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The Christadelphian | October 2010

In the magazine this month:

  • Editorial The rise of atheism
  • Letters to the Editor
  • Sunday morning “Now is my soul troubled” | Dudley Fifield
  • The Bible 4 Life 3 – Moving onwards | Mark Sheppard
  • Workers together 1 – Introduction | John Boulton
  • “The voice of many angels” | Leslie Broughton
  • Marriage in the Lord | Lynn Perry
  • Jesus and gentleness | Norman Fitchett
  • Ezekiel – prophet to the exiles 10 – A rebellious house (part 2) | Andrew E. Walker
  • Contending earnestly | Geoff Henstock
  • “Fear not, neither be discouraged” | Stephen Whitehouse
  • Signs of the times Turkey and Israel
  • Israel and their land The population grows
  • The brotherhood near and far

A sample article from this edition:

Editorial

The rise of atheism

THE cover photograph showing the ruined skeleton of a medieval abbey, like the bleached and whitened bones of a long dead animal picked clean by its predators, stands as a stark reminder of attacks that were mounted four hundred and fifty years ago against the organised religion of the times. Although King Henry VIII had personal reasons to challenge the powers of the Roman church, and although the wealth of the monasteries was attractive to a king with grand expansionist policies, others involved in the dissolution of the monasteries were keen to see the corruption and deceit of the church replaced by something that was more true to the scriptures.

The Reformation

Had we lived in those times we too would have been appalled at the depravity of those who claimed to be men of God, and keen to see the introduction of sound Biblical values. We might not have joined in the spoiling of ecclesiastical treasures, but we would certainly not have mourned the passing of that iniquitously corrupt system. It is no coincidence that the Reformation occurred at the same time as copies of the Bible became available to a much larger proportion of the population, and in languages they could understand. What men and women read or learned from God’s inspired word was clearly inconsistent with how religion was being practised by the sixteenth century church, and many Bible readers were therefore content and supportive when Henry launched his campaign against the power of Rome.

The idealism of the reformers was, however, soon compromised for political ends. King Henry did not seek a Bible-centred church, but one that would be susceptible to his control. As Anglicans replaced Catholics as the major religion in Britain, the excesses may not have been so bad, but many of the characteristics of what went before were retained, like a child reflecting the mannerisms of its parent. Among those who urged reform were some who honestly tried to apply biblical principles to both personal and corporate religion, and they soon discovered that the powers of the new church against any who questioned its ways were not much diminished from those wielded under the Catholic system.

The Reformation did not fundamentally reform anything, and those who hoped to be free to worship God in truth, often had to do so behind closed doors and in fear of swift and terrible reprisals.

Double-edged freedom

The freedom to worship in accordance with a person’s conscience had to wait for much later political earthquakes, this time driven not at all by a desire to embrace scriptural principles, but by a philosophy that placed man and not God at the centre of human thought. For over two hundred years governments in the Western world have upheld the view that all men and women are created equal, and that they have some basic and unalienable rights, including the right to worship freely and without restraint as their consciences so determine.

For true believers, this freedom was double-edged. On the positive side, it meant they were indeed at liberty to worship as the scriptures dictate: they did not need priests to mediate on their behalf, or to administer sacraments; they could read the Bible openly without fear of retribution, and teach its wonderful message to their children. But set against these benefits was the thinking that led to them: a line of reasoning that by elevating man dishonours God, “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever!” (Romans 1:25).

After two centuries of freedom to worship, the decline in religious faith is gathering momentum. The period began, as might be expected, with a great reform movement, with some similarities to the earlier Reformation. Many people recognised the importance of the scriptures, and set out to apply them within their own denominations, often meeting strong resistance. Out of this maelstrom of feverish and often impassioned discussion, many new sects emerged, including in the mid-nineteenth century a small group called the Christadelphians. Yet, while these discussions were taking place between people who were keen to understand God’s word, the secular world was rejoicing in man’s inventiveness and achievements.

Challenging the authority of God

If there was great diversity in religious teaching and organisation as a result of the freedom to challenge and discuss how to worship God acceptably, it was nothing compared to the growth and expansion that arose through the Industrial Revolution. Each new invention or discovery was hailed as further proof of man’s increasing powers. A similar development occurred much earlier in human history, so that God said, “Behold … this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6). His response on that occasion was to take steps to prevent mankind from challenging His ultimate authority, scattering men and women right across the face of the earth and restricting their ability to communicate by confounding their language. We can be reassured by God’s reaction to the plan to construct the Tower of Babel, that He will not allow men and women in these modern times to dishonour Him forever.

