I just finished reading Alisa Childers’ book Another Gospel?. It is a hugely popular book that came out a year ago and has almost two thousand Amazon.com reviews. As I will note briefly below, it does have some diamonds embedded in the coal. But there is a lot of coal. Indeed, this is one of the most harmful books I have read in a long time. Although it is praised by Christian apologists like Lee Strobel, Sean McDowell, and Frank Turek, yet page after page it exhibits poor argumentation, utterly unchristian caricatures of opposing views, and attacks of a woolly target that Childers has described as “progressive Christianity.”
According to Childers, progressive Christianity is a new movement whose leaders include people like the late Rachel Held Evans, Richard Rohr, Peter Enns, and Brian Zahnd. But it is not a new movement: in her view, it is another religion altogether. And as Childers says at the end of the book, those who fail to assent to the set of doctrines she deems essential, including (by implication) all these false teachers of another religion, are going to hell.
To be honest, I’m still reeling about all this, the fact that people like Strobel and McDowell praise this noxious, utterly uncharitable screed that sows division and propagates misunderstanding. I interacted with Brian Zahnd on Twitter yesterday and he said he doesn’t understand himself to be a so-called “progressive Christian”. Instead, he is “small ‘o’ orthodox.” He’s right about that: Zahnd has a far better grasp of mere Christianity than Childers who reads her version of conservative Protestant evangelicalism back into history from Aquinas to Augustine to Athanasius while blasting anyone outsider her narrow scope with the fires of impending eternal damnation.
As I read through the book yesterday and this morning, I posted tweets on it and I have included below those tweets as the bulk of my review. I will then offer some concluding thoughts.
I just started reading Alisa Childers’ book Another Gospel? about the evils of so-called “progressive Christianity.” Ironically, on the first page, she begins by quoting C.S. Lewis with approval. Yet, his theology would surely fall under her “progressive” censure.
Over the years, I’ve had some students like Childers who were rattled by and suspicious of challenges to their understanding of Christianity. Some retrench back into simplistic binaries where their side of the binary is “timeless truth”. That reflects Childers’ approach.
Fifty pages into Alisa Childers’ book Another Gospel? This is a sad book. Childers tends to think in simplistic binaries and to view whatever she labels “progressive Christianity” as the enemy rather than recognizing that Christians exist on a continuum attempting to make sense of faith.
Alisa Childers on the genocidal slaughter of the Canaanites: “the Canaanites were so evil–so remarkably vile in their rebellion against God and all that is good–that if they were alive today, most of us would be crying out for justice….” (57) And with that, we have a defense of the slaughter of infants, children, the elderly, mentally handicapped, women, and other non-combatants. This is such deplorable, dehumanizing rhetoric, and to see it proffered in the name of Christ really angers me.
Continuing my journey through Childers’ nasty book Another Gospel? On p. 63 she says she tries to give Christians she disagrees with “as much grace as possible”. Then on p. 76, she declares that “progressive Christianity” is “an entirely different religion…” It makes sense, I guess: because she has deemed “progressive Christians” as not Christians at all, she doesn’t need to extend any grace to them when describing their views. I am truly grieved that this book has been so enthusiastically embraced by evangelicals.
No shortage of irony here. While Childers criticizes progressives for being captive to culture, there is probably no group in Christendom more captive to culture than white evangelical MAGA Christians with their patriarchal gun-toting nationalism (cf. Jesus and John Wayne).
On p. 91, Childers cites a summary of the Rule of Faith. On p. 92 she quotes Brian McLaren saying Jesus came to declare God’s kingdom, good news for all creation. Then she says “These two gospels couldn’t be more different.” Either she’s a liar or an utterly inept interpreter.
Alisa Childers conflates the penal substitutionary theory of atonement with the atonement and then reasons that anyone who critiques/rejects the former rejects the latter. It’s such spurious and uncharitable reasoning.
According to Alisa Childers, Brian Zahnd isn’t a Christian. Rather, he is a false teacher of another religion she calls “progressive Christianity.” That kind of false teaching is so harmful, destructive, and tragically divisive.
Childers lists questioning the prolife abortion stance as one of the signs of “progressive Christianity.” But the prolife position only became a cause celebre for evangelicals in the mid-1970s. Childers seems to have little awareness of how culturally embedded her Christianity is.
Childers goes on to claim that the “progressive Christians” have made the Gospel about “Jesus + social justice.” (105) The fact that she thinks this entails a false gospel tells you a lot about Alisa Childers.
Childers says “Jesus + anything = a false gospel,” (104) and this was “settled” at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). But Acts 15 advises Christians to abstain from blood and meat from strangled animals. So is Acts 15 a “false gospel”? Or is the equation too simple?
Childers is offended by Brian McLaren’s reference to “seven Jesuses”, i.e. “seven versions of Jesus” each from a different Christian denomination with the advice that we should celebrate them all. Childers is indignant: “All I cared about was the real Jesus” (23). Is Childers aware that there are four different Gospels? And that we don’t try to eliminate them to get to the “real Gospel” as the Diatessaron errantly attempted to do. Because that’s the gist of McLaren’s point. Did she really not understand that?
There are definitely some good bits in Alisa Childers’ book Another Gospel? For example, her illustration of creeds and textual criticism with the “Nana’s Peach Cobbler” recipe is bang on. Unfortunately, those bits come in the midst of a wholly uncharitable screed against fellow Christians whom she deems as false Christians belonging to another religion. The book is also full of bad reasoning. For example, she performs a bait and switch, claiming she will discuss the textual reliability of the Bible, then switching to the NT. That’s a very common apologetic gambit, but it is fundamentally dishonest because Childers surely knows the issues with the OT are of a different order than the NT. So she is buoying up evangelical confidence in the Bible on *false pretenses.*
Childers admits that there is progressive revelation, “But” she insists against “progressive Christians”, “it doesn’t mean that the revelation progressed from error to truth.” (138) That’s just flat wrong. For example, the early OT is *henotheistic*: monotheism comes later. Any person who holds to henotheism is *in error* if monotheism is true. So it is the so-called “progressive Christians,” people who Childers denounces as false Christians, who understand progressive revelation better than she does.
