Schaeffer explained that in the modern age, people had looked for answers to human problems by means of exercising human reason aside from God. That project had failed, giving way to postmodernism. Now the intellectual elite, including liberal theologians, scrambled around amid the wreckage of the postmodern rejection of all truth claims. As postmodern ideas filtered down to street level via entertainment and the media, it left humanity adrift in an ocean of unreason.
The inhabitants of Jerusalem consistently rejected the message of the prophet Jeremiah. They mocked him, insulted him, and plotted his death. He was put in stocks, imprisoned, and ultimately confined in a vile cistern. Yet always he longed for their salvation and wept over their doom (Jer. 9:1).
Schaeffer also wept. Daily, he and his wife, Edith, listened to the stories of young people whose lives seemingly had no purpose. Many of them found their way to the Schaeffer’s home high in the Swiss Alps. L’Abri (French for “shelter”) was a refuge for the victims of a culture that denied human beings meaning, dignity, and hope. Schaeffer felt their pain. By patient questioning and logical reasoning, he exposed the folly, futility, and inconsistency of a godless worldview. His message carried weight because he was not insulated from the heartbreak that lies bring in their wake. The stories of many who turned up at L’Abri bore witness to the reality that the evil one seeks only to steal, kill, and destroy. Schaeffer was not a detached academic. He grieved for people.
When asked what he had learned at L’Abri, Dr. Donald Drew simply said, “I’ve learned to cry.”
Schaeffer felt deep love and compassion for those deceived by Satan’s lies. But he felt intense anger toward false teachers who promoted deception. This emotional, spiritual, and intellectual energy found expression in twenty-two books. A recurring theme, found first in his early book He Is There and He Is Not Silent (1972), is that denial of the truth claims of the Bible leaves people with no certain ground for knowing anything, no basis for existence, and no firm foundation for ethics. The Christian message, grounded in spacetime history, is the only workable solution for the predicament of meaninglessness that logically leads to despair. He popularized his key ideas in two influential film series (Whatever Happened to the Human Race? and How Should We Then Live?). These had a galvanizing effect among evangelicals, pushing many out of their previous passivity regarding abortion and other ethical issues.
Half a century on from the publication of Schaeffer’s seminal books The God Who Is There and Escape from Reason (1968), our culture spins ever faster into irrationality. Schaeffer predicted that plunging below the “line of despair” would lead to social collapse just as surely as the Roman Empire collapsed amid decadence, self-indulgence, and immorality. Others (both Christian and non-Christian) sounded alarms as well. Philip Rieff warned in The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966) that a society released from all restraints would implode. Christopher Lasch argued in The Culture of Narcissism (1979) that no community can flourish where every individual focuses on “self-fulfillment” and where self-control is excoriated as repressive.
Now we look out on our city and see not only the collapse of any consensus on ethics and morality but also the weakening of any agreement on human identity itself. The fundamental binary of male and female is denied in the cause of “liberation.” Our natural bonds of humanity dissolve in the fragmentation of identity politics.
It feels as though we are standing in the ruins. Lament is right and proper. Our witness to God’s good design for humanity and our proclamation of the good news will be delivered with power only when we have first felt the tragedy of death in the city.
Do we weep at the millions of baby lives snuffed out before they see the light of day? Do we mourn the way our children are robbed of their innocence, exposed to sexual immorality by the dogmas of the sex education lobby? Do we grieve that family breakdown tears so many children away from one or both of their natural parents? Are we appalled that the truth of creation is regarded as so toxic that many forbid it to be taught in schools? Do we cry when we see physicians experimenting with the perfectly healthy bodies of young people in the name of a radical gender ideology which has no basis in science or reason? Are we horrified that so many around us are headed toward a lost eternity while “Christian” clergy insist that sin is not sin, that there will be no day of judgment, and that hell is a medieval myth?
Yet, the Word of God stands. King Jehoiakim cut up and burned Jeremiah’s prophecy. Where is that king now? He is forgotten, but God’s Word endures.
Sin is sin. There will be a day of judgment. Hell is real. Schaeffer insisted that we must preach “down” into the current generation, exposing the “lostness of the lost.” But we don’t stop there. We live in gospel days and we have good news to proclaim. Jeremiah was given a glorious vision of hope beyond the fall of Jerusalem, a vision pointing forward to the coming of the Savior who would come to seek and to save the lost:
In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: The Lord is our righteousness. (Jer. 23:6)
Schaeffer insisted that it is the godless worldview that leads to despair. God’s people may rightly lament. But we must never despair. Rather, we should pray and work for reformation and revival.
As we pray and as we work, we are to reflect that the more grotesque the enemies, the greater the glory of the One beneath whose feet all enemies will be subjected (1 Cor. 15:25–26). We are to remember that throughout human history, while mighty empires have collapsed, the kingdom of God has endured. The stone that struck them “became a great mountain and filled the whole earth” (Dan. 2:35). And we are to have confidence that the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isa. 11:9).
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on October 12, 2018.