Listening In: Jeremiah Johnston

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you will be listening in on my conversation with Podcaster, author and theologian, Jeremiah Johnston.

Karl Marx once said religion is the opiate of the masses. A generation of so called new atheists have argued that the world would be a better place without Christianity, but would it? Jeremiah Johnston believes we don’t have to guess the answer to that question. He thinks history clearly does answer it. And the answer from history is that Christianity has enhanced life on earth, not just for Christians, but also for non Christians.

The world before Christ was nasty, brutish, and short. Since the rise of Christianity, ideologies have tried to exterminate Christianity throughout the ages, such as the Roman empire and later Islam. And they’ve done so by killing children, oppressing women, and restricting freedom for all.

Post-Christian secularist ideologies such as communism and fascism as well as consumerism and the sexual revolution have likewise left many millions dead and wounded. Jeremiah Johnston documents these ideas in his book Unimaginable: What Would Our World Be Like Without Christianity? Johnston is the president of the Christian Thinkers Society, a resident institute at Houston Baptist University where he also serves as associate professor of early Christianity. His previous books include Unanswered: Lasting Truth for Trending Questions.

Well, you know, one of the things that I think was interesting about the book, and it’s a point that you actually make yourself pretty early in the book, that there have been these counterfactual histories that had been written and have gotten actually kind of popular over the years. Like what would have happened if the Nazis had won the war? Or what would have happened if the, you know, the north hadn’t won the civil war? And you know, you cite, for example, The Man in the High Castle, which is the Amazon prime series, early in the book. But you know, we don’t really have to imagine a world without Christianity, unless we forget our own, unless we forget history. Because we experienced a world without Christianity and we have experienced ideologies that tried to banish Christianity. And in neither case did things turn out really well.

JEREMIAH JOHNSTON, GUEST: You’re exactly right, Warren. And it couldn’t be more true. And I wanted to write the book… It’s fun to talk about these counterfactual histories, and Audrey and I actually in the course of watching Man in the High Castle, in between binge watching—I travel and speak about 30 weeks a year, so we catch up on our programs together when we can. And I was telling her in between the shows, Audrey, you know, here’s what the world would be like if Jesus had never come. Or here’s what the Christian movement did end gladiators’ games, and infanticide, and here’s what the church is doing today that you never hear reported on in the modern media, but it’s literally making a difference. And finally she said, Jeremiah, you’ve got to write a book for the church. And it’s a heavyweight book. But at the same time, Warren, as you saw reading it, there’s no prerequisites needed.

I really want to guide the reader by the hand about how can we answer this question of what would happen if what the atheists, the secularists, the naturalists wish would happen, if just religion went away in general. But if we could especially get rid of these Christians, what would the world be like? Now, here’s one of those cool things that didn’t make it in the book, Warren. My wife and I and our five kids, including triplets—We have 2-year-old triplet boys—so please, everyone, pray for us. Life is just interesting and crazy all at the same time. We were evacuated during Hurricane Harvey. And of course the worst natural disaster in American history. And what was fascinating in the wake of 179,000 plus homes being destroyed, people’s lives uprooted. It was the Christians. It was the people of faith who invaded the city and who literally immediately mobilized, went into action, helping people in practical, measurable ways, tangible ways, saying, Hey, I love Jesus and I believe every single person is made in the image of God. We’re not going to let you suffer alone. We’re here to help. And Warren, I live in the most diverse county in America, Fort Bend County outside of Houston, Texas. And it was amazing to me because you have people from all over the world who live here who otherwise probably would never rub shoulders with Christians. But in the wake of this tragedy, we have believers coming in who were helping people muck out their homes and even providing lodging and residence. And here’s the point that people get very upset, certain people, when I say this: in my experience, I never saw an atheist tent anywhere. I never saw the agnostic tent. I never saw the free thinkers helping people whose lives were destroyed, and there’s a real worldview reason behind, that lay behind that. And so that didn’t make it in the book, but it was right as the book was being released that I saw in a very real sense, the positive aspect of God’s love for us is unimaginable even in the worst circumstances through his people.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, that anecdote did not make it into the book, as you said, because it happened since then, but that point did make it into the book. And I’d like to sort of expand on that a little bit, Jeremiah, if we could. Your book is divided into three sections: The world before Christianity, the world without Christianity—in other words, you know, since Christ there have been a lot of ideologies that have come along that have tried to sort of banish Christianity from the public square or from the the public imagination. Those, as we’ve already mentioned, they failed. And then, of course, the world with Christianity. But one of the things that you say about the world before Christianity was that there was no humanitarian aid in the ancient world. I guess I’d never really thought about that, but that’s true.

