Compassion, Judgment, and the Insufficiency of “Progressive Christianity”

Share

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.

Disorienting Truth

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.

Compassionate Judgment

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 SidesUsed by permission from Tyndale House.


Scott’s latest book, A Gentle Answer: Our ‘Secret Weapon’ in an Age of Us-Against-Them
is now available for individuals, discussion groups, and churches.
Sign up to receive Scott’s weekly post in your email inbox.

Browse and learn about all of Scott’s books.
Learn about Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville.
Listen to Scott’s sermons or teaching on his YouTube channel.
Connect with Scott on social media — TwitterInstagram, or Facebook.
Share

5 responses to “Compassion, Judgment, and the Insufficiency of “Progressive Christianity””

  1. Greg says:

    In Spirit fueled love for God and people, I don’t wish judgement upon people. Jesus indicted the pharisees with the thought that because their followers were so deceived by their leadership, they are heading to eternal separation from God. He suggested through the semantics of the text that without their presence in these followers’ lives, that they may have avoided this path completely… (as they could have found grace in the gospel instead from a different leadership). Read for yourself Mt 23:13 to see if you agree. In my love for people, i want to be careful not to be what the pharisees were to their followers.

    Progressive “Christians” who alter descriptions of God’s character as one of only love and not justice are defining a false god. But I believe that satan has a much more deceptive and destructive plan in play in this age: I believe he does his greatest work in the American all-most-popular “seeker” organizations who may or may not stand upon the theology of God being both loving and just, but instead of letting the the full counsel of Scripture of which the gospel is the pinnacle truth be the power for lovingly helping a non-believer find true salvation, they instead attempt to waft people into the fold on the world’s terms. For the record, I believe that there are Seekers. They aren’t people because the “roman road” is clear on that. The Seekers are God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. If a person seems to be interested in Spiritual things and comes to church, if the true Seekers really engaged this person’s heart to give them interest, they will have desire to turn from sin towards the God of Scripture and so leaders should not be ashamed of preaching the full counsel of Scripture with lovingness and respect as that is the power unto true salvation.

    This article mentions that without God, societies tear each other apart in darwinian fashion where the fit destroys the weak. Well I know of leaders in the scientific field, indoctrinated with godless naturalistic evolutionism (darwinianism or neo darwinianism)who were themselves wafted into the fold with no encouragement towards repentance from the sin of this abiding in naturalistic evolutionism and anti bible principles that disparage God’s holy name as Creator before they are told about “accepting Jesus into their heart.” They are now assured of their salvation (only God knows if they really are) and are embedding their influence in the church with the promotion of the same naturalistic evolution models this time garbed in a few god semantics! They might very well believe in hell. They might very well believe in judgement. But the cure they bring is a prayer to God but who is not accurately represented in Scripture. And they destroy the foundation in Genesis from which all of God’s redemptive plan rests upon. And no matter what is really going on in their hearts and minds and motives, the unbiblical message they bring can enrage extreme confusion in their followers much like in those who followed the pharisees. The gospel is about the “better Adam” who is Jesus. The historical Adam failed the population of man. Jesus succeeded. Offerings of cheap grace and mercy from hell with no agreement to walk away from what displeases God towards the true God accurately represented in Scripture is far more damning than this description of “progressive Christianity.” I relinquished myself to the sovereign love and grace of God years ago through Jesus dying to save me. As I found freedom from focus on my sinner self and to the Only God, supernatural joy flows -No turning back.

  2. Carol Dworkowski says:

    Perhaps part of the problem of reconciling God’s love with judgement is that the Latin/Western understanding is juridical rather than existential as it is in the teaching of the Orthodox Churches of the East:
    God is not the “judge” of men in the sense of a magistrate who passes sentence and imposes a punishment, testifying to the transgression. He is judge because of what He is: the possibility of life and true existence. When man voluntarily cuts himself off from this possibility of existence, he is automatically “judged”. It is not God’s sentence but His existence that judges him. God is nothing but an ontological fact of love and an outpouring of love: a fullness of good, an ecstasy of loving goodness …Man is judged according to the measure of the life and existence from which he excludes himself. Sin is a self-inflicted condemnation and punishment which man freely chooses when he refuses to be as a personal hypostasis of communion with God and prefers to “alter” and disorder his existence, fragmenting his nature into individual entities – when he prefers corruption and death …For the Church, sin is not a legal but an existential fact. It is not simply a transgression, but an active refusal on man’s part to be what he truly is: the image and “glory”, or manifestation, of God. ~ Christos Yannaras, The Freedom of Morality

    The Eastern Churches’ teaching on Hell and more:

