Though the heavens fall

Two years ago during a trip to Israel I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. If you have been either to Yad Vashem or the similar museum in Washington, D.C., you know what a memorable—haunting may be more precise—experience it is. I took a walk through the poignant and unforgettable Hall of Children, where a voice intones name after name of the youngsters whose lives were cut short during this madness. I saw the starkness of the engraved stones commemorating all the Jews who were gassed in Dachau, Treblinka, Sobibor, Auschwitz, and the other houses of horror that Hitler and his henchmen constructed.

If there was one positive note during my otherwise sad, reflective tour, it was my walk down the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles. This walkway is surrounded by trees planted in honor of non-Jews who worked to rescue Jews from the jaws of death, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. Person after person is memorialized by a tree and a plaque. One person is John Weidner, the Seventh-day Adventist pastor who almost lost his own life as the head of the Dutch-Paris underground and whose sister did die in Nazi hands.1

Would I take the risk?

As I reflect on Yad Vashem, I wonder: Do I have the moral courage of a John Weidner? Other situations besides the Holocaust also prompt this type of question. Would I wade into an angry mob and rescue someone of another ethnic group as was done in the Los Angeles riots a few years ago? Would I forget about my own safety to rescue person after person, even while I slipped to my death beneath the icy waters of the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. as a brave individual did after that doomed Air Florida flight a few years back? Would I refuse to run in my best event in the Olympics if it were scheduled on my day of worship, apparently forfeiting my best opportunity for a gold medal, as did Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire? In sum, are my actions based on principle rather than expediency? Am I willing to, in the words of Ellen White, “stand for the right though the heavens fall”2?

Notwithstanding our profound desire to display moral courage, to make decisions based on principle, it is not always easy to live this way in modern society. In fact, it is about as difficult as the arduous task of climbing Mt. Everest. It is usually easier to sit down when the going gets rough than to stand for the right though the heavens fall. Why? There are various reasons, but one is surely the temptation posed by the mindset and the values of post-modernism. That mindset involves the way of thinking and valuing regularly promoted by the media and thought and entertainment leaders, a mindset that is inimical to spiritual commitment and moral development. A number of trends in contemporary society seek to entice Christians away from how we should think and live. These trends present us with some of our greatest challenges in scaling our Everest and standing for the right.

The trend of secularism

Just what are these trends? We must identify them accurately, just as doctors must diagnose their patients correctly to provide the proper treatment. The first trend is secularism. In some respects, secularism is the popular religion of our age. The Russian Nobel laureate Solzhenitsyn put it this way, “If I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the twentieth century, here too I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: ‘Men have forgotten God.’”

As Phillip Johnson and others have capably documented, philosophical naturalism, with its concomitant materialist ideology, dominates the leading institutions of modern society.3 This philosophy precludes the supernatural and therefore denies the reality of a transcendent creator God. Naturalism is a fundamentalist religion in its own right, for it is a closed system, and its adherents have a tendency to denigrate and demean anyone who questions the established orthodoxy.

The crown jewel plundered by those committed to this religion of secularism is the educational system. It happened so gradually that one has to look at the vestiges of the past to be reminded of what once was. For example, it is hard to fathom that at the center of the campus of Duke University, famous today for its basketball championships, there is a plaque that reads, “The Aims of Duke University are to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” That was what Duke stood for at one time. Now, any assertion that Duke is a Christian university would be met with either a firestorm of protest—or howls of laughter. Duke thus joins Harvard, Yale, and many other prestigious educational institutions that have traveled down this one-way street—one way because no universities are going in the other direction from unbelief to faith. Schools have taken the primrose path downhill, journeying, as the title of church historian George Marsden’s recent book puts it: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief.4

Let us not delude ourselves that Christians, Adventists included, are unaffected by the religion of secularism. Because the secularistic viewpoint permeates contemporary society, and especially academia, we sometimes find ourselves struggling over whether to believe in a personal God, the validity of prayer, or the reality of the Bible as God’s revelation to humanity.

The trend of moral relativism

Another trend that permeates contemporary society is moral relativism, or what Robert Simon calls “absolutophobia,” that is, the fear, denial, or denigration of moral absolutes.5 Simon’s article and a companion piece in the same recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, both published under the heading, “Suspending Moral Judgment: Students Who Refuse to Condemn the Unthinkable,” underscore this unwillingness to make moral judgments that is prevalent in contemporary society. In the companion article, Kay Haugaard, who teaches at Pasadena City College, recounts a recent experience in her creative writing class.6 The students were required to read Shirley Jackson’s short fictional story titled “The Lottery” that describes an annual ritual in an American country village. The ritual is a grisly one, for the lottery selects a candidate for the yearly human sacrifice. This macabre ritual is seen as ensuring a good harvest. Any villager who questions the ritual is quickly hushed. In the story, a woman named Tess Hutchinson is the hapless victim. When her husband draws the unlucky ticket from a black box, she is set upon and stoned to death by the people of her village, including her own four-year-old son.

