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Three Worlds Of Evangelicalism & The Gods’ Return

Christianity is in evacuating in the West. A prominent pastor says that Ancient Near East gods are rushing in to fill the void
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There's an ongoing conversation now, mostly among Protestants, about Aaron Renn's "Three Worlds Of Evangelicalism" thesis. Are we in "Negative World" -- a cultural milieu in which being a Biblically faithful, small-o orthodox Christian, will cost you -- and if so, what does that require of one?

In his comment on the controversy, Derek Rishmawy quotes Alan Jacobs making a forceful case that it's always Negative World for Christians -- that, for example, taking a public, faithfully Christian stance against racism in the segregated South in the 1950s would have drawn you far more negative attention (to understate things) than just about anything you might say as a Christian today. Was that really Positive World? Jacobs's point is that it will always be costly to follow Jesus faithfully; time and place only differ in where the lines are drawn.


Rishmawy concedes the truth of that observation, but adds:

Nevertheless, it does not seem inane, politically, or pastorally irrelevant to ask the question: is there a coherent sense in which one could say the Roman world shifted to a “neutral” or “positive” stance with respect to Christian practice and confession before or after Constantine’s Edict of Milan? Is that a question that is relevant to Christian political witness and pastoral practice? Or, again, is there a relevant sense in which we could speak of a more negative stance of society and the state to Christian practice in China before or after the rise of the Communists? Or again, in Soviet Russia, or in post-Soviet Russia (I say that well aware of the state of the RO church and state persecution of non-Orthodox denominations.)

Again, the question is not whether in absolute terms, the potential cost of discipleship is different. The question is whether or not there is a politically and pastorally relevant shift that has occurred in the social conditions, social imaginary, state policy, or what-have-you, that makes the distinction of before and after, this time v. that time, worth noting and flagging in those types of terms (negative, positive, neutral)? Surely the prophets called Israel to fidelity and to keep from the idols which at all times were a threat to the people God, but is it entirely and utterly irrelevant whether it occurs in Israel or in Babylon? Do we think that pastoring our people towards the one, all-important, perennial goal of faithfulness to the Lord Jesus requires us to read the signs of the (admittedly non-eschatological) times, or not?

I think this is correct. It is not the case that there was ever a Christian utopia, in which it was perfectly without cost to proclaim Biblically faithful Christianity. Shoot, in Positive World, Catholics who stood up against their church authorities to call them out for tolerating the sexual abuse of children found their lives made much harder, which is one reason why so few of them did it. So yes, we have to admit that Jacobs has a point. Nevertheless, as Rishmawy said, there is in a broader sense a pastorally meaningful shift that has happened.

For example, even when people in a particular time and place called themselves Christians, but were behaving in a clearly un-Christian, even anti-Christian, manner (I'm thinking of the segregated South, but there are examples from every time, and every place), Christianity was still the ultimate standard to which they referred. Philip Rieff, an unbelieving Jew, recognized that a massive shift happened in Western consciousness in the late 19th and early 20th century: Western man went from being "Religious" (in the sense that he affirmed a set of values rooted in religion, however badly he observed them) to being "Psychological" (abandoning the ideal of virtue, instead simply trying to manage the anxiety of living without ultimate meaning). But we were still Christian enough as a society back in the 1950s and 1960s such that the Civil Rights movement could use openly Christian language and concepts to shame their fellow Christians in America into repentance.

That's gone now. And in Europe, it's even worse. I was recently speaking to a German Catholic friend who is part of a lay group that has translated a bunch of Catholic documents circulating among the German bishops, most of whom, according to my friend, are in de facto schism with Catholicism, and pushing through radical revisions to Catholic doctrine while deceiving the public about what they're doing. My friend said her group has done these translations to warn the universal church what their bishops are up to, in part so Catholics in other countries won't be deceived. She said that to take a stand as a German Catholic for what the Catholic Church teaches on sex and sexuality will earn you not only persecution not only from secular German society, but from many in the German Catholic Church itself.


I've written about this phenomenon before, so I won't repeat it again. But over the weekend, I ran across a pretty interesting take on it, though not inspired directly by Renn's claim. A friend sent me a copy of Return Of The Gods, a book by the Messianic Jewish megachurch pastor Jonathan Cahn, who is a New York Times bestselling author. I don't know the Evangelical and charismatic world that much, so I was interested to see what the book had to say. I'm going to write about it below, with the caveat that I certainly don't know enough about the theology and history of Ancient Near East religion to be able to judge his claims. I will say that as I read it on the train to Vienna yesterday, I checked a few of the claims out online with academic sources, and they all seemed to be solid.

