Book Review: Unimaginable


Jeremiah Johnston’s book Unimaginable: What Our World Would be Like Without Christianity seeks to live up to its title. It is an apologetic for Christianity that focuses upon all the good the Christian faith has produced in the world. In this regard, it fits in a similar genre of books written by Rodney Stark (e.g. The Triumph of Christianity, The Victory of Reason, Cities of God, For the Glory of God). The book is very readable and informative even though Johnston frequently quotes scholarly sources.

The book is divided in three parts. Part 1, consisting of five chapters, looks at the world before Christianity came upon the scene. He focuses his attention primarily on the Western world (i.e. Greek and Roman). His thesis is the world before Christianity was marked by moral, social and religious darkness. It was a world full of self-inflicted suffering and fear. Its gods were petty, vindictive, and often more evil than humans. The ancients had no concept of a benevolent God. The love of the gods was erotic instead of merciful and compassionate. Slavery and racism were rampant. There was massive inequality between rich and poor, with no middle class. The poor were despised. Women were degraded. Infants were frequently disposed like trash. Then Christianity came and brought light to this dark world.

Part 2 consists of 6 chapters that seeks to tell the story of the modern world where Christianity has been absent. Here Johnston is focused on the world from the time of the Enlightenment, but focuses particularly upon influential thinkers from the 19th to the early 20th century. Johnston believes Feuerbach, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud are the five most devastating thinkers of the last 200 years. He briefly chronicles their thinking and influence in chapters 6 and 7. Chapter 8 tries to draw a connection between atheism and immorality, particularly sexual immorality. Thinkers like Percy Shelly, Jean Paul Sartre, and Bertrand Russell were well known atheists who also engaged in sexual immorality. He quotes Aldous Huxley who was explicit about atheism’s rejection of Christian morality because it interferes with sexual freedom (99). Chapters 9 and 10 zeroes in on Adolf Hitler’s Utopian (dystopian!) vision as the end result of the atheistic philosophy spawned by the likes of Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud. Even though Hitler was not explicitly an atheist, but perhaps more of pantheist whose god was a German nationalist akin to the Greek idea of fate (117-18), nonetheless, Johnston argues that Hitler hated the God of Christianity as much as he hated the Jews. His desire was not just to eradicate the “Jewish question” via the Holocaust but to eradicate the “church question” as well (115). Johnston recounts the horrors of the holocaust and argues that Churchill, while not an avowed Christian, imbibed the values of Christian morality in order to fight the pagan and anti-Christian devastation Hitler’s Nazism wrought upon Europe. Chapter 11 adds to the horrors of Nazism by recounting the lives of 20th century fascists and communists: Mussolini, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, and the Kims of North Korea. The horrific regimes associated with these evil despots, that murdered millions of innocent people, are all connected to the same atheistic philosophies of the 19th century, particularly the nihilistic philosophy of Nietzsche.

In part 3 of the book, covered in chapters 12 through 17, Johnston shows that in contrast to fascism, Nazism, and communism, Christianity has produced a world of tremendous good. Starting from the inception of Christianity in the pagan world of the Roman Empire, Johnston shows that in spite of its many disadvantages (i.e. constant persecution, and misrepresentations of beliefs and practices), the much maligned Christian church changed the world for the better. It excels in terms of charitable giving, disaster relief, care for the sick and poor, confrontation of moral and social ills, the eradication of slavery, racism, and sexism, to name a few. In chapter 14, Johnston asks, what made Christianity so appealing? He focuses upon four distinctive features. 1) The belief that God loves humanity contrary to the pagan conception of the gods as unmerciful, unsavory despots. 2) That because of God’s love, Christians showed love even to their enemies. This selfless moral imperative was completely foreign to the ethical ideals and practices of the Romans. 3) The deeds and teaching of Jesus that exalted him as humanity’s great benefactor. Even though the Roman Emperors were called benefactors, they ruled with an iron fist. Jesus established his kingdom by humbly serving his subjects. 4) The conviction that through the death and resurrection of Christ one could be forgiven of their sins and live forever in the presence of God. In spite of the fact that a crucified god seemed ludicrous to Romans (they mocked such a notion), Christianity transformed the Roman Empire and all of  subsequent history. Johnston concludes that Christianity alone offers a broken world hope through a relationship with Jesus Christ.

