Understanding Divine Blessing: Does the Prosperity Gospel Get It Right? (w/ Book Review)

The biblical concept of “blessing”—as in being blessed and blessing others—is not a topic any church I’ve attended focused on, so when I had the opportunity to read and review Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God by William R. Osborne, I took it. This is the second book I’ve read from Crossway’s Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, where in relatively short, readable books a certain theme is explored throughout the Bible. As a former high school English teacher, I have a bit of a thing for themes, and I found both books helpful, accessible introductions to important subjects of biblical theology. Biblical theology is the practice of tracing a particular theme or idea throughout the entire biblical story and connecting the dots.

Divine blessing isn’t a topic I’ve explored before, but being familiar with the Bible I knew “blessing” is a word that comes up quite a bit. As both an apologist and pastor, this was a topic I needed to grasp because of the prevalence of the “prosperity gospel” and “health and wealth gospel.” Even if a Christian doesn’t subscribe to the false prosperity gospel, understanding biblical blessings is essential to addressing a sort of prosperity gospel thinking that intersects with the problem of evil and suffering. This is the thinking that expects God to always intervene in times of trouble. This is the person who asks when they hit a rough patch in life, “Why is God allowing this to happen to me?” with the underlying idea that God should never let anything bad happen to his people.

Let’s be honest, a lot of evidence exists both in and out of the Bible that doesn’t support the idea that if you’re a “good” Christian you get blessings and if you’re “bad” you’re cursed. If the apostle Paul can ask God three times to remove the “thorn” in his flesh and God refuses (2 Cor. 12:1–10), then that destroys the whole health and wealth gospel thesis right there. So, as Osborne asks, “What about when God’s covenant people live faithfully, trusting in his word, and still experience tragedy and sorrow?” Further, there appears to be “a theological rift” between the Old and New Testaments’ portrayals of divine blessing. The Old “seems focused on the material wealth, health, and success of the faithful,” while the New “portrays the most faithful as martyred and imprisoned.” 

In addressing all of these issues, Divine Blessing and the Fullness of Life in the Presence of God is a welcomed (and much-needed) help.

THE BASICS OF BIBLICAL BLESSING

In the rest of this blog, let me give you some insights into what the Bible says about divine blessing. To start, here are some basics:

  • “God’s blessings for his people are relational, spiritual, material, present, and eschatological [future].”
  • Like when exploring any biblical concept, we need to differentiate between the Old Covenant (exclusive to ancient Israel) and the New Covenant (for Christ’s people) when talking about divine blessings.
  • Where blessings under the Old Covenant is exclusive to ancient Israel, not Christians, and “the material wealth, health, and success of the faithful” appears to be part of that covenant, the Bible also often portrays these blessings as stumbling blocks. 
  • Both the Old and New Covenants have a spiritual and physical aspect of blessing. “[D]ivine blessing was always intended to be material, spiritual, [but also] relational.” That it, based on a relationship with God, which is the ultimate blessing within itself.
  • All biblical blessing is “fixed upon the reality of the fullness of life in the presence of God,” which includes being in a right relationship with God and God dwelling with his people. “True blessing, no matter the form, always leads us near to God.” “Unlike what is commonly heard in prosperity [gospel] circles, you don’t go through God to get his blessings. Conversely, we might say you go through his blessings to get to God! God is the end to be pursued because his blessing is experienced only by living in his presence.” 
  • Divine blessing coincides with obedience to God’s will, which include his divine directives and commands. Living according to God’s wisdom brings consequential blessings, which is rooted also in a proper fear or respect of the Lord (Prov. 1:7). 
  • God always intended to bless his people and for his people to be a blessing to others.
  • God is under no obligation to bless or guarantee a certain fullness of life. We have privileges as Christians as God’s children, but these aren’t rights. As I like to say, we can’t sum up God’s ways in a mathematical formula. In other words, we can’t put God in a box.
  • In one sense, the delay of God’s wrath is a blessing!

