Are We Building an Enduring Christianity: Winter Talks about Losing Faith
by Ralph D. Winter, compiled and edited by Beth Snodderly
Ralph Winter often talked and wrote about why people turn away from faith. He wanted the mission world to be aware that newly reached peoples will eventually follow the pattern of post-Christian Europe if we don’t stop exporting a gospel that contains the seeds of its own destruction. He recognized that communities of believers who do not do the hard work of answering hard questions can expect their children and future generations to abandon their faith in God, as was the case in 19th and early 20th century England.
Winter saw that intellectual insight into God’s Word, God’s world, and who God is, needs to accompany emotional and experiential awareness of God. Otherwise, as Winter observed, people turn away from faith once they start asking hard questions about the rampant evil in this world, thinking this is God’s will and not realizing there is a Satan behind it. And if they are unaware of what the Bible really says and means on key issues, if they perceive the Bible to have feet of clay, thinking people are unlikely to be interested in following the Jesus of the Bible.
Winter wanted mission and church practitioners to recognize that they need to lead the way in restoring God’s reputation and glory in the eyes of the on-looking world. Believers need to help potential followers of Jesus see that suffering, violence, and evil are not God’s will and are not from him. Rather, societies and all creation experience the consequences of human and angelic choices, both good and bad, and God does not overrule the free will he has granted his creatures. Winter pointed to the importance of seeing the historical big picture—that God is in an ongoing battle with a spiritual adversary, starting even before Genesis 1. Salvation is thus not just a “ticket to heaven.” Rather, God is asking humans to choose to join him in the battle to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8) and demonstrate God’s will for shalom for human societies and all creation.
Are we building an enduring Christianity or not? In one sense this question outranks all other mission frontiers, including the Unreached Peoples Frontier. That is, what is the wisdom of avidly building a widespread movement to Christ which is going to collapse tomorrow into Gospel resistance? Is Christian faith blossoming around the world today only to fade tomorrow when it faces the hard questions of today’s anti-religious onslaught?
Adding Intellectual Insight to Emotional/Experiential Awareness
Christianity has clearly succeeded among rural populations and among uneducated people all over the world, but it is facing increasing opposition from the educated world because of religious teachings which may have no foundation in the Bible whatsoever.
The reality of rejection of biblical faith accompanying increased education casts quite a shadow over Philip Jenkins’ rosy picture of the future of Christianity in the Global South. Even long before Jenkins’ book, The Next Christendom, appeared, mission leaders had been hailing the splurge of growth on the mission field. My own thoughts about the dread paradox of wild success leading on into desperate failure are as follows: There are at least two dimensions of knowing God in Christ. There is an emotional awe in worship and daily life, call it an awareness of God. And there is an intellectual insight into who he is. Is it possible to be aware of God with very little accurate insight into who he is? Yes. Is it possible to possess a lot of insight into the nature of God with little hour-by-hour awareness of Him? Yes.
Awareness arises in worship and in daily devotions and in hour-by-hour God- consciousness, in “practicing the presence of God.”
It is the result of “praying without ceasing.” It flourishes in times of true revival and awakening. It is fair to say that the hallmark of the Evangelical movement in its early days was its stress on authentic, emotional experience. A central feature of the Evangelical Awakening of the 18th Century (which produced Evangelicalism), was an “assurance of salvation,” and, for many, “a second work of grace,” that was highly emotional in its manifestation. And yet that Evangelical Awakening eventually collapsed, largely due to English Evangelicalism’s serious weakness: anti-intellectualism (Rice 2004).
Today, that stress on “experience” (not intellectual knowledge) has moved on into the Pentecostal and Charismatic and Apostolic spheres, while older Evangelicals look on askance, holding tight to their less emotional forms of worship and their lists of doctrines.
We are well acquainted with seminaries that have become cemeteries, hoarding massive information in their libraries about God’s nature but handling all that holy information with a professionalism that can easily replace any real awareness of the living God.
So what is the answer? We must begin by recognizing the all-important necessity of both awareness and insight. We must be willing to suspect insight without awareness and also to suspect awareness without insight. Clearly God calls us by heart and mind, not heart or mind. Yet the predominant character of much of the rapidly spreading “faith” around the world today consists of multitudes being entranced by the availability of the promises of God unrelated to a true and thorough insight into the nature of God and his creative handiwork.
