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  • Postmodernism Provides Challenges and Opportunities for Evangelism

    “Your seat cushion also serves as a flotation device.” Anyone who has flown on a commercial airline has heard these words, but are they true? Are they true for everyone? If they are true for me are they true for you too? If they weren’t true for you what would you do if the plane landed in the water? Believing that your seat cushion floats could be the difference between life and death. More importantly, accepting God’s Word as truth will make the difference between spiritual life and eternal death.

    In the world today, especially in the United States, absolute truth is becoming old-fashioned. Our civilization has apparently reached such an advanced state of intelligence that we “realize” there is no universal standard or truth – moral, religious, or otherwise. At least this is the fundamental principal of the philosophy called Postmodernism.

    Many people think this lack of absolute truth is a step in the right direction. They can accept people as they are — no matter what their life style is like or how they practice their religion. They should not judge or impose any kind of standard on anyone else because what is true for them personally is not necessarily true for others. This is the major premise of postmodernism. According to a 1991 poll, 66% of all Americans believe that there is “no such thing as absolute truth.” This is not surprising in a country full of diverse ethnic and religious groups. However, this same poll found that among the group it labeled “Evangelical Christians” 53% believed that there are no absolutes, even though 88% of that same group believe that “the Bible is the written word of God and is totally accurate in all it teaches” (Veith 16). It seems even Christians are confused about truth.

    The idea that there is no absolute truth is prevalent in our country not only among unbelievers but, also unfortunately, among many Christians who tend to think along the lines of Postmodernism. The proper Christian response to this influence on society is to return to God’s Word as the source of truth. Once we understand God’s truth we would do well to look at Postmodernism and its effects on society for the purpose of finding ways to share the truth of the Gospel with those taken in by the lies of Postmodernism.

    Scripture is clear on the matter of truth. As Jesus says, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). There is only one true God according to this statement. This truth is absolute – independent of anyone’s thoughts or feelings on the matter. In addition, knowing God and the one he sent is essential for eternal life. Jesus makes it clear with the statement, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Postmodernism does not pass judgment on what someone believes, but God does!

    The only true God is truthful (John 3:33). He does not lie (Heb 6:18). For God to lie would deny his holiness. God indicates this connection in Psalm 89:35, “Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness— and I will not lie to David.” In other places the truth and holiness of God are mentioned together (Rev 3:7, Rev 6:10). God’s truthfulness is also implied by his unchanging nature. God is true to himself – his law was not set aside in order to save us, but instead he carried out his justice and his love on the cross of Christ. Finally, because God loves us he will not lie to us. He will always tell us the truth. Therefore we can be sure that his Word is true. As Psalm 33:4 says, “For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does.” For someone to not believe what God says about himself is calling God a liar.

    All other sources of information pale in comparison to the one absolute and universal truth that is God’s Word. Our senses can play tricks on us; our memories can fail us; scientific theories are sometimes proved wrong; history books are updated when new information becomes available; people sometimes lie or hide information. The information in this world is not always dependable. God’s Word is.

    Yet Postmodernism rejects God’s Word, not because it has been proven false, but simply because it claims to be the absolute truth which Postmodernism denies exists. How did society get to the point where it states as an absolute truth that absolute truth does not exist . . . and is content with the contradiction?

    Before Postmodernism there was Modernism. Modernism relied on science and human reason to discover the truth. With Modernism came Humanism – the philosophy that through science and reason, through human effort, mankind could make the world a better place. The statement “the truth shall set you free” from John 8:32 would mean, according to the humanist, that the truth discovered by man’s own intellect would free him from crime, poverty, disease, war, and other problems. With this philosophy there was no need for God. Mankind was its own God. As part of the search for truth based on human genius, men tried to discredit the parts of the Bible they couldn’t understand. Miracles and prophecy could not be explained by human reason and so other explanations concerning the origin of the Bible had to be “discovered.” As a result respect declined for the Bible as the authoritative word of God. The search for truth actually led people away from the truth they needed.

    However, the utopia of humanism was never realized. Crime, poverty, disease, war, and other problems still happen. In fact, new diseases such as AIDS and cancer replace other diseases where cures have been found and the terrorist attacks of 9/11 force us to realize we are a long way from world peace. Even science and reason have not provided the truth hoped for. Instead, modern science seems to indicate an absence of truth:

    • Non-Euclidean geometry has raised the possibility that mathematics may only be an arbitrary mental game instead of reflections of absolute laws of nature. Einstein’s theory of relativity in physics, as popularly misunderstood, suggests to the masses that “everything is relative.” More seriously, quantum physics defies all of our abilities to imagine what it describes, seemingly violating the basic cannons of logic or common sense. When experiments prove that light is either particles or waves, depending on how it is observed, it seems as if the fundamental law of non contradiction is violated, as if reality is not rational (Nancy Pearcey qtd. in Veith 42-43).

