Last Tuesday, I was privileged to attend The Conservative Woman’s first forum, where the motion being debated by Peter Hitchens (Mail on Sunday) and Tim Stanley (Daily Telegraph) was “Christianity has no future in Britain”. The event was chaired by TCW’s very own Kathy Gyngell, who remarked quite rightly that the subject under discussion is immeasurably more important than the EU referendum.
For those who regularly read Mr Hitchens, a self-proclaimed pessimist and “Britain’s obituary writer”, it will come as no surprise that he was the one backing the motion, although he made it clear that it gave him no pleasure to do so. His contention appears to have some weight. If one were to plot church attendance and attitudes to Christianity on a graph, the trend would clearly be significantly downwards. Then there are the numerous laws – such as the Equality Act – which show clearly that our ostensibly Christian nation is no longer that at all. He also pointed out – again correctly – that it is not so much hostility and antagonism that marks out the nation’s attitude towards Christianity, but rather sheer apathy.
Tim Stanley then did an excellent job of countering the motion by stating that historically Christianity has always had peaks and troughs, and so the claim that Christianity has no future in Britain is a remarkably short-term view. Historical analysis shows that our situation is by no means unique, and the classic example of this is in the early 18th century, when church attendance had dwindled, and the moral state of the nation had all but collapsed. Yet it was out of that moral sewer that individual Christians, churches and Christian societies began to sincerely bear witness to their faith, both through evangelism and through good works, and bit by bit church attendance rose and many parts of society were transformed for the better.
I would be tempted to agree with the motion were the word immediate to be inserted into it – Christianity has no immediate future in Britain. However, in the long-term this is by no means the case, and I want to spend the rest of this piece showing why this is so. Why bother? Two reasons. Firstly, I want to encourage Christians to stop acting like they’re on the losing side. They’re not. And secondly, I want to give them some reasons to be cheerful.
The key part of the evening lay in something spoken, and in something unspoken. After correctly identifying the apathetic state of most people in the nation, coupled with the seemingly relentless slide into moral degradation, Mr Hitchens said this: “I have absolutely no idea how on earth we get ourselves out of this.” Fair point, but the answer to it lies in something he didn’t mention. Throughout his entire opening address, Mr Hitchens omitted to mention God.
You see, his question “how do we get ourselves out of this mess” is not a new one, but it is one that the Bible answers time and time again. Indeed, a case could be made that one of the overarching sweeps of the Old Testament is “How do we get ourselves out of this?” And the answer given time and time again is this: we don’t – God does!
We see it in the Exodus when the people of God are oppressed to the nth degree by Pharaoh. How do they get themselves out? They don’t – God does. We see it in the Psalms when David, sometimes speaking in a personal capacity as God’s anointed, sometimes speaking on behalf of his people, cries out for salvation. How does he get himself and Israel out? He doesn’t – God does. We see it in the Prophets when the Israelites go into Babylonian captivity. How do they get themselves out? They don’t – God does.
But we see it even more gloriously in the New Testament. There, the whole narrative of captivity, not just to external enemies and external circumstances, but also the inward captivity to sin, is bound up in the person of the Messiah (Anointed One or Christ). The circumstances in which he comes are as bad as those in our own day, hence he calls the people “a wicked and adulterous generation.” And when he is taken captive, handed over to the Roman authorities, then nailed to a tree, the situation is infinitely more hopeless than in our day.
His disciples that stood at the foot of the cross probably had a “Hitchens” moment. That feeling of utter pessimism, brought on by a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness, as the one they trusted to be the Messiah, the Christ of God, was crucified. And Jesus himself is no less aware of his own powerlessness at that point. Quoting the prophetic Psalm 22, he cries out those agonising and haunting words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”
Yet many people reading that Psalm forget the ending. It is often said to be a Psalm about the suffering of the Messiah, but it is not. It is instead a Psalm about the suffering and the deliverance of the Messiah, whose prayer to be delivered was heard and answered by God. And so the second half of the Psalm is all about salvation, joy and resurrection, and not just for Jesus the Messiah himself. No, also to the whole world: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.”
Does he really rule over the nations? Yep. What even over apathetic, morally degenerate modern Britain? Yep. And has he promised to turn even modern Britain to once again worship before him? Again the answer is yes. 1 Corinthians 15:24-25 assures us of his triumph in this age: “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power, for he must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet.” Many Christians get this passage completely back to front. They think it means that he will come to establish his rule by destroying all opposition. But notice it doesn’t say he will come to destroy every rule and every authority and power. It says he will come after he has already achieved that. In other words, he will, over the process of time (and maybe we won’t see this in our lifetimes), convert the nations – even morally degenerate, apathetic Britain.
Let me leave you with some questions. Before ascending to sit at the right hand of the Father as King, Jesus told his disciples that “All authority in Heaven and in Earth” had been given to him. He then told them that on this basis they were to go and disciple all nations (Matthew 28:18-19). Does it sound like he expects to fail? Does it sound like he thinks it won’t work and that we shouldn’t bother with Britain because “Christianity has no future there”? Does he sound like a pessimist? Or does he rather sound pretty confident that even apathetic and morally degenerate Britain shall once more come to worship before him?