This podcast is for people who, for one reason or another, just can’t accept what they hear from most of Christianity and are looking for something different, a different way to look at Christianity. That’s what this podcast is all about.
You’re going to hear things that are quite a bit different from what you hear from most other Christian sources, and frankly, if you like what you hear from most other Christian sources, you won’t like what you hear here. But if you have an open mind and are ready and willing to consider something different, you’ve found the right place.
What we’re trying to do is make sense of things, make sense of why things are the way they are, why things work the way they work. That’s really what religion is all about, anyway. A lot of that is going to have to do with God—what part does God play in everything?
A lot of times, the things we hear from Christianity don’t make sense. When you really think about them, they just don’t add up. So what I’m trying to do here is present something that does make sense, something that helps make sense out of life.
Today, we’re going to consider a very basic belief, something that goes right to the heart of who God is, what God does, and what God is like. I like to give a lot of background, explain how specific beliefs developed, because I think it’s only by understanding how beliefs developed that we can see where things went wrong, and then see how we can have different beliefs.
If you listened to last week’s podcast, you’ll remember we talked about cancer. Some Christians believe that God either directly sends cancer on people—causes them to get cancer—or allows people to get cancer—God could prevent it but doesn’t. I reject both of those views. I start with Jesus, the things Jesus did and said in the Gospels, and when I do that, I just don’t see anything from Jesus that says God sends cancer or allows cancer or any sickness.
My belief is that God always fights against sickness. Sickness is never part of God’s plan, never what God wills for anyone. God never uses sickness. God never wants anyone to have cancer or any other kind of sickness. God always fights against it. Sometimes God’s power is strong enough to overcome it; sometimes not. But either way, God always fights against it, always tries to keep cancer, and all other sickness, away from us.
Those are two completely different ways of looking at it. God causes or allows cancer, or God always fights against it. Even though those two ways of looking at it are very different, they do share something in common. Both share the belief that God is doing something; God is involved in some way, God is doing something.
That is a belief known as theism. Theism is the belief that God is actively involved in the world; God does things in the world. Theism is the belief that God not only created the world—God is not only the source of the world—but God is actively involved in the world; God does things in the world.
For the first 1700 years or so of Christian history, that was the accepted belief in all of Christianity. Christians may not have agreed among themselves exactly what it is that God does in the world, but they did agree with the basic principle that God is active in the world; God does things in the world.
But, a little over 300 years ago, something happened in Western Europe, and a new belief arose—a belief called Deism. Deism is the belief that God does nothing in the world. Deism says God created the world and then withdrew. Since He made the world, God has had no dealings whatsoever with the world. God set up things to run automatically according to certain natural laws and then left. God put things on autopilot, in other words, letting things run on their own, according to the natural laws He set up at the beginning, and since then God has had no involvement with the world.
That was a belief that gained some popularity among certain classes of people in this country back in the 1700’s. It was the belief of many of what are called the Founding Fathers of this country, people who were influential in the early days of the United States. Men such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Adam Smith (not an American but known as the father of capitalism), Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin—all these men closely associated with the founding of this country or the principles on which it was founded were Deists.
How did this idea develop, that God is not involved in the world? It came out of what historians call the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, which is sometimes called The Age of Reason. The Scientific Revolution began around the year 1600 and lasted through the 1700’s. It was the beginning of what we know as modern science, the scientific view of the world. Influential figures associated with it include Copernicus, Isaac Newton, Descartes, and Galileo.
The Scientific Revolution led to what historians call The Enlightenment, or The Age of Reason. Sparked by the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment brought about a new way of understanding everything. The old ways of understanding how the world works were discarded, and a new “scientific” view of the world developed.
A lot of other things came out of The Enlightenment, such as the ideas of individual liberty, constitutional government, and capitalism, but for our purposes, the most important thing that came out of The Enlightenment was a complete change in the way nature was seen to work. Previously, the natural world was seen as governed by supernatural forces. God and various spiritual forces—various supernatural forces—governed nature. Superstition was a basic belief in regard to how nature works. Superstition is the belief that nature is governed by supernatural forces; basically, that there is a spiritual realm with spiritual forces which control the physical realm. That’s how people used to believe the natural world works—it’s controlled by various spiritual, supernatural forces.