Why have many Evangelicals been slow to add insight to awareness? Are emotional good feelings, however valid and beneficial, any match for the likely moment when logical and hard intellectual questions surface? That is, are emotions more valid, more credible, more durable, than our use of the mind? Or, are mind and heart both important? As crucial as it is that we hang on to the historic Evangelical awareness of God, we must seriously and even urgently add a competent intellectual grasp of God’s glory in the much larger world known to modern man.
Science and the “Book” of Creation
For example, huge obstacles exist for anyone who would seriously attempt to evangelize in a scientifically-oriented society. If we recognize the existence of the “unreached people” of the scientifically educated community of, say, Hyderabad, we quickly face the frontier of “the religion of science” (Winter 2004c, 36-37). Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, asked, “Is it any wonder that many sadly turn away from faith concluding that they cannot believe in a God who asks for an abandonment of logic and reason?” (Collins 2003, 112). Most scientists will consider that the Bible is clearly of no value as long as they think it baldly teaches that the universe is only 6,000 years old. It is absolutely tragic that millions of keen thinkers are truly awed into a quasi-religious scientism through their contact with God’s Book of Creation without acknowledging the God of the Bible, while still other millions are caught up in God’s Book of Scripture to the point where they elevate it as a magical object which must somehow provide an explanation for all later scientific exploration of the universe.
We, as Christian leaders, must take the initiative of knowing both the Book of Creation as a revelation of God and the Book of Scripture as a revelation of God. Otherwise, we are planting a superficial and temporary kind of Christianity all around the world. The Unfinished Task is very nearly finished, if in fact we measure that task by geographical or even sociological penetration of the Christian faith. But all such gains are temporary where a population will soon become influenced by the dominant form of education today which is highly secularized both in science and history—unless the Church does something to bring added insight.
Insight into God’s Character: Violence, Suffering, and Evil Are Not God’s Will
Se we see two significant barriers to Christian belief: a Bible thought to have feet of clay beginning with Genesis 1, and the rampant violence and evil in this world. The reason I am so concerned to identify evil, and become known as a believer in Jesus Christ who is fighting it, is because a great deal of evil in this world is blamed on God. How attractive is our invitation to people to turn to and yield to their Father in Heaven if they continue to believe he is the one who contrives for most everyone and everything to die in suffering? Unless Satan is in the picture and we are known to be fighting his deadly works we are allowing God’s glory to be marred and torn down.
Violence in Nature
Is it a hazard to evangelism to be unable to explain why God’s creation pervasively contains so many violent elements, so much horrible suffering and pain? Ruth Tucker’s book, Walking Away from Faith, implies that to be the case. Do Christian missionaries need to think seriously about the apparent incongruity between the Bible’s “good creation” and a violence-filled nature? I think so.
The “good creation” of Genesis 1 describes both animals and humans as eating plants, not each other. The wolf lying down with the lamb (Isa 11:6) seems to be the kind of creation that could be attributed to God without qualification. On the other hand, most people have simply grown accustomed to the violence of the streets and the forests. Some people believe that everything—violent, painful, or not—is of God and we will someday be able to see this as part of his “mysterious purposes.”
But now that we have inklings about how DNA can be altered, is it possible to hypothesize that fallen angels (who are at least as intelligent as humans) have been hard at work in distorting God’s original good creation into the violence in nature we now see? David Snoke, a physics and astronomy professor at the University of Pittsburgh, asks, “Why were dangerous animals created?” He suggests three possibilities: 1) fallen intermediate beings are responsible for dangerous animals, or 2) the Bible teaches that God is responsible for violence in nature, or 3) some process out of God’s control (like an unaided evolution?) is the cause (Snoke 2004, 119). I vote for the first of the three. He takes the second. Darwin, I suppose, chose the third.
But the phenomenal significance of all this for mission is plain. If dangerous animals are part of God’s original plan, and (thus logically) dangerous pathogens as well, we have no “mission” to eradicate dangerous viruses, bacteria, and parasites. And, in that case we have a perplexingly dangerous God to preach. What do you think?
Violence in the Bible
The danger is illustrated by Hector Avalos, former Pentecostal and now Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Illinois, who has lost his respect for the God of the Bible. He says that the Bible ought not to be studied and he is particularly offended by what he sees as the Bible’s “endorsement of violence” (Avalos 2007, 28). But in describing violence, is the Bible teaching it? Have people like Avalos “given up their faith” trying to explain away a number of disturbing things in the Old Testament, as if the Bible asks us to emulate or approve of all the gruesome and barbaric things it reports?
