I’ve been writing about the Good News, what it is and what it does. So it caught my attention when I saw online a tweet (an X?) by Mark Driscoll. In it, he writes, “The Good News isn’t good news without the bad news.” He said so quote-tweeting (quote-Xing?) another pastor, Greg Laurie, whose tweet you can see here.
I disagree with Mark Driscoll often, and I disagree with him here. Is it possible to have the Good News without the bad news? I think so. I don’t think we need to preach hell in order to proclaim the Good News.
Good News Stands on its Own
First of all, in life, I don’t expect good news to come together with bad news all the time. Good news stands on its own all the time, without needing bad news to make it so. If I were to get a raise at work, that’s good news that doesn’t need bad news to make it good. Good news, in general, doesn’t need bad news in order to make it good.
Early Evangelism Didn’t Talk About Hell
Second of all, in reading Acts, not a single evangelistic message mentions hell or the possibility of eternal damnation. Not a single one. They talked about the crucifixion, they talked about the resurrection, they talked a lot about Israel and how Jesus fulfills its story. They talk a lot about forgiveness from sin. Paul even quotes a Greek philosopher. But none of them mention hell.
In fact, I’m not sure anyone who converted to Christianity even knew about the possibility of hell before signing up to follow Jesus. The crowd on Pentecost didn’t. The Ethiopian eunuch didn’t. Cornelius didn’t. The Philippian jailer didn’t. At least in the book of Acts, people could receive the Good News without knowing about the “bad news” of hell.
Peter’s Pentecost Sermon
Let’s take a look at a portion of Peter’s first sermon on the Day of Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’ disciples. For the sake of brevity, I have cut out the Old Testament quotes, but you can read the whole passage here. He says,
22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to these words: This Jesus of Nazareth was a man attested to you by God with miracles, wonders, and signs that God did among you through him, just as you yourselves know. 23 Though he was delivered up according to God’s determined plan and foreknowledge, you used lawless people to nail him to a cross and kill him. 24 God raised him up, ending the pains of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by death.
29 “Brothers and sisters, I can confidently speak to you about the patriarch David: He is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn an oath to him to seat one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke concerning the resurrection of the Messiah: He was not abandoned in Hades, and his flesh did not experience decay.
32 “God has raised this Jesus; we are all witnesses of this. 33 Therefore, since he has been exalted to the right hand of God and has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, he has poured out what you both see and hear.
36 “Therefore let all the house of Israel know with certainty that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
No mention of hell (though he does mention Hades is the part I cut out, but biblically, Hades is not the same as hell). Peter emphasizes how the miracles of Jesus attested to his messianic status, how he was a descendant of David, as foretold by Scripture, how died and was raised from the dead. He closes by emphasizing that God has made Jesus “both Lord and Messiah.” Peter focuses on Jesus’ messianic Lordship, presenting Good News that salvation is available because Jesus has been vindicated by God as Lord.
Repentance is Good News, Actually
Thirdly, I don’t like casting repentance as “bad news.” Repentance is good news. The fact that it is possible, that turning away from one’s brokenness and sinfulness is possible, is good news. If you were stranded in the ocean and you were swimming out to deeper waters, and I came along and told you that if you swam the other direction you’d eventually reach shore, you’d take that as good news. You’d know that you were now swimming in a direction that would lead to life.
The Apostles were very clear in Acts that people needed to repent of their sins. The gravitational force of our broken world pulls us toward sin, drawing us away from Jesus. We need to turn out lives around and abandon our selfishness and sinfulness in order to follow Jesus. But again, I don’t think that’s bad news. If the way of Jesus leads to an abundant life (John 10:10), then being told to repent in order to follow that way is good news.
Now, is turning one’s life around easy? Is it without pain? No, and no. It can be quite difficult. We become addicted to our sinful habits and we have a hard time giving up certain attitudes, certain actions, certain ways of treating others. The Good News is that Jesus died to not only free us from the penalty of sin, but also from its power. Jesus gives believers the Holy Spirit so that they have a Helper in fighting against sin. Repentance is good news. The fact that it’s possible and the fact that Jesus resources us so that we might live a repentant life is good news, not bad news.
Repentance is the Response to Good News
After Peter’s speech, some people wanted to know how to receive salvation. Peter answered them,
“Repent and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Change your way (repent), change your allegiance and identity (be baptized), receive God’s forgiveness and receive the Holy Spirit. The response to the Gospel is to repent, but it’s not bad news. It’s good news.
Jesus is Not Fire Insurance
Fourthly, how you save someone is what you are saving them to. Convincing people to follow Jesus so that they can avoid hell does not very well set someone up to follow Jesus. Jesus becomes fire insurance, a “Get out of Hell Free” card. In such a view, Jesus is just a Savior, just the one who took the bullet for us. That’s where the emphasis lands, not on the fact that Jesus is the risen Lord who brings us out of slavery to sin into freedom with him. The emphasis in on how the good news benefits us, not on Jesus.
Such a “gospel” merely leads someone to view following Jesus as mere sin management. One becomes scrupulous about not committing sin but does not enjoy the freedom Christ gives us and does not focus on joining him in his ongoing Kingdom mission in this world.
How Good News Shaped Early Believers
The early converts to Christianity certainly didn’t seem to be engaging in sin management, nor did they view Jesus as hell insurance. The actively participated in Jesus’ mission and actively participated in the life and growth of the Church. The end of Acts 2 tells us what they did:
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.
43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. 44 Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. 45 They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with joyful and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
They don’t seem too hung up on sin. These are all positive Christian actions and attitudes. They were devoted to apostolic teaching, to being together in fellowship, to celebrating meals together, and to prayer. They worshiped together, shared materials goods with one another, and found joy in their times of fellowship. They were not saved to hell-avoidance but to life under the Lordship of Jesus, who provides peace and wholeness to those who devote themselves by faith to him.
Good News Does Not Need Bad News
Now you might be thinking at this point, “Whoa, wait a minute here, Hoffman, what about all the times in the New Testament Paul or someone talks about God’s wrath and God’s hatred of sin and damnation and what not?” Good question, and I would merely point out the letters of the New Testament are written to Christians, those who already believe Christ. Paul wanted his churches to put aside their old way of living in order to live godly lives. He wanted their actions to be righteous in order to match their status as righteous in union with Jesus. Paul’s emphasis was a believer’s identity in Jesus; he condemned sin because sinful behavior doesn’t jibe with being a saved follower of Jesus. Even when Paul has bad news to discuss, it’s wrapped by Good News.
The Good News is Good News with or without bad news. One doesn’t need to know about hell to know that the Jesus way of life is better than the life he or she is currently living. One doesn’t need to be scared of eternal damnation to see the appeal of eternal life. And Jesus stands on his own; Jesus is good enough and beautiful enough and powerful enough and gracious enough on his own. We don’t need to know about hell to find Jesus compelling and worthy of our devotion. Good News is Good News even without the bad news.