The woeful lament of the 21st century mainstream Christian church in the northwestern quadrasphere of our world is hard to ignore or dispute. Pew Research and Barna Group offer an abundance of survey results and statistical analyses reporting a gloomy outlook of a religion in ‘post-Christian’ decline. If a common denominator or theme can be found in this perspective, perhaps it is best described as a fatal disconnect between Christianity and the ethos of North American and Western European cultures.
As a Christian myself, the social media meme above points to the metaphorical kernel of horrific truth that lifelong Christians probably never understood, and those coming to Christ later in life all too easily choose to ignore or forget. Even if a gloriously joyful, peaceful, and wonderful eternal life awaits us just beyond death’s door, the journey through this world to the Christian Elysium beyond that portal can be quite the opposite – literally, as the meme suggests ‘hell on earth.’
2 Corinthians 4:4 is clear about who is the god-ruler of this world-age. Here’s the New Living Translation (NLT) of that verse:
Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don't believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don't understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God.
The theological term for the study of the ‘end of days’ at the threshold of heaven is eschatology. But it has another non-theological, even scientific connotation as, say, a secular eschatology. The consensus among contemporary scientists claims that our universe is extremely large – and expanding – and very old, but it is nonetheless finite and time-bound. It all began in the Big Bang and it will all end in the Big Crunch. The natural causal laws of thermodynamics, especially entropy, connect the origin of reality as we know it to its own ultimate end. Agnostic, atheist, or apatheist, if this scientific or secular view of the ‘beginning and end of days’ is your cup of eschatological tea, whatever lies beyond death, if anything, is entirely unknown, unknowable, or irrelevant. In all three cases, this seems to be essentially the farewell ‘bye-way’ into the future.
In the anti-metaphysical scientism of our post-modern Northwestern culture, ‘New Atheism’ and ‘New Optimism’ recently appeared as compelling counter-narratives to Christian eschatology in particular and to Christian faith and religion in general. These ultimately boil down to new apologetics, branding, and promotion for the twin pillars of the past 500 years of Enlightenment ‘Age of Reason’ that brought us to where we are today: humanist naturalism (replacing God with humanity and scientism) and progress for its own sake (what Zygmunt Bauman calls, ‘liquid modernity’).
These secular ideologies and others like them seek to fill the gap in the disconnect between Christianity and Northwestern cultural ethos. I have argued extensively elsewhere (Doctor of Ministry dissertation, in progress) that these worldviews are best understood as what Colossians 2:8 (NLT) warns us against:
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
Half a millennium downstream from the dawn of Enlightenment modernity, Christian seminaries, guilds, churches, ministers, and followers continue to over-accommodate secular philosophies and ideologies in formulating, disseminating, applying, and living in the faith of their religion. The other response is simply to turn blind eyes and deaf ears and flatly reject 21st century reality out of hand.
Christian testimony continues to be salvation anecdotes, witness mere regurgitation of memorized and versified Scripture, while the ability to present what 1 Peter 3:15 (NLT) admonishes us to constantly be prepared to deliver – an explanatory apologetic defense – is nowhere to be found:
Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life.
And if someone asks about your Christian hope,
always be ready to explain it.
Pulitzer-winning war correspondent and dissident activist Chris Hedges, M.Div. (Harvard Divinity School), incisively echoes Peter’s exhortation as follows:
The role of a preacher is not to provide self-help manuals for the future. It is to elucidate reality and get people to act on this reality. It is impossible to speak about hope if we substitute illusion for reality. If we believe that reality is not an impediment to our desires, that we can have everything we want by tapping into our inner strength or believing in Jesus, if we believe that the fate of the human species is neverending advancement and progress, then we are crippled as agents for change. We are left responding to illusion. This makes everything we do or believe, such as our faith in (partisan) or electoral politics, futile and useless. The bleakness of what we face, economically and environmentally, is not a call to despair but a call to new forms of resistance and civil disobedience.
Chris Hedges, The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress, Kindle edition (New York, NY: Nation Books, 2011).
Dark roiling clouds of tempestuous change are gathering, and the signs of that impending storm cry out to be discerned by those with eyes to see and ears to hear. As the meme above suggests, the reality and truth are that the highway to heaven does run through hell on earth before it gets there. Consider your destiny on the journey carefully and choose wisely; the Bye-Way of the easy road and wide gate leading to to destruction, or the Way, Truth, and Life of the narrow gate and difficult road as a follower of Christ (Matthew 7:13-14).