What replaces Hell in Progressive Evangelism?

For conservatives and those who adhere to traditional Christian beliefs, there’s an easy reason to want to evangelize the world and share the Good News: to save people from Hell.

  • If a person has not heard the Gospel, they go to Hell.
  • If a person has heard but rejected the Gospel, they go to Hell.

Hell is pretty motivational. For every person who says the Sinner’s Prayer, hears and responds to your Elevator sermon, converts and turns from their ways, they are possibly saved from Hell. Every person who through your attractive or missional efforts decides to confess and follow Christ through your church: they are possibly saved from Hell. For the seven people in the world who read a Jack Chick tract and were actually convicted: they are possibly saved from Hell. It’s a very motivational understanding of what God requires of Christians today.

At its best, it makes evangelical organizations and churches work well together, regardless of their different worship styles or ecclesiologies or ethics. Because so long as people are being saved from Hell, that’s a common goal they can all rally behind.

But is Hell a motivation for everyone?


For an increasing number of progressives (and some evangelicals), Hell does not function in the same way as Conservatives. Looking at the chart above, in many understandings of soteriology – of who is saved and how – hell does not place. Here’s each section from the original blog post here (I realize I need to update it based on comments on the original post, but here’s the 2011 version):

  • Predestination: Calvinist position of only the “select few” are chosen by God, regardless of human action. This is specifically Double-Predestination–the next chart I make will include Single Predestination.
  • Exclusivism: Traditional Christian position of “those who believe in Christ are saved by faith” or by whatever your faith tradition lifts up: so long as they do that thing or believe that thing, then they are saved.
  • Inclusivism: Most (or all) faiths worship in different ways through different avenues but all lead to God for faithful members of those faiths.
    • The subform is “Christian Inclusivism” where all other religions are actually worshiping shadow versions of Christ and lead to the Christian God if they are faithful to the shadow Christ in their religion.
  • Universalism: two forms
    • Soft (Universal Grace): God offers salvation to all in this life or the next. Rejecting salvation leads to life without God (hell, possibly).
    • Hard (Universal Salvation): God saves every person in one heaven.
  • Pluralism: each religion leads to its own ultimate destination: many paths, many destinations.

As you can see, some of the above understandings of “who is saved” don’t have a place for Hell. Popularized by Rob Bell (who I would call Universal Grace, btw), the concept that God will save people after they die has a long undercurrent in Christian tradition but is more well known today. But beyond that, only two of these specifically see hell as the most likely place for non-Christians to go, and only one can do anything about it: Exclusivism. Thus, a belief in hell is extremely motivating for Christians who hold this soteriology.

So what motivates Progressives?

Progressives, what is it that motivates you to share your faith in Jesus Christ?

For decades, the Social Gospel has been our go-to idea: through making the world better, we spread the love of God. It’s the reverse of the United Methodist mission statement: We transforming the world to make disciples of Jesus Christ. And it has motivated many to do incredible actions of mission, hospitality, justice, and mercy. Is that what motivates you?

Some progressives they see salvation as extremely contextual. One colleague of mine says that what motivates him as a progressive is that “everyone I meet need to be freed from the chains that bind them. They have a problem with the Bible, they need to read it to remove the chains. They have a problem with LGBT people, they need to study and serve alongside to free them. And I help facilitate that interaction and transformation by the Holy Spirit.”

Other progressives see salvation as communal and see salvation not primarily in terms of life after death for the individual, but in terms of bringing about the kingdom of God: a new social order where there will be equality for all. For instance:

If, as the traditional formulation has it, history and eternity are two parallel (i.e., nonintersecting) realms, our goal within history is to gain access to eternity…but if history and eternity intersect, if salvation is moving into a new order–then we must strive against everything which at present denies that order.

(Justo & Catherine Gonzalez, Liberation Preaching, 1980, pp.23-24)

So there’s still plenty that motivates progressives to share their faith in word and deed. Hell does not always factor into their theology, and indeed for some it is not motivational at all. And yet progressives and traditionalists and evangelicals can work together to bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth, even as they are motivated by–and conceive of that Kingdom–in very different ways.

