Christianity is a faith with ancient origins. But is it outdated? More specifically, are the principles, morals, and ways of Christianity enemies of progress? This is a question that has been asked throughout much of Christianity’s existence. Answering this question requires an examination of the notion of “progress,” the presumed trajectory of society. But what if “progress” is really rooted in something much deeper — something directly correlated to the Christian faith itself? Watch this sermon as we consider the backward- or forward-thinking essence of Christianity.

  • View Sermon Transcript

    Download sermon transcript icon Download .pdf

    When it comes to the Christian faith, it seems to me that for an increasing number of people, the first question that a skeptic might ask is not necessarily “Is Christianity true?” but “Is Christianity good?” Because if a person isn't convinced that Christianity is good, there's no point in exploring whether or not it's true. And therefore the task for someone like me is to try to help you see that Christianity is in fact true — and there are good reasons to believe — but also to show you that Christianity is good — so good that you should want it to be true, even if you have your doubts.

    Accordingly, we are in the midst of a series in which we are considering some of the common contemporary challenges to the Christian faith in order to show that Christianity is in fact good for you and good for the world. Today, I'd like to take up the question “Is Christianity regressive?” Here's what I mean by that.

    Many people today would say that Christianity is regressive, meaning not that it is simply old fashioned or backwards, but rather that the Christian faith is the enemy of progress. People would say that if you embrace Christianity, it forces you to revert to an earlier, previous way of operating in the world. It causes you to adopt patterns of thought and behavior that are worse — worse for you and worse for the people around you. Here's the question: “Is Christianity the enemy of progress?” In order to answer that question, I'd like to turn to an inspiring passage of Scripture taken from the Apostle Paul's letter to the Romans. It's a passage that is all about hope. As we turn to it, I'd like us to consider three things: 1) The false myth of “progress,” 2) The true meaning of “progress,” and 3) The final manifestation of “progress.” Perhaps we should put “progress” in quotes, because I'm going to explain what I mean by this term.

    18For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

    The False Myth Of “Progress”

    First, I'd like to consider what I'm calling the false myth of progress. If you're a secular, modern Western person, you've probably adopted this myth without even realizing it. You assume that all of human history is moving along a particular path toward a particular goal based on shared universal values. Here's the test of whether or not you've bought into this myth of progress. You've bought into the myth if you've ever said you don't want to be on the wrong side of history. That's what people often say when they're debating various political or ethical views. The myth is that you assume that history is moving to a particular goal based on universal values. But why do you think that? 

    No one in the ancient world thought that human history was moving to a particular place. The ancient Greeks, the ancient Romans didn't believe that history was following a linear path. They didn't have a linear view of history; they had a cyclical view of history. They didn't believe that history was going anywhere. The only pattern to history is perhaps the ongoing pattern of growth and decline. A civilization might rise, and then it falls, and then the cycle begins again. Judged against the standards of its own time, it's possible that a civilization might make incremental improvements — perhaps it's two steps forward and one step back — but eventually every civilization stalls out and then moves into reverse. Why do we think, why do we assume that human beings are constantly improving? Why do we believe that progress is inevitable?

    John Gray is an English philosopher. At one point he taught at the London School of Economics, and he's a self-proclaimed atheist. As an atheist, he critiques this belief in progress. He says the idea that humans are gradually improving is the central article of faith of modern humanism. We assume that history is moving toward a particular goal, but this is naive because it fails to take into account what he calls the “innate defects of the human animal.” The idea that human beings are constantly improving is naive because it fails to take into account the innate defects of the human animal. I love how he puts that. The Bible has a word for that. That's called sin. The fact of the matter is that because of our sin, because of the innate defects of the human animal, we human beings are capable of doing terrible things to one another. Part of the problem is that we've lost the ability to speak of sin and evil in our secular world, and that makes us hopelessly naive. That's what perpetuates this myth.

    This myth has been with us for a long time. Back in the 1700s, at the height of the Enlightenment, this belief in progress was simply called optimism — a belief in optimism — and it was popularized by a philosopher named Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who also invented calculus. He was a smart guy. Basically, his view of optimism was that, in a qualified sense, we live in the best of all possible worlds. But his contemporary, Voltaire, lampooned this belief in optimism, and he subsequently wrote “Candide, ou l'Optimisme” in 1759. Perhaps you read this in high school English class. “Candide” tells the story of an optimistic but naive man named Candide who experiences a ridiculous number of misfortunes, but through it all, his mentor and his teacher, Professor Pangloss, tries to encourage him and reassure him by reminding him of this belief in optimism. He would continually tell Candide, “All is for the best, and the best of all possible worlds.”

