HOW TO REACH A PAGAN WORLD
By Bill Honsberger
is a pagan country. According to
the National Association of Evangelicals, America has the fourth largest pagan
population in the world, and we are second only to Brazil in the number of
missionaries that we receive from other parts of the world.(1) Obviously, other
Christians see us differently than we see ourselves.
Why this is and how this happened is not the focus of this article, but
is addressed in others in this journal. My
focus is on what we can do about it.
Psychic Friends hotline brought in over $100 million dollars last year, as one
of many different psychic avenues. Wiccan
groups like Covenant of the Goddess, have grown over 500% in the past ten years.
(2) Movies are teaching young people about the circle of life? the world view
of reincarnation, the relativising of morality, and the new gospel of
?Tolerance? has become bedrock for a new generation.
A collective yawn goes out across the country when it is revealed the
First Lady, Hillary Clinton, someone who professes to be a Christian, spends
time talking to the dead with New Age authority Jean Houston.
We are a pagan culture. While
this may be distressing for many American Christians, the fact is that it is the
normative experience for Christians to be a hated minority among a larger pagan
culture. America has been the exception for Christian history, not the
rule. And since it is not a new
phenomenon, it is possible for us to look into our own history and see if there
may be examples of how the Christian Church has operated successfully among the
has been in the business of reaching out to pagans for a long time.
Whether you call them pagans, or New Agers or witches, or idolaters or
whatever else, there is nothing new about calling them into the family of God.
In the Old Testament you see the examples of Ruth, Rahab, and others.
In the New Testament you see Cornelius, Dionysius of Athens, and
virtually all of the church at Rome, Corinth, Ephesus and so on. In all of these cases, God reached out and brought to himself
those who had been hard core enemies of the true faith.
Just as this was uncomfortable for many in the believing community in
both eras, the love of God was and is able to gather in those who oppose him.
One could easily see the same reaction happening in the contemporary
church. Most Christians want
nothing to do with those who are Buddhist, Wiccan, Psychics and so on, because
of fear or disgust and maybe other motivations.
Another group of Christians seems to want to say that there is no need to
witness to other religions because each group ?comes to God in their own
way.?(3) But we must be committed
to the biblical certainty that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and no
one comes to the Father but by him (John 14:6). (4) If we believe that God loves
pagans as much as he loves us, and this is certainly what God says (John 3:16,17)
then we must take the great commission imperative seriously and commit ourselves
to reaching out to those who oppose the Lord.
might say here that there has been a concerted effort within the Christian
community to reach out to pagans, and that it has been a failure, although this
is not recognized by the participants yet.
The belief seems to be, that if we build impressive buildings, and offer
up quality entertainment, that the pagans will be attracted to the Gospel. In this new notion, the pastor serves as CEO, whose major
focus must be on building the customer base of the corporation (church).
The pastor must also be the community therapist, whose role is to gauge
and assuage the ?felt needs? of those within the consumer base, and do all
he can to meet those needs. While
this mega‑church notion is possible and has had the observable success of
building some very impressive campuses in select locations, it is very hard to
argue that this has had any effect on the larger pagan culture at all. (5) In
fact, it seems very evident that one might make the case that since the advent
of the mega‑church mentality, that the culture has become overwhelmingly
pagan. While I am not saying that
there is a one-to-one correspondence between the two, I think I can say that if
this is the best we have, then the Church is in trouble.
am not a pragmatist, but even if I were, I might have cause to ponder whether
the methodology of the mega‑church is working.
One might glance over to the former heart of ?Christendom,? Europe,
and see if the mega‑church mentality will work.
One might tour the impressive cathedrals, the beautiful works of art, and
imposing repositories of billions of dollars of collective Christian history,
and wonder why it are that they in effect are now wonderful tombs, fine museums,
and are scarcely attended by less then 2% of the local population.
