For as diligent as many Conservative Christians assume they are, there are some pretty large blindspots that cause them to be much more liberal than they assume. Many Conservative Christians have adopted beliefs and views that are very liberal, even though they are now, in ignorance, assumed to be conservative. So while progressive liberalism is often lauded as the downfall of Christianity in America, Conservatives may sometimes be the worst offenders.
Liberal and Conservative Defined
Someone who is conservative is “a person who is averse to change and holds traditional values.”1 Someone who is liberal is “one who is open-minded or not strict in the observance of orthodox, traditional, or established forms or ways.”2 Therefore, when properly applied to the Christian religion, a conservative is someone who values keeping views, positions, and beliefs that are traditional to the origin of the movement. Inversely, a liberal Christian is someone who is open to changing their views, positions, and beliefs away from where the movement started. To simplify; a newer belief is generally liberal, while an older belief is generally conservative.
At the risk of over-simplification, generally speaking, the closer the origin of a view, position, or belief is to the life and time of Jesus, the more conservative it is, and the further away from the life and time of Jesus, the more liberal it is. The reason for this is that the closer you get to Jesus, the more Church communities you have that actually knew Jesus. They walked, talked, and spent time with Jesus, his disciples, and the apostles. So generally speaking, the more decades and centuries that passed after the time of the first Christians, the more liberal you can expect views, positions, and beliefs to become. Now, of course, this isn’t the case all the time. Many church denominations have sought to stay true to the way of Jesus passed down through the ages, some more successful than others. But the mark of a very liberal Christian is someone who is farthest away from the beliefs of the New Testament writers and the early Church.
Today, in the American Evangelical context, a “Conservative Christian” is usually someone who feels they stand for traditional Christian values, beliefs, and positions. While this is a great thing to strive for, in America these values and beliefs are often mixed in with political issues or cultural phenomena. What results from this is a Christian subculture that strives to maintain some traditions or beliefs that are relatively new and, therefore, quite liberal. The Conservative Christian believes they are holding onto tradition, but the traditions can often be relatively new in the timeline of history. The following are a handful of positions and beliefs that many Conservative Christians believe are conservative, but are in fact very liberal.
The Scary, Doomy, Gloomy End Times
A hallmark of Conservative Christianity in the United States is the belief that the world is getting worse every day and that eventually Jesus will come and Rapture away the Church in order to avoid the Great Tribulation where everyone gets the Mark of the Beast. This system of views, called Dispensationalism, also often involves the modern nation of Israel and a great war started by the Antichrist where a third Jewish Temple is the centerpiece. All of these beliefs are very liberal and progressive because they were invented within the last two hundred years.
The origins of all these ideas are fairly well documented so they, perhaps more than any of the beliefs listed in this article, are a great example of American Evangelicalism’s myopic understanding of history. Dispensationalism was invented by a man named John Nelson Darby in Europe, where it never really took off until he brought it to America in the mid-1800s. Darby’s new belief system about the End Times didn’t enter the mainstream until it was included in the first study Bible, known as the Scofield Reference Bible, which was proliferated across nearly every major U.S. theological seminary. Still, the Futurist doom and gloom beliefs weren’t cemented into the American Evangelical consciousness until a few novels were written in the late 20th century—”The Late, Great Planet Earth” and “Left Behind.”
For the vast majority of Christian history, around 1,850 years, no one believed in any of these, now popular, End Times ideas. This means that anyone who believes in them unwittingly is quite liberal and progressive in their Christian beliefs. These are new ideas. These are dangerous, new beliefs. Prior to recently, this was not how the future was thought about. Revelation was understood to have already happened, rather than an encoded prediction of a doomed future. Christians understood that Jesus achieved total victory on the cross and so the world would continue to get better as his Kingdom expanded and overtook the earth. This is the earlier, more conservative view.
