And if Not . . .

A Common Christian Culture

One of the most dramatic moments of the Second World War occurred when the British army was helplessly stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. It turned out to be one of England’s finest hours–and, oddly enough, a telling illustration of the urgent need for Christian apologetics in our day.

The time was June 1940 and the place was Dunkirk. The British Expeditionary Force, sent to stem the Nazi advance into Belgium and France, had been pushed steadily back to the sea.

A pall fell over England. Hitler’s armies were poised to destroy the cornered Allied army. As the British people waited anxiously, a three-word message was transmitted from the besieged army at Dunkirk: “And if not.”

The British recognized instantly what the message meant: “Even if we are not rescued from Hitler’s army, we will stand strong and unbowed.” “And if not” was found in the Book of Daniel, where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego defied Nebuchadnezzar, putting their trust in God.

The message galvanized the British people. Thousands of boats set out across the Channel in a gallant bid to rescue their army. And they succeeded. Nearly 350,000 British and Allied soldiers were saved from the advancing Germans.

The British people were so steeped in Christian culture and understanding that they immediately grasped the meaning of a cryptic biblical allusion. But can you imagine the response in 1990s America to such a message?

According to pollster George Barna, most wouldn’t have a clue to what it meant. Recent surveys indicate only a small percentage of Americans can name the Ten Commandments–and only 42 percent can identify who preached the Sermon on the Mount. Most people think it was someone on horseback.

Equally alarming is another trend: Americans are abandoning the belief that absolute truth–like that revealed in the Bible–exists. In 1991 Barna found that 67 percent of those questioned answered no when asked: “Is there any such thing as absolute truth?” Two years later the percentage of people saying no had risen to 72 percent.

How then can we evangelize a society that no longer thinks in Christian terms? That is where apologetics comes in. The Greek word apologia literally means “to give a reason for believing something.”

Professor Alister McGrath of Oxford University explains why apologetics is pre-evangelistic. “In an increasingly secular culture,” McGrath writes, “fewer and fewer people outside the Christian community have any real understanding of what Christians believe. Half-truths, misconceptions, and caricatures abound.”

Our job is to help remove what McGrath calls “barriers on the road to faith”–such as the rejection of absolute truth or some distortion of the Gospel message. Whatever the obstacle, Christians need to be–in the words of the apostle Peter–“prepared to give an answer . . . for the hope that you have.”

This is the first of a series of commentaries designed to help you engage your neighbors with hard-hitting evidence as to why society cannot survive without Christian truth, and why it is indeed true.

It is vital that believers be equipped in the battle to defend Christian truth.


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