This extended essay in three parts is a prophetic allegory that was written by Robert Burnell, and originally published in 1980 by Bethany House Publishers. It is now acknowledged as a classic and a true warning from Heaven. I had the privilege of first reading it when it was reprinted in the MorningStar Journal in early 1992. This is still a clear message for the end of the age, and must be soberly and prayerfully taken to heart.
Escape from Christendom by Robert Burnell
In my dream I see the lone figure of a man following a road. As the sun sets beneath the hills, a city comes into view. Nearing it, the traveler sees what appears to be a large group of churches. Spires and crosses pierced the skyline. His pace quickens. Is this his destination? He passes an imposing structure, a neon sign flashing “Cathedral of the Future.” Farther on a floodlit stadium supports a billboard, boasting that 50,000 people crowded into evangelistic meetings there three nights a week. Beyond this, modest “New Testament” chapels and Hebrew Christian synagogues cluster together on the street front.
“Is this the City of God?” I hear the traveler ask a woman at the information booth in the central square. “No, this is Christian City,” she replies. “But I thought this road led to the city of God!” he exclaims with great disappointment. “That’s what we all thought when we arrived,” she answers, her tone sympathetic. “This road continues up the mountain, doesn’t it?” he asks. “I wouldn’t know, really,” she answers blankly.
I watch the man turn away from her and trudge on up the mountain in the gathering darkness. Reaching the top, he stares out into the blackness; it looks as though there is nothing, absolutely nothing, beyond. With a shudder, he retrace his steps into Christian City and takes a room at a hotel.
Strangely unrefreshed, at dawn he arises and follows the road up the mountain again; in the brightening light of the sun he discovers that what seemed like a void the night before is actually a desert– dry, hot, rolling sand as far as the eye can see. The road narrows to a path which rises over a dune and disappears. “Can this trail lead to the city of God?” he wonders aloud. It appears to be quite deserted and rarely travelled.
Indecision slowing his steps, he again returns to Christian City and has lunch in a Christian restaurant. Over the music of a gospel record, I hear him ask a man at the next table, “That path up the mountain, where the desert begins, does it lead to the City of God?”
“Don’t be a fool!” his neighbor replies quickly. “Everyone who has ever taken that path has been lost…swallowed up by the desert! If you want God, there are plenty of good churches in this town. You should pick one and settle down.”
After leaving the restaurant, looking weary and confused, the traveler finds a spot under a tree and sits down. An ancient man approaches and begins pleading with him in urgent tones, “If you stay here in Christian City, you’ll wither away. You must take the path. I belong to the desert you saw earlier. I was sent here to encourage you to press on. You’ll travel many miles. You’ll be hot and thirsty; but angels will walk with you, and there will be springs of water along the way. And at your journey’s end you will reach the City of God! You have never seen such beauty! And when you arrive the gates will open for you, for you are expected.”
“What you say sounds wonderful,” the traveler replies. “But I’m afraid I’d never survive the desert. I’m probably better off here in Christian City.”
The ancient one smiles. “Christian City is the place for those who want religion but don’t want to lose their lives. The desert is the territory of those whose hearts are so thirsty for God, that they are willing to be lost in Him. My friend, when Peter brought his boat to land, forsook all and followed Jesus, he was being swallowed up by the desert. When Matthew left his tax collecting and Paul his Pharisaism, they too were leaving a city much like this to pursue Jesus out over the dunes and be lost in God. So don’t be afraid. Many have gone before you.”
Then I see the traveler look away from the old man’s burning eyes to the bustle of Christian City. He sees busy people hurrying hither and yon with their Bibles and shiny attaché cases, looking like men and women who know their destiny. But it is clear they lack something which the old man with eyes like a prophet possesses.
In my dream, I imagine the traveler turning things over in his mind. “If I do go out there, how can I be sure that I will really be lost in God? In the Middle Ages Christians tried to lose themselves in God by putting the world behind them and entering a monastery. And how disappointed many of them were to find that the world was still there! And the people here in Christian City who are preparing to go to some jungle or a neglected slum, maybe they are coming closer to what it means to be lost in God. But then, a person can travel to the ends of the earth and not lose himself.”
The traveler turns again to see the old man starting up the road for the narrow path down to the desert’s edge. Suddenly, his decision mobilizes him and he leaps to his feet, chasing after him. When he catches up, they exchange no words. The ancient man makes an abrupt turn to the right and guides him up still another slope which steepens as it rises toward a peak shrouded in a luminous cloud. The climb upward is very difficult. The traveler appears dizzy and begins to stagger. His guide pauses and offers him a drink from a flask hanging over his shoulder. Panting, he drinks it in great gulps. “No water ever tasted sweeter than this,” he says with great feeling. “Thank you.”