If impressive buildings, or ?Christian Malls over America,? and
quality artistic endeavors are the key to reaching pagan America, then why is it
not working in Europe? Even since
the fall of the Berlin wall, when the initial outpouring into the churches
seemed to be such a hopeful sign of great things for the church, the report is
now that these churches are now basically empty too.
Not to say that the Europeans are less ?spiritual,? because cults,
psychics, vampires and all sorts of wickedness are on the move, marching through
the towns. England now has several
Hindu temples, and the soon to be head of the Anglican Church, Prince Charles
has his own personal Guru. (6) There are more Muslims in England than
Methodists. In less than a hundred
years, the English church, once the sending source of more missionaries than any
other country, has less than two percent of its own population in attendance.
Do we not see ourselves in this same light?
I could go on but I would rather emphasize what we can do that is not
only right by principal, but also by precedent can be shown to work.
find ourselves looking more like the church of the first century than we could
have ever imagined. We now have a
personal understanding of what Paul must have felt when he entered Athens, with
a god on every corner, and spare gods just to cover all the bases.
As Chuck Colson noted a few years ago, we no longer live in Jerusalem,
where everybody knew who God is, even those who did not believe.
We now live in Athens, where you might get a hundred different answers to
the question ?Who is God?? How
did the early church react? How did
they effectively minister to their pagan world?
And how can we do the same. Eerdmans
Handbook to the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans
Publishing Co., 66-67) has a series of charts showing the spread of Christian
Churches for the first three centuries. From
the beginning of the church until the end of the third century, the spread of
the Christian church is impressive. The
church has spread across the north of Africa, up through Europe to Gaul and
England and east through Asia Minor. What
is most interesting about this is that this was accomplished without the help of
any of the things we modern Christians think most essential for reaching out to
pagans. This was done without
church buildings, because the first known church building is not seen until 250
A.D. This was also done without trying to compete with the pagan world for
entertainment. No one could compete
with the pagans for impressive buildings and entertainment.
The ancient wonders of the world were religion in stone, all meant to
convey the grandeur of the gods they represented.
One could not help but be astonished when you came upon the Colossus of
Rhodes, or the Temple of Artemis in Corinth.
These buildings would be incredible in our day, let alone theirs.
As for entertainment, the pagans threw the best parties.
The Coliseum and the Hippodrome were open daily, and the mystery religion
of the Elusions, for one example, threw drunken orgies that lasted for weeks.
(7) It is essential that we understand that the early church could not compete
at this level. They did not have
the funds, the freedom and most importantly, the inclination.
Knowing this, how then did they spread so quickly without reaching out to
meet the ?felt needs? of those early pagans?
Let us examine what they did and why it worked.
would like to use Ephesians 4:15 where Paul says we are to ?speak the truth in
love one to another.? The early
church spoke the truth and they did it in love.
Let?s look at both aspects. There
are numerous recorded accounts of early church leaders and apologists, writing
letters to the Emperor, the local governors and other officials.
There are also a few recorded incidents where the pagan leaders were
confronted in person. (8) What was this about?
The most despised thing by the early church was the games in the
Coliseum. These were criticized for
the slaughter of thousands of people and animals.
The early church spoke out against slavery, abortion, the mistreatment of
the poor. They also spoke out
against paganism in its religious elements; mystery religions, Gnostic groups,
the emperor cult and so on. The
church did not worry about what was ?politically incorrect,? and it often
cost them a very high price. But
fear of offense, which seems to paralyze so many modern Christians, did not
appear to be a problem for the early church. Another fear of contemporary
Christians is antagonizing non‑Christians by saying that there is only one
way to heaven. Pluralism seems so
polite, so pleasant, so tolerant, and so many in the Church advocate the
inclusion of all faiths under one umbrella.
But the early Church suffered under no such delusions.
They spoke out against pagan beliefs of all sorts.
The Apostles spoke often against false prophets and teachers, (I John,
Jude, 2 Peter, Colossians, and Galatians) and the first generations followed
their example. Ireneus, in his Against
Heresies, addressed many of the pagan beliefs that we still deal with today,
such as reincarnation, Gnostic denigration of the material world and so on.