BLESSING IN THE BIBLICAL STORY

God created to bless. We see three blessings found in the creation narrative. Before the fall, humankind was to “experience the fullness of life in God’s presence in the garden.” Humankind was to walk in the presence of God (quite literally before the fall). Humankind was also to be a blessing to creation by fulfilling God’s “creation/cultural mandate” to be fruitful and fill the earth and be stewards of creation. But the first man and woman screwed this all up. In the post-fall world, God put another plan into effect to bless the world:

Now the Lord said to Abram [Abraham], “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:1–3)

So, God chooses a person to bless, and through that person he will bless the whole world. Through Abraham, God will build a people—Israel—to be a blessing to the world. Of course, the biblical story shows the Messiah—Jesus of Nazareth—is a descendant of Abraham. The “promise land” God will give Abraham’s people will serve as a light—a blessing—foreshadowing the new creation (“the new heaven and new earth”) ushered in by Jesus Christ.

In the Old Testament, under the Old Covenant, which is specific to Israel, God makes a covenant of blessing and cursing. Material blessing is part of this, including health and fertility/procreation. Under the Old Covenant this is conditional, based on Israel’s upholding their side of the covenant; they must obey and be loyal to their God. But at the same time, God has made an unconditional commitment to bless his people regardless. In the fallen world, whether under the Old Covenant or New Covenant, this will only ever see partial fulfillment. Those bemoaning a lack of blessings are too shortsighted and need to keep focused on the future new creation where God’s people will live with him.

Further, “in a fallen world, the way to divine blessing always involves suffering.” See Luke 9:23–26 and Romans 8:17, but this is seen in the Old Testament as well. For instance, “Jacob’s life challenges our simplistic categories of ‘do good things and be blessed’ or ‘you are blessed so nothing hurts.’ In Jacob’s limp we see God’s severe mercy going to great lengths to produce the transformation and blessing in our lives, but not always in the way we wanted.”

As we leave the Old Testament and enter the New Testament era under the New Covenant, “For all the promises [and, thus, blessings] of God find their Yes in him [in Christ]” (2 Cor 1:20). “[I]n the New Testament, blessing is always specifically in Christ” and Christ’s blessings can’t be disconnected from eternal life and the Kingdom of God. With this, the Holy Spirit is another blessing to Jesus’ people, who also empowers them to bless others. The indwelling Holy Spirit, along with Jesus’ resurrection (and even the church itself), are down-payments—assurances—of the coming fulfillment of divine blessing in the future new creation, ushered in by Christ. In the New Testament—under the New Covenant (Luke 22:20)—we experience the “partial fulfillment” (the “already/not yet” nature) of God’s blessing, which will be fulfilled when Christ returns. Even the Old Covenant’s physical blessings are a foreshadowing of the material blessing in the new creation, where there will be no more hunger, sickness, or death, and every tear will be wiped away (Rev 21). Again, those bemoaning a lack of blessings are too shortsighted.

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3). 

So, Christ’s people already have “every spiritual blessing” in heaven at this very moment, yet full experience of God’s blessings won’t be obtained until the New Heaven and New Earth. As Osborne puts it: Cross, then Crown (for both Christ, and Christ’s people). But Christ’s people are also blessed because God will use all their suffering for our good (Rom 8:32). “If our notions of divine blessing require freedom from suffering or persecution, then our hope is grounded in the wrong thing, or maybe the wrong age.”

Osborne proposes a great test for the believer: “Does this ‘blessing’ draw me closer to the triune God? Does this need being met bring me nearer to the giver, or is it a distraction? No perceived ‘good gift’ will ever drive you away from the Lord.” 

(Crossway provided a free copy of this book for me to review.)

The Serpent, Dragon & Leviathan in Symbol & Scripture (w/ Book Review)

LITERAL OR FIGURATIVE?

As Christians, we often have to defend our belief that the Bible should be taken literally. The writers of the Bible present much of the information as historical truth, and Christians need to accept certain claims of the Bible as fact to be true Christ-followers. For example, the apostle Paul wrote that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then our faith is false (1 Cor. 15:14–19). Often, orthodox Christians find themselves battling against the idea that the claims of the Bible are purely symbolic of spiritual truths. One must believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead to be a Christian.

