believer and an Atheist Debate. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

Murray, William. My Life Without God. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s son explains why he abandoned atheism for the Christian faith.

Nielsen, Kai, and J. P. Moreland. Does God Exist? Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993.

Hewitt, Hugh. Searching for God in America. Dallas: Word, 1996.

Noebel, David A. Understanding the Times: The Story of the Biblical Christian, Marxist/Leninist, and Secular Humanist Worldviews. Manitou Springs, CO: Summit Ministries, 1991.

Sproul, R. C. The Psychology of Atheism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974.

Westphal, Merold. Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993. Interesting analysis of atheists Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche, arguing that their atheism expressed important critiques of culturally compromised forms of theism.

Zacharias, Ravi. Can Man Live Without God? Dallas: Word, 1994. Apologetic critique of atheism; combines popular style with profound insight.

New Age (ch. 5)

Campolo, Tony. How to Rescue the Earth without Worshiping Nature: A Christian’s Call to Save Creation. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992. An evangelical sociologist with liberal political views argues that Christians can and should support environmentalism without falling into New Age mysticism.

Chandler, Russell. Understanding the New Age. Dallas: Word Books, 1988.

Clark, David K., and Norman L. Geisler. Apologetics in the New Age: A Christian Critique of Pantheism. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990. Indepth analysis and philosophical critique of Hindu, Buddhist, Greek, and modern Western varieties of pantheism.

De Witt, Calvin, ed. The Environment and the Christian. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991. An important collection of essays promoting Christian environmentalism.

Geisler, Norman L., and J. Yutaka Amano. The Reincarnation Sensation. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1986. Very good analysis and critique of various theories of reincarnation, with attention to the claim that it is reconcilable with Christianity.

Groothuis, Douglas R. Confronting the New Age. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988. Dealing with New Age influences in culture.

________. Unmasking the New Age. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986. On understanding and responding evangelistically to the New Age.

________. Revealing the New Age Jesus. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992. On New Age reinterpretations of Jesus as a Gnostic guru.

Hackett, Stuart C. Oriental Philosophy: A Westerner’s Guide to Eastern Thought. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979. Evangelical philosopher offers a rational critique of Eastern religions and philosophies.

Hawkins, Craig. Goddess Worship, Witchcraft, and Other Neo-Pagan Movements. Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997. Short book providing detailed biblical responses to these movements.

Johnson, David L. A Reasoned Look at Asian Religions. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1985. Christian critique written for the layperson.

Miller, Elliot. Crash Course on the New Age Movement. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989. Indepth analysis focusing on historical and philosophical issues.

Rhodes, Ron. New Age Movement. Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995. Short but helpful overview of the movement.

Snyder, Tom. Myth Conceptions: Joseph Campbell and the New Age. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995. Popular level apologetic response to an important religion scholar whose views on the unity of all religious myths (among which Christianity is included) are important for New Agers.

Islam (ch. 6)

Beckwith, Francis. Baha’i. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1985. Helpful short book giving an overview and Christian response to Baha’i.

Bowman, Robert M., Jr. Islam: A Study Guide for Christians. 2d ed. Atlanta: Reflections Ministries, 1996. Outline syllabus covering the life and claims of Muhammad, the Qur’an, Muslim theology and religion, Islamic civilization, and offshoots of Islam.

Burge, Gary M. Who Are God’s People in the Middle East? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993. Insightful discussion of biblical perspectives on the question of the place of Israel and the Arabs in the Promised Land; by an evangelical biblical scholar.

Chapman, Colin. Whose Promised Land? Rev. ed. Batavia, IL: Lion Publishing, 1992. On Israel and the Palestinians; important information and analyses for those who have only heard a pro-Israel perspective.

Geisler, Norman L., and Abdul Saleeb. Answering Islam: The Crescent in Light of the Cross. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993. By far the best Christian apologetic textbook responding to the claims and teachings of Islam.

Goldsmith, Martin. Islam and Christian Witness: Sharing the Faith with Muslims. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982.

Hamada, Louis Bahjat. Understanding the Arab World. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990. Helpful study of the biblical and historical background to the Arab culture, by an Arab Christian.

Jomier, Jacques. How to Understand Islam. New York: Crossroad, 1993.

Miller, William McElwee. Ten Muslims Meet Christ. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969.

