CHRISTIANITY AND CIVILIZATION
by Bob Wheeler
In our last blog post we considered the nature of civilization, and concluded that it was an organized effort on the part of human beings to live and work together; and that this, in turn, required certain standards of behavior. But what is a Christian to make of all of this? Is civilization good or bad? Should he support it, attack it, or ignore it?
The answer is that from a Christian standpoint civilization is both good and bad. It is both good and bad because it reflects the fundamental contradictions of human nature. We are created in the image of God and have consciences. We are social creatures. Yet at the same time we are also fallen sinners and routinely do what is bad. And thus it is with human civilization as a whole.
On the one hand there is much that is undeniably good in civilization. In a civilization people are willing to work together for the common good. When a government is created to establish justice, this is a positive thing. The apostle Paul could go so far as to call the civil magistrate “God’s minister to you for good” (Rom. 13:1-7), and urges prayers to be made “for kings and all who are in authority” (I Tim. 2:1,2). Civilizations have made tremendous advances in science and technology and have created great works of art, music and literature. All of this is undeniably good.
But sinners are still sinners, and this is reflected in civilization as well. Even when human beings outwardly do what is right they often do it for the wrong reasons. Instead of being motivated by a genuine love for God and for righteousness, individuals are often driven by the prospects of rewards and punishments that are held out by the particular society in which they live. They seek the praise of their fellow men, or dread the prospect of a prison term. They go along in order to get along. At best they are motivated by “enlightened self-interest,” but that is still a form of selfishness nonetheless.
Moreover civilization itself is in many ways an attempt to better the human condition, but to do it without God. It is an expression of man’s hubris, a reflection of his underlying rebellion against God. Civilizations impose standards of behavior, but these are usually conceived of as standards we create ourselves to advance our own interests as a society. And these values and ideals often fall far short of God’s standards of morality – everything from Roman gladiatorial games to American rugged individualism.
But what is even worse, the members of society often try to undermine the very ideals they profess to believe. No sooner is a constitution adopted and laws passed then men begin looking for ways to circumvent them. Right and wrong soon become a matter of what we can get away with. We in the U.S. declared that “all men are created equal” and are endowed by their Creator with “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But just eighty years later the U.S. Supreme Court, in the infamous Dred Scott decision, declared that black people were not included in the “all men” of the Declaration, and that “they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” And so we rationalize our bad behavior.
What our Creator really expects from us, however, is that we love Him with all of our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves.
The Bible gives us a brief but vivid account of the beginning of human civilization. In Gen. 11:1-9 we are told how that ancient peoples found a place to dwell in the land of Shinar (Sumeria). They then proceeded to build a city. “And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4; NKJV). What is significant here is not just that they undertook a construction project, but the mentality that lay behind it. They wanted to reach the heavens and “make a name for ourselves.” In other words it was a purely human endeavor driven by pride and ambition. And God’s response was to scatter them by confusing their language. The city became known as Babel, or Babylon, and it remained a symbol of worldly power and human arrogance.
To understand the biblical attitude toward civilization it is necessary first to understand the biblical view of history. The Bible draws a contrast between “this age” and “that which is to come” (Eph. 1:21). The age to come is a time when the Messiah will reign over all the earth. But this age is the time when “the prince of the power of the air” is “the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” who are “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1-3).
By the same token the apostle John tells us that “all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it . . .” (I John 2:16, 17a). In other words human society as a whole, including its various civilizations, is fallen and corrupt, and under the wrath of God.
The Christian, however, is no longer a part a part of this corrupt world system. “He [i.e., God] has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Col. 1:13). And this kingdom operates on a whole different principle from the surrounding world. “. . .for the kingdom of God is not eating or drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). Thus a human civilization can never truly be called “Christian”; it is always sub-Christian at best.
But what about the culture of civilization – its arts and science, its learning and philosophy? “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (I Cor. 3:19: cf. 1:18-25). Because fallen sinners refuse to acknowledge God as the Creator and Lord, their philosophy is based on a false premise and they develop a warped and distorted view of reality. They live in a world created by God, but they refuse to admit the fact. The result is an educational system that does not truly educate.
That, then, is the picture that the Bible paints of human civilization. But how is the Christian to relate to the surrounding world? How does he fit in? Or doesn’t he?
On the positive side we are to honor and respect those who are in positions of authority in human society. Jesus said “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). The apostle Peter could write, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake . . .” including kings and governors. We are to “Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (I Pet. 2:13-17). It is even permissible on occasion for the Christian to avail himself of the legal remedies at his disposal. The apostle Paul could claim Roman citizenship and make a formal appeal to Caesar when threatened (Acts 22:25-28; 256:10-12).
Yet the Christian must always be conscious that he answers to a higher authority, and when human law clashes with divine law, divine law always takes precedence. Jesus state the matter quite starkly: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
The fact of the matter is that the life of a Christian should stand in sharp contrast with that of the world. Paul could write to the Ephesian believers and tell them “For you were once darkness, but you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), . . .” He then goes on to say, “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them . . .” (Eph. 5:8-11).
But what about Western Civilization? Was it not a “Christian” civilization? Should not Christians have whole-heartedly supported it?
The answer is that Western civilization was only superficially Christian. It supported state churches and professed Christian values, but it was largely an external morality, whereas genuine Christianity is the life of Christ within the heart, transforming life from the inside out. Western civilization was the greatest civilization in the history of mankind, and it attained that status precisely because of the influence on it of Christianity. But it still fell short of what our Creator expects from us as human beings. Genuine Christians must conform to a higher standard.
The Christian, then, lives in the world but is not really a part of it. He seeks to do good to his neighbors wherever he can, but must be careful not to participate in their sins. While he may support the government in its efforts to establish justice and meet human need, the Christian realizes that man’s real need is for salvation and eternal life. The Christian’s aim, then, is to be a light shining in the darkness.