Your Turn

Let’s take that as a poll:

  1. If you are progressive, what motivates you to share about Jesus Christ? Why do you want to share your faith with others even if you don’t think you are saving them from Hell?
  2. If you are not progressive, what is your perception of what authentically motivates progressives? I realize it will be very hard to not lay on the judgment on these heretical people, but do try hard to put yourself in their (my) shoes.

I’m interested in the responses because in two weeks, I’ll be preaching at my local church on “Is Heaven for believers of all faiths–or just one?” as part of a sermon series responding to questions asked by our congregation. I’ll post that sermon later.


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  1. says

    Answer: “hell” is replaced by recognition of the darker parts of reality — the ones we’re called to help transform.

    As a progressive Christian, I don’t follow Jesus for fear of going to hell if I don’t. That isn’t faith. That’s fire insurance.

    Rather, I follow Jesus because following his way and his teachings and example helps me to feel abundant/eternal life here and now. I feel a greater sense of wholeness, of well-being, and peace to the degree that I am forgiving, compassionate, merciful, unconditionally loving, exude radical hospitality, and pursue reconciliation and restorative justice.

    Roger Wolsey, author, Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity

  2. Karl Kroger says

    As a progressive I share my faith so people know the saving grace, peace, hope, and love of Christ in their lives, and so they can join with God in the restorative and transformative work of the kingdom of God.

  3. says

    Jeremy, I think this is a great topic to crowdsource. I’ll check back in to see what future responses are, because I myself have been unable to create any reasons for why progressives would feel passionate about talking about Christ. I considered myself a progressive for a long time, and I remember taking offense to the notion that talking about Jesus would in any way be important for the things I was actually passionate about: executing justice and doing good. I took offense to the notion that Jesus was exclusively salvific, or that his name carried any unique power. The scriptures themselves moved me away from this position, but I often wonder if I didn’t think the whole thing through well enough.

    I have engaged in this discussion with different progressive voices from time to time, arguing that, in fact, progressives simply cannot have the same authentic motivation to save souls through the transmission of knowledge about Jesus. My dialogue partners have often argued back from a sense of individual appreciation for beauty (i.e. some variation of “I think Christ is the most beautiful example of what it means to uphold these common values we should all share”). However, I think the subjective nature of such offerings makes the case innately less compelling for nonbelievers than the objective claims made by literal hell-believers. I realize that sometimes subjective claims are enough to change a person receiving those claims, but I’m not sure this approach is enough to withstand the gates of hell (Matt. 16:18). Anyway, thanks for facilitating this. In the event that I don’t read all the commentators, I hope you do publish a synopsis of some of the more compelling insights. I want to be a better dialogue partner with progressives in the future.

    • Christy Howlett says

      Just trying to think through this. I suggest that Christ is important because he is how we know G*d in human terms, which is the only way we can know anything. His actions in this life tell us what is important to G*d – our nurturing, our healing, our forgiving and loving all of humanity. His words tell us that rule-following and pietism won’t make it – well, the prophets tried to say that, too, but it seems that it always falls on deaf ears. G*d wants us to be in relationship with our Creator and the creation, and here is what the relationship looks like. And G*d wants this so much that G*d is willing to suffer and die for it. Christy

    • John Norman says

      I am a conservative follower of Christ and my answer would agree with yours. Helping others find real abundant life in Jesus is my motivation to be faithful to the Great Commission.

  4. Christy Howlett says

    I was converted as an adult, and this shapes my thinking. I wasn’t converted by someone talking at me and telling me what I must believe. I was converted by being in a very dark place and asking about Christianity. The friend I asked was unchurched at the time but had been very much churched in her youth and a religion major in college. She lent me C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”. I read it and found a church.
    My feeling is that it is important to wait for someone to ASK; if they aren’t asking, they aren’t ready. And I feel that it’s important that my life be of a quality to allow someone to ask. I want people to feel that I won’t be judgmental or dictatorial, insisting they have to believe the same way I do, but knowing that I do believe and act on my beliefs. I guess I’m mostly a universalist, because I think G*d knows G*d’s people and will find a way to call all (almost all?) into loving relationship. I can’t believe that the loving and self-sacrificing people of other faiths are condemned, and I think we will be very surprised when we see who is there and maybe who is not.
    (P.S., the friend who lent me Lewis came to me some time later and asked if she could go to church with me. We became the closest of friends.)

