It’s a morbid thought, but if I had died a decade ago I might have gone to my grave harbouring a temptation to think that Richard Dawkins and his three co-horsemen were going to eradicate widespread belief in the supernatural in a short span of time. The rhetoric, the forceful marketing, the fundamentalist atheism which seemed so at odds with the respectful unbelief of their ideological forbears, seemed to foretell a scorched earth policy in the minds and consciences of a generation. I have, however, lived, and as a result have been privy to the toothlessness of so many of the breathed out threats of Dawkins and his cohorts, as well as the somewhat off-zeitgeist position that he now enjoys in popular culture. Error if left long enough, will be outlived.
If you have been alive long enough, then you will probably be able to identify your own generational crisis which imploded, mutated or is now largely silent. It might be the obituaries which were prematurely written for God in the 1960s (reports of his death were greatly exaggerated), the cancerous influence of TV prosperity preachers with their ubiquitous and blasphemous doctrines, or the rise of postmodernism and the parasitical ‘Emerging Church’ which rode on its back. Counter arguments to the gospel of Christ, counter movements against the Kingdom of God, arise, are resisted, and ultimately fall. They can carry casualties, they can vex the hearts of believers, they can vitiate the widespread impact of the gospel in whole communities and cultures, but they will pass while the gospel remains. Even for those foot soldiers of the gospel who are trampled in the no-man’s land between truth and error, the long view demonstrates that the gospel of Christ will always be vindicated. Spurgeon may have died in the midst of the theological maelstrom of the ‘Downgrade’ but the gospel he preached did not.
As believers we need to use the word ‘existential’ advisedly when it comes to the threats which the gospel faces in our own day. We look at a burgeoning secularism, the seeming world dominance of intolerant tolerance, the compromised mind and heart of the church globally, the smallness of our efforts theologically and evangelistically and we could easily despair of a future for the beliefs which we hold so dear and on which we stake our lives and eternities. We do well to feel such fear, to pray, to think, to speak boldly, but only if we understand that we inhabit a story whose end has already been told, whose present conflict will issue in a denouement beyond the imagining of the most fertile human mind. The numbers who fully follow Christ may be vanishingly small, the horizon for a revived and light bearing church might seem incredibly narrow, but such realism must never yield the day to pessimism. The gospel will endure, the cause of Christ will prosper, the kingdom of God will know a full and final vindication, and all which stands against it must inevitably fall. I have read this tale to its finish and it cannot be rewritten.
So we should take up (spiritual) arms to contend for the gospel, we should survey our cultural and ecclesiastical landscape with deep concern, but also with a gutsy confidence in what God can do, and what he ultimately will do for the glory of his name.
At his death, the great Puritan John Owen could look back on many hopes dashed in terms of the influence of the gospel, he could look ahead to many obstacles and difficulties that the church would face, but on the day before his passing into the presence of Christ he could write in sanguine terms about the future of the work of God. We would do well to record his words in our hearts, and uphold his words in our own day as we seek to see Christ honoured. Error, if left long enough, will be outlived:
I am leaving the ship of the church in a storm, but whilst the great Pilot is in it the loss of a poore under-rower will be inconsiderable. Live and pray and hope and doe not despair; the promise stands invincible that he will never leave thee nor forsake thee (John Owen)