Parshall, Phil. Bridges to Islam. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1983.

Saal, William J., ed. Reaching Muslims for Christ. Chicago: Moody, 1991. Written by staff of Arab World Ministries. Excellent text emphasizing practical dimensions of evangelizing Muslims.

Shorrosh, Anis A. Islam Revealed: A Christian Arab’s View of Islam. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988. Shorrosh heads up a ministry to Muslims.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961. Important biographical study.

Woodberry, J. Dudley, ed. Muslims and Christians on the Emmaus Road. Monrovia, CA: MARC, 1989.

Zakaria, Rafiq. The Struggle within Islam: The Conflict between Religion and Politics. New York: Penguin Books, 1989. Very helpful appendix tracing political history of Islam.

Liberal Theology (ch. 7)

Archer, Gleason L. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. ed. Chicago: Moody, 1993. Best book dealing with critical questions about the origins of the Old Testament books.

________. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982. Discusses alleged contradictions and historical errors from Genesis to Revelation.

Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960. Classic little study defending the historical reliability of the New Testament.

________. New Testament History. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974. Classic exposition of the New Testament events in their historical context.

Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994. Contains excellent chapters on miracles, the reliability of the New Testament, and the resurrection of Jesus.

Geisler, Norman L., and Thomas Howe. When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook of Bible Difficulties. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1992. Similar to Archer, but less technical.

Geisler, Norman L., and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible, rev. ed. Chicago: Moody, 1986. Excellent textbook and reference work on how we got the Bible, covering the processes of writing, copying, and translating the books of the Bible, and discussing such questions as the canon (how we know which books belong in the Bible).

Moreland, J. P. Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984. Excellent apologetics textbook, with helpful chapters on the historicity of the New Testament and the resurrection of Jesus.

Osborne, Grant R. 3 Crucial Questions about the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995. Argues that we trust the Bible, understand the Bible, and get theology from the Bible.

Wilkins, Michael J., and J. P. Moreland, eds. Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995. Excellent collection of essays critiquing the liberal view of Jesus and the Gospels typified by the so-called Jesus Seminar.

Cults (ch. 8)

Boa, Kenneth D. Cults, World Religions, and the Occult. 2d ed. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1990. Popular-level introduction to the major non-Christian religions.

Bowman, Robert M., Jr. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995. Compact booklet offering detailed answers to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ biblical arguments for their theology.

________. Understanding Jehovah’s Witnesses: Why They Read the Bible the Way They Do. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991. How Jehovah’s Witness interpretation of the Bible goes wrong, with important lessons relevant to other cults and to Christians.

________. Why You Should Believe in the Trinity: An Answer to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989. A point-by-point response to the Jehovah’s Witness booklet Should You Believe in the Trinity? (1989).

Braswell, George A., Jr. Understanding Sectarian Groups in America, rev. ed. Nashville: Broadman, 1994. Descriptive study by a Southern Baptist.

Ehrenborg, Todd. Mind Sciences. Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995. Excellent overview of Christian Science, Religious Science, and Unity.

Finnerty, Robert U. Jehovah’s Witnesses on Trial: The Testimony of the Early Church Fathers. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1993. The first book devoted solely to comparing the theology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses with that of the early church fathers; focuses on Christ’s deity, the Trinity, and the soul, death, and resurrection.

Gomes, Alan W. Unmasking the Cults. Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995. Thorough study of the meaning and phenomena of cultism, critiquing the mind control model of the cults.

Hassan, Steven. Combatting Cult Mind Control. Rochester, Va.: Park Street Press, 1990. One of the most important books defending a mind control model of the cults, by a Jewish “exit counselor.”

Hoekema, Anthony A. The Four Major Cults. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963. Theologically insightful critique of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Seventh-day Adventists (the last of which is not viewed as a cult by all evangelical countercult scholars).

Kyle, Richard. The Religious Fringe: A History of Alternative Religions in America. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993. Places the cults in their historical and cultural context.

Martin, Walter R. Kingdom of the Cults. 5th rev. ed. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1985. The classic evangelical expose and critique of various cults; somewhat dated and caustic.

Mather, George A., and Larry A. Nichols. Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions and the Occult. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993. Best evangelical reference work of its kind.

