Over the weekend, I (Bryan) had a few conversations on the multi-dimensional reality of the Gospel and my dissatisfaction with certain common evangelical presentations of it. I don’t think I articulated my concerns well during those conversations, so I thought I would try spelling them out here. A lot of these thoughts are prompted by reflections on Jesus’ resurrection.
As I understand it, the common evangelical Gospel presentation is as follows:
- God is holy.
- Holiness cannot abide imperfection.
- In His Law, God has specified what behavior is in keeping with His Holiness, and what behavior is not (what behavior is imperfect).
- No one can keep God’s Law.
- Therefore, we are all imperfect.
- Therefore, we cannot be with God.
- Though our bodies are perishable, our souls are eternal and imperishable.
- Because our souls are eternal, they will either be eternally with God or eternally away from God.
- See 4-6 above; Therefore, all our souls will be eternally away from God.
- The realm where souls are cast away from God is called Hell, where souls are eternally punished for their sins.
- See 1-10; We all deserve Hell.
- God is Just and must obey these principles of Justice. However, God is also Loving and wants to save.
- Therefore, God sends His Son Jesus Christ to live as a perfect human being who keeps all His laws.
- Despite His perfect life, Jesus dies on the Cross in punishment for our sins.
- Because He is God, the value of Jesus’ punishment is infinite and therefore can pay for an infinite amount of imperfection.
- Jesus’ Resurrection proves that He is God and that He is available for us to believe in.
- We must repent of our sins, and believe in Jesus, and His punishment pays for all of our sins.
- Because our sins are paid for, our souls can now go to Heaven when we die.
- This logical scheme satisfies God’s requirements of Justice and Love.
This is a very blunt version of an evangelical Gospel presentation, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate. Once you strip away the flowery rhetoric, this is what is often presented.
I want to first affirm my own evangelical commitments before explaining what I find so problematic about this Gospel presentation. I believe in the supremacy of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scripture, the atoning work of Christ on the Cross, the need to appropriate and personalize the truths of the Triune God to create an on-going relationship with Him, and the centrality of grace as the foundational gift that precedes, pervades, and activates Christian life. So first, I want to emphasize that I share common evangelical beliefs.
Also, I think that many of the 19 points above are not wrong, even where I would phrase them differently or place the accent elsewhere. My objection is that at certain moments, these points have been abstracted away from the larger biblical story, and then placed together and developed in ways that are not faithful to the biblical witness. Other key points are left out altogether. My concern is that this leads to a distorted picture of the Gospel, of what Jesus’ work on the Cross accomplishes, and of who God is. This distortion harms our ability to witness the beauty of the Gospel to non-Christians, and to pass on the faith compellingly to future generations.
I hope my objections don’t seem like petty nitpicking. I think the three main problems are that 1) In the search for an easily explainable formula, we reduce the Gospel into a problem about my individual destiny to be solved rather than a wonderful claim about how all of reality is grace-filled, charged with light and life, 2) Lurking in the background of this formula are assumptions about Heaven and Hell as final destinations of bliss and punishment that have little connection to the beautiful New Creation God has been moving toward since Genesis 1, and 3) A lack of recognition that Sin is not just a transgression against God’s law, but a Power, Agent, and Force opposed to God’s purposes. Most of my objections to the 19 points above would be resolved if these 3 problems were addressed.
Here are my objections in full:
- Implicit Gnosticism. There is insufficient focus on the fact that the physical Creation matters, and that God is rescuing it. Instead, the focus is on the destiny of the soul, and whether it goes to Heaven or to Hell. Further, the soul is understood as the real, authentic self. The soul is set against the body, which is extraneous and unnecessary. This leaves too many Christians thinking that “this world is not our home” and that the point of Christian living is to be a special people who will one day be evacuated from this sinful world, which will ultimately be destroyed. This is very similar to the Gnostic heresy that the early Church fought against, which denied a) the Goodness of Creation, b) God’s commitment to Creation, and c) the importance of the Resurrection as a sign that all of material reality itself, including physical bodies, will be redeemed and restored.
- Radical Individualism. This gospel is thoroughly individualistic. Salvation is about putting right the individual relationship between the soul and God. The church under this picture is where souls come to hear how they may be saved, be assured of their salvation, and sent out to save more souls. This gospel leaves out: a) the formation of the new family in Christ that smashes individual and tribal agendas, b) the building of a new Temple on the Living Stone of Christ that blesses the world, c) the in-breaking of a new Kingdom in Christ that crushes the idolatrous empires that oppress the poor and marginalized, and d) the establishment of a culture of peace and pardon which operates through us as the Body of Christ.