Yet, we also have to accept that the Bible is a work of literature, and sometimes the writers of the Bible do, in fact, use symbolic language and metaphor. By identifying the genre of the book of the Bible, this becomes clearer. For instance, the Psalms are poetic songs. The Book of Revelation is a highly symbolic style of ancient writing called apocalyptic literature. So, both Psalms and Revelation use figurative language much more than other books of the Bible. Often, we have to ask about any given verse in them: Are we to take this literally or figuratively?

On the other hand, works like 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, the four Gospels, and Acts are historical narratives, so we take them as factual history. Yet, even these historical narratives have non-literal elements. For instance, Jesus often teaches in parables. We all know parables are short fictional tales to teach a lesson. Jesus also uses metaphors when he teaches. He calls himself a door and bread and a shepherd, but even the most uninformed reader understands that he’s speaking metaphorically.

As a former high school English teacher, I enjoy learning about the often-overlooked literary elements of the Bible, including symbolic themes—elements that may not be so obvious to modern readers but repeat throughout God’s Word. The Serpent and the Serpent Slayer by Andrew David Naselli is part of a series called Short Studies in Biblical Theology. It’s a quick read exploring the symbolism in Scripture of the serpent and dragon. 

THE SERPENT (AND DRAGON) AND THE SERPENT (AND DRAGON) SLAYER

Naselli writes of the love of dragon-slaying stories throughout history, all of which he sums up with a pithy explanation: “Kill the dragon, get the girl.” He claims this is the theme of the Bible as well: Satan is the villainous serpent/dragon; the damsel in distress is God’s people; and the serpent slayer is Jesus. This may seem like a stretch, but once we consider the symbolism of the snake and dragon in Scripture—as well as the Church as the Bride of Christ (Rev. 19:7–9, 21:1–2; Eph. 5:25–32)—it might not be so far fetched.

Even someone with a cursory understanding of the Bible knows that Satan, as a serpent, tempted the first humans to rebel against God. Less known is that just after this, God declares the coming of the one who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). Though Genesis 3 doesn’t anywhere call the serpent Satan, the writers of the New Testament certainly connected the two (Rev. 12:9, 20:2; Rom. 16:20). Michael S. Heiser, in his book The Unseen Realm, makes the case that the Hebrew word for serpent (nachash) in Genesis 3 is a play on words pointing towards a spiritual being. Regardless, the serpent was definitely “representative of someone or something” bigger, something “beyond this particular snake” [1].

Some of the same passages that equate Satan with the serpent also equate him with the dragon of the Book of Revelation:

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Revelation 12:8–9)

And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years (Revelation 20:2)

Naselli explains that the snake and the dragon express the two sides—or two strategies—of Satan. The snake is the deceiver. The dragon is the destroyer. He writes, “Snakes deceive; dragons devour. Snakes tempt and lie; dragons attack and murder. Snakes backstab; dragons assault.”

THE LEVIATHAN AND SEA

Understanding the symbolic nature of the snake and dragon (which is just a huge, winged snake) opens up the possibility of the mysterious “flying fiery serpent” of Isaiah (30:6–7) being a poetic symbol. Similarly, the presence of the Behemoth and Leviathan in Chapters 40–41 of the Book of Job have been a topic of debate. Some Young Earth Creationists claim these are dinosaurs. Others have tried to explain them as commonly known animals. I have to admit that the description of the Behemoth certainly sounds like a sauropod dinosaur. Some have argued it’s a hippopotamus, but a hippopotamus doesn’t have “a tail stiff like a cedar” (Job 40:17). 