Others such as Tertullian and Justin Martyr spoke out against paganism in
all its forms. Pagans, such as the young Augustine, were often struck by the
dramatic difference between biblical faith and the pagan pantheons.
We must be as clear today. The
gospel of pluralism is no real gospel. It
may make one better dinner company, but it will not save anyone.
contrast, the early church was often willing to die for the exclusivistic claim
of Jesus as Lord, not Caesar, nor anyone else.
Another thing to consider when addressing speaking the truth to pagans is
the use of reason in apologetics/evangelism.
One favorite technique with the scriptures is that of the reductio ad
absurdum (reduce to the absurd). This
means that you assume your opponents position and see where it leads.
You can see this for example, being evidenced in the mockery of Isaiah,
when he writes concerning the pagan, who, having cut down a tree, takes ?half
of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his
meat and eats his fill. He also
warms himself and says, ?Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.?
From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says, ?Save me, you are my god?? (Isaiah 44:16,17).
Isaiah notes and mocks the obvious; no ?god? that I create, can save
me! You also see this when Ezekiel
meets with the pagans at Mt. Carmel. In
First Kings 18:21 ff., Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal, the penultimate nature
religion of the day. After noting that all their pleas and bloodletting has not
brought forth Baal to challenge the prophet of the true God, Elijah shouts out,
?Shout louder...surely he is a god. Perhaps
he is deep in thought, or busy or traveling.
Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.?
The point is clear: If Baal was really God, then none of the theatrics or
obscene rituals was necessary.
can also see this type of argumentation being used in the New Testament. When Jesus discussed the resurrection with the Sadducees, who
denied it, he points out that the Sadducees themselves pray to the God of
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Since
this is so, their own words belie their position.
God is not the God of the dead, but rather the God of the living (Mark
12:18-27)! Jesus does a similar
thing in the same chapter of Mark, when he points out that the rabbis were
teaching that the Messiah is the son of David, and yet David himself says that
the Messiah is his Lord. The
rabbi?s position is undermined by contrary evidence, from within the rabbi?s
much the same way, we can use this type of argumentation in talking to pagans. For example, one can take the common belief of
?Maya??the notion that all of reality is but an illusion of the mind, and
that even the mind itself is an illusion. The
?true? reality, is that all exists is the same exact thing, and that it is
God. This is the heart of monistic
pantheism; all is one and all is god. Many
pagans in America are in what I call a ?Christian hangover.?
That is, they were raised within some form of Christian church and have
left it for various reasons and are now pagans. They were Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and now are
Buddhists, Hindus and Wiccans. And
yet many of them have brought with them various Christians notions, such as
caring for the poor, and the environment, etc.
For example Marianne Williamson, author of Return to Love and many
other books, is a proponent and teacher of a (spirit) ?channeled? book
called A Course in Miracles. She
claims that this book was written by Jesus, who has come back to the world
through this book, ?to undue the damage done to the world for the last two
thousand years.? What is this
damage? The damage is that the
church has taught that people are separated from God because of their sin.
The message of this new ?Jesus? is that there is no such thing as
sin, and that we cannot be separated from God because we are God!
does this not seem to be obvious, and why do our perceptions seemed to be marked
by so much apparent evil? Well,
Williamson says we are living in a hallucination (her description of Maya!) and
that all we see is merely the creation of our minds, which are really God?s
mind. In the meeting where I heard
Williamson explain all this, she spoke for close to two hours about how all that
exists is an illusion, and that freedom and enlightenment come, when one
discovers this. At the end of the
meeting she took up a collection for AIDS patients!
The irony is delicious; if I am an illusion, and the AIDS patients are an
illusion and the disease is an illusion and money is an illusion, then the
illusory collection is undermined.
Gere does the same thing as a supporter of the Dalai Lama and of Tibetan
nationalism. In an article a few
years ago, Gere notes that all of reality is merely a function of the mind. This belief was taught him by the Tibetans.
