On Saturday, January 13, residents of Hawaii received a frightening message on their phones and on television: “Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”
The family of Hawaii State Rep. Matt LoPresti huddled in a bathroom and began praying. Many others thought this was the end. Over the next half-hour:
“Some … made their morning coffee and chatted as normally as they could. Some manned their cellphone, routing communications for their families across the Hawaiian islands and to the mainland. Some, facing mortality, were subjected to troubling confessions of sin by loved ones.”
Though the presumed threat from North Korea turned out to be a false alarm, National Review nevertheless rightly declared, “We are coming to the end of the post–Cold War holiday from history.”
The incident offers an even larger lesson to those of us with ears to hear.
Since even before its founding, America has been a land of progress, hope, and opportunity—a bracing mix of Enlightenment optimism about human nature and a Judeo-Christian worldview about the grace and sovereignty of God. Repurposing the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, John Winthrop, the future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, captured both emphases when he said, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
Much has happened on this sprawling continent in the nearly 400 intervening years. But the old Enlightenment optimism, bolstered by an ever-growing confidence in science, has never gone away. Charles Taylor, in his book, A Secular Age, said that “the colossal success of modern natural science and the associated technology can lead us to feel that it unlocks all mysteries, that it will ultimately explain everything.”
In Western society, we tend to take for granted that life will go on and on and get better and better. Hawaii’s false alarm, however, presented people in that earthly paradise with a gracious warning that all will not go on endlessly, with improvements and new prosperity at every turn. Our secular, Enlightenment worldview requires some adjusting. We need to be reminded that a day of judgment is coming:
“[K]nowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.” (2 Peter 3:3-7)
Our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world already know this. Although reports say that the material prosperity of the world is improving every day—in terms of life expectancy, available food, wealth, and the absence of major wars—so many of the old ills remain.
The 2018 World Watch Index of Open Doors, for example, chronicles an increase in persecution of Christians worldwide. “Every day,” Open Doors says, “six women are raped, sexually harassed or forced into marriage to a Muslim under threat of death due to their Christian faith.” Meanwhile, about one in every 12 Christians around the globe lives where Christianity is illegal, forbidden, or punished; of the 50 countries on the World Watch List, 30 saw an increase in persecution over the last year.
And of course, despite all our medical and technological progress, the death rate remains what it has always been—100 percent. Everyone’s story is different; here is a bit of mine. Both of my parents were felled by brain injuries, although one survived. Cancer has stalked my family, relatives, and some dear friends. Other nameless maladies lurk. In recent years my own physical abilities have declined rather than improved. “For all our days pass away under your wrath,” Moses said to his Lord; “we bring our years to an end like a sigh” (Psalm 90:9).
Then there are the new moral pathologies that we encourage—or old ones that we revive, apparently never having learned our lessons: a resurgence of deviant sexual sin and confusion, now applauded across the West; an epidemic of drug abuse and addiction; new tensions between blacks and whites, and women and men; nuclear proliferation to totalitarian regimes in North Korea and Iran; the return of an Islam built on conquest at all costs; case after case of sexual abuse; toxic conspiracy theories; anti-Semitism spreading again in Europe; genocide; nativism; abortion; sexism; hedonism; rampant greed and envy; theological apostasy; naked appeals to power over principle; a rejection of God’s Word when it doesn’t suit us.
When the prophet Isaiah found himself face to face with the thrice-holy, living God, he cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5) Can any of us deny that, at a minimum, we live among a people of unclean lips?
Like the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), we have squandered our spiritual inheritance on prostitutes, and now we are living among the pigs. Without our heavenly Father’s grace, we are doomed. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18).
In the Old Testament King Josiah instituted a series of last-ditch reforms, and still the Babylonians came. It was too late for Judah. I fear it is too late for the lukewarm American church. We say we are rich, but God says we are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).
Could there be any more accurate description of our nation’s spiritual condition without Christ than this one? “… foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). We are guilty, all of us.
“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?” (Rom. 2:1-3)
Yes, God’s righteous judgment on sin is coming. Only those who seek refuge in Christ and in His gracious, sacrificial death and resurrection will be spared on that Day, when “the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And He will send out His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” (Matt. 24:30b-31)
Are you ready? This is no drill.
Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is an editor at large for Christianity Today and for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Stan is the author of The Seven Signs of Jesus: God’s Proof for the Open-Minded.