Cahn bases the book on Jesus's words in Matthew 12:

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order.  Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

Cahn points out that the priests and prophets of ancient Israel were constantly contending with the rival gods of the Near East. The Israelites were always being tempted to abandon worship of the true God in favor of Baal or other demonic entities worshiped as divinity by other tribes of the region. Cahn's view (and mine) is that these false gods were actual spiritual entities, but demonic. He points out that whenever the Israelites abandoned the Lord, and began to worship these demonic entities, God punished them.

Cahn's claim in this book is Jesus Christ sent all these demonic gods into civilizational exile. It's not that they ceased to exist, but that they did not have the power over civilization that they once did. Reading this, I thought of this 2003 essay by theologian David Bentley Hart, "Christ Or Nothing," in which Hart said:

“I am the Lord thy God,” says the First Commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” For Israel this was first and foremost a demand of fidelity, by which God bound His people to Himself, even if in later years it became also a proclamation to the nations. To Christians, however, the commandment came through—and so was indissolubly bound to—Christ. As such, it was not simply a prohibition of foreign cults, but a call to arms, an assault upon the antique order of the heavens—a declaration of war upon the gods. All the world was to be evangelized and baptized, all idols torn down, all worship given over to the one God who, in these latter days, had sent His Son into the world for our salvation. It was a long and sometimes terrible conflict, occasionally exacting a fearful price in martyrs’ blood, but it was, by any just estimate, a victory: the temples of Zeus and Isis alike were finally deserted, both the paean and the dithyramb ceased to be sung, altars were bereft of their sacrifices, the sibyls fell silent, and ultimately all the glory, nobility, and cruelty of the ancient world lay supine at the feet of Christ the conqueror.

Nor, for early Christians, was this mere metaphor. When a gentile convert stood in the baptistery on Easter’s eve and, before descending naked into the waters, turned to the West to renounce the devil and the devil’s ministers, he was rejecting, and in fact reviling, the gods in bondage to whom he had languished all his life; and when he turned to the East to confess Christ, he was entrusting himself to the invincible hero who had plundered hell of its captives, overthrown death, subdued the powers of the air, and been raised the Lord of history. Life, for the early Church, was spiritual warfare; and no baptized Christian could doubt how great a transformation—of the self and the world—it was to consent to serve no other god than Him whom Christ revealed.

We are still at war, of course, but the situation of the Church has materially altered, and I suspect that, by comparison to the burden the First Commandment lays upon us today, the defeat of the ancient pantheon, and the elemental spirits, and the demons lurking behind them will prove to have been sublimely easy. For, as I say, we moderns believe in nothing: the nothingness of the will miraculously giving itself form by mastering the nothingness of the world. The gods, at least, were real, if distorted, intimations of the mysterium tremendum, and so could inspire something like holy dread or, occasionally, holy love. They were brutes, obviously, but often also benign despots, and all of us I think, in those secret corners of our souls where we are all monarchists, can appreciate a good despot, if he is sufficiently dashing and mysterious, and able to strike an attractive balance between capricious wrath and serene benevolence. Certainly the Olympians had panache, and a terrible beauty whose disappearance from the world was a bereavement to obdurately devout pagans. Moreover, in their very objectivity and supremacy over their worshipers, the gods gave the Church enemies with whom it could come to grips. Perhaps they were just so many gaudy veils and ornate brocades drawn across the abyss of night, death, and nature, but they had distinct shapes and established cults, and when their mysteries were abandoned, so were they.

How, though, to make war on nothingness, on the abyss itself, denuded of its mythic allure? It seems to me much easier to convince a man that he is in thrall to demons and offer him manumission than to convince him that he is a slave to himself and prisoner to his own will. Here is a god more elusive, protean, and indomitable than either Apollo or Dionysus; and whether he manifests himself in some demonic titanism of the will, like the mass delirium of the Third Reich, or simply in the mesmeric banality of consumer culture, his throne has been set in the very hearts of those he enslaves. And it is this god, I think, against whom the First Commandment calls us now to struggle.

That's not really what Cahn is saying, to be clear, but I quote Hart simply to point out that the crushing of pagan belief by Christianity was so thorough that we are not tempted, collectively, to return to the worship of pagan deities.

