Theological liberals do not intend to destroy Christianity, but to save it. As a matter of fact, theological liberalism is motivated by what might be described as an apologetic motivation. The pattern of theological liberalism is all too clear. Theological liberals are absolutely certain that Christianity must be saved…from itself.
Liberalism: Saving Christianity From Itself
The classic liberals of the early twentieth century, often known as modernists, pointed to a vast intellectual change in the society and asserted that Christianity would have to change or die. As historian William R. Hutchison explains, “The hallmark of modernism is the insistence that theology must adopt a sympathetic attitude toward secular culture and must consciously strive to come to terms with it.”
This coming to terms with secular culture is deeply rooted in the sense of intellectual liberation that began in the Enlightenment. Protestant liberalism can be traced to European sources, but it arrived very early in America—far earlier than most of today’s evangelicals are probably aware. Liberal theology held sway where Unitarianism dominated and in many parts beyond.
Soon after the American Revolution, more organized forms of liberal theology emerged, fueled by a sense of revolution and intellectual liberty. Theologians and preachers began to question the doctrines of orthodox Christianity, claiming that doctrines such as original sin, total depravity, divine sovereignty, and substitutionary atonement violated the moral senses. William Ellery Channing, an influential Unitarian, spoke for many in his generation when he described “the shock given to my moral nature” by the teachings of orthodox Christianity.
Though any number of central beliefs and core doctrines were subjected to liberal revision or outright rejection, the doctrine of hell was often the object of greatest protest and denial.
Considering hell and its related doctrines, Congregationalist pastor Washington Gladden declared: “To teach such a doctrine as this about God is to inflict upon religion a terrible injury and to subvert the very foundations of morality.”
Though hell had been a fixture of Christian theology since the New Testament, it became an odium theologium—a doctrine considered repugnant by the larger culture and now retained and defended only by those who saw themselves as self-consciously orthodox in theological commitment.
Novelist David Lodge dated the final demise of hell to the decade of the 1960s. “At some point in the nineteen-sixties, Hell disappeared. No one could say for certain when this happened. First it was there, then it wasn’t.” University of Chicago historian Martin Marty saw the transition as simple and, by the time it actually occurred, hardly observed. “Hell disappeared. No one noticed,” he asserted.
The liberal theologians and preachers who so conveniently discarded hell did so without denying that the Bible clearly teaches the doctrine. They simply asserted the higher authority of the culture’s sense of morality. In order to save Christianity from the moral and intellectual damage done by the doctrine, hell simply had to go. Many rejected the doctrine with gusto, claiming the mandate to update the faith in a new intellectual age. Others simply let the doctrine go dormant, never to be mentioned in polite company.
What of today’s evangelicals? Though some lampoon the stereotypical “hell-fire and brimstone” preaching of an older evangelical generation, the fact is that most church members may never have heard a sermon on hell—even in an evangelical congregation. Has hell gone dormant among evangelicals as well?
Revising Hell: A Test Case for the Slide into Liberalism
Interestingly, the doctrine of hell serves very well as a test case for the slide into theological liberalism. The pattern of this slide looks something like this.
First, a doctrine simply falls from mention. Over time, it is simply never discussed or presented from the pulpit. Most congregants do not even miss the mention of the doctrine. Those who do become fewer over time. The doctrine is not so much denied as ignored and kept at a distance. Yes, it is admitted, that doctrine has been believed by Christians, but it is no longer a necessary matter of emphasis.
Second, a doctrine is revised and retained in reduced form. There must have been some good reason that Christians historically believed in hell. Some theologians and pastors will then affirm that there is a core affirmation of morality to be preserved, perhaps something like what C. S. Lewis affirmed as “The Tao.” The doctrine is reduced.
Third, a doctrine is subjected to a form of ridicule. Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral, known for his message of “Possibility Thinking,” once described his motivation for theological reformulation in terms of refocusing theology on “generating trust and positive hope.” His method is to point to salvation and the need “to become positive thinkers.” Positive thinking does not emphasize escape from hell, “whatever that means and wherever that is.”
That statement ridicules hell by dismissing it in terms of “whatever that means and wherever it is.” Just don’t worry about hell, Schuller suggests. Though few evangelicals are likely to join in the same form of ridicule, many will invent softer forms of marginalizing the doctrine.
Fourth, a doctrine is reformulated in order to remove its intellectual and moral offensiveness. Evangelicals have subjected the doctrine of hell to this strategy for many years now. Some deny that hell is everlasting, arguing for a form of annihilationism or conditional immortality. Others will deny hell as a state of actual torment. John Wenham simply states, “Unending torment speaks to me of sadism, not justice.” Some argue that God does not send anyone to hell, and that hell is simply the sum total of human decisions made during earthly lives. God is not really a judge who decides, but a referee who makes certain that rules are followed.