JOHNSTON: Well, you’re exactly right, Warren. And that’s what it was so fun to research this because I had to start somewhere and it just seemed logical for me when I read the book of Galatians and I see that Jesus, when he came, the Scripture says that he came in the fullness of time. Well, what does that exactly mean? And what did the world look like when Jesus came on the scene? What was it like for his incarnation? And when we begin to study that world, the point that you made in the earlier question, we actually can see it very factually what the world was like before Jesus, before the Christian movement. And we see very quickly, Warren, I can say this unequivocally as a historian, not through my eyes of faith, but through my historian eyes, the world was literally hell on earth. Poverty, sickness, premature death, domestic violence, economic injustice, slavery, political corruptions. These were the givens of life. And then you look at what was missing. There was no concept as you just said, of social justice, of charity. Now, I always say this because I have a lot of ongoing conversations with atheists. I’m not saying that no one in the ancient world was charitable, but there was nothing systemic, there was nothing ongoing. There was no worldview ethic before the Christian church that caused you to take care of people who are not of your own community or your culture who were hurting. And so these concepts obviously come out of equality, justice, mercy, educating people in that, protecting the weak and the marginalized. These things that we take today as amenities and societal givens. Today we have no idea that they find their, literally their footing, in the cut and thrust of the early Christian movement.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, you cite in detail and sometimes, I would have to say, troubling detail, some of the practices of the world before Christianity. Practices that, for example, involved… Well you cite, for example, a letter where a man says to his pregnant wife, writes to his pregnant wife, if it’s a boy, keep it, and if it’s a girl, throw it out.

JOHNSTON: Exactly, and again, I always actually show that letter. The letter you’re referencing is Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 744. It’s dated to the 1st century B.C., Warren. So just in the generation before Jesus is born. This is an otherwise educated man. He’s away working. His wife will give birth to their child before he returns and he’s giving her very clear instructions. You know, name it this if it’s a boy, but if it’s a girl, get rid of it. And nobody, here’s the point, nobody would have blinked an eye, Warren. If you and I were part of that Greco-Roman world, absent of Christianity, we would’ve just said, oh, well pass the salt. I probably would’ve had the same opinion as well. What changed this? And again, we do not realize because of our historical distance, because we don’t read the Bible so often in context, the game changer that Jesus was. I mean, I hope we can talk about women and when we look at what it was like for females, we see why the church attracted and grew so quickly.

Christianity’s closest competitor in the generations after the resurrection was the cult of Mithra, which was very popular in the Roman legions. But it was a male-only cult. Christianity, of course, was open to male and female. Christians begin influencing their neighbors to not practice infanticide, as the point you just raised. So it begins to just grow through demographics. But then also we see that women begin to take on equal roles in the early Christian movement. And I say at all the women’s conferences that I have the opportunity to teach at, I don’t believe for a second the church would exist today without women. I just don’t believe it. We see so much. There’s been such a gap of male leadership, unfortunately, so many moms are the ones who take their kids to church anymore. And we see that reflected honestly through the historical life of the church. And when Paul comes on the scene, Warren, here’s the point, and he writes, Galatians 3:28, that in Jesus Christ, there’s neither Jew nor gentile, there is neither slave nor free, there’s neither male nor female, we’re all one in Christ Jesus. That one verse, Warren, sent shockwaves. It was seditious to say those kinds of things in the Roman empire of Paul’s day,

SMITH: One of the other, I guess you could say, myths that you bust in this book, Jeremiah, is the idea that, you know, if God didn’t exist that humans would make him. And that monotheism, if you will, sprang up from a world in which there was polytheism and monotheism just became, in some ways, a power play or a political struggle. You say that in fact, that’s not the way that our belief in God evolved.

