God, Man, and the Great Reversal

Some things never change: there is always a God who is there; there are always sinners who reject him yet desperately need him; and the work of Christ to reconcile men to God is always there as well. Yet some things do change in this regard.

For example, throughout most of human history mankind has known that God exists, and that he is accountable to him. Man was the one under the microscope, while God sat on his throne, rightly ruling and rightly exalted. Men knew their place, in other words, and they knew they were not God, and in a position able to sit in judgment on him.

Also, for much of human history it was assumed that man was a sinner, was guilty before God, and was accountable to him. And that of course was strongly featured in 2,000 years of Christian preaching. But that too has changed of late. The good news of the gospel was once always preceded by the bad news, but not so much nowadays.

These are both important and worrying shifts which have taken place, at least in the Western world. More often than not, we are sitting in judgment on God, and more often than not, we are skirting over the reality and horror of sin, both in and out of the churches.

Since much of Christendom is now commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of C. S. Lewis, it is well worth appealing to him at this point. The truth is, he discussed these matters quite some time ago now. His words were spot on then, and even more so now.

So it is worthwhile going back and picking up on his insights and wisdom in this regard. To do so I wish to just focus on one of his writings. In 1948 he had this brief essay published: “Difficulties in Presenting the Christian Faith to Modern Unbelievers”.

Although an accurate title as to the essay’s contents, most of you would not have heard of it. That is because you might be more familiar with a later title given to the piece: “God in the Dock”. While claiming not to be an authority on such matters, he did go on to mention several areas in which the presentation of the gospel has been made more difficult.

For example, one of the problems he mentioned was our current scepticism about history. He wrote: “It seemed to me that they did not really believe that we have any reliable knowledge of historic Man. But this was often curiously combined with a conviction that we knew a great deal about Pre-Historic Man: doubtless because Pre-Historic Man is labelled ‘Science’ (which is reliable) whereas Napoleon or Julius Caesar is labelled as ‘History’ (which is not).

“Thus a pseudo-scientific picture of the ‘Caveman’ and a picture of ‘the Present’ filled almost the whole of their imaginations; between these, there lay only a shadowy and unimportant region in which the phantasmal shapes of Roman soldiers, stage-coaches, pirates, knights in armour, highwaymen, etc., moved in a mist. I had supposed that if my hearers disbelieved the Gospels, they would do so because the Gospels recorded miracles. But my impression is that they disbelieved them simply because they dealt with events that happened a long time ago: that they would be almost as incredulous of the Battle of Actium as of the Resurrection—and for the same reason.”

But it is his final point which I will address here. It relates directly to the two matters I raised just above. Let me quote Lewis on the second of these concerns: “The greatest barrier I have met is the almost total absence from the minds of my audience of any sense of sin. This has struck me more forcibly when I spoke to the R.A.F. than when I spoke to students: whether (as I believe) the Proletariat is more self-righteous than other classes, or whether educated people are cleverer at concealing their pride, this creates for us a new situation.

“The early Christian preachers could assume in their hearers whether Jews, Metuentes or Pagans, a sense of guilt. (That this was common among Pagans is shown by the fact that both Epicureanism and the Mystery Religions both claimed, though in different ways, to assuage it.) Thus the Christian message was in those days unmistakably the Evangelium, the Good News. It promised healing to those who knew they were sick. We have to convince our hearers of the unwelcome diagnosis before we can expect them to welcome the news of the remedy.”

Of course I and many others have been saying this for years. Without first being fully aware of our condition as guilty sinners before a holy God, the good news of the gospel will make no sense. Yet so often today we hear nothing about sin – not just in the world, but from so many pulpits as well.

The other big reversal which I spoke about is addressed by Lewis in this fashion: “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.”

Yes, instead of God sitting in judgment over mere man, we have thought it fit to make him accountable to us. It is all a part of man’s rebellion against God, but it has become more pronounced of late. Just consider the issue of theodicy as an example. Even the term itself is quite recent.

It has to do with why God allows suffering and evil, and it speaks about justifying the ways of God to man. It seems that the German philosopher Leibniz (1646-1716) first used this term, and it has since come to mean making God answerable to charges of complicity in evil.

But prior to the Enlightenment, suffering was normally viewed as a problem for man, not as a problem for God. That is, God was not put in the dock, forced to give an account of himself. But all that has changed in the past few centuries, and whenever some disaster strikes, we demand of God an immediate and satisfying explanation.

So it is a case of the clay chewing out the potter. Thus we find a few major shifts in the way we approach God of late. We have basically lost the vocabulary and comprehension of sin, and we have forgotten that it is God who has a right to judge us, not the other way around.

This makes the task of sharing the gospel with unbelievers a bit more difficult perhaps. But apologetics, or pre-evangelism, has always been a part of the Christian arsenal. So keep these two areas in mind as you seek to proclaim biblical truth to modern man.

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3 Replies to “God, Man, and the Great Reversal”

  1. For some pointed examples of the present-day “God-in-the-dock” approach to God, see the tirades of Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry against God during the debate and post-debate footage in British Catholic MP, Ann Widdicombe’s programme on the Ten Commandments in the “The Bible” Series currently running on SBS TV. Link at: http://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/11859011531/The-Bible-A-History-S1-Ep3-Moses-And-The-Law.

    For a Roman Catholic MP to speak with some admiration of the early English Puritans and their commitment to the reform of community mores is but one example Ann Widdicombe’s courage in her presentation on the historical importance of the Ten Commandments.

    John Wigg

  2. Having read your other article on C.S. Lewis, I read or rather tried to get my head around the essay “the poison of subjectivism” and was struck by part of his opening sentence. Good ideas do not make good men of bad ones. But, I thought, they might help bad men to realize they are bad and seek forgiveness from Him who not only made him, but also has the will and power to make him a good man.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

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