- A formula to satisfy divine logic. I think this presentation hinges on the idea that there is some opposition between God’s Justice and God’s Love, and that Jesus is the solution to this logical problem. Justice is seen as primarily penal and punitive–even a slight infraction of God’s Law deserves eternal punishment in hellfire, but Jesus takes that eternal punishment instead so I can escape the legal consequences of my sin. The emphasis is placed not on dealing with the reality of my sin and its corrupting effect on Creation, or on defeating the forces of evil that keep me captive to sin, but on removing the legal consequences of sin from me. Under this view, my salvation is just a legal status change. I don’t think this takes sufficient account of the reality that Divine Love is the fundamental truth about God, and that God’s Wrath, Justice, and Holiness are subordinate, necessary implications of that Love.
- The Relationship Between Heaven, Hell, and Earth. Hell is the threat that looms over the entire presentation as a realm of everlasting torture. Heaven is primarily good because it is not-Hell. The earth is really an arena in which we come to make a decision for Christ or reject Christ–with the implication that this world will burn up and is ultimately of little importance. I don’t think this is faithful to the broad sweep of Redemptive History–a) that Creation was set into bondage to corruption and death and the powers of darkness when mankind, God’s royal priests, sinned, and now groans for the sons of God to be revealed so that it can be purified, b) that Heaven is not some far-away realm that will be our final destination, but the realm of God that overlaps and interlocks with our world through the worship of the church, and which will one day be united in the New Creation, and c) that Hell is a true reality where people are cast out from the presence of God, a place of regret, tragedy, and barrenness for those who reject the Pursuing, Fiery Love of God.
- Where is Evil? This Gospel presentation has nothing to say about Evil as a malevolent force in the world truly opposed to God, other than to say that evil dwells in human hearts. But I think this doesn’t take sufficient account of the powers and principalities that Christ came to oppose–the human institutions that exercise power and seek to define good and evil for themselves, and the spiritual forces that stand behind them.
- Where is the focus? The central focus of this Gospel is on us–what we must do to be saved. We must turn to God, ask for forgiveness, and hope that Christ’s perfect record will be placed to cover over ours. While none of this is untrue, I think this again places the Gospel out of focus. The central focus of the Gospel, as reflected in the first sermon by Peter, is that the crucified Jesus has been raised from the dead by God and is now ruling the world as Lord and Messiah. This is the Gospel–it is a claim about reality, not advice about what we should do in response to it. Our response should organically flow out from the claim.
- What is the Good News? Again, the bottom line here is that your soul can go to Heaven, the not-Hell where you won’t be punished. The main attraction about Heaven is that it is not Hell. There is no sense that your relationships right now are being redeemed–that your love for your father and mother, for your spouse, for your child, for your friend, and for the stranger, all have cosmic significance. It is only important in that it is evidence that you have been saved and now can enter Heaven. There is no sense that, contra Ecclesiastes, now your labor is not in vain, and that your work will mysteriously be brought and continue into the New Creation.
Formulas can be helpful, but over-reliance on them can falsely communicate that the formula is all that is going on. The great evangelical preacher John Stott was once asked what he thought the irreducible minimum Gospel was, to which he responded, “Who wants an irreducible minimum gospel? I want the full, biblical gospel.”
The Gospel is not a formula that solves the problem of my anxiety. It’s an entire world to be entered into–and it’s Good News because this claim that Jesus is Lord has all sorts of implications that speak to all sorts of people with all sorts of problems. For some people–particularly young people in our status-obsessed, anxiety-ridden culture–an assurance that they are eternally loved and worthy is the main way to speak the Gospel into their lives. But this isn’t the only Good News the Gospel has to bring, or that we need to hear.
We need to hear the Good News about Justice–real Justice for the poor and oppressed, and punishment for the Evil that has denied them their dignity and due. We need to hear the Good News about Death–that Death is not the final word over our existence any longer, but that a God who is the Fountain of Life can raise us and those we love from the dead. O Death where is thy sting?
We need to hear the Good News that is dominated by Joy, not Fear–animated not by a desire to avoid Hell, but by a desire to be with the Loving God who is so abounding in Goodness that He has promised by the cost of divine blood to make all things new. We need to hear the Good News about the New Humanity–the royal priesthood we human beings are called to be right now, and how God’s own Spirit now dwells in our hearts so that we are walking, living stones of a new Holy Temple.
We need to hear the Good News about the New Creation–that your work, your family, your friendships, your stewardship of the world’s material resources, all resound with cosmic meaning; that they will somehow mysteriously be included in the New Heavens and New Earth; and that your life on earth is not just play-acting to determine whether you are admitted into the pearly gates.
We need to hear the Good News about God–that God is not some mysterious, hidden figure with abstract, strange, and perhaps malevolent purposes, but that He has been fully revealed in Christ as a Love willing to die to reconcile enemies and raise them to share in His own glory.