JOHNSTON: Absolutely. In fact, I actually cited this originally in my academic monograph. It’s a lot of fun to say, there’s a temple called Gobelki Tepe in modern day Turkey. It dates to about 10,000 B.C. And what’s impressed historians and archaeologists who’ve looked into this is they see that there is no evidence that this temple sprang up as a byproduct of civilization. In fact, the reverse is true. The building of the temple is what drew people together and then in effect sparked civilization. People came together believing in God and that brought communities together. So belief in God or gods, I should say, preceded the building of these temples which then gave rise to civilizations and even cities, if you could call it that, which gave us literally civilization as we know it. So the building of the temple took human society to a new level and in fact created what we now know today as ancient civilization. So that was interesting that religion is not this byproduct of primitive society. Rather religion gave birth to civilization and brought people together.

SMITH: So Jeremiah, you make a compelling case for just how dark the world was before Christianity. And then of course, Jesus came into the world and we had Christianity and, you know, there was light going forth, I guess you could say, from those early days of the church. But even then, even since, you know, Jesus’ day, there have been religions and ideologies that have come along to, if you will, war against Christianity. One of them being Islam of course. And you mentioned Turkey, where a lot of the early action of the Christian church took place. And yet if you go to Turkey today, it’s kind of a dark place.

JOHNSTON: You know, it is. It’s interesting for those of you that have been in these places, and I’m sure you have too as well, Warren, where you get outside of the United States, you get outside of the Christian world or what Winston Churchill called Christian civilization. You go to places like Cuba or even Turkey and you see that you’re not going to find a cross driving down the highway. Now again, I’m not saying there are no Christians there, but Christianity has been marginalized to such a extent that you literally do not see any of the vestiges of Christianity anymore. Or you see what Islam did, especially in the 8th, 7th and 8th, really in the 8th century, when literally a mass murder was committed against the early Christian movement in Turkey. Where Christian monuments, Christian houses of worship are literally replaced, edifices defaced, and then Islam moves in.

I mean, Warren, I found myself where the whirling dervishes are in Konya, Iconium as it’s known in the book of Acts. And I walk up to a mosque and of course Islam, just like Christianity, has their own, artifacts, if you will, if you can call it that. There are women who are literally weeping in front of what we’re led to believe is the beard hair from Muhammad. People are reaching up and they’re holding onto the glass. That’s almost magical, you know, they hold up sick babies to it. And I’m just seeing how people are pouring over this. And again, my heart was burdened knowing that long before Islam, Christianity was really what used the place of Turkey to take over the entire Roman empire, spreading of course through Asia Minor in Paul’s missionary journeys. It is sobering to think about that.

SMITH: Well, Islam is not the only post-Christian ideology, or I should say ideology that has sprung up since Christianity, that is competing, I guess you could say for the hearts and minds of people today. We can fast forward to the, you know, 18th and 19th century and we run into folks like Charles Darwin and Karl Marx and Frederick Nietzsche, maybe Sigmund Freud. These are also all people that have tried to create alternative worldviews to Christianity. And once again, we discover that the world, the consequences of their ideas are much, much worse than Christianity.