Tulsa pastor Ed Gungor recently wrote that “people are not sent to hell, they go there.” In other words, God just respects human freedom to the degree that he will reluctantly let humans determined to go to hell have their wish.
Apologizing for Hell: The New Evangelical Evasion
In recent years, a new pattern of evangelical evasion has surfaced. The Protestant liberals and modernists of the twentieth century simply dismissed the doctrine of hell, having already rejected the truthfulness of Scripture. Thus, they did not enter into elaborate attempts to argue that the Bible did not teach the doctrine—they simply dismissed it.
Though this pattern is found among some who would claim to be evangelicals, this is not the most common evangelical pattern of compromise. A new apologetic move is now evident among some theologians and preachers who do affirm the inerrancy of the Bible and the essential truthfulness of the New Testament doctrine of hell. This new move is more subtle, to be sure. In this move the preacher simply says something like this:
“I regret to tell you that the doctrine of hell is taught in the Bible. I believe it. I believe it because it is revealed in the Bible. It is not up for renegotiation. We just have to receive it and believe it. I do believe it. I wish it could be otherwise but it is not.”
Statements like this reveal a very great deal. The authority of the Bible is clearly affirmed. The speaker affirms what the Bible reveals and rejects accommodation. So far, so good. The problem is in how the affirmation is introduced and explained. In an apologetic gesture, the doctrine is essentially lamented.
What does this say about God? What does this imply about God’s truth? Can a truth clearly revealed in the Bible be anything less than good for us? The Bible presents the knowledge of hell just as it presents the knowledge of sin and judgment: these are things we had better know. God reveals these things to us for our good and for our redemption. In this light, the knowledge of these things is grace to us. Apologizing for a doctrine is tantamount to impugning the character of God.
Do we believe that hell is a part of the perfection of God’s justice? If not, we have far greater theological problems than those localized to hell.
Several years ago, someone wisely suggested that a good many modern Christians wanted to “air condition hell.” The effort continues.
Remember that the liberals and the modernists operated out of an apologetic motivation. They wanted to save Christianity as a relevant message in the modern world and to remove the odious obstacle of what were seen as repugnant and unnecessary doctrines. They wanted to save Christianity from itself.
Today, some in movements such as the emerging church commend the same agenda, and for the same reason. Are we embarrassed by the biblical doctrine of hell?
If so, this generation of evangelicals will face no shortage of embarrassments. The current intellectual context allows virtually no respect for Christian affirmations of the exclusivity of the gospel, the true nature of human sin, the Bible’s teachings regarding human sexuality, and any number of other doctrines revealed in the Bible. The lesson of theological liberalism is clear—embarrassment is the gateway drug for theological accommodation and denial.
Be sure of this: it will not stop with the air conditioning of hell.
I am always glad to hear from readers and listeners. Write me at email@example.com. Follow regular updates on Twitter at www.twitter.com/AlbertMohler.
On November 3, 1921, J. Gresham Machen presented an address entitled, “Liberalism or Christianity?” In that famous address, later expanded into the book, Christianity & Liberalism, Machen argued that evangelical Christianity and its liberal rival were, in effect, two very different religions.
Machen’s argument became one of the issues of controversy in the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversies of the 1920s and beyond. By any measure, Machen was absolutely right–the movement that styled itself as liberal Christianity was eviscerating the central doctrines of the Christian faith while continuing to claim Christianity as “a way of life” and a system of meaning.
“The chief modern rival of Christianity is ‘liberalism,’” Machen asserted. “Modern liberalism, then, has lost sight of the two great presuppositions of the Christian message–the living God and the fact of sin,” he argued. “The liberal doctrine of God and the liberal doctrine of man are both diametrically opposite to the Christian view. But the divergence concerns not only the presuppositions of the message, but also the message itself.”
Howard P. Kainz, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Marquette University, offers a similar argument–warning that it is now modern secular liberalism which poses as the great rival to orthodox Christianity.
Observing the basic divide in the American culture, Kainz notes: “Most of the heat of battle occurs where traditional religious believers clash with certain liberals who are religiously committed to secular liberalism.”
Kainz offers a crucial insight here, suggesting that one of the most important factors in the nation’s cultural divide is that persons on both sides are deeply committed to their own creeds and worldviews–even if on one side those creeds are secular.
“This explains why talking about abortion or same-sex ‘marriage,’ for example, with certain liberals is usually futile. It is like trying to persuade a committed Muslim to accept Christ. Because his religion forbids it, he can only do so by converting from Islam to Christianity; he cannot accept Christ as long as he remains firmly committed to Islam. So it is with firmly committed liberals: Their ‘religion’ forbids any concessions to the ‘conservative’ agenda, and as long as they remain committed to their secular ideology, it is futile to hope for such concessions from them.”
