Asking an evangelical Christian what the gospel is could be construed as a silly question. After all, who knows the gospel (the evangel) better than evangelicals? In fact, the Great Commission, interpreted as a mandate for evangelism, is perhaps a greatest commandment for evangelicals – on par with the so-called love commandments (cf. Deut 6:4-5, Lev 19:18, and their NT quotations). But is it likely that many modern evangelicals subscribe to a gospel tradition (yes, modern evangelicals have a tradition!) which is sub-biblical? When a gospel presentation is designed to be an access code for someone to pass the security gate of ‘heaven’ after he or she dies, can it withstand the scrutiny of Scripture? What would be the repercussions if the gospel is presented this way?
In part 1, I’d like to reflect on this popular gospel presentation championed by many (not all) modern evangelicals and briefly compare it with what the Bible teaches. I will argue that such a gospel presentation is a severely compressed version of the biblical apostolic gospel. It can be likened to focusing on Mona Lisa’s nose without paying attention to her enigmatic smiling face (which is what Da Vinci wanted us to behold). Or perhaps, a pixelated version of a beautiful picture.
I hope this reflection may facilitate healthy theological reflection. . It’s meant to be irenic yet critical. Church tradition (in this case, a tradition in presenting the gospel and ‘winning souls’) must be held accountable by Scripture. At the end, it’s meant to bring us back to Scripture. After all, I do have something in common with my modern evangelical brothers and sisters: Sola Scriptura – Scripture holds the sole/primary authority for salvation, faith, and life.
What is the ultimate Christian hope? Going to heaven after we die to be with the Lord? After all, our world feels like a bad place to live in. The weather in Dallas has been unpredictable these past few years. We have much more snow and black ice during the winter. Tornadoes happen quite a bit. Not to mention flooding in some parts of Dallas (yes, the unthinkable has happened in the US, not only in Jakarta). Those who are concerned with the decline in morality lament and pray, “Lord, please come quickly!” What about us who are sick? When can we abandon our baggage of flesh?
So knowing that we have a room reserved in heaven up there may give us hope – if we have nothing else to hope for on earth. After all, didn’t Paul prefer to die and be with the Lord? He suffered for Christ’s sake, carried a thorn in his flesh, was whipped so many times, and so on. When he wrote to Timothy that he had fought a good fight, didn’t he prepare to receive his crown in heaven up there?
Yet the Bible doesn’t seem to present the gospel that way. At least, going to heaven after we die to avoid the burning (or dark – pick your favorite hell metaphor) hell is not the focus of the gospel. What is the gospel then? The gospel is good news that God has fulfilled his covenantal promise to Israel. It was a message of the coming of a king, and in fact, the coming of God’s rule on earth. It was implicitly there throughout the Old Testament. For instance, many of us know that it is embedded in Genesis 3:15, God’s covenants with Abraham (e.g. Gen 12, 15, 17, 22) and King David (e.g. 2 Sam 7:13-15).
Yet perhaps the most explicit reference to the gospel is in Isaiah 40-55 (especially 40 and 52), repeated in Isa 61. The gospel was something announced way before its fulfillment. It was a promise of God-initiated restoration of the world where Israel would be delivered from bondage. It was presented in reference to national hopes of Israel: the second and bigger exodus (not only from the Babylonian exile, but a total deliverance and freedom), the ultimate worship of the God of Israel even by the Gentiles as they abandoned their idols, the coming of God’s kingdom in Zion, and social justice throughout the land.
Who would deliver this good news? The Servant of Yahweh (Isa 52-53, 61), of course! The Spirit-anointed Servant would preach good news to the poor, proclaim and enact release to those in bondage, and give sight to the blind. This is the long awaited favorable year of the Lord (Isa 61:1-2 and 58:6, quoted by Jesus, according to Luke, in Luke 4:18-21).
In relation to God’s covenant, it is the promise of the new covenant and the new Spirit (Jer 31:31-34, Ezek 36-37, cf. Deut 30:1-10) when Israel would be Yahweh’s people and Yahweh would be their god. Their sins would be forgiven. God’s law would be internalized in their fleshly and cleansed hearts. God’s Spirit would give life to dead skeletons.
More Old Testament references could be made. Essentially, the gospel is the hope of God’s restoration of the world (God’s good yet fallen creation) through Israel in the coming of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven (cf. the Lord’s Prayer). In Isa 65, it is portrayed as the New Jerusalem, the new heaven and the new earth (the image used in Rev 21).
So when John the Baptizer and Jesus proclaimed the nearness of the kingdom of God and the necessity to repent, the 1st century Jews understood that in the context of this Old Testament hope. When Jesus said that “the kingdom has come upon you” in his acts of exorcism and that the “kingdom is in your midst”, the kingdom was happening in his person and works. What Jesus proclaimed is the gospel of the kingdom. And he is the gospel. It’s no wonder that the early church entitled the first four books of the New Testament “the Gospel according to …”
Yet many Jews, including the Pharisees, the Zealots, and the Jewish leaders, read this through their own struggle and desire for national independence. In their Zionistic hope, the gospel was narrowed down (or pixelated) into the hope of freedom from and God’s vengeance against the Romans (and any pagan influence). For them, the coming of the kingdom primarily meant that a Davidic military messiah would lead the nation to kick out the Romans and establish their national autonomy.
