How Josh McDowell Saw School Violence Coming — And Showed the Solution — Almost 40 Years Ago

By Tom Gilson Published on May 26, 2018

Almost forty years ago, Christian speaker and author Josh McDowell predicted violence like we’re seeing too often in schools today. “Violence may break out soon. … It will be very blatant,” he said, according to notes I still have from a talk he delivered in July, 1979. “Students used to think there were solutions. No longer. Students don’t think there’s hope.’”

The Crisis

 There was a “crisis of absolutes,” he said. The “basis of morality” was gone. Television networks displayed “intimate sexual behaviors” 2.7 times per hour in prime time, and “88 percent of all sex” depicted takes place outside of marriage.

The university was “bankrupt.” The suicide rate on campus was so high, “if it were a disease it would be called a national epidemic.” On campus, freedom of religion existed, “except not for religious propagation.”

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We faced a serious leadership crisis. America had “lost its role models.” There was no Churchill, no Reagan; no great economic leader.

Sounds up to date, doesn’t it? But Josh gave this talk almost four decades ago. It was true then, but its effects have accumulated over time, and we’re seeing the deadly outcome. 

Mistaken Moral Leadership

Part of that deadly outcome? What a friend calls “rationalized relativism.” I heard another talk Josh gave sometime in the early 2000s, also on cultural trends. He spoke at length on “values clarification” education.

I’d been trained in values clarification as an education major in college. I knew its basic idea: Moral instruction shouldn’t about telling students what to believe. It should be about helping them understand their own beliefs, and honoring each person’s individual moral choices.

“It’s up to you. You have the spiritual solutions.”

Josh explained all that to this group, and then he asked the hard question. He’d been deeply involved in ministry with families and students in Columbine after the 1999 shooting tragedy there. Clearly he cared. Yet he had to ask, “Weren’t these two young men, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, living out their values? Isn’t that what their schools had taught them they should do?”

The answer, of course, is yes, that’s what they’d been trained to do. Harris and Klebold had exposed the deadly contradiction contained in empty moral lessons like “values clarification.”

Problems Beyond Psychology

That term has dropped out of vogue, as far as I know, but the idea behind it still reigns. Our culture’s supreme virtue is to “tolerate” everyone’s values and opinions as equally good and valid. Dimitrios Pagourtzis, the Texas school shooter, had values and opinions, too. He’s just the latest in a line of violent people, demonstrating the deadly incoherence of our culture’s moral teachings.

He recognized the signs in advance, and saw where they were pointing. Any social scientist would tell you that’s a good indicator he got it right.

Everyone has their preferred explanations for the rising violence in American schools. One thing for sure: It’s not due to any increase in the availability of guns. My son’s former Scoutmaster told me that when he was a high school student, his speech teacher had assigned him to do a demonstration type of talk. He showed the class how he cleaned his hunting rifle. Guns were easy to find then. Shooters were not.

But that was before “values clarification.” The 1960s with its racial violence and war protests may have been over, but our country’s moral and spiritual life was still drooping badly.  Violence such as Josh was predicting was still to come. But it has.

In the midst of all the theorizing what’s causing school shootings, it’s worth paying special attention to one who saw it coming. He recognized the signs in advance, and where they were pointing. Any social scientist would tell you that’s a good indicator he got it right.

In that first, 1979 talk, Josh mentioned a psychologist who had told him, “I hope you’re right about Jesus; our problems are beyond psychology.” One of the most powerful men in the White House told him, “It’s up to you,” meaning all true Christian leadership. “You have the spiritual solutions.”


Josh’s son, Sean, is also a noted speaker and author, and a frequent Stream contributor. Josh is regularly referred to by his first name, including articles like this one.

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  • Juan Garcia

    It all started with the first lie in the garden. When people’s desire to be their own god is affirmed by culture, we see all manner of rationalized evil.

  • Bojaws Dubois

    Josh is a good boy.

  • WhatsYourLifeAssumption

    I think this article addressed a very important piece of this puzzle. A hidden dynamic that I think plays into our culture as a whole is the trauma that has been suffered from war. Especially WW1, WW2, the Korean war and Vietnam. PTSD in veterans was not really seen until the mid to late 80’s. What is not known is the impact that war has on kids that are raised by veterans who suffer from war trauma. A veteran can very much love their children but the children can still “embrace” the fears that a parent has from war.

    I do not feel that the emotional, philological, and spiritual toll that has been exacted on this country from war is really understood. How does one deal with these kinds of issues? How about drugs, alcohol, and sex?

    I have yet to find an adult man who’s father was a war vet who can really talk about what they grew up with. The trauma of war is passed down to the children and we have missed that in our understanding of whats happening in our culture.

  • AndRebecca

    The mother of Dylan Kelbold is on you tube with explanations as to why she thinks he did what he did. Her best answer is it was a murder suicide, and she noted the increase of suicides in teenagers. The government statistics show a great increase in suicide in children, teens, and young adults starting in the 1960s and continuing on till today. This coincides with the purposeful destruction of Christianity as the basis of values in our country.

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