Yet, an argument for the Leviathan being symbolic is more easily made. First, the language describing the Leviathan in Job appears to be highly poetic. The fact that it’s described as breathing fire (Job 41:18–19) may be a clue that this is a mythical creature. This certainly seems to be a creature that’s more than a common crocodile, as some have proposed. Secondly, the Leviathan appears elsewhere in Scripture in poetic contexts (Ps. 74:14, 104:26; Isa. 27:1; Job 3:8). Finally, we need to consider that the sea—not just this sea monster—is a common symbol of evil, chaos, and death both in the Bible (Dan. 7:2–3) and in the cultures surrounding Israel. At the Second Coming of Jesus, when he renews all of creation and ends evil, we’re told,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. (Revelation 21:1)

I don’t think this means the New Heaven and New Earth won’t have any oceans! And I do think the ancient readers would’ve understood what the sea represents here. Both the sea and the Leviathan represent “evil, primordial, cosmic, chaotic forces.” 

THE SERPENT SLAYER

The writers of the Bible often practiced appropriation, borrowing symbols and language from neighboring cultures and adapting them to their biblical worldview as a polemic against the pagan religions. In a sense, they’re saying “You know that language you use about your god? Well, we’re going to apply it to our God, the only true God!” With the Leviathan specifically, the biblical writers are essentially saying, “You know that sea monster you all fear—the one your gods can’t even stop? Our God, the true God, can catch it like a minnow on a hook.”

Interestingly, in Job, God describes the Leviathan’s armor-like scales, a common characteristic of dragons. Naselli points out two times the Bible writers refer to evil humans as having scales. First, he language describing Goliath’s armor reflects this. The NASB tells us “he was clothed with scale-armor” (1 Sam. 17:5). (The NIV translation also reflects this scale language.) Secondly, notice how God describes the Pharaoh in this passage from Ezekiel:

“Behold, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, 

the great dragon that lies 

in the midst of his streams, 

that says, ‘My Nile is my own; 

I made it for myself.’ 

I will put hooks in your jaws, 

and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales; 

and I will draw you up out of the midst of your streams, 

with all the fish of your streams 

that stick to your scales…

To the beasts of the earth and to the birds of the heavens 

I give you as food. (Ezekiel 29:3–5)

So, the symbol of the serpent, the dragon, and Leviathan become much clearer.

Take note, a serpent isn’t always a negative symbol in Scripture. After all, Jesus told his disciples to be as wise as serpents (Matt. 10:16). But, as we’ve seen, the serpent usually represents evil (Ps. 58:3–5, 140:3), and Christ is the one who will smash the serpent/dragon. In the New Heaven and New Earth, the serpent will no longer be a threat, not even to children (Isa. 11:6–9; 65:17–25). With this, as God’s people, the Church is to participate in the defeat of the serpent/dragon. Naselli’s writes, “God is the one who ultimately crushes serpent heads, and he ordains that his people participate in the head-crushing.” (Ps. 91:13; Luke 10:19; Acts 28:3–4.)

Though there are always sections that I wish were more fleshed-out in short books like Naselli’s, The Serpent and the Serpent Slayer is definitely worth the quick read if you want an introduction to these ideas.

[1] The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol.2, Genesis by John H. Sailhamer.

*Crossway Books provided me with a free copy to review this book.

The Importance of Family Discipleship (w/ Book Review)

“Discipling your child is not primarily your church’s job, your child’s school’s job, or your pastor’s job. This job is yours,” Matt Chandler and Adam Griffin write in their book Family Discipleship: Leading Your Home through Time, Moments, and Milestones.

And they’re absolutely right. In our consumerist and busy culture, parents often “outsource” the spiritual development of their children, expecting the local Sunday school teacher, pastor, or Christian school for the important work of building up their children in Christ. Obviously, part of raising a child in Christ is, in fact, being part of a local church community. As I heard one pastor put it (quoting an African proverb), “If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a church to raise a Christian.” But this doesn’t change the fact that the primary responsibility to spiritually disciple children belongs to parents. “To parent without deliberately discipling your child is to build your family’s house on a foundation of sand,” Chandler and Griffin write.

Even if the Scripture didn’t put this responsibility squarely on the shoulders of parents, the fact that parents spend much more time with their children than any pastor or Sunday school teacher, it’s common sense that the main spiritual influencer in a child’s life would be his or her mother and father. Thus, Chandler and Griffin spend time on the importance of parents modeling Christian behavior and spiritual disciplines to their children. Here, Chandler and Griffin give some gold nuggets that are important for any Christian parent to hear. For one, parents’ attempts to disciple their children will often be both frustrated and frustrating! Children will break into tantrums during devotion time; siblings will fight during discipling activities (like they do with other family activities); and what you think is an important lesson will be met with listlessness. It’s a reality of being a parent, so accept it and keep doing your best! 