Childers has a long list of people she believes are adherents of the non-Christian religion she calls “progressive Christianity”: Peter Enns, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, William Paul Young, Rachel Held Evans, Brian Zahnd, and so on. Incredibly, Childers disparages people that she calls “heresy hunters who delight in pointing fingers” (63). And yet, she is herself a prolific, and prolifically uncharitable, heresy hunter.
Childers says God’s “command to ‘utterly destroy’ the Canaanites was a one-time deal.” (174) Not true. God is described as also commanding genocide of the Amalekites and Midianites. Further, if genocide is always wrong like rape, then saying, “Oh, but just once” is no excuse.
So Childers leaves us with the view that God’s wiping away every tear (Rev. 21:4) and Christ reconciling all things (Col. 1:20) is consistent with God torturing an indeterminate number of interminable rebels forever. No room for debate? Really?
In chapter 10, Childers defends the view that the damned suffer eternal conscious torment. Because in her estimation, that is an essential component of the Gospel. While she critiques universalism as a false view, she makes zero attempts to engage any universalist arguments.
Alisa Childers says that penal substitutionary atonement “has united Christians throughout the ages and across cultures and continents.” (205) First, she doesn’t explain whether she means this qua theory or metaphor (they are very different). Second, it isn’t true. The church always embraced a plurality of metaphors and has never endorsed a single over-arching theory.
On page 206, Childers begins firing at Paul Young and The Shack. I’m surprised it took so long. Remember how she disparaged “heresy hunters”?
Childers accuses critics of penal substitution like Brian Zahnd (she mentions him specifically) of strawmanning the doctrine. God’s wrath, she says, is “not a divine temper tantrum…” Rather, it is “controlled and righteous judgment”. (214) The strawman charge is ironic. After all, claiming that God the Father’s wrath against sin is satisfied as he methodically tortures his son to death on a cross with “controlled and righteous judgment” does nothing to address the critic’s concerns with this conceptual framework of atonement. Indeed, that idea may seem more disturbing to the critic. Childers then quotes Miroslav Volf (a passage that has been quoted umpteenth times in the last twenty years) talking about how God must be wrathful because of the horrors of the Bosnia genocide. Two problems here: First, Volf’s comments are powerful precisely because we think of God being emotionally moved rather than in the cool, dispassionate manner that Childers just attributed to him: she’s arguing against herself here. Second, earlier in the book she defended the genocidal slaughter of the Canaanites in terms of God’s wrath against the entire society of men, women, and children. This is a disturbingly capricious picture she paints with God sometimes enraged by genocide & other times enraged to command genocide. No wonder the critics are concerned.
Childers says that “progressive Christians” who reject the penal substitutionary theory and/or metaphor of atonement leave us with “a codependent and impotent god who is powerless to stop evil. That god is not really good.” (224) What an extraordinary claim. So if you reject PSA and embrace a Christus Victor model, for example, one in which Christ defeats the devil in battle, you have “a codependent and impotent god who is powerless to stop evil”, a god who is not really good”?! Folks, this is craziness.
At the end of Another Gospel?, Childers borrows from Norman Geisler a list of 8 doctrines you must believe to be saved: the sinfulness of humanity, the existence of one God, salvation by grace, Christ’s divinity, humanity, death, resurrection, and the necessity of faith/belief for salvation. Let’s take the last one: the necessity of belief. I disagree with Childers: I don’t think a person must believe these things. I believe infants, the severely mentally handicapped, are saved apart from such belief. I also am a hopeful inclusivist in the manner embraced by the Catholic Church at Vatican II. So I (and the Catholic Church) deny her 8th essential belief. From that, it follows that according to Childers *I AM NOT SAVED. I AM GOING TO HELL.* I’m not taking a tendentious interpretation of her. That’s her clearly stated position. And she isn’t done there. She goes on to say that there are many other doctrines (she notes the virgin birth as an example) that you will not deny if you are saved and have “a bit more knowledge.” It is hard to put into words how offensive this is.
According to Childers, “The strength for the Christian worldview is so strong that one would have to willfully shut their eyes to it.” (236) So on Childers’ view, if you consider Christianity and remain unpersuaded that it is true, that is because you are rebelling; you refuse to admit the overwhelming evidence for Christianity. Folks, this is delusional. Another Gospel? has some good insights but it also has a lot of simplistic analysis that has not begun to grapple with the complexity of issues. As a case in point, I noted that her one-page treatment of the Canaanite genocide is really poor and consists of a couple of talking points drawn from Copan that I thoroughly rebut in Jesus Loves Canaanites.
At the end of Another Gospel? Childers concludes that “We don’t get to completely redefine who God is and how he works in the world and call it Christian.” (239) That’s interesting because in the course of this book she redefines what it is to be a mere Christian. Anyone who doesn’t accept her definition of Christianity is sinfully “shutting their eyes” to the Gospel and will go to hell. This is a book that people like Lee Strobel and Sean McDowell have showered with praise.
For me, Another Gospel? isn’t a brave, helpful book; rather, it is a slap in the face. But I won’t return the insult. I consider people like Strobel, McDowell, and Childers to be Christians. But they are Christians who have conflated their version of conservative Protestant evangelicalism with the simple and beautiful Gospel. And then, apparently, they see fit to damn the rest of us. Another Gospel? has brought home to me just how deep the chasm between this brand of evangelicalism and the wider Christian tradition really is.