But at the end of the article he chastises the Chinese government for
brutally murdering and destroying the Tibetan people. (10) But one might ask,
?Mr. Gere, if it is true that reality is merely a function of the mind, as
taught to you by the Tibetan Buddhists, then why don?t the Tibetans merely
change their minds! Poof!
No more Chinese.? But this
doesn?t seem to have worked. Perhaps
one could take the belief of reincarnation and see if that helps.
The Tibetans believe in reincarnation and therefore should appreciate the
conclusions that come from its teachings. If
Gere were to take the fatalistic eastern view of reincarnation, that of the
Tibetans themselves, then he knows that all actions or karma, are merely the
byproduct of past actions. That is,
the explanation for the hardship of the Tibetans today can only be explained by
understanding that the Tibetans must have invaded Beijing in an earlier life.
Of course this won?t justify Gere?s complaint either, so perhaps we
can look at the western spin on reincarnation.
Most western views still emphasize that what people experience is the
direct consequence of karma, but we experience this now for our personal growth,
and by our personal choice: Reincarnation with a happy face).
But if this is the case, then once again we must ask if perhaps the
Tibetans shouldn?t just grin and bear it, as their slaughter by the Chinese is
something they chose for themselves and something which will help them
?grow.? Whichever way he
goes, Gere?s complaint against the Chinese is undermined by his own beliefs.
the best part of all this is now to come. This
is a wonderful opportunity to witness to pagans, because they and we are created
in the image of God. That is at
least to say that they have moral notions and that this experience is a
universal one. So we can find
common ground with people of pagan persuasion in the moral arena.
However since most if not all pagan groups deny the existence of absolute
ethics, especially those of the Lord, then ethics must be purely relative,
perhaps just emotions blurted out, or ethics become the playground where the
self is King, and can play by whatever rules it likes.
None of this however, gives one reason to help AIDS patients or try to
help the Tibetans. The grief that Williamson and Gere share, are proof that
their own beliefs cannot work. The
traditional response of eastern religions is some sort of two-tiered notions of
reality. The upper level is true
reality, where monistic pantheism is true. (11) This is the ?true? or higher level of consciousness.
The lower level, where we all live in this world, is ultimately a false
reality, but for some reason we must play by its rules.
This sets up the believer as a moment by moment hypocrite, for living in
a false reality and acting like its real, while all the time believing that the
world they live in is not real. Yet
as one has stated, even Hindus look both way before they cross the street! This just shows the hypocrisy deeply imbedded within the
religious consciousness of the pagan believer.
example of this futility can be shown through a conversation I had with a
Theraveda Buddhist. As a Buddhist
of this type, Sukkacitto is deeply committed to atheism and non-violence.
Behind all of reality is not God, but rather nothingness, Sunyata, the
void. After reading his literature,
I told him that I appreciated his stance of non-violence towards living things.
But I wondered, as an atheist, how could he know that non-violence was
right? Who says so? His answer was that nature teaches us the law of
non‑violence. I told him that
was an interesting idea, but all one had to do was watch a David Attenborough
video for five minutes, before you figured out that all nature is animals
killing each other and making more little animals who kill each other.
You can learn a lot from the created world, but you cannot learn
non‑violence! At that point
Sukkacitto yelled at me, ?Bill, you just think you need a personal God to
teach you right from wrong!? ?Exactly,?
I responded. You see, unlike most
relativists, Sukkacitto did not want non-violence to be merely an option
alongside of violence. He knows
that in order to raise non-violence above the relativistic swamp, that there
must be something bigger than all our opinions to justify it.
But being an atheist, he had discarded the possibility that God can
ground all our moral certainties or uncertainties.
Then he had turned to nature, which is by definition bigger than all of
us, but has the slight drawback of being completely unable to teach, what he
claimed it did.
Williamson, Gere and Sukkacitto all share the same basic desire that of seeing
the consequences of sin dealt with. They
had experienced disease, war, violence and had been struck by the destructive
power of sin unchecked. All desired
that things could be better, that the situations might be made right.