They may not realize that many things in the Bible are the result of a perfectly reasonable progressively increasing understanding which the Bible unblushingly reflects without the pretension of insisting that in the Bible there is “no progress of understanding.” At the time the Old Testament was put together as a book, later insights and interpretations were sometimes mingled with earlier understandings. One instance is the startling contrast between 2 Samuel 24:1-24 and 1 Chronicles 21:1-24. I have for some time considered these two passages to constitute the “Rosetta Stone of Biblical Hermeneutics.” In 2 Samuel the NIV says, “God incited David [to do wrong].” In 1 Chronicles the parallel account says “Satan incited David [to do wrong].” As I see it, the centuries-earlier passage speaks from the viewpoint of God’s overall sovereignty, while the post-exilic (post- Zoroastrian) passage adds a new insight. The people of Israel had become aware of the initiative of an intermediate being (Satan) that was created by God, not to be a robot, but with the same kind of freedom that humans have, namely, the freedom to do evil. The Bible does not attempt to pretend that either of these accounts was dictated from heaven.
How Does Inspiration of Scripture Fit with Violent Stories in the Bible?
Thus, here is an example where we do well to “lose our faith”—that is, lose our specious faith in the idea that our Bibles were dictated by God in the way that Muslims and Mormons claim for their holy books, the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon. Rather, we believe that “prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21, NIV). The key word here is “human,” implying limited, though inspired, perspective. In other words, many simplistic views of the Bible may need to be given up. Believing in an inerrant Bible is different from believing in inerrant interpretations.
The Bible is unlike any other religious book in the world. It doesn’t tell us of perfect people. It records horrendous evils and describes people who condone those evils. It even portrays the flaws of leaders. But it doesn’t teach those flaws. It records the literal truth of a chosen nation both seeking and denying God’s will. Does it intend for us to take its every sentence, its every event, as a model to be followed? Of course not. In one sense it mirrors for us how deep and dark our human past has been, how far we have come in better understanding God and his will for us. At the same time, for the same reason, it intends that we not slide back. Most important, we cannot logically criticize it for its honesty and accuracy!
But people are rejecting the Bible and losing their faith for no other reason than its honesty! They do not realize that the Bible very reliably portrays a nation of people who across the centuries gradually gained deeper insights, whose flawed words and deeds are not always what the Bible teaches, and that the story as it leads into the New Testament reveals an archangel adversary who is the most basic answer for the presence of suffering.
Why Does God Allow…
Probably the most vexing and ineffective Christian teaching is what we come up with in the face of tragic and evil events. Why does God allow such things? One young person after his freshman year at college said to his dad, “There is so much evil, suffering, and injustice in the world that either there is no God at all or there is a God of questionable power or character.” This idea is all the more devastating when Evangelicals, having essentially given up believing in an intelligent enemy of God, take to explaining tediously that all this evil must be because God’s ways are simply mysterious. Satan, rampant and powerful in the New Testament, has mainly disappeared from significance following Augustine’s injection of some neo-platonic thought into the Christian tradition.
Overcoming Barriers to Belief: A New Interpretation of Genesis 1
So here are two significant barriers to Christian belief: the rampant suffering, violence, and evil in this world as if there is no Satan behind it, and a Bible that is thought to have feet of clay, beginning with Genesis 1. Both of these obstacles to belief can be dealt with in an unusual way: a brief scenario that attempts conjecturally to interpret Genesis 1 in such a way as not to conflict with the latest scientific views. It may be helpful in dealing with either non-Christians or Christians about to lose their faith, people who believe current science is mainly correct in regard to 1) how old the earth is, and 2) how long ago humans first appeared, but for whom these two things are difficult to square with the Bible. This story will also be helpful to anyone who is confused about why and how radical evil appeared in our world. This scenario differs from the view of many scientists in that it explains the development of life by a means quite different from a Darwinian style random process. Furthermore, it allows for much of both the so-called “Young Earth” and the “Old Earth” perspectives. Most of all, it highlights a strikingly new dimension in the definition of Christian mission.
I am thinking more and more of the possibility (which I think should at least be considered!) that the lengthy “geologic ages” occurred before Genesis 1:1, and that no matter what you think about all those vicious animal fossils that have been dug up, you can’t interpret the non-carnivorous life described in Genesis 1 to be the same thing. Most people unthinkingly assume that way back when Genesis was written there was knowledge of a planet, solar system, galaxy, and indeed an entire universe and that precisely the beginning of all that is what is being referred to in Genesis 1:1. Certainly it is easy for us unthinkingly to read our knowledge today into something that was put together several thousand years ago when Genesis came into oral tradition and was later written down.
