Hidden in Plain Sight

Michael Metzger

We continue to debate whether dropping the atomic bombs on Japan hastened the end of the war and saved millions of lives. No one can be certain. Christians can however be confident that subsequent cultural reforms helped save 2,000,000 Japanese souls.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima (August 6th) and Nagasaki (the 9th). Pundits in the press pass judgment as to whether this hastened the war’s end and saved lives. Admiral William Leahy believed it was of no material assistance. “The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.” Major Gen. Curtis LeMay felt the war would have been over in two weeks without the atomic bomb. Millions of G.I.s respectfully disagree. Bottom line: we’ll never know.

What we do know is what happened next. Allies waited for close to a week before Japanese leadership surrendered on August 14. An anxious General Douglas Macarthur arrived at the Tokyo airport on August 30th. It was unclear whether the Japanese, known for deceptiveness and savagery during the war, were ready to lay down arms. They were.

Macarthur eased tensions by immediately decreeing several laws: No Allied personnel were to assault Japanese people. No Allied personnel were to eat the scarce Japanese food. The restriction was not lifted, and then only partially, until 1948.

Macarthur also set to work on creating a new Japanese constitution. It was modeled on the U.S. and British constitutions, both having hidden underlying Judeo-Christian notions. Japan has never been particularly receptive to the gospel but they did embrace the constitution, which required that Hirohito renounce his claim to divinity. He did.

What followed was remarkable. In his biography of Macarthur, William Manchester notes that over 2,000,000 Japanese came to faith in Christ over the next few years.1 Apparently contrition, coupled with cultural reforms such as a new constitution, contributed to this wave of conversion. Post-WWII Japan reminds us of Peter Berger’s contention that “plausibility structures” (institutions or items such as new constitutions) contribute to making the faith believable. His work squares with Augustine who noted, “no one indeed believes anything, unless he previously knew it to be believable.”

Now there are reports of thousands of Japanese converting to Christianity, but this time inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantatas. Since the 17th century, Japan has embraced the music of Western culture. Bach’s popularity is once again surging. Many Japanese are also learning what’s latent in Bach’s music—the gospel story. Bach’s cantatas are acting as plausibility structures, making the faith more believable to listeners.

This approach to evangelism is what C. S. Lewis preferred. In God In the Dock, he wrote that Christians should not want “more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent.” Latent means something that’s there but not manifest—implicit but not explicit. In Bach’s cantatas and Macarthur’s constitution we have the gospel hidden in plain sight. It’s a wise and winsome approach to cultures that are unreceptive to the gospel, where the faith is viewed as gibberish. That describes our post-Christian culture.

We’re no longer in a post-WWII world. We’re in a post-Christian world. Western cultures find the gospel implausible. In this situation, notes Michael Ward, a fellow at the University of Oxford and professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University, “our challenge is not so much to prove that Christianity is true as to show that it has meaning, that it is not gibberish.”2 That requires a gospel hidden in plain sight in institutions, books, art, businesses—you name it—that serve as plausibility structures. It can be done, and these two stories from Japan remind us why this approach is most effective in particular cultures.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 William Manchester, American Caesar: Douglas Macarthur – 1880-1964 (New York: Dell, 1978), p. 555.
2 Michael Ward, “How Lewis Lit the Way to Better Apologetics,” Christianity Today, November 2013.


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  1. Mike, I believe that is precisely why Christ gave the command to disciple as our priority rather than conversion. It is disciples who show by the way they live that Christianity has and gives meaning to life. Converts who are not discipled not only can’t do that but they often unintentionally discredit what God intends and thereby turn non-believers away.

  2. Bob, I believe this is precisely why God first gave the command to “make cultures” (Genesis 2:15). It is cultures that go a long, long way to creating what is taken to be plausible, or believable. For instance, at this point in time, it is simply implausible to a majority of Americans that same-sex marriage should be outlawed, regardless of whether Christians represent a large percentage of the US population.

    In my opinion, we’ve tried to make disciples without trying to make cultures. Flourishing cultures contribute to flourishing individuals.

    I’m not denigrating your reference to the Great Commission. But the Cultural mandate precedes it, and the history of Japan gives us some inklings as to why this is so.

  3. What do you think the primary elementary of a plausibility structure are? About how much or what kind of culture do we need to create in order to right move toward this?

    Great post by the way!

  4. Trent: There are overlapping cultures – not just one culture. True, there can be a predominant culture (or cultures). By definition, cultures are reality defining and boundary forming. Hence, marriage is an institution that, at one time, formed cultures that promoted chastity, self-control, faithfulness, and–in the heterosexual, monogamous marriage–helped to make the Christian faith (the gospel) plausible.

  5. One lexicon in peace studies is personal/direct, institutional and structural(cultural). Is the model culture the Trinity relationship? Lived out in person(single/married), church and community ?
    Limited by individuality, exclusivity and sectarianism ?

  6. Are there symptoms of relating only to the Father, the Son or Holy Spirit ?

    Ignorance of creation, community and personality ?

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