  5. Melissa Holdren says

    I’m with Roger on the “Hell” part. Hell is here and now. Reconnecting with my relationship with Jesus is what I feel has rescued me from the misery I was experiencing.

    I feel compelled to speak about Jesus and about my faith because I feel cheated. I can’t help but wonder how my life would have been different if someone had just said to me that there is more than one way to interpret Scripture, there is more than one way to “do” theology. If I had just heard THAT, I probably would not have rejected my faith. I probably would have walked a very different path in life.

    Because I feel like I deserved to hear that message, I feel like other people deserve to hear it too. So I feel compelled to speak. Let them make up their own minds once they’ve heard the whole and entire truth, not a truncated and politically motivated version of it. If they accept, great! If they don’t, go with blessings! But don’t reject Christianity entirely based on the ignorance that is commonly represented in the media. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. That’s my evangelism.

  6. Corey Redington says

    I believe that Jesus’ message is one of faith for the skeptics, hope for the discouraged and love for those in pain. Why wouldn’t you be motivated to share that message with others?

    I’m not motivated by punishment, but I am motivated by justice! I enjoy standing up to those who are bullied, I enjoy poking those who bully in the eye (no, not literally). I think Jesus lived a life of boldness, which included times of anger, sorrow, joy and pain. I share in that life by caring about the humanity that exists today.

    So what motivates me to share Jesus’ story? Everything!

    So what do I think of those that need fear of consequences in order to share their faith? I think they are motivated by fear and it takes all kinds to keep this world interesting.

    I guess the only other thought I have is that I’m not motivated by heaven either…

    I’m motivated by the love we feel when our actions restore faith in others, when our actions restore hope in the future and when our actions spread love to those who are suffering. My world is not dichotomous. My world is messy and all over the place and I would have it no other way!

  7. Matthew Baugh says

    My faith is integral to my life; it’s not just what I believe, it’s how I live. Every relationship I have and every decision I make is informed by my faith. This doesn’t make me unique by any means. everyone lives according to their faith. Maybe not the faith they profess but what they really believe.

    As a progressive Christian, I follow Christ’s words and example because they’re so good. He shows me a way of life that is compassionate, just and beneficial to everyone. I find great fulfillment in that and that’s why I follow him.

    I do trust that there is more than this life but believe that we know next to nothing about it. Scripture doesn’t talk much about Heaven and Hell, and what it says is largely metaphor. Most of what Christians think we know is really centuries of speculation by preachers and theologians. There may be a heaven (I tend to think there is) but that is irrelevant to how I live my life. There may be a Hell (I tend to think there isn’t) but that also is irrelevant.

    I follow Christ because he deserves to be followed. Reward and punishment don’t enter into it. In fact, if I knew that I was bound, I’d still follow him, because he is so good.

  8. says

    Really good stuff, Jeremy. I hope your sermon goes well.

    To answer your second question as a non-progressive (surprise!) I would say my understanding of what authentically motivates progressives is the radically inclusive spirit of Jesus. Given that progressives follow that spirit without fear of what might happen if they don’t (i.e., hell), there’s something truly honorable in that position.

    To answer a question you didn’t ask, I am motivated by hell. It’s how I came to faith. I believe our ministry in Charlotte strikes a balance between a healthy fear of it and an unhealthy obsession with it. Most importantly, we try to refrain from “deciding” who is going there since, of course, we neither make nor implement the decision.

  9. says

    Good luck on the sermon. I’d say, btw, heaven is for the holy.

