The Century that Banished God

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. . . . And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” (Romans 1:18, 28, ESV).

It is worthy of more than passing notice that some quite capable minds have seen the twentieth century—a century which could be seen as particularly characteristic of the modern era—as one which sought to banish God from human consciousness and human life. The first phrase of Romans 1:28, quoted above, could be said to provide a fitting epigram for the century, a phrase aptly rendered by Greek lexicographer J. H. Thayer: “they did not think God worthy to be kept in knowledge.”[1] The significance of such a designation is that the twentieth century has perhaps been—among all the centuries of human history—the most willfully destructive of human life, the most stridently expressive of the human rebellion against the moral order instilled by God in the universe, and the most perversely detrimental to human culture and human flourishing. The twenty-first century is merely seeing the continued outworking of these tendencies.

Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield, writing in the first decade of the twentieth century, describes the influence of the “modern naturalism” which had arisen in the late seventeenth century with English Deism and had recently come to full fruition (“it has at length run to seed in our own day”).

It has invaded with its solvent every form of thought and every activity of life. It has given us a naturalistic philosophy (in which all ‘being’ is evaporated into ‘becoming’); a naturalistic science (the single-minded zeal of which is to eliminate design from the universe); a naturalistic politics (whose first fruits was the French Revolution, and whose last may well be an atheistic socialism); a naturalistic history (which can scarcely find place for even human personality among the causes of events); and a naturalistic religion, which says ‘Hands off’ to God….”[2]

In retrospect, Warfield’s observations seem prophetic of the entire century.

No less an intellect than the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, attempting to identify the salient characteristic of the twentieth century, put his finger on human forgetfulness of God. In his Templeton Lecture (delivered in London in 1983), after mentioning the disaster which had befallen his homeland in the Russian Revolution, Solzhenitsyn continued: “if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entiretwentieth century, here too I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: ‘Men have forgotten God’”—a Russian saying recalled from his youth. He went on to affirm, “The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century.”[3]

Solzhenitsyn’s suggestion finds support in the later work of Peter Conrad, an Australian literary scholar, lately of Oxford University. Conrad defines the project of the twentieth century, displayed in its art, as the banishment of God and God’s replacement by man. As the twentieth century began—under the influence of the mighty changes of the nineteenth century—“its plot seemed radiantly clear: in the future, men would replace God.” But along the way, it became apparent that “The older version of human nature . . . was far from obsolete, and history seemed to demonstrate that man remained a savage.”  On the last page of the book, Conrad concludes, “Modernity had a single, simple project, carried through in all fields of mental endeavor. Declining to give God credit for creation, it took the world to pieces.”[4] It is striking that a cultural historian, with no apparent religious axe to grind, should identify anti-theism or the “death of God” theme as the central feature of twentieth-century culture. He mentions it not merely at the beginning and the end of his account, but repeatedly throughout.

That this anti-theistic outlook was the driving force of the twentieth century is lent credibility by a review of the origins of the disastrous and destructive events of that century. The first half of the century was marked by two horrific world wars and communist revolutions in Russia and China. Both world wars (1914-18; 1939-45) arguably originated with Germany, which in the preceding century had adopted and advanced a destructive intellectual movement, historical criticism of the Bible, which was based on naturalistic premises and required the elimination of a personal and infinite God from any explanation of the origin of the Bible and the events it records. The second of these wars involved the explicit effort to eradicate European Jews, the people who were instrumental in giving to the world the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament), including the Ten Commandments. The two communist revolutions (Russia in 1917, China in 1949) were both explicitly atheistic, as Marx’s ideology prescribed. Taken together, these two wars and two revolutions resulted in the deliberate deaths of untold hundreds of millions of human beings, making the twentieth century the most deliberately deadly in all human history. All this was undertaken against the background or in the interest of the banishment of God—the God of the Bible—from human consciousness.

The same tendency was evident in the internal cultures of the nations of the West during the first half of the century. Historical criticism of the Bible became the accepted mode of removing the biblical worldview from serious engagement by educated people in both Europe and the United States. Its advance was somewhat delayed in the U.S. by the broad and common acceptance of biblical authority by large portions of the American population, but by the 1920s and 1930s the naturalistic view of the Bible was beginning to prevail among educated Americans.

The second half of the century was marked by a cultural and intellectual revolution (motivated by the same anti-theistic impulse) which now runs the risk of destroying Western civilization. A personal account of this cultural revolution, fitting nicely within the latter half of the century, is provided by Alvin Kernan, an academic who was the product and employee of elite educational institutions. Kernan (who does not at all seem to have been operating from a Christian perspective), writing at the end of the century, reports beginning his academic career believing in something like absolute truth: “I did not think that truth remained to be discovered; I believed that in the main it already had been found and that I had not yet been informed of the results.”[5] He records his personal journey through academia, observing in the process the decline of higher education from rationality, absolutes, objectivity, and political liberalism into the irrationalism, relativism, subjectivity, and revolutionary radicalism which now reigns on most American university campuses. Kernan was arguably more optimistic about the outcome than the situation warranted, as witnessed by the events of the quarter-century since his book was published, leading to the current state of higher education in the West, which might aptly be described as indoctrination in radicalism.

The significance of all this is not difficult to discern: it is not accidental that a century which sought to banish God also saw the callous destruction of human life, a precipitous decline of Western culture, and a culminating (and continuing) rebellion against historic moral standards.

IMPLICATIONS

This briefest of surveys suggests some appropriate conclusions.