    God does not condemn us to Hell; God wishes all humans to be saved. He will love us to all eternity, but there will exist the possibility that we do not accept the love and do not respond to it. And the refusal to accept love, the refusal to respond to it, that precisely is the meaning of Hell. Hell is not a place where God puts us; it’s a place where we put ourselves. The doors of Hell, insofar as they have locks, have locks on the inside. –Kallistos Ware

    “The crisis which the Western society is undergoing has primarily spiritual roots.” ~Metropolitan Hilarion, Russian Orthodox archbishop

    In Orthodox theology, the two words “image” and “likeness” are not used interchangeably as they are for Roman Catholics and Protestants. For Orthodox Christians, “image” denotes the powers and faculties with which every human being is endowed by God from the first moment of his existence. “Likeness” is the assimilation, the growth process to God through virtue and grace. We call this growth process “theosis.” For Western theology, man was created perfect in the absolute sense and therefore, when he fell, he fell completely away from God. For Orthodox theology, man was created perfect in the potential sense. –Fr. George Nicozisin

    Our purpose is not to condemn evil, but to correct it. With condemnation people can get lost, with un-derstanding and assistance they will be saved.
    Evil begins from bad thoughts.
    When you are bitter and indignant, even just with your thoughts, you spoil a spiritual atmosphere. You prevent the Holy Spirit from acting and allow the devil to increase the evil.
    You should always pray, love and forgive, driving out of yourself every evil thought.
    ~Elder Porphyrios of Kapsokalyva

    God’s love is like a wind that is constantly blowing in one direction. For those that go with the wind, the love of God is supportive and very helpful. For those that fight against the wind, it then becomes wrathful. Eventually, those that fight against the wind will tire and stop fighting. When that happens the love of God picks them up and carries them along. That is when these folks feel the love of God as rapture. ~Anonymous Orthodox Priest

    FAITH: not only an individual or theoretical belief in the dogmatic truths of Christianity, but an all – embracing relationship, an attitude of love and total trust in God. As such it involves a transformation of man’s entire life. Faith is a gift from God, the means whereby we are taken up into the whole theanthropic activity of God in Christ and of man in Christ through which man attains salvation. ~ Orthodox definition of Faith

    The sacred history of redemption is still going on. It is now the history of the Church that is the Body of Christ. The Spirit-Comforter is already abiding in the Church. No complete system of Christian faith is yet possible, for the Church is still on her pilgrimage. And the Bible is kept by the Church as a book of history to remind believers of the dynamic nature of the divine revelation, “at sundry times and in diverse manners.” ~Georges V. Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View

    Becoming a Christian is not so much inviting Christ into one’s life as getting oneself into Christ’s life. ~Orthodox Study Bible

  3. Patrick McClarty says:

    I really liked the article. If I just read and didn’t know author I would say the person who wrote this is a free will advocate. Amen.

  4. Greg says:

    Replying to Carol’s post: In my feeble humanness I want to say “yes! You are right!” But when I choose to turn from myself and follow Another who is the Only God who reveals Himself, His character and His ways, the text that I read is contrary to the essence spoken through the eastern orthodox leaders you quote. Scripture tells me that my heart is deceitfully wicked. I fall short. God’s ways are not my ways. The Bible is clear that we are sinners by nature starting in the Garden of Eden and now our choices are sin filled. This fact is the truth that undergirds the entirety of God’s redemption story where its pinnacle glory is found in Christ who sets us free from that. As I understand that all of the human race is under sin, the idea of “freedom” becomes a little fuzzy to explain. The Bible says “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Without Christ first setting us free, humankind will choose that which their sinful nature dictates and moves them towards. Don’t you think that the word better describing such a situation would be slavery? In our humanness one may say that this does not seem right. But Scripture is clear: “There is a way that seems right to man, but in the end it leads to death.”

    These quotations in Carol’s post that highlight human rationale as all so capable when it really is not is the perfect example of how when one alters early Genesis which defines the truth about our sin nature, the entirety of God’s redemption story is marred. Years ago I learned that the Mormons also altered early Genesis to suggest that the fall of man is really not a fall at all but more about him finding himself in a higher knowledge towards self exaltation coupled w the ability to have sex and reproduce. That is straight out of the book of Mormon and it is straight from the pit of hell. This perspective has precepts that align much too closely with the precepts about free will that eastern orthodox theology adheres to. The man focus of mormon teaching is damning and we can use this fraud to discover if we are more in line for glorifying self like the Mormons do or God who the Only One worthy. The day I turned from glorifying myself to worship Another who supplied grace in the cross to save me is the best and most joy infused decision of my life! He is Sovereign and I am but a man. The more I revere Him and lower myself as I ought, the more I am free and find true joy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *