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Pagan Culture and Apostate Culture

This entry is part 34 of 63 in the series

"Ten Mangled Words"

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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. 

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David de Bruyn

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.

3 Responses to Pagan Culture and Apostate Culture

  1. Hi David,
    You have asked a lot of questions above, but your article seems (to me at least) to be short on answers? What exactly is your view on evangelism in a post-Christian culture of apostasy? Is it useless, pointless? A waste of time? This is almost the impression I got from your article. Please don’t stop here! How do you do evangelism and apologetics today? What is your positive advice or counsel to other believers? Not all people in an apostate culture are apostates! We have recently encountered young people (North America) who do not have a clue of the simplest teachings or events recorded in the Bible. They knew nothing about Christ or his resurrection! They certainly cannot be accused of apostasy but are very much pagan! I believe there are more and more around us in just that case (pagans instead of apostates.)

  2. Bruce,

    Well, we must evangelise, whether we think our efforts will be be fruitful or not. Evangelism is obedience, plain and simple.
    My point here is not to discourage evangelism, but to discourage naive transformationalism and contextualisation-junkies. We need more evangelism, but not more of any sort. We’d be well-served by evangelists and church-planters who don’t merely thrown the term ‘post-Christian’ around, but grapple with the doctrinal implications of that term, namely apostasy. I have yet to see much of that. I don’t here offer nuanced solutions, except the texts in Jude, which suggest that we should distinguish between those who are recoverable, and those who appear deeply entrenched in the apostasy. But there is part of the advice and counsel: why not take books like 2 Peter and Jude into account when dealing with evangelism and missions? Why not help believers distinguish between infidels and apostates? It might be a very fruitful venture.
    And to your point: the distinction is not always easy or clear. The longer apostasy goes on for, soon enough a generation rises up “that does not know the LORD” (Judges 2:10). At the same time, those ignorant of the Bible today often lack the supernaturalistic worldview that ancient pagans had. Some modern atheists still have something like an apostasy from general revelation – which Darwinism certainly is. So I agree it is a complicated and mixed situation. I’d just like to see more awareness of what Lewis points out: apostasy is a lot more serious than ignorant unbelief.

  3. Dear David

    You’re so right. What I think is a great tragedy is that children are being denied the knowledge of the truth. Here in South Africa they are taught the godless theory of evolution in the schools, as well as sex education which concentrates on informing them that they have the right to do what they like with their own bodies. Of course the Bible is not allowed to be taught at all. Even Christian families are seriously in trouble because their children are either in the state (or private) schools (even in private schools the state curriculum is followed), or their friends are there and help to influence them. The culture in general is against Christianity. Nobody sees anything wrong with scheduling events, meetings, etc. for Sundays – it is just assumed that most people don’t go to church, and those who do can miss it “just this once”. Thankfully, Christian homeschooling is an option for many Christian families, and they should embrace it without delay. We should not just lie down and allow the world to destroy our children – our Lord has promised victory (the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church), but we have to stand up and do our part.

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