First, these historical developments arguably represent the outworking of the logical and natural consequences of the anti-theistic ideology. As J. Gresham Machen argued in 1923, “the true way in which to evaluate a spiritual movement is in its logical relations; logic is the great dynamic, and the logical implications of any way of thinking are sooner or later certain to be worked out.”[6] The banishment of the God of the Bible from human consciousness and from all practical and social considerations leaves the Western world without the metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical foundations on which it was built. The “death of God” resulted in the loss of the unifying center of the Western worldview, the loss of a sure basis of knowledge, and the loss of absolute morality (as the scientific concept of relativity was improperly transferred to the moral concept of relativism). Without the foundation of the Bible’s authority and intellectual content, the result was that the Western superstructure of ordered liberty, self-regulating behavior of the populace, and limited government was bound to collapse in due course. This is precisely what has been observed during the twentieth century. While the underlying intellectual developments which shaped the twentieth century were framed in the nineteenth (destructive biblical criticism; Marxism; Darwinism; the humanistic triumphalism of Nietzsche; Freudianism), and their roots may be traced back to the Renaissance (“man the measure of all things”) and the Enlightenment (rationalistic materialism), yet their fruit was borne in the twentieth century. During that era we observe humanistic society organized into mass movements in opposition to biblical theism (symbolized in the Bible by “Babylon”) for purposes of national aggrandizement (World War I) and for the perpetration of evil (Germany under the Nazi regime in World War II) or subjugated to the atheistic ideology of revolutionary utopian deceptions (Soviet and Chinese communism), or in the current setting, the promotion of a Neo-Marxist vision of “social justice” through the division of humanity into competing power blocs which vie against each other for political and social control. The result has been the collapse of humane values and the loss of both civilized behavior and millions of lives. We continue to see the increased influence of socialistic ideologies and the diminishing of human liberties. All this has been enabled by the culture-wide loss of the authority of the Bible and the resulting collapse of acknowledgment of the biblical worldview and moral standards, and by the absence of the influence of the biblical gospel of human reconciliation with God as churches fell (and continue to fall) into promulgation of a “social gospel”—in short, in all this, by the attempted banishment of God from human life and society.

Second, given the truthfulness of the biblical account of things, this leaves the world exposed to the judgment of God. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…” (Rom. 1:18). What biblically informed person can deny that the devastations we are currently observing (and those of the twentieth century) have likely come at the hand of an omnipotent and holy God who is exercising his wrath?  Paul’s statement continues: “…who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” The root cause of the exercise of divine wrath is human rejection of the truth of divine revelation and the resulting belief of “the lie” (the attribution of divinity to the creature; Rom. 1:25, NKJV) and corresponding corruptions of human worship and life. The root of culture is “cultus,” the worship and religious life of a society. If the latter (the cultus) is corrupt, so will be the former (the culture), making it ripe for God’s judgment. In Romans 1, the judgment of God takes the form of judicial abandonment in which God “gives them over” (1:24, 26, 28, NASB) to the effects of their own idolatrous tendencies, as we are witnessing in our own day.

Third, this anti-theistic outlook pervades the cultural atmosphere and provides the context in which we must minister. Practically, this means, first, that the secular elites of our day continue to seek the banishment of God from the public square, thus making the environment more hostile toward faithful Christians who seek to base their stance upon the God of the Bible and his revelation. There will be opposition to an openly theistic viewpoint for which we must be prepared and which we must be determined to resist. This atmosphere means, secondly, that many among the secular ruling elites (even at the local level) cannot begin to grasp or even imagine that some of their fellow-citizens would base their actions upon theological considerations or upon high ethical principle. This is inconceivable to them and will lead them to conclude that these poor (Christian) people are either ignorant or are irrationally acting against their own best interests or are trying to establish a theocracy; such deluded people must of course be stopped and re-educated. Those who seek to be consistently Christian will be met with an attitude of condescension and hostility, in response to which will be required a significant measure of fortitude, patience, and grace as they seek to communicate the gospel and to live accordingly amidst a perverse culture.

Fourth, God alone can pull Western societies out of the abyss into which they have fallen. Recovery is beyond human grasp and ability. There is a great need for the beneficial effects of the gospel (the humbling of human pride; a sense of dependence on God; conformity to divinely-given ethical standards) and the shaping force of the biblical-Christian worldview. But typically the latter (the culture-wide influence of the biblical worldview) does not prevail without the former (individual renewal), requiring the conversion to a Christian stance of a critical mass of the population who will then impact the whole of their society. This type of conversion has often occurred in the past as the result of revivals (the Reformation; the Great Awakening or Evangelical Revival; the 19th-century awakening). In the present, it appears that nothing short of a divinely-wrought revival, fueled by prayer and the preaching of the gospel, will prevail to effect the changes needed to overcome the deleterious ideologies of the nineteenth century and their disastrous consequences as exhibited in the twentieth. Such is the direction and outcome, Solzhenitsyn reminds us, of a century which forgets God.


[1] Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976 [reprint edition]) 154.

[2] Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Present Day Attitude toward Calvinism: Its Causes and Significance,” in Calvin and Augustine(Philadelphia, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1956), 504.

[3] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “Templeton Lecture,” in The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005 (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), 577.

[4] Peter Conrad, Modern Times, Modern Places (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), 13, 736; originally published by Thames and Hudson as Modern Times, Modern Places: Life and Art in the Twentieth Century.

[5] Alvin Kernan, In Plato’s Cave (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999), 2.  While Kernan provides a telling description of this cultural decline in an academic setting, the potential reader should be aware that the book contains accounts of his sexual escapades and some vulgarities of language.

[6] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1956 [reprint edition]), 173