Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

When God Departs

Aug 8, 2011

One of the saddest set of words one can read in Scripture is when it says that God has departed from a person or a place. Indeed, we even have a term for this. We read about how the glory of the Lord departed from Israel, and the term “Ichabod” is used for this.

We find this theme played out several times in the book of 1 Samuel. First we have the daughter-in-law of Eli giving birth to a boy: “She named the boy Ichabod, saying, ‘The glory has departed from Israel’ – because of the capture of the ark of God and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband” (1 Sam. 4:21).

In the Hebrew there is a play on words here. We read in v. 18 that when Eli heard about the capture of the ark, he died because he was old and “heavy”. The word here is kabed, the verbal form of the noun kabad, or glory. Thus in one sense the glory of Israel left Israel with the death of Eli.

But this also speaks to a bigger story of God abandoning Israel. The ark of the covenant was the visible sign of God’s presence with his people. And we read later in 1 Samuel about how God departed from her first king, Saul. Because of his disobedience he had abandoned Yahweh, so Yahweh abandoned him (1 Sam 15 – see in particular v. 23). And worse yet, we read about God’s spirit actually departing from Saul (1 Sam 16:14).

Even worse yet, we read about the glory of the Lord departing from Israel altogether in Ezekiel 8-11 (see 10:18 specifically). Thus in these tragic episodes we read about how God can leave an individual or a nation. That is a terrible place to be in of course. But these episodes found in the Old Testament should serve as sober warnings for all of us today.

I write this piece because my daily Bible readings (I am in 1 Samuel at the moment) nicely dovetailed with a news item I just read about. It seems to be a good illustration about how God can be greatly at home in a place one day, and seemingly absent the next.

I refer to Europe in general and Holland in particular. Europe of course for centuries was the home of Christendom. Indeed, to speak of Europe and the West was to speak of Christian civilisation. One thinks of all the great works and moves of God in Europe over the centuries.

Yet one has to sadly lament the fact that today Europe is the most secular and ungodly continent on earth. In many parts of Europe the church is in steep decline, and seems to have disappeared altogether in various places. If the glory of the Lord once seemed to shine in Europe, it almost appears that it has departed today.

Consider this headline found on a BBC news site: “Dutch rethink Christianity for a doubtful world”. The article begins this way: “The Rev Klaas Hendrikse can offer his congregation little hope of life after death, and he’s not the sort of man to sugar the pill. An imposing figure in black robes and white clerical collar, Mr Hendrikse presides over the Sunday service at the Exodus Church in Gorinchem, central Holland.

“It is part of the mainstream Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN), and the service is conventional enough, with hymns, readings from the Bible, and the Lord’s Prayer. But the message from Mr Hendrikse’s sermon seems bleak – ‘Make the most of life on earth, because it will probably be the only one you get. Personally I have no talent for believing in life after death,’ Mr Hendrikse says. ‘No, for me our life, our task, is before death.’

“Nor does Klaas Hendrikse believe that God exists at all as a supernatural thing. ‘When it happens, it happens down to earth, between you and me, between people, that’s where it can happen. God is not a being at all… it’s a word for experience, or human experience.’ Mr Hendrikse describes the Bible’s account of Jesus’s life as a mythological story about a man who may never have existed, even if it is a valuable source of wisdom about how to lead a good life.

“His book Believing in a Non-Existent God led to calls from more traditionalist Christians for him to be removed. However, a special church meeting decided his views were too widely shared among church thinkers for him to be singled out. A study by the Free University of Amsterdam found that one-in-six clergy in the PKN and six other smaller denominations was either agnostic or atheist.”

What an incredible – and pathetic – story. Here we appear to have “atheists for Jesus” – except they don’t even seem to believe that Jesus actually existed. Perhaps we can call them “atheist Christians”. Either way you slice it, these are oxymorons at best, and pitiful indications at worst of both apostasy and the utter departure of God from some “Christian” churches there.

You really need to read the entire article (see link below) to see just how bad this situation is. These guys have absolutely slaughtered the Christian story, and replaced it with sentimental mumbo-jumbo and humanistic pap. And this is in Holland, once such a stronghold of biblical Christianity.

So if this story is anything to go on, it seems like God has abandoned Europe, since Europe has long ago abandoned God. Europe is certainly a continent awash in new paganism, not unlike things were when Christianity first burst onto the scene there. It needs to be evangelised afresh.

But as I have written elsewhere, even if most Dutchmen and Europeans may be turning their backs on God, God is not yet finished with Europe. He is now bringing Asians, Africans and others to re-Christianise Europe, and thriving churches can even be found in Amsterdam, led by these overseas Christians.

See this encouraging story here for example:

So even though perhaps most Europeans have shaken their fists at God, and we have the despicable situation as described in this BBC article, God still will have the last word. Even in the face of rank apostasy and outright rejection of God, he still can accomplish his purposes and get his job done.

And if Christians in Holland – or France, or Germany, etc – will not get the job done, then he is quite happy to bring in believers from the developing world who will get the job done.

[1090 words]

15 Responses to When God Departs

  • Amen to that.
    Rachel Smith

  • I’ll say it until the cows come home … apostasy starts with us doubting God’s word. God said to Adam and Eve that they would die if they ate the fruit of a particular tree. Satan convinced them to doubt God’s word and they disobeyed God and then had to face the prospect of death just as God had said they would.