According to Professor Haugaard, classes in previous years had always gained the insights and lessons the author intended in this fictional story. They had typically pointed out the dangers inherent in an unthinking approach to rituals and habits, without carefully examining their rationale. Also, students had regularly recognized the power of public pressure and the peril of succumbing to it. The story had never failed to speak to their sense of right and wrong.

But this time, the discussion about the story veered in a different direction. One student commented, “Well, I teach a course for our hospital personnel in multicultural understanding, and if it is a part of a person’s culture, we are taught not to judge, if it has worked for them” and so forth. Another student suggested that perhaps human sacrifice was not to be condemned if it was a ritual that was part of a religion of long standing. Professor Haugaard wrote, “I was stunned: This was the woman who wrote so passionately of saving the whales, of concern for the rain forests, of her rescue and tender care of a stray dog.”7

Haugaard concludes her article by saying, “I gave up. No one in the whole class of more than 20 ostensibly intelligent individuals would go out on a limb and take a stand against human sacrifice.…I was shaken, and I thought that the author, whose story had shocked so many, would have been shaken as well. The class finally ended. It was a warm night when I walked to my car after class that evening, but I felt shivery, chilled to the bone.”8

Chilled to the bone is right, since, according to survey results published in The Day America Told the Truth, for $10 million, 23 percent of respondents said they would be willing to be a prostitute for a week, 16 percent said they would leave their spouses, and 7 percent said they would kill a stranger.9 Chilled to the bone is right when one-third of the respondents to the 1997 Barna Research Group survey said that viewing pornographic material is a matter of taste, not of morality. Sadly, 84 percent of the respondents in the same survey claimed to embrace the Christian faith.10

Of course, there is an obvious link between the challenge of moral relativism and the previous one of secularism. The religion of secularism with its denial of a transcendent God has eliminated the basis for ethics, leaving humans, as my friend William Johnsson argued in a recent Adventist Review editorial, “Awash in a Sea of Relativism.”11 Yes, secularism has cut society loose from its moorings and left us drifting at sea with no moral compass. Dostoevsky got it right when he said, “If we don’t believe in God, anything is permissible.”

The trend of inconsistent living

Yet a third trend is the prevalence of bifurcated or inconsistent living. Many people live dichotomous lives, sometimes flaunt the profound contradictions between their beliefs, even publicly held ones, and their behavior, between doctrines and deeds. Examples abound. A common and easy target is the TV preachers who claim to be followers of the simple Jesus while they line their pockets and feather their nests with contributions that their tears have wheedled out of their viewers. There is the columnist who strongly urged gun control in his widely distributed column, only to be caught with an unregistered handgun when he took target practice at some intruders. I think of an acquaintance, who has often spoken out against illegal immigration, though he himself engaged in a sham marriage to help a woman become a citizen because it earned him a tidy sum of money.

These trends have infiltrated and infected the Christian church. As J. I. Packer once stated, “People say they believe in God, but they have no idea who it is they believe in, or what difference believing in him may make.”12

We must recognize that we are not immune to these trends. We have breathed too deeply—and some of us have nearly succumbed to—the toxic vapors of secularism, relativism, and inconsistent living. As the child in the home of the smoker is adversely affected simply by the surrounding atmosphere, so all of us to a lesser or greater degree are influenced by the intellectual milieu that pervades the late-20th century. Only by the grace of God, only by being clothed in His armor (see Ephesians 6:11-17) can we resist these trends. And unless we do resist, it will be impossible for us to fulfill our divine calling to stand for the right though the heavens fall.

Standing for the right

A moving story provides an example of two university students resisting these trends and standing for the right. Perhaps you have seen the video titled The White Rose or read one of the many books about it. The White Rose was the name chosen by the group of German students who, inspired by their commitment to Christ and galvanized by the moral courage of one of their professors, decided to protest against the evils of Nazism.13

Hans and Sophie Scholl, a brother and a sister who were perhaps the most famous of these students, had not been particularly committed Christians during their childhood. But as they went off to school and met people like Carl Muth, a devout Christian and editor of a Nazi-banned journal, they began looking at Christianity in a new light. They started to explore the Christian worldview and to read great Christian books. The Spirit of God brought conviction to their hearts and on December 7, 1941 Hans wrote to a friend, “I’m thinking of you on this second Sunday of Advent, which I’m experiencing as a wholehearted Christian for the first time in my life.”