Thus they missed their own messiah. They rejected the gospel. The Pharisees wanted religious purity. The Zealots desired vengeance. And the Jewish leaders wanted to maintain their status quo as the power mongers. In Jesus’ eyes, those Jewish leaders manifested evil and death, and were the cause of social injustice throughout the land. Ironically, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem where God was supposed to dwell became a national idol, preventing the Gentiles to come to the true God. So when Jesus tried to disrupt (or actually restore) the equilibrium by proclaiming judgment against them and the Temple, they used the hands of the Romans to put the true Evangel to stop.
But of course, this happened according to God’s counsel so that the power of evil, sin, and death may be broken. This triad is the roadblock to God’s project of restoring his good yet fallen creation. In Jesus’ death and resurrection, new creation has started. God created the heavens and the earth starting on ‘day one.’ Likewise, God has started renewing the heavens and the earth on the Easter Sunday, the first day of the week.
The renewal project has not yet been completed, however. Those who follow the way of the cross and resurrection are commissioned to be Christ’s witness in words and deeds, to become agents of God’s blessing to the world and agents of God’s restoration. This project will be complete upon the return of the King Jesus. On that day, the heavens will come down to earth and God will be with us forever. “Behold, I will make everything new!” Immanuel was seen in Jesus and experienced in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Yet when the restoration project is complete, the presence of the Triune God with his people will be consummated. Eternal life happens on the new earth (not in a ‘heaven’ up there) in our resurrected bodies (not in a ‘soulish’ existence).
That is indeed the gospel according to the Bible. The early church understood this. The 16th century Reformers (especially Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli) and Abraham Kuyper tried to implement this gospel vision. While mistakes were made and some of their actions may not be applicable today, it is clear that for them, the gospel is holistic: personal, communal, and societal. It is triumphalist yet humble and suffering, respects tradition yet reforming, inwardly devotional yet outwardly missional.
But at some points in church history, fueled with a sub-biblical (i.e. influence of Greek thoughts) understanding of our final hope and what heaven is, popular gospel presentations reduced the gospel into a personal hope for otherworldly salvation. Salvation is focused so much on escaping from the evil in the world rather than enduring suffering for the sake of the world (which partially explains why the ‘Left Behind’ theology is so popular and well-accepted among modern evangelicals in America). Reward, rather than responsibility, becomes a motivator. “What’s in it for me?” is the norm of our society.
Combined with a demand for a short and concise communication, compact gospel presentations which focus on what sells came about. The measure is its effectiveness in winning ‘souls.’ “If our plane crashes and you face God, what will you tell him if he asks you: Why should I let you in?” becomes a standard issue for evangelism – whether personal or in gospel rallies. Four spiritual laws, the bridge, etc. When the gospel is presented this way, many things are lost. The gospel is reduced, pixelated.
To be sure, the Bible seems to teach that those who are in Christ will be in his presence when we ‘sleep’ (the term for physical death) as we wait for his second coming. Physical death is a tragedy even for those who are in Christ. It’s a partial consummation of God’s curse in the Garden, “If you eat it, you will surely die.” Regardless how bad our present condition is, physical death is not something to look forward to. It’s a sign of broken creation. For those who are in Christ, God is gracious. We are given rest in his presence even in this state. But this is not a focus of the apostolic gospel. Not even close.
So, preoccupation with dying and going to heaven as one’s final hope and motivation for deliverance from this ‘evil age’ is far from the biblical apostolic gospel. Ironically, such a teaching is closer to Gnosticism, an ancient heresy condemned by the apostolic church. It denies the goodness of creation and seeks salvation in deliverance from the body. Yet, it seems to be alive and well in many modern evangelical churches today.
I grew up in this gospel tradition. More than a decade ago, I gave a Bible study presentation entitled “Reserve Your Room in Heaven” (I still have the PowerPoint file). I used such a gospel presentation many times. But as I studied Scripture much more closely (thanks to those years in seminary), I realized that such an otherworldly gospel presentation doesn’t do justice to the beauty and fullness of the good news – new creation inaugurated in the death and resurrection of Christ. Finding out that I was wrong is not pleasant. I have made Jesus’ wholesome gospel a Minecraft character. I settled for a cropped thumbnail instead of the original painting.
If you have a similar experience, what should you do? First, God uses imperfect vessels for his purpose. Even if we get almost everything right theologically, we are still far from perfect. God honors our efforts despite our missteps. Second, having been informed by Scripture that we are wrong, we must strive for giving the best to God, learn from our mistakes, and reform our way of doing things. This includes the way we present the gospel regardless who taught us to do so or how long we’ve done it.
Maintaining the status quo (the way we’ve been doing things) could be safe from a certain perspective. Yet it is also risky especially if we go against the witness of Scripture and value a particular sub-biblical tradition more than Scripture itself. I’ll touch upon the history and ideology of this gospel tradition next time. For now, I’ll simply say that pixelation (if that’s a word) of the gospel is not a new phenomenon. It happened during the time of Jesus. It happened during the middle ages. It is happening now among many (not all) modern evangelicals. Let us pray for the church, contemplate on the impacts of such a gospel presentation to our witnessing capability. The temptation to pixelate the gospel of the kingdom is great. Let us resist it!