THE TERM “SCORCHED-EARTH” is used to describe a military policy in which all houses, crops, factories, utilities, etc., in an area are destroyed so that an enemy cannot use them. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a recent example of this tactic. The United States literally “scorched” the earth during the Vietnam War. The Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War featured a scorched earth strategy—destroying food supplies to hinder the movement and success of the invading forces. The most prevalent application of scorched-earth policy is military in nature; however, this same “destroy everything” policy is being increasingly used in cultural, political, and religious arenas today.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, America was reeling on multiple fronts. While experiencing a collective wave of bereavement, Americans struggled to understand a phenomenon that they had been uniquely shielded from—that of holy war or jihad. After 9/11, Victor J. Stenger said, “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.” To the modern mind, there is a pathological connection between religion and warfare. In fact, the “post-9/11 world” we live in has become increasingly intolerant of religion. Atheists and other detractors of “religion” infuse their rhetoric with the claim that throughout history it has been customary to invoke God (or “gods”) to legitimize warfare. Demonizing the enemy was a defensive reaction in the aftermath of 9/11, but taking an “us versus them” posture tends to further such conflicts and stamp out any hope of constructive dialog.
A Necessary Adjustment
Ed Stetzer writes, “…the seeker movement, where Christians are told to find their neighbors and bring them to a church geared toward loving the unchurched, taught many people that evangelism means inviting people to church. Here’s the problem: we’re in an anti-church and anti-pastor age. Many of us pastors want to equip our churches to share the gospel with our neighbors, but people are unsure of how to go about sharing the gospel, or if it’s really needed.”(1) As believers, we need to approach everyday life with a Christ-sharing, missional outlook, building relationships with people in order to facilitate conversations about the gospel. After all, Jesus did not come to earth to hold training sessions on how to run up and down the block shouting about sin and salvation. Rather, He dwelt among and taught His disciples how to live in “the way” of Christ, then sent them into the world to do the same with others. Nor did He focus on showcasing the depravity of mankind. Instead, He embraced the dregs and rejects of society, and offered Himself wherever He went.
We cannot hope to share Jesus Christ with those whom we despise.
Stetzer says, “As we enter into a new season of engaging culture, outreach may be less about inviting people to church, and more by loving our neighbors and building relationships to show them the gospel.”(2) The key to sharing Jesus in a post-Christian culture is conversation. Recently, Pastor Brandon Mestach (at my home church) delivered a critical message that served as a capstone to his “Open Door” series. He said, “Don’t cause the ears of culture to shut us down,” adding, “Listening is louder than speaking.” J.P. Moreland, in his forward to Paul Gould’s book Cultural Apologetics, said, “…we are living in a crazy, morally and spiritually chaotic culture that is slouching towards a deeply secular, morally and spiritually bankrupt [world].”(3)
Cultural apologetics is the work of establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying.
In his book Foolishness to the Greeks, Lesslie Newbigin asks, “What would be involved in a missionary encounter between the gospel and this whole way of perceiving, thinking, and living that we call ‘modern Western culture?'”(4) This is the key question to ask in post-Christian society. Today’s missionary encounter must involve dialog—getting at the collective mindset, imagination, and conscience of culture in a way that fosters genuine discussion. Begin with the question, What do you make of this man called Jesus Christ? Using “man” in your question brings the conversation down to a personal level, opening the door for talking about Jesus as fully man and fully God. Gould says, “The cultural apologist affirms man’s rational nature, but situates it within a more comprehensive account of what it means to be human.”(5) Because cultural apologetics seeks to demonstrate the truth of Christianity and its desirability, believers must live “faithfully present within” culture.
One of the best attractions to Christianity is other Christians. Unfortunately, one of the worst distractions to Christianity is other Christians.
Defending the Faith
The term “apologetics” comes from the Greek word apologia, which means “to make a defense.” The apologist uses reason and evidence to present a rational and desirable defense for the Christian faith. Peter said, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15, NIV). Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you’re living the way you are, but do so with abject respect and humility. Jesus is the greatest teacher to ever walk the earth. Amazingly, Jesus is also the greatest apologist who ever lived. He was constantly being called upon to defend His claims that He was the Messiah, the Son of God. He presented Himself through “many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3), including prophesy, eyewitnesses, Scripture, miracles, and reasoning. Ultimately, He rose from the dead and stood among many witnesses before His ascension.
