It is difficult to fathom how good news can come from something like crucifixion. And yet, this is the hope and promise God gives his people. Indeed, he promises that the seed of the woman in Genesis 3 will crush the serpent’s head, but not without suffering a bruised heel first. He will be the slain lamb, the suffering servant, the crucified messiah: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe . . . we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:21–23).
This paradoxical good news of the cross—this “folly”—is the theme of the recent documentary by Brandon Kimber and Transition Studios, American Gospel: Christ Crucified (2020).
Answering Progressive Christianity
The documentary’s central claim is that progressive Christianity is trying to skirt the folly of the cross in search of a more palatable spiritual experience. Progressive Christianity, as typified in figures like Richard Rohr and Rob Bell, draws from the 21st-century Emergent Church movement and the Protestant liberalism of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It proclaims a message that resists authority, tradition, and certainty: God is bigger than what our doctrines, religious traditions, and even Bibles can contain, so why worry about right doctrines or interpretations?
While many are earnestly drawn to the progressive movement out of a search for truth about God, “progressive Christianity” and its claims are especially marketable to those disillusioned with evangelicalism. Whether one has been burned by the church, heard doctrine taught poorly, or grown up on a diet of purity conferences, altar calls, and X-Treme Youth Camp experiences, progressive Christianity seems to offer a way out. American Gospel: Christ Crucified grants these excesses and failures in many American churches. But while it might agree with some of the diagnostic problems raised by progressive Christians, it takes their solutions to task. The extensive documentary interviews progressive voices like Tony Jones, and Adam Narloch and John Williamson of The [De]constructionists podcast, while offering rebuttals from an array of guests like Alisa Childers, Mark Dever, John MacArthur, Kevin DeYoung, Paul Washer, and more.
At less than three hours, the film—a sequel to American Gospel: Christ Alone—covers a litany of topics. Perhaps too many. It is difficult to sufficiently address concerns about the exclusivity of Christ, hell, the attributes of God, LGBT issues, the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, and more, all in one documentary. Still, the film’s overall quality and content is impressive. Guests offer cogent answers, explanations, and exegetical proofs to the challenges posed by progressives in ways that will profit many viewers.
Defending Controversial Doctrine
Prominent in the film is the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), the view that says Christ was a substitute for sinners on the cross; bearing the curse of sin and the wrath of God so that we might no longer stand condemned. The film proficiently defends the doctrine, and it does well to highlight comments by Alistair Begg and Kevin DeYoung about how the eternal persons of the Trinity are not at odds with each other in the penal substitutionary view [2:08:26; 2:09:40].
Intermingled with these accurate statements, however, are a few others that unnecessarily muddy the waters on this crucial doctrine. For example, Voddie Baucham says in the film: “Yeah, God killed Jesus. But did Jesus go to the cross unwillingly? No” [41:50]. This undermines what the film later notes, that God’s decree to ordain Christ’s death is not equal to the act of killing Jesus himself: “He was handed over by God’s set plan and foreknowledge, and you, by the hands of the lawless, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23). Not only this, but the film includes the unfortunate statement from the late, great R. C. Sproul, speaking of Jesus’s cry of forsakenness on the cross: “It was as if there was a cry from heaven, as if Jesus heard the words ‘God damn you’” [2:26:16].
The problem for the viewer is that these rather bombastic statements are contextless, and they paint a picture that goes further than the actual doctrine of PSA allows. As described by Begg and DeYoung, God does not hate the Son. And God does not kill his beloved Son; rather, like in the story of Joseph, he intends for good what men intend for evil (Gen. 50:20; John 12:27; Acts 4:27–28). Those of us who hold to and teach PSA must acknowledge that many have caricatures of the doctrine precisely because caricatures of the doctrine are still preached today. As former Christian Bart Campolo says in the film, “I had this image of God [saying], ‘This guy’s worthy of death, I don’t care if I kill him, I’m gonna kill somebody, I just gotta kill somebody.”
In spite of these issues, the majority of American Gospel: Christ Crucified is a helpful vehicle for presenting and answering some of the common critiques of progressive Christianity. The film checks claims about universal salvation, an error-ridden Bible, and a God who changes against Scripture itself. It also investigates where these types of arguments originated and if their philosophical systems are even coherent.
While the idea of a God who is only loving and not wrathful or just might be appealing to the average Westerner, this view misses the good news that “by his stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:5). Ultimately American Gospel: Christ Crucified is a helpful, stirring reminder that a gospel that leaves the wages of sin unsatisfied is not good news at all.