But, with this, parents are imperfect sinners just like their children and often fail to be perfect examples of our perfect Savior! Big surprise, right? But it’s important for parents to hear this. Thus, these failures are the opportune moments to model the Gospel to your children: To share the truth of the Gospel, to admit your sins, and to ask for forgiveness. Chandler and Griffin write, “No matter what your household looks like, your family is the primary instrument and environment for discipleship in all the fantastic and flawed ways that it might be worked out.”

Discipling your family must have intentionality and consistency, which means having a plan or strategy (which will always be getting adjusted as your children grow and change). In the core of the book, Chandler and Griffin focus on three opportunities to disciple: Time, Moments, and Milestones:

Time – Creating intentional time built into your family’s life rhythms to disciple. This might be, for example, regular family devotions.

Moments – Looking for spontaneous opportunities during everyday life to have important spiritual talks or lessons. In professional teaching, we call these “teaching moments” — unplanned opportunities to teach a short lesson.

Milestones – Marking special days and events in the life of the family and giving them spiritual significance.

If I have any complaints about the book, it’s that I would’ve liked more specific examples and idea-generators for discipling one’s family. Perhaps if the authors included examples from families other than their own, it would have filled out the book nicely. Family Discipleship is a fairly quick, easy read; still, sometimes when I read a book like this by pastors, I can’t help thinking that it didn’t need to be a whole book; the same information could’ve been passed on in a sermon (or two) or blog article (or two). (I also suspect that such books are the result of a past sermon series.)

I would recommend Family Discipleship to new parents, parents who are new Christians, or parents who have never considered how to disciple their family before and need guidance on where to start. The book certainly convinces the reader of the importance and responsibility placed on all Christian parents to disciple their own children, and the book gives a great framework for thinking about discipling. Despite my small complaint above, the personal illustrations from the authors, the ideas they give, and the end-of-chapter activities help stimulate the readers’ own ideas for their own families. Reading the book has certainly made me more aware of my discipling efforts with my children.

*Crossway provided me with a free copy of this book for review.

Book Review: What If I Don’t Desire to Pray?

DesirePray

John Onwuchekwa’s book of What If I Don’t Desire to Pray? is part of a “Church Questions” series of quick-reads published by 9 Marks and Crossway. Barely 60 pages, this mini-book can easily be finished in one or two sittings.

I’m often convicted that my prayer life is not as strong as it could be. This appears to be a challenge among other Christians who, like me, were strong skeptics before coming to faith in Christ and who are interested in apologetics and logic-based reasons for following Christ. Unlike others, being motivated to read and study the Bible has never been a challenge for me. I’m wired up to be a reader and my natural tendency to ask questions and seek answers is one of the reasons I was a skeptic to begin with. Yet, as I’ve heard even well-known Christian apologists like Greg Koukl and J. Warner Wallace (both former skeptics) admit, prayer doesn’t always come easily for those wired up like me.

Short books like this can be either so brief they’re little help or their briefness cuts through a lot of unneeded wordiness and gets right to the heart of the issue. Let’s be upfront; a short book like this can’t do the important subject of prayer justice. A book like Tim Keller’s Prayer is much more adequate if you want to tackle the subject more thoroughly. No, Onwuchekwa’s mini-book can’t possibly go into the theology behind prayer or how to make sense of prayer to a God who knows all your thoughts and needs before you say them, but he does tackle (though briefly) exactly what the title of the book tells you is the focus of the book.

What it comes down to for Onwuchekwa is that it’s not about changing your regimen or instilling more discipline. He doesn’t focus on giving tips for prayer strategies or on finding more quality time to pray or on creating a better pray routine (though he does recommend keeping a pray journal of sorts). Instead, he encourages us to focus on the person and work of Christ, which will lead to a deeper desire to grow closer to Christ, and, thus, give us more desire to pray.