Worldviews are often shared perspectives of life that become part of the culture. A particular worldview thus pervades a culture and is passed on to succeeding generations as a “social inheritance.”(6)
Society in general gives little thought about ultimate questions in life: origin, purpose, morality, and destiny. “Worldview” is the term used to describe the framework of our most basic beliefs that shapes our view of and for the world and is the basis of our decisions and actions. Christianity teaches absolute (universal) moral truth, as comprehensively defined by the Bible; that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; that salvation is a gift from God which cannot be earned; and, that the Bible is accurate in its teachings. However, the world today is characterized by rejection of moral absolutes, a deep religious skepticism, and an indifference or outright denial of objective truth. Harry Blamires writes, “…there is a Christian ethic, a Christian practice, and a Christian spirituality, but that consistent thinking on the par of Christians does not exist. The fragmentation of American culture has found its way into the very heart of American Christianity.”(7)
The Great Commission
Jesus appeared to the disciples in the mountains outside Galilee after His resurrection: “And when they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Matt. 28:17-20). Jesus said all authority is His, and He has given it to the Body of Christ. Therefore, the church is an institution of God’s authority on earth. Jesus instructs us to go forth with the same authority—teaching, discipling, and baptizing others throughout the entire world until the end of “the age,” which began at the Great Commission and continues until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
The phrase “…baptizing them in the name of…” is best interpreted as “into the name of.” Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). This suggests bringing others “into the fold.” The Amplified Bible says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations [help the people to learn of Me, believe in Me, and obey My words], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” A footnote in the ESV Study Bible says the imperative of Matthew 28:19 is to make disciples, that is, call individuals to commit to Jesus as Master and Lord. This is the central focus of the Great Commission. The Greek participles translated “go,” “baptizing,” and “teaching’ in verse 20 reveal the intended scope—all nations.
D.A. Carson notes four key factors addressed in Matthew’s evangelical message: (i) the period of revelation of Jesus; (ii) the inauguration of Jesus’ coming and ministry; (iii) the period beginning with the exaltation of Jesus among all nations for all time; and (iv) the consummation and beyond.(8) The consummation concludes with establishment of God’s kingdom—His “eternal purpose.” Matthew’s Gospel describes the extent to which the kingdom had already been inaugurated and the extent to which it is yet to come. Carson further notes how “the closing periscope” of Matthew 28:16-20 is fully intended to be the climax toward which all of Matthew moves.
Jesus did not foresee a time when any part of His teachings would be considered outmoded, no longer applicable, or without power. The very proclamation of the gospel is the impetus for repentance and faith. Discipleship will always involve baptism and instruction, which strongly suggests coming into relationship with and coming under the lordship of Jesus Christ—His “authority” if you prefer. By handing down everything Jesus taught, the first disciples (the very eyewitnesses of the life and teachings of Jesus) call on new generations (earwitnesses) to pass on the story of redemption. Matthew refers to Jesus as Immanuel, “God with us,” in 1:23, and He is still God with us to the very end of the age. The Greek word used in Matthew 28:20 for always means “the whole of every day,” and is not found anywhere else in the New Testament. The Great Commission remains in effect for the whole of everyday until the day of Christ’s triumphant return.
Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.
(1) Ed Stetzer, “3 Present-Day Evangelism Challenges We Must Overcome.” Outreach Magazine, Mar. 17, 2020, accessed Nov. 6, 2022, https://outreachmagazine.com/features/evangelism/52975-3-present-day-evangelism-challenges-we-must-overcome.html
(3) J.P. Moreland, in Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 2019.
(4) Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 1.
(5) Paul M. Gould, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 22.
(6) Ralph Linton, The Study of Man: An Introduction (New York, NY: Appleton-Century Publishing, 1936), 76.
(7) Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind: How Should a Christian Think? (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1978), 3.
(8) D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 56.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references contains herein are from the English Standard Version (ESV).