“The First Biggest Threat”

“The First Biggest Threat”

At a scholarly conference last week we were discussing some important contributions to the field of ethics and Paul Ramsey’s work figured prominently in the discussion. Ramsey taught for several decades at Princeton University, and wrote influential works in medical ethics, just war theory and other topics in Christian ethics. He also gave early leadership to Yale University’s project–still going on–of editing and publishing the collected works of Jonathan Edwards.

I never studied formally with Paul Ramsey, but he was one of my mentors. As a young scholar, just getting started in my teaching career, I wrote and asked him for advice on a project, and he not only wrote back immediately, but he nurtured the relationship, drawing me into a circle of younger ethicists whose work he encouraged.

Ramsey once told me that he had started off as a fairly liberal theologian, but he had increasingly become more orthodox. Those of us who spent time with Ramsey enjoyed passing around stories about his fondness for needling Christian scholars and church leaders who struck him as lacking appropriate seriousness on theological matters.

One of my favorite stories along those lines was about a time that Ramsey was asked to address a gathering of denominational officials on peacemaking in the nuclear age. Throughout his presentation he regularly referred to the nuclear arms race as “the second biggest threat to the human race.” In the question and answer period that followed, a bishop who was known for his liberal theological views posed the obvious question to Professor Ramsey: “You kept referring to the arms race as the second biggest threat to the human race, but I don’t think I heard you tell us what the first biggest threat is.” “Oh, yes,” Professor Ramsey replied. “The first biggest threat. Well, it is something that you probably don’t know anything about. It is the problem of unbelief!”

I regularly remind myself of the lesson contained in that remark. I follow closely the declarations of mainline Protestant leaders, especially those of my own Presbyterian denomination. There are many of those declarations with which I agree. Indeed, I doubt that anyone can fault me for failing to take at least some of the issues they care about quite seriously. On many occasions I have joined others in speaking out about peace in the Middle East, global warming, torture, the war in Iraq, and racism–to name some of more obvious topics.

These are important issues to address. Working to promote justice and peace is a high priority for followers of Christ. But as urgent as these issues are for the health of the societies in which we live, we need to be clear about the fact that they are symptoms of a deeper problem–the unbelief that is in turn an expression of a rebellious spirit that permeates all of our lives, including the systemic dimensions of human interaction.

I wish that we could hear a clear word about unbelief from those Christian leaders who make much of the political and economic ills of our times. Paul Ramsey had it right. Unbelief continues to be the biggest threat to the human race. And the remedy isn’t some sort of free-floating belief. Rather, it is the belief that is set forth so clearly in the familiar words of John 3:16: “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”


  1. Thanks for the post Dr. Mouw. It is so nice to hear men like yourself reminding the younger generations that issues of social justice, peace, and stewardship of the earth are important things, yet not the most important. In particular, for the young men in women studying in seminaries like yours, seeking to be the future leaders of the church, I feel it is vital they be reminded that “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose his soul.” Surely, if we stop war, alleviate poverty, and halt pollution… sin still remains. The world, though better… is no better off. Again, thank you for your wise words.

    Comment by just a guy — November 6, 2007 @ 6:19 pm

  2. AMEN! Thank you, Dr. Mouw. You’re spot on, as usual.

    Comment by Casey T. — November 7, 2007 @ 9:29 am

  3. Hi Dr. Mouw! I appreciate your post, but I do have to make one qualification. The word “unbelief” has, I think, been hijacked by a certain brand of Christianity that has emphasized belief and belief only. That is, it emphasizes a mental and/or emotional state of trust. But my understanding of the New Testament’s conception of belief is more holistic. Biblical “belief” is tied in with discipleship and living a transformed life according to the Spirit.

    I think this is an important distinction because you state that important problems like violence are “symptoms” of unbelief. Well, there are plenty of folks who supposedly “believe” but are, in fact, the cause of violence (I could point to many in American politics, but I won’t). The root problem, I think, is not necessarily “unbelief” in and of itself, as most people might understand it, but lives that are not transformed by true and holistic belief.

    Of course, another important question that Christians must face is the fact that many who do not believe in Jesus are not causing these “symptoms” of violence, poverty, racism, but are instead working hard to transform the world for the better.

    To say that “unbelief” is the deeper problem and that these other issues are merely the symptoms implies a direct relationship, so that when one “cures” the “unbelief,” one will rid the world of the secondary symptoms. Since many Christians do not make a positive difference with these symptoms, and many who are not Christians do make a difference, we can see that the equation is perhaps too simple.

    Comment by Pat McCullough — November 7, 2007 @ 10:11 am

  4. Marvelous story.
    Great point.
    Thnx & AMEN.

    Comment by George McIlrath — November 7, 2007 @ 3:07 pm

  5. […] Richard Mouw on Princeton ethicist Paul Ramsey: […]

    Pingback by Something More Important Than Peace in the Middle East? « Lawn Gospel — November 7, 2007 @ 6:55 pm

  6. We Christians have colonized the non-western world, been less than responsible with the earth and have participated in the exploitation of ‘the least of’ them. Apartheid theology was formulated by people who ‘believed.’ The institution of slavery was kept alive by people who ‘believed.’ With the Bible in one hand and a whip in the other, slave masters encouraged their slaves to fix their eyes on heaven and not to be concerned about their lives on earth. They were encouraged to develop nothing less than a masochistic relationship with a God who loved them—but who had relegated them to an earthly life of misery. Unfortunately, I am going to have to disagree with some of the comments that have been posted. I think that sitting from a position or privilege–it is easy to encourage people of faith to adopt something less than ‘understanding’ and a wholistic gospel. As a believer, it has been helpful for me to listen to radio broadcasts like NPR and Fuller’s own Radio Mom to learn about the ways in which my consumption patterns either positively or negatively impact the rest of God’s creation. Yes, I am a believer, but I have often made decisions that reflect a lack of respect for people that I don’t know…in situations that I have never been in. Given the state of the world and the unfortunate truth–which it is that we ‘believers’ often participate (either knowingly or unknowingly) in the exploitation of others–I don’t find the salvation/social justice dichotomy helpful.

    Comment by Just A Girl — November 8, 2007 @ 5:37 pm

  7. Sometimes, as a good liberal, I can get so worked up at the task of saving the world that I forget that the heavy lifting has been done — two millenia ago on Calvary. Manifesting that work (in terms of Kingdom building) requires not just effort, but conviction.

    Right on, professor, right on.

    Comment by Hugo — November 9, 2007 @ 2:44 pm

  8. Thankfully, God’s mercy is new every morning. So that we can always go to Him and ask God to help us in our disbeliefs. “In repentance and rest is your Salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isaiah 30:15a). Thanks for your boldness in Chrsit, Dr. Mouw!

    Comment by Lan — November 9, 2007 @ 2:53 pm