JOHNSTON: You’re absolutely right. And Warren, this was the, I think, the most difficult part of my book, Unimaginable, to write because I wanted to read firsthand the works of Mein Kampf and other terrible works, The Communist Manifesto, the writings of Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, the fab five as I call them, beginning with Ludovic Feuerbach. Feuerbach of course is famous, people use the quote all the time—reporters do, otherwise—and they don’t realize it was Feuerbach who originated it, saying that God did not make man in his image, man made God in their image. So God is this figmentation made in the really in the image of man and not the converse. And so when we look at that world, we can actually study it. And when you think about, and you were alluding to this, in the last 68 years, we can actually study countries, societies, political regimes, where more than one half of the world’s population turned its back on God. In the last 70 years we can study what is the legacy of those countries in those communities and those belief systems. And there’s, I can make it very clear. Classical racism existed before Christianity and I had the time to get into this in the book. Plato, Aristotle, these were deeply racist individuals. We actually talk about the emergence of racism in classical antiquity. And then all of a sudden, Warren, it’s fascinating because in the 4th century, racism begins to recede. And for a thousand years there’s not a single thinker, and I don’t mean just in the Christian world, I mean anywhere, who espouses racist ideology. But when is racism taken up again? It’s taken up in exactly the time period you just mentioned, the 18th and 19th centuries where we have this atheist philosophy that provides the ethical framework for mass murder, in my opinion. And we see people like Hitler and the Nazis, these atheist regimes who appear completely to love violence, they love murder, they love imprisoning people, torturing people. And what do we see of Hitler? He drank deeply from the well of Nietzsche. I mean, remember it was Hitler presented Stalin and Mussolini with writings of Nietzsche.

And we see that these… And, again, what does that tell us, Warren? It’s why what you do is so important. It’s why this broadcast is so important. Ideas matter. I mean what we’re discussing and teaching in universities, what is being talked about in the marketplace today. These things are very important. They can be powerful. And so what do we see in the “enlightenment?” We see these atheists thinkers from the enlightenment. They take up these racist themes again, based in, of course, a framework of ethical, what they call scientism. So there’s actually a scientific framework for mass murder now and for racism. Things that now atheists are embarrassed about, like polygenesis and whatnot, and we see that then all of a sudden people like Hitler and others, Stalin, Mao Zedong put the mass murderer in fill in the blank. They actually feel justified in licensed to do this based on their damaging philosophical and scientific beliefs. That’s why this is so important. This conversation that we’re having today.

SMITH: (20:01) Yeah. Well, I don’t want to go down too much of a side trail with this, Jeremiah, but I can’t resist pointing out that you cite a book that I have found very helpful. And that’s James Spiegel’s book, The Making of an Atheist. And it’s a book that doesn’t get cited very much. So whenever I saw that you had mentioned it in your book, I took special note. One of the things that you say is that a lot of these people that we’ve mentioned that have propagated these anti-Christian ideologies: Marx and Hegel and others, they often are trying to deal with brokenness in their own lives of some kind or another. That these ideas or ideologies even will spring out of sexual immorality in their own lives, or in the lives of people close to them, that causes great disillusionment. Maybe a broken relationship with a father. Can you say a little more about that?

JOHNSTON: Absolutely. And again, it’s original to Spiegel’s work, The Making of an Atheist. And then there’s also some other interesting works out there: Faith of the Fatherless by Vitz. And just, again, reading this information coupled with my own experience in ministry and in scholarship, there’s two points that they draw out that I think are fascinating. When you look at these atheists, and again, we get into it in the book, I mean Christopher Hitchens’ parents, mom died in a murder-suicide. Dawkins was abused by an Anglican priest. I’m talking about the new atheists now. Most of these prominent new atheists have terribly broken relationships with their fathers. Now, every one of you listening to me, just think about that for a moment. It starts in the family, doesn’t it? Most if not all, as Spiegel, I think persuasively points out, broken relationships with the father and/or they wanted a theoretical framework, a philosophical worldview, an atheistic, man-centered, you know, get God out of my life because then it would validate their sexual deviancy, their sexual behavior. And so I found that to just be, number one, it broke my heart. And that’s why I think I titled that chapter, “Atheism and the Broken Soul.” These are broken people, Warren, they need our prayers. They don’t need an argument that’s going to bulldoze them. They need to see that there is a better way. There is a redemptive way that Jesus Christ points us to. And again, we can’t lose sight of the fact that many of these people that have questions and they were quashed in their religious upbringings. Don’t ask, just believe. And that’s why we’re called, that’s why the passion of my life is to see Christians become thinkers, to love God with our heart, soul, and mind according to Matthew 22:37. Jesus said this was after all the greatest commandment. And so when we become sensitive to these people who are hurting individuals, and I mean Warren, I know you’ve seen this as well. I have relationships with individuals who are atheist today, or at least agnostic leaning toward atheism and so many of them they have hurt in their life. They have these emotional, not necessarily intellectual doubts, but emotional experiences that have led them away from a faith in a god they can’t believe in.