Reed, David A. How to Rescue Your Loved Ones from the Watchtower (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989). A good beginner’s guide to talking to friends or relatives who are Jehovah’s Witnesses and taking action to help them leave the Watchtower.

Rhodes, Ron. Reasoning from the Scriptures with the Jehovah’s Witnesses (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1993). Features well-chosen questions to ask Jehovah’s Witnesses.

________, and Marion Bodine. Reasoning from the Scriptures with the Mormons. Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1995. Follows helpful approach of listing questions to ask a Mormon.

Samples, Kenneth R., et. al. Prophets of the Apocalypse: David Koresh and Other American Messiahs. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994.

Sire, James W. Scripture Twisting. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980. How cults twist Scripture, with numerous helpful examples.

Tanner, Jerald and Sandra. The Changing World of Mormonism. Chicago: Moody, 1980. Massive documentation of the unhistorical and unbiblical foundations of Mormonism; the classic work on which most Christian critiques of Mormonism build.

Tucker, Ruth A. Another Gospel: Alternative Religions and the New Age Movement. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989. Generally accurate if uncritical survey of the history, beliefs, and practices of the cults.

Van Gorden, Kurt. Mormonism. Zondervan Guide to Cults and New Religions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995. Doctrinal critique of Mormonism, emphasizing a biblical response.

Yamamoto, J. Isamu. Unification Church. Zondervan Guide to Cults and New Religions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995. The most up-to-date doctrinal critique.

Biblical Christianity (ch. 9)

Bowman, Robert M., Jr. Orthodoxy and Heresy: A Biblical Guide to Doctrinal Discernment. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992. Study of the biblical basis and method of determining what constitutes orthodox Christian doctrine and what does not.

Dayton, Donald W., and Robert K. Johnston, eds. The Variety of American Evangelicalism. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991. Helpful collection of essays on such diverse elements of evangelicalism as Pentecostalism, the holiness tradition, black evangelicalism, the Reformed or Calvinist tradition, and Lutheranism, among others.

Geisler, Norman L., and Ralph E. MacKenzie. Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995. By far the best evangelical discussion of the question of evangelical-Catholic relations.

Horton, Michael Scott. Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism. A CURE Book. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991. A no-holds-barred critique of the cultural accommodation of American evangelicalism.

Howard, Thomas. Evangelical Is Not Enough. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984. A Protestant explains why he believes the evangelical church is impoverished by its lack of liturgical and ecclesiastical tradition (he later became a Roman Catholic).

Hunter, James Davison. Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Technical historical and sociological study.

Kantzer, Kenneth S., and Carl F. H. Henry, eds. Evangelical Affirmations. Grand Rapids: Zondervan — Academie Books, 1990. Collection of essays by leading evangelical scholars on social and cultural issues in evangelicalism.

Mayers, Ronald B. Evangelical Perspectives: Toward a Biblical Balance. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987. Nicely constructed approach to Christian thought using a “both/and” approach (e.g., man is both dignified and depraved; the church’s ministry is both proclamation and charity).

McGrath, Alister E. Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995. Scholarly discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the contemporary evangelical tradition.

Noll, Mark A. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

Wells, David F. No Place for Truth: Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.

Moral Absolutes (ch. 10)

Ball, William Bentley, ed. In Search of a National Morality: A Manifesto for Evangelicals and Catholics. Grand Rapids: Baker; San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992. Catholics and evangelicals call for a conservative consensus on social and political issues in America.

Beckwith, Francis J., and Michael A. Bauman, eds. Are You Politically Correct? Debating America’s Cultural Standards. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993.

Bellah, Robert, et. al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Includes arguments calling for a return to more traditional values.

Bender, David, ed. American Values: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1989. Authors defend opposing positions on traditional values, whether and how America’s values have changed, and the religious aspects of American values.

Bennett, William J. The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. Bestselling collection of poems, stories, and lessons on moral virtues.

Clark, David K., and Robert V. Rakestraw, eds. Readings in Christian Ethics, Volume 1: Theory and Method. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994. Collection of essays on theoretical issues of ethical philosophy and Christian morality.

Geisler, Norman L. Christian Ethics: Options and Issues. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989. Representative evangelical approach to Christian ethics, integrating a Thomistic natural-law philosophical ethics with an evangelical understanding of biblical ethics.