Burn In Hell Forever, Sinners
A classic staple of Conservative Christianity is using the fear of eternal torment in hell as a motivator for getting people to want to be saved. Being “saved,” in Conservative Christianity, often means being saved from hell—the bad place you can go when you die—and being able to go to heaven. Some Conservative Christians think that Satan keeps sinners in hell, some think that God keeps them there, and some think that people keep themselves imprisoned. But whoever is the keeper to the gates of hell, most Conservatives believe that hell lasts for eternity and those there are in neverending torment. Many Christians think this is the only orthodox view of hell and that everything else is heresy. But these beliefs wouldn’t have been shared by the majority of early Christians and therefore it is fairly liberal and progressive to believe these things about hell.
Church history shows us that most of the earliest Christians, for the first 500 years or so, did not believe that hell was a place of eternal torment. In fact, according to our historical record, the Church has always had three different views on hell: Universal Reconciliation, Annihilationism/Conditional Immortality, and Eternal Conscious Torment. We know that there were six theological schools operating in the first five or six centuries of Christianity in the cities of Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, Edessa, Ephesus, and Rome. Four of these schools taught Universal Reconciliation, one school taught Annilhilationism, and one taught Eternal Torment. So for around 500 years after the time of Christ, the majority view was Universal Reconciliation. The one school that taught Eternal Torment was in Rome so that belief rose to dominance once the Emperor adopted the religion and made it illegal to not be a Christian. The Catholic Church used the fear of hell to motivate its parishioners for 1,500 years and so it is no wonder it is the major view today.
While all three views are considered orthodox and Biblical, many who believe in Eternal Conscious Torment believe that only their view is valid. Eternal Torment would have been mostly foreign to the minds of the early Church. So while all three views find their roots in Scripture, the idea of Eternal Conscious Torment is a progressive, liberal view of hell.
Beat the Wardrums for God and Country
Many Conservative Christians admit that war is sometimes the only effective way to respond to certain forms of evil and injustice in the world. No self-respecting Christian would ever say that they like war, but most would support wars their nation is involved in. Pacifism is by far a minority view in the Conservative Christian Church in America today. Most Conservatives find no contradiction between their faith and military service. Whether they like doing it or not, Christians have historically been willing to kill millions of people, including other Christians, in the name of God and Country. The two World Wars make this self-evident, though it is painful to accept, where over one hundred million people were murdered by Christian soldiers. “Defending” their nation is often viewed as an expression of their Christian convictions. It gets worse though—a survey shows that when asked if torture is sometimes justifiable, Christians who attended church at least once a week were more likely to say that it is often justifiable than those who attend less frequently. White Evangelical Conservative Christians were the most likely to support torture out of all religious and non-religious demographics.3 Such a statistic, along with any support for any war would have been viewed as extremely progressive, liberal—and actually heretical—by the early Church.
In the United States, the idea that violence saves and is virtuous when used for a “greater good” is conditioned in the mind of Conservative Christians in order for them to believe that the only way to achieve peace is through war, and the only way to have security is through military strength.4 This runs completely contrary to the mindset of the early Church who, above all else, held the nonviolent teachings of Jesus in the highest regard. The early Church disagreed about a great many things, but one topic they didn’t disagree on was a Christ-centered commitment to nonviolence and enemy love. Christ’s command to love your enemies is the most quoted Scripture for the first four centuries of the Church. Those who were in the military were not allowed to be baptized unless they abandoned their positions. It wasn’t even permitted for a Christian to wear any jewelry that had symbols of weapons on them. The early Church was serious about staying true to the teachings of Jesus. Like with the teaching of Eternal Torment, with the rise of the Roman Catholic church came support for the Roman Empire’s wars. Theology no longer was formed in people’s homes, while avoiding persecution and imprisonment—now it came from the emperor’s palace. The Christian position of rejecting war and violence of any kind had to be eliminated and replaced by patriotic support for it. For Rome, this was an issue of national security.
Conservative Christians in America who raise their children on war-simulating video games, and who stand with hand over heart to support the troops, would be viewed with shock and horror by the early Church. Approval and support for wars, the military, and interventionist foreign policy are extremely liberal and progressive positions for the historical and orthodox Church. Perhaps more than any other liberal view of “Conservative” Christians, this one is the most dangerous and disastrous. Millions upon millions of innocent lives have been lost due to the progressive, liberal support for war and the profession of the warrior.