    At one point, Candide and Pangloss are shipwrecked, and their friend Jacques drowns, and then they make it to shore and they find their way to Lisbon only to discover that the city has been destroyed by an earthquake and then taken over by the Spanish Inquisition. So Pangloss is subsequently executed for his heretical views, his belief in optimism. Candide is nearly killed as well for listening approvingly to his teacher. At one point, Voltaire writes,

    “Candide, terrified, speechless, bleeding, palpitating said to himself: ‘If this is the best of all possible worlds, what can the rest be?’”

    Voltaire tried to warn us in 1759, but our belief in progress continues to grow. It reached a high point toward the end of the 19th century. We assumed that as we make advances in knowledge and scientific progress and education and technological power, it would lead to shared universal values, and we would produce the most peaceful stage in human existence.

    But then you know what happened? The 20th century, the bloodiest century in human history. I don't know about you, but as I open up my eyes and look around, it doesn't seem to me like the 21st century is off to that great of a start. It sure doesn't look like more education, more knowledge, or more tech is going to lead to more peace. The fact is that competing ideologies, conflicting religions, disparate values, geopolitical struggles, ethnic tribalism, clan loyalties, tyranny, anarchy, oppression are not going anywhere anytime soon. You know why? Because of the innate defects of the human animal — because of sin.

    The True Meaning Of “Progress”

    If the optimistic belief in inevitable progress is a myth, where did this myth come from? Here's the answer: The myth of progress is simply a secularized version of the Christian doctrine of hope. Our belief in the inevitability of progress is simply a secularized version of the Christian doctrine of hope. Gray, the self-proclaimed atheist writes,

    “Until the rise of Christianity, a cyclical view of history was taken for granted by practically everyone. When in eighteenth-century Europe religion began to be replaced by secular creeds, the Christian [myth of] [belief in] history as a redemptive drama was not abandoned but renewed in another guise. A story of redemption through divine providence was replaced by one of progress through the collective efforts of humanity. Nothing like this could have developed from polytheistic religions, which take for granted that human beings will always have disparate goals and values.”

    This belief in progress is simply a secularized version of the Christian doctrine of hope. Divine providence was replaced with progress by human effort.

    Let me then turn from this false myth of progress to the true meaning of progress. What do we really mean by progress? Why do we long for progress? In a word, it's because of suffering. Suffering is the reason why we long for progress. We know that neither we nor the physical world are what we should be. We're not who or what we're supposed to be. We know that no matter how hard we try, no matter how hard we try, we can never really rid ourselves of our pride, our selfishness, our egocentrism, our anger, our jealousy, our lust, our greed or our tribalism. We know that no matter how much it hurts, like Candide, we can never escape the tragedy of either human error or natural disaster. Sometimes we suffer as a result of our own deliberate fault, but sometimes we suffer for apparently no reason whatsoever.

    This is the problem that Paul addresses in Romans 8. He sums up the experience of suffering with a single word: groaning. He begins in verse 22,

    “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

    This word used in other contexts is often used to describe the cry, the anguished cry of someone who's dying, like a soldier dying on a battlefield — their groans, or the cries they utter as they succumb eventually to their wounds. But here, Paul likens this groaning to the pains of childbirth. That's probably a good addition, because Paul is suggesting that there's something positive here on the other side of the pain. I've witnessed four births in my lifetime, but I cannot say that I know what it's like to experience that firsthand. I've observed that the pain is intense, and yet it is far outweighed by the joy of holding that baby in your arms. When Ashley went into labor with our first child, we went to the hospital, and the nurse that met us was trying to reassure us, tell us that everything was OK, and she sort of said flippantly, “You never really have to worry unless the room suddenly fills with nurses and doctors.” We thought, “That's good to know.” Then all of a sudden, the baby's heart rate dropped precipitously, and they were worried perhaps the baby was getting caught on the umbilical cord. All of a sudden, the room filled with nurses and doctors. They rushed Ashley off to the operating room, and for the first time the thought crossed my mind — it had never crossed it before — they're both going to die. But everything was fine. The baby was delivered. The pain was intense, and yet it was far outweighed by the joy of holding that baby in our arms. That's what Paul is talking about. The pain is real. It's intense, but it doesn't even compare with the joy on the other side of it.