“Now look there.” The old man points beyond them to a vista not nearly as monotonous and desolate as it had seemed earlier. The desert below has taken on many colors and gradation. In the far distance, a blazing light is throbbing and moving on the surface of the horizon like a living thing. “There is the City of God! But before you reach it, you will have to pass through those four wildernesses you see. Directly below us is the Wilderness of Forgiveness.” The traveler notices small, dim figures making their way slowly in the direction of the city, separated from each other by many miles.
“How can they survive the loneliness?” asks the traveler. “Wouldn’t they benefit from traveling together?”
“Well, they aren’t really alone. Each one of them is accompanied by the forgiveness of God. They are being swallowed up by the Desert of the Lord God’s vast mercy. The Holy Spirit is saying to them as they travel, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ They are made whole as they travel.”
Just beyond there is an expansive blue. “Is it sea?” inquires the traveler. “It looks like water, but it’s a sea of sand. That’s the Wilderness of Worship. Here, look through these glasses and you’ll see that people are walking there, too. Notice how they begin to group themselves here. They are having their first taste of the joy of the City– worship. They are discovering how they are made for the worship of God. It is becoming their life, the white-hot source of everything they do.”
“But don’t people also worship back in Christian City? What’s so special about that wilderness?”
“Worship- that is true worship, can begin only when a life has been utterly abandoned to the desert of God’s presence. Out there the heart begins to worship the Father in spirit and truth.” Looking beyond the blue wilderness to where the desert rises in red and fiery mountains, the old man explains to the traveler that among those reddish mountains is the Wilderness of Prayer.
“Passing through that wilderness travelers find it necessary to turn away from every distraction and concentrate on prayer. They quickly learn that there is no possible way for them to survive, but by crying out to God continually. By the time they reach the outer extremes of that wilderness, prayer is their consuming passion and their supreme joy. It appears at first that the City of God is just beyond the Wilderness of Prayer. But there is one more wilderness hidden by those mountains, which you will pass through before you reach your destination. It is simply called the Harvest. You’ll know it when you reach it. And beyond the Harvest is the City itself. Your name is known there. Your arrival is awaited with eagerness. Come, let’s begin our journey.”
“Nightfall doesn’t seem to be a particularly propitious time to begin a journey like this,” he says. “Don’t go back to Christian City,” the old man’s exhorts, gazing at him earnestly.
“Not even at this hour? That way I can get a good night’s sleep and start first thing in the morning,” the traveler adds hopefully.
“But your rest is out there,” he urges. “Walk on now, into the desert. The Holy Spirit will help you. Don’t be afraid to be lost in God. You’ll find your life nowhere else.”
The Wilderness of Forgiveness
The old man has left the traveler standing alone at the edge of the desert as darkness falls. The lights of Christian City beckon from behind him. I can imagine him thinking of the warmth of a friendly conversation over a warm meal and of going to sleep in a comfortable bed. But then his expression becomes resolute, and he murmurs, “This is doubtless the road I have to take. I will find my life only by losing it, that’s a certainty. But how can I KNOW that if I take this path into the desert I will assuredly be lost in God and not merely lost? I can remember many people who took a solitary path which led them not to the City of God but into such unreal thoughts and spurious experiences that their minds and lives were destroyed. Surely the danger of settling for less than life in Christian City has to be weighed against the possibility of losing it in a wilderness of spiritual delusion. I’m sure the darkness beyond contains not only the path to the city of God but also countless trap doors to hell, where one can be lost in lonely vanity. How can I be sure of distinguishing the true path?”
What I first think in my dreams to be a star hanging low over the horizon now takes the shape of a cross hanging directly above the path in front of the traveler. He looks up and notices it, his face showing recognition. He whispers quietly, “Forgiveness.” And then with deep reverence quotes: “‘So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through His own blood. Therefore, let us go forth to Him outside the camp, bearing abuse for Him. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come…’ Yes, I will go on!” the traveler says exultantly, taking his first steps into the desert.
As dawn breaks he sees nothing but sand and sky and a path which can be distinguished from all the others by the cross which hovers where the trail meets the horizon. As the day wears on it is obvious that the traveler is weary, thirsty, sick with heat. Just when it appears he can not trudge another step, a stranger appears at his side.
“Over the next hill, you will find a spring,” she says. “Keep going; you are almost there,” she encourages him. He is soon lying by a spring, drinking water and eating food which the helpful stranger provides.
“This is the Wilderness of Forgiveness,” she explains to the traveler.”People often expect God’s forgiveness to be like a beautiful park with fountains and rivers and green grass. They cannot understand why it should be a desert. Yet one has to learn that God’s forgiveness is everything–everything! And this is possible only in a desert, where a Christian comes to see nothing, appreciate nothing, hope in nothing but the cross of Jesus.” She quotes several passages from Galatians to the traveler:
But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. Peace and mercy be upon all who walked by this rule, upon the Israel of God…
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose.
“Do you think the apostle Paul traveled this Wilderness?” asks the traveler.
