Pagan Culture and Apostate Culture
In discussions of evangelizing the post-modern West, something is often forgotten. Those cultures which were formed by Christianity and have since abandoned it are not reverting to paganism. They are not pagan cultures. They are apostate cultures, and an apostate culture is a much scarier animal than a pagan one.
C.S. Lewis wrote on how much easier it would be to witness to a pagan culture.
“Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not…
It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are “relapsing into Paganism”. It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall. But we shan’t. What lurks behind such idle prophecies, if they are anything but careless language, is the false idea that the historical process allows mere reversal; that Europe can come out of Christianity “by the same door as in she went” and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce. The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.”
An apostate is treated very differently in Scripture to an infidel. An infidel suppresses the truth of general revelation, but has no claimed membership with the people of God. His unbelief is to be rebuked, but he is to be patiently evangelized.
Conversely, an apostate claims to be one of the people of God, while denying and opposing the fundamentals of the faith. Entire New Testament books, such as Jude, 2 John, and 2 Peter, give the bulk of their content to identifying and responding to apostates.
What then does apostasy look like on a cultural level? An apostate culture claims to be all the things Christianity brought: virtuous, tolerant of other views, loving, respectful of human freedom, interested in human dignity, peace-loving, concerned with mercy and justice, governed by sound reason, gentle to all, etc. At the same time, it now vociferously renounces the fundamentals of the faith that gave it those things: the authority of Scripture, the deity and humanity of Christ, the inspiration of Scripture, the depravity of man and the need for atonement, the essentiality of faith in grace. It does not want the moniker Christian, but it wants the equivalent of the title righteous: good person, tolerant, and loving. It wishes to receive all the benefits and privileges that Christianity brought, but it would disown all the responsibilities that Christianity demands: belief, submission and love of Christ.
We should note that this phenomenon is new, as far as Christianity goes. Israel committed apostasy, too, and the books of the prophets details what a perverted and warped effect it had on post-Solomonic Israel. But since Christianity was never rooted in one land, it took many years before one could say that Christianity had permeated a culture. And only after the Enlightenment (a misnomer, if there ever was one), do we now encounter a culture apostate from Christianity.
We are only beginning to see the terrifying effects of this. Morality without religion soon becomes a terrifying tyranny. Freedom without grace-enabled submission soon becomes the mere power to assert one’s will. Love without a holy God becomes lust in hitherto-unseen forms. Reason unhinged from Revelation and ordinate affection becomes a perverse Pied Piper, leading souls to absurd, and yet “logical”, places. Tolerance without worship becomes coercion. When the Christian God is denied, the image of God in man must steadily be abolished, and the result is a nightmarish culture.
Most frightening of all, unlike evangelizing a pagan culture, this culture has heard the Good News. They are not in darkness, needing the light of the Gospel to free them from the chains of idolatry. They have seen the light, turned from it, and are not interested in seeing it again. Denials of Christianity’s claims are taught in the classroom, the lecture hall, the TV documentary, and often funded with tax-payer money. Our kings and princes know the culture is apostate, and would have it so.
How do we evangelize an apostate culture? I’m yet to see the evangelism and missions books take this seriously. What does “And on some have compassion, making a distinction but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh(Jude 1:22-23)” mean, on a cultural level? Should we seek to “redeem” or “transform” the cultural equivalent of a JW Kingdom Hall?
Perhaps we had best begin weighing up what Scripture says about those who have been enlightened but have fallen. It might influence what we do and don’t do to win the lost. It might change whether we think it appropriate to make the lost feel at home in our worship. It might change how we do apologetics as a whole.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.