Here are my own suggestions on elements to keep in mind when presenting the Gospel. As I said above, different elements should be stressed with different people, depending on their own struggles, idols, and stories. And of course, we will need the guidance of community and the Holy Spirit to communicate with wisdom and love.
- Matter matters. Unlike the Gnostics, who saw physical reality as filth they wished to escape, Christians saw physical reality as something that will be redeemed and included in the New Creation. This is why Paul cares so much about what we do with our bodies; we are not disembodied souls, but enfleshed human beings who are promised the resurrection of our bodies–bodies that will somehow be transformed, but bodies where we will eat, touch, and hug.
- The New Humanity and the Kingdom of God. Jesus calls us so that we will die to the old humanity enslaved to sin and death and rise to New Life united in Him. A key theme in the New Testament letters is the restoration of the image of God in us by being conformed to the Son, the perfect Image. Jesus promises us that in our unity we will display the nature of God’s own character to the world. Every Christian community becomes a colony of Heaven established on Earth, an outpost of the Kingdom of God that lives according to His Rule and acknowledges His Reign. With God’s own Spirit knitting our hearts together into a Temple, we now walk the earth as the pardon of God, flooding the world with grace and forgiveness.
- A Story of Divine Love, Not a Formula to Satisfy Divine Logic. In Scripture, God does not give us a logical formula to satisfy abstract principles of justice. Instead, God gives us a drama that weaves together all the micro-stories of the Old and New Testaments–the plots about Abraham and Sarah, Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, Paul and Peter–into a majestic epic recounting how the Creator God is invading a world fallen into darkness with His marvelous light. This drama meets its climax when the Word takes on Flesh, and then is written upon our hearts by the Spirit. All the plots of our lives are now included as continuing extensions of this divine drama, moving toward the glorious and satisfying resolution we have been promised.
- New Heavens and New Earth. God created an immature world that was good, but wild, and He commissioned man to garden and nurture it into full maturity. That growth was stunted and then twisted because of sin. God promises to return with His full presence to Creation to heal it and bring it to glory. God’s Goodness is so abundant that it brings rivers of life to barren deserts and dead seas. Christ’s work on the Cross liberates Creation from the bondage of death and decay by restoring the image of God in humanity. Now, we who belong to Christ can participate in Creation’s liberation and glorification. This world will not be discarded, though it will be judged. The renewed cosmos will become a Temple charged with God’s Holy Presence, as promised in the Old Testament. Hell does not take a dominant frame, but is a negative picture of God’s underlying commitment to Creation and its Glorification. Hell explains the grievous state of loss for those who reject God’s image in ourselves, others, and Christ.
- All Powers Placed Under the Feet of Christ. The Hebrew prophets dreamed of a time of justice and judgment, where all the earthly powers that rule the world with oppression would be crushed and replaced with God’s own righteous rule. God’s Just Rule would be healing and restorative–He will wipe away tears and lift up the orphans and the widows. Paul clarifies that in our struggle against the earthly powers, we are really warring against spiritual principalities that are in rebellion against God. This is why Christ’s work on the Cross was a decisive victory against the powers of sin, death, and the Devil, and why Christ’s reign must continue until all rebellious powers are placed under His feet, so that God may be all in all. As the Body of Christ, we participate in this war, and must daily gird ourselves for the battle.
- The Supremacy and Centrality of Christ. The focus on this Gospel is not upon ourselves, but on Christ. Not Christ as a solution to a problem, but Christ as the glorious Messiah and Lord who reveals the heart of God and rules the nations with justice and truth. The purpose of God for Creation is Christ. In Christ’s relationship with the Father, we have a foretaste of God’s aims for humanity and Creation. In Christ’s work, we are brought to participate in the Triune Life of God by sharing in His Spirit. In Christ’s life, we see the life of perfect worship and gratitude that now typifies our lives. Christ should be the central focus of any Gospel presentation, not the logical demands of justice or our response in fear of damnation. Our response is really an afterthought–an organic response to the unveiled beauty of Christ.
- The Good News of Resurrection, Welcome, and Renewal. Finally, the Resurrection in this Gospel is not a miracle that “proves” that Jesus is God, but the great victory over death that assures us of God’s final victory. Christ is the first-fruits of the New Creation, and He welcomes sinners to be washed by His blood and enter His New Life. God has promised to make all things new–when we gaze at the Risen Christ, we are given the confidence to say, Yes and Amen!
Here’s your hymn for the Easter season–
I just love this first verse:
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
does its successive journeys run,
his kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
till moons shall wax and wane no more.
Our God–the God perfectly revealed and manifest in Jesus Christ–reigns forever, over everything. And this is Good News because He is entirely, bountifully, and joyously Good. Hallelujah and Happy Easter!