As hundreds of thousands of people battle COVID-19 following thousands of deaths, lockdowns, and much fear, the world eagerly awaits a proven treatment plan to cure this dreaded virus. I’m sure many of you, like me, often pray for wisdom and protection for those on the frontlines battling this invisible foe. But there is another invisible enemy, one more formidable than COVID-19, that has wreaked havoc on millions of lives for centuries. This unseen tyrant takes many forms and can often be hard to detect. We are all susceptible to this disease, and without the proper precautions, anyone can fall victim. Sadly, the aftermath of this nemesis is often very visible, making it seem as though it is much more foreboding than it actually is. No, it’s not another novel virus. It is the always-lurking disease of bad ideas.
This disease’s most recent high-profile victim is Jon Steingard, lead vocalist for Hawk Nelson, the once very popular Christian rock group. Jon joins Rhett and Link (popular YouTube comedians and former Cru staffers), Marty Sampson (Hillsong worship artist), Michael Gungor (lead singer for Christian duo Gungor), and Joshua Harris (extremely popular Christian author and pastor) who have either renounced Christianity outright or expressed serious misgivings about the faith in recent years. This does not even mention the number of popular Christian leaders, authors, singers, etc. who are drifting, or have drifted, from biblical Christianity to a more liberal/progressive version of “Christianity.”
What can we do to combat this deadly contagion? The following guidelines may, or may not, be endorsed by the CDC. For the past 28 years, however, they are what Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College has trained men and women from all walks of life to do effectively.
Recognize the Symptoms
In our brief case study, we will examine Jon’s story since he is the most recent casualty, and the reasons for his “deconstruction” are similar across related cases. In fact, Jon says he shared his doubts with some of his close friends and was “shocked” to discover that his doubts were “shared by nearly every close friend [his] age” who has a similar background to his own.
Jon grew up constantly at church, surrounded by Christians. His dad is a pastor, and Jon says the church wasn’t just part of his family’s life; it was their life. He points out, “When you grow up in a community that holds a shared belief, and that shared belief is so incredibly central to everything, you simply adopt it.” It was in high school that, like many young people, Jon first began to encounter questions and doubts. He says, “I figured I was overthinking all these things. This was the beginning of my doubt, and I began to develop the reflex to simply push it down and soldier on. … I felt it must be true.”
This is symptom number one, putting feelings overthinking. So many Christians and formerly-professing-Christians experience this common symptom. Of course, it’s no wonder that this symptom is so widespread given the fact that our culture has by and large elevated man’s will over his intellect. This usually presents itself in one of two ways, or sometimes as a combination of the two. The first way is that many Christians, like Jon, simply “feel” better if they act as though Christianity is true and never seek answers to their questions or reasons for their beliefs. They ignore their doubts and simply attempt to muster up more “faith.” The second way, and perhaps more problematic, is that feelings cause others to question historic Christianity because they feel as though something like homosexual behavior, for example, must be OK. Or they feel that truly loving someone would never mean telling someone their thoughts or behaviors are wrong. Moreover, they seem certain that their feelings could never be wrong about such things. More and more people are presenting with this system, and it is something about which each practitioner should be aware of.
Like any normal human being, Jon finally began to wrestle with the difficult questions of the faith and attempt to think through things about which he was having trouble making sense. He specifically mentions the perennial problem of evil (specifically noting both natural and moral evil), the problem of a loving God sending people to hell, the “pissed off” God of the Old Testament who commands the killing of certain people, and the fact that Jesus would have to die for our sins in order for God to forgive us. Jon also shares that he wrestled with many things he considered to be contradictions in the Bible. He honestly laments, “Suffice it to say that when I began to believe that the Bible was simply a book written by people as flawed and imperfect as I am – that was when my belief in God truly began to unravel. … Once I found that I didn’t believe the Bible was the perfect Word of God – it didn’t take long to realize that I was no longer sure He was there at all.”