Gonsalves, Milton A., rev. Fagothey’s Right and Reason: Ethics in Theory and Practice. 8th ed. St. Louis: Times Mirror/Mosby College Publishing, 1985. Revision of Austin Fagothey’s classic textbook on ethics from the “Aristotelian-Thomistic” natural-law perspective that has long dominated conservative Catholic ethics.

Holmes, Arthur F. Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions. Contours of Christian Philosophy. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984. Primer in Christian philosophical ethics.

Kreeft, Peter. Making Choices: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Moral Decisions. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1990. Lucid, insightful discussion of ethics by a Catholic philosopher.

Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. New York: Macmillan, 1947. Classic book arguing that all great cultures and religions have recognized certain fundamental moral truths.

Watkins, William D. The New Absolutes. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1996. Evangelical author argues that older, more beneficial absolutes are being traded in for politically correct new absolutes under the guide of moral relativism.

Multiculturalism (ch. 11)

Adeney, Bernard T. Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995. Missions-sensitive treatment of Christian moral standards applied in diverse cultural and cross-cultural situations.

Boyd, Gregory A. Cynic Sage or Son of God? Recovering the Real Jesus in an Age of Revisionist Replies. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books — BridgePoint, 1995. Excellent book which among other things emphasizes Jesus’ Jewish cultural context.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper & Row, 1951. The classic work delineating five ways in which Christians have related to culture.

Whitehead, Fred, book ed. Culture Wars: Opposing Viewpoints. David Bender and Bruno Leone, series eds. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1994. The first two chapters contain several relevant readings on issues of cultural diversity and values from such diverse authors as Allan Bloom, Peter Marshall, and Mortimer Adler.

Wilkins, Michael, ed. Jesus Under Fire: Crucial Questions about Jesus. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995. Essays by leading evangelical scholars defending the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection.

Biblical Morality (ch. 12)

DeMar, Gary. “You’ve Heard It Said”: 15 Misconceptions That Render Christians Powerless. Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991. Discusses objections to Christian involvement in public issues — morality can’t be legislated, church and state should be kept separate, and the like.

Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. Toward Old Testament Ethics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983. Comprehensive textbook by one of the leading evangelical Old Testament theologians.

Poythress, Vern S. The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses. Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991. A Reformed biblical-theological study of the Law, wrestling in subtle fashion with questions about the application of the Law to modern ethics and social issues.

Schreiner, Thomas R. The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993. One of the best of many recent books on Paul’s view of the Law.

Skillen, James W. The Scattered Voice: Christians at Odds in the Public Square. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990. Critical analysis of seven Christian perspectives on faith and politics.

Smith, Gary Scott, ed. God and Politics: Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government: Theonomy, Principled Pluralism, Christian America, National Confessionalism. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1989. Excellent, challenging comparison of different Christian views of the place of Christian beliefs in human government.

Strickland, Wayne G., ed. The Law, the Gospel, and the Modern Christian: Five Views. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993. Different evangelical and Reformed approaches to the Law, interesting for the agreements as well as the disagreements over the details.

Abortion (ch. 13)

Alcorn, Randy. Pro Life Answers to Pro Choice Arguments. N.p.: Multnomah, 1992. Comprehensive, well-organized handbook of answers to objections to the pro-life view.

Beckwith, Francis J. Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993. Excellent defense of the pro-life view by a Christian philosopher.

Beckwith, Francis J., and Norman L. Geisler. Matters of Life and Death: Calm Answers to Tough Questions about Abortion and Euthanasia. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991. Easy to use question and answer format by two leading evangelical Christian philosophers.

Cozic, Charles P., and Jonathon Petrikin, eds. The Abortion Controversy. Current Controversies series. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995. Good collection of articles and excerpts from books taking different positions on abortion.

Cozic, Charles P., and Stacey L. Tipp, eds. Abortion: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1991. Similar to the Cozic/Petrikin collection, with shorter and more numerous pieces.

Garton, Jean Staker. Who Broke the Baby? Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1979. Very good popular style response to such abortion slogans as “every child a wanted child” and “freedom to choose.”

Gorman, Michael J. Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982. Excellent survey of abortion in ancient Judaism and early Christianity in light of the surrounding pagan culture.

Grant, George. Grand Illusions: The Legacy of Planned Parenthood. Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988. One of the best books on the leading pro-choice organization.

