The Greatest Threat to the Gospel
The greatest threat to the Gospel in our age is not unbelief. It is not relativism or open hostility to the “narrow” Christian tradition. It is not even the hypocrisy of the church, which holds up the white banner of faith for all to see and then spatters it with the mud of pretense. As inimical to the Christian faith as these may be, there is something far more destructive to the Gospel, something we rarely consider, because it is too close for us to notice. The greatest threat to the Gospel is treating it as mere information.
If contemporary culture were a royal ball, information would be the ageless and debonair host, striking every lord and lady with his pristine smile, all the while masquerading as truth. His tangible personality would blind the guests to the fact that his clothes were too big—they belong to someone six inches taller, with broader shoulders and a fuller chest. Distantly, all of his guests would know that truth is what called them together and demanded something of them. But they don’t see truth so easily. They see information, because he makes constant rounds with a silver platter of Hors d'oeuvres. The real host of the ball requires seeking out.
Information is not truth; it describes truth, complements it even, but it is not itself truth. Truth is the underlying foundation for the way things really are; it is “nothing less than the self-disclosure of God in his Son, who is the truth (John 14:6).” Information is data, figures, descriptors, sound bites, and visual clips—all of which we may choose to act on, or to store in a retrieval system (and we’re better at storing than retrieving). Yet, we confuse the two, and while this may seem trivial, it is tantamount to confusing Jesus Christ for someone or something else. This confusion, more than anything else, may be the cause behind the decline of orthodox Christianity in the west. Before I get to why, it’s important to know how this threat crept out from the shadows of human history.
What happened that confused people of the difference between truth and information? Francis Schaeffer had an unparalleled sense of cultural trends, and his thoughts on this issue are illuminating. In The God Who Is There, Schaeffer discusses what he calls the “line of despair.” By this he refers to a trend in thinking (beginning roughly in the 19th century) that rejected absolutes and antithesis—a clear division between truth and falsehood. Instead of debating the truth or falsehood of a claim, the philosophers, musicians, artists, and even theologians of the day began to favor dialectics and existentialism. In other words, people began leaving behind absolutes in favor of “pragmatic relativism.” And who needs truth when information—undemanding dialogue and descriptions—will carry the day’s burdens? In part, this is what blurred the line between truth and information. If we leave behind ultimate truth—antithesis and absolutes—then something must replace it, and that “something” was information. Information could answer the how question that would come to replace the ultimate why that had been addressed, up to that time, by theology and philosophy.
And once information was confused with truth, the floodgates of noetic deception burst. Our world, in one sense, is a bottomless reservoir of information; there is always more to know—experiments to conduct, hypotheses to test, logistics to work out, mechanics to fine tune, ideas to develop and apply. The attainment and understanding of truth had been the litmus test of human development, but information has replaced it. Increased knowledge (i.e., awareness and retention of information) has become the new standard of value. Specialists have become the respected figures of society: the doctor has replaced the minister; the psychologist the sage; the scientist the theologian.
To some, this may not appear to be so great a threat. What is the problem with having information—knowledge—as the goal towards which we strive? Surely, the details of life are worth studying, even from an empirical perspective: more data certainly can and often does lead to greater knowledge, and, as long as we’re being optimistic, to wisdom. Knowledge in itself is clearly useful. So what is the problem?
One of the main problems is that when we replace truth with information, when we confuse the person of Jesus Christ for what God is doing by grace in his shadow, then we can become fragmented, confused, and numb. We become fragmented because we continue to acquire data for which we have no ultimate meaning, and so we must store that data in compartments that are large enough to provide practical use but small enough to seal out questions of ultimate meaning and purpose. We are left with a string of how’s without the glue of an ultimate why to bind them together, which only works to mitigate the importance of the information we claim to treasure. This contributes to our confusion. Without meaning and purpose, how can we understand or give value to information? And if we cannot understand or give value to information, then what are we doing with it? Perhaps we are in some kind of information coma, where we continue to live but show few signs of vitality as God’s creatures; we numb ourselves to purpose and meaning, forgetting that we are people saved by a person. We awake from this coma of information only when something rattles the heart—especially when someone close to us dies. It is then that we are rudely awoken.
Death jolts our cerebral cortex, snapping us out of information coma. We do not take notes at a funeral; we weep at it. Something of great worth has been lost—not a processor of data but a person. In this shock, we witness the haze of purpose take shape, and we understand that life, at its heart, is about deep interpersonal connections. We begin to focus on our finitude, and the only word that seems to account for meaning and purpose is love—not the romantic tripe of hallmark, but the selfless, unadulterated, sacrificial love of God for his creatures, and, derivatively, of his creatures for each other.
