In a culture that has deliberately turned away from God, what basis is there for morality?
‘Death in the City’
by Dr Sharon James, Social Policy Analyst, The Christian Institute
More than seventy killings took place in London in the first quarter of 2018.1 A surgeon in a London hospital reports that the number of children and young people being brought in with knife injuries is at an all-time high.2 This great city, blessed in the past by some of the greatest gospel preachers in church history, is waking up almost daily to headlines telling of another life snatched away.
Politicians debate increasing police funding. Newspapers argue about law enforcement. There is a place for that. But the root of the problem was described in a book aptly titled Death in the City, written nearly fifty years ago by the apologist Francis Schaeffer. In a culture that has deliberately turned away from God, what basis is there for morality?
Schaeffer warned that Western societies in the 1960s were living off the borrowed capital of a Christian worldview. That capital was fast running out. There was now no certain foundation for morality, no firm basis for ethics. Social breakdown would surely follow. Death in the City drew a series of comparisons between the plight of Western civilization and the collapse of social order in Jerusalem as depicted in the book of Jeremiah.
Back in the seventh century BC, despite repeated offers of grace, the people of Jerusalem deliberately turned away from the “fountain of living waters.” They preferred “broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). They believed lies. “Truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips” (7:28).
Jeremiah faced ridicule as he warned that seeking “freedom” from God’s moral laws leads down the blind alley of slavery to sin. He showed how “evil and bitter” it is to forsake the Lord Almighty (2:19). His most bitter opponents were found in the religious establishment. The “horrible and shocking” reality was that prophets and priests had led the race downward into rebellion (5:30–31). They denied that God would ever bring judgment:
For from the least to the greatest of them,
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
and from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely.
They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace.
Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?
No, they were not at all ashamed;
they did not know how to blush. (6:13–15)
This shameless behavior was designed to provoke God. It was actually self-destructive (7:18–19). God would turn His face away. Jerusalem would be left defenseless in the hands of ruthless enemies: “Death has come up into our windows . . . cutting off the children from the streets” (9:21).
Fast forward two and a half thousand years. Francis Schaeffer was horrified at the spectacle of liberal clergy denying the truth of God’s Word and ripping up the Ten Commandments. He compared them directly to King Jehoiakim, who cut up and burned Jeremiah’s prophecies as they were read out to him (chap. 36). Honest to God by Bishop John Robinson was published in 1963 to media acclaim. Having dumped the idea of a transcendent “God out there” and reduced Him to the “God within,” Robinson logically followed up with a call for “situational ethics.” “Moral absolutes” are a shackle, he argued. Liberation was urgent.
Schaeffer’s Death in the City (1969) and a string of other books such as Escape from Reason (1968) castigated the religious establishment for conniving with the irrationality of relativism rather than challenging it. False prophets in Jeremiah’s day painted evil as good and denied that there would be a judgement (14:14–15). It was even more repulsive when so-called Christian ministers with access to the revelation of God’s salvation in Christ painted evil as good and good as evil and laughed at the idea of wrath to come.
As we pray and as we work, we are to reflect that the more grotesque the enemies, the greater the glory of the One beneath whose feet all enemies will be subjected.
Schaeffer explained that in the modern age, people had looked for answers to human problems by means of exercising human reason aside from God. That project had failed, giving way to postmodernism. Now the intellectual elite, including liberal theologians, scrambled around amid the wreckage of the postmodern rejection of all truth claims. As postmodern ideas filtered down to street level via entertainment and the media, it left humanity adrift in an ocean of unreason.
The inhabitants of Jerusalem consistently rejected the message of the prophet Jeremiah. They mocked him, insulted him, and plotted his death. He was put in stocks, imprisoned, and ultimately confined in a vile cistern. Yet always he longed for their salvation and wept over their doom (9:1).
Schaeffer also wept. Daily, he and his wife, Edith, listened to the stories of young people whose lives seemingly had no purpose. Many of them found their way to the Schaeffer’s home high in the Swiss Alps. L’Abri (French for “shelter”) was a refuge for the victims of a culture that denied human beings meaning, dignity, and hope. Schaeffer felt their pain. By patient questioning and logical reasoning, he exposed the folly, futility, and inconsistency of a godless worldview. His message carried weight because he was not insulated from the heartbreak that lies bring in their wake. The stories of many who turned up at L’Abri bore witness to the reality that the evil one seeks only to steal, kill, and destroy. Schaeffer was not a detached academic. He grieved for people.
