by: R.C. Sproul
“The God hypothesis is no longer necessary to explain the origin of the universe or the development of human life.”
This assertion was at the very heart of the movement that took place in the eighteenth century that we call the Enlightenment or the Aufklärung. This movement spread from Germany to France and then to England. The French Encyclopedists (writers of an encyclopedia during the eighteenth century that promoted secular humanism) were militant in their denial of the need for the existence of God. His existence was seen as no longer necessary because He had been supplanted by the “science” of that period that explained the universe in terms of spontaneous generation. Here we see an example of pseudoscience supplanting sound philosophy and theology.
Added to this, we have the agnosticism of the titanic philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that it is impossible for science or philosophy to acquire knowledge of the metaphysical realm of God. It was declared that all knowledge must be restricted to the realm of the natural. With the combination of Kant’s agnosticism and the hypothesis of the Enlightenment, the door was open wide to a thoroughgoing philosophy of naturalism. This philosophy captured in its wake the academic theologians of Europe in the nineteenth century.
Out of this came nineteenth-century liberalism with its militant anti-supernatural perspective. The liberalism of that era denied all of the supernatural elements of the Christian faith, including the virgin birth of Jesus, His miracles, His atoning death, and His resurrection. The supernatural was stripped altogether from Christianity. Commenting on this in the twentieth century, the Swiss theologian Emil Brunner described nineteenth century liberalism as mere “unbelief in disguise.”
The twentieth century saw a continuation of the impact of naturalism with the so-called neo-liberalism of German theology, particularly as it was manifested in the writings of Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann saw the Bible as a mixture of history and mythology. He believed that which was mythological had to be removed from the text of the Bible in order to speak relevantly to modern people. Of course, from Bultmann’s perspective, the supernatural trappings of the New Testament were all a part of the mythological husk that had to be stripped away from the ethical core of the Bible. The impact of liberalism and neo-liberalism on the church left it basically as a worldly, nature-bound religion that sought refuge in a humanitarian social agenda. This is the approach to Christianity that has all but completely captured many of today’s mainline churches throughout the world.
However, in the last few decades, we have witnessed a comeback of sorts of the supernatural. Yet this increasing interest in the supernatural has been driven in large measure by a fascination with the occult. People are now interested in demons, witches, spiritualists, and other occultic phenomena.
The Christianity of the Bible is a religion that is uncompromisingly supernatural. If we take away the supernatural, we take away Christianity. At the heart of the worldview of both Testaments is the idea that the realm of nature is created by One who transcends that nature. That God Himself is “supra” or above and beyond the created universe. The first principle of the Bible is that God must never be identified with the realm of nature but always and everywhere be seen as the Lord over nature. The difference between the natural and the supernatural is the difference between that which is restricted to this world and that which participates in the realm of the divine, the realm that is above and beyond the reach of what is found in simple nature.
In no way does this affirmation of supernature in the Bible denigrate the importance of the natural. The natural realm is where God’s work of redemption is played out in space and time. But that work of redemption is not a natural process of human evolution or development; rather, it involves an intrusion from above, from the transcendent realm of God, which addresses the spiritual nature of our humanity.
With the renewed interest in the supernatural that comes with the occult, we must be ever vigilant to make sure that whatever understanding we have of the supernatural is an understanding that is informed by the Bible and not by paganism. Sheer naturalism is paganism with a vengeance, but so is the occult. What we need is an understanding of the supernatural that comes to us from the supernatural, from the Author of the supernatural, who reveals to us in His Word the content of the supernatural realm — so that our understanding of angels, or demons, or of spiritual beings comes from God’s self-revelation and not from human speculation, neo-gnostic magic, or other forms of pagan intrusions. Again, we must insist that without the supernatural, Christianity loses its very heart, and this writer cannot understand why anybody would attach any great significance to Christianity at all once it’s been stripped of its supernatural elements.