What Exactly Is The Gospel? (Part One)

Dear Mr. Lough:

You have referred several times to evangelical Christianity in this exchange of emails. You’ve made it clear that, although evangelicalism was the context for your early Christian formation, you no longer share some of the movement’s foundational presuppositions. In your last letter, however, you said something I had not heard before, and it raised a question I’d like to pursue.

You wrote, “Despite my belief that evangelicalism has lost its way and is flailing around in a confused state of self-misperception, I pray for the movement’s recovery of the gospel of the kingdom.” Could you say a bit more about that?

Specifically, it would help me if you could define what you mean by “the gospel of the kingdom.” I’ve always been taught that the gospel is the good news that, because of the sacrificial death of Jesus, the Son of God, sinful humans can be forgiven by God and inherit eternal life in heaven. I think that is what most evangelicals believe. Is “the gospel of the kingdom” something different than that?

Looking forward to hearing from you.

Kathryn


Dear Kathryn:

Thanks for raising that very important question. As you imply, what I mean by “the gospel of the kingdom” is different from what most evangelicals mean when they talk about the gospel (the essence of which you summarized very well). That’s not because there is more than one way to define the term. It’s because—and here I must ask you to forgive my impertinence—it’s because the standard evangelical definition is, well, wrong.

That’s ironic, too, since the Greek word translated “gospel” in the New Testament is euangelos, which technically means “good news” and is the root of the very word “evangelical.” Evangelicals should be, according to the derivation of their name, the people with the good news.

Unfortunately, what evangelicals communicate, too often, does not strike their hearers as good news. It seems too complicated, too theological. It seems to require adherence to a code of behavior and adoption of a worldview that non-evangelicals find restrictive, intolerant, and reactionary.

Consider, for example, the differences between what evangelicals say they believe about the message of the gospel and the way “unbelievers” perceive that message.

On the one hand, evangelicals believe that the “good news” contained in the gospel is the message that God has provided a way for sinful humans to escape the punishment which they rightly deserve because of their sin. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on a cross and, in his death, took upon himself the judgment of God and punishment in place of guilty humans. The good news is that, by acknowledging their sinfulness and believing that Jesus died in their place, all human beings can, through their confession and faith, receive God’s forgiveness. Of course, if for any reason they do not individually repent of their sin and receive God’s forgiveness, they must individually bear the consequences of their unbelief which entails separation from God for all of eternity.

On the other hand, consider how all of this sounds to a person who hears this version of the gospel but does not share the evangelical’s presuppositions about the character of God and the basic nature of humanity. To that person, the evangelical “gospel” makes very little sense. To illustrate, let me paraphrase a conversation I had numerous times, when I still identified as an evangelical, with persons to whom I was trying to explain the evangelical version of the gospel. I will arbitrarily assign the name Bob to my partner in this fictitious, but altogether representative, conversation.

Bob:   So, you’re saying that God is the creator of all life, including humans, right?

Me:    That’s right.

Bob:   And all humans, because of their very nature, commit sin?

Me:    That’s right.

Bob:   And unless that sin is forgiven, humans will have to bear the punishment for their sin and will spend eternity apart from God?

Me:    That’s right.

Bob:   Now, God has the power to forgive all human sin, right?

Me:    Yes.

Bob:   And yet, Jesus, whom you say is also God, had to take on human form and be subject to humiliation and death in order for God (Himself? Another form of God?) to extend forgiveness?

Me:    Well…

Bob:   And that forgiveness, which required the death of Jesus, will still only be extended to those who believe this story and ask God for it?

Me:    Well…

Bob:   So, this is what I am hearing. Human beings, who did not ask to be created by God, come into the world with no possibility of not sinning. Then, when they commit the sin which they could not avoid, they fall under the judgment of the God who created them. They can escape that judgment, however, if they believe that, in his death, Jesus (who was himself God) took their punishment (from God) and made it possible for God (Jesus?) to forgive them. If they don’t come to that belief, they will be responsible for their own sin and will be separated from God in a place of punishment for all eternity. Is that basically right?

Me:    Well…

Bob:   I have to be honest with you. It sounds kind of messed up. Not really good news at all. I don’t know what to make of a God who would create billions of human beings knowing, all the while, that most of them would never understand this version of the “good news” and would, therefore, spend eternity in hell. I find all of that hard to comprehend.

Now, evangelicals usually interpret this inability or unwillingness to embrace their version of “the gospel” as evidence of spiritual blindness. They take comfort in the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 4—And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

It’s not my intent to challenge Paul’s assertion regarding the supernatural forces that may be at work in the world, opposing the plan and purpose of God and blinding people’s minds to the message of the gospel. I have no doubt that such a thing happens. What I dispute is whether or not my conversation with “Bob” is an example of what Paul described in 2 Cor. 4.

I don’t think it is, for one main reason. I no longer believe that the evangelical version of the gospel is accurate. (Steady, now. That is not nearly as heretical an idea as it may first appear to be.) And I’d like to pick up at this point in my next letter. So, for now…

Best,

Arthur

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