When asked what he had learned at L’Abri, Dr. Donald Drew simply said, “I’ve learned to cry.”3
Schaeffer felt deep love and compassion for those deceived by Satan’s lies. But he felt intense anger toward false teachers who promoted deception. This emotional, spiritual, and intellectual energy found expression in twenty-two books. A recurring theme, found first in his early book He Is There and He Is Not Silent (1972), is that denial of the truth claims of the Bible leaves people with no certain ground for knowing anything, no basis for existence, and no firm foundation for ethics. The Christian message, grounded in spacetime history, is the only workable solution for the predicament of meaninglessness that logically leads to despair. He popularized his key ideas in two influential film series (Whatever Happened to the Human Race? and How Should We Then Live?). These had a galvanizing effect among evangelicals, pushing many out of their previous passivity regarding abortion and other ethical issues.
Half a century on from the publication of Schaeffer’s seminal books The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason (1968), our culture spins ever faster into irrationality. Schaeffer predicted that plunging below the “line of despair” would lead to social collapse just as surely as the Roman Empire collapsed amid decadence, self-indulgence, and immorality. Others (both Christian and non-Christian) sounded alarms as well. Philip Rieff warned in The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966) that a society released from all restraints would implode. Christopher Lasch argued in The Culture of Narcissism (1979) that no community can flourish where every individual focuses on “self-fulfillment” and where self-control is excoriated as repressive.
Now we look out on our city and see not only the collapse of any consensus on ethics and morality but also the weakening of any agreement on human identity itself. The fundamental binary of male and female is denied in the cause of “liberation.” Our natural bonds of humanity dissolve in the fragmentation of identity politics.
It feels as though we are standing in the ruins. Lament is right and proper. Our witness to God’s good design for humanity and our proclamation of the good news will be delivered with power only when we have first felt the tragedy of death in the city.
Do we weep at the millions of baby lives snuffed out before they see the light of day? Do we mourn the way our children are robbed of their innocence, exposed to sexual immorality by the dogmas of the sex education lobby? Do we grieve that family breakdown tears so many children away from one or both of their natural parents? Are we appalled that the truth of creation is regarded as so toxic that many forbid it to be taught in schools? Do we cry when we see physicians experimenting with the perfectly healthy bodies of young people in the name of a radical gender ideology which has no basis in science or reason? Are we horrified that so many around us are headed toward a lost eternity while “Christian” clergy insist that sin is not sin, that there will be no day of judgment, and that hell is a medieval myth?
Yet, the Word of God stands. King Jehoiakim cut up and burned Jeremiah’s prophecy. Where is that king now? He is forgotten, but God’s Word endures.
Sin is sin. There will be a day of judgment. Hell is real. Schaeffer insisted that we must preach “down” into the current generation, exposing the “lostness of the lost.” But we don’t stop there. We live in gospel days and we have good news to proclaim. Jeremiah was given a glorious vision of hope beyond the fall of Jerusalem, a vision pointing forward to the coming of the Savior who would come to seek and to save the lost:
In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: The Lord is our righteousness. (Jer. 23:6)
Schaeffer insisted that it is the godless worldview that leads to despair. God’s people may rightly lament. But we must never despair. Rather, we should pray and work for reformation and revival.
As we pray and as we work, we are to reflect that the more grotesque the enemies, the greater the glory of the One beneath whose feet all enemies will be subjected (1 Cor. 15:25–26).4 We are to remember that throughout human history, while mighty empires have collapsed, the kingdom of God has endured. The stone that struck them “became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (Dan. 2:35). And we are to have confidence that the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isa. 11:9).
1 – Lizzie Dearden, “‘Feral’ knife attacks where victims stabbed multiple times driving up London murder rate, police warn,” The Independent, June 27, 2018, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/stabbings-murder-knife-crime-violence-london-multiple-times-feral-police-mayor-a8419961
2 – Damien Gayle, “‘When knife victims arrive at hospital in school uniform, it brings it home to you,’” The Guardian, May 4, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/membership/2017/may/04/when-knife-victims-arrive-in-school-uniform-it-brings-it-home-to-you
3 – William Edgar, Schaeffer on the Christian Life: Countercultural Spirituality (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2013), 192.
4 – See Jonathan Edwards’ magnificent treatise on these verses, “Christ Exalted,” www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/exalted
This article was first published on 12 October 2018 by Tabletalk Magazine and is republished with permission of Ligonier Ministries.