Another helpful idea Onwuchekwa focuses on is the importance of corporate prayer and how praying with others can not only teach us how to pray, but grow our desire to pray. This was an important point to add to the conversation. Often books on prayer only focus on individual prayer, but as followers of Christ, we’re part of a body of believers. Your faith is never just about you and Jesus, so it’s a good bit of advice to not neglect praying with your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Onwuchekwa writes, “Passion for prayer is often more caught than taught. In my own experience, I’ve found that nothing increases my desire for prayer more than seeing and being around people who pray… Praying together isn’t cheating; it’s not a loophole. Solo prayers aren’t worth more than corporate ones. Far from being a loophole, corporate prayer is the very tool God gives us to help us get to know him better.”

*Crossway provided a free copy of this book for review.

 

Book Review: Why Should I Join a Church?

WhyShould

Mark Dever’s 65-page book Why Should I Join a Church? is part of a “Church Questions” series of quick-reads published by 9 Marks and Crossway. Since I have known Christians who see little reason to be part of a church and I was working on a sermon on church unity, I decided to give this quick read a quick read. With short books like this, it can often go one of two ways: (A) The book could be so short that it barely touches on the topic and is of little help or (B) since the book is short, it jettisons any unneeded wordiness and it answers the question clearly and concisely with laser-focus. I can’t speak of the other books in this series, but I found this short book to be give strong, clear, biblical answers to this question about being part of a church.

Dever shows how the New Testament writers needn’t give a command to join a church because the whole New Testament ASSUMES Christians are gathered in local churches. Heck, much of the New Testament writings are letters written to CHURCHES. Dever gives 6 good reasons why being part of a church community is so important, but he starts with the most powerful and persuasive reason: The love shown by fallen but redeemed Christ-followers in a local church displays to the world the Gospel of reconciliation, the core of the Christian message.

As I ended up writing in my sermon, any Christian who thinks he is too mature spiritually to be part of a local church body is, ironically, showing what he is lacking in spiritual maturity. He needs to be in a church, where fallen but reconciled Christ-followers can help each other grow together in faith. Part of that is learning to live with the messiness of others and to forgive them as Christ has forgiven us.

Dever writes,

“Local churches are the place where we live according to this new reality [of reconciliation through Christ]. We don’t just say we’re reconciled, we show it. We show it by joining a congregation and committing to love one another and help one another grow in Christlikeness. We show it by inviting one another into our homes and caring for each other’s needs. We show it by confessing our sins to one another and forgiving one another. We show it by putting aside personal preferences and considering the interests of others above our own. We show it by learning and submitting to the word of God together. By joining a church, we commit to other redeemed sinners and show the world that Christ has indeed reconciled us both to God and to each other…

“What truly displays the gospel is when we commit to love and care for people that includes people utterly unlike us. We display the gospel when we gather each week to serve people who sometimes share only one thing in common with us: Jesus. We show we are reconciled in Christ when we commit to love those people in that place — no matter what faults and foibles they may have.”

*Crossway provided a free copy of this book to me for review.

Is Our Culture “Post-Christian”… or “Post-Secular”? Or Both? (w/ Book Review)

post-christian

UNDERSTANDING POST-CHRISTIAN CULTURE

Gene Edward Veith’s book Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Crossway, 2020) is more of a State of the Union Address than a call to arms. The topics covered in this book are wide and sweeping; and though Veith provides suggestions to the church sprinkled throughout on how to respond, overall the book is a photograph of the landscape — a statement on where we’re at in Western culture and where the church stands within that culture.

It’s a readable, relatively quick book for the amount of land it covers. He covers trends in modern Western thought, worldview, religion, science, technology, politics, sexuality, our ideas about reality, the body, truth, certainty, and even newer cultural phenomenons like intersectionality, transgenderism, transhumanism, genetic engineering, sex robots, and the loss of community. As I said, he covers a lot of ground! 

