Fortress of Faith, Castles of Sand
When someone is said to be harboring a “fortress mentality,” it is not intended as a compliment. In Washington, DC, it usually implies one has pulled up the mental drawbridge and is overly defensive.
But fortresses have a function. My wife, Janet, and I have seen a number of them in our travels. I particularly remember the castle fortress in Saint Andrews, Scotland, that housed a dark, foreboding jail known in the 16th century as the “bottle dungeon” because of its shape. It lay beneath the castle floor and was accessible only through a small hatch.
Christian evangelist and reformer George Wishart was imprisoned there before he was finally dragged out, lashed to a stake, and burned alive for his bold proclamation of salvation by grace through faith.
When the fires of the Protestant Reformation swept through Scotland, the fortress switched hands. John Knox and his Bible students found solace there until a fierce military bombardment by anti-Reformation forces occurred. When the smoke cleared, Knox was captured and chained as a rowing slave in the hold of a French galley ship.
Fortresses were built because war and conflict, tribulation and social tempest were inevitable; and high, thick walls and guarded gates made good military defenses. In America the church of Jesus Christ is under attack. Though the force is not military, it is formidable nevertheless.
The Masters of Media and Entertainment
One of the surest signs of rising anti-Christian bigotry in America is the mainstream press’s boldness in slandering believers. In October 2009, when MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said on national television that the “group in this country that most resembles the Taliban, ironically, is the religious right,”1 it was hard to believe the news media’s treatment of conservative Christians could get any worse. But it has.
Enter liberal TV commentator Lawrence O’Donnell. In March 2011, while scoffing at end-times discussions on Glenn Beck’s television program on FOX News, O’Donnell used his own television show to proclaim, “The book of Revelation is a work of fiction describing how a truly vicious God would bring about the end of the world. Now, no half-smart religious person believes the book of Revelation anymore.” O’Donnell finished his diatribe by describing God as “a malicious torturer and mass murderer beyond Hitler’s wildest dreams.”2
In his column in the Chicago Tribune this year, Clarence Page complained that too much is being made of the link between Islam and terrorism. Then he posited that such a link is equal to the connection “between the evangelical Christian community and the bombers of abortion clinics.” And when National Public Radio’s (NPR’s) fund-raising executive, Ron Schiller, was caught on videotape in a Washington, DC, restaurant castigating (among other things) evangelical Christians, it confirmed a bias many of us had suspected within NPR.
This bias is not limited to the liberal mainstream press. Large communications titans that own new media platforms are exercising a powerful and disturbing form of anti-Christian censorship. In November 2010, for example, Apple banished from its iTunes store an application (app) from the Manhattan Declaration, blocking it from its hugely successful iPhone. The reason? The Declaration contained a statement of Christian orthodoxy on sexuality and opposed gay marriage.
A few months later, in March, Apple banned a second Christian iPhone app. This one, from the ex-gay organization Exodus International, Apple considered “offensive” because the ministry sought to introduce homosexuals to Jesus Christ, a source of liberation from that lifestyle.
Meanwhile, Facebook officials have promised to block “hate-speech” critical of gay rights but will make no promise to protect Christians’ rights to post Bible-based statements about homosexuality.
In the entertainment world, the 2011 Sundance Film Festival shows how easy a target conservative Christians have become.3 Red State, a horror film about a Christian fundamentalist family that tortures and kills some teenagers, was promoted at the festival to throngs of enthusiastic supporters.
Another film, Higher Ground, is about a woman who leaves the “Jesus movement” because, as the director told The Huffington Post, it was “an impoverished expression of the Christian religion.” Another featured film was a documentary about a former Liberian soldier’s conversion to Christ. According to reviewer Dick Staub, it shows “the messiness of his redemption.”
In the world of television, former Saturday Night Live regular Victoria Jackson, outspoken about her Christian faith, has been excoriated by the entertainment industry because she dared to criticize a scene in the sitcom Glee where two gay characters kiss. When interviewed on Headline News’s Showbiz Tonight, she was asked the now standard, politically correct, politburo-type question of whether she was “homophobic.”4
While large segments of the popular culture seem to be aiming their arrows at Bible-believing Christians, we are still apt to ask, “Our basic religious freedoms under the Constitution are still intact, right?” Well, yes and no.
The full effect of the Supreme Court’s devastating decision last year in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez has yet to be felt. In a closely divided ruling, the court held that a Christian ministry may be banned from a public university if it sticks to its statement of faith and refuses to open its leadership to atheists, agnostics, and members of other religions. We do not yet know how this ruling might be used to bar biblically sound Christian organizations from receiving public services, benefits, and ministry opportunities.
On the positive side, the high court rightly decided Snyder v. Phelps this year. Despite the sympathetic losing party and the repugnant winning party, the ruling was sound. The court struck down, on free-speech grounds, a large monetary damages award against Fred Phelps.
Phelps, the leader of a small, angry group that misapplies Bible verses, had picketed the funeral of a young man killed during military duty in Iraq. The grieving father brought the suit. The court noted that Phelps’s group had obeyed police and stayed peacefully on a public sidewalk, 1,000 feet away from the funeral. Had the Supreme Court ruled otherwise, responsible, legitimate, Bible-preaching Christians would become the next defendants in such lawsuits.