But all of these emotions are a direct denial of the belief systems that
all three hold. If everything is Maya, or merely a byproduct of your mind, or
just the void, then there are no moral rights and wrongs, no evils to be
rectified, no clue as to what direction one goes to fix the situations.
How can one shape an illusion? What
direction can one go, and know that this is the right direction, if there is no
?right?? Yet they all seem to instinctively know that wrong is being
committed and want things to change. This
again points back to the image of God, which as C.S. Lewis argues, is universal
in its scope. This fundamental
feeling, is easy to deny in print, as many New Age leaders do, (12) but much
harder to ignore in real life. This
gives the Christian a perfect opportunity to present the true creator of this
very real world, introduce what He thinks of sin and evil, and take the New
Agers to the real solution for the problem of evil in this life, Jesus the
the early church acted within the context of love.
The early church was criticized by the pagans as a ?slave religion,?
because so many slaves were becoming Christians.
The church cared for the poor in ways that no edifice of stone could.
They would help bury the dead of pagans; they would buy the freedom of
pagan slaves; they would feed the pagans. (13) This was something people
understood. What they could not
understand was why the Christians would do this.
It made no sense to the pagan mind to take care of others who were not
your own immediate family. When
Jesus gave the new commandment in John 13, he noted that all people would know
who his disciples were by ?their love for one another.?
By telling us to love our neighbor in Luke 10, in the Good Samaritan
story, he pointed out that our neighbor is anyone we find in need.
Together these two concepts provided an unbeatable combination.
Now, normally I am very reluctant to say that we can learn something from the pagans, but listen to what one famous pagan, Julian the Apostate, says about us. Julian was the last pagan emperor of Rome, from 360-361 A.D. Wanting to rebuild the grandeur of Rome, but unable to revitalize the pagan religions in the old fashioned way so many of his predecessors had (by slaughtering the Christians!), he funded pagan temples, education, and clergy. In a letter to his high priest in Galatia, he tells Arcasuis something about our own predecessors that we might need to remember. He states:
"Why do we not notice that it is their kindness to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism [i.e., Christianity]? I believe that we ought really and truly to practice every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia, without exception...In the second place admonish them that no priest may enter a theatre or trade that is base and not respectable...in every city establish hostels in order that strangers may profit by our generosity; I do not mean for our own people only, but for others also who are in need of money...for it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg and the impious Galileans [Christians] support both their own poor and ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us."(14)
think perhaps the clearest explanation is also the simplest; the reason this
kind of love worked, is that it spoke to the real needs of people.
As Dr. Gordon Lewis stresses elsewhere in this journal, apologetics and
evangelism must seek for ?common ground? with those involved with paganism.
The most common ground of all for human beings is our common alienation
from God and from each other. When
the early church loved people in the simple, yet profound way that they did,
they ?spoke? a language that the pagans had no counterpoint for.
The essence of New Age paganism is narcissist, in all its forms. The self is ultimate and autonomous, with all else being part
of Maya?the illusion. This focus
on self and self only, under the guise of ?spiritual development,? by
definition excludes the care for others, and undermines the ultimate idealism
often parroted by contemporary leaders within New Age ranks.
Why care for the environment is the world is an illusion?
Why love your neighbor if all is an illusion?
New Age author Joseph Campbell, in the PBS series entitled ?The Power
of Myth,? explains his version of the commandment to love your neighbor, not
as a command to think of others, as seen by Christ?s disciples throughout
church history. Rather, he says
that the command to love others as yourself is based upon the notion that to
love others as yourself is to know that when you do so, you are really loving
yourself. Why? Because you are your
neighbor. This is the logical
extension of monistic pantheism. If
all is one and all is God, then all distinctions break down into ?Maya.? In response, one could note that for paganism, loving a rock
in the same way as one ought to reach out to help the poor, is also the same
thing. Rocks and poor people are
both part of the illusion, so they are the same.
this foundation is the heart of the complaint made by Julian.