    Even the theories that attempted to discredit the Bible have themselves lost credibility. The more that is learned about the complexity of DNA and other aspects of nature, the less likely the theory of the origin of man based on chance becomes. The Historical-Critical view of the Bible that tries to explain the Bible as a purely human document has also lost credibility. The premises on which it was based have been proven false.

    Even though attempts to prove the Bible false have themselves been proven false, this has not led to a return to the truth of the Bible. Instead, with the failure of Modernism to find truth through human reason and science, Postmodernism has forsaken the search for truth. Mankind rejected God’s truth but could not find truth on its own. So mankind has concluded that truth does not exist. This is the logical outcome of Modernism. Because truth does not rest with man but with God and his Word and because man has rejected God, then man on his own cannot find truth. It would appear to man that truth does not exist. The motto of Postmodernism is appropriate – “There is no absolute truth.”

    The absence of absolute truth becomes a good excuse for not making the difficult decisions of morality and faith. One no longer needs to make the critical judgment whether something is good or bad.

    Since truth is relative and there is no objective standard then everyone is free to make up their own religion. The world becomes more eclectic – a Postmodernist can pick and choose the religion or even parts of different religions that feel right. “Whatever works for you” is the rule to live by. If there is no objective truth and individuals decide what truth is for themselves, then they make themselves god. They create their own standard of morality based on their likes and dislikes – what they think they should be allowed to do. They create their own religion based on what they think will work spiritually for them personally. Each person is god of their own reality. This is idolatry and Jeremiah 10:14-15 warns us of the foolishness of idolatry: “Everyone is senseless and without knowledge; every goldsmith is shamed by his idols. His images are a fraud; they have no breath in them. They are worthless, the objects of mockery; when their judgment comes, they will perish.”

    Modernism tried to explain away the Bible and God, while Humanism made humanity its god. Now Postmodernism has opened the door for anything that might be considered religious or spiritual. A quick look at the local bookstore will show you the current most popular titles include books on Neo-paganism, new age spirituality, witchcraft, and many others. You can even purchase your Tarot cards there.

    The only exception to this freedom to choose is exclusivity. A religion that claims to the only true religion is rejected. Of course, true Christianity is in that category. This looks like a contradiction. If there is no absolute truth then any religion should be accepted, but Christianity is not. There are other contradictions. If there is no absolute truth then any system of morality should be accepted, but not ones that are intolerant. Even the statement, “there is no absolute truth” expresses an absolute truth.

    The Postmodernist has no problems accepting this contradiction or having other beliefs that conflict with each other. Gene Veith gives an example of a man who “believes in the inerrancy of Scripture, Reformed theology, and reincarnation” (Veith 211). These beliefs do not agree with each other. Someone following the ideas of Postmodernism tries to accept the chaos and live with it. He is a person without an anchor or foundation to keep him from being blown back and forth.

    All of this has the effect of emptying the person of an internal motivating force. If there is no universal truth to live by then what one person believes is not better than what anyone else believes. It has no value outside of that one person. Ethical and moral behavior only has value if it produces a certain lifestyle or inclusion into a particular social group. The appearance becomes more important than any internal belief because it brings money or friends – it brings pain or pleasure.

    The reality of this condition is exposed by this quote from a young woman, “I belong to the Blank Generation. I have no beliefs. I belong to no community, tradition, or anything like that. I’m lost in this vast, vast world. I belong nowhere. I have absolutely no identity” (“a young woman” qtd. in Veith 72).

    The problems of Postmodernism are nothing new. Sir Arnold Toynbee, who lived early in the 20th century, studied 21 world civilizations. He found that civilizations in a state of decline give up morality and creativity, people follow their impulses, and “succumb to truancy, that is, escapism, seeking to avoid their problems by retreating into their own worlds of distraction and entertainment” (Veith 44-45). According to Toynbee this is the last phase of a civilization.

    The Roman Empire and Greco-Roman culture went through this phase. After listening to one philosopher after another and not finding any philosophy satisfying, they finally came to the conclusion that there was no truth. Pilate’s sarcastic question to Jesus, “What is truth?” is evidence of that (Jahn 131). Now our own culture has come to that point. One philosopher after another or one scientist after another proves his predecessor wrong. None of today’s philosophers or scientists truly satisfy the basic human need to be made right with God – only Jesus can do that. Yet mankind is ready to look for truth anywhere except God’s Word and every place they look they only find lies and deception – readily supplied by Satan who is all too eager to oblige.