But the growth of machinery, construction, technology, communication, and energy supplies has given man confidence that nothing he proposes to do will now be impossible. He believes that he has reached these dizzying heights by his own unaided efforts, and certainly without any assistance from God, and so has proved beyond all doubt to his own satisfaction that religious faith is no longer needed in the modern world. He has even passed beyond that point, and believes that any acknowledgement of a place for faith in the modern world will severely limit the continued development of human thought and action.

How ironic that a movement that began with a primary aim to uphold a person’s freedom to practise his or her religion is now engaged in a process to dismantle religious faith just as surely as Henry VIII planned to dissolve the monasteries that were symbolic of the power wielded by the medieval church! The difference today is that there is no single person, power, government or organisation wholly responsible for planning the downfall of religion, but it is as if a collective madness has gripped many different facets of modern life so that the policies of extremely diverse groups converge on this one point: the rejection of divine power and of religious belief.

Atheism in contemporary society

Various circumstances have created fertile ground for those who oppose religious faith. High on the list is the behaviour of those who claim to speak on God’s behalf. Ecclesiastical corruption did not end with medieval times, and recent child abuse scandals involving churchmen have removed at a stroke the churches’ claim to wield moral authority. On the subject of morals, the emphasis on human rights has increasingly revealed that divine morality does not mesh with modern humanistic thinking, allowing the Bible’s critics to disown it as completely outdated, and with no relevance for today’s world. Scientific discoveries, including those that allow men and women to manipulate different aspects of living organisms, have led to the construction of theories about the development of life that leave no place for a divine Creator. Ever more powerful telescopes, allowing views of universes unbelievable distances from ours have not led mankind to consider that the heavens are the work of God’s fingers, but completely the reverse. Astronomical discoveries are often put forward as proof that God simply does not exist.

All these and many other factors have led to ever more bold, outrageous and blasphemous statements by men and women who rejoice in denying the existence of God. While upholding their own right freely to promote the views they hold, increasingly they suggest ways of restricting anyone with a religious faith the opportunity to promote it.

They propose instead that for anything to be accepted as true and worthwhile, it must be assessed (and be able to be assessed) solely by the power of human reasoning. By making this the ground of testing, they have created a method that – surely by design? – finds it absolutely impossible to recognise faith.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

The thinking of the modern world concentrates almost exclusively on what can be seen, or empirically tested, and faith as scripturally defined falls completely outside such tests. No account is given to the possibility that there is a spiritual element necessary in human thought, which is more concerned with the reason for human existence than with the means by which life came into existence; and more concerned with what is acceptable to God than with what is acceptable to man. If the modern mind tries to provide by its scientific studies a reason for human life, the theory of the survival of the fittest suggests that the underlying reason is domination – the ability to exercise power over others for personal gratification.

This is the sorry outcome of militant atheism, leaving no place in its brave new world for mercy, grace, gentleness, kindness and goodness: the divine qualities God encourages men and women to develop in order to accept His offer of life in a truly reformed world.

Our response

Faced by a barrage of scornful comments about anyone who believes in God and who has faith in His word, how ought we to react as individuals and as a community in times that are likely only to get more difficult? First and foremost, we must not be caused to doubt the truth of God’s word because there is so much opposition to it:

“Let God be true though every man be false, as it is written, ‘That thou mayest be justified in thy words, and prevail when thou art judged.’” (Romans 3:4)

His word is not only true in its historical details, but also in its guidance for everyday life. Jesus said, “Blessed … are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28).

The relentless progress of atheistic thought could easily suggest that the battle for faith is being lost. But that is where faith provides its own answer. We know from God’s word that He will not allow His purpose to be thwarted, and that however many individual battles in the war against faith may be lost, the campaign will end with the vanquishing of all opposition to God’s ways. The Lord Jesus Christ warned his disciples of the consequences of following him:

“You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22)

Writing to brothers and sisters facing extreme challenges towards the end of the Jewish age, the apostle wrote words that apply equally to today’s disciple:

“Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, my soul has no pleasure in him. But we are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul.” (Hebrews 10:38,39)

 

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