Intro
In part 1, I argued that popular gospel presentations championed by many modern evangelicals are sub-biblical. The biblical gospel is holistic, God-centered, and redeems all creation with those who are in Christ as (self-sacrificing) agents of blessing. On the other hand, those popular gospel presentations reduce the gospel to an individual quest for an afterlife ‘heaven’ as its final goal. It’s pixelated, man-centered, and ultimately self-centered at its core. It is primarily driven by a desire to escape from suffering rather than willingness to suffer for the sake of others.

But some may say, “Why is it bad? Look at those gospel rallies! Many responded to the altar call from {name your favorite mass evangelist}. Many people are ‘saved.’ Surely God works in it.” Well, rather than directly answering to this claim (which has been seriously questioned through many studies on the Second Great Awakening and 20th century evangelistic crusades), I’d like to discuss the ideology behind and the consequences of what I call a pixelated gospel. I’ll leave it to you to decide if its consequences are serious enough for us to reevaluate how we share the good news of God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ with others.

SDG

Eko Ong

Diary Log One: A nice old lady in the plane asked me,
“Young man, are you saved?”
I said, “What do you mean, Ma’am?”
“Do you know where you’ll go after you die?”
“What about you, Ma’am?”
“Oh I know, I’ll go to heaven because I have invited Jesus in my heart.”
“Good for you, Ma’am! How did you do it?”
“I prayed a short prayer at Billy Graham crusade and that’s it! You can do the same, Young Man.”
“You mean: God, I am a sinner and I need your Son Jesus to be saved. I invite him into my heart as my Lord and Savior. Thanks for your grace. Something like that?”
“Oh, you know that already! I bet you are a believer.”
“Yes, Ma’am. So how do you live your Christian life?”
“I attend church and women’s biblical study every week. I pray and read my Bible every day. I tithe…”
“Wow, impressive! Do you do any community service?”
“No. I serve God in my church. Anyway this world will pass away and be destroyed. And my citizenship is in heaven, that’s where I’ll go after I die {serious/gnostic misreading of Phil 3:20}. Or perhaps I’ll be raptured first. So I don’t care about this world. This world is bad, evil.”
“But don’t you think we all should try to make this world a better place then?”
“Dear, the world is beyond hope. We have something better for us in heaven. I am looking forward to it, after I die. I bet you are, too.”

Diary Log Two: I asked Minister Joe (pseudo-name) when I was in college (struggling with my faith),
“Joe, where will a baby boy go if he dies?”
“Eko, of course he will go to heaven, he hasn’t committed any sin.”
“I thought the baby has sinned in Adam?”
“Yes, but he is under his age of accountability. That’s my view. Another view says that if he is a child of a believing family, he is surely saved and will go to heaven. You know, the David story.”
“Yes, the baby he had with Bathsheba. OK it seems that you are not sure which one is right, Joe.”
“I think the first one makes more sense.”
“OK, Joe, so the baby goes to heaven when he dies.”
“Yes, bro.”
“Then an aborted baby boy will go to heaven, right?”
“Yes, of course he will. But abortion is evil, murder. Do you agree, Eko?”
“Yes, I do. But here is what bothers me. Don’t you think the one who kills the baby does him a good thing? The baby goes to heaven.”
“Certainly not! Evil is evil. The Bible says that we are cursed if we call evil good. It’s tragic.”
“But last week you told us that the ultimate hope of Christian life is our salvation, going to heaven after we die. If the baby boy lives longer and passes his age of accountability, there is a chance that he will reject Jesus. This happens so many times even in Christian families. If that’s so, he is going to hell, right?”
“If he rejects Jesus, yes, he will go to hell.”
“So ultimately, he could be screwed big time if he lives longer. Don’t you think it is better for him – or all of us for that matter – to be aborted?”
“That’s a good point. But murder is sin.”
“Yes, but I am talking about his eternal destiny, Joe. Which is worse, to be killed by someone who can kill only his infant body, or to be thrown into the lake of fire by someone who can kill the soul after killing the adult body?”
“Well …”

 

These two conversations illustrate what could go wrong if we take a tiny secondary part of the biblical gospel and make it the holy grail of the gospel. But before we go further, let’s ask this question: what can one gain by reducing the gospel to a condition for one’s entrance to heaven after one dies? At least three things:

First, it provides a concise (well-defined) individual motivation for someone to become a Christian. It answers the “what’s in it for me?” question and thus imbues it with marketability. As mentioned in part 1, if one has nothing to hope for in this world, other-worldly hope is quite attractive and, in fact, therapeutic. Who wants to burn in fiery (or get scared in the utter-darkness of) hell if one can go to a place where a host of angels keep singing and the roads are made of precious stones? If one really believes it, the choice is a no-brainer, especially if the condition of entrance is just one prayer away.

