I once sat with another parent at a playground making small talk about religion. (I know, right?) He was a Progressive Christian who didn't believe in Original Sin. He pointed to his daughter playing sweetly with another girl and said, "See her? She's innocent. She has to be taught to do bad things." At that very moment, I kid you not, she had a Toddlers and Tiaras-level meltdown, tantruming all over the playground. He sheepishly chuckled and said, "Well, maybe you're right."
As I revealed in my last post, progressives typically deny the doctrine of Original Sin. But historically, Original Sin is how Christians have answered the question, "What's wrong with the world?" In today's post, we'll look at the historic and progressive understandings of redemption and restoration.
Diagnosing the problem is half the battle. We all know there's something wrong with the world. We all know there's something wrong with us. Just watch the news, read a magazine, or walk out your front door and you'll see. Creation is broken. So, what's the solution?
In him we have redemption through his blood.—Ephesians 1:7
He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross.—1 Peter 2:24
For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.—Matthew 26:28
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.—1 Corinthians 15:3
These are just a few of many Bible verses indicating that Jesus died for our sins—in our place—as our substitute. Christians refer to this as Substitutionary Atonement. This isn't all the Bible has to say about what happened on the cross. But historically, (and according to the earliest creed found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5), this is how Christians have understood it. The atonement certainly means a lot more, but it can mean no less than this.
This concept is something many Progressives refer to as "cosmic child abuse." The idea that God would require the blood sacrifice of His only Son is seen as immoral—nothing more than a pagan idea early Christians adopted from the culture around them.
Progressives Robert Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy claim that this view of redemption is archaic and in desperate need of a make-over. They write:
And the resurrection? As I noted in a piece I wrote about Rob Bell and the Bible, the resurrection is viewed as non-literal by many in the Progressive Christian movement. Felten and Procter-Murphy claim that none of the resurrection accounts in the New Testament can be taken as historical. (2)
For the most part, progressives seek to heal the world through humanitarian efforts like environmentalism, embracing the "oneness" of all humanity, social justice, and political activism. (For the record, I'm not saying Christians shouldn't promote justice and seek to do good in the world. If you're tempted to send me a nasty email, pleaseread this first.)
Clearing the mud
Our theology should be informed by Scripture, not by what we are "moved by." The eternal truth of how God chose to rescue the world doesn't ebb and flow based on what gives us "all the feels." The Bible teaches that Jesus' blood atoned for our sin and that He was raised from the dead. Without these teachings, you don't have Christianity. You may have something else—but it's not Christianity.
Why does this even matter? It matters because Christianity is the only religious system I can think of that stands or falls based on a historical event being true or false. Put simply: Christianity depends on a literal resurrection. (3)
The Apostle Paul said it best:
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain and you are still in your sins — 1 Corinthians 15:14. In other words, if Jesus wasn't physically raised from the dead, as an actual event in real history. . .then Christianity is false. It's not true. Move on and be done with it. It's literally that important.
Bottom line: Jesus shed His blood to save us from our sin and was raised to life again. Many Progressives see this as a pagan idea and no longer find it relevant and "moving." By rejecting Original Sin, redemption becomes unnecessary. The only meaningful answer Progressives can offer to mend the brokenness of the world is to do it by our own human efforts.
Once the proposed solutions are set in motion, what's the ultimate result? How do historic and progressive Christians view restoration?
Christians have historically held various views on what will happen in the future. But one thing believers have affirmed throughout history is that at some point Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. After judgment, those who rejected faith in Jesus in this life will be separated from God forever in a place of eternal conscious torment called hell. Those who have put their trust in Jesus will live forever with God in the New Heaven and New Earth.
Once someone denies Original Sin and the substitutionary atonement of Jesus, Heaven and Hell are the next doctrines to fall.
Perhaps no book has had more influence on Progressive thought in this area than Rob Bell's Love Wins. In the introduction, he refers to the historic ideas of heaven and hell as "misguided" and "toxic." When he describes heaven, it's a literal place—but not a place that's "somewhere else."(4) In other words, heaven is not a place you go when you die. It's a "present reality" that we sometimes get to experience in bits and pieces when we're particularly connected with God. He writes:
And hell? That's a literal place too, but much like his idea of heaven, hell is something that is experienced in the here and now. He does vaguely refer to the hell of the afterlife as being the same type of situation. He writes:
Clearing the mud
In Scripture, heaven is a physical place. If it isn't, where did Jesus go when He ascended in the book of Acts? There is certainly some mystery to the exact nature of "New Heavens and a New Earth," but it's not a place in which good and evil can coexist. Evil will be quarantined in hell, leaving heaven free of tears, pain, and death.
Bottom line: In the Progressive paradigm, heaven and hell are words that describe our joys and sufferings here on earth. Heaven is the hope of an earthly future. Historically, Christians have looked forward to a future eternal home, isolated from evil and in the presence of God forever.
We aren't the first people in history to find some of these ideas a bit strange.
After feeding the five thousand, Jesus told His followers a very hard thing. He spoke of Himself as the "bread of life." He said, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day" (John 6:54).
Stop for a moment and imagine how weird, creepy, and scary it must have been to hear that. In fact, many of His disciples were so offended, they abandoned Him on the spot. He looked to the twelve—His closest companions—and asked if they wanted to leave too. Then Peter spoke up, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (vs. 68).
As strange as Original Sin, Atonement, and Heaven and Hell may seem to our modern sensibilities, they are indispensable parts of Christ’s “words of eternal life.” They are not progressive. They’re eternal and unchanging. And they are something we can put our hope in and count on, no matter how quickly the winds of culture shift. And that is good news. That is the gospel.
(1) David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy, Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity, (Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2012) Kindle location: 3329
(2) Ibid., Kindle location: 1916
(3) For a thorough defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, see The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N.T. Wright
(4) Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived, (Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2011) p. 53
(5) Ibid., p. 67
(6) Ibid., p. 90