We must imitate the Christians caring for others.
But historically this didn?t work, and this is because the pagan
beliefs systematically undermine the concern for the other.
By contrast, Christians are commanded to think of serving other people,
as a way of serving Jesus. The
?benchmark? for the success of the Church in following Jesus, is not our
buildings, but rather our reaching out to the very people he reached out to, the
poor, the sick, the weak, the orphans, the widows, and so on.
While nothing I have said here is original, it is intended as slap in the face to the Church in America today. I meet too many people who formerly sat in Christian churches of one sort or another, who are now thoroughly pagan. I also meet too many Christians in churches, who know nothing of their own faith, and yet seem fascinated by Wicca, channeling (communication with supernatural entities), and other varieties of paganism. We must speak the truth in love within our own ranks, and also to the larger community of people involved with the ?new? religious movements. The good news is that we do not have to reinvent the wheel, or seek out the latest thing from some marketer, but instead can remember God?s word to our predecessors in the faith, and remember how well God?s methods work when applied.
Bill Honsberger is the Director of Haven Ministries, a mission dedicated to
reaching out to those in the New Age, Cults, the Occult and various World
Religions. He currently is studying
for his doctorate at the University of Denver.
(1) The source for this material is a
booklet entitled, America?The New Mission Field, published by the
National Association of Evangelicals. Edited
by James D. Leggett, January 1996.
(2) The direct statement of this is
from Phyllis Curolt, then leader of the Covenant of The Goddess, given in her
talk at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, 1993. The rest of these types of statements are culled from Newsweek,
New Age Journal, and numerous other sources.
(3) The best example of this is found
in John Hick?s An Interpretation of Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 1989). The issue
is also discussed in More than One Way edited by Dennis Okholm and
Timothy Phillips (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1995).
(4) All biblical quotations are taken
from the New International Version of the Holy Bible (Nashville, TN:
Broadman and Holman, 1978).
(5) This analysis is deeply dependent
on the writings (whether they like it or not!) of David Wells in his two books, No
Place for Truth, and God in the Wasteland (Grand Rapids, MI: William
B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993 and 1994 respectively).
Also gleaned from George Barna?s What Americans Believe
(Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1991), Os Guinness?s No God but God and
numerous other books, articles and conversations.
(6) Taken from article in USA Today,
July 12, 1991 and other sources.
Much of this is taken from The Golden Bough, by James Frazer (Avenel, NJ:
Random House Company, 1993 edition).
(8) For information concerning the
early church fathers, see Eerdmans Handbook to the History of Christianity
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), Christianity through the
Centuries by Earle Cairns (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House,
1954), and Church History in Plain Language by Bruce L. Shelley (Dallas,
TX: Word Publishing, 1982).
(9) Return to Love by Marianne
Williamson (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishing Co.,
1992 and A Course in Miracles edited by Ken Wapnick (published by
the Foundation for Inner Peace and Penguin Books, New York, NY, 1975).
(10) Taken from an article entitled
?Gere Says Reality is Function of Mind,? Associated Press, date unknown.
(11) The most well known Hindu
Philosopher who argued this way was Shankara (circa 820 A.D.)
Quoted in Commentary on Brhad-aranyaka Upanishad, IV, 4, 6 quoted
in Elliot Deutsch Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction
(Honolulu, HI: The University Press of Hawaii, 1969). (Thanks to Dr. Doug Groothuis for this reference.)
(12) For example see The Fireside
Treasury of Light edited by Mary Olsen Kelly (New York, NY: Simon and
Schuster, 1990). For the Love of
God edited by Benjamin Shield and Richard Carlson (San Rafael, CA: New World
Library, 1990). The Coming of
the Cosmic Christ by Matthew Fox (San Francisco, CA: Harper/Collins
Publishers, 1988). Science of
Being and Art of Living by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (New York, NY: Signet
Books, 1968 and too many others to list here.
(13) See the same historical
references listed in (8).
(14) See Eerdmans Handbook to the History of Christianity, 137,138.