But then, The Enlightenment came along and said the world is not governed by supernatural forces but is governed by natural laws that are applicable everywhere in nature. Science told us all that exists—everything that’s around us—obeys certain natural laws, the laws of physics, laws like gravity and magnetic attraction, and that we can understand the entire natural world, understand how everything works, just by understanding those natural laws.
The old idea of supernatural forces governing the world was outdated. The new understanding of the Enlightenment, which came from science, said the world is governed by natural laws. The whole of nature is like a machine which operates like clockwork, predictable, always obeying natural laws.
These ideas had an effect on religion. Religion of whatever stripe, whether Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, or whatever, had always said there is a spiritual realm—spiritual forces, spiritual beings—that act in the world; that what happens in the world is at least partially a result of these various spiritual forces acting in the world. But The Enlightenment understanding said that’s not true at all; there are no spiritual forces acting in the world; what happens in the world can be explained totally by natural laws. There are no spiritual forces. There is only nature, obeying natural laws. That was what came out of the Scientific Revolution and The Enlightenment.
But back then, in the 1600’s and 1700’s, what science said, and what all these Enlightenment philosophers said, didn’t affect most people. 90% of Americans lived on farms; there were no public schools; most children got their education from their parents. Most people knew little or nothing about what was going on in science and philosophy. It was only the upper classes, the educated few, who were exposed to those things. As these upper, educated classes became exposed to these ideas, they began changing their religious views.
For the most part, they were, at least nominally, Christians. They lived in what would be called a Christian society, they grew up being exposed to Christianity; Christianity was all around them. They believed in God. And they started trying to reconcile what they were hearing from science and these new ideas of The Enlightenment with belief in God. They weren’t led to reject a belief in God, but they felt that, given the new understandings that were coming about, maybe they needed to revise what they believed about God. How could they fit all these new understandings in with a belief in God?
It was in that context that Deism arose. Science said the world is not governed by spiritual forces—by gods—it’s governed by natural laws. And so Deism said God created the world, set up the natural laws, and then withdrew. God placed everything on autopilot to operate according to natural laws, and then had no more contact or interaction with the world. God just left things to run on their own.
Deism said God had played no role in anything since He originally made the world and set things up.
For the most part, Deists rejected organized Christianity as it then existed. They believed there was no need to pray to God, since God had nothing to do with the world. God was not going to intervene in the world to answer your prayers; God doesn’t do anything in the world, so there’s no use praying. Deists saw God only as the One who created everything and set up the natural laws.
As part of those natural laws, they believed God created a certain moral order, a certain ethical way to live, and that’s the way we should live. According to the Deists, all we should really be concerned about as far as God is concerned is that we should live according to the moral order God set up back in the beginning, when He created the world.
As far as Jesus is concerned, they didn’t see Jesus as being in any way a divine figure. After all, remember they believed that since God created the world, God had had nothing to do with the world. They believed Jesus was a great moral teacher who could clue us in to the moral/ethical principles God made the world to run by. They believed people should follow Jesus’ ethical teachings, but that’s all they saw about Jesus that was important. They rejected virtually all of the Bible except the ethical teachings of Jesus.
The Declaration of Independence is a great example of Deist beliefs. Remember, the Deists believed that God created the world to run according to certain laws of nature, and those laws of nature also include the ethical standards by which we should live.
So listen to this from the Declaration of Independence: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…”
Notice “the laws of nature,” “nature’s God.” Here it is: The belief that the world runs according to laws of nature set up by God at the beginning, and these include the ethical principles God originally set up.
And then it goes on: “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.”
Notice that it refers to God as “Creator” and the One who “endows” us with rights. This is a reflection of Deism—God brought things into being and set things up. God created the natural laws, which include ethical standards, and these ethical standards God set up at the beginning include rights that all people should have—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It goes on to say that it is government’s responsibility for assuring that the natural rights God created people to have are protected. It is government’s responsibility to see that the natural rights God “endowed” people with back when He originally made things are respected. That’s Deism—God set it all up; God made people to have these natural rights, but God didn’t stick around to be sure people had those rights. God withdrew and had nothing more to do with the world. It’s government’s responsibility to maintain the rights God originally set up.