This is symptom number two, neglect or absence of prolegomena and natural theology. For those unaware, “prolegomena” is the study of the foundational truths that must be the case in order for Christianity to be true (ex. the nature of truth, the nature of reality, the existence of God, the nature of communication, the reliability of the Bible, etc.). “Natural theology” is the study of what can be known about the existence and nature of God apart from the Bible (i.e., using general revelation to reason from effect [creation] to cause [God]). The neglect/absence of these two areas is one of the most critical symptoms for which to monitor. It typically arises when believers, like Jon, have little or no exposure to philosophy and apologetics that provide the intellectual foundation for the truthfulness of Christianity. They typically make blind appeals to the Bible with no foundational truths upon which to build a confident trust in and proper understanding of the Word of God. Retired academic Dr. Bruce Charlton notes,
“Modern Christianity as experienced by converts tends to be incomplete – precisely because modern Christianity has nothing to build on [i.e., a basic understanding of the nature of reality, natural law, the existence of immaterial realities, etc.]. This means that incomplete modern Christianity lacks explanatory power, seems to have little or nothing to say about what seems to be the main problem of living. For example, modern Christianity seems to have nothing to do with politics, law, art, philosophy, or science; to inhabit a tiny, shrinking realm cut-off from daily concerns.”
Because a solid foundation is often missing, even when believers do have some exposure to these disciplines, the “God” they are learning about is essentially the equivalent to a really big invisible Superman who’s just smarter, more powerful, and supposedly morally better than us; whose sole purpose often seems is to make our lives easy and provide us with endless warm fuzzies. This, however, is not the God of classical Christian thinking (more on this later). One should carefully note the connection between the first two symptoms. When the role of the intellect is neglected in the Christian life, it is easy for this second symptom to manifest.
Thankfully, Jon says that he is “open to the idea that God is there.” Openness is key. However, he goes on to say, “I know my parents pray that God reveals Himself to me. If He’s there, I hope He does.” He then laments the fact that he and his wife “always had this sense that [they] weren’t doing enough of the things [they] were supposed to do as Christians. … It all felt like an obligation, and [their] lack of enthusiasm about those things always made [them] feel like something was wrong with [them].” Jon admits that now they don’t think anything was wrong with them, they “simply didn’t believe” and “were too afraid to admit that to [themselves].”
Once again, Dr. Charlton observes,
“Modern Christianity often feels shallow – it seems to rely on diktat of scripture and the Church – this is because [as noted above] moderns lack a basis in the spontaneous perceptions of Natural Law, animism [i.e. the belief in a supernatural power], the sense of active supernatural power in everyday life. Modern Christianity (after the first flush of the conversion experience) thus feels dry, abstract, legalistic, prohibitive, uninvolving, lacking in purpose.”
This is symptom number three, wrong motives based on false expectations. The disease of bad ideas has so infected vast swathes of Christianity that far too many professing believers simply end up living out a cultural Christianity that has little basis in reality due in large part to the first two symptoms above. When this happens, symptom three typically follows. I know this from my own personal experience. Whether driven by the drive to please loved ones, cultural expectations, fear, or simply a guilty conscience, many believers go through the motions of Christianity in a legalistic fashion with no real substance to their Christian convictions. Likewise, because God is viewed as an invisible Superman, many people struggling with doubts and questions expect God to supernaturally manifest Himself to them personally in such a way that all their questions are answered. They may even wish for God to be real and desire to worship Him, but they only want to do so on their own terms rather than His. Again, a failure to have a proper natural theology of God leads to these confused motives and false expectations.
The above symptoms, among others, are good indicators that someone may be in the midst of, or in danger of beginning, a deconstruction of their Christian convictions. Recognizing these symptoms is just the first step. Preventative measures and even post-infection treatment are both necessary and possible.