    Paul, here, is showing us what the Christian hope is all about. What is the Christian hope? It's certainly not belief that “all is for the best and the best of all possible worlds.” It's not mere optimism. The Christian hope is not this vain wish that somehow some way things will turn out alright in the end. No, the Christian hope is the settled conviction that God is going to take action to put right everything that has ever gone wrong. It's not mere optimism. It's not the belief in the inevitability of progress. No, it’s the settled conviction that God is going to take action to put right everything that has ever gone wrong. Paul gets to the heart of what's wrong, not only with us but also with the world in which we live. Let's consider what he has to say about what's wrong with us and what's wrong with the world.

    What’s Wrong With Us?

    In verse 23 he says, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Quick sidenote: Paul is not being sexist here when he says that we are eagerly waiting our adoption as sons. What you have to realize is that in the culture in which Paul lived, the only people who could inherit an estate were sons. But when Paul says that you become a Christian, and you're united to Jesus by faith, he is not saying that we all — men and women — become sons, but rather we all — men and women — become heirs. We long for our adoption. We long for our inheritance. But what does that suggest then, if we groan inwardly as we wait for adoption and redemption? It means that we suffer from fragile bodies and a fallen nature.

    Fragile Bodies

    We suffer first from fragile bodies. As beautiful, as intricate, as amazing, as complex as our bodies are, they're fragile. Some of us might be able to hide that a little bit better than others, but eventually we all reach an age where we don't look good in a bathing suit anymore. Eventually we all reach an age where our bodies begin to wind down. Eventually all of our bodies are going to be taken out. They'll be taken out by a germ. They'll be taken out by cancer. They'll be taken out by the failure of our organs. They'll be taken out by a tragic accident, or they'll be taken out simply by old age. But the problem is that our bodies are winding down, and we long for redemption. We long for the redemption of our fragile bodies.

    Fallen Nature

    That's not all. We also suffer from a fallen nature. Paul, here, is speaking to Christians, people who already have the firstfruits of the Spirit. The moment that you put your faith in Jesus, you're united to him, you receive his Spirit, and you're adopted into his family. You receive a new status as God's son or as God's daughter, and that status is fixed. It can't fluctuate or change. It can never be taken away. Yet, at the same time, we long for a deeper, richer experience as God's children because we know that we have not yet been fully conformed to the likeness of Jesus, which is God's goal for us. We groan inwardly, not only for our redemption, but also our adoption because our fallen nature prevents us from thinking and acting in the ways that we know that we should. We're not the people we're supposed to be because of the innate defects of human nature.

    What’s Wrong With The World?

    The problem isn't just in here; the problem is also out there in the world. Paul explains that our original God-given vocation as human beings was to be the good, wise stewards of the physical world that God had made. But here's the amazing thing. When we human beings rebelled against God, it sent shockwaves through the rest of creation. It's astounding. Our relationship with God has affected the created order. It's not just that we are enslaved to sin, but also the created order is now enslaved. It's in bondage to futility and corruption. It's trapped in these pointless cycles of decay and death.

    What's even more amazing about this passage is that Paul is suggesting that it's not only we, but creation itself is groaning, waiting with eager longing. Creation is standing on tiptoe with expectation, just waiting to see you and me revealed as our rescued and redeemed selves, so that we might be restored to our proper vocation as the wise, good stewards of God's good world, because when we are revealed as the true children of God, then that will be the sign that creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay. So that together, we and the created order will become everything that God has always destined us to be.

    This is the Christian hope. Our bodies will be redeemed, our nature will be restored, and the physical world will be renewed. That's what we all want. That is what we mean by true progress. So no, at its heart Christianity is not regressive. It's not backwards or old-fashioned. It's not calling us to revert to a previous state of being that is worse than what we experience now, but rather, the Christian hope is pointing us forward to the day when we become the truest, fullest, freest versions of ourselves, so that we might live life the way it was always meant to be lived, in harmony with God, with one another, and with our physical environment.