SMITH: Well, that’s right. And I think that’s why I found that section of your book, Jeremiah, to be so powerful because I think there is, again, it’s not true, but a myth that you know, that it takes this great faith to be a Christian whereas, you know, the people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and others, especially the new, the so-called new atheist movement, they’re the rationalists. They’re the ones that have really thought deeply about this, thought this through and arrived at the conclusion that there can’t possibly be a god. But you’ve reversed that myth in many ways. What you have done in this book, which I thought this chapter in particular made that contrast really come alive, is that it’s the thinking person that really ends up towards Christianity. And that it is often some emotional response that turns someone towards skepticism, agnosticism, or even atheism.

JOHNSTON: You’re exactly right, Warren, and I think that the, again, what do I want the takeaways of this book to be? I want it to be, yes, there’s no question that Jesus Christ, the world would be unimaginable without the Christian movement. But number two, there are ways in which we can reach out to our friends and our neighbors who are agnostic, who are atheists. And the way to do it is understanding the way that they’re thinking and they are not gonna… I mean, I had the opportunity to do my PhD in the United Kingdom, Warren. I mean, I went to Faculty of Theology at Keeble College when we lived in Oxford. And it was the first time I truly looked around the room, 15 people reading from their Greek New Testaments, and I would walk home to Summertown where we lived and I would tell Audrey, I mean I might be one of two who actually believe what we’re reading.

I mean the man who I defended my thesis to, really respected Biblical scholar, doesn’t believe in the supernatural, doesn’t believe in the resurrection, and began my defense, my doctoral defense telling me he does not believe in the resurrection. It’s imaginative storytelling. And you know, I just respectfully of course had to verbally disagree with him. He later passed me in my defense, but it’s out there and as Christian thinkers, listen, we have to be equipped. We have to know how to think. We have to think deeply about these things. And this is where I’m so passionate and why I think I so resonate with the work that you’re doing, Warren. I mean we go to Google instead of God’s Word anymore. We do not know the Scriptures as Christians. We’re a Biblically illiterate generation. And we have things, even many of the sermons we hear today are so weak and they do not reflect the evidential goldmine that we have in the Christian movement today. We’re living in the golden era of Christianity right now. There is more extra biblical confirmation. There is more truth on our side. The scales of truth tip in our favor. And so, you know, my passion in this book is to point out the flaws of a world without God, but then hopefully to equip people. Here’s the message that resonated then and here’s the message that still resonates today.

SMITH: Jeremiah, the first part of your book, as I said, and the first part of our conversation has been looking at the world before Christianity. We don’t have to guess about what that was like. We’ve got historical evidence. You laid that out. It was a pretty dark, pretty hopeless place in many ways. And then, of course, after Christ we see, again, the world without Christianity doesn’t want to die. That it has its advocates, and the consequences of those bad ideas produce not just millions, not tens of millions but hundreds of millions of victims through the ages. So let’s move to the third part of this. And we’ve already mentioned a couple of things, but the world with Christianity. What are some of the good gifts that Christianity has brought to the world? You’ve already mentioned, at least touched on women’s rights and an end to slavery and some other things. But can you say more about those two? And also what are some of the other things that we can thank Christianity for?