The Gospel is That God Killed Jesus For You
Ask any Conservative Christian to describe the Gospel for you and you’ll likely get this answer: “You are a sinner, God can’t be around sinners, sinners deserve to die, so God sent his Son to die instead of you, so now you can go to heaven instead of hell when you die.” The idea that God had to vent his wrath on his Son in order to forgive you is not what Christians believed for the majority of history. This is a new belief. If this is your understanding of the Gospel, you aren’t a Conservative Christian, you are a Liberal Christian.
This relatively new idea, called “Penal Substitution Theory,” postulates that Jesus was punished (penalized) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive sin. While it may sound like normal Christian doctrine, this was a foreign concept until the Reformation in the 16th century. This new theory started with a lawyer named John Calvin, who used terminology that was familiar to his practice to describe how he thought the cross worked. Unfortunately, Calvin based most of his new idea on a corrupted version of Isaiah 53, a linchpin that when corrected, undoes most of his theory. Contemporary critic, Faustus Socinus, argued with Calvin, saying that the theory was “irrational, incoherent, immoral and impossible.”5 This was a new Gospel that did not resemble anything that Jesus or Paul taught in the New Testament. For around 1,500 years of Church history, the Gospel would have never been presented this way.
The Gospel according to Jesus was that the Kingdom of God had arrived. Jesus talked about this more than anything else, and the Kingdom is always how the Gospel is described in Scripture. Ideas from the 16th century saying that God killed Jesus, that the cross was a punishment, that Jesus was our substitute, or that the Gospel was about the afterlife are all new beliefs and therefore very liberal and progressive.
Pledge Allegiance To The Empire
Conservative Christians in America are usually quite patriotic for the red, white, and blue. There is a strong undercurrent of sentiment that God is on our side, that America’s national interests are God’s as well, and that Capitalism is the closest economic system to Christianity that there could be. For some, the cross and the flag are almost inseparable. “I stand for the flag, I kneel for the cross,” can be found on bumper stickers and t-shirts all over rural America. But if many Conservative Christians are honest, they would be more offended by someone not standing for the flag than someone not kneeling for the cross. For Conservatives, America is a Christian nation that they are proud to be a citizen of. It wasn’t always this way. For the first four centuries of Christianity, these beliefs would have been considered beyond progressive and liberal; they would have been blasphemous.
The early Church was persecuted and often murdered by the empire of Rome for their political defiance. Christians claimed that Jesus was king and Caesar was not. They believed that Christ alone had the right to rule and that all other human rulers were usurpers to God’s throne. Early Christians were anything but patriotic for the nation they lived in. The New Testament ends with the book of Revelation, the Bible’s most scathing critique of rich and powerful nations. Revelation gives a clear warning: do not become too comfortable in the empire, instead remain faithful to the way of Jesus. Justin the Martyr of the first century famously said, “God called Abraham and commanded him to go out from the country where he was living. With this call, God has roused us all, and now we have left the state. We have renounced all the things the world offers… the gods of the nations are demons.”6 Indeed, the Bible teaches us that the god of all nations is Satan. This is why Scripture tells us that we are no longer citizens of empires like America, but rather we are aliens and foreigners. Patriotism for a pagan nation controlled by the devil was the furthest thing from the mind of an early Christian. Patriotism is what caused Jesus to be murdered.
The centerpiece of God’s work in the New Testament is the arrival of Christ’s alternative nation: the Kingdom of God. This new nation is a rival to nations of the world, most notably empires, or superpowers as they are often called today. The Gospel is all about gaining citizenship in God’s alternative nation. The early Church understood this but most Conservative Christians in America do not. This is how Conservative Christians are often very progressive liberals in the worst possible way.
- “Oxford English Dictionary.” Oed.com, 2020.
- “Merriam-Webster Dictionary.” Merriam-Webster.com, 2020.
- Pew Research Center, Religious Dimensions, 2006.
- Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Fortress Press, 1992.
- Packer, J.I. “What did the Cross achieve – The Logic of Penal Substitution”
- Justin Martyr, “Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 259.