Apart from faith in Jesus Christ, there is no hope of salvation (Acts 4:12; 16:30, 31). Yet Christians in this life will struggle with unbelief – unbelief in the world, in the church, and in our own hearts.
“Secularism” is the word for the unbelief our society. A secular worldview takes account only of the material world and denies the existence of God or gods. Hand in hand with this rejection of transcendent realities are religious pluralism (the idea that all religions are equally valid) and moral relativism (there is no absolute right or wrong). A secular worldview, at least in our culture so pervaded by consumer values, also tends to exalt the self: what matters most is my personal fulfillment. This is the unbelief of the world.
And the danger is greater than we realize. The word “secularism” conjures up the specter of a small but powerful cabal of Hollywood, media, and political elites conspiring to destroy the last remnants of our once-Christian society. However, the real threat of secularism lies not in the crusades of a few anti-Christian zealots, but in the way it creates an environment that makes the Christian faith appear impossible to believe. In other words, secular unbelief doesn’t attack Christian faith so much as suffocate it.
An analogy helps to illustrate this. In his book The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton considers the profoundly different way he felt and thought after going from one building, a McDonald’s, to a far different building, the grand Westminster Cathedral in London. de Botton writes:
After ten minutes in the cathedral, a range of ideas that would have been inconceivable outside began to assume an air of reasonableness… it seemed entirely probable that Jesus was the Son of God and had walked across the Sea of Galilee… Concepts that would have sounded demented forty metres away… had succeeded – through a work of architecture – in acquiring supreme significance and majesty. (pgs. 107-109, as quoted in Modern Reformation)
This author writes about the architecture of buildings. But what about the architecture of societies, and the tremendous influence culture has on our thoughts and beliefs? We live in a McDonald’s world, not a cathedral world. Secularism is so much the warp and woof of our culture, so much the very air that we breath, that Christian doctrines of creation, God, sin, salvation, judgment, and heaven and hell, don’t appear wrong so much as simply irrelevant. This is challenge of unbelief in the world.
Sadly, much of the response of the church has been to adopt secular thought rather than to foster a robust and alternative worldview based on biblical truth. When the gospel is presented as God’s offer to make a person happy and prosperous, that is a Christian version of secularism’s sovereignty of the self. When worship services are fashioned according to what will please and attract people and not according to what God commands, that is a Christian version of secular consumerism. Statistics show that 60% of kids who grow up in American churches will drop out sometime after high school. I wonder, are they rejecting biblical truth outright, or has the church simply failed to give them a compelling alternative to a secular worldview?
It’s easy to lament the unbelief “out there” in the world or in “those churches” but what about the unbelief in our own hearts? Do we really trust in the promises of a sovereign and good God to take care of us both now and in the life to come, or are we plagued with anxiety and fear? Do we really believe God is actively involved in human affairs and in our own lives? Our prayer life is the answer to that question! Every Christian can identify with the man who cried out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Thankfully, God gives us grace to overcome the challenge of unbelief. First, the gospel of Jesus Christ delivers us from the futility, hopelessness, and despair of unbelief. A secular worldview offers no reason or basis for peace, joy, or hope. But the gospel declares: believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will know the God who created you, who gives you life, meaning, and purpose!
Secondly, God in his Word gives us a worldview that is just as comprehensive and total as the secular worldview that surrounds us. And if you are to walk by faith in this world and meet the challenge of unbelief, your faith must encompass far more than believing that Jesus died on the cross for you. You must, by faith, grasp all that the gospel implies and God’s Word reveals: that God is the sovereign Lord of all creation, that he determines the nature and meaning of all things, and that he rules over all for his own glory. It was this complete worldview (along with belief in the coming Christ) that constituted the faith of the men and women in Hebrews 11, and that enabled them to do such great deeds of faith. Just before detailing the amazing works of faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, etc., the author of Hebrews describes faith as understanding “that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Hebrews 11:3). His point is this: the faith that possessed these giants of faith was an entire worldview of reality, beginning with God as the Creator of all. Because they were convinced of these things, they could live by faith in world of unbelief.
I believe one key to meeting the challenge of unbelief lies in the church. If the unbelieving world is an environment that suffocates Christian faith, the church should be a place where God’s truth is believable, even palpable. Through the ministry of the Word, the sacraments, prayer, and the love and fellowship of God’s people, the church should be a sanctuary where faith in Christ, and its concomitant biblical worldview, is nourished and strengthened.