For her part, Sophie recorded in her diary, “I pray for a compassionate heart, for how else could I love?” She wrestled with the difficult questions that we all face at times, asking, “How is it possible that God is sovereign, that Christ is Lord, if there is so much injustice and pain?” But as time went on, the roots of both her and Hans’ religious faith grew deeper and stronger, acquiring greater intensity and firmer definition. As their older sister later described it, “The Christian Gospel became the criterion of their thoughts and actions.”

As Hans and Sophie continued their university studies, they began to feel that they were responsible for Germany. As Hans noted the evils pervading German society and the minimal resistance offered to it, he asked pointedly, “Where are the Christians?” More softly, Sophie wrote, “I want to share the suffering of these days. Sympathy becomes hollow if one feels no pain.”

The turning point came one evening when Hans was the only student invited to a social gathering in the home of one of the professors of the University of Munich. The conversation turned to the subject of politics. Since the group did not know one another well, it was a dangerous subject. Everyone agreed that German culture was decaying. One person suggested that the only way to cope with the Nazis was just to hang on, to tend to one’s cultural obligations and tasks as scholars, and to wait out the nightmare.

At that point Hans broke in with a caustic remark. “Why don’t we rent ourselves an island in the Aegean and offer courses on worldviews?” The atmosphere must have turned glacial after such an impertinent comment. But philosophy professor Kurt Huber was galvanized by this impertinence. He exclaimed, “Something must be done, and it must be done now!” Professor Huber began to help the students of the White Rose, and over the next two years they produced and distributed a number of leaflets highlighting the evils of the Nazi party.

But the inevitable happened. On Thursday, February 18, 1943, when Hans and Sophie took their latest pamphlet to the university campus for distribution, they were apprehended. And though they divulged no names, their arrest was quickly followed by that of other members of the White Rose. Professor Huber, who to the end was the only professor at the university to support openly the White Rose, was also arrested. At his trial preceding his execution, he stated, “My actions and my intentions will be justified in the inevitable course of history; such is my firm faith. I hope to God that the inner strength that will vindicate my deeds will in good time spring forth from my own people. I have done as I had to do on the prompting of an inner voice. I take the consequences upon myself in the way expressed in the beautiful words of Johann Gottlieb Fichte: ‘And thou shalt act as if on thee and on thy deed depended the fate of all Germany and thou alone must answer for it.’”

Hans and Sophie were also summarily tried and convicted, and they were beheaded on the evening of their trials. But they had stood up for right. Inspired by their commitment to Jesus Christ, influenced by a godly mentor and a courageous professor, they had made a statement in favor of truth. As Sophie had stated it simply, “Somebody, after all, had to make a start.”

Hans and Sophie were buried in Perlach Cemetery in south Munich. In the city of Munich, graffiti appeared on the walls. It read, “Their spirit lives.”

I wonder, Does their spirit live? Does it live in the hearts and minds of Seventh-day Adventist university students and professors? Are we willing to manifest the courage of our convictions and to show what it means to be a Christian in our age? Their spirit can live, it will live, if we accept the challenge to “stand for the right though the heavens fall,” if we will determine by the grace of God to resist the pernicious trends that pervade contemporary society and live the type of dedicated Christian lives that the world so desperately needs to see.

Greg A. King (Ph.D., Union Theological Seminary) is associate professor of biblical studies at Pacific Union College. His areas of interest include Old Testament studies and biblical ethics. His address: One Angwin Avenue; Angwin, California 94508; U.S.A. E-mail: gking@puc.edu

Notes and references:

  1. See Herbert Ford, Flee the Captor (Nashville, Tenn: Southern Publ. Assn., 1966), for a recounting of Weidner’s exciting experiences during World War II.
  2. Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1903), p. 57.
  3. See Phillip E. Johnson, Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Science, Law, and Education (Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity, 1995).
  4. George Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  5. Robert L. Simon, “The Paralysis of ‘Absolutophobia,’” The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 27, 1997), pp. B5-B6.
  6. Kay Haugaard, “A Result of Too Much Tolerance?” The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 27, 1997), pp B4-B5.
  7. Ibid., p. B5.
  8. Ibid.
  9. These and other disturbing survey results are reported in James Patterson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth (New York: Prentice Hall, 1991), p. 66.
  10. This and other distressing findings from the Barna Research Group are discussed in William G. Johnsson, “Awash in a Sea of Relativism,” Adventist Review, August 1997, p. 5.
  11. Ibid.
  12. J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity, 1973), p. 159.
  13. This retelling of the story of the White Rose, including the quotes, is largely taken from the account in Garber, The Fabric of Faithfulness, pp. 162-171. It also gleans from Anton Gill, An Honourable Defeat (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1994), pp. 183-195. The latter is available on-line at: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Holocaust/gill-white-rose.html