Compassion, Judgment, and the Insufficiency of “Progressive Christianity”
In my sermon on July 18, 2021, I shared some thoughts on a movement within the church called “Progressive Christianity.” Among other doctrines, proponents of this movement have questioned the long-held belief, as quoted in the Apostles’ Creed, that Jesus “will come to judge the living and the dead.” Efforts have also been made to re-interpret Jesus’s teaching about hell and judgment, which he spoke of even more than he spoke of love. Following is my attempt to explain why such “progressive” thought does not represent progress, but rather a major step back — not to mention a step away from orthodox belief.
One of the greatest stumbling blocks to Christianity, especially among those who are drawn to the idea of a loving, compassionate God, is the Bible’s teaching on judgment. As the Apostles’ Creed says, at the end of history Jesus “will come to judge the living and the dead.”
Jesus, who was full of compassion and gave his life because God so loved the world, spoke more about judgment than he did most other subjects. He could not have been more clear that an excluding verdict awaits those who, in pride and self-sufficiency, exclude themselves by dismissing his generous offer of salvation by grace through faith (Matt. 5:22; John 3:16-18).
And yet, with an even greater intensity, the same Jesus got sideways with pious religious people who wished judgment on others (Luke 9:51-56). Though divine justice demands payment for sin, he desires that all would turn to him and find shelter from the wrath to come. He takes no pleasure in the death of anyone, including “the wicked” (Ezekiel 18:23).
Jesus, at whose cross “heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love,” perfectly balanced judgment with compassion.
Well-intentioned but deeply misguided religious folk confuse Jesus’s teaching when they express enthusiasm about God’s judgment upon others, thus leaving others hesitant to discuss this subject in any context at all. When believers do unChristian things “in the name of Christ”—whether it be Jesus’s disciples seeking revenge on Samaritans, Peter cutting off the ear of one of Jesus’s betrayers, fundamentalist ministers faulting “the homosexuals” for the September 11 terrorist attacks, or a fringe group falsely identifying as Christian parading around the country with “God hates you” signs—such behavior make it difficult for believers to raise the subject of judgment at all.
Nobody wants to be judged. In fact, most of us are terrified of being judged. And most of us are reluctant, as we should be, to judge others. We want to be known for showing compassion and understanding. We want to show nothing but grace and love to everyone.
So we get stuck sometimes with how, exactly, we are supposed to live with that line in the Apostles’ Creed that says Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. That he will separate sheep from goats and wheat from weeds. That there is an everlasting torment, a lake of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and (gulp) a great many will spend eternity there.
The lover in us asks, why can’t everyone escape this horror?
The idea of heaven is easy to embrace. Even at a nonreligious funeral, mourners comfort each other with words such as, “She is in a better place now.” Conversely, for many the scriptural doctrine of damnation has become damnable. Charles Darwin once put to words what many of us naturally feel:
“I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the [biblical] text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”
Yet we must wrestle with Jesus’s many words emphasizing that, indeed, it is true. In moments of clarity, I am reminded of how necessary—even compassionate—this doctrine of judgment can be for us in the here and now.
When the Bible’s teaching about judgment is dismissed, all victims of injustice, violence, and oppression are then put at risk. If God is a God of love without the accountability of justice, then vulnerable people become more vulnerable, and bullies are encouraged to continue bullying.
If there is no ultimate accounting for evil, what hope is there for Holocaust victims regarding Hitler? What do we say to little girls who have been sold into the sex trade by greedy, oppressive scoundrels? What do we say to the boy who is abused by his tyrannical father, or the unassuming elderly widow who is robbed at gunpoint?
It’s too simple to merely say that our God is a God of love and nothing else. If God decided to put his gavel down once and for all, don’t we see that this would create many more problems than it would solve? If a judging God did not exist, then we would be living in a world of Darwinian chaos in which the strong eat the weak and only the powerful and cruel survive.
Miroslav Volf, a Croatian familiar with the effect of injustice on victims, believes that in order to fight injustice, we must believe in a God who holds bullies accountable for their bullying. In his masterpiece called Exclusion and Embrace, he delivers a hard truth to those of us who want a God of love with no judgment:
“My thesis . . . will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. . . . I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone. . . . Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. . . . The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect non-coercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die.”
This statement should hit us mostly sheltered, comfortable, and protected folks right in the chest.
For love to be truly loving, there must be judgment. If there is no judgment, then there is no hope for a slave, a rape victim, a child who has been abused or bullied, or people who have been slandered or robbed or had their dignity stolen. If nobody is called to account before a cosmic judgment seat for violence and oppression, then the victims will never see justice. We need a God who gets angry. We need a God who will protect his kids, who will once and for all remove bullies and perpetrators of evil from his playground.
‘How Much Do You Have to Hate Somebody?’
Jesus spoke so much about eternal fire and brimstone, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and the everlasting miseries of hell precisely because he loves us. His warnings about judgment invite us to flee beneath the shadow of his wings for shelter and refuge. He talks so much about God’s wrath because he desires earnestly that we never have to taste it.
One of the most loving things we can do is compassionately voice the truth that hell, just like heaven, is for real. Consider the words of Penn Jillette, an atheist comedian:
“I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward . . . how much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
If we believe in God, and if we love the people God places around us, then we must at some point risk social awkwardness and tell it true. As we do, we must also remember that hard truth must be delivered truthfully—in a spirit of gentleness, respect, and love-saturated tears.
True compassion demands it.
This essay is a modified excerpt from Scott’s first book, Jesus Outside the Lines: A Way Forward for Those Who are Tired of Taking Sides. Used by permission from Tyndale House.