I think Johnston’s thesis is basically sound and demonstrated by the evidence. There is no question Christianity has proved to be superior to all other religions and philosophies in terms of the good it has produced in the world. Furthermore, atheistic philosophies (Johnston does not spend a lot of time discussing Islam or other world religions) have done more harm than any other system of thought, particularly the culmination of such philosophies in the atrocities of the 20th century brought about by fascism, Nazism, and communism. While I think Johnston make a good case, sometimes he overstates the facts. One often gets the impression in reading Johnston’s account that all atheists are thoroughly wicked and immoral, engaged in horrific acts while professing Christians are consistently upstanding and virtuous citizens. Not all atheists are serial adulterers and ready to put to death innocent people. Nor have Christians been free of sexual immorality, racism, sexism and questionable acts of violence. For example, one may think of many 18th century Christians, who contrary to men like William Wilberforce, John Wesley, and the later John Newton, embraced and promoted slavery. George Whitefield, the celebrated evangelist and close friend of John Wesley, inexplicably promoted slavery in the colony of Georgia, even illegally as Thomas Kidd’s research has pointed out. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr. touted for his Christian principles in the fight for civil rights, was himself a serial adulterer. The great German Reformer, Martin Luther himself, engaged in unseemly anti-Semitism which was used in part by 20th century Germans to justify the anti-Semitism that eventually led to the Holocaust. Failure to mention these sorts of counter-evidences does not invalidate Johnston’s thesis, but it white-washes the evidence, detracting from the credibility of his case.

Furthermore, I think Johnston over-simplifies the evidence and gives us the impression that we live in a consistently discernible black and white world. The work of Charles Taylor, Philip Rieff, Lesslie Newbigin, James Hunter Davidson, David Wells and others have shown that secularization is complicated. Explaining how we got the world we live in is not so easy. Pluralism makes it hard to sort out the sources that shape modernity. Furthermore, the same secularizing forces that have shaped the modern world have also impacted modern Christianity in adverse ways leaving it in a vulnerable position. This is not to suggest that the core principles that underline the orthodox Christian worldview are defective in terms of producing many of the results Johnston touts, but that it has not always done so with the untainted results Johnston appears to paint. In other words, the actual practice of Christianity in its multi-faceted expressions has not always lived in accordance with its own teaching. Johnston paints Christianity in monolithic tones, failing to recognize how different strands of historic Christianity often fall short of maintaining the claims of Christ and his Apostles via the New Testament revelation of truth.

One other criticism needs to be said. After defending Christianity as the one religion/ ideology/ worldview that promotes the greatest good in the world, Johnston is weak on the core of the Christian faith—the gospel upon which it is based. Johnston certainly points to the death and resurrection of Christ as central to the Christian faith, but he does not press these claims far enough to a culture, and to an evangelical audience, that is a bit foggy on the real claims of the faith. Furthermore, he does not present a clear and unassailable call to the skeptic to abandon a godless worldview and turn to Christ as his sole hope of salvation from the threat of certain death and divine judgment. One can easily embrace the current infatuation of “moralistic therapeutic deism” (HT: Christian Smith) in popular evangelicalism as a cheap substitute for true orthodox Christianity while not disagreeing with anything Johnston says in his book. That is not only unhelpful, but dangerous. One could embrace the thesis of Johnston’s book while having no assurance that they are genuine believers in the Christ he presents. Any apologetic book in today’s secularized world (including secularized evangelicalism) that does not present the gospel clearly and forcefully loses its effectiveness as an apologetic.

While I do not think Johnston’s book is without its merits, it is a bit Pollyannaish. It would be more credible if it were a little more honest and thorough with the evidence and stronger on the claims of the gospel. It might convince the naïve professing Christian, but it will leave the thinking skeptic a bit skeptical still.

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