Religionless Christianity: An Introduction & Are We in the Last Days?

April 23, 2024

This Religionless Christianity: God’s Answer to Evil excerpt is from the Introduction and Chapter One: Are We in the Last Days?

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We are in a war. Of course, at its heart, it’s a spiritual war. We who call ourselves Christians are called by God to fight in that spiritual war, which expresses itself in innumerable ways all around us, so that what is fought in the heavenlies by angels fallen and unfallen is also fought in our own world, by us, in time and space. God gives us who are made in His image the wonderful and terrible privilege of taking part in eternal things within the context of human history.

Which raises the question: Where are we in human history?

In America we are experiencing our third—and likely our final—existential crisis. The first was our Revolution, when the threat was from without; the second was our Civil War, when the threat was from within. But now we face a third trial, whereby evil forces aim to steal our freedoms and national sovereignty via a globalist world system dedicatedly at war with the God from Whom we derive our principles of “liberty and justice for all,” as well as with the principles themselves. And the threat to us now is from both within and without.

This book is a sequel to my previous book, Letter to the American Church, which draws the unavoidably chilling parallels between German Christians’ silence and inaction in the 1930s and the silence and inaction of American Christians in our own time. Both are the result of a drift away from the biblical idea of a muscular faith that expresses itself in all spheres of life and toward a dead and “religious” faith that is merely theological and ecclesiastical. Dietrich Bonhoeffer sought to awaken the church of his day to action, but as we know, they did not heed God’s voice through him and invited the judgment they couldn’t have dreamt would come. So the question for us now is whether we in the American church will heed the prophetic warnings of Bonhoeffer for our own time and avert the unfathomable horrors of our own silence and inaction.

Near the end of World War II, an imprisoned Bonhoeffer was ruminating about why the German church had failed, and suggested that they had needed a bold and “religionless Christianity”—but had instead opted for mere “religion.” That is at the heart of what we will discuss: whether we might rise to that kind of faith and thereby avert the judgment Germany did not. In this book, I ultimately mean to sketch a vision of hope, that if we are now willing to pay the price God asks us to pay, we might not only avert or delay the coming judgment, but might launch a new era in history.

Among the reasons I have hope is that I am convinced God called me to write Letter to the American Church—and not merely to warn us of what lies ahead if we continue to fail to obey Him, but actually to call us to repent, which is His will for us. There is therefore a positive message at the heart of this book, just as there is a positive message at the heart of every one of God’s warnings. We do not serve a peevish and fatalistic God who enjoins us to do His will merely so that He can say, “I told you so.”

Another reason that I am hopeful is rooted in Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.” Is it not possible that God has allowed us to see how quickly evil can overtake us in these last four years precisely to wake up those who might still be awakened? Are the evils that we see on every front not perhaps God’s tender mercies to us, just as a parent’s chastisement of a child is ultimately in the hope that that child will change his behavior in the right direction and thereby avert the far greater chastisements to come if he does not?

It is a fact that because of the evils all around, many in our nation are finally waking up and seeing the evilness of evil—and realizing that they must shake off their inertia and take action. Many who would not even have used the term “evil” now see there is no other way to frame the things we are seeing, which seem to make no human or otherwise natural sense—and if one sees real evil and knows it to be evil, one is likely to turn to God.

Many across our country are waking up to see that freedom is not free, and that they must become involved in their communities, whether politically or otherwise. Many see that we have come to this awful pass precisely because we have not been living out our faith heroically and in every sphere. Therefore, this endless litany of evils that have befallen us—the nightmare of transgender madness, critical race theory, cultural Marxism, and the increasing corruption in all of our institutions, from increasingly authoritarian government to the propagandistic journalistic establishment and the complicity and groupthink of corporate America and beyond—need not be God’s final and inevitable judgment. If we take action now, all of these things that have happened can be seen as God’s merciful wake-up call to a slumbering church, specifically so that we might repent and do all in our power to live for God in a new way.

So we must wonder whether the present difficulties might indeed lead us toward something like a Second Reformation, one of which we have hardly dreamt. Martin Luther, in standing against the corruptions of his day, could not foresee the Reformation that would follow, but it was dramatically more far-reaching than mere church reformation, with ramifications throughout Europe that ultimately led to the ideas enshrined in the American Founding.

Who Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

For any unfamiliar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s story, we may say that he was a German pastor and theologian who heroically opposed Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, and attempted to wake up the German church to stand strongly against them. I write about him at length in my 2010 biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. When Bonhoeffer saw the church fail in its duty to God and the German people, he eventually went outside the church and became involved in the assassination plots against Hitler, as we shall see. He became engaged to be married in 1942 and was imprisoned in 1943, where he continued to write. He was murdered by the Nazis in 1945, three weeks before the end of the war. He was thirty-nine years old.

Bonhoeffer was a theological genius, as well as a man of profound Christian faith. Perhaps what sets him apart most of all is that he knew that the goal of Christian faith was not merely to have good theology but actually to live out one’s faith. He also knew that pretending faith is a merely “religious” exercise, or an exercise of intellectual theology, is not only a mistake, but an offense against God. Jesus did not come to Earth so that people would become theologians, attend church once a week, and hold to some doctrines. Bonhoeffer knew that God demanded everything of us, and when one doesn’t live out one’s faith, it only proves that one had no faith to begin with.