But Cahn argues that these deities -- as demonic spiritual entities -- did not cease to exist. In fact, he argues that they are coming back under different names, or under no particular theological name at all. He says that the de-Christianization of our society in the twentieth century has brought back all the old demons, and many more. Return Of The Gods centers on Cahn's belief that three particular Ancient Near East gods -- Baal, Ishtar, and Molech -- have now been enthroned, in some sense, over the post-Christian West -- and that the West (the United States in particular) is going to face the same fate as ancient Israel when it whored after false gods. It's a more compelling case than you might expect.

(Again, I caution you that I don't know about Ancient Near Eastern religion, so I can't vouch for the claims Jonathan Cahn makes, except for the few I researched myself. I welcome correction if Cahn, or I, have gotten something wrong.)

Take Baal, for example. In the ancient world, Baal was a god of fertility and abundance. Cahn adds that his cult was one of carnality. This, in Cahn's view, is what America has turned to: the worship of sex and money, and away from the worship of God. Interestingly, one of Baal's symbols was a bull; Cahn points to the bull statue erected near Wall Street, to honor the "bull market," as an idol of wealth. There's a great, scholarly 2019 book, The Enchantments of Mammon, by Eugene McCarraher, about how capitalism displaced Christianity as the true religion of the modern West. I'm reading it for my re-enchantment project, on the recommendation of Father Stephen De Young. McCarraher writes in a secular, scholarly voice, not a voice like the pastor -- but the message is more or less the same.

The second -- and most interesting -- god in Cahn's book is Ishtar (Astarte/Ashtoreth/Venus/Inanna), the Babylonian goddess of love, pictured above. She was the goddess of sacred prostitution, of transgression, and the blurring of boundaries. Did you know that she was also the goddess of gender fluidity? I thought that was too on the nose to be true, but it is. This is easy to discover from authoritative sources online, but here's a very short bit from Psychology Today:

The Mesopotamian Ishtar, the beautiful goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex, was sometimes represented with a beard to emphasize her more bellicose side. She could change a man into a woman, and the assinnukurgarru, and kuku’u who performed her cult had both male and female features.

Cahn asks what it would mean for America to fall into the worship of Ishtar?

We would expect a transformation to begin that would alter the realm of sexuality. With the goddess's entrance we would expect biblical standards and ethics surrounding sexuality and marriage to begin to erode. We would expect the moral foundations and values that had undergirded Western civilization for nearly two thousand years to begin overturning.

In short, we would expect there to be a revolution in the realm of sexuality -- a sexual revolution.


Not only did Ishtar introduce, promulgate, and champion sexual immorality -- she sanctified it; she declared it holy. Sexually immoral acts were part of her cult and worship, performed as rites in her temples and shrines. So in the grip of her spirit, the same thing began manifesting in American and Western culture. Sexual immorality was now not only accepted but treated as sacred.

Now it was the former standards and restraints that were seen as sinful, puritanical, repressive, and evil. And the one who opposed the newly sanctified sins or failed to adequately revere them was now treated as something of a heretic, and the opposition to the new morality as something akin to blasphemy.

What the spirit of Baal had begun, the spirit of Ashtoreth, or Ishtar, had taken to another level. The work of each god was to bring about the inversion of civilization. Ishtar had inverted the realm of sexuality. She had taken what was forbidden, unspoken, and taboo and, step-by-step, introduced it into the mainstream culture. The shock of each step would be followed by familiarity and numbness, then toleration, then acceptance, then celebration.

Cahn says the third false good of his "Dark Trinity" is Molech, the god to whom people in the Ancient Near East sacrificed children. They sacrificed these children for the sake of achieving blessing, including prosperity, from the god. Cahn correctly links this to abortion, and to Ishtar's rites -- that is, unwanted children conceived by Ishtar-worshippers could be offered to Molech. It is no accident, says the pastor, that Planned Parenthood is not only the go-to place for abortions, but also the go-to place to get cross-sex hormones to change your sex -- which, of course, renders you infertile. It's all a death cult.