    On your question to the non-progressives: I do not get the impression that progressives feel motivated to share about Jesus. They tend to evangelize by inviting others to engage in the work of being Jesus’ people. Jesus is there, but not the focus from what I have seen.

  10. says

    Excellent, You Nail It! Thank you very much.

    It seems to me, this IS the “Crux” of the divide:

    For conservatives and those who adhere to traditional Christian beliefs, there’s an easy reason to want to evangelize the world and share the Good News: to save people from Hell.

    Progressives see salvation as communal and see salvation not primarily in terms of life after death for the individual, but in terms of bringing about the kingdom of God: a new social order where there will be equality for all.

    And yes…
    Progressives and traditionalists and evangelicals can work together to bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth, even as they are motivated by–and conceive of that Kingdom–in very different ways.

    Through the power of God’s Holy Spirit, may we live, love, and act in ways that build the Beloved Community of Jesus Christ for ALL people.

  11. Jeni Markham Clewell says

    This all depends on your definition of heaven. I do not believe in hell as a destination after death with fire and devil, etc. I believe that anything that is motivated by fear is oppressive and lost. What motivates me to believe in the goodness in others, in the universe, God, is the positive impact on lives in the community, on the earth, in the attitudes and environment that goodness creates and sustains rather than the meanness and fearfulness that the conventional hell creates. Why would you believe in a God that sends most of God’s creatures to condemnation? I don’t understand. p.s. Jeremy, check out Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ book “Life After Death.” good stuff

  12. says

    We are called to transform the world through Christ. No one can reasonably deny that this present world is filled with pain and suffering for billions of people. All of us experience our own hell in some way, even if we don’t realize it. The point of sharing Jesus is to bring people out of their self-made hells, and to reduce the hold that Hell has on the world as a degrading force in opposition to God’s creative power. Evangelization must transform and fundamentally redeem the world. This isn’t a process that should focus on the afterlife, but instead should be all about changing this present reality. Eliminating oppression, violence, exploitation, suffering, disease, etc. through the immense power of Christ’s teachings. Christ was a moral singularity who taught us a Way that can fundamentally alter human reality. The more people that we bring into the Church as agents of this Way, as beacons of light and love and peace, the more we can truly alter the state of the human condition.

    We need to stop obsessing over the next world. After all, the Bible tells us that we live, we die, and we are resurrected to face the Judgment that marks the consummation of all human history and experience. Our work must be focused on the transformation of this present life, because it is the only medium of existence that God has provided for us in advance of the Resurrection, which marks the arrival of an entirely new existence and reality. Before we reach that reality, Judgment must occur, not to cast “sinners” into “hell,” but to reconcile a broken and imperfect universe to the very Perfection of God. Evangelization is needed in this world so that we as the Church can do our part to transform present reality and prepare the way for this coming eternal Kingdom. Perhaps God holds back the onset of the new reality until we as Christians have come to understand how to truly serve all of his children in this one.

  13. RJ Walker says

    What motivates me is the quote, attributed to Mark Twain, but I’m not so sure about that)

    “Don’t tell ’em you’re a Christian. Make ’em guess.”

  14. Oscar says

    I grew up in an extreme fundamentalist home and church. “Hell” was the post life pit of fire where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth for eternity. Few would live in Gods graces and see heaven. I lived in utter fear – how could I ever please God. It was a challenge to great for me so I turned my back to the church and The Lord. That, is when my HELL began. Worshiping false Gods – cars, money,status, expensive clothing and lots of drugs and alcohol. Lust and jealousy consumed me The stress, panic and anxiety to keep up with the EGO I had created for myself ruined my health, my family and my life. I was living my own hell right here on earth.When I reached the point that I contemplated taking my life, as a last resort I picked up my old Bible and turned to the Gospels. I focused on the words, the actions and message of Christ. I found this simple and doable. Besides, what I was doing wasnt working for me. Today I am clean, sober, live within my means, understand my place in the world is to humbly serve and do the next right thing. In contrast, my life today is heaven. I may have missed the point of this post – but my motivation is knowing Salvation is here- today – for the taking. What happens when I die……..God only knows.

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