“Yes, he did. For years Paul had worked very hard in the City of Religion, to be a religious man. Still he found no peace for his spirit. Then Paul met Jesus; and from the start, Jesus meant one thing to Paul: forgiveness. He was overwhelmed with it. The forgiveness of the cross was the theme of his life from then on. But Paul’s first experience of the kingdom of God as a reality in his life was right in this wilderness.”
“So I’m walking where the apostles walked.” The traveler’s voice is full of awe.
“Remember when Peter lowered the net at the command of Jesus and brought it up loaded with fish? His immediate response was, ‘Leave me Lord, I’m a sinner!’ Jesus answered, ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.’ Implied in Jesus’ answer was, ‘I will take care of your sin.’ And when they brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Jesus-followed Him here into this Wilderness of Forgiveness in pursuit of a cross. After Jesus had died for Peter’s sins and risen for his justification and was about to fill Peter with the Holy Spirit, He said to this man who had denied him three times, ‘Simon, son of Jonas, do you love me?… Feed my sheep.’ And with this thrice repeated question and command, Peter’s life was healed with the forgiveness of his Lord.”
“For years,” the traveler tells her, “I’ve been trying to get beyond theoretical, doctrinal forgiveness, most probably, what is taught in Christian City, in order to know forgiveness itself. I’ve wanted to be immersed, baptized, LOST in it. I have longed to hear Jesus say to me personally,’Take heart, brother; your sins are forgiven.’ I’ve wanted to have the blood of the Cross flow into my heart and purify it.”
“You have come to the right place. Before you reach the other side of this Wilderness, you will experience the relief of having that load of guilt, which still, in fact, weighs you down like a rock, rolled away. You will begin to walk before God without shame. Just as you were once obsessed with the need to build yourself up, you will soon be obsessed with the forgiveness of God.”
“Obsessed with the forgiveness of God?”
“You will become so obsessed with God’s mercy that you will be free, for the first time in your life, of other people’s opinions.”
“Ha! Not me.” His response was immediate.
“The woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears was obsessed with His forgiveness to the point where she was heedless of the jeers and opinions of others. Or the cleansed leper-he joyfully fell at Jesus’ feet giving thanks for more than the cleansing of his body; he had received the inner healing of forgiveness. When Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus, he was watching his own forgiveness walking toward him down the road. So obsessed was he with the forgiveness which visited his life that day that the chains of covetousness broke from his heart. You have come to the place where it will happen to you.”
The traveler resumes his journey, his mysterious companion walking silently by side for an hour or two, and then suddenly disappearing.
“What joy I feel!” The traveler exclaims aloud. “This must be what the disciples felt as they returned to Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus.”
In the cross-shaped light, the traveler makes up the figure of another woman rising over the crest of the next dune and walking slowly down the slope toward him. He appears to recognize her. From his expression I gather that this person has wronged him. Her eyes are fixed on the traveler or she comes up to him.
“Will you forgive me?” she asks.
The traveler stops still. The woman draws closer, asking a second time, “Will you forgive me?” They are face to face when she asks for the third time, “Will you forgive me?” The traveler’s mysterious companion is again at his side, quietly instructing him, “This Wilderness of Forgiveness is not only a place for receiving forgiveness, but also for giving it. This woman is but the first of a procession of people from your past whom you have never really forgiven. The supernatural forbearance which has flooded your being all day is being challenged by the bitterness buried in your soul for all these years. You have to make a choice. The sterile, shallow, lip service forgiveness of your past life is powerless even to be polite to this woman. But the forgiveness of God, which has been flowing in to the point of becoming an obsession can flow out now if you will allow it to.”
The traveler reaches out, takes a woman by the hand, looks into her eyes and replies, “Of course I will forgive you!”
She weeps. And just as she forms the words, “Thank you,” she is gone.
Then the man who called the traveler a fool in the restaurant back in Christian City comes running and panting toward him. Mopping his face with his handkerchief, the troubled man begins to beg forgiveness.
“Of course, of course,” the traveler replies heartily. “It’s nothing. Don’t think another thing about it.”
“Please don’t take this matter so lightly. I NEED your forgiveness. Will you really forgive me, from the bottom of your heart?”
“But I already have,” returns the traveler.
His companion illuminates the situation for him: “He needs your FORGIVENESS. Not courtesy, but active, genuine forgiveness. He needs your LOVE.”
“My friend, you are forgiven,” the traveler tells him earnestly with respect in his voice.
With visible relief the man sighs, “Thank you!” and disappears into the desert air. His companion reminds him of verse in Matthew 18, which reads:
Then Peter came up and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say seven times, but seventy times seven.”
To be continued…
For deeper insight into how GOD the Father sees His children; to better understand the elementary principles of Christ (Hebrews 6:1-3); the ‘mysteries’ of Christ’s Kingdom; and our individual and corporate calling, commission, and empowerment- please review my first published book and the Table of Contents on the Amazon website linked here via Book Title: “Thy Kingdom Come- Here and Now!”
Your Love Never Fails- Jesus Culture
(Chris Quilala w/Kim Walker)