The Ishtar material in this book is amazing. Cahn quotes a Hittite hymn to the goddess describing her as the one who will "...grind away from men manliness." There was a prayer to her praising her power to emasculate and feminize men (Cahn footnotes these, citing academic articles, but I couldn't find an online link). He cites NYU archaeologist Zainab Bahrani's scholarly book Women of Babylon as saying Ishtar's nature was to "destroy masculinity" and to work, in effect, "destruction of the cultural order." Another writer says:

Additionally, Inanna [Another name of Ishtar -- RD] is depicted as embodying both male and female qualities. She says, ‘Though I am a woman I am a noble young man..’ (24) Her androgyny is attested to in her cultic personnel, which included eunuchs and transvestites and during her festival young men carried hoops, a feminine symbol, while young women carried swords.  The(25) In-nin-sa-gur-ra says, ‘She (Ishtar) [changes] the right side (male) into the left side (female), she [changes] the left side into the right side, she [turns] a man into a woman, she [turns] a woman into a man, she ador[ns] a man as a woman, she ador[ns] a woman as a man.’  For Sjoberg this merely refers to the changing roles of men and women in cult ceremonies, but given the world-turned-upside-down nature of her cultic festivities an element of gender role reversal does not seem unfeasible. As Harris says, Inanna was ‘a deity who incorporated fundamental and irreducible paradoxes.’ She argues that through her embodiment of these opposing qualities she  succeeded in transcending them.

Cahn says, sensibly, that if Ishtar worship came to America, we would expect to see the feminization of males and the masculinization of females, and overall gender confusion. Well... .

What's more, her ritual followers -- priests and others -- engaged in public acts of androgyny, to show their devotion. Drag culture, Pride parades, and so forth, are exactly that, in Cahn's view. She was a goddess of inversion. If she were to be worshiped in America, says Cahn, the Judeo-Christian sexual order would be overturned, and its opposite enshrined as normative. And that is exactly what happened. According to an ancient Sumerian document, the demons who accompany Inanna/Ishtar when she arises out of the underworld

tear away the wife from a man's embrace. They snatch the son from a man's knee. They make the bride leave the house of her father-in-law. ... They take the wife away from a man's embrace. 

Enhuedanna, high priestess of the moon in the Sumerian city of Ur, hymned Inanna/Ishtar like this:

To destroy, to create, to tear out, to establish are yours, Inanna.
To turn a man into a woman and a woman into a man are yours, Inanna.

Cahn quotes from this passage written by a contemporary trans commentator:

One well known text of similar antiquity to Enheduanna’s work describes a religious festival held in honour of Inanna. It describes the celebrants as follows:

The people of Sumer parade before you.
The male prostitutes comb their hair before you.
They decorate the napes of their necks with coloured scarfs.
The women adorn their right side with men’s clothing.
The men adorn their left side with women’s clothing.
The ascending kurgarra priests raise their swords before you.

... The description of the festival appears to show the people of the city cross-dressing specifically for the purpose of the celebration. Indeed the whole thing sounds very like a gay pride parade, with lots of people just dressing up for the party. 

Here's the freakiest thing. In Ancient Near Eastern mythology, Tammuz was the lover of Ishtar. The month of Tammuz (which still exists in the Hebrew calendar) marks the month of the separation of Tammuz and Ishtar, which Cahn interprets as symbolizing the tearing away of men and women from each other. He points out that the Stonewall Riots, which marked the advent of the gay rights movement, occurred on the 10th of Tammuz, which in Babylon was the date on which it was considered ritually correct to cast spells to make men love men.

That's right: the modern gay rights movement began on this anniversary. And, as Cahn points out, the three Supreme Court decisions most important to the gay rights movement -- Lawrence (2003), which decriminalized homosexuality across the board; Windsor (2013), which struck down the Defense of Marriage Act; and Obergefell (2015), which legalized same-sex marriage -- all came on June 26. Moreover, Tammuz, which doesn't always coincide with our calendar, as it is a lunar calendar, nevertheless most of the time falls in the month of June -- which has become the High Holy Month of Pride.

Again, I have no expertise on which to judge the bold theological and historical claims made by Jonathan Cahn, but I find what he has to say really intriguing, and I cite him in the Negative World context for this reason: by casting aside the God of the Bible, we are effectively worshiping these ancient gods, who have rushed back in, whether people realize it or not.

One more thing -- Cahn writes:

The gods brought judgment and destruction to Israel. Could America likewise be in danger of judgment and destruction? Both nations had been dedicated to God at their inception, both had turned away from God, both had followed the gods Baal, Molech, and the goddess.

But America had gone further. It had become the world's primary vessel for the return of the gods. It had become the world's chief proponent of materialism, the worship of prosperity, and money, sexual immorality, pornography, abortion, homosexuality, transsexuality, and the alteration of gender. America had singlehandedly resurrected the goddess's midsummer festivals and processions, which now covered the world.

America had hallowed and championed the sign of the rainbow, not only within its borders, bur around the world. To take the sign given of God's mercy in the wake of judgment and turn it against the ways of God is to call upon oneself a judgment with no mercy.