But there is a catch: In his concurring opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer, leader of the court’s liberal faction, warned that the ruling did not extend First Amendment protection to religious speech over the airways (i.e. television) or Internet. The implication is that “hate speech” laws could well be used to stifle the gospel over those venues.
Most cases, of course, never reach the marble steps of the Supreme Court. Their ultimate fate rests with the army of lower court federal judges. So it is important to see what types of judges America has in its future. Will they respect the fundamental, constitutional liberties of Christians, or will they bow to prevailing opinion?
In 2010 influential U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) recommended Daniel Alter for the U.S. District Court in New York, saying he hoped to make him “the first openly gay male judge” in America. Since then Schumer has supported President Barack Obama’s nominee to the New York federal bench, Paul Oetken, a homosexual-rights activist who argued an amicus curiae brief in favor of homosexual rights in the notorious Lawrence v. Texas case, the decision that reversed Supreme Court recognition of the Judeo-Christian roots of America’s social disapproval of homosexuality.5
These are the future judges who will weigh the rights of Christians against the radical “anti-discrimination” laws that demand that Christians ignore their consciences. One example looming is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that would make it illegal for employers to consider the homosexuality, bisexuality, or “gender identity” of a job applicant.
I testified before both the House of Representatives and Senate on behalf of the National Religious Broadcasters, indicating that the bill’s so-called exemption for religious groups is more mirage than reality. ENDA would apply to every for-profit Christian ministry and many non-profit Christian organizations as well. The bill has been reintroduced in the House again this year.
Troubling Our Own House
Not all threats to the gospel occur from outside Christianity. Some come from within. These present a particular challenge. We continue to see debates in some denominations over the plenary inerrancy and inspiration of the Bible. That is a most troubling problem because God’s propositional truth about Himself and about us is in His Word. When we ignore the principle of sola Scriptura, we set ourselves adrift.
Earlier this year the battle for the Bible took a new turn. When prepublication marketing began for Pastor Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, a firestorm erupted within the evangelical community. An editorial vice president of a Christian publishing house criticized the book’s liberal treatment of hell and salvation on a blog and, within a few days, sparked some 1,000 comments and some 24,000 Facebook shares. The subject has since gone “viral” on the Internet and Twitter.
I have reviewed Rob Bell’s book, and it is highly problematic. To characterize it generally, I quote emerging church leader Brian McLaren who said both Bell’s views and his depart from the traditional biblical view of hell because they “can’t in good conscience defend that view any longer.”6
The existence of hell is clearly taught in Scripture by our Lord (Mt. 5:22; 10:28; Mk. 9:47), the apostle Peter (2 Pet. 2:4), and the apostle Paul (2 Th. 1:8–9). Furthermore, it was adopted by the church Fathers and every major Christian thinker from Augustine to Martin Luther to John Calvin to America’s great colonial preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards, as well as by other preachers of the Great Awakening and all of the great Christian missionaries and evangelists throughout history.
Bell’s book goes even further. It challenges God’s revealed truth about salvation itself:
Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t, and so we simply respect them, creating space for the freedom that love requires.7
If there was ever a time for evangelical Christians to know exactly what we believe and why and then to live it out lovingly, humbly, and courageously before a confused and hostile world, it is now. We dare not decide these matters by majority vote or popular opinion. We must not first see who agrees with us before we decide what the truth is. We must see what God says on the subject.
All that we truly know about God’s greatness, goodness, and grace toward sinners is contained in His Word. As Jonathan Edwards observed, “The reality of Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world and the great things that He has revealed concerning Himself and His Father are no longer matters of speculation.”8
Our fortress, our ultimate defense, will never lie in our own strategies or cleverness or even in learning the true doctrines of the faith. Rather, our ultimate defense will always reside with Him, the living God. As King David wrote under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, even though the earth be removed and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; though its waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with its swelling” (Ps. 46:1–3).
God is telling us that, in our present troubles, He is a comforting presence. Our destiny is not merely a better life or a peaceful present; it is a bountiful and blessed future: “There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High” (v. 4).
Those who have trusted in Christ are inheritors of eternal life—a continuum that covers our past sin, empowers our present walk, and guarantees our future blessing in His presence. Whatever rises up against God’s truth will inevitably prove to be not an impregnable castle, but merely shifting sand. Jesus declared it plainly: “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33).
- Noel Sheppard, “Chris Matthews: Religious Right in America Resembles the Taliban,” Newsbusters.com, October 22, 2009 < tinyurl.com/yf9nzd9>.
- Amanda Read, “Lawrence O’Donnell unwittingly signals the End Times,” The Washington Times, March 25, 2011 <tinyurl.com/3phfnfx>.
- Dick Staub, “Spirituality is the Star at Sundance,” The Huffington Post, 2011 <tinyurl.com/3gj9694>.
- “Victoria Jackson Slams ‘Glee,’ Gays, Muslims in ‘Showbiz Tonight’ Appearance,” The Huffington Post, March 22, 2011 <tinyurl.com/4v7cq5n>.
- Mario Diaz, “The homosexual quota for federal judges,” WorldNetDaily, March 18, 2011 <wnd.com/index.php?fa=PAGE.view&pageId=276337>.
- Bob Allen, “McLaren, Mohler trade barbs on Rob Bell’s book,” Associated Baptist Press, March 23, 2011 <abpnews.com/content/view/6247/53>.
- Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011), 115.
- Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections: A Christian’s Character Before God, ed. James M. Houston, introduction by Charles Colson, (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1996), 117.