Veith’s work is insightful and important. As any decent missionary, pastor, or church planter can tell you, Christians need to understand the cultural context of where they’re doing ministry. Post-Christian is certainly a good guide to give us the big picture of the spirit of the age and the challenges facing the church.

 

POST-SECULAR?

Depending on how attuned someone is to the changing culture, some of the information in Post-Christian may be surprising. But perhaps what is most surprising is Veith’s conclusion that we’re not just living in a post-Christian culture, but also a post-secular culture. 

He writes that today’s current version of secularism, which is usually marked by a rejection of religion, is only “skin deep because under the surface we find interior spirituality—often vague and poorly thought through, drawing on pagan elements old and new.” God has created us to know him. So, we are — by nature and design — religious creatures, even if we deny it. Thus, when Christian faith is abandoned, other spirituality rushes in to fill the void.

This post-secular religion, the child of Western postmodern thinking, is a cafeteria of pick-and-choose, including things like astrology, reincarnation, nature spirits, and self-deification (seeking the “god within”) but all “wholly internalized, ethereal spirituality” — which, of course, makes no moral or convictional demands on the individual. In other words, they can be the “god” of their own reality; they can be spiritual without self-denial, self-sacrifice, or even inconvenience — a religion based solely on self. So, where God made humans in his own image (Genesis 1:27), humans are making God into their own image — or, at the very least, in their own preferences.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the growing movement of what I call “Technology Cults” —  people who are looking to merge biological life with technology (called transhumanism) to achieve eternal life and propel humankind to god-like status (not unlike something you’d see on Black Mirror, the Netflix series.) But all “new” heresies are really just old news. Mixed in with the new is also a lot of the old. For example, as more people return to ancient pagan (or “New Age”) practices, people contacting Christian churches looking for exorcisms have spiked!

Peter Jones in his book The Other Worldview: Exposing Christianity’s Greatest Threat, draws the same conclusions about Western culture not just being post-Christian, but post-secular. He describes it as “the rebirth of ancient paganism, ” a “modern embrace of, principles originally found in the ancient spirituality of the pre-Christian, pagan world.” Jones writes, “Spirituality has become a do-it-yourself life hobby that blends ancient Eastern practices with modern consumer sensibilities.” And so, this is where the modern mantra “I’m spiritual, not religious” grows from.

Based on how things are going — despite what has been assumed (and often proclaimed by ardent atheists) — as “societies have grown more modern, they have not become less religious.” Perhaps much of secular culture has turned away from traditional religions — dreaded “organized religion” — but they’ve traded it in for disorganized religion. Veith concludes, “So scholars no longer accept the ‘secular hypothesis,’ the assumption that as a society becomes more modern, it becomes less religious.” Post-Christian does not mean post-religious.

 

THE DYING CHURCH?

Unfortunately, at the same time, religious institutions are becoming more secular, and the Christian church is not impervious to such things. This is not surprising as the battle between theologically liberal (mainline) and theologically conservative Christianity has raged for over 100 years. 

As another example of the dogged religiousness of humankind, the author writes about the (unintentionally ironic) “atheist church” movement, which has tried to have all the benefits of church without God. In one of Veith’s more humorous insights, he comments:

“Do you reject the existence of God except as a metaphor? Do you deny the authority and truth claims of the Bible? Do you believe traditional Christianity is outdated and oppressive? You might be an atheist. Or you might be a mainline [liberal] Protestant.”

As someone a lot smarter than me pointed out — something that is quite obvious — some time ago: Liberal Christianity and traditional, historical, biblical Christianity are not the same religion. They’re two totally different faiths. After all, as Veith plainly drew attention to, the beliefs of theologically liberal (mainline) Christians differ little from the beliefs of atheists. Therefore, “Post-Christian Christianity needs to be desecularized,” and even theologically conservative churches need to be aware of how the surrounding secular culture affects the thinking of their congregation (and leadership). 

It also has to be remembered that churches that have adopted secular or theologically liberal views have usually consciously done so to make themselves “relevant” to the culture, yet these liberal churches are the exact churches that have been in steady decline for decades. The liberal church is not thriving or growing. Think about it: If all the church is is a lousy imitation of the world, what does it have to offer that isn’t already readily available elsewhere?