JOHNSTON: Yes. And I think I can share a very brief story that’s emblematic. I closed the entire book with it because we can actually measure the good. We often talk about the evil, but why does anything good even exist? I mean, why is it that certain people can have unimaginable hurt and my heart goes out right now to so many who are listening to this broadcast who perhaps have had an unimaginable experience in their own life, in their marriage. Maybe they’ve lost someone very dear to them recently. What is the x factor in that situation, in that hopeless situation? I was speaking in Santa Cruz, California. A woman walked up to me, Warren, and I know you meet people. You’re so good about that. All the places you speak, and she said, Jeremiah, can I share my unimaginable story with you?

Well, long story short, they lost their two daughters to a drunk driver. Their family was driving home from a Luis Palau evangelistic rally. They were literally serving there in the beach fest in Santa Cruz. The woman who hit their vehicle, again, all their seatbelts were, they were belted in. They weren’t speeding. The woman who hit them was drunk and high. She never stepped on the brake, just absolutely plowed into them. Their two daughters age 14 and age 16, dead on impact. The mom broke her pelvis. She couldn’t even stand up during the memorial. The father was concussed, and if any of you listening to this broadcast, if you’ve ever been concussed, you know that you have to be told things over and over again. You have short term memory loss. And the most cryptic part of the story when they’re standing there sharing it to me was the dad, Dan Wagner, telling me how he had to be told multiple times by his best friend that his daughters had been killed.

I mean, just imagine this, it’s unimaginable. How do you come back from something like this? You’ve lost all your children in a blink of an eye. Well, it didn’t happen overnight, but that wonderful church, Twin Lakes Church, came around Dan and Lynn, and they got with a qualified biblical counselor. And over a period of years the Holy Spirit began to speak to them that they need to forgive Lisa, the driver of the vehicle that killed their two daughters. Make again a really powerful story as brief as possible. They petitioned the judge, they got his approval. They met with Lisa on parole and they looked at her. They walked up to her and they said, through Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone, we love you. Through Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone, we forgive you. And we would like to ask you, Lisa, would you become our surrogate daughter. Now they go around the country now, they’re neighbors practically, and they talk about Lisa like she’s their daughter. And this is the woman who killed their two daughters when she was, before she was a Christian, when she was drunk and high. Now, I mean I can sit here and talk about all of the numbers and the academic reasons that Jesus and his movement has made a difference, but I find that so emblematic in the story of Dan and Lynn Wagner, that only Jesus Christ can make the difference when we have these unimaginable circumstances hit us.

I began part three of the book and it’s my favorite part because in chapter 12, I think I go through 10 or 12 ways the world would be dramatically different tomorrow if the church evaporated. Think, there are 350,000 religious congregations just in the United States. What would happen if they all just disappeared? Would the world get better? I think not. And I actually trace the ways in which we can see the church changing the world today, making a difference in society today. I mean, I’m passionate about it. In another book I discuss this Warren, but the number one question I’ve received, and I’ve received 10,000 at live events of questions that are texted to me, while I’m speaking, my number one question is suicide and mental health in the Christian life. How do Christians cope with the anxiety, the depression, and the suicidal ideation that is just rank in the church right now. And you know, it’s fascinating to me when you look at it, 90 million Americans live in federally recognized shortage areas where they don’t have a qualified counselor residentially near them. Well, what fills the void? All those pastors, all those Christian leaders in those communities that are essentially the surrogate psychologist and surrogate counselors helping in their communities.

So it’s encouraging to me. And remember the Scriptures tell us in that first messianic promise that the coming of Jesus would be a blessing to all generations. And we see in the Bible, 7,487 promises in God’s word from God to us. 7,487. I’m fascinated by that. There’s like two promises for every question in the Bible. So we have a faith that has been tested, yes, but we have a faith that is making a difference even while we’re sleeping in the world around us. And we need to celebrate that. We need to be articulate, we need to be informed so we can speak this and be bold to the anti-God movement, the secular movement around us who thinks that we’re just all in the way and society to be so much better without us.

(Photo/Jeremiah Johnston)

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