The Disappearance of God: a resolutely hopeful book of warnings

Sunday, February 26, 2012

What’s your view on the existence of hell? Does the term “church discipline” have any meaning to you? How do we maneuver a God-glorifying balance of maintaining cultural sensitivity and relevance with Biblical truth and imperative? Has anyone ever offered you counsel, wisdom or even – gasp - warning about these things? How much warning literature do you read (aside from the Bible)? Do you read so much that you find it difficult to trust a Christian from a different church because you are afraid of uncovering heresy at every turn? Or do you read only those books which confirm a happy and calm state of mind, which don’t participate in something so archaic as fear-mongering?

Some things, I am convinced, merit warning, serious warning. It is true, some of us are so steeped in it that we honestly need to step back and spend some time actively trusting God to sustain His Kingdom-work in this world, learning to love selflessly and be less self-defensive. However, my guess is that for the majority of us, reading a book full of warnings is not something that occupies a lot of our time (unless it’s a joke column listing ridiculous warnings that are found on some products, such as “Do not eat” on an electric can opener). I’ve read a few (books full of warnings, I mean, not the jokes), and this is one which I found very appropriate and timely, and especially suitable for people for which this is the first foray into warning literature. This little book offers a useful survey of a few very significant ways in which God is “disappearing” from Western church doctrine and culture. An intentionally provocative term, “disappearance” as Mohler uses it refers to the apparent trend of rejecting the truth about God’s character and will as revealed in the Bible, and replacing it with one of our own choosing.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is Mohler’s ability to pack the basics of the issues into a concise and yet provocative study. I’ve been told that the book originated on his blog, and if so, I can certainly see this reflected in its composition and content: the chapters are short (short enough, I believe, for someone not-so-academically-inclined to read and enjoy and learn from without getting worn out or bored) and the discussions are well balanced in unpacking some pretty thought-provoking ideas while generally operating at a layman’s level of expertise. (I think some terms like “penal substitution” and “liberalism” do go undefined, but can largely be understood from the context. And if you occasionally need to reach for the dictionary or google a word, remember that so many of us easily spend forty-five minutes jumping from video to video through youtube links, that we can probably handle looking up a few definitions!) This book does assume that the reader is a Christian with some knowledge of the topics, which is a reasonable expectation; hell and sin are two such topics general to the Christian faith, and even the more specific movement of the emerging church is likely a label which most Western Christians have come across at some point. Each chapter offers you enough to be informed and properly oriented to the discussion at hand, while pointing the reader to further resources and areas for consideration. In many ways the chapters are jumping-off points. If you never have another chance to properly research the debate around the existence of Hell (aside from your personal study of the Bible and exposure to Sunday preaching), the respective chapter offers sufficient warning. However, the chapters also work to pique reader interest, and I think many readers will come away from the book wanting to further invest in equipping themselves to respond to these issues in a God-honouring way.

As is clear from above, there are a range of topics covered in the book. These include the disappearance of the Biblical concepts of hell and sin and the need for missions and preaching from Christian belief and practice. The Emerging Church movement is also discussed for three chapters and I appreciated Mohler’s conclusion: “The Emerging Church and its leaders are right to insist that substance must be preferred to superficiality. We can only pray and hope that they will remember and acknowledge that substance requires a substantial and honest embrace of truth” (95). Now, obviously I am coming from a position which is largely in line with Mohler’s own and I don’t expect that those of you with Emerging Church leanings will simply bow to each claim Mohler makes – but I think, I hope, you will find that he treats the movement and its leaders with fairness, as he attempts to respectfully but adamantly draw our attention to areas for concern. Mohler draws heavily on Carson’s book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, and so if you have already read that, you probably won’t discover anything radically different – although, as I maintain, this book’s treatment has the benefit of brevity which makes it easier to remember.

The chapters which I really responded to the most include Mohler’s discussion of “A Christian version of Beauty,” in which he suggests that beauty is a concept in crisis, and that as Christians we must not divorce beauty from its proper relation to what is good, true and real – that is, from the glory of God. These were refreshing chapters despite the warnings, and I was particularly affected by the move he makes to suggest that “the confusion over beauty is not merely an item of cultural consternation, nor is it merely a matter of theological debate. It is a matter of redemption.” (56) Beauty and missions are related – and it’s a beautiful thing.

I also greatly appreciated his discussion of church discipline and the reality that the Western church now exists in an increasingly post-Christian culture and what our response to this should be. For those more pessimistic individuals among us (perhaps of an older generation disappointed with the direction of our culture, or of a younger generation jaded because we’ve read too much Nietzsche, or of any generation and owning a melancholy personality), the warnings of this book may not be new or shocking. However, the book is not a mere lament over change, nor does it fall into the tired rut of mourning the truism that the older must inevitably give way to the newer. If you are a younger reader, you are not excused in ignoring the book because you feel that in it you will find only the protests of the previous generation at the deviations of the following one. No, this book crosses generations, for it unites around the common grace that is given in the conviction of the absolute truthfulness of Scripture. Change itself is not the issue. Change in our attitude towards the truth of God’s revealed Word is. Our response, however, in light of the solemn warnings is not to be pessimism, and this was a point I found particularly striking. How easy to pile warning upon warning about how our culture and, more seriously, the church is turning away from the Living God and to then shake our heads and give up! It’s hopeless! It’s inevitable! We just have to resign ourselves and survive it! But Mohler makes it clear that there is no place for pessimism, and this is so refreshing in a book so (necessarily) burdened with warning.

I leave you with his words and encourage you to go out and find a copy of this hopeful book of warnings.

He writes, “In reality, we have no right to be either optimistic or pessimistic. To be either optimistic or pessimistic is to be deluded, and in some sense to deny the sovereignty of God. We cannot be pessimistic because Scripture tells us we are to be a people of hope. Of course, that does not mean that we are a naïve and ignorant people of hope who close our eyes to the reality around us. No, we find hope in something that is far more secure than anything this culture can secure.”(173)

What are we to be?

“We are to be the community of the open-eyed, the intellectually alert, the brokenhearted, and the resolutely hopeful.” (174)


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