    There's just one little problem, and that is that there is absolutely nothing that we can do to bring that promised future about. We can't redeem ourselves, we can't renew our world, because we are part of the problem. In 1908, The London Times asked a number of authors if they would be willing to submit an essay in response to the simple prompt, “What's wrong with the world?” The London Times asked the author G.K. Chesterton to enter a submission. He sent in his reply. In response to the question, “What's wrong with the world?,” he wrote,

    “Dear Sirs,

    I am.

    Sincerely yours, 

    G.K. Chesterton.”

    It’s all he had to say. We can't redeem ourselves, and we can't renew our world, because we are part of the problem.

    The Final Manifestation Of “Progress”

    That brings me to my third and final point which is the final manifestation of progress. The future that God has promised is not something that we can achieve by our own efforts. It's something that we can only receive, and Paul calls it “glory.” That's his word for it in verse 18. “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” Notice it's not something created by us. It's something that will be revealed to us — the final manifestation of glory.

    Put another way, the New Testament never tells us to try to build the Kingdom of God, or to bring the Kingdom of God, or to advance the Kingdom of God. You know what the New Testament tells us to do? It tells us to seek the Kingdom of God, to look for it, because we can't establish it ourselves by our own efforts. We have to seek it. We can anticipate the future that God has promised in our actions now. That gives us and the world around us a glimpse of what things will be like when God makes all things new. Even our best actions today are simply a way of putting our prayer into practice. Our prayer, which is “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We can't build, we can't bring, we can't advance the Kingdom of God. All we can do is pray that God would bring his Kingdom to bear on the fallen, broken world in which we live in order to make all things new. In other words, the Christian hope is not based on who we are or what we do, but rather it's based on who Jesus is and what he does for us. Jesus lived the life we should have lived. He died the death that we deserve to die. He was raised from the grave in order to raise us with him to new life in a new world. It's all by grace.

    The British theologian Lesslie Newbigin was once asked, “As a Christian, are you an optimist or a pessimist?” That's a good question to ask in light of this Christian hope. Are you an optimist or a pessimist? He said, “Neither. Jesus Christ is raised from the dead.” That's the right answer. Christians are not cynical pessimists. We don't say, “The world is spiraling out of control. There's nothing that can be done. The world is going to hell in a handbasket.” But nor are we naive optimists who claim that, “All is for the best and the best of all possible worlds.” No, we don't harbor utopian dreams. We don't imagine that we can build heaven on earth through our own efforts. We're not pessimists or optimists. You know we are? We're realistic, yet hopeful. Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, so we're realistic yet hopeful. We're realistic about the innate defects of the human animal. We're realistic about the fact that we cannot eradicate the sin that lies within our hearts. And yet at the same time, we're hopeful because we know how the story ends. We don't say in cynicism and despair, “Look what the world has come to.” No, instead we say in hope and wonder, “Look, who has come to this world to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.” The Christian hope is that God has taken action to put right everything that had once gone wrong. So if we consider that Christian hope, if we take it deep into our heart and into our lives, I would suggest that it empowers us to be able to cope with the reality of sin, evil, and suffering.

    As we close, let's consider some of the implications of this Christian hope. In the face of sin and evil and suffering, it provides us with 1) perspective, 2) a pathway, and 3) presence.


    The Christian hope gives you perspective on sin and evil and suffering because you can call it what it is. Andrew Delbanco teaches American Studies at Columbia University, and a number of years ago, he wrote a book titled “The Death of Satan.” This is what he meant by the title. He says that in the secular modern West, we've given up words like sin and evil. We don't talk about that anymore unless we talk about it in an ironic fashion or in a mocking sense. He says as a result, however, we no longer have the language to connect our inner lives with the horrors that we see with our eyes in the world all around us. He writes,

    “A gulf has opened now in our culture between the visibility of evil and the intellectual resources available for coping with it … The repertoire of evil has never been richer. Yet never have our responses been so weak.”

    We now have this inescapable problem where we feel something that our culture no longer gives us the vocabulary to express. But the Christian hope gives us language. It gives us vocabulary to name sin, evil, and suffering for what they are. We don't have to sugarcoat it. We can call a spade a spade. We can say, “This is wrong. This is evil.”

    When it comes to suffering, we're not expected to put on a pious show and pretend that it isn't really all that bad or that it doesn't hurt. Oftentimes people issue these pious platitudes. They say, “If you look at your suffering in just the right light, you'll see it's not really all that bad.” Or maybe “Behind every cloud, there's a silver lining.” Or “What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.” But no, the Christian hope says, “That's bunk.” Christianity allows you to say that suffering is real, and it's wrong, and it doesn't belong in God's good world. It's an enemy intruder.

