Many Christians find it hard — or at least unnatural — to think like a Christian all the time, and most don’t really know what it means. Christians often see the world, humanity, and even God in ways that are fundamentally incompatible with Christian doctrine, and most of the time, they don’t even know it. In effect, they are following other religions.
“Contemporary Western society is awash in competing visions of ultimate reality. Christians who do not know any better often absorb beliefs about reality from worldviews completely alien to the Bible and in radical conflict with it,” warns Roger E. Olson in his new book The Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality Through the Biblical Story. Olson’s book explains what a Christian should believe about God, the world, and humanity, based on the Bible — and why at least six different popular worldviews are in conflict with the essentials of biblical Christianity.
Olson’s book explains that the God of the Bible is supernatural and personal, but not human. God is supernatural not in some occult sense, but simply “beyond nature,” and He is personal in the sense that He has “intelligence, thought, intentions, actions, and some degree of self-determination.” Interestingly, these two main features set biblical Christianity apart from nearly all other ways of approaching ultimate reality.
Here are six other common ways of seeing the world that Olson warns a Christian cannot accept without cognitive dissonance.
1. Naturalism, the worldview of atheism.
Many Christians think and act as if the material world is all there is, and many atheists argue that science proves as much. But there is a difference between methodological naturalism (ruling out the supernatural in order to study science) and metaphysical naturalism (denying the existence of any reality beyond atoms and energy).
As Olson argues, “if nature is all there is, then there can be no moral absolutes and life has no meaning.” Worse, if naturalism is true, “then all our ideas are products of forces in nature over which we have no real control (as all is ruled by natural laws). Our very thoughts are products of chemicals in the brain.” In fact, naturalism implies that “our beliefs, whatever they are, are controlled by nature, which is a closed system of mathematically describable laws and material-energy forces and phenomena.”
The very idea of truth, or even free will, becomes absurd. This means that even science becomes meaningless. Rather than a search for truth, it is a tactic for survival.
The denial of God is obviously incompatible with Christianity. Not only does the Bible begin and end with God, but it presents a God who created and sustained the universe, and who pursues a personal relationship with human beings. Nevertheless, many Christians operate their daily lives as if God did not exist.
Mani — what?! Manichaeism is a religious philosophy based on the idea that there are two ultimate realities — good and evil — and that spirit is good while matter is evil. Both of these ideas are incompatible with the Bible and both are common in popular culture and even many American churches.
Many Christians think as though God and Satan are “two equal powers,” Olson warns. But he quotes C.S. Lewis in pointing out that “if there are two ultimate, absolute powers—forces equal in being, power, and eternity—what makes one of them good and the other one evil?”
From a biblical Christian perspective, the answer is easy: “There is only one ultimate reality, Yahweh God, the personal, supernatural, and perfectly good maker of heaven and earth and all that is in them.” Satan is consistently portrayed as dependent upon God, and ultimately he will be vanquished.
As for spirit being good and matter bad, too many Christians think of Heaven as a purely spiritual place and minimize the resurrection of the dead — that human bodies, being made good by God, will be physically resurrected at the end of time, just as Jesus’ body was resurrected on Easter. This strain of thought demonizes sex — which is a good gift of God, within the context of marriage. Ironically, Manichaeism is also arguably connected to the transgender movement, which denies the physical reality of sex as inferior to a person’s mental conception of their gender.
3. Hinduism and Neoplatonism.
Many philosophies teach that ultimate reality is really one substance, behind the confusion of appearances. Olson pointed to two particularly popular versions of this. “Advaita Vedanta,” a form of Hinduism popular in the West, pushes “non-duality,” an emphasis on “the oneness of all being with Brahman, the divine being that unites everything and of which everything is a manifestation.”
Similarly, ancient Neoplatonism teaches that “ultimate reality is ‘the One,’ a transcendent being of absolute unity, the source of everything that has being, pure and perfect in every way, and untouched and untouchable by corrupt matter.” Neoplatonism teaches a kind of fall (pure souls joining with matter) and an ultimate redemption (reunion with the One in spirit).
But early Christians rejected Neoplatonism, rightly seeing that it was in conflict with the Bible. Christianity teaches that there is a fundamental separation — an “ontological gulf,” as Olson terms it — between Creator and creature, God and the universe. The Bible’s view of the world is complicated: It is “not a negation of God, nor ontologically ‘one with God’ (of God’s own substance), nor independent of God, nor God’s eternal, equal counterpart.” Rather, the world is “God’s good but dependent, contingent, creation, and also God’s freely chosen counterpart and yet broken and corrupted.”