Kreeft, Peter. Making Choices: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Moral Decisions. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1990. Very nice discussion of basic Christian morality.

________. The Unaborted Socrates. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984. Delightful book by a Catholic philosopher of fictional dialogues between “Socrates” (returned to the present from the dead) and modern defenders of abortion.

Lee, Patrick. Abortion and Unborn Human Life. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996. One of the best presentations of the basic pro-life argument, centering the entire discussion on the status of the unborn.

Melton, J. Gordon. The Churches Speak On: Abortion. Official Statements from Religious Bodies and Ecumenical Organizations. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989. Pro-life and pro-choice statements from various religious bodies; Melton’s own introduction is heavily biased in the pro-choice direction.

Olasky, Marvin. Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1992. An indispensable historical account that dispels pro-choice and pro-life myths about abortion in American history.

Reardon, David C. Aborted Women: Silent No More. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1987. Women who suffered from or regretted their abortions tell their stories.

Schlossberg, Terry, and Elizabeth Achtemeier. Not My Own: Abortion and the Marks of the Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995. Two women theologians offer a careful, insightful, and compassionate analysis of the abortion question.

Schwarz, Stephen. The Moral Question of Abortion. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1990. Fairly rigorous yet readable defense of the pro-life position.

Stetson, Brad, ed. The Silent Subject: Reflections on the Unborn in American Culture. Foreword by Richard John Neuhaus. Westport, CT, and London: Praeger (Greenwood), 1996. In-depth essays on specific questions or problems relating to abortion.

Feminism (ch. 14)

Bilezekian, Gilbert. Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says About a Woman’s Place in Church and Family. 2d ed. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985. Egalitarian.

Clark, Stephen B. Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1980. Roman Catholic complementarian.

Evans, Mary J. Woman in the Bible: An Overview of All the Crucial Passages on Women’s Roles. Foreword by Donald Guthrie. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983. Egalitarian.

Foh, Susan T. Women and the Word of God: A Response to Biblical Feminism. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1979. Complementarian.

Grenz, Stanley J., with Denise Muir Kjesbo. Women in the Church: A Biblical Theology of Women in Ministry. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995. By far the best defense of the consistent egalitarian view.

Groothuis, Rebecca. Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War Bteween Traditionalism and Feminism. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994. Egalitarian study of the history leading up to the contemporary debate.

Kroeger, Catherine Clark, and James R. Beck, eds. Women, Abuse, and the Bible: How Scripture Can Be Used to Hurt or Heal. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996. Egalitarian.

Mickelsen, Alvera, ed. Women, Authority, and the Bible. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986. Egalitarian views dominate this “multiple-views” book.

Piper, John, and Wayne Grudem, eds. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991. Important, somewhat uneven collection of essays from a complementarian perspective.

Scanzoni, Letha Dawson, and Nancy A. Hardesty. All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today. 3d rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992. Classic work in the developing egalitarian perspective.

Spencer, Aida Besançon. Beyond the Curse: Women Called to Ministry. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985. Egalitarian.

Homosexuality (ch. 15)

Bahnsen, Greg L. Homosexuality: A Biblical View. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978. Excellent, tightly argued biblical study of homosexuality.

Cozic, Charles P., ed. Sexual Values: Opposing Viewpoints. Opposing Viewpoints series. David Bender and Bruno Leone, series eds. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995.

Dannemeyer, William. Shadow in the Land: Homosexuality in America. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989.

Dudley, William, ed. Homosexuality: Opposing Viewpoints. Opposing Viewpoints series. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1993.

Melton, J. Gordon. The Churches Speak On: Homosexuality. Official Statements from Religious Bodies and Ecumenical Organizations. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991.

Michael, Robert T., John H. Gagnon, Edward O. Laumann, and Gina Kolata. Sex in America: A Definitive Survey. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.

Reisman, Judith A., and Edward W. Eichel. Kinsey, Sex and Fraud. Lafayette, LA: Huntington House, 1990.

Satinover, Jeffrey, M.D. Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth. A Hamewith Book. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996. A Harvard-trained Jewish psychiatrist critiques contemporary myths about homosexuality and discusses various approaches to treatment.

Schmidt, Thomas E. Straight and Narrow? Compassion and Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995. Widely hailed as the best Christian analysis of the contemporary debate.

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