    How will Christians survive in a postmodern world? Those practicing ecumenism, exchanging the truth of the Gospel for the acceptance of the world, will fit in with the postmodernist mindset. Those Christians who remain faithful to the truth of God’s Word may find something else in store for them:

    • Christians must not, however, expect to fare particularly well at the hands of postmodernists. Christians will be excoriated for “thinking they have the only truth.” They will be condemned for their intolerance, trying to force their beliefs on everybody else.” Christians can expect to be excluded from postmodernists’ invocations of tolerance and pluralism. As the culture becomes more and more lawless and brutal, Christians may even taste persecution. The church may or may not grow in such a climate. I suspect that it will shrink to a faithful remnant. But the Church of Jesus Christ cannot be overcome by the gates of hell, much less by a culture (Matthew 16:18) (Veith 223).

    How do we proclaim God’s word to such a culture? Postmodernism has its problems. It does not fulfill the basic need of people to have a right relationship with God. Postmodernism removes any foundation people have and replaces it with nothing. They are lost and without any anchor to depend on when problems come. Postmodernism also emphasizes the superficial instead of what is meaningful in a relationship. The Gospel solves these problems.

    As Christians, we have the greatest message that could ever be told. We can tell people that God has taken away their sins and provide them with the sure foundation that will keep them secure in any storm. We have the absolute religion, Pieper says, “Christianity is the ‘absolute,’ altogether perfect, and unsurpassable religion for two reasons.” First, it does not depend on the imperfect works of man, but on the perfect work of God to bring about reconciliation. Secondly, “because its source and norm is not the word of men, but God’s own Word, which is perfect and beyond criticism” (Pieper 1:35-37).

    More than just telling people about the Savior we can show the difference it makes in our lives by living our faith. People will see that Christians have a foundation in the way they deal with the world and with problems. Christian love will model the love Christ has and will draw others to Christ.

    Our own personal story can also be a witness tool – a story about the peace and comfort Christ has brought into our lives. People will be more willing to listen to a story rather than a message of truth aimed directly at them. Of course this is not where you want to end, but it may open the door for more discussion. A unique example of this is Steve Sawyer, a young man who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. He has been talking to college students about Christ.And while not many of them are sitting there with AIDS, many of them are sitting there with some kind of pain that they’re facing. They want to have the same kind of hope that Steve has found in Christ (Carson 320). People feel the emptiness and turmoil inside themselves. They want the peace that only Christ can give.

    Use a Bible story to relate the truth. That is what Jesus did with his parables. Many people today have little or no knowledge of Bible history. Using individual passages such as,the wages of sin is death may not be as meaningful if someone doesn’t know the story of creation and the fall into sin. Also, people love listening to stories. In a world that will deny absolute truth if you say it directly, a Bible story will relate the truth to them in a non-confrontational way. A story may “sneak past the defenses of people in a relativistic age” (Paustian 12). Then the story can be used to form a bridge from the person’s problem to God’s solution. You can tell people they have a Father that loves them with the story of the prodigal son; the importance of a solid foundation with the story of the wise and foolish builders; the forgiveness Jesus won with the story of the woman caught in adultery.

    Questions can be used to get people thinking about their assumptions and ideas about life. For example, James Sire uses the questionWhy should anyone believe anything at all? – an appropriate question for people who struggle with the existence of absolute truth. This question points to the great emptiness in a person’s soul without Christ. James Sire uses this question as the title for his talk where he asks the audience to give reasons for why people believe the things they believe. He puts the answers in four columns that are not labeled at first. Eventually, he labels them sociological, psychological, religious, and philosophical. Then he asks the audience to evaluate the strength or weakness of these reasons and why they are strong or weak. Eventually it will come up that one of those reasons or sources of belief might be wrong. The audience will come to realize that they themselves are using a standard of truth to evaluate the items in the lists (Carson 96-99). This discussion does not share the gospel, but it can encourage people to think about and question the ideas of postmodernism.

    Finally, it is the Gospel that will bring people to faith. Tell people the truth. Share the Gospel! Tell people there is one true God who hates sin, but who has created a way for you to be right with him. Point them to the one sure foundation. After all, it is the Gospel that is God’s power for changing hearts and bringing people to heaven.

    The people of this world are lost. They follow the lies of the world and the devil as if they are the truth. Yet, we, as Christians, have the truth – the truth that provides a real and solid foundation – the “flotation device” that will save our lives. As we share this truth to those around us, Postmodernism will create challenges, but it will also present opportunities to share the Gospel with others.

    Bibliography

    • Carson, D. A., general editor. Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000.
    • Drummond, Lewis A. Reaching Generation Next: Effective Evangelism in Today’s Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002.
    • Jahn, Curt, compiling editor, The Wauwatosa Theology, 3 volumes, Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997. (I:131-150. “The Possesion of the Truth”)
    • Paustian, Mark A. “Prepared to Answer.” Forward in Christ Nov. 2004: 12-14.
    • Pieper, Francis, Christian Dogmatics, St Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1950. German original 1924. (I:458)
    • Veith, Gene Edward. Postmodern Times: a Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994.
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