 

BUT THE TRADITIONAL CHURCH IS DYING TOO, RIGHT?

So, the culture is growing more pagan. The liberal church is in steady decline. But what about the traditional, historical, conservative, orthodox, Bible-believing church? How is it doing? Isn’t it in decline too? Well, it all depends on how you look at it.

Yes, church attendance is down in general, but what seems to be happening is a “refining of the church.” Looking only at church attendance may be the easiest way to conduct a survey concerning Christian growth or decline, but it also has its limits. Based on the studies of Ed Stetzer, “The percentage of convictional Christians… has held steady over the years.” This may be the most surprising thing one finds in Post-Christian, but Veith (with Stetzer) isn’t the only one making this point. For instance, see Glenn Stanton’s book The Myth of the Dying Church: How Christianity Is Actually Thriving in America and the World. (For the record, I haven’t read Stanton’s book yet, but I’ve heard interviews with him — and others — making the same point.) 

Now, the thing to note in Stetzer’s assessment is that it is “convictional Christians” who are holding steady. Instead of just making general studies of church attendance or of anyone who labels themselves as “Christian,” Stetzer and Veith consider that calling oneself a “Christian” doesn’t make one a true follower of Christ. There’s a lot of cultural Christianity out there, folks. So, when we look at someone’s commitment to following Christ, church attendance of those who take their faith seriously — i.e. devout Christians — are not decreasing.

In fact, it looks like the more theologically conservative churches are growing steadily. The slight decline in attendance at evangelical churches over the years has to do with the “cultural Christians.” So, it’s not the case that devout Christians are leaving the faith in droves, but church-goers who never were invested much in the first place are coming clean. The growing acceptability of atheism has allowed these people to be honest on where they stand on God and the church: 

“The nominal believers are leaving. There is no longer a cultural pressure to be in church, so those who used to attend out of a desire to be socially respectable are no longer bothering… Increasingly, the only ones left in the churches are the true believers. Such defections, ironically, strengthen the church. Just as the refining process burns away the dross to extract the precious metal, the hostility of secularism is purifying the church.”

Mark Twain may or may not have once said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” It seems Christianity can say the same. 

In fact, the church is growing at an alarming — well, alarming to secularists anyhow — rate worldwide. “If the United States and Europe are becoming post-Christian, the rest of the world is rushing into Christianity.” Compare the 286 million Christians in 2010 in North American to the 544 million in Latin America, 493 million in Africa, and 352 million in Asia. Those who claim Christianity is “the white man’s religion” need to look at the global picture. By 2050, says religious scholar Philip Jenkins, only one-fifth of Christians will be “white.” In fact, the most common Christian worldwide today is a brown-skinned woman. Post-Christian even lays out how Scandinavian countries, upheld by many in the U.S. as secular utopias, have a solid, devout Christian presence.

Not only are church numbers growing worldwide, but the Christians in Africa, South America, and Asia take the Bible seriously. They’re theologically conservative. This, ironically, puts them at odds with many Western churches who have liberal leanings. Some theologically liberal denominations are finding their denominational brothers and sisters in other countries aren’t willing to set aside the Bible to conform to secular cultural demands.

This was seen recently when the United Methodists voted to overturn certain policies concerning homosexuality; it was the African United Methodists who kept the church where it has traditionally (and biblically) stood for centuries. (And now it’s looking like the United Methodists, which is considered primarily a liberal denomination in the U.S., may split in two.) Let Veith point out the irony: “Western liberal theologians — whose social gospel praises multiculturalism, denounces Western colonialism, and lauds racial diversity — now find themselves as a beleaguered white minority in opposition to black Africans.” 

Veith concludes, “In this vast sea of faith, Americans and Europeans occupy a small island of secularism, like teenagers fixated on their cell phones, oblivious to what is happening all around them. It turns out that this is not a post-Christian world after all.”

 

*I received a review copy of Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (2020) by Gene Edward Veith Jr. from publisher Crossway.