Only in the Trinity do we find such love. We have the ability to “love, to give, to communicate, to share purposes, to obey commands . . . . because God made us in a way that reflects his own character and the eternal relations among the persons of the Trinity.” Because the God of truth is Trinitarian, truth, not information, brings people together. It may demand something of them, but it demands something of them. Truth calls its hearers to communion. The human race is united not because of common interests and abilities, but because every person has been indelibly marked by the truth of a communing and condescending God. Like it or not, everyone is already at truth’s ball, dancing the night away.
But the world hates this idea. “If God really cared about us, he would give us information—tangible facts that would deal with the actual problems around us (acts of violence, natural disasters, social prejudice, divorce, etc.).” So we might be tempted to think. But what if the problem is not just external? What if the problem is essentially internal? What if we have been called to the royal ball because there is a problem within us?
This, of course, is the biblical answer. God gives his revelation not simply as information, but as truth. Our minds are the destination of information; “our hearts are the destination of God’s revelation.” As Jesus walked with two men on the Emmaus Road, explaining the Scriptures to them, it was their hearts that burned, not their minds (Luke 24:32). The ultimate solution to the horrors around us and within us is not information; it is truth, truth revealed by the God who himself establishes meaning and purpose for the universe. This fact has obviously been rejected and even made the object of humor and ridicule by popular culture. It sounds like a fairy tale to the contemporary ear, and so we take another Hors d'oeuvre from the silver platter of information and continue dancing.
Now, why is this important? What’s the real danger here? Why call information “the greatest threat to the Gospel”? It was Marshall McLuhan who, decades ago, said that information was our most valued transportable good. He wrote, “Today, . . . the greatest volume of transport consists in the moving of information.” What did he mean by this? As I have read McLuhan critically over the years, and now reflecting on this as a student of theology, I believe he meant that information is now our primary resource: it is what we care most about, and so we build our lives around acquiring information of all kinds. Bring in what Schaeffer has said about the confusion of information and truth and the threat becomes clearer: if we treat the Gospel purely as information—as a set of propositions to convey or a handful of dry dogmatic statements—we turn it into one more tradable good amidst the sea of information. People will hear it, mull it over in their minds for a few seconds, and discard it for lack of use or relevancy. They will consider it nothing more than a topic to be studied and debated, much like economic trends in the 19th century or the life and times of Winston Churchill.
This has already begun to enervate the revolutionary nature of the Gospel. Hearers in Jesus’ time, long before information was the most valued transportable good, would have received the Gospel not as information, but as news, as truth that demanded change from them. The Gospel boldly declared that something had already begun, and they would be swept up in its current whether they believed it or not. Now, certainly there were people of Jesus’ day who were indifferent to the Gospel, but the trend was to treat it as news, not information.
Two millennia ago, it seems people wanted to understand more about the Gospel so that they could change what they were doing, how they were thinking, how they were speaking and listening. Today, it seems people are more encouraged to be fascinated by the Gospel, rather than spurred on to change.
Now, here is the scariest part: when it comes to the livelihood of the church, seminary students are most prone to this disease. They can become so immersed in a doctrine or a historical trend in church history that they forget that the Gospel is news and treat it as information, as an object of study. Each day is spent taking a new sampling of Hors d'oeuvres from the silver platter of information, and they keep dancing, forgetting the host of ball, who was crucified for their attendance.
We can dance for the rest of this century if we like—contemporary culture will never really notice us. There is always more room on the dance floor, and the music never stops. But if we want people to actually receive the news of the Gospel, and if we want to continue to be shaped by it ourselves, we must bow out of the dance and seek the truth: something happened that demands something of us. We must tell people that Jesus Christ is not simply “the man who came two thousand years ago to die for the sins of the world,” but that he is the one for whom you have been waiting. At least such a message might jolt them out of their information coma long enough for the Spirit to work with their curiosity.
Every Christian of our age should know this: if we continue to treat the Gospel as information, it will trickle out of the lifeblood of our culture with the rest of the flood of information, and the world will be left in a horrible state of wanting. Sooner or later, our culture will demand news again, and we must be ready to give it to them.
. D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eermans, 1991), 595.
. See The God Who Is There, in Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 5–9.
. Ibid., 12.
. Vern Sheridan Poythress, Redeeming Sociology: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 30.
. John M. Frame, Doctrine of the Word of God, A Theology of Lordship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 327.
. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Critical ed., ed. W. Terrence Gordon (Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2003), 131. He goes on to write that “Today information-gathering resumes the inclusive concept of ‘culture’ exactly as the primitive food-gatherer worked in complete equilibrium with his entire environment. Our quarry now, in this new nomadic and ‘workless’ world, is knowledge and insight into the creative processes of life and society” (189).
Pierce T. Hibbs, M.A.R., is the Assistant Director of the Center for Theological Writing at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he is pursuing advanced studies in Systematic Theology and the language theory of Kenneth L. Pike.
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