... The prophets warned Israel that to turn away from God to follow after the gods would lead to destruction. America has turned away from God and now follows after the gods. To what then will it lead? It must as well, in the end, lead to destruction.

That's near the very end of the book. After that passage, I couldn't help thinking about the torn US flag on 9/11/2002 -- torn like the tearing of the Temple veil on the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

Now, the theological and spiritual aspects of Jonathan Cahn's arguments might be nonsense to you. But even if you reject that there are epochal spiritual battles going on here, you should at least recognize that the end of Christian civilization has called forth a new one, based on new sacred values. Again, in past ages of the Christian era, there were enormous and significant lacunae in Christian social practice, but Christian nations and societies nevertheless upheld the Bible as the source of ultimate truth and moral truth. That is over now. We might be able to bring it back -- I hope and pray and work for that -- but we must recognize where we are. I've been living in Europe off and on for the past two years, and am now here permanently. During that time, I've traveled widely, and met practicing Christians from all over the continent. I cannot emphasize to you strongly enough how thoroughly post-Christian Europe is, such that even the memory of Christianity is being erased from European cultural life, both through the actions of governments and cultural institutions, but also through the passivity of the masses. The United States is going in the same direction, quickly. You may not be a religious believer, but you should at least recognize that we are all living through a civilizational change -- and that means a change of gods, as all societies must be based on a shared set of transcendent moral beliefs.

UPDATE: Jonathan Cahn writes to clarify:

The LGBT movement was sealed and set in motion on June 26 with the sealing and issuing of the warrant giving the go ahead to raid that would become Stonewall and trigger everything else that it would produce - and the 10th of Tammuz, the ancient day ordained for the spell to be cast for a man to love a man.  The next night, Friday, the officers descended on Stonewall  (it is listed as June 28 as it exploded technically after midnight) 

WIth the overturning of marriage, in Obergefell v. Hodges, it fell again as you noted June 26 And as the sun set and rainbows lit up the night, most significantly, saturating the White House, it was again the 10th of Tammuz.   Interestingly with regard to the other realm you noted, that of judgment and destruction, on that same day before sunset - it was 9th of Tammuz - also very significant - the day in the Bible, when the protective walls of Jerusalem, its hedge against attack and destruction, were broken, breached.  It was thus only a matter of time before the calamity and the judgment would come.

So the same day when marriage as we know it was struck down - was on the Biblical and Babylonian calendar - both the day appointed for the casting the spell for a man to love a man - and, at the same time, the day in the Bible that a nation's wall of protection is struck down, opening the door to its destruction. 

Marriage is a hedge of protection to any civilization.  The hedge was removed. 

UPDATE.2: A Jewish reader writes:

That was a very good piece on the ancient gods. Allow me to contribute two Jewish perspectives:

1. The rabbis of the Talmud, in trying to understand the (to them and to us) inexplicable compulsion the Biblical Israelites seem to have had to worship the pagan gods, summed it up simply: The only reason people went for idolatry was because it gave them license to be sexually hedonistic. In other words, the sex drive is so fundamental- it is, after all, the root impulse of all living things, the very first thing God says to His creations at the beginning of Genesis- that pursuit of it can pervert all thought and action.

As the recent years have gone on, I see the wisdom of that seemingly simplistic observation more and more.

2. The impulse to do evil is often personified as an actual sentient being in Jewish tradition. I imagine a lot of authorities would state that this is meant metaphorically, but the sources do indeed paint a picture like the cartoon devil sitting on your shoulder. Sometimes the Evil Impulse is identified with Satan, or sometimes one of his minions, but it's there. So the rabbis also tried to understand why, with the impulse toward idolatry so strong in Biblical times, it seems to have completely disappeared after it. (Jews did adopt Greek ways at times in an extreme manner, presumably making pro forma offerings to Zeus, but that seems to have been more culturally than religiously driven.) So they stated that indeed, there was an actual ceremony around the end of the Biblical era (again, how much of this is metaphorical can be discussed, but it's definitely described in a literal sense) in which the sages of the time, having seen the havoc wreaked by idolatry, locked the impulse toward it up, in a box, so to speak. (They then tried the same with the impulse toward forbidden sex; when chickens stopped laying eggs, they realized that without a drive for sex there would be no reproduction, and so they reluctantly "freed" it.)

Of course, it was never contained. "Money is a form of idolatry," we were taught growing up. The Hellenistic worship of the body, the same. And on and on. But that's all disguised. Is the box full-out opening again? One fears so.