That’s Deism—God does not act in the world. God does not intervene in the world. God does not concern Himself with the world at all. He just set it up and left, and things run the way God set them up to run.
These ideas were popular among the founders of this country, and as we’ve seen, they made their way into the founding documents of this country. But as we talked about earlier, these ideas were popular only among the educated elite. Most people were not exposed to them because most people had no education and lived relatively isolated lives on farms.
But there was one group of people who was aware of them—Protestant religious leaders, especially those in the newer evangelical groups like Baptists and Methodists. They saw ideas like this being held by the leaders of the United States, and they were horrified at the thought that these ideas would become popular among the general population. And so they pushed back; they went on the offensive against Deist beliefs.
That’s how what became known as the Second Great Awakening was born. The Second Great Awakening was a religious revival movement that swept the nation, beginning in the late 1700’s and lasting through the first half of the 1800’s. Protestant preachers took to the pulpits and the brush arbors, railing against the ideas of Deism. God did not create things and just withdraw, they said. God is active in the world; God does things in the world. There is a supernatural power at work in the world; you can feel it; feel it in your own heart. You can have the experience of God in your life. God’s not some distant deity that created the world and then turned His back on it; God’s here today, right here, in your heart. You can feel God in your heart; you can experience God in your life. That’s what the Second Great Awakening was all about.
It swept the nation, and millions and millions of Americans were converted to evangelical Christianity. Membership in Baptist and Methodist denominations soared. It seemed like the ideas of Deism had been swept away.
But they hadn’t.
In the late 1800’s, with the rise of literacy and public education in the United States, with industrialization and the move from the farm to the cities, it was no longer just the elite of society who were exposed to the ideas of science. Average people, the masses, became exposed to science. As a result, more and more people found themselves in the same position the elite had found themselves in back in the 1700’s—science had come up with all these new discoveries, and people needed some way to maintain a belief in God in the face of all that. How could you believe in God in the scientific age?
It started among the large urban churches of the northeast in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The ideas of Deism began to be revived. People could maintain a belief in God in the scientific age by saying that God is the One who brought it all into being, the One who set it all up and established everything, all the natural laws and stuff, but then God backed off and just let it run. People could believe what science said about the way things work, and they could believe in God as the One who set it all up. People could agree with science and say there are no supernatural powers operating in the world, just natural laws, but they could maintain a belief in God by saying that God was the One who set up all those natural laws and then withdrew and let it all run.
And so it was that Deism gradually came back in the first half of the 20th century. It started in the large, urban churches in the Northeast and from there gradually made its way throughout the mainline denominations. But it didn’t stop there. Today, Deist beliefs are found even among many Christians in conservative evangelical denominations.
Now of course, the label of “Deism” is not used today. That went away a long time ago; but, little by little, mainline Christianity incorporated Deist beliefs, to the point that today, the beliefs of much of mainline Christianity are, in essence, Deist beliefs, even though they’re not called by that name anymore. Even many conservative evangelical Christian denominations are rapidly moving in that direction, as they continue to modify their beliefs in an effort to attract young people who have a scientific view of the world.
Studies show that approximately 1/3 of Americans have beliefs about God that are technically “Deist,” although the label “Deist” itself is not used.
That’s Deism. It started here in the United States in the mid-1700’s, got swept away during the Second Great Awakening, but came back with a vengeance in the first half of the 20th century and now permeates much of mainline American Christianity.
So, if God does not do things in the world, if God is just the one who originally set everything up but then withdrew, why does God matter? Obviously, if God just set it all up and withdrew, God doesn’t want to matter to anyone. God doesn’t want to have anything to do with us.
That’s a horrible way to see things. God put us here in a cruel world where we have to face so many bad things, and then He just left.
Is that the way God really is?
I don’t think so. I don’t care if it makes Christianity fit in with science or not; I’m going to reject the Deist view, that God just withdrew and let things run on their own. I’m going to go with what I consider to be the real view of God—that God is doing things here, God is involved here, God is fighting for us all the time.
We’ve not been abandoned in a cruel world. God has seen the predicament we’re in, and He’s come to our rescue. It’s going to take God a long time to rescue us, but He will eventually accomplish it. God is fighting for us right now, and He’s going to win. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but He will in fact win.