When a notorious terrorist leader like Ayman al-Zawahiri is killed, those of us in the West rejoice. We see his death as avenging in part those who were murdered as a result of his radical ideology and strategic leadership. And we hope it sends a signal to other jihadists that they cannot win, that they will be confronted and defeated by our united resolve to defend our people and our democracy.
However, al-Zawahiri’s supporters see his death in exactly the opposite way. In their view, he was a religious holy man, a great leader in the service of Allah. They believe that he was helping to liberate the Muslim world from its global oppressors. Since the Qur’an requires Muslims to defend Islam (Sura 2:190), they believe he acted in obedience to their Scriptures. They now view his death as a martyrdom guaranteeing his place in paradise.
As you can see, ideas change the world. The West sees the advance of democracy as liberating the nations; radicalized Muslims see democracy as the heretical imposition of manmade values in place of divinely sanctioned Sharia law. We see the death of a terrorist leader as the just punishment of a horrific criminal; they see his death as the martyrdom of a hero.
“An idea lives on”
John F. Kennedy was right: “A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”
In our own culture, we see the continuing rise of postmodern relativism, the claim that all truth claims are personal and all ethics are therefore subjective. This idea, which can be traced to Immanuel Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers, has become conventional wisdom in Western society. It makes the Bible a diary of religious experience we have no right to enforce on others; it turns evangelism into the imposition of our personal values; and it defines morality as anything consenting people wish to do that does not harm others.
A related idea is the sexual hedonism which defines sexual morality in equally subjective terms. This so-called “sexual revolution” has birthed no-fault divorce, the normalization and legalization of same-sex behavior and marriage, and the imposition of transgender and “queer” values on schools and society. This drive for sexual “liberty” threatens religious liberty wherever the two collide.
A third idea that has gripped our culture is secular materialism. This worldview defines success in measurable terms. We are what we own, what we wear, what we drive, where we live, and how we look. We are consumers in constant need of consumption, driven to have more so we can be more.
A fourth idea that dominates our society is religious pluralism. This worldview claims that since all truth is personal and subjective, all religious claims are equally subjective. There are “many roads up the same mountain,” we’re told. It doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you are sincere in your beliefs and tolerant of the beliefs of others. To claim that Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14:6) is seen as the height of intolerance, the cardinal sin of our age.
Other cultures have their prevailing ideas as well. Jihadists, as I noted in my Daily Article Special Edition on the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri, are convinced that they are defending Islam by attacking the West. They believe they are preparing the way for the coming of the Mahdi, their Messiah, and consider their terrorist acts to be holy war in obedience to the call of Allah.
Communist leaders in China and North Korea are motivated by yet a different worldview. Their Marxist ideology claims that the success of the state leads to the benefit of its members. Thus, individuals exist as a means to the end of the collective. In this view, democracy threatens the future of the nation and must be resisted. A one-party rule that imposes Marxist ideology on its citizens is the path to their best future.
“The greatest idea that has ever been born”
The first century, like the twenty-first, had no lack of foundational ideas. From the religious mythologies of Greece and Rome to the philosophical schools of Plato, Aristotle, the Epicureans, the Stoics, the Cynics, and the Skeptics, to the mystery cults, to the worship of the Roman emperor, worldviews abounded.
Into this cacophony of competing ideas, the gospel of Mark introduces the ministry of Jesus Christ with the words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Matthew records Jesus’ first preaching in the same way: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).
Here we come face to face with the central theme of the Bible, expressed fully and finally in the teaching of Jesus: the kingdom of God.
In The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, Scottish theologian James Stewart beautifully described the importance of this theme in God’s word and the Christian faith:
“Every new idea that has ever burst upon the world has had a watchword. Always there has been some word or phase in which the very genius of the thing has been concentrated and focused, some word or phrase to blazon on its banners when it went marching out into the world. Islam had a watchword: ‘God is God, and Mohammed is his prophet.’ The French Revolution had a watchword: ‘Liberty, equality, fraternity.’ The democratic idea had a watchword: ‘Government of the people, by the people, for the people.’ . . .
“Every new idea that has stirred the hearts of men has created its own watchword, something to wave like a flag, to rally the ranks and win recruits. Now the greatest idea that has ever been born upon the earth is the Christian idea. And Christianity came with a watchword, magnificent and mighty and imperial; and the watchword was ‘The Kingdom of God.’”
A prayer that changes the world
Which ideas will give your life direction today? Will you choose postmodern relativism, sexual hedonism, secular materialism, and/or religious pluralism? Or will you choose the kingdom of God?
The way to make the right choice is to pray what Jesus taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). God’s kingdom comes wherever his will is done. When we pray these words and answer our prayer with our lives, we can never be the same. Nor can our world.
Will God’s kingdom come in and through your life today?