    As just one modern day example: God has plainly told us that he made the world in six (Earth rotation) days but the majority of Church leaders now teach that this isn’t so and go through all sorts of convoluted special pleading of the Scripture to support their heretical teaching, totally undermining important Biblical doctrines, contradicting the recorded opinions of the Apostle Paul, Moses and the Lord Himself. Then these same people can’t understand why people would prefer to spend a Sunday morning sitting in a beer garden, sipping a cold one and listening to a jazz band!
    Col Maynard, Sydney NSW

  • Hi Bill
    I read the following article earlier today – you are right, God has not abandoned Europe – the following is certainly a celebration of God at work in spite of the “odds”. He’s an awesome, majestic God.

    Christine Nielson

  • I found your article while doing a search for “Atheists for Jesus” (I’m the founder and try to keep up with what folks are saying about us).
    Since you did not capitalize “Atheists” I see that you were not referring directly to my group. However, I would like to respond to a couple of your statements.

    RE: What an incredible – and pathetic – story. Here we appear to have ‘atheists for Jesus” – except they don’t even seem to believe that Jesus actually existed.

    I personally do not believe that the existence of Jesus of Nazareth is in any serious doubt. However, I do believe that Jesus the Christ is a fiction from the mind of the self-appointed apostle, Paul.

    RE:Perhaps we can call them ‘atheist Christians”. Either way you slice it, these are oxymorons at best,

    I agree that “atheist Christians” would be an oxymoron (that is why my organization is NOT called Atheists for Christ). However, I can–without contradiction–be an atheist, and a supporter of many of the ethical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

    My apologies if this is too far off of your main topic.

    Ken Schei

  • Thanks Ken

    Yes it is a bit off topic, although what this “pastor” in Holland is on about is not very dissimilar to what you are on about.

    But you simply parrot the typical position of theological liberalism on all this, offering us nothing new. They are happy to chirp on about Jesus as a great ethical teacher, but will also effectively call him a liar when it comes to his claims about himself and his mission. But it is impossible to read the gospel accounts and separate the ethics of Jesus from the teachings of Jesus. They stand or fall together.

    As C.S. Lewis once incisively remarked, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him. ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

    I have written about this elsewhere:
    And here:

    The sentimental sap the liberals – and you – offer us has nothing whatsoever to do with the historical Jesus. Indeed, you might as well jump into bed with those pushing New Age mumbo jumbo. There is nothing intellectually honest about such a jaundiced view of Jesus. I speak to this here as well:

    As to the myth of Paul making this all up, and distorting what Jesus was on about: sorry, but again the wealth of biblical scholarship is against you here. Indeed, one of our greatest living New Testament scholars has addressed this issue quite carefully, See Tom Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Lion, 1997). Plenty of others have as well, such as Peter Barnes, The Gospel: Did Paul and Jesus Agree? (Evangelical Press, 1994).

    But as I say, you are simply pushing outdated and rather juvenile theological liberalism here. Your thoughts would nicely mesh with New Age gurus, but not with careful scholarship or considered reasoning. So I am afraid I am just not buying into it.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Not many people would be prepared to die for something unless they are absolutely persuaded it is true, unless they may be seriously deluded. Paul was neither stupid nor deluded and yet he was prepared to die for the proclamation of the gospel. In fact, when Festus accused him of being carried away with too much learning, he was able to confidently affirm that “not madness, but I speak with the voice of truth and reason, sobriety, sanity” as various versions put it (Acts 26:25). Paul had nothing to gain for himself, he took a decided turn for the worst in his own personal life and comfort since his conversion, so the argument that he might have done all he did for selfish reasons kind of doesn’t hold either.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • Unhappily this kind of thing is evident in Australia as well in our more liberal denominations.

    But Col’s answer in a naive literalism is not the answer; in fact I’d argue it contributes to the problem. He’s right that God’s word is not be to doubted but wrong that everything is quite as clear as he thinks on subsidiary issues. The very fact he has to add “Earth rotation” between “six” and “days” is a giveaway.

    Rowland Ward, Wantirna, Vic

  • Great article Bill and also a ‘well said’ to Col Maynard’s comments too.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  • Nice reply to Ken Shei Bill. I have noticed that when I am debating atheists on the net that when you come up with well reasoned arguments in answer to their platitudes, they fade into the ether or bombard you with pejorative expletives to hide their embarrassment.

    Any position they have gained is by default as Christians have retreated into their holiday camps to avoid connection with the world.

    Roger Marks

  • To Rowland Ward,

    Attacking other Christians who believe in a literal 6 day creation is not the answer. It in fact shows a great ignorance of solid creationist arguments for a literal 6 day creation.

    Perhaps rather than simply assuming that secular scientists (who love to look for any answer other than God for our origins) are right, maybe you should approach creation arguments with an open mind. Who knows, you might actually learn something.

    Mario Del Giudice

  • Thanks for this article. Because of it, I will be buying Christopher W. Morgan’s book The Glory of God: Theology in Community which I found through a search on ‘kabed glory’. I’ve read a section of the book online and think it will be quite helpful as I read through the O.T. As you’ve recommended a couple of his other books, I trust this one will be good as well.

    Annette Nestor

  • Thanks Annette

    Yes it is a quite good volume.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Quite good? I want a really good one or an excellent one. There must be a better one that you know about Bill.

    Annette Nestor

  • OK, it is a really good, even excellent book!
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • As Alexandr Solzhenitzyn (of “the Gulag Archipelago” and who returned to his mother’s Christianity) reveals: that the tens of millions of Russians slaughtered on the altar of “militant atheism” and all the terrible suffering to follow was brought about – by nothing other than “we forgot God” / “we banished God from our culture” (and God withdrew His protective hand which had held back the tsunami of evil).

Leave a Reply