Second, it gives us a quantifiable and short-term achievement/goal-setting for a gospel ministry similar to what is done in corporate America. For instance, when a mass evangelist delivers a 30-min gospel sermon to thousands of people and many respond to his altar call, some good stats can be easily drawn. Unlike disciple-making whose outcome is less quantifiable and demands long-term care, compelling annual ‘deliverables’ can be set based on this model. For instance, if this mass evangelist can preach to 2000 people in one hour per city/village and cover 3 cities/villages per day, imagine the stats he can claim annually! Isn’t the output (e.g. the number of ‘souls’ per day) grand?

Third, it provides a quick way to train a new believer to start his or her evangelism enterprise. If a gospel presentation can be shortened to 10 minutes, anyone can be trained to do it. Waiting for a new believer to properly learn the whole gospel can be intimidating and will take a long time. This is especially important if ‘church growth’ (typically defined in terms of membership count) is imminent.

Do these ‘benefits’ warrant us to pixelate the biblical gospel as such? To answer this, let’s look at some possible consequences of reducing the gospel into an individual quest for ‘heaven’.

First, such a pixelated gospel foster Western individualism. The sentiment of “it’s just between me and Jesus/God” has damaged the strong communal aspect of Christianity. Paraphrasing what Dr. Sinclair Ferguson (my systematic theology professor) once said, modern evangelicalism has replaced the true hope of corporate and bodily resurrection on earth with the individual and ‘spiritual’ ascend into a Neo-Platonic heaven. Is it then surprising if a ‘born-again evangelical’ friend of mine says, “I have assurance of salvation. Jesus is my Savior. But my reward will be small since I don’t serve much, I am materialistic, and I don’t care much about others. But I know Jesus loves me. I am fine with that as long as I have a place in heaven!”?

Which leads me to the second point: it turns Christianity into a form of other-worldly religion. As I said before, it bears resemblance with Gnosticism. It diverts our attention from Christ-given incarnational mission (to bring blessing to the world, to restore every aspect of God’s good creation) to a mission into the ‘outer-space’ (escape from the suffering of the world) It is perhaps what Karl Marx (despite my rejection of socialism) called “the opium of the people”, a mental numbing agent. If you don’t like what’s here, forget about it, look or think elsewhere, escape. At the end, it turns a church into (quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) “an irrelevant social club … preaching an other-worldly gospel.”

Third, when a church is so absorbed with such a pixelated gospel, the church ends up raising a multitude of spiritual toddlers instead of Christ’s true disciples. They are so looking forward to being beamed up to heaven and escape from this world. So whatever they do while still alive is primarily to make their temporary stay on earth more bearable. Antinomian toddlers will live as they feel like it as they are guaranteed rooms in heaven. ‘Pious’ toddlers feel that the church is their safe haven, away from the evil world, waiting for their own rapture. They tend to be judgmental and self-righteous like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time. “I thank God that I am not like ….” has become a mindset. Their understanding of holiness is separation – don’t engage the sinners lest we be like them.

While much more can be said, I am sure you have seen or experienced at least one of these three consequences. If you have read the entire New Testament, you will see that none of these come from Jesus and the apostles. Why did the Logos become flesh, humble himself to the point of death on the cross? Is it merely to provide us an access code to heaven? Or is it to redeem God’s creation and enable his disciples to continue his work in bringing God’s heavenly rule on earth? Why did his early disciples have to suffer like him? Were they a band of masochists? Or were they called to suffer for the world just as the Bible teaches?

So perhaps, the benefits from pixelating the gospel of Jesus Christ do not outweigh the costs. To remain good news, this gospel must be preached, taught, and lived out as is. No more and no less. Yes, the results may not be quantifiable. Yes, we may not be able to claim spectacular stats every year. The fruits may come slowly. But pixelating it to achieve quick results is unwarranted, or could be detrimental.

God’s rule on earth has come in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who has been vindicated as the Lord of creation. “If one is in Christ, new creation! The old has passed away, and see, the new has come!” (a better translation of 2 Cor 5:17) Much more needs to be done until Christ comes again. We are called for the world. To bring blessings to the world, we must engage the world. Regardless of how bad things look like, God’s Spirit is renewing the world day by day. We long for the day when this new creation is consummated. In the meantime, we must take part in it. What a privilege and a responsibility! Are we God’s filial children, his good and faithful servants? As Abraham Kuyper once said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” If Christ is the Lord of creation, shouldn’t we take part in every square inch of it, according to what has been entrusted to us? That may bring troubles and tribulations. But fear not, for Christ is the Lord of all. That, I think, is truly good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ!

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