Taken too far, the “monism” or “oneness” of Advaita Vedanta and Neoplatonism “opens the door to completely unbiblical and anti-Christian idolatry of creation.” This act of “worshiping the creation rather than the Creator … leans inevitably to idolatry of the self,” Olson warns.
4. New Thought and the “prosperity gospel.”
Like Hinduism and Neoplatonism, the New Thought movement — Christian Science in particular — teaches that “matter and the entire universe” are “an extension of the Divine Mind of the universe,” Olson explains. “In popular New Thought, as it filtered into American religion, positive thinking can heal, bring financial prosperity, and even overcome death.”
This led to the “prosperity gospel,” which, among other things, encourages Christians to “declare victory” over the bad things in life, arguing that positive thinking will make them go away.
These views are also “monisms,” but they have had a stronger impact on the church today than Hinduism or Neoplatonism. The prosperity gospel is particularly dangerous, as it turns religion into a man-centered quest for money and power, neglecting the Bible’s clear message that following God often brings suffering and even death. The promised glory is confined to Heaven, and only comes after self-sacrifice.
5. Process theology and Communism.
The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel described ultimate reality as “Absolute Spirit.” In his philosophy, “God is the transcendent-immanent spirit, mind, of the universe coming to self-actualization and self-realization in history.” Hegel’s view is called panentheism, and it implies that God and the universe are “inseparable and interdependent.”
Hegel’s thought heavily influenced Karl Marx, the founder of Communism. His idea of history as the driving force of the world made him confident that the people would revolt against capitalism and bring in a workers’ utopia.
But this idea of God presents a divine being who is “not supernatural or omnipotent,” Olson explains. In the Bible, by contrast, God is not just prior to the world — He is constantly sustaining the world. “The world is dependent on God, not vice versa.”
Rather than speaking about things being “on the right side of history,” Christians should always ask whether they are conforming to God’s will. Books like Witness by Whittacker Chambers point out the utter incompatibility between Christianity and Communism.
6. Ancient Greek philosophy.
The giants of ancient Greek philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, created a conception of God from the “logic of perfection.” As Olson explains, “The idea was that the Arche—the source of all finite, mortal reality including time and space, nature itself—must be free of whatever qualities impaired creatureliness.” Therefore God would be “incapable of any kind of change or suffering.”
Christians throughout history accepted this philosophical interpretation of God, but Olson claims that it is actually out of step with the Bible. Many theologians relied heavily on Greek philosophy and this “tended to water down, if not implicitly deny, God’s personal nature as relational and living and active.”
Unlike the “unmoved mover” of the Greeks, “the God of the Bible is passionately concerned with the suffering people of his world; he is purely interested in their plights and not untouched by them.” He gets angry when His people disobey, He shows compassion in their distress, and He even sends His son to die on the cross to redeem the world.
Some Christians argue that this is a kind of poetic metaphor — God cannot really be impacted by the world, but He explained Himself to the Jews in human language, so He resorted to describing Himself with emotions. To take these emotions seriously would be to damage God’s transcendence. Others claim that this argument minimizes God’s personal nature and accessibility to humans. Staying true to the Bible requires Christians to see God as emotional, as heavily invested in human lives and personally wounded when people disobey Him.
Olson attempts to present a “middle way,” of “divine self-limitation—the idea that the God of the Bible is vulnerable because he makes himself so out of love.”
The Essentials of Christian Thought is an excellent explanation of how to think like a Christian, but it also has another purpose. During the 1960s and 1970s, Christian colleges and universities began to explore “faith-learning integration.” Olson explains that “faith-learning integration asks every faculty member of a Christian college or university, every researcher in a Christian organization, to see the world, reality, through Christian eyes, to allow the Bible to absorb the world.”
His book is an attempt to provide a blueprint for this biblical worldview, and in this it does an excellent job. While Olson’s ideas are complex, and might be difficult to handle, they are well worth the effort. Among other things, his book addresses the relationship between faith and science, the weaknesses of secular humanism, and a robust focus on the heart in the study of humanity. It applies the Bible to the world of ideas with nuance and conviction.