There have been eras of the church when the kindness of Jesus has been less-stressed than some other attribute. Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries, now over thirty years old captures a great deal of that. Scroll down for the table of contents, which in itself will teach you a lot. Jesus seen as The Rabbi, or The Bridegroom of the Soul, or The Teacher of Common Sense, or The Man Who Belongs to the World. Each is somewhat true, but leaves a great deal out in its insistence on emphasizing the attribute it likes best. Worse, attributes are not only omitted, but suppressed. A hellfire-and-brimstone age not only neglects to mention the kindness of Jesus, it obscures it.
Tangent: Jonathan Edwards takes an unnecessarily bad rap for this. His “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God” became his only-known sermon precisely because it went so against the grain of a later era. It is held up as another of those chronocentric examples of how terrible they were in the old days, as a way of indirectly saying “ain’t we sumpin’ now!” Edwards preached hundreds of sermons, some quite different, and “Sinners” was not what he was known for at the time. It is if some later age than ours said “The Beatles? Weren’t they that skiffle band that did a cover of ‘My Bonnie’ with Tony Sheridan?” Yes, true, but…
We are currently in an era that obscures an uncomfortable part of Jesus’s judgment, and finality of judgment even in this world. He sends out the 72 and tells them to preach in villages. If a village will not welcome them, the disciples are to shake the dust off their shoes and go to the next. It will go worse for that village than for Sodom. Well, that’s pretty harsh. That isn’t what we would predict today’s Jesus would say. Today’s Jesus would have seminars on Valley Outreach. Today’s Jesus would collect data on which villages responded better, in terms of what each of the pairs of disciples did. What did they wear? How much did they pray and what did they pray? What part of the Good News did they lead with? Did they go into the marketplace or the side streets? Did they stand near the beggars or far away?
For that sort of evangelism we have to go to Paul, who in the 20th C had the reputation of being a harsh man who distorted the simple, kindly Gospel of Jesus. The opposite is closer to the truth. It is Paul who tells Christians that he becomes like Jews to save Jews, or gentiles to save gentiles – though even he acknowledges that this is in order that he might save some.
Jesus also told the story of a man finding himself in Hell and wanting to go back and warn his brothers, so that they, at least, could avoid his fate. Jesus says don’t bother. They had Moses and the Prophets and didn’t listen to them. They won't believe even if someone returns from the dead. That’s also harsh. Not the Jesus we expected. Today’s Jesus would remind the man that his brothers had a devout aunt who guilt-tripped them, making it hard for them to accept the gospel. Or that their local synagogue didn’t have a great teacher or good musicians, and so were part of a Palestinian subculture that was hard to reach.
I don’t like it much either, and people who have left the church like it even less than I do, but it’s what Jesus said. Or at least, it’s a fraction of what Jesus said, and a fraction we suppress now. We expect the lesson that if we humble ourselves people will come. I suspect we are smuggling in an idea that if other Christians would be more humble - if those fundamentalists would be less crazy and not cramp our style so much, if the Christians would only be really, really generous with social action and tolerant 'n' stuff, why the churches might grow again. Nonsense. Fundamentalists were much crazier sixty years ago and the churches were full. Nor is it because we no longer teach "Good Catholic/Baptist/Lutheran doctrine." Fifty years ago the church was a confused mess of ethnic attenders, Unity Clubs, Masons, nuns that taught crazy superstitions, Southern Pride, Good Citizens, and Thoreau-quoters. the churches were full. I'm not saying we should go back to that, I'm saying the reasons we give aren't the real reasons.