What is the Gospel?

What is the Gospel? November 9, 2013

For a number of years I have asked Christian groups what they think the Christian gospel – the “good news” – is. I ask them to begin with memory – to think back to how they would have answered that question at the end of childhood, at age twelve or so – and in not more than a sentence. What had they absorbed by then? I give them a few minutes to think about that, and then put them in small groups of four or five for about fifteen minutes to share what they came up with.

Sometimes I then ask how they would answer that question now (also in not more than a sentence) and how much continuity or discontinuity there is with their end-of-childhood answer.

This blog is about my responses, then and now, to that question. At the end of childhood, I would have said that the heart of the gospel, the Christian good news, is that Jesus died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven if we believe in him. That was the impression that I received growing up in a “mainline” Protestant denomination.

Note what it emphasized. The afterlife: if you had been able to convince me at age twelve or so that there was no afterlife, I would have had no idea why I should be Christian. The afterlife was what it was about. Note also that it emphasizes sin as the primary issue in our life with God and thus our need for forgiveness. That is why Jesus was necessary: he died to pay for our sins so that we can be forgiven. And believing that Jesus did that for us was what mattered. Indeed, believing was what would save us.

Not every Christian internalized this while growing up. But many – Protestants and Catholics alike – did. So widespread is this understanding of the Christian message that it can be called the “common Christianity” of our time, shared not only by many Christians but also by many who reject Christianity.

I turn to “now.” Beginning many decades ago, I have come to understand the gospel, the heart of Christianity, very differently. The rest of this blog describes how I see it and why and why it matters. It involves both history and imagination.

History. Back to the first century. How did the first followers of Jesus, and Jesus himself, answer the question, “What is the gospel, the good news?” The historical answer is clear: it is about the coming of “the kingdom of God.”

In Mark, the first gospel to be written, Jesus’s first words are about the coming of “the kingdom of God” (1.15). The verses is Mark’s advance summary of what the gospel and story of Jesus are about. A virtually universal consensus of mainstream New Testament scholars agrees: at the heart of Jesus’s message and passion was “the kingdom of God.”

The phrase combines religious and political language, as so much of the Bible does. Religious: it is about God and God’s kingship, lordship. It is about “the Great Commandment”: to love the Lord our God with all heart, soul, mind, and might. Political: in the first century, “kingdom” was a political term. Jesus’s hearers knew about the kingdoms of Herod and Rome (in eastern parts of the Roman Empire, Rome referred to itself as a “kingdom” and not as an empire). If Jesus had wanted to avoid the political connotations of “kingdom” language, he could have spoken of the family of God or the community of God or the people of God. But he didn’t. He used “kingdom” language.

Importantly, “the kingdom of God” was not about life in the next world, not about heaven, but life on earth. Though Christians have not always recognized this, they should not be surprised by it. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. To use one of Dom Crossan’s great one-liners: heaven’s in great shape – earth is where the problems are.

The coming of the kingdom of God on earth was about justice and peace. Justice: that everybody should have enough (“daily bread”) of the material basis of life. Peace: the end of war and violence. Jesus’s passion – what he was passionate about – was God and the kingdom of God. It involves a twofold transformation: of ourselves and of “this world.”

Imagination. Imagine that most Christians thought this. Imagine how Christianity today would be different. Imagine how American Christianity would be different. Imagine how America might be different.

Imagine that we no longer thought that Christianity was about heaven or hell. Imagine that we no longer thought that it was about prospering in this life. Imagine that it is not about God taking care of us and protecting us, in this life or the next.

Imagine instead that Christianity is about transformation – of ourselves as individuals (that it is about being born again by dying and rising with Christ to a life centered in Christ and moved by compassion). And that it is about transforming the humanly-constructed world of unjust and violent systems (that it is about the kingdom of God on earth).

The latter is, of course, a utopian ideal, impossible for us to achieve. But we can work for greater approximations of it. Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the most important Protestant theologians of the 20th century and known as an advocate of “Christian realism” nevertheless spoke of the political relevance of an impossible ideal: it is the goal toward which Christians are called to shape political systems..

So, having described how I see the Christian gospel, I invite conversation: what is the Christian gospel, the Christian good news? Is it primarily about what we must believe and/or do in order to go to heaven? Or is it about transformation – being transformed into the likeness of Christ, to use language from Paul, here and now? Both? If so, in what proportions? Or?

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