Finally, as we will say at the end of this book, we need to think of Bonhoeffer’s use of the phrase “religionless Christianity” not merely as a lament for what might have been, but perhaps as a promise to us today of an extraordinarily hopeful way forward in which we really might live out our faith in a way unprecedented in human history.

CHAPTER ONE: Are We in the Last Days?

We seem to be approaching the end of time.

Let that be the first sentence in the first chapter of this book, because this concept can be an infuriating trigger for those of us tempted toward mere “religion” and away from the full-throated “religionless Christianity” that we are putting forward in these pages. In a later chapter, we will deal with the evidence for the idea that we are indeed approaching the end of time. Because if we mean it seriously—and we do—it is not merely a dramatic statement, but one that requires our most profoundly serious attention. How could it not? To the extent that it is true, it is a uniquely powerful impetus for us to utterly reject whatever mere “religion” we have been substituting for the real thing, so that we might boldly live out a truly “religionless Christianity” with everything we have in us.

But before we deal with the evidence that we are indeed in the Last Days, let’s in this first chapter confront the offensiveness of the concept. Our offense offers a clue to what’s behind the “religious”thinking we are discussing and should help us see how we have fallen prey to this kind of merely “religious” thinking in many other things as well.

One of the core points about “religion” in the way we are using the term is that it does not oppose the God of the Bible openly in the way that atheism or paganism do. On the contrary, the thing we are calling mere “religion” always aims to give the appearance of following God. But it is actually a counterfeit.

From God’s point of view, this is an abomination worse than open rebellion against Him. By way of example, the New Testament does not record Jesus thundering at the pervasive Hellenistic philosophies or paganism of His day, but it does record Him very often confronting those who publicly and sometimes ostentatiously claimed to represent the God of the Bible. It was these “religious” figures whom Jesus pointedly vilified not only as being far from the God they dared to represent, but as actually being His enemies (which we know they were). So we must confront the idea that it was the most “religious” figures of Jesus’s day—those who revered the Old Testament and purported to worship its God more faithfully than anyone—who conspired to murder the very One sent by that God. So, “religion” in God’s name—but actually divorced from God—is a satanic counterfeit.

The merely “religious” Christianity that we are discussing in this book always purports to represent the God of the Bible and His purposes. It always gives “good” and “religious” and “reasonable” reasons for the nonetheless false and wicked ideas it puts forward. In our day, what could be more reasonable than to say that talking about the End Times is an embarrassment to the faith, that it often pushes people away from taking God and the Bible seriously—and that it might even therefore endanger their very souls? There is, of course, much truth in that. What could be more reasonable than to express being fatigued by preachers carping about where we are on the “prophetic time clock”? Those obsessed with that really do often seem to forget that we are supposed to be living out our faith in the here and now, and not simply counting the seconds till the Last Trump. The people guilty of this are much like those who can only talk about demon possession and seem to think that anyone with a common cold must have it “cast out” rather than dealt with via the less dramatic solution of bed rest and chicken soup. There is much truth in seeing things this way, so it is all very understandable to a point.

But at what point does this kind of thinking push us into the opposite error? At what point are we straining out a gnat to swallow a camel? At what point are we pointing our finger at something that is not the principal issue, but a distraction from the principal issue?

When does the person who sees things “reasonably” fall into the opposite temptation of essentially behaving as though we will never actually be in the Last Days? And doesn’t the person annoyed at those who see a demon behind every bush potentially fall into the error of behaving as though there are actually no such things as demons anymore, and as though Jesus does not tell us we have the power—and the obligation as the Church—to cast them out as He did? Isn’t the temptation toward this kind of “reasonable” faith really our capitulation to secularism and to the idea that our faith really ought to be tame and reasonable and inoffensive, such that it can be kept in a safe corner away from the rest of the world? Don’t we know many churches and church leaders who pretend there is never any reason for us to deal with the demonic as a reality or with the idea of Jesus’s imminent return? Isn’t that mostly secular approach to things—which we are calling dead “religion”—really the far more pressing problem for the American church today?

In our fear of seeming odd and off-putting to nonbelievers, haven’t we accepted too much of the world’s secular assessment of things? Has our salt lost its saltiness? How much of the secular cultural narrative have we accepted without realizing it, such that we are no longer the prophetic voices of God in our generation and are therefore a mere shadow of the true Christian faith? For what we imagine is the sake of our “witness,” have we become the domesticated house cat version of what God intended to be a wild and fearsome lion of true faith? To what secular pressures and narratives have Christian leaders acceded, thinking it will help them reach the unchurched? Has it been an effective tack?

Bonhoeffer knew that the congregations in Germany that were merely “playing church” and not being the Church were precisely the reason the Nazis were able to take over. And it is those American churches doing the same thing that have opened the door to evil in our own time…

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