Kainz’s argument bears similarities not only to J. Gresham Machen’s observations about the theological scene, but also to Thomas Sowell’s understanding of the larger culture. As Sowell argued in A Conflict of Visions, the basic ideological divide of our times is between those who hold a “constrained vision” over those who hold an “unconstrained vision.” Both worldviews are, in the actual operations of life, reduced to certain “gut feelings” that operate much like religious convictions.
Kainz concedes that some will resist his designation of secularism as a religion. “Religion in the most common and usual sense connotes dedication to a supreme being or beings,” he acknowledges. Nevertheless, “especially in the last few centuries, ‘religion’ has taken on the additional connotations of dedication to abstract principles or ideals rather than a personal being,” he insists. Kainz dates the rise of this secular religion to the French Enlightenment and its idolatrous worship of Reason.
Looking back over the last century, Kainz argues that Marxism and ideological Liberalism have functioned as religious systems for millions of individuals. Looking specifically at Marxism, Kainz argues that the Marxist religion had dogmas, canonical scriptures, priests, theologians, ritualistic observances, parochial congregations, heresies, hagiography, and even an eschatology. Marxism’s dogmas were its core teachings, including economic determinism and the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Its canonical scriptures included the writings of Marx, Lenin, and Mao Tse Tung. Its priests were those guardians of Marxist purity who functioned as the ideological theorists of the movement. Its ritualistic observances included actions ranging from workers’ strikes to mass rallies. The eschatology of Marxism was to be realized in the appearance of “Communist man” and the new age of Marxist utopia.
Similarly, Kainz argues that modern secular liberalism includes its own dogmas. Among these are the beliefs “that mankind must overcome religious superstition by means of Reason; that empirical science can and will eventually answer all the questions about the world and human values that were formerly referred to traditional religion or theology; and that the human race, by constantly invalidating and disregarding hampering traditions, can and will achieve perfectibility.”
Kainz also argues that contemporary liberalism has borrowed selectively from the New Testament, turning Jesus’ admonition to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” as a foundation for “absolute secularism,” enshrined in the language of a wall separating church and state. Thus, “religion [is] reduced to something purely private.”
Secular liberalism also identifies certain sins such as “homophobia” and sexism. As Kainz sees it, the secular scriptures fall into two broad categories: “Darwinist and scientistic writings championing materialist and naturalistic explanations for everything, including morals; and feminist writings exposing the ‘evil’ of patriarchy and tracing male exploitation of females throughout history up to the present.”
The priests and priestesses of secular liberalism constitute its “sacerdotal elite” and tend to be intellectuals who can present liberal values in the public square. Congregations where secular liberals gather include organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the National Organization of Women, and similar bodies. These groups “help supply a sense of affiliation and commonality for the religiously liberal.”
The rites and rituals of secular liberalism include “gay pride” parades and pro-abortion rallies. Interestingly, the eschatology of this movement is, Kainz argues, the distillation of pragmatism. “In the estimation of the religiously liberal,” Kainz asserts, “all lifestyles and all moralities can approximate this goal, as long as the proscribed illiberal ‘sins’ are avoided.”
Kainz readily admits that not all liberals are committed to this religious vision of liberalism. As he sees it, “There are many people working for social justice, human rights, international solidarity, and other causes commonly regarded as liberal without a deep ideological commitment.” His point is that conservatives may find common cause and common ground with these non-religiously committed liberals.
“For many ‘moderate’ liberals, liberalism is a political perspective, not a core ideology,” he observes. “In the culture war it is important for Christians to distinguish between the religiously committed liberal and the moderate liberal. For one thing, Christians should not be surprised when they find no common ground with the former. They may form occasional, even if temporary, alliances with the latter.”
Kainz’s article “Liberalism as Religion: The Culture War Is Between Religious Believer on Both Sides,” appears in the May 2006 edition of Touchstone magazine. His analysis is genuinely helpful in understanding the clash of positions, policies, convictions, and visions that mark our contemporary scene.
Though Kainz does not develop this point, all persons are, in their own way, deeply committed to their own worldview. There is no intellectual possibility of absolute value neutrality–not among human beings, anyway.
The conception of our current cultural conflict as a struggle between two rival religions is instructive and humbling. At the political level, this assessment should serve as a warning that our current ideological divides are not likely to disappear anytime soon. At the far deeper level of theological analysis, this argument serves to remind Christians that evangelism remains central to our mission and purpose. Those who aim at the merely political are missing the forest for the trees, and confusing the temporal for the eternal.
TOPIC: New Evangelicalism: The Young and The Leftists
GUEST: Ingrid Schlueter, Crosstalk Radio Program
What are biblical Christians to think when Richard Cizik, the Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), an organization representing 45,000 evangelical churches and millions of members, says the following in a recent interview on National Public Radio: Read more