    The good news is that God has done something about it. On the cross Jesus absorbed into himself sin, evil, suffering, and even death itself in order to conquer over them. He doesn't minimize the suffering. He doesn't minimize the pain. He vanquishes it in order to do away with it forever. That's why Paul can write in verse 18, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” He's not minimizing our suffering. He's not saying it isn't real, it isn't wrong, or that it doesn't hurt. What he's saying is that it doesn't even compare with the glory that will be revealed to us. If somehow we could put the sufferings of this life with the glory that is to be revealed in the scales, the worst suffering that we experience will be like fluff. It'll be like the lint in the dryer. It'll seem as if it has no weight at all in comparison to the glory that is to be revealed to us.

    A Pathway

    First of all, the Christian hope gives us perspective on sin, evil, and suffering, but secondly, it gives us a pathway through it. 1 Peter 2:21 tells us that Jesus suffered, leaving us an example so that we might follow in his steps. Jesus' path did not take him around suffering; Jesus' path took him right through suffering. As for Jesus, so for us as his followers. That is the great encouragement we have. If Jesus' path includes suffering, then so will ours, especially if we are suffering on behalf of Jesus. But that is the encouragement. If we're suffering now in our service to Jesus, then it means that we're on the same path, and glory is on the way. Suffering is just a prelude to glory. Suffering, rather than contradicting the gospel, actually confirms it. It shows that we're on the same path as Jesus. Think about the resources that that provides you. One of the last things that Jesus ever said from the cross was “Why?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” But if we're supposed to walk down the same path as Jesus, then think about how that transforms our suffering. If our suffering is like his, then that means you can suffer even if you believe in God. That doesn't mean that you're lost. You can suffer even if you haven't done anything wrong. This isn't punishment. You can suffer even if, in this life, you have no idea why. But it doesn't mean that there isn't a reason. Jesus' suffering imbues our suffering with meaning.


    The Christian hope gives us perspective. It gives us a pathway. Finally, it gives us presence. When you're in the throes of suffering, you don't really want philosophical arguments to try to explain why this is happening to you. What you want is presence. You want someone to simply sit down with you, hug you, embrace you, hold you — someone who perhaps in some way knows at least a little bit about what it's like, about what you're going through. Do you realize that we worship a God who is not immune to our pain. We worship a God who suffered, and therefore you can never turn to Jesus and say, “You don't know what it's like.” Because he does.

    Have you ever been mistreated or misunderstood? So was he. Jesus was despised and rejected by his own people. Have you ever been overwhelmed with sadness? So was he. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Have you ever felt like your body was falling apart or you were wracked with pain? He was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. Have your most precious relationships been broken? He was betrayed with a kiss and deserted by his friends. Jesus not only suffers for us, he suffers with us, and thus he proves God's love to us even in the midst of the worst of our suffering.

    Is Christianity regressive, old-fashioned, and backwards? Is Christianity the enemy of progress? No. Christianity is not forcing us back into an earlier, more oppressive age. It's carrying us forward to new life in a new world where we become our richest, freest, fullest versions of ourselves. But this Christian hope is not something that we can achieve by our own efforts. It's something that we can only receive. We can't build it. We can't bring it. We can't advance it. We can only seek it, because this glory has to be revealed to us as a gift of his grace. We can’t achieve it; we have to receive it. But if we do, by putting our faith and trust in Jesus, if we let him, he will transform us and our world beyond our wildest imagining.

    Let me conclude with these words from C.S. Lewis:

    “If we let Him...He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less.”

    Let me pray for us.

    Father, we acknowledge that as modern Western people, it's very easy for us to buy in to the false myth of progress — the idea that human beings are constantly improving, and that progress is inevitable. Help us to see that this myth is simply a counterfeit version of the true Christian hope. Thank you for taking action to put right everything that once went wrong. And therefore you will redeem our bodies, you will restore our nature, and you will renew the whole world. And there's nothing that we can do to bring this about; we can only receive it by faith. Help us to make this hope the rock bottom reality of our lives, so that we might be able to cope with the reality of sin, evil, and suffering through the perspective that you give us, through the pathway that you lay out for us, and ultimately through the presence of your love that you provide, so that we might wait for this hope in strength. We ask all this in Jesus' name. Amen.