Prescribe the Proper Treatment
Imagine if you went to your doctor to get treatment for COVID-19, and you noticed he never washed his hands between patients, he didn’t wear a facemask, never cleaned his exam rooms, used the same tongue depressor for every patient, and used dirty needles to administer shots. Needless to say, he wouldn’t be in business very long. Rather than treating any patient’s condition, he would actually be making matters worse by sharing the same germs from patient to patient. The treatment would be as bad, or worse, than the original issue for which you visited the doctor in the first place. This is the sad state of affairs in which we too often find ourselves in modern apologetics.
So much of what passes for apologetics today is built upon modern philosophical assumptions which suffer from the same disease of bad ideas the apologist is trying to combat. As prolegomena and the classical view of God (derived from natural theology via classical philosophy) were abandoned, an “infected” and impotent version of Christianity began to be defended. Popular apologetics far too often simply shares germs back and forth with the skepticism it seeks to answer. I would refer the reader to HERE and HERE for more on that.
By contrast, a proper treatment for this disease will only occur when the patient is brought back to the basic truths of reality that provide the foundation upon which a full-orbed Christian faith can be built. This is why the classical apologetics approach we teach at SES is so critical. Starting with the undeniable fact that man knows some truths about reality, we can reason step by step to the truthfulness of Christianity. When done properly, we can see that God is not an invisible Superman. He is wholly other, and the divine attributes stand or fall together. We can also appreciate the thousands of pages that have been written through the centuries by classical Christian thinkers addressing every question and issue that Jon or any other patient has raised.
Remember that some diseases take longer to treat than others. Bad ideas can become ingrained and influence many areas of our thinking. Nevertheless, treatment is possible. As philosopher Edward Feser notes, “Even modern secularists know [the language of natural theology and natural law], for they are no less human than their pagan ancestors. The problem is that they speak it at only a grade school or even kindergarten level, whereas the greatest of the ancients at least had high school level proficiency. But through ‘remedial education,’ they, like the ancient pagans, can be prepared for the graduate-level work afforded by divine revelation.”
We must begin to make progress in this area so that every parent, grandparent, Sunday School teacher, pastor, and missionary have themselves moved beyond grade school in the war against bad ideas and are able to inoculate and treat those entrusted to their care.
Don’t Neglect Underlying Conditions
That brings us to our last point. As we know, COVID-19 is much more serious for people with underlying conditions. Even though we could cure COVID-19, all of us will still die at some point. Likewise, every one of us suffers from the underlying condition of our own sin that makes the disease of bad ideas even worse and ultimately leads to death. We will all succumb to the disease of sin without the ultimate cure, which is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as payment for our sins.
Everything above regarding treating the disease of bad ideas is what Thomas Aquinas called the preambles to the articles of faith. They alone do not constitute the fullness of the faith. Rather, biblical faith is an active trust in the authority of what God has revealed because we have reason to believe He is trustworthy. Reason provides the foundation upon which faith can take root. Salvation through Jesus (i.e., the Gospel) is itself a revealed truth to which we cannot reason. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable, and we have excellent reasons to believe it is true. Being a revealed truth is what makes the Gospel an article of faith to which we willfully ascent and act upon through the power of the Holy Spirit. Only then will we find ultimate healing.
In the meantime, wear your facemask, practice social distancing, and protect yourself from COVID-19. Be on guard, however, for the ever-present invisible contagion of bad ideas. Monitor yourself and others for symptoms, and remember the proper treatment. As Clement of Alexandria said regarding the foundational role of philosophy in the life of the believer,
“Perspicuity accordingly aids in the communication of truth and logic in preventing us from falling under the heresies by which we are assailed. But the teaching, which is according to the Saviour (sic), is complete in itself and without defect, being ‘the power and wisdom of God;’ and the Hellenic philosophy does not, by its approach, make the truth more powerful; but rendering powerless the assault of sophistry against it, and frustrating the treacherous plots laid against the truth, is said to be the proper ‘fence and wall [or facemask in this case!] of the vineyard.’