I recently arrived in Berlin with my wife. We're moving to what is, according to a recent study by the University of Chicago, perhaps the most thoroughly atheistic region in the world, and we have one-way tickets. We love Berlin, and yet as a Christian pastor a number of different fears about our new ministry here rush over me. In such times, I am unspeakably consoled by the idea that so many of the challenges which earlier Christians once feared have now been overcome, and by the idea that God is already today overcoming many of the things which I myself might fear about life in an atheistic metropolis.
Because the Christian faith has been practiced across so many centuries and cultures, Christians have had a wide variety of things to fear. I find it instructive to occasionally revisit those issues to put our own times into perspective, and to remind us of the hurdles which God has overcome for His name's sake. Consider the dizzying set of circumstances which even an abbreviated, Western-focused history of Christian fear has to report.
In the New Testament era the career-jeopardizing problem of eating idol meat (with work colleagues at pagan temples) arose, and deadly bouts of outright persecution, both from local communities and the government, were not uncommon. Add to this the dilemma that the apostles' teaching on how to handle such issues - and in fact the apostles themselves - were in many circles unwelcome.
Second and third century Christians witnessed the outbreak of slippery heresies like Gnosticism, which claimed secret knowledge and played into the ancient preference for oral transmission over textual transmission. Many wondered why Christ had not yet returned as He had promised. No sooner had the strongest periods of imperial persecution subsided than Christians had to cope with the potential pitfalls of the nationalization of the church in the 4th century. Then, once accustomed to that system, they had to fathom how it could survive the fall of Rome in the 5th.
As believers fled cities for the pagan countryside of Europe in the 5th and 6th centuries, they suddenly encountered whole regions in which animism still ruled the day. Those in northern Europe had to fear routine Viking raids, especially on monasteries, as the centuries after Rome's fall passed. Then at the close of the "Middle Ages" they faced the existential burden of losing their families, and in some cases their whole villages, to plague, a burden interpreted by many as God's great judgment on them.
The papal schism in the 14th century gave many a cause to fear, as did the 16th century Reformation, its endless wars, and (depending on one's perspective on its debates) either the threat of great heresy or the threat of great persecution, which came along with it. In the midst of all this, Islamic armies began pounding the gates of western Christendom, and soon thereafter 17th century Enlightenment forces began doing the same thing to the faith of Europe's elites.
The subversive nature of deism must have horrified many Christian leaders in the 18th century, and clergy undoubtedly lost many nights of sleep while trying to decide how the church should respond to the waves of bloody revolution sweeping across the entire western world at the time. The rise of higher criticism and the advent of scientism signaled a new era in Christian apologetics. And the prospect of a victorious racist Christianity in the American South in the 19th century must have constituted an equally overwhelming challenge to the faithful.
It must have been difficult to hold on to hope when the civilized world was hanging in the balance in the second World War, and the world itself hanging in the balance in the first World War, during the 20th century. There seemed to be a legitimate cause for concern when communism began its global spread, and when the attack on the nuclear family began in the 60s. And many great men and women of the 21st century now rightfully worry about the legal stronghold being exerted, albeit in the name of liberty, against those who would dare to speak out against the purveyors of any number of sexual deviances.
Some might wonder what value such a history has. But I would argue that Christ's faithfulness to His promises, and the fact that the Church is flourishing in so many places in the 21st century, cannot be truly appreciated without considering the fatal blow which so many of the aforementioned challenges should have dealt us. The Church should be gone. Christian teaching should have been invalidated. And Christ himself should be dead. But still we receive salvation from the God of all these unlikely circumstances.
Christianity is not alone in surviving difficult times. Many social movements could claim heroic feats of persistence. But note the difference: a seeming failure lies at the very heart of Christianity. It is, in fact, something that God foreordained before the foundation of the world. And I would argue that the centrality of the seeming failure of the Messiah on Golgotha, and the extremely unexpected return of the Messiah on the third day, mean that the unlikely has a unique place in our message. The most important story in all of Scripture is, after all, a story of victory being drawn out of the jaws of death.
Sitting in one of the tourist traps which used to be called churches here in Berlin, I realize that, in so much of Christian life and ministry, we confront tasks which are unlikely to succeed. But our hope in times of fear must be that the salvation of the world was born out of a mission in Jesus Christ which seemed unlikely to succeed as well. It was a mission which, were it not for the hand of God, would have failed. And that same hand, which reaches into the jaws of defeat time and time again for His name's sake, must be our hope as we face the world's hardest circumstances. He will succeed again.