Now, I would not be giving this example if I had not discovered that Dr. Merrill Unger, who for 19 years was chair of the Old Testament department at Dallas seminary, clearly espoused this view way back in 1958 in the pages of the Bibliotheca Sacra, and then, later described it in his Unger’s Bible Handbook. Please understand that the idea that the long geologic ages occurred before the Genesis account of a “new creation” is an idea, not something I “believe” in the same way I believe some other things. This idea, however, does commend itself to me as the interpretation which is most fair to the Bible. I feel we must be very cautious that we do not find ourselves demanding that the Bible say what we would like it to say, or saying what we expect it to say, or even saying what many people think it says.
This “new creation” concept allows for both young earth and old earth views to be true. But there is something else that is the thing most important for me. If the thousands of forms of life that are now extinct lived before Genesis 1, their pervasively violent, perverted, distorted, carnivorous, predatory character could then be conceived to be the evil work of Satan and his rebel angels after his “fall.” This more concrete idea of a first fall would suggest that the second “fall,” that of Adam, resulted in the rejection of the newly created, undistorted life forms of Genesis chapter one, forcing them out of the Garden of Eden, into the larger planet where they would interbreed and intermarry with the long-perverted other forms of life. Result? A gradual reversion to the pre-Genesis perversity and viciousness that were the result of Satan’s earlier fall. This then provides a rationale for the need for God’s new beginning described in Genesis.
A More Complex Mission
For me, then, this would define a much more complex mission for redeemed man: to destroy the works of Satan. Since God is extensively blamed and his glory stained by common assumptions that there is no Satan, and all evil is God’s “mysterious will,” our mission is to “re-glorify” God. We can do this by seeking, in his name, to restore to God’s original intention, where possible, Satan’s perversions in all forms of life. This includes participating in serious efforts to eradicate diseases caused by viruses, many bacteria, and most parasites.
This kind of activity would seem to be highly crucial in restoring the reputation of God, who is now being blamed for all sorts of evil. This basic type of amplification of mission can uniquely empower evangelism. As a Caltech scientist once implied to me, who wants to be in heaven forever with a God with a stained and gruesome reputation?
Insight into the Real Nature of Salvation
A major reason people are leaving the church, losing their faith, and staying away in the first place, is because the church has not adequately stepped up to bat along with civil forces to beat down the corruption, disease, and poverty of at least a billion hopeless people. Evangelicals have misread the Bible. Salvation is not just a “ticket to heaven.” In my opinion a basic problem is our blindness to the essentially wartime calling of those who follow Christ. The church has largely gone AWOL, distracted or preoccupied with programs that serve our own ends. But the Bible does not call us to save ourselves, to solidify our security, or just to talk about world problems. God is asking humans to choose to join him in the battle to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8) and restore shalom to creation.
Historically, in hundreds of foreign fields, schools and hospitals have portrayed God’s love, just as did the practical dimension of Jesus’ ministry. Missionaries in the past have transformed whole countries in many practical ways. Today we know far more about the problems and far more about the solutions than ever before. Yet the world still sees us as merely religious fanatics propagating a salvation that is not here but only in the hereafter.
Self-Serving Church or Challenging World Problems?
Building the Church in both number and depth is self-defeating if the larger purpose of God’s calling is ignored. It is like recruiting soldiers for a non- existent war. Why self-defeating? The self-serving church may expand by attracting people interested in their own salvation, but if it only serves itself it also crumbles and self-destructs. Isn’t this what happened to Italy, France, England? Is France the end product, where 80% are “Christian” but only 20% believe in God? The church is now crumbling globally (as well as expanding), like salt losing its savor. This is true even on the “mission field,” even where high percentages are believers. For example, Nagaland in India, or the Central African Republic, 97% and 70% “Christian” respectively, yet are also known to be exceedingly corrupt.
We often rejoice over the global gains of the Church, but there is another side! If people are being won into the front door and eventually move out the back door, what could be the answer? We are to be salt and light in this world. That means not just adding members to the Church but glorifying God by our good deeds (Matt 5:16). We are saved by the infusion of God’s power (grace) into our lives precisely so that we can do those good deeds (Eph. 2:8-10).
We have greater opportunities and greater obligations than ever in history. Yet the chasm between our unemployed resources and an effective challenge to big world problems is very great. It is apparent that organized believers are largely missing in the conduct of the Kingdom of God, in bringing His will into the dark and suffering places in our world. [A notable exception is the 2008 announcement that billionaire Ted Turner was partnering with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the United Methodist Church to raise funds to stop deaths from global malaria. In January, 2016, the ELCA announced it had reached its $15 million goal of funds raised to combat malaria through its relief and development arm. “Thank you for naming suffering as contrary to God’s will and working to correct injustice,” an ECLA blog stated in announcing the successful conclusion of the ELCA Malaria Campaign.
The cure for a church that is in many ways staggering, stalling, and sitting down, the cure for our malaise and evaporating faith, is clear-cut definitive obedience. We must face and define the need to get organized answers to this world’s problems as well as getting individuals reconciled to God. In fact, getting people reconciled to God and to His Kingdom business must go together. Otherwise our absence at the frontlines of major global problems means we are misrepresenting God’s will and misusing the wisdom and resources he has given us to act out and speak out his love and glorify his name among all peoples. What kind of a Christ are we to follow? “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8, NASB). If we “declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples” (Psalm 96:3, NIV), we will then build the Church on a solid foundation that will not crumble.
Avalos, Hector. 2007. The End of Biblical Studies. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Collins, Francis. 2003. “Can an Evangelical Believe in Evolution?” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 20, no. 4 (Winter): 109-12. Accessed April 29, 2016. http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/20_4_PDFs/109_Collins.pdf.
Rice, Jonathan. 2004. “The Tragic Failure of Britain’s Evangelical Awakening.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 21, no. 1 (Spring): 23-25. Accessed April 29, 2016. http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/21_1_PDFs/23_25_Rice.pdf.
Snoke, David. 2004. “Why Were Dangerous Animals Created?” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (June): 117-25. Accessed April 29, 2016. http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2004/PSCF6-04Snoke.pdf.
Unger, Merrill F. 1958. “Rethinking the Genesis Account of Creation.” Bibliotheca Sacra 115 (January-March): 27-35.
______. 1967. Unger’s Bible Handbook. Chicago: Moody Press.
USA Today. 2008. Ted Turner Apologizes, Joins Churches’ $200M Malaria Fight. April 1. Accessed May 2, 2016. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/2008-04-01-turner-churches_N.htm.
Winter, Ralph. 2003. “Editorial, The Religion of Science: The Largest Remaining Frontier.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 20, no. 4 (Winter): 107-8. Accessed April 25, 2016. http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/20_4_PDFs/107_Editorial_20_4.pdf.
______. 2004a. “Editorial, Are We Building an Enduring Christianity?” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 21, no. 1 (Spring): 3-4. Accessed April 25, 2016. http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/21_1_PDFs/02_04_Editorial_21_1.pdf.
______. 2004b. “Editorial Reflections, Vicious Animals and Missions.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 21, no. 3 (Fall): 134. Accessed April 25, 2016. http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/21_3_PDFs/134_Editorial_Reflections.pdf.
______. 2004c. Twelve Frontiers of Perspective. In Frontiers in Mission: Discovering and Surmounting Barriers to the Missio Dei. 4th ed, 28-40. Pasadena, CA: WCIU Press.
______. 2006. “Editorial, Losing Faith—A Partial Response.” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 23, no. 1 (Spring): 2. Accessed April 25, 2016. http://ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/23_1_PDFs/2-4%20Editorial.pdf.
_______. 2008a. “Editorial Comment, Are We Losing More Than We’re Gaining?” Mission Frontiers 30, no. 2 (March-April): 4-5. Accessed April 25, 2016. http://www.missionfrontiers.org/pdfs/30-2-editorial.pdf.
______. 2008b. “Editorial Comment, Losing Faith: Is There a Cure for This Ongoing Problem?” Mission Frontiers 30, no. 3 (May-June), 4-5. Accessed April 25, 2016. http://www.missionfrontiers.org/pdfs/30-3-editorial.pdf.
______. 2008c. “When the Church Staggers, Stalls, and Sits Down (In the Middle of a War!).” Mission Frontiers 30, no. 3 (May-June), 6-11. Accessed April 25, 2016. http://www.missionfrontiers.org/pdfs/30-3-rdw.pdf.
______. 2009a. Lecture 18: Indicators of the Future. In Foundations of the World Christian Movement: A Reader, ed. Beth Snodderly, 18:1-4. Pasadena, CA: Institute of International Studies.
______. 2009b. “Let’s Be Fair to the Bible.” Unpublished ms.
______. 2009c. The Embarrassingly Delayed Education of Ralph D. Winter. In The Goal of International Development: God's Will on Earth as It Is in Heaven